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The sand dunes were nearly blinding in the late-June sunshine, but that didn't stop the surge of adrenaline that raced through Seth Hawkins as he pulled his pickup to a halt and cut the engine.
Deadman's Dunes. It had been almost a year since he'd been back here in the small Oklahoma town of Amber Lake to enjoy not only the company of his sister and niece, but also the thrill of conquering the dunes.
Seth pulled on a pair of goggles against the sun's glare and then got out of his truck. As far as the eye could see the dunes rose up like an alien landscape located seven miles outside town.
In the distance he could hear the roar of quad and other ATV engines and knew he wouldn't have the dunes to himself. Not that it mattered, there was plenty of room for everyone.
He'd driven here from his home in Kansas City early that morning and had a leisurely lunch with Linda and Samantha, his sister and niece, but he'd been eager to get out here on the dunes where nothing mattered but the throttle beneath his hand and the elemental challenge between man and nature.
It took him only minutes to unload his dirt bike from the back of the truck. As he strapped on his protective equipment and then pulled on his helmet, he drew in a deep breath of the fresh warm air.
For the next week he wasn't FBI Special Agent Seth Hawkinshe was simply Seth on vacation, visiting with his only relatives and enjoying some much needed downtime from the job.
He climbed on the dirt bike and kick-started it, the thrum of the engine filled him with a teenagelike excitement. It felt as if in the past couple of years there had been nothing but work, no time for anything but murder and mayhem. He needed this vacation and he intended to spend each and every moment of it just having fun and relaxing.
With this thought in mind, he released the clutch and shot forward, the sand shifting ever ominously beneath his tires as he approached the first dune and after that miles of more dunes that would eventually lead to the large hump that was Deadman's Bluff.
A hairpin turn at the crest of the hill had to be maneuvered with precision. Otherwise the rider would fly off the bluff and to the sand fifteen feet below. More than one rider had tasted that sand at the bottom of Deadman's Bluff, although Seth himself had never had the unpleasant experience.
As he flew over the first mound, exhilaration spiked and he would have grinned, but knew that gesture would only get him a mouthful of sand.
He saw the tracks that others had left before him and saw in the distance several riders on quads who were obviously riding together.
Seth hadn't visited Amber Lake often enough over the years to get to know the locals. He tried to come and visit his sister every six months or so, especially since her contentious divorce five years ago, but most of the time it was just an overnight visit.
But he was here now for a wonderful week and intended to take full advantage of having nothing more on his mind than dinner and dunes.
He'd been riding about a half hour when he spied the other three riders in the distance, all stopped and off their vehicles near an area referred to as the whoop-ti-doos, tiny bumps set so close together they rattled your brain. The young men looked like they were freaking out, two of them jumping around while the third stood as if frozen into a statue.
Was the young man who wasn't moving hurt? Had he taken a tumble and was now in a state of shock? Seth turned his bike to head toward them and as he drew closer he could hear two of the male voices shouting above the whine of his engine.
Seth pulled up, cut his engine and pulled off his helmet and goggles. "In the sand.. " It was a short, dark-haired young man who shouted at Seth. "There's a dead woman in the sand."
What? Seth dropped his helmet on the ground, wondering if this was some kind of stupid prank the three were playing on him. He walked over to where statue man stood staring down at the sand just in front of him. Seth followed his gaze and gasped in shock.
A pale face in the sand, a woman's face, partially visible with her eyes closed. Obviously a dead woman, Seth's brain processed as the shock quickly passed.
"Any of you have a cell phone?" he asked, having left his own in his truck.
"It's freaky," the blond boy exclaimed as he wore a path back and forth in the sand. "Jeez, who would do something like that?"
"A phone," Seth barked. "Anyone have a phone?" The tall, frozen man stumbled back a couple of steps and pulled a phone from his pocket.
"Call for help," Seth commanded as he took a step closer to the body. "All three of you get over there by my bike."
The last thing he wanted was for everyone to trample what was obviously a crime scene. Whoever the woman was, she hadn't willingly lain down in the sand and buried herself. However, as an FBI agent he wanted to get closer, assure himself she was dead despite the obvious.
"The sheriff is on his way," one of the guys said.
As Seth approached the woman, he was vaguely aware of the three others talking among themselves, their voices all holding a barely contained edge of hysteria.
There was no question the scene was disconcerting. There was no indication of her body beneath the sand, simply a face half-emerged from the sandy surface, like some art sculpture left behind by a mentally ill artist.
Careful not to step where he assumed her body must be, Seth knelt down at the side of the face and swept away some of the sand that covered her closed eyes.
In all of his years as an FBI agent working violent crimes, he'd never seen anything like this, and he'd certainly seen a lot of evil things.
He brushed a bit more sand away from her eyes and froze as he thought one of her eyelids twitched. A trick of the sun? He touched her skin. Warm warmed by the heat of the day or by blood still flowing through her veins?
Quickly he dug through the sand by her neck, seeking the place where he might find a pulse. It took him only seconds to find her pulse point and place his fingers against it. He nearly yelped in surprise as he felt the beat of life throbbing there.
"She's alive," he yelled. "Get over here and help me. We've got to get this sand off her."
Two of the three ran to help Seth as he began to scoop sand away from her neck and her chest. As he worked on her upper body the other two men worked on her thighs and legs. The tall young man appeared to be in some state of shock still, standing like a robot in front of Seth's dirt bike.
"Hey, call the sheriff back and tell him we need an ambulance," Seth instructed the robot. "And tell him to hurry."
"This is so freaky so freakin' freaky," the dark-haired man said as he uncovered a jean-clad leg.
"Are you sure she's alive?" the other one asked as he worked on getting the last of the sand off her other leg.
It all felt like a weird dream to Seth. As she was freed of the sand, his mind clicked off details. She was dressed in worn jeans and a blue T-shirt. One foot wore a gold sandal, the other one was bare. Her hair was dark, although it was so embedded with sand it was hard to discern an exact color.
"Sheriff Atkins is here," one of them said in relief.
Seth didn't look up from the woman. Once again he sought the side of her neck to assure himself that she was still breathing. At that moment her eyes flew open.
Bright blue, they connected with Seth for one long moment. Before Seth could react, she skittered backward like a crab, her pupils dilating as her eyes filled with an abject terror Seth knew he'd never forget.
"It's okay. You're safe now," Seth said as she continued an attempt to escape, her eyes darting around wildly, like a crab seeking a rock to hide under.
As she moved she made sounds that no human being should ever make, the sound of terror too great for words. She got about three feet away from them and then with an audible moan, she collapsed.
By that time the sheriff had joined them. "FBI Agent Seth Hawkins," he said quickly. "We called for an ambulance," he added curtly. "We've got a crime scene and a live victim here who needs immediate medical care."
"We only have two ambulances who serve this area and both of them are currently working a four-car pile-up on the other end of town," the sheriff said as he raked a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
Seth immediately assessed that the man appeared not to know exactly how to proceed. "We've got to get her to the hospital now." Seth took control.
"Hey." He focused on the dark-haired young man who'd helped uncover the victim. "You know where Linda and Samantha Willoughby live?" He shook his head, but the taller blond nodded. "I do," he replied. Seth threw him his truck keys. "Load my bike and drive my truck to their place. Put the keys under the floor mat."
Seth turned to the sheriff. "We're going to put her in the back of your car and you're going to drive us to the emergency room as quickly as possible. And you might want to contact some of your men to cordon off this scene so there's no more contamination."
He didn't wait to see if anyone followed his orders. Instead he approached the unconscious woman and bent down next to her. He was aware that by picking her up, that by transporting her in the back of a car, he might be doing more harm than good, but her pulse had been weak and thready and he didn't want to wait around for an ambulance that might never come.
He saw no visible wounds on her, no blood to indicate she had been wounded with a knife or by a gunshot. He knelt down beside her and gently scooped her up in his arms and then stood.
She was a tiny thing, short and slender and even though she was deadweight in his arms, he had no problem carrying her to the sheriff's car.
The local lawman hurried in front of him and opened the back door to his cruiser. Once Seth and the woman were in the backseat, the overweight sheriff quickly made his way to the driver's side.
He slid into the car and started the engine and only when they were driving away from the dunes did he radio in location and instructions for somebody named Raymond to grab a couple of men and get their butts out there as quickly as possible to protect the crime scene.
As he talked on the radio, Seth stared down at the woman in his arms. What had happened to her? How had she come to be buried in the dunes?
Despite the sand that clung to her, she was very pretty, with long dark lashes and a hint of cheekbones and shapely lips that at the moment hung slack and partially open.
He thought he'd never forget that moment when her eyes had first opened, when for just a moment her gaze had connected with his. In that first instant, he'd felt electrically charged, as if her eyes had held an appeal he had to answer.
It had lasted only a heartbeat before the terror of whatever she'd endured had obviously coursed through her, momentarily stealing away anything human inside her. She'd been a wild animal seeking escape.
"By the way, I'm Sheriff Tom Atkins," the older man said from the front seat. "What's an FBI agent doing in my town?"
"I'm here on vacation visiting my sister and niece, Linda and Samantha Willoughby. I just got into town this morning."
"Hell of a way to start a vacation," Atkins said.
"This woman is definitely having a worse day than me," Seth replied. "Do you know her?"
"I don't recognize her and this is a pretty small town where most faces are familiar to me."
Seth once again looked down at the broken woman in his arms. "Hopefully when she comes to she'll be able to tell you who she is and how she came to be buried in the sand. I'm assuming you'll question thoroughly the boys at the scene. They are not only potential witnesses but also potential suspects, as well."
"They'll be brought in for questioning." That was all Atkins said as they pulled up to the emergency room entrance. Seth lifted the woman out of the car and carried her in where he was relieved of his burden by an orderly with a cart.
Within seconds, the woman was taken back behind doors that forbade Seth's entry. Sheriff Atkins had disappeared, probably headed back to the crime scene.
Seth sank down in one of the plastic chairs in the waiting room and drew a couple of deep, steadying breaths. He felt as if he'd been flying on a sickening surge of adrenaline since the moment he'd seen that haunting face in the sand.
He looked up as he saw his sister hurrying down the hallway toward him, her blue scrubs looking crisp and clean. Linda worked as a nurse and had left for her shift here at the hospital when Seth had left her house for the dunes.
"Hey," she said as she approached.
"Hey yourself," he replied with a soft smile. At thirty-eight Linda was three years older than him, but the two siblings had always been unusually close, especially since Linda had gone through her divorce from her domineering, verbally abusive husband, Mark.
She sat down next to him. "I heard the strangest story in the break room a few minutes ago. I heard that you went out dirt-bike-riding and wound up here with a woman you dug out of the sand."
He nodded. "Strange, but true."
"A couple of months ago another young woman was found dead in the dunes," Linda said. Seth sat up straighter in his seat, his questions obvious in his eyes as Linda continued. "Apparently some of the teenagers in town decided to have a party out there. From the story I heard there was a lot of booze, some drugs and at the time that the woman was discovered Sheriff Atkins thought it was some kind of a freak accident resulting from partying."
Seth frowned. "This today definitely wasn't an accident." His frown deepened as he thought about the scene. "She couldn't have been there that long before I got to the dunes. It was almost like she'd been intended to be completely buried but something or someone chased the killer away before he could deliver the final shovelful of sand onto her face." He wondered if perhaps the three young men who had arrived at the dunes before him had interrupted the murderer or had buried her themselves.
Linda reached over and patted his hand. "Go home, Seth. This isn't your crime scene. Remember, you're on vacation." She stood. "And I'm not, so I've got to get back to work. I'll see you at home late tonight."
He nodded absently and watched as she disappeared back down the hallway. She was right. This wasn't his job. He'd done what he needed to do and there was nothing to keep him from walking away.
Except those startling blue eyes and that moment of connection he felt with her before she'd freaked out and then had passed out. He couldn't just head home and forget about all of this. Besides, he thought with a touch of humor, he had no way to get home.
He had no doubt that the kids from the dunes would see to it that his truck and bike got back to Linda's okay. This was a small town and if they screwed with his rides, there would be no place for them to hide.