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A metallic click jolted Simon Kittredge awake. Dazed, he groped for the pistol at his side, until a rifle barrel jammed into his gut.
"Make a move and I'll blast your innards."
A chill seized Simon. I can't die yet, I have to prove ... His fingers closed around the butt of his .38.
"Watch him, Bear. He's got a gun."
"Don't worry." Moving shadows became men beneath a pale night sky. "Sonuvabitch'll never use it." A big man loomed over Simon and rammed down his boot heel.
Simon heard a bone in his right arm snap. Then he heard a scream. His scream.
A kick jolted his spine. "On your feet, wise guy. Let's see who the hell you are." Large hands dragged Simon from his sleeping bag.
"What do you want?" Simon tottered and fell against the man's bulky body. "Why--" An open-handed cuff silenced him.
"Them's his pants beside ya, Bear. Git his wallet."
A flashlight gleam pierced the darkness. Simon registered masked faces.
"Says here, he's Simon Kittredge."
"He with the other one?"
Simon swayed. The other one! What other one?
"Christ almighty, he's a goddamned reporter. Works for Global News Magazine out in Seattle."
"Holy shit! That's all we need."
Supporting his throbbing arm, Simon faced the one with the Tennessee mountain drawl. "You guys have the wrong man. I'm just a fisherman who happens to be a writer."
"Cut the jawin', Kittredge." The Tennessee man took cord from his pocket and jerked Simon's hands down in front of him.
Simon choked on his scream and dropped to his knees. "No!"
"Shesh your trap." He clamped Simon's wrists together and boundthem.
The one called Bear hung the strap of Simon's camera around his thick neck, tossed Simon's gear into the middle of the sleeping bag, and flung the improvised sack over his shoulder.
The tall, skinny one gouged Simon in the ribs. "Move it, we gotta fur piece to go."
With only brief stabs of torch light to guide him, Simon stumbled into the darkness. Thorns and jagged rocks ripping the soles of his bare feet, he scrambled up hills, slithered into brush-filled ravines and slogged waist deep in a foul slimy swamp.
Blood pounded in his head. Cold air stung his lungs. His captors heckled him, urged him to a swifter pace. A swinging branch smashed into his arm. He reeled, staggered, and fell. The rifle barrel caught him, jabbing into the pain. He gagged on his vomit. "Stop!"
The man prodded him again. "Hike your ass. We ain't got all night."
With tears running down his face, Simon staggered on. How long? How long?
Simon squinted and saw a faint glow ahead before a sack was drawn over his head. He'd gone only a few steps when a low growl sounded.
"Christ almighty, some pea-brain let the dogs out," Bear said. The growling rose to a snarl. "Get back, damn you." Something hard thudded against flesh and a dog's high-pitched yelp followed. "That'll teach him."
A short way farther on Bear let out a curse. "Stupid camera got hung up in the brush."
"Shuck the no-good thing."
"Can't. He coulda taken pictures."
Simon shuffled forward. He couldn't see through the gunny sack, but with each step he could tell the light got brighter. From all sides came the steady chunka-chunka-chunk of countless large engines. The men stopped. Chains rattled, metal clinked against metal, gate hinges creaked. Off to the right, he imagined he heard the murmur of voices.
Simon felt the wires of a Cyclone fence press against his shoulder and the side of his head. Now he knew where they'd brought him. He'd found the place that morning. Watched it from the woods most of the day.
One of the men poked him. He trudged a few feet and heard the gate clang shut behind him. The light became much brighter. They thrust him through a door and prodded him down what seemed like a hall.
"What'll we do with him?" Bear asked.
"What about the timekeeper's office? Nobody's used it since they closed the place down."
Rusty hinges creaked and Bear said, "Yeah, this'll do. Those white-shirted bastards ain't paying us to think. Just deliver."
They wrenched Simon sideways, backed him onto a chair, and began to bind him. He drew a ragged breath. "Take it easy, damnit. I'm not going anywhere."
Bear gave a wheezing laugh. "Ya got that right." He cinched the rope a notch tighter around his legs. "That's it, pard. We're out of here."
The door slammed. Simon listened to an instant of silence. Biting the pain, he worked the sack off his head with his teeth, nose, and chin. On his right, the drawers of a file cabinet hung open, their contents spilling onto a floor littered with papers, file folders, and grimy supply books. To his left sat a dented metal desk. Dust-covered scratch pads, a jumble of pencils with broken leads, and a two-year-old calendar.
His shoulders sagged. Thought you were going to show your old man how great you were, didn't you, Kittredge? Going to nab the con men who skunked him, get his money back, be your daddy's fair-haired son for the first time in your whole damn thirty-four years.
He scanned the plywood-lined room. Near the baseboard of a wall, half hidden by the desk, he spied the edge of a small ivory-colored box.
Adrenaline speeded his pulse. Keep calm. Think it through. He clamped his lip between his teeth and tipped the chair back and forth. Gradually he managed to work himself closer to the desk. Good. He twisted the chair back from side to side. The rope bindings set up a see-sawing motion against his bare chest. His teeth sank into his lip until he tasted blood.
Bracing, he lunged right, then left, and heard a creak. More precious minutes dragged by before the round, wooden, spindles pulled out of their sockets and his ropes slackened enough for him to get his arms loose.
Without pausing to free his hands and feet, he fell forward, taking the chair with him, and landed on his injured arm. Flashes of color pierced his brain. He fought to keep from blacking out. "Jesus, not now ... not now."
He blinked to clear his vision and peered into the narrow crack between the desk and wall. A break at last. The box he'd spotted was a phone jack.
His heart pounded in his ears as he traced the cord until it disappeared into the shadowy recesses under the desk. He plotted his next move, clenched his jaw tight, and put his hands under the desk. Working blind, he felt along the floor. Nothing. He inched closer, reached out and strained until a moan wrenched from his throat.
He rested his cheek on the splintery floor boards, turned until he lay parallel with the desk and tried again. He had it! Relief made his fingers weaker. He had difficulty closing them on the flat plastic line.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he tugged the line toward him until coils of it began to gather near his midriff. Sweat stung his eyes. He gritted his teeth so hard his head hurt. A frantic pull, a noisy clatter, and a phone detached itself from under a pile of trash behind the desk.
He drew it to him, sent up a quick prayer and maneuvered the receiver to his ear. A dial tone! Tears sprang into his eyes and he didn't give a damn.
No sense in calling Rock Springs' police chief or his deputy. He'd asked them for help when he first arrived and had gotten nowhere.
He felt the room slowly turning gray at the edges and lay back to gather his strength. He'd call Amy, she'd know what to do. He closed his eyes and his mind began to float. Forgive me, Amy. I truly thought I loved you ... until I met Erika. Meant to tell you, when you met my plane in Seattle. His bitter laugh made a harsh sound in the silent room. Meant to ... until I looked into your trusting brown eyes ... then I didn't have the guts. He snorted in disgust. That makes me as big a bastard as your ex-husband, doesn't it?
He groaned and pressed his head on the desk's cold steel until his mind responded. By contorting his body, he got the receiver into place and held it steady with his knees.
Perspiration slicking his hands, he punched in the 800 number of the Prescott's forensic investigator's office.
Just as Amy's taped message began, his thoughts blurred and he failed to make out her words. Stay alert. This is for keeps. He began a halting report and was interrupted by a beep. He hadn't waited long enough. A terrible tiredness came over him.
He took a shaky breath, then another. "Screwed-up again, Doc. Need ... help." Darkness closed over him. "Sun ... rise," he mumbled. "Ruby-eyed ... ra--a--ven..."
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