“Copy, Fever,” answered their radio pal with a serious Boston accent. “Your new call sign is Lifeguard two zero.”
“Lifeguard two zero wilco.” Will comply. The copilot continued, “Romeo Charlie Charlie copies all.”
The radio operator responded, “We are zapping the mission info to you via data link and you have priority handling, cleared on navigation direct to location.”
“Roger.” The helicopter copilot’s voice echoed through Wade’s headset, like guidance coming through that funky aromatherapy haze. “I have received the coordinates for the stranded climbers popped up on a data screen and am punching the location into the navigation system. Major, do you copy all back there?”
“Copy in full.” McCabe was already reaching for his bag of gear to ditch the flame-print suit. “Almost exactly two hundred miles. We’ll have an hour to prep and get suited up.”
McCabe assumed command of the back of the chopper, spelling out the game plan for each team member. He stopped in front of Wade last. “Good news and bad news… and good news. Since you’ve worked the longest day, the rest of the team goes in first. Which means you can rest before the bad-news part.” He passed a parachute pack. “Speaking of which, chute up. Because if we can’t reach someone, you’re jumping in to secure the location and help ride out the storm.”
Apparently they might well have to pull out all the stops after all. “And that second round of good news, sir?”
McCabe smiled, his humor resurfacing for air. “The volcano on Mount Redoubt hasn’t blown in a year, so we’ve got that going for us.”
A wolflike snarl cut the thickly howling air.
Kneeling in the snow, Sunny Foster stayed statue-still. Five feet away, fangs flashed, white as piercing icicles glinting through the dusky evening sunset.
Nerves prickled her skin, covered with four layers of clothes and snow gear, even though she knew large predators weren’t supposed to live at this elevation. But still… She swept her hood back slowly, momentarily sacrificing warmth for better hearing. The wind growled as loudly as the beast crouching in front of her.
She was alone on Mount Redoubt with nothing but her dog and her survival knife for protection. Cut off by the blizzard, she was stuck on a narrow path, trying to take a shortcut after her snow machine died.
Careful not to move too fast, she slid the blade from the sheath strapped to her waist. While she had the survival skills to wait out the storm, she wasn’t eager to share her icy digs with a wolf or a bear. And a foot race only a few feet away from a sheer cliff didn’t sound all that enticing.
Bitter cold, at least ten below now, seeped into her bones until her limbs felt heavier. Even breathing the thin mountain air was a chore. These kinds of temps left you peeling dead skin from your frostbitten fingers and toes for weeks. Too easily she could listen to those insidious whispers in her brain encouraging her to sleep. But she knew better.
To stay alive, she would have to pull out every ounce of the survival training she taught to others. She couldn’t afford to think about how worried her brother and sister would be when she didn’t return in time for her shift at work.
Blade tucked against her side, she extended her other hand toward the flashing teeth.
“Easy, Chewie, easy.” Sunny coaxed her seven-year-old malamute-husky mutt. The canine’s ears twitched at a whistling sound merging with the wind. “What’s the matter boy? Do you hear something?”
Like some wolf or a bear?
Chewie was more than a pet or a companion. Chewie was a working partner on her mountain treks. They’d been inseparable since her dad gave her the puppy. And right now, Sunny needed to listen to that partner, who had senses honed for danger.
Two months ago Chewie had body-blocked her two steps away from thin ice. A couple of years before that, he’d tugged her snow pants, whining, urging her to turn around just in time to avoid a small avalanche. If Chewie nudged and tugged and whined for life-threatening accidents, what kind of hell would bring on this uncharacteristic growling?
The whistling noise grew louder overhead. She looked up just as the swirl of snow parted. A bubbling dome appeared overhead, something in the middle slicing through…
Holy crap. She couldn’t be seeing what she thought. She ripped off her snow goggles and peered upward. Icy pellets stung her exposed face, but she couldn’t make herself look away from the last thing she expected to see.
Someone was, no kidding, parachuting down through the blizzard. Toward her. That didn’t even make sense. She patted her face, her body, checking to see if she was even awake. This had to be a dream. Or a cold-induced hallucination. She smacked herself harder.
Her nose stung.
Her dog howled.
Okay. She was totally awake now and the parachute was coming closer. Nylon whipped and snapped, louder, nearer. Boots overhead took shape as a hulking body plummeted downward. She leaped out of the way.
Toward the mountain wall—not the cliff’s edge.
Chewie’s body tensed, ready to spring into action. Coarse black-and-white fur raised along his spine. Icicles dotted his coat.
The person—a man?—landed in a dead run along the slippery ice. The “landing strip” was nothing more than a ledge so narrow her gut clenched at how easily this hulking guy could have plummeted into the nothingness below.
The parachute danced and twisted behind him specter-like, as if Inuit spirits danced in and out of the storm. He planted his boots again. The chute reinflated.
A long jagged knife glinted in his hand. His survival knife was a helluva lot scarier looking than hers right now. Maybe it had something to do with the size of the man.
Instinctively, she pressed her spine closer to the mountain wall, blade tucked out of sight but ready. Chewie’s fur rippled with bunching muscles. An image of her dog, her pet, her most loyal companion, impaled on the man’s jagged knife exploded in her brain in crimson horror.
“No!” she shouted, lunging for his collar as the silver blade arced downward.
She curved her body around seventy-five pounds of loyal dog. She kept her eyes locked on the threat and braced for pain.
The man sliced the cords on his parachute.
Hysterical laughter bubbled and froze in her throat. Of course. He was saving himself. Nylon curled upward and away, the “spirits” leaving her alone with her own personal yeti who jumped onto mountain ledges in a blizzard.
And people called her reckless.
Her Airborne Abominable Snowman must be part of some kind of rescue team. Military perhaps? The camo gear suggested as much.
What was he doing here? He couldn’t be looking for her. No one knew where she was, not even her brother and sister. She’d been taught since her early teens about the importance of protecting her privacy. For fifteen years she and her family had lived in an off-the-power-grid community on this middle-of-nowhere mountain in order to protect volatile secrets. Her world was tightly locked into a town of about a hundred and fifty people. She wrapped her arms tighter around Chewie’s neck and shouted into the storm, “Are you crazy?”
“No, ma’am,” a gravelly voice boomed back at her, “although I gotta confess I am cold. But don’t tell my pal Franco I admitted as much. My buddies can’t fly close enough to haul us out of here until the storm passes.”
“And who are these buddies of yours?” She looked up fast.
No one else fell from the clouds. She relaxed her arms around her dog. He must be some branch of the military. Except his uniform wasn’t enough to earn her automatic stamp of approval, and she couldn’t see his face or read his eyes because of his winter gear and goggles.
He sheathed his knife. “Air Force pararescue, ma’am. I’m here to help you hunker down for the night to ride out this blizzard safely.”
All right, then. That explained part. It was tough to question the honorable intentions of a guy who would parachute into the middle of a blizzard—on the side of a mountain—to rescue someone.
Still, how had he found her? Old habits were tough to shed.
“Um”—she squinted up at the darkening sky again—“are there more of you about to parachute in here?”
He shifted the mammoth pack on his back. “Do you think we could have this conversation somewhere else? Preferably after we find shelter and build a fire?”
That much she agreed with.
Staying out here to talk could get them killed. For some reason this hulking military guy thought he needed to save her. She didn’t understand the whys and wherefores of anyone knowing about her presence in the first place. However, simply walking away from him wasn’t an option.
Easing to her feet, she accepted the inevitable, sheathed her knife, but kept her hand close to it. Just in case.
She would not be spending the night in a warm shelter, curled up asleep with her dog. She would have to stay awake and alert. With too many secrets, she couldn’t afford to let down her guard around anyone, and sprinting away wasn’t exactly an option.
Her uninvited hero was already taking charge. “We need to find the best location to minimize the force of the wind, then start digging out a snow pit.” He had some kind of device in his hand, like a GPS. “I’ll keep the instructions simple, and you can just follow my lead.”
“Excuse me, but I’ve already located shelter. A cave only a few yards away.” She knew every safe haven on this pass. She had a GPS too, although it hadn’t come out of her case since she’d left her small mountain community this morning. “But you’re welcome to work on that pit if you prefer.”
“Oooo-kay,” he said with a long puff of fog. “Cave it is.”
“My dog.” She pointed to her malamute mutt, now sniffing his way westward along the ledge.
The man hefted his gear more securely on his back—a pack that must have weighed at least fifty pounds. “Looks like a pissed off wolf to me.”
“Then perhaps you need to get out those fancy night-vision goggles you guys use.” She felt along the rock wall marbleized by the elements. “Sun’s falling fast. Don’t lollygag.”
His steps crunched heavy and steady behind her. “You’re not the most grateful rescuee I’ve ever come across.”
“I didn’t need saving, but thank you all the same for the effort.”
He stopped her with a hand to the arm. “What about your friends? Aren’t you worried about them?”
His touch startled her, the contact bold and firm—and foreign. She came from a world where everyone knew each other. There was no such thing as a stranger.
She gathered her scrambled thoughts and focused on his words. “My friends?”
How did he know about what she’d been doing today? She’d been on her own, escorting Ted and Madison to a deputy from the mainland who would take them the rest of the way. He worked for a small county along Bristol Bay and arranged for transportation by boat or plane, even bringing in supplies for them in an emergency.
Had something gone wrong after they’d left her? Ted and Madison were seasoned hikers, physically fit. They’d been frequent patrons of the fitness equipment she kept at the cabin that housed her survival and wilderness trek business. She couldn’t imagine there would have been any problem with their trek off Mount Redoubt to rejoin the outside world.
“The rest of your group. In case you were worried—which apparently you’re not—they’re all toasty warm with dry blankets up in the helicopter on their way back to the resort cabin, probably wishing they’d stayed in California. How is it that you have managed out here so long away from the group?”
Climbing group, from California? He must think she was a part of some other group. Relief burned through her like frostbitten limbs coming to life again. He didn’t know about Ted and Madison or the sheriff’s deputy, and he had no idea at all why she was really out here today.