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Winter snow ... February snow ... killing snow continued to fall throughout the High Sierra as the rescue party advanced. Aluminum poles in hand, the three rangers probed the white depths in a straight grid pattern, searching for their missing fourth. Seconds ticked mercilessly away, even as the lead ranger, Eric Kincaide, listened to his homing beacon, trying to zero in on the batterypowered locating device all rangers were required to wear.
Neither he nor the other two rangers spoke of the irony of the situation. Tomorrow, following Eric's orders, Keith Arroyo, alias "TNT" Arroyo, planned to set charges in this very area to trigger a controlled avalanche.
Controlled avalanche. Now, that was an oxymoron. Like walking corpse ... or buried alive ...
Eric glanced toward his twin, Naomi. The ranger team's emergency medical technician had bitten through her lip. Eric noticed the tiny bloodred bead glittering under the noon sun, contrasting with the bronze of her cheeks. Naomi didn't look up at his scrutiny. Her eyes remained focused on the massive amounts of snow beneath her probing pole.
Keith, however, lifted his head. "Of all the stupid things to do!" He spoke in a hissed whisper to avoid triggering any otherslides. "Bad enough we're supposed to find an armed felon and the child he's kidnapped. Eva knew better than to use this shortcut! She's probably got the dog killed, too. How are we supposed to find the missing girl now? Or find Eva without her dog?"
"Shut up!" Naomi hissed back. "Just - shut up!"
"That's enough, both of you!" Eric checked his watch again, unable to help himself. The first ten minutes of searching were the most crucial for any avalanche victim. Sometimes you were given fifteen or maybe twenty, if the victim managed to make an air pocket around his or her face. After that, victims suffocated - if they weren't already crushed to death by the weight of the snow ... snow that could pack to the weight and density of thick, wet cement.
It's been thirteen minutes already! Dammit, Eva, why couldn't you follow the rules? This whole area was an avalanche waiting to happen! Keith and I both warned you to go around.
His tracking device pinged more loudly, the pings suddenly rushing closer together until they chimed a single urgent note.
At the same time Keith's pole hit something firm. "Here! Here!"
Immediately the other two dropped their poles, fell to their knees and started digging. With gloved hands and folding aluminum shovels, all three followed Keith's pole down into the cruel cold.
"It's Ginger!" Naomi cried. The sandy-colored fur of Ginger, Eva's specially trained search-andrescue dog, contrasted sharply with the snow's virgin white.
"I've got her collar," Eric said after digging around the dog's head. "I'll pull, you two lift."
The three braced, lifted and pulled. The golden retriever emerged from the snow, whimpering and coughing.
"She's alive! You pedigreed bitch, you're alive!" Keith brushed snow from the dog's face as Naomi quickly shed her gloves and ran her hand expertly down the animal's legs and across the body.
"Eyes and tongue look good!" Naomi grinned. "She's had plenty of oxygen."
"Come on, girl, let's find your owner," Keith urged.
"Ginger, search," Eric commanded. "Find Eva."
Ginger stood fast, signaled her find with a single whimper, then shook some of the snow from her coat.
"Come on, everyone, dig!" Naomi said, pulling her glove back on and bending over the hole with her folding aluminum shovel.
As Eric followed her example, premonition hit hard. His stomach lurched. Even before the three dug farther down to the motionless blue of Eva's favorite jacket, even before Ginger sat and pointed her nose to the heavens to keen her death howl, Eric knew.
Eva Jenkins, the fourth member of their winter ranger team, was dead.
* * *
San Diego, California The next day
Lindsey Nelson paced back and forth, the hem of her evening dress swishing as she continued to look for her date, peering through her apartment window every few minutes. A revival of The King and I, her favorite musical, had finally left Los Angeles to play at San Diego Civic Center. She'd been waiting for this performance for weeks, but Wade - the current man in her life - was late. Very late. Not only that, he had the tickets and she hadn't eaten. Her stomach growled.
If Wade doesn't show up soon, we're not going to have time for dinner.
He'd called twenty minutes ago to say he was leaving work. Lindsey had made reservations at their favorite restaurant, a place with delicious fresh seafood and Napa Valley wines - but Southern California's infamous rush-hour traffic could easily ruin the most carefully laid plans.
Maybe I should order some food. We can have a quick bite here before we leave. It'll have to be pizza or Chinese.... Where is he?
Lindsey impatiently shoved her curtains aside once more, hoping to see Wade's car in the parking lot. Definitely Chinese. I'm not eating pizza in this dress - and I'll trade the chopsticks for a fork, too!
She reached for the phone just as it rang. With a quick grab, she answered. "Wade, where are you? It's late!"
"I -" A pause. "Do I have the right number? Is this Ms. Lindsey Nelson? Ranger Nelson?"
"Sorry, I was expecting another call. I'm Lindsey."
"Thank heavens. My name is Jack Hunter. I've been authorized by the Yosemite Ranger Station to contact you. Your office told me I could catch you at this number."
"Catch is the right word. I'm on my way out." Lindsey heard the familiar honk of Wade's car outside her window. "In fact, my ride's here," she said, trying to stem her impatience. "How can I help you, Mr. Hunter?"
"Call me Jack. My job is to fill unexpected openings among high-risk ranger positions anywhere in the Historic Monument and National Park system."
"Well ... Jack, I'm not interested in moving anywhere," Lindsey said. "Look, could I take your number and call you back?" she asked as Wade beeped again impatiently. "I'm really very late." Normally Wade wouldn't do anything this rude, but he was obviously trying to save time.
"Forgive me, but this is a matter of some urgency. We need a ranger up in Yosemite. Sadly, the opening's come about because of a ranger down. Dead, I'm sorry to say."
"Not Eric Kincaide?" Lindsey asked, her chest tight with fear. "Or his twin, Naomi?"
"A female - a dog handler named Eva. Did you know her?"
(Continues ... )
Excerpted from The Replacement by Anne Duquette
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.