Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)
Corporate lawyer Ava Burch has had enough of the big city and the daily grind. She grew up with her father, who raised search-and-rescue dogs, in rural Texas and has moved to the small town of Cuervo to spend time in the dry, rugged wilderness near Big Bend National Park. When she and her dog, Huck, discover an abandoned campsite on a volunteer search-and-rescue mission, she’s perplexed, but she carefully photographs it all the same.
All Grant Wycoff can see when he looks at Ava is a city slicker—with her designer jeans and shiny car—who has no business on a serious team made of seasoned outdoorsmen and retired cops. But when she tells him of her findings on the trail, he sees there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Ava’s discovery reminds Grant of the unsolved case of a young woman who went missing two years ago. As they look into the campsite further, another woman disappears under odd circumstances. With time running out, Ava and Grant must work against the brutal heat from both the Texas sun and their own electric chemistry to solve the case.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Ava followed the curve of the dirt road to the string of emergency vehicles. She checked her watch and cursed. She was later than she'd thought.
"Not good, Huck."
The black Lab nudged her arm with his wet nose.
"We're going to have to redeem ourselves."
Ava passed a sheriff's SUV and squeezed her little red car between a pair of dusty pickups from the parks department. Huck whimpered with impatience as she grabbed his lead off the seat and clipped it to his collar.
"Okay, let's do this."
Ava slid out. Huck hopped over the console and followed her. She felt dozens of eyes on her as she popped open the back hatch and retrieved her day pack. Hitching it onto her shoulder, Ava scanned the faces. None were familiar. All were skeptical. Several of the men wore the Henley County Sheriff's Office backcountry uniform of HCSO ball cap, navy T-shirt, and desert-brown tactical pants.
Ava spied some park rangers in olive green milling near a blue tarp that looked like operation headquarters. Beneath the makeshift tent, two rangers studied a map that had been spread out across a pair of tables.
She turned around as a man sauntered over. Tall, sixtyish, paunchy. He wore a sheriff's office cap and a sweat-soaked golf shirt. He stopped in front of her.
Ava smiled. "Are you the incident commander?"
"I'm Sheriff Donovan."
"Oh." Shit. She thrust out her hand. "Ava Burch, WestTex Search and Rescue."
He shook her hand and frowned down at Huck.
"We're here to help with the search," she added.
"They started five hours ago."
"Yes, I know. I was unavoidably delayed." She sensed a brush-off coming, and she glanced around. "Do you know who the IC is on this one?"
"That'd be Mel Tyndall," he said, nodding in the direction of the blue tent.
"Oh, good. I'll check in with him."
She led Huck away before the sheriff could think of any objections. She zeroed in on the park ranger who seemed to be giving orders-a wiry man with wraparound sunglasses perched atop his shaved head. Ava stepped under the tarp, and he glanced up.
"I'm Ava with WestTex SAR. Chuck Crawford said you could use a hand today?"
Dropping the name of the chief ranger in nearby Big Bend seemed to do the trick. Tyndall stepped away from the table and looked her over.
"Are you trained up?" he asked.
He glanced at Huck, who wore his red work vest. "Him, too?"
"Yep. He's logged more than a hundred wilderness searches."
She didn't mention that most of those had been with a different handler. But Tyndall seemed too distracted to nitpick her credentials. He checked his watch and returned his attention to the table.
"The first teams deployed at oh nine hundred," he said. "We're just getting started on sector D."
Ava stepped closer to examine the map. It was a detailed topo of Silver Canyon State Park. A small red sticker near a campground marked what had to be the PLS, or point last seen. Sections bounded by natural barriers had been marked with letters.
"We just sent a team out to Lizard Creek Trail," Tyndall said, tapping the map.
Ava's stomach knotted as she studied the spot. Sector D was well outside of the high-probability search area. They were getting desperate.
"You up for it?" Tyndall asked.
He handed her a clipboard. "Sign in, and I'll brief you on the way over."
Ava quickly jotted her info on a card and followed the ranger to one of the dusty white pickups. She stowed her pack on the floor and hopped into the passenger seat, signaling Huck to sit on her lap.
Tyndall wasted no time pulling out and maneuvering onto the pitted dirt road that Ava had just navigated. Huck pressed his head against the glass, squirming with excitement as they passed the police vehicles.
Tyndall slid on his shades and glanced over. "You're new to the county?"
"Been here since November," she told him.
"Done any ops yet?"
"Three this spring in Big Bend."
They bumped along the narrow dirt road and hung a right onto an even narrower one. Ava visualized the state park in her head. She was familiar with it, but only from a few casual day hikes. She'd never been on a search team here.
"Silver Canyon is different," Tyndall said. "It's rugged country."
She turned to look at him. Big Bend wasn't exactly a golf resort. The sprawling national park consisted of more than 800,000 untamed acres. But Ava understood what he was getting at. Silver Canyon was a new addition to Texas's state park system, and it lacked even basic amenities.
"We've only got one paved road," the ranger continued. "It makes an outer loop. The interior roads are dirt, and they tend to wash out when we get a flash flood. The only cell service is near the entrance, so everything's by radio."
"Did Chuck tell you about the op?"
"Just that it's a child missing."
Tyndall nodded. "A boy, three and a half."
Ava's heart sank.
"Noah Dumfries. He's been missing since oh eight hundred. Wandered off from his family's campsite after breakfast. His mom thinks he went down to the creek to brush his teeth."
"We had a canine team there all morning. No sign of him."
Ava looked out the window at the limestone canyon baking in the afternoon sun.
"He's just over three feet tall, blond hair, brown eyes. He's wearing a red Spider-Man T-shirt with blue shorts and white sneakers."
She glanced at him. "What about the parents?"
"Mom is distraught, as you'd expect. She's at the campsite with her other son, who's five, in case Noah comes back. Dad is at the ranger station. He wanted to join the search, but we convinced him to stay back."
It was standard procedure. When a child went missing there was always the depressing possibility that the parents could have something to do with it.
"Do they have any pets?" she asked.
"No idea. Why?"
"I want to understand if he's afraid of dogs."
"I don't know. I can find out, though."
He swung off the dirt road onto what looked to be a horse trail. He bumped across the feather grass and headed for the base of a tall cliff. A wooden sign came into view.
Tyndall rolled to a halt.
"Lizard Creek Trail," he said. "The other team deployed to the east about-" He checked his watch. "Fifteen minutes ago."
"Do they have a dog with them?"
"No. It's two of our seasonal rangers."
Ava's heart sank again as she looked out the window. "Seasonal" was code for summer interns. And she knew what Tyndall was doing here. Inexperienced volunteers were being banished to the low-probability areas while law enforcement veterans conducted the real search. Ava got it-Tyndall didn't know her from anyone. And he didn't know Huck. All he knew was that she'd shown up five hours late and he'd never worked with her before. But with the clock ticking and only one other dog in the search party, it was a waste to give her a crap assignment. Especially with a missing child case. Under normal circumstances, a lost kid would have pulled in resources from all the neighboring counties. But a helicopter crash in Big Bend this morning had gotten a jump on everyone's attention, and the National Park Service had no one to spare right now.
Tyndall reached into the back of his truck cab and grabbed a radio. "How much water you have there?" He nodded at her pack.
"That for both of you?"
"Better take more." He grabbed a bottle of water from the back and handed it to her.
"Thanks." Huck squirmed on her lap, anxious to get started. He'd been trembling with excitement since she put on his vest.
"You and your dog are Team Six," he said. "Check in every half hour, no exceptions."
"And it's hot out there. Don't forget to drink."
"Got it." She pushed open the door.
"You're headed west," he continued. "Cover as much ground as you can and meet back here in four hours." He checked his watch. "We'll have someone here to pick you up."
"If you see anything at all, call it in. Time is of the essence."
He looked Huck over with a frown, and she knew what he was thinking. With his thick black fur, he was going to melt in this heat. But Huck was tougher than he looked. They both were.
"How old is he?" Tyndall asked.
"And the medal on him?" He nodded at the silver medallion on his collar.
"Saint Anthony, patron saint of the lost." She gave a self-conscious shrug. "It brings him luck."
"Luck, huh?" Tyndall squinted through the windshield at the sunbaked cliff. "Well, we're going on hour six here, so we need it."
Missing children are an emergency. Always. Their little bodies are less able to regulate temperature, so they're especially vulnerable to exposure. And in a place as vast and rugged as Silver Canyon State Park, additional hazards abounded: rattlesnakes, coyotes, hundred-foot cliffs. Even the anemic little creek that Ava had been following was terrifying. A child Noah's size could drown in a bathtub.
Ava glanced up at the relentless sun that sucked moisture out of everything beneath it. She looked ahead at Huck, who trotted back and forth in front of her in his zigzag pattern. He was working the wind, as he'd been trained, tirelessly sniffing the air with his powerful nose, which could pick up anything with human scent on it, from a candy wrapper to a dropped article of clothing.
So far, nothing.
Ava checked her watch. Two long hours since she'd left the trailhead. Sweat stung her eyes, and she wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. She paused beside a boulder and dropped her pack on the dusty ground to retrieve one of her water bottles. Huck needed some, too, but right now he was intent on his work.
She took a lukewarm sip and scanned the scrub brush lining the canyon wall. Young children had a tendency to wander aimlessly until they found a place to curl up for a nap. Some would even hide from search teams, afraid of getting in trouble for being lost. So Ava had been incessantly scanning pockets of brush.
Huck halted in front of her, his nose lifted in the air. Ava froze and watched. But then his head dropped down and he resumed his zigzags. Ava tucked the water bottle away and pushed off the boulder to continue her trek.
She watched Huck, amazed by his energy. Even in this heat, he loved working, and when he had his vest on, he didn't have an off switch. As he bounded around in front of her, she thought of the other teams, especially the canine one. She was surprised they hadn't found something close to camp.
Of course, the parents had been there, which might have been a problem. Frantic parents threw off a lot of scent, which could have overpowered Noah's smell and possibly confused the dog. Also, the temperature rising in the canyon could have wafted the scent up, well above the dog's nose. Yet another challenge here was that young children didn't throw off as much scent as adults. And still bodies-ones that were either asleep or unconscious-threw off less scent, too.
So there were all kinds of factors in play, especially in a park this size.
Ava checked her watch again and sped up her pace, unable to shake the feeling of dread that had been settling in her stomach as the hours ticked by. Scanning the canyon wall, her gaze caught on something beige and triangular.
A tent? No.
A tarp. She climbed onto a boulder for a closer look. About halfway up the slope of the canyon was a sand-colored canvas tarp that had been stretched taut to create a patch of shade. It looked like a primitive fort-just the sort of thing that would attract a kid's attention, and her pulse quickened as she climbed closer. Nearing the tarp, she spied a small yellow tent tucked in the shade beneath it.
She glanced around for Huck, but he was sniffing along at the base of a rockslide.
Grabbing hold of a juniper tree, Ava levered herself onto the ledge. She ducked under the tarp and paused a moment for her eyes to adjust. The little tent was unzipped. Hope ballooned in her chest as she pulled back the flap and poked her head inside.
Her hope disappeared as she scanned the interior. No sleeping child curled up in the dimness. The air was utterly still, and everything was coated with a thin layer of dust, as though no one had been there in weeks, maybe months. A pile of gear in the corner included a cookstove, a hiking boot, and a blue bedroll with a carabiner clipped to it. Attached to the carabiner was a black key fob.
A chill snaked down her spine. Who would leave their car key out here? The fob seemed odd. Ditto for the hiking boot. Where was the other one? And where was its owner?
On impulse, Ava took out her phone and snapped a couple of pictures. As part of her SAR training, she'd learned to document crime scenes. She couldn't pinpoint why, exactly, but that was what this felt like. She ducked out and snapped a shot of the exterior. A faint bark pulled her attention back to the mission. She couldn't afford to get sidetracked, even though this place felt creepy. She put her phone away as she skimmed the surrounding area for the missing boot, or any sign of the boot's owner. She glanced up the canyon, looking for evidence of a fire pit or any other camping equipment.
A soft whimper had her turning around.
Huck sat beside a rock pile, his ears pricked forward and his gaze fixed on hers. Ava's heart skittered. This was his sit alert letting her know he'd found something.
"Show me," she commanded, and he sprang into action, bounding across the creek bed. She climbed down the rocks and jogged after him, frantically searching the clumps of trees. Huck darted around a giant prickly pear cactus and behind a line of mesquite trees. Amid the fluttering green leaves, she caught a flash of red.
"Please, please, please," she murmured.
Huck disappeared beneath the brush and barked. Ava spied a small white sneaker and a pudgy leg.
Huck danced in a circle, drunk on success and eager for his reward.
"Good boy, Huck! Good boy! Good boy!" She filled her voice with praise, even though her heart had lodged in her throat. The little body wasn't moving. Oh God.
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