“What?” she said, but now she spotted the dog struggling to its feet and had to suppress a groan. The animal looked bad, dazed. Blood dribbled like thick syrup from a gash on its scalp. Panting, the dog tottered toward Jack’s body, wading through a scatter of dead birds, inking the rock with bloody paw prints. Wary, Alex tensed as Mina began to sniff Jack’s body. She had no experience with dogs. Didn’t some refuse to leave once their owners were dead? God, what would she do if Mina—
The dog began to bark, furiously and very loudly. Startled, Alex jumped.
“Shut up, you dumb dog!” Ellie clapped her gory hands over her ears. “Shut up, shut up!”
“Shh, shh, Mina, shh,” Alex said. The barks were unbearable, like gunshots. She started forward, with no clear idea of what she meant to do; she just wanted the dog to be quiet. She reached for the animal. “Mina, hey.”
With a snarl, the dog whipped its head around, teeth bared. Alex snatched her hand back with a small cry, and then, in the very next second, she caught the odor of dank fur—and something else, feral and thick and wild.
What was that? Alex felt the tiny hairs bristle along the nape of her neck. The smell was overpowering, rolling off the animal in waves. Alex was dead certain she’d never smelled anything like that before in her life.
“Okay,” Alex said, her pulse thumping in her neck. “Okay, girl, it’s okay.” Without looking around, she eased back, felt the soft give, and then heard the crunch-crackle-pop as her boot flattened a bird. An instant later, the reek from the animal’s smashed guts coiled into her nostrils, and a little whimper of disgust tried to push itself between her teeth.
Leave the dog; let Ellie deal with it. Despite the chill, sweat oozed down her neck, and her mouth filled with a metallic tang that cut through the taste of curdled vomit. She reeked of warm salt and cold fear. Just get your gear, get the kid, and get off this mountain while you still can.
No matter what she said or how loudly she said it, Ellie wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, her patience fraying, Alex finally grabbed the girl by the wrists. “Ellie, listen to me. We’ve got to leave.”
“No.” The girl jerked free and slapped her hands to her ears again. The kid was insanely strong. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“You can’t stay here.”
“Yes, I can. Don’t you tell me what to do.”
“Ellie, I’m sorry about your grandpa, but he’s dead and we have to get out of here. We have to tell someone what’s happened.” An inspiration: “Your grandpa would want you to be safe.”
“I’m not leaving.”
Did this kid do anything she was asked? Alex wanted to shake the girl until her teeth rattled. “I can’t leave you here.”
“Why not? I can take care of myself. I know how to camp.”
While she doubted that, Alex decided to try something she’d read about in psychology. “Look, I’ll need your help on the trail. It’ll be a long, hard hike, and I need someone to come with me.”
The girl cracked one eye in a narrow squint. “Where?”
“Hang on, I’ll show you.” Digging through her pack, she riffled the contents until she found the map she wanted. “You ever seen a topographic map?”
A sparrow of curiosity flitted over the girl’s face. “What’s that?”
“It’s a really detailed map. A good topo shows just about everything—streams, rivers, old quarries, railroad tracks, how high the mountains are, how steep. Red lines are roads. Solid green means forest and …” She ran her finger over the map until she found a black, blocky silhouette of a house with a flag at its peak. “This is what we want.”
“What is it?”
“That’s the ranger station. They’ll know what to do. They can radio for help.”
Ellie considered. “It looks far away and kind of high up.”
The station was pretty far—a good twenty-five miles east—and a lot higher, adjacent to a fire lookout tower situated atop steep bluffs hemming a small lima bean of a lake. But going there was a better plan than backtracking four days. If they pushed their pace, they might make the station in a day and a half, maybe sooner. “It’s nothing you can’t handle.”
Face darkening into a by-now very familiar scowl, Ellie said, “Well, it looks hard. Grandpa and I only did six miles a day.”
Whoa. Alex felt a prick of disquiet. Six miles a day? What did they do, crawl? At that speed, she and Ellie would have much bigger problems, like running out of food. Okay, don’t panic yet; Jack must have supplies. Aloud, she said, “I’ll bet you can do way more. You look pretty strong.”
Ellie threw her a look that practically screamed she knew bullshit when she heard it. Her eyes flicked over the map, and then she jabbed at a tiny symbol in the far left corner:
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Maybe an old mine southwest of here. Or a cave.”
“There are mines? There are caves?”
“Well, sure. This is old mining country, and there are abandoned shafts and caves, but—”
“Are there bears?”
“In the caves? Not yet. They won’t den until it gets really cold, but black bears won’t bother us so long as we’re careful. So don’t worry about—”
“What about wolves?”
Okay, they were on a roll. “Yeah, they’re around. You can hear them at night, right? So that’s another reason to get away from here. All these dead birds’ll attract animals—coyotes, raccoons, wolves, and …” Too late, she read Ellie’s stricken face and realized what she’d said.
“You’re going to let the wolves get Grandpa?”
“No, no, I meant—”
“They’ll eat him!” Tears splashed Ellie’s cheeks. “They’ll get him!”
“No!” Fists balling, Ellie kicked at the map, the toe of her boot catching a crease. The map made a sound like worn cloth torn in two. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”
“Ellie!” Alex dove for the map. “Stop! We need this.”
“Well, I don’t need you!” Ellie was stumbling back, slipping on dead birds and a slick of Jack’s blood. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“Fine! Then you and your stupid dog can stay here. But it’s getting late.” Pushing to her feet, she pulled back her sleeve to glance at her watch. “I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I don’t have time to ar—”
She broke off as her brain stutter-stepped.
Wait. She stared at her watch. That’s not right.
Her watch was an older-model Casio IronMan, the only watch she wore when she hiked because the watch was rugged and waterproof and cheap. She’d had it about ten years, maybe replaced the battery twice in that time. The watch had never failed her, or given her a millisecond of trouble.
Now, however, the gray screen was blank.
Had she fallen that hard? She inspected the watch, saw that the face had only the dings and scratches she remembered. No, she was sure the watch had been working just fine. In fact, she remembered checking the time.
Well … okay, so her watch had died. A coincidence.
Yes, but so had Jack, and something made those birds go nuts and those deer. Something had sizzled through her brain like an electric shock—no, more like lightning—so bad she’d nearly passed out. Only now she had her sense of smell back.
So … maybe not a coincidence.
Her fingers shook as she dug out her iPod. She thumbed it. Then she thumbed it again and then a third time, but the iPod stayed just as dead.
She tried her cell. Nothing. Not just no signal—she expected that out this far—but the cell wouldn’t power up.
Neither did her radio. Changing the batteries did nothing. By the time she figured out that her two LED flashlights were also dead, leaving her with just a big Swiss Army clunker her father had bought about a million years ago, she was thoroughly freaked out.
One electronic gizmo crapping out was something that just happened.
Two was bad luck.
Her gaze crawled to Ellie, and those iPod earbuds still dangling
around the kid’s neck. “Ellie, is your iPod working?”
“No.” Ellie’s silver eyes inched up grudgingly. “It got hot.”
“It got hot.” Her tone suggested that Alex was clearly as deaf as she was a complete moron. “I was listening to it, and it got hot.”
“Like it burned my hand, okay? And then it stopped working and—”
Alex interrupted. “Do you have a flashlight?”
“Can I see it?”
Ellie got that pouty look again. “No.”
Alex knew not to push it. Then her gaze snagged on Ellie’s wrist. “What time is it?”
“You’ve got a watch.”
Alex wanted to pitch the kid off the cliff. “Can you just tell me?”
Ellie heaved a deep sigh. “Nine and … eleven.”
Alex was confused, then thought maybe an eight-year-old kid might not know how to tell time, and she sure wasn’t going to get into that. So, 9:11 would be 9:55, and that seemed right. Which meant that Ellie’s watch … “Your watch still works?”
Ellie nearly sneered. “Of course. It’s Mickey Mouse. It used to be my daddy’s. I wind it every day like Grandpa taught me.”
A wind-up. So are we talking just the batteries? No, Dad’s Swiss Army flashlight works. It’s got to be something else. Even with all that blood, she made out the watch on Jack’s right wrist, but she was too far away to be certain. She didn’t want to touch Jack again. Mina might not let her get close anyway. “Does your grandpa’s watch still work?”
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