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Mountain Cove, Alaska, North of Juneau
Gasping for breath, Leah Marks ran for her life, working her way through the deep snow from last night's winter storm, the semiautomatic in her pocket pressing into her side. What she wouldn't give for a pair of snowshoes.
How had Detective Snyder found her here?
At least she'd seen him from a distance, giving her a few more precious seconds to make a run for it. She had to escape. She wouldn't use her weapon against him unless she had no other choice. Shooting a police detective, even if he was a dirty cop and a killer, wouldn't win her any points no matter which way you looked at it.
Approaching Dead Falls Canyon, she left the tree line and took the biggest steps she could, her hips aching with the effort. She couldn't outrun him this way, but she reassured herself with the fact that he struggled with the same obstacles.
The deep snow would hide the hazards, and Leah counted on that. As she made her way, a snowcapped Mount McCann loomed in her peripheral vision. She'd spent enough time on the ski patrol in the Cascades during her college days to recognize the avalanche risk was high.
As she entered the danger zone, a glance over her shoulder told her Snyder was gaining on her. As strong as she was, she couldn't keep up this pace, and as if to confirm the thought, she stumbled headlong into the powder. Leah grappled and fought her way out, gulping panic with each breath.
With her fall, she'd have to turn and face him much sooner than she'd hoped. Leaving town and hiding in an off-grid cabin in Alaska hadn't bought her enough time. Hadn't bought her safety.
"Leah!" he called, his voice much too close.
Heart hammering, she turned to stand her ground. Stared into his stone-cold eyes. Breathing hard, he flashed a knife as he approached; smirking because he'd finally cornered her.
Dressed to kill, he was in black from head to toea dead giveaway against the white-carpeted mountains.
So that's what death looked like.
Funny that she'd worn white camouflage hoping to remain hidden, for all the good that had done.
Cold dread twisted up her spine. She thrust her hand into her pocket to reach for her weapon.
It was gone.
No! She must have lost it when she'd fallen. Snyder now stood between her and the snow she'd crushed with her tumble. Between her and her gun.
"Give me what I want, Leah." His dark eyes flashed from the opening in his ski mask.
"Why? So you can kill me like you killed Tim?" She had no idea what Snyder wanted from her, what he thought she had, but she'd witnessed him commit murder. No way would he let her live.
A thunderous snap resounded above them. A crack appeared in the white stuff beneath Leah Marks's boots.
The ground shifted.
Before she could react, before she could think, the avalanche swept her awayswept Snyder away, tooalong with everything she'd been taught about how to survive. Carried away by a daunting, crushing force, heavy and swift to kill, she was helpless to stop the power that gripped her with icy fingers.
Roared in her ears.
Terror seized her as the megaton of white powder ushered her along to a frozen grave, an untimely death, as though she was nothing more than a twig. One brutal way to die had been exchanged for another.
Her body slowed before easing to a stop. The snow settled and held her inside.
Frozen silence encased her, shrouded her in muted gray light.
Think. What did she do now? Something. There was something she must do and she must be quick. To act before the snow compressed around her.
Fear temporarily gave way to determination as survival tactics filled her thoughts. She took in a breath to expand her chest, give her breathing room. With her left hand near her face, she scooped snow away from her mouth and nose before it hardened completely. These things she did while thrusting her arm toward the surface in what she thought was the right direction. If only she could breach the packed snow and force her hand through. Before she could complete that one last task, increasing her chance of survival, it was all over. There was no more give to the snowit had locked into place.
Buried alive. She couldn't move.
Icy grayness weighed on her.
She wouldn't dig her way out of this one. She hadn't planned for things to turn out this way. Panic the likes of which she'd never known choked her, compelling her to gasp for air.
That would kill her faster. She had to conserve her oxygen.
Minutes. She had minutes, if that, thanks to the small air pocket she'd created. She'd been given another chance to live, one small chance in a million. Or maybe she would die, but at least Snyder wouldn't be the one to kill her.
Calming her breaths, she prayed someone would find her in time.
But if that prayer was answered by the wrong someone.
She was dead anyway.
From the helicopter, Cade Warren stared at the northeast face of Mount McCann, struggling to remember the innocence and joy of a carefree childhood spent in the mountain's shadow. But the images from two days ago still haunted him.
Snowboarders out seeking a thrill. Kids who believed they were invincible. By the time they'd called him to assess the avalanche danger for a search and rescue team, the victims were already dead.
Beside Cade, his friend and coworker Isaiah Callahan flew the helicopter deep into the hidden mountain crags.
Cade scraped a hand over his rough jaw. They did more searching than rescuing.
He pushed the thought away, reminding himself that that wasn't what they were there for this time. Today they were supposed to forecast the mountain, assess the avalanche threat in their roles as avalanche specialists.
"I don't get it," Cade said. "Why don't people read the forecasts?"
"They read them." Isaiah directed the helicopter to the right, angling a little too sharply for comfort. "They think it won't happen to them."
People didn't want to pay attention, which was why Cade's father had always struggled to get enough funding for the Mountain Cove Avalanche Center he'd founded. With his death, his father's frustration had now become Cade's.
The death tolls this week had been brutal, making Cade even more determined to do his job. He turned his attention back to the mountain. In the distance he could see the glaciers spilling from the Juneau Icefield.
Strange that in spite of all his expertise, his father had died in an avalanche, trying to rescue someone. Cade was still trying to make sense of it all.
The one thing he knew was that his father had a reputation with the town of Mountain Cove as a real heroa reputation that Cade strived to earn for himself. But he doubted he'd ever come close to being the hero his father had been.
"So far we have whattwo hundred potential snow slides?" Isaiah asked.
Before he could answer, Cade's pager went off. He pulled it from its clip and looked at the screen.
This is a callout for SAR on an avalanche in Dead Falls Canyon
two victims. Meet at Crank Point. Respond on Code One frequency
Case No. 5547.
Cade stiffened. Not another one. He glanced at Isaiah. "Dead Falls Canyon. We can get there in time."
His pulse ratcheted up.
Maybe today he could make a difference.
Isaiah grinned his agreement and steered the helicopter east. First responders rarely made it in time to dig someone out of an avalanche. Cade and Isaiah were already in the air, near the avalanche.
They could serve as the immediate action team.
While Isaiah flew them over the harsh winter terrain of the backcountry, Cade communicated their plans, even as he wondered how and why someone would be in the remote area, especially after last night's storm.
The call had come in three minutes ago. Cade set his stopwatch to track the critical first fifteen minutes. They only had twelve left, if the witness had made the call immediately. Cade went over a list in his head, glad they always carried equipment in the helicopter for such an occasion. Probe. Shovel. And they each wore a transceiver at all times, in case the unthinkable happened and the helicopter crashed. There was also bivouac gear in the event they were stranded on the mountain.
Maybe today would be the day he could save a life instead of recover a body.
Cade tensed, praying that the area would be stable, that he would know where to search. Even if they arrived in time, there were safety issues to consider. They'd need to examine the crown and path for debris, look for ski poles, gloves, gogglesanything that might tell them where to look.
Right around the ridge, Dead Falls Canyon came into viewa deep chasm, rugged and lethal, in the heart of avalanche country. Cade tensed at the ominous sight.
Breath forced from his chest as though he were the victim crushed in the slide.
Isaiah sucked in air. "A big one."
"No kidding." Cade looked at the crown where the avalanche began, then down over the resulting debris field. "Six, seven hundred feet wide. Eight hundred long."
"Could be ten, twelve feet deep in some places, Cade. What do you want to do?"
"Get me down there."
"You sure it's safe?"
Is it ever? But whoever was buried, if they were still alive, would die if he didn't do something now. He hadn't been there to save his father that day and he'd never forgiven himself.
"I'll take my chances." Five minutes left on the stopwatch.
He swallowed. It could take him longer than that to find the victim much less dig them out.
"Someone's waving at us down there," Isaiah said.
"The witness," Cade mumbled under his breath when he spotted someone layered in winter wear. He wasn't digging, but maybe he could give a few more details about where the victims were last seen on the slope.
"There's no place to land here," Isaiah pointed out, hovering the helicopter over the snow. "I'll need to toe in, touch one ski down while you grab your gear. I'll find somewhere to land, if possible, and hike over to help you."
Cade stared at his frienda man he'd grown close to over the past three years. "Don't set her down. Don't even think about joining me until you assess the avalanche danger."
Isaiah didn't have a degree in glaciology like Cade.
Didn't have the years of training under a mentor like Cade's father that Cade had.
Of the two of them, Cade was far better preparedand it still might not be enough. At thirty-three, he didn't have near the experience or training he needed. He'd lost his father much too soon.
"Understood?" Cade stared him down.
"Aye, aye, captain." Isaiah saluted him.
Isaiah touched the helicopter down long enough for Cade to grab the trauma kit, gear up with his equipment and step out. The landing zone was tight, and Cade kneeled next to the helicopter, the whop-whop-whop of the rotor blades drowning out all other sounds. He gave Isaiah the thumbs-up and watched the helicopter lift off and away.
The witness headed in Cade's direction and, in turn, he hurried toward the man, hoping to get the needed information. In the meantime he turned his beacon from transmit to receive and prayed for a signal.
Cade wanted to know what the witness was doing out here in the first place when the avalanche danger was considerable, but there was no time. Two lives were in the balance.
His ski mask hiding everything but his eyes, the man pointed to a place between the trees a few yards away. Not good. "Over there. I think I saw thema man and a womango down, but it's hard to tell where they ended up."
Knowing the range of his beacon, Cade nodded and hurried to where the man pointed, moving down the center of the debris field, listening, looking for that life-saving signal. And then he locked on to that precious sound.
There was a chance.
He marked the spot.
Please, God, let me save this one.
He'd trained for this moment so many timeslearned how to locate a beacon and dig quickly. He knew how to assemble his probe without wasting precious seconds. But rarely had he had the chance to use this particular set of skills with the real possibility of finding a survivor.
Cade hoped to be a hero today, even though he'd never live up to his father's reputation. Pulse pounding, he reined in his chaotic thoughts, shut out the fear and panic. Stayed focused on the tried-and-true rescue strategies that worked.
Heart bursting, he assembled his probean eight-foot collapsible rod. He drove it into the packed snow, hoping to feel somethingsomeonebeneath the surface. He kept searching and probing until finally the probe hit what felt like pay dirt only a few feet down.
A few feet and not ten or twelve or twenty.
He tossed his probe to the man who'd witnessed the avalanche. "Start probing for the other victim."
Cade's breath hitched as he thrust the shovel into the snow, hoping he'd made the right decision to send the other man away. Then Isaiah appeared by Cade's side and helped with the digging.
Within a couple of feet they reached a hand.
Thirty seconds left on the clock and counting.
Sweat poured from Cade in spite of the cold, in spite of the fact that he was in top physical condition for his job. Together, he and Isaiah created a tunnel into the snow, searching for the face that connected to the hand. No time to stop to check for a pulse when seconds counted. There!
"Establish an airway, stat!"
They dug the snow out and away from the pinched features of a young woman so that she could breathe. Vivid blue-green eyes blinked up in surprise and relief, sending his heart into his throat. She was still alivethough he wasn't done saving her yet. If they didn't free her completely and soon, she could still die in her icy grave from hypothermia or internal bleeding. Also, Cade couldn't forget she hadn't been alone.
"You search for the other victim. I've got this," Cade told Isaiah. "I could only get one beacon signal, though."
"Yeah. I can dig her out." But he couldn't tolerate letting someone die when they could save both victims. Even though they'd passed the first fifteen minutes, victims had been known to survive up to two hours on rare occasions. For the first time in a long time, Cade was on the scene in time and every choice he made could save.
Isaiah left his side. From his peripheral vision, Cade saw him set his beacon and assemble his probe to search for the other victim. But where had their witness gone?
Failing to keep track of the witness would be a mark against him within the search and rescue team ranks.
No time to worry about him. Cade stared down into the air tunnel and concentrated on digging out this survivorfortunate beyond reasoncareful to avoid collapsing the tunnel, the only thing keeping her alive.