Mountain of Lies – Jayne Evans

The only reason she wouldn’t win this year’s Darwin Award was because they’d never find her body. Mia stopped struggling and rested her cheek against the wet rock as she focused on moving air in and out of her constricted lungs. She was an idiot. She knew better than to linger on an unstable shale surface, especially in a torrential downpour, and now her rain poncho was pinned firmly under a bolder, straightjacketing her to the slope. It was a ridiculous way to die. Her heart rate slowed and she let her eyelids drift closed. Would that be so bad, really? She’d spent most of her life fighting to save Canada’s pristine wilderness and the multitude of species that called it home. Maybe a nice, quiet grave on the Coast Mountain range was a fitting end. Irony twisted her lips. After all, it had started right here in the peaks of coastal British Columbia. She’d never thought she’d come back to the west coast, but the contract for the environmental impact study for a new resort had been too good. Besides, it had seemed like the stalker she’d acquired on her last visit had finally lost interest. There had been no flowers for a couple of years and the mysterious run of bad luck that had plagued her, and anyone she got close to, had eased off. But now this? Maybe it was karma. A recognition of her unpaid debt.

So maybe she’d just let her eyes stay closed and turn her face from the life-sustaining drizzle of rain. Her mother would stop looking for her eventually and go on with her life. Except she wouldn’t. Mia would miss their regular check-in email, her mother would wait a week or two, or as long as her nerves could stand it, then she’d break every rule Mia had carefully laid out. She’d tell the police her daughter was missing and everything she knew about who might have made that happen. And somehow, if he was still out there, he’d know. And then he’d go after her mom. The thought roused her and she managed to shift one hip enough to wiggle her hand free. She grimaced as the blood started to flow again and her hand lit up with pins and needles. Rock grated on rock as her movements caused a trickle of shale to slide down the slope.

The nails on a chalkboard sound of sliding stone was coming from above her, and Mia tucked her chin into her chest as fear iced her spine. All it would take was one good hit. Rock chips bounced off her head. A large rock slammed against her back, flattening her lungs. She fought the panic of suffocation and shook tears from her eyes. And then she heard the voices. “This is stupid. What the hell he expect us to do? Wander around the damn mountain until we just happen to find it? He playin’ us, man.” More rock slithered down the slope and Mia frantically willed enough air into her chest to make a sound. When that didn’t work she switched to creating motion to draw the men’s attention.

There was no cell reception up here, so unless this guy was talking to himself, there had to be at least two of them above her. Surely one of them would look down. “Shut your pie-hole, Gio. You want to be the one tells him to find it hisself?” She could see movement out of the corner of her eye. Boots and denim-clad legs angling carefully down the slope. “Where you goin’, Frenchy? Think you gonna walk home?” The owner of the boots made a sound in the back of his throat. “Need to go. Wanna watch?” His accent was Quebecois, heavy but understandable. He slid another few feet, now farther down grade than Mia, so she could see that the legs extended into a lean torso, inadequately garbed for the changeable mountain weather in a scruffy leather jacket. The man twisted sideways, glancing up the slope and pulling down his zipper.

Mia squeezed her eyes shut and the first trickle of air made its way back into her lungs. The anticipation of rescue was taking the edge off her panic and her lungs were gradually re-inflating. Even if his friends above missed her, the Quebecer had to see her. She’d let him finish, then call out. The rain picked up and trickled under the collar of her rain gear. She shuddered and hunched her shoulders, then tipped her head back. She opened her eyes cautiously, and immediately realized that her would-be-rescuer was staring over his shoulder at her. She saw the edge of a cell phone in his hand before he tucked it away. Words died in her throat as the man widened his eyes and very subtly shook his head. He shot a glance up-slope where the complaints of his companions had increased in both volume and vulgarity, then tapped a finger over his lips before pointing it emphatically at the ground as he turned to move back toward them.

What? He was going to leave her there? Hell no! She pressed her free hand and cheek into the slope and shifted her hips from side to side. The rain fell faster and thicker, spurring her on. She tried to yell, but the weak squawk she managed was lost against the weather. She pushed harder and kicked up with her feet. The rain helped, letting rock slip against rock, creating more space for her to move. More space, but also more danger. The shale gave way beneath her just as the urgency in the men’s voices peaked. The slide accelerated. The pounding of the rain became indistinguishable from the impact of rocks and debris. There was a jolt and suddenly she was on her back, sliding.

She twisted so her feet were pointing downhill, and barred her arms in front of her face. A boulder crashed by her just before she rammed into the base of a tree. She lay there for a moment, taking stock, before rolling onto her knees and edging carefully around the trunk. The trees weren’t large this far up the mountain, but it deflected the worst of the slide and let her catch her breath. She was dazed, exhausted from the hours of tension, and just realizing the slide had stopped, when the pieces clicked in her subconscious. The boulder that had rocketed by her had been wearing a leather jacket and swearing fluently in French. Her eyes flew open and she was on her feet, stumbling in her haste, unsure how long ago the Frenchman had tumbled by. The rain had let up again, but night was creeping down the mountain, leaving the slope coloured in a range of greys and purples. She slowed down and scanned the surface below her, looking for irregularities – any bumps or piles that looked out of place. There.

Maybe. Far too close to the drop-off for comfort. She set her feet carefully, testing each step as she made a downward diagonal tack to the humped shape that might be the rude Quebecer who had planned to leave her to die under a boulder. He groaned when her movements bounced bits of rock off his head. He was alive. She let go of the breath she hadn’t known she was holding. She tipped her toes down, letting herself slide to point a few feet below him, then leaned forward. “Hello? Are you all right?” The day’s light was nearly gone, but she could see a lump and dark smears above his left eye. She tugged her sleeve down and mopped gently at the smudges on his face, then quickly moved to brace his head as he pulled away from the pressure. “No, no, don’t move yet.

Open your eyes. Can you tell me your name?” His eyes opened slowly, blinking in the gloom. He squinted at her and tried to move his head out of her grasp. “No! Don’t move, okay? I’ve got a light.” He muttered something but stayed still, and she slowly pulled her hands away, ready to push him down if he tried to get up. She pulled the flashlight out of its holder on her hip, thankful it had survived the slide, and played the light quickly over his legs and torso. His jeans were ripped and his hands battered, but all his parts seemed to be attached to each other in the correct order. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief. She hadn’t been sure what she was going to do if he wasn’t able to walk off the mountain. She switched the light to her other hand and directed it at the knot on his forehead.

It was big, and getting bigger—almost as she watched—but the bleeding had slowed to an ooze. His dark hair was matted with blood at the hairline, but soft and rain-cleaned where the blood hadn’t trickled. “I think this is going to be all right. Looks like you took a glancing blow instead of a direct hit.” He opened his eyes and she flicked the flashlight beam at them to see the pupils constrict. He brought his hand up to block the assault and she directed the light at the ground. “Sorry about that. You ready to try getting up? Go slow. Can you move your feet?” His feet moved back and forth, then his legs, and then he was pushing himself unsteadily to a seated position. He put a hand to his waist at the back, then touched his forehead and winced.

He squinted at her again. “Who are you?” “Right.” She held the flashlight to the side and shone it at her face. “Remember now? My name is Mia.” “Ya, oui. The damsel in distress.” He cocked his head and grinned at her. A dimple showed in his cheek. “I am Remy. I was going to rescue you.

” She bet he practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Her teeth clenched, but she smiled anyway. “Were you? Looked to me like you were going to leave me there and take off with your friends.” His smile dropped away and she thought his face tightened, but in the weak glow of the flashlight, it was hard to be sure. He shook his head, then grimaced and squeezed his eyes closed for a second before looking at her. “I was going to come back for you. Trust me, they’re not the kind of people you want to know.” He spread his hands wide. His voice had the musical cadence of a born and bred francophone. “You see ’em anywhere? They left me for dead and took off.

” Well, that was…odd. What was he doing with them, then? Thunder rumbled in the distance and a cold breeze lifted the tatters of Mia’s poncho. It didn’t matter. He was alive. As long as he could get himself wherever he was going, her work here was done. “Well, we should follow their example and get out of the danger zone. Can you walk?” She held out a hand, but he ignored it and levered himself to his feet. She moved to the side to give him more room. “Course I can walk. What kind of rescue would this be if you have to carry me?” Without even looking, she knew the grin was back on his face and she rolled her eyes as she started walking.

“Let’s be clear. I am not a damsel in distress; you are not Prince Charming; and this is not a story we’ll be telling our grandkids. You can get back to your camp?” The slope shifted as he took a couple of long strides to catch up to her. “Oh no. Maman would skin me alive if I left you out here on your own. I will walk you back to your camp. You can tell me all about why you’re on the mountain.” She tried to walk faster, but the shale was slipping and sliding under her feet. She waved the hand holding the flashlight, sending the beam of light playing crazily overhead. “I’m a wildlife biologist.

It’s my job to be on the mountain, so there’s no need to walk me home. I have a GPS. My coordinates are plugged in. I’m all—” The rock beneath her front foot swooshed out from under her. She was suddenly facing the edge of the cliff and tilting inevitably toward oblivion. “Damn!” A strong hand yanked her backward and then she was tight against his chest, listening to his heart firing rapidly beneath her cheek. Despite her earlier brief flirtation with the idea of surrender, Mia was suddenly, fiercely, happy to be alive. She tightened her hold around Remy’s waist, and heard the rush of blood in her ears slow to match time with his heart. His pulse was already decreasing, lulling hers into following suit. He’d been frightened for her, but was recovering fast.

A risk-taker, then. Someone who thrived on dangerous situations and was able to modulate his physical responses well. And he swore as well in English, as he did in French. He made no effort to move her from him, but rubbed her back soothingly. The shock drained away, and her nerves started to ping as his hand left trails of sensation along her spine. “Okay?” he asked. She took a deep breath, and shivered as her chest brushed against his. Just adrenalin. It was just adrenalin, and a perfectly natural response under the circumstances. She stepped gingerly away from his heat.

“Fine.” He took the flashlight gently from her hand and wrapped her fingers around the back of his belt. “And now that I have rescued you as planned, I will walk you back to your camp. Oui?” “Fine.” Mia let her hand drop from Remy’s belt and ignored his noise of exasperation. She’d had her moment of weakness, but she was over it. # He stifled a curse and blinked to clear the sparks from his vision. The lump on his forehead was growing, the skin tightening, and even an accidental touch set off a blaze of pain. Mia glanced over her shoulder at him, then continued on when he gestured he was fine. He couldn’t quite get a read on her.

She was surefooted and confident now, striding through the soggy evening as though she could see in the dark. But he couldn’t shake the expression on her face when she was pinned to the slope. He’d known he had to get her out of there, and he’d been frantically trying to figure out how to get away from Raj and Gio long enough to do it. His gut kicked at the thought of those two being anywhere near Mia. Luckily, his slide down the mountain had kept that from happening. Despite having a pretty solid grasp of the nature of the two men—and the rest of their little band of degenerates—he’d been surprised not to see them after the slide. The slope had been more stable at their height, and he hadn’t seen them pass by; which meant the human cockroaches really had gone off and left him to die. Or, they’d been watching the whole rescue go down and were currently lurking somewhere in the dense forest surrounding them. Of the two, it was the second possibility that made him determined to stay close enough to protect Mia. “Well, this is me.

” He’d have walked right by if she hadn’t stopped. She made a sort of sweeping gesture that encompassed the campsite, then pulled her shredded poncho over her head and flapped it to dislodge the dirt and debris. He swept the flashlight over the area a couple of times before he saw a tent pegged between the interlacing boughs of two trees. Mia laid the poncho over a line strung between the top of the small tent and a nearby branch. She was long-legged and lithe without the shroud of her rain gear. Her hair was half unravelled from a braid that hung past her shoulders, but she just tucked the free strands behind her ears and crossed her arms over her chest. “So, it’s been…interesting. Thank you for the escort. You can find your way to your camp?” Seriously? She wanted him to leave? Who was this woman? She’d been through two rock slides; been pinned under a boulder; nearly fallen over a cliff to certain death; and apart from that brief minute when she’d let him wrap his arms around her, she hadn’t shown a shred of fear. Any woman he knew would be moaning for a bath and a bottle of wine.

And, honestly, he wouldn’t mind easing into a hot tub with a cold one himself. Now that he’d stopped moving, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get started again. He wasn’t going anywhere tonight. Time to ramp up the charm. A level two smile should do it. No woman could resist the dimple. “I will not ’ear of it. I will remain with you tonight and make sure you get off the mountain safely. You may have suffered a concussion or other injuries from your fall.” She was ignoring his attempt at flirtation and untying a rope from the trunk of a nearby tree.

A waterproof bag that had been suspended in the higher branches hit the ground with a thud as she swivelled toward him with her mouth open. “Me? You’re the one with a cantaloupe swelling out of the front of your head.” No response to the level two. He must be off his game. He let his expression grow more serious. “Then we are agreed. Head injuries are always a risk and we must monitor each other.” Why was she resisting? Most women would be terrified to be alone out in the wilderness. He tried again with the smile, deepening the stretch of his lips so a hint of that second dimple would show through. “Besides, I can hardly leave you here alone and defenceless.

” Not with Raj and Gio unaccounted for. She smiled back at him, but it didn’t seem like she was going for charm. It felt much more…feral. “Oh, but I’m not defenceless.” She pulled her hand out of the bag. The pistol gleamed darkly in the beam of the flashlight. He lifted his hands slowly into the air. Damn. This was not going at all like he’d planned. “Mia —” “Now will you leave?” “I cannot.

It is not safe for you. But, if you put the gun down, I’ll explain.” “Drop the flashlight.” He let the plastic cylinder drop and it rolled back and forth on the ground, lighting up the little clearing like a bad horror movie. “Sit.” She motioned to a stump to his left. “Sure, Mia. ’ow about you put down the gun?” He moved across the ground in a casual stroll—at least he aimed for a stroll. He suspected he might actually be lurching across the campsite like Quasimodo on a bender, but he managed to drop onto the stump without groaning out loud. “I think I’ll keep it, thanks.

” She crossed behind him, bag in one hand, pistol level and steady in the other. She swiped the moisture off a campstool and sank gracefully onto it before gesturing at the tarpcovered mound between them. “Light the fire.” He peeled back the plastic sheet and saw a neatly laid pyramid of kindling and wood. He raised an eyebrow at her and she tossed over a box of matches. He nodded approvingly as the flames spread efficiently through the pile of wood. “You’ve done this before.” “I have.” She shifted the gun slightly, and he found himself wondering if they were talking about the same thing. She certainly handled the weapon like a pro.

No sideways gangsta action, no unnecessary movements or threats. It was unfortunate that drug dealers didn’t go for nice secure holsters. His tumble down the slope had dislodged his gun from his waistband and emptied his jacket pockets of his phone and other possessions, but he’d talked his way out of worse situations than this. He’d have her eating out of his hand in no time. He smiled at her. Level three this time. Both dimples and a sheepish shrug. “Well, this is cosy, non?” She didn’t reply. “I can understand why you’d be nervous, Mia, but I’m not going to ’urt you. I just want to protect you.

” She snorted. Firelight played over gunmetal as she rummaged in the bag with her other hand. She pulled out a protein bar and unwrapped it with her teeth. His stomach growled and he tilted his head, embarrassed and apologetic. She rolled her eyes, but tossed him one of the bars and followed it with a bottle of water. He downed half the bar in one bite. “So start talking. What are you doing here? Who sent you?” she asked. He lifted the bottle to his lips and let water trickle down his throat as he stalled. Not only did he need to convince her to put the gun away, he needed her to share her tent.

While he wasn’t a complete neophyte in the wilderness, neither was he prepared to go hiking around the mountain in the middle of the night—particularly as he wasn’t sure how to interpret Gio and Raj’s desertion. And there was no way he could leave Mia alone with those two out there. So he’d go back to the first thing he’d been taught. Stick to the truth, only change the essentials. “My boss sent me. He lost something on the mountain and needs it back.” “Your boss sent you and your buddies, completely unprepared, in bad weather, to the top of a mountain to find something.” She spoke slowly and distinctly, like she didn’t believe a word. His hastily eaten protein bar shifted slightly in his stomach. He nodded.

“What were you looking for? And why did the others run off and leave you for dead?” He shrugged, lifting his hands, and ignored the first of her questions. “This, I do not know. It was very rude. We will be speaking about it when I return home.” Her eyebrow rose. “Rude?” She started to say more, then shook her head. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. If your boss sent three of you up here to find…whatever it is he sent you up here to find, then obviously he’ll be sending reinforcements to find you, too.” She stood and gestured with the gun. “I don’t particularly want to meet your friends.

You need to go and find them before they find me.” His jaw clenched with the effort of rising, but he managed to work his lips into a curve. “I agree. They’re not people you need to know. But I cannot leave you ’ere alone all night.” “Well, you’re in luck.” She lifted her free hand and the branches behind him started to rattle and shake. Abused muscles forgotten, he leapt over the fire and had the gun out of Mia’s hand and trained on the bushes before she could take another breath. Gio and Raj must have been following them the whole time. It would cost him everything he’d worked on for the past six months, but he’d kill them both before he let them hurt an innocent woman.

“Remy, no!” Mia pushed at him, trying to pull the gun away. He swept her behind him and turned his head as much as he could while still watching the woods in front of him. “Mia, you need to listen to me. I’m a cop. The others must have followed me. Stay behind me and run if I tell you.” He let the accent drop and hissed the words as quietly as he could. She stiffened. “You’re a cop?” “Yes, so please—” She feinted, then whirled past as he tried to grab her. She stopped in front of him so the gun was pressed hard over her heart.

“Those are not your friends. That’s Neville.” “Neville? Who the hell is Neville?” She reached for the gun, but he held onto it. “Do NOT shoot him.” Her eyes were a shade lighter than the evergreens that surrounded the camp. Flames danced in them as she stared him down. He nodded once and reluctantly engaged the safety on the pistol. She turned away from him and made a motion with her hand. An enormous dog shot out of the darkness and came to a skidding halt about an inch from Mia’s boots. The beast rose smoothly onto his hind feet and put his front paws on Mia’s shoulders before pressing his nose into her cheek.

She gave the monster’s ruff a good scratch and planted a kiss between its ears before telling it to sit. It immediately came to heel at her left side and sat. Remy was positive the earth shook. “This is Neville.” She nodded at the dog’s upturned face and it padded across to Remy, sat, and held out a paw. His hand automatically rose to meet the proffered limb and he stared dumbly at the beast in front of him. He turned back to Mia. “You have a wolf. And you call it Neville.” “Don’t be ridiculous.

It’s illegal to keep a wolf as a pet. And I call him Neville. He’s not an it.” “Of course, how rude of me.” Neville was sniffing him with studious intent and Remy found himself hoping the animal had been fed recently. Mia rooted in the sack as she walked toward him. “I can give you some water for the hike back to your camp. And I have an extra headlamp you can use.” He let her take the gun from him this time, reluctantly, but pushed the water and headlamp back at her. Neville aside, the situation hadn’t changed—except for the fact he’d burned himself to a civilian.

It was the first time he’d ever broken cover in his entire career, and it was making his stomach churn like a washing machine. “Mia, I’m not going anywhere.” “Sure you are. I’m not defenceless, I’m not alone. There’s no reason for you to stay.” “Except for the drug traffickers who are probably hunting me as we speak.” Her face blanked and she sat heavily on the stump and let the bag settle between her feet. “You’re working with drug traffickers, looking for something on the mountain.” He nodded and stepped toward the stool Mia had vacated. The dog set himself precisely between the two of them—within easy lunging distance.

“I’m undercover in a drug ring, trying to take them down from the inside.” “You’re not French and your name is probably not Remy.” “My name is Hudson McClure.” “And you’re a cop.” There was a sharpness to her tone, like the words cut her tongue. Or like she was desperately hoping he’d lied earlier. He hesitated before replying. “That’s right.” “Prove it.” “I can’t.

We don’t carry ID when we go this deep. And even if I’d had it with me, I probably would have lost it in the slide.” “What do you think, Nev? Is he telling the truth? Liar?” This time there was hint of hope in her question. He was sure of it. Neville’s ears pricked at her last word and his eyes drifted closed as he tilted his head back. He pulled deep breaths through his nose, then gave Hudson a long look before he turned his head over his shoulder and woofed softly at Mia. She gave a half laugh and shook her head. “The canine lie detector here says you’re telling the truth, and he hasn’t been wrong yet.” She lifted her hands to shove her hair away from her face, and he noticed she’d held onto the gun. He also noticed it was shaking slightly.

He’d bet money she believed him—or Neville, anyway—so why the nerves? Delayed reaction? She’d been cool and calm right up until she found out he was a cop. He’d have put it down to the relief of knowing she was safe, if not for her odd reaction to finding out he was in law enforcement. He held out his hand. “Why don’t you let me hang on to that?” “No.” He started to object but she shook her head, then got to her feet and started to tie the bag back onto the rope that would carry it up into the tree. She turned back abruptly. “You’re looking for a helicopter.” Adrenalin zipped through his nerves and he shoved himself off the stump. He walked around the far side of the fire and took the bag from Mia. “How did you—? Did you see it?” He tamped down his excitement and made his fingers shape the rope smoothly into a knot.

Mia shook her head. “I didn’t see it. But I got caught up in the slide because I’d stopped to look at the next peak. There’s a clearing near the summit and the treetops were sheared off. I knew it was odd, but I didn’t recognize what I was seeing until now.” She shrugged “It doesn’t matter. Look, you can stay here tonight and follow us off the mountain tomorrow, but then we’re done. You go back to your whole sneaky squirrel Jump Street thing and I go back to my life. Okay?” Two long pulls and the bag was safely out of reach of bears. He kept his eyes on the knot he was making around the trunk.

“Sure. I told you, all I want to do is keep you safe. Once we’re off the mountain, there’ll be no reason to worry.” Once he was off the mountain with enough information and drugs from the helicopter to close his case-that was. He was sure he could convince Mia to help him find it. Neville was suddenly beside him and used his nose to poke Hudson in the thigh. The dog gave a sharp bark that descended into a growl before he shoved his head under Mia’s hand. “It’s okay, Nev.” Mia took a step backward. “Something wrong?” Mia’s face was turned away, unreadable in the shadow of the tree.

“Nothing.” She turned and made for the tent without meeting his eyes. He watched her slide the pistol into her pocket, and wondered why Mia was acting as though she would have been more comfortable sharing her camp with Remy the thug, than Hudson the cop. Chapter Two Mia had a moment of hope when she woke up alone in the tent the next morning. Maybe the whole bizarre interlude with the cop had just been a dream her subconscious whipped up to distract her from her brush with death yesterday. Maybe she hadn’t even really been caught up in not one, but two, slides the day before. She poked her arms out of her sleeping bag and stretched cautiously, then groaned. It had been real all right. The muscles in her legs and back ached, and her pale skin was covered in peacockbright bruises. She gritted her teeth and started at her toes, clenching and releasing each group of muscles to get the blood flowing and warm up her stiff limbs.

Neville had shared his warmth with her through the night, pressing his spine into hers while keeping a close watch, and a heavy paw, on the cop taking up the other side of the two-man tent. But Nev had let himself out earlier, probably to ensure the cop stayed off his territory. A cop. Of all the people to encounter halfway up Chieftain’s Mountain, a cop and a couple of drug runners were not what she’d ever expected. He’d stripped off his leather jacket before he’d come into the tent the night before, and both forearms were sleeved with tats. Between the ink, the barely tamed black hair, and a slash through one eyebrow that came right to the edge of a light brown eye; he certainly looked the part of a low-level criminal. But, crazy as it was, his story made sense. Yesterday’s shifting winds had carried an odd chemical scent, and the peculiar angle on the treetops on the next slope could have been caused by spinning rotors. She’d been so distracted by the sight she’d got caught up in the slide. Dismay tightened her chest at the thought of the equipment she’d lost under the rocks. Her stepdad had given her a set of binoculars on the first camping trip they’d taken after he married her mother. Their love of the outdoors had cemented what could have been a tempestuous relationship. After the cancer had finally taken him, she’d cherished the few mementos she had. The rest of her gear could be replaced, but she’d mourn the loss of those binoculars. Her reverie was broken by the sound of splashing and laughter, and her hope that her ordeal was over vanished. So Hudson hadn’t gotten up early and wandered away after all. She supposed it was really too much to hope for. She peeled out of her sleeping bag and dug the change of clothes out of the bottom. A package of baby wipes substituted for a shower, and then she was out of the tent and braiding her hair as she walked down to the small creek that ran nearby. Or at least it had been a small creek before yesterday’s rains. She whistled softly as she took in the changed landscape. Where yesterday the narrow stream had burbled and eddied along, today it was wider by several metres and rushed and whooshed over rocks and trees roots that had been bone-dry the day before. Neville was delighted. As Mia fastened the bottom of her braid with a worn elastic, the dog launched himself from a large boulder that was now jetting out over the stream and did a belly flop into the water. Mia laughed out loud. Despite his intimidating appearance, Neville was a still a puppy at heart. He loved to play and run, and she sometimes felt guilty he didn’t have a pack to keep him company. Her laughter cut off as Nev suddenly rose above the water as though being borne on a litter. His tail swished madly through the air and he tilted his head to lick the hand supporting his chest. Rumbling laughter sent the tail twirling faster and then, with a heave from below, Neville was airborne, legs outstretched fore and aft, and a drop-jawed expression of pure doggy bliss on his face. And then all one hundred and forty pounds of him hit the surface and sprayed Mia from toes to neatly braided hair. More laughter followed. After Mia wiped the water from her eyes, she saw Neville climbing the bank and Hudson doubled over as though he had his hands propped on his knees below the water. He straightened up with a hand pressed to his stomach and exhaled through his weakening chuckles. Her mouth was suddenly dry, and she turned away from the sight of his naked torso, ridged with muscles and decorated with a yoke of tattoos across his collarbones that fed seamlessly into the ones covering his arms. “Good morning,” he said. She faced him, eyes direct on his. “Morning.” She didn’t return the dimpled smile. No matter how hot, she had no use for a cop, and she needed to part ways with this one. Fast. She pointed to the sky. “There’s more bad weather on the way. We need to be off the mountain when it gets here.” He squinted upward, then hit her with the grin again. “Seriously? Come on. Sun’s coming up strong, sky is clear. It’s a beautiful day. Aren’t you happy to be alive?” “Ecstatic.” Hudson leaned back and pushed off the bottom so he was floating on his back. His skin prickled in the cool morning air and sodden boxers clung to his skin. “Well, you might want to tell your face.” He lifted one had out of the water and made a circling motion in the direction of her head. “Looks like you’re at a funeral.” She bit her tongue on a sharp retort and turned away. What he didn’t know—what she couldn’t tell him—was that if she didn’t get away from him, the funeral she ended up at might very well be her own. She heard a splash, then a yell, and turned back to see Neville jogging after her with a pair of boxers dangling from his jaws. Hudson’s charming smile was nothing compared to hers as she made the short trip back to camp. # “What’s going on? Is it always this busy here?” Hudson asked Mia. The parking lot was full of media trucks, their logos clashing with each other and the serene landscape. A collection of smaller vehicles was clustered around a yellow school bus in the far lot. Adults and a few children stood in a semi-circle listening to an individual gesturing with a clipboard in his hand. It was totally unlike the ghost town he’d seen when he and Cain’s henchmen had shown up yesterday afternoon. Mia shrugged. Her head moved from side to side and her steps slowed. Her hand curled around the bottom of her braid. He’d found out this morning her hair was a rusty brown that suited her green eyes perfectly. Those eyes tilted upward at the outside edges when she smiled, which he’d only been able to make her do once in the entire trek down to the old resort. And that had been when he’d let himself get distracted roughhousing with Neville, and the dog had sent him ass over teakettle into a patch of stinging nettle. He scratched his wrist where a welt from the plant still itched. He prided himself on being able to prompt exactly the reaction he wanted from people, but Mia was proving to be the exception to the rule. Great dog, though. After their rocky start the night before, Neville had obviously come to the conclusion Hudson meant Mia no harm and had warmed up to him quickly. The dog was now trotting happily alongside Mia. He carried his own bowls and food, along with some other items, in sturdy panniers that rested over his back. She’d clipped an extendable cable leash to his collar and the other end to her belt as soon as the noise from the old resort had reached them, but Hudson was sure it was unnecessary. She and Neville were totally in sync. “Over there!” Hudson turned to find a gaggle of reporters and camera-crew headed toward them at full speed. A look behind him indicated nothing that would be generating such interest. Mia’s face mirrored his own confusion, and Neville took several paces forward, fur slightly spiked between his shoulder blades. And then there were microphones in their faces and the black-hole lenses of cameras trained on them. “Were you with the missing children? Are they hurt? What are your names?” Mia had been trying to edge away from the scrum, but stopped dead. “What missing children?” There were mutters and groans among the crews, and the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. One reporter stuffed her recorder into her pocket and held out a hand for Neville to sniff. The dog looked at Mia and, when she nodded, moved close enough to the reporter so she could give his ears a good rub. Mia tried again. “There are kids missing?” The woman was on her knees now, knuckle-deep in Neville’s chest fur. “Beautiful dog.” She looked up at them, then pointed her chin at the bright yellow bus in the parking lot. “A school group came up yesterday for a guided hike. They were due back in town last night, but the guide called to say one of the kids had hurt his foot and they’d be delayed. No one’s heard anything from them since. You didn’t see any sign of them?” Mia tugged her braid. “No, nothing at all.” She glanced at Hudson and he shook his head slightly. He didn’t think even Gio and Raj would hurt a kid, let alone a pack of them. They were thugs playing at being gangsters. Other players were acceptable targets, but kids? Still, his heart beat faster at the thought of children being lost in the wilderness with the drug traffickers running loose. It nearly stopped entirely when he realized there was a new wrench in his plans to call in his handler to get a bird in the air to fly over the area to look for the drugs. “Where’s Search and Rescue? Are they sending up a ’elicopter?” He ignored the way Mia’s eyebrow lifted when he put the French accent back on. The reporter gave Neville a final scratch and stood up. “SAR teams are on their way, but they’re calling for more extreme weather, so using the helicopter’s out apparently.” Damn. If they weren’t going to send a helo up to rescue little kids, police brass sure wasn’t going to send one up on the chance a civilian could locate a suspected crash site – even if there was a drug shipment on board. He’d just have to stay close to Mia until the weather cleared. He had the distinct impression he’d never see her again if he let her out of his sight before then. The reporter nodded at Neville and handed Mia a card. “He really is a stunner. Give me a call if you ever breed him. I’d love one of his pups.” Mia shoved the card in a pocket as the woman walked away. She turned to look back the way they’d come and tugged at her hair again. “It’s fine, Mia. Search and Rescue’s coming,” he said. She glanced at him and then away. “I know. It’s just…kids get scared, you know? One of them’s hurt and—” “And help is on the way.” He caught sight of someone moving toward them and his pulse picked up. He reached for her elbow and tugged gently. “Is your car nearby?” She turned back to him with a frown. Then she looked past him and her expression froze. She immediately changed direction and started walking away. Well, that was interesting. Apparently his intuition hadn’t been wrong the night before. He knew why he didn’t want to come to the attention of the local police force, but why was she so reluctant? “Excuse me, folks. I need a few minutes of your time.” Looked like he might just find out. The uniformed police officer didn’t chase after them, but the command was clear in his voice, and when they looked back he was standing wide-legged with his thumbs tucked under the thick leather of his duty belt. He inclined his head to a large RV clearly marked as the mobile command centre. “This way, please.” Hudson met the other man’s eyes briefly and tipped his chin down. He put his hand at the small of Mia’s back and almost stopped in his tracks when he felt the tremors rippling through her layered shirts. He made himself keep walking forward and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. The scattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose stood out against the sudden pallor of her skin. He’d been watching her walk all morning, thinking idly that she moved like a dancer, all fluid and grace. Now she was moving like she was held together with rubber bands that had lost their snap. The cop opened the side door and motioned them inside. “The dog—” “Comes.” Hudson gave him a flat stare and the cop responded with a one-shoulder shrug. Mia glanced at him and offered up a wavering smile, bringing his grand total to two Mia smiles. In nearly twenty-four hours. That had to be a record for his worst performance. The cop shut the door behind him and pointed to a map displayed on a huge screen. “If you could just show me where you were coming from today? And a timeline of your movements, please.” Mia’s hand slid protectively over the GPS in her pocket before moving to rest on Neville’s head. He flicked his tongue under the side of her wrist, and she released the leash from her belt and handed it to Hudson. She stepped up to the screen and pointed to a spot that was marked as the old resort they were currently at. “We came out at this point, roughly, what…fifteen minutes ago?” She looked at Hudson and he nodded abruptly. The less talking he did in front of the local, the better. The other cop looked up from his note pad. “Where did you camp last night?” Hudson’s opinion of the man sank a bit. Always better to let the witness tell the story in their own words, then take them back through it for detail afterwards. Mia’s shoulders had inched up when the cop spoke, but she nodded and moved her finger to a different spot on the screen. A dot lit up. He realized it was a high-tech touchscreen and some of his faith in the local force was restored. “We camped here. Started down around seven, as soon as I noticed the clouds piling up. We followed the ridge line across to here.” A green line trailed from her finger—a little shaky, but not enough for the cop to wonder about—and then she made a small circle. “And we stopped for a half hour or so somewhere around here.” She took a step back from the screen. “There was a creek coming through, and a large patch of stinging nettles.” She glanced at Hudson and he kicked an eyebrow up. He was pretty sure he saw the corner of her mouth twitch, but then the cop coughed and her face went still again. “And then we followed Surley’s Pass back down to the parking lot.” “And you saw no sign of another party?” the cop asked. Hudson tensed. Would she rat him out? If she told the man about Gio and Raj, his case was officially over. Mia’s gaze flicked his way before landing somewhere over the cop’s left shoulder. “None.” She hesitated , then continued, “There were no signs anyone had been in the area, either.” “No?” The cop made a note in his book and leaned back against a table with his pen hand clasped lightly over the book. Nerves pinged along Hudson’s spine. That was a classic disarming pose. The cop was going to dig. “Would you recognize signs if you did see them?” She met the man’s eyes, level and a little contemptuous. “Well, if I missed them, the dog wouldn’t have.” “Ah. Yes. I see your point.” The cop stood straighter and scratched his chin with the pen before scribbling a few more notes. He checked the screen and nodded. “Add that one to the others, please?” Hudson tried not to react when the view on the screen suddenly shifted and changed, adding Mia’s data to a bunch of other lines. He’d been so distracted by Mia’s obvious discomfort he hadn’t noticed the tech, a woman wearing glasses and a messy bun, nearly obscured by the racks of computer equipment against the far wall of the RV. Small shaded patches appeared alongside Mia’s lines. “Does that match how far you think you could have seen off your route?” The woman’s voice was blasé, disinterested, but Mia nodded. “Pretty close. You can extend the sight line maybe another fifty or hundred metres out in all directions from that point.” She tapped the screen. “There’s a slight incline, so we had a good view.” The tech made the adjustment and Mia nodded then studied the screen some more. “Are these all the reports you have so far?” The cop glanced up from a stack of paperwork he was perusing. “They are.” Mia took a step away from the screen. None of them had been as far away from the resort as they had, and none had moved to as high an elevation. She lifted her eyes to Hudson’s and he saw apprehension in the way she chewed at the inside of her lip. She sighed and returned to the display, checking to make sure she still had the tech’s attention. “What were the children doing up here? What sort of outing was it?” The cop didn’t answer this time, just kept flicking through his paper. The tech made an exasperated noise and looked at one of the screens surrounding her. “They were on a guided tour of medicinal plants used by the First Nations groups in the area.” Mia nodded. “Can you bring up an orthophoto?” The tech sat up a little straighter and the tapping of keys filled the small space. A satellite image superimposed itself on the trail readings already on the screen. “And layer on the elevation readings?” Black loopy rings printed themselves on the photo. Hudson’s nerves ramped up again, and he knew Mia was going to give them more information about what had happened to them the day before. He also understood why she felt like she needed to, but hoped she’d keep Raj and Gio out of her account “Okay, there was a slide on the shale face yesterday afternoon around two, and then again in the early evening, maybe around six.” Hudson shifted his weight and Neville bumped his nose into his thigh. Damn, she’d been trapped under that rock for nearly four hours. No wonder she’d lost it when she thought he was going to walk away. And no wonder she was so worried about these kids. He shuffled his feet again. Was wrapping up this investigation really more important that potentially rescuing a bunch of children? Mia continued her explanation. “The first one was higher on the slope. The second one happened lower, about here.” The tech was animated now and seemed to be sharing Mia’s thought process. She zoomed in on the area and panned lower, to the area below the drop-off that Mia had nearly plunged over the night before. Even though it was a more gradual slope and had more trees and outcroppings, the trickledown effect of the slides could easily have had devastating consequences. “Right there,” Mia said. The cop finally put down his paperwork and moved closer to the screen. “Right there what?” Mia immediately took two large steps away from the officer. He gave her a mildly curious glance before shifting his attention to the tech, who had stood and was flicking various pieces of equipment into action. She didn’t bother to stop or look at her colleague while she worked. “Right there is where the washout last night would have probably trapped the kids. Best case scenario, they just got stuck on the other side of a slide too big and unstable to hike over.” The tech’s voice was even, but a slight tremor in her hands betrayed her. The cop went into action, pulling out a list of contacts and keying up the radio. He glanced at the tech, then Mia. “And worst case?” Mia shared a look with the other woman, then walked over to the screen and put her finger farther down the slope. It was nowhere near the area he and the others had been sent out to search. Hudson’s breathing came a little easier. At least that was one less concern. It was hugely unlikely Raj and Gio would come across the kids. As she completed the circle, the line turned red and Hudson’s stomach sank once more. Mia took a hiccupping breath. “Worst case, they got caught in the slide and you’ll find them here.” # Neville nudged her with his nose, and she bit hard on the inside of her check. No way she was going to break down and cry. Not here, not now. No way. She pulled air in, pushed air out. If she acted normal, she’d feel normal. She’d given the cop all the information he needed, and search and rescue crews were setting up as she and Hudson made their escape from the RV. But that hadn’t prevented the ball of misery that was curled in her gut. There’d been much shaking of heads as the professionals circled around the computer broadcasting the weather forecast. They wouldn’t be moving out until there was a break in the pattern. And there wasn’t a break predicted for the next twenty-four hours. If circumstances were different, she’d have flipped them all off and already be on her way back up the hill, looking for those poor, scared kids. But things were what they were, and she just couldn’t take the chance at drawing the wrong kind of attention. Nev beaked her again and she let her fingers curl into the long fur on his nape. She could never hide her feelings from him. Neville always knew. So when her car keys kept slipping from her nerveless fingers and Hudson gently took them from her, she let him. She also let him steer her to the passenger side of her battered old SUV. But she drew the line at letting him help her into the passenger seat, first taking the panniers off Nev’s back and clipping him into his seatbelt harness before getting in herself. The engine growled to life and Hudson’s look of concern lifted long enough for his eyebrow to lift in surprise. “Nice.” Mia nodded and pushed her palms down the length of her thighs. “She doesn’t look like much, but the engine is top of the line.” He brought them onto the road down the mountain. “Why not just buy a new car?” “There was nothing wrong with the body—other than being old—and why buy something people want to steal? I can leave this anywhere while I’m working and no one looks at it twice.” “True enough. Most girls just like something a little flashier.” “I’m not most girls.” “I agree. Most girls aren’t on the run from the police.” Her blood went sluggish and icy in her veins, and she thought for a moment her heart might stop beating. Neville whined from the seat behind her and she reached a hand back to him. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She fought to keep her voice even.

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