Bringing Maddie Home - Page 96

Colin swore under his breath. Was there any chance at all Duane was hooked up with the shelter the Hales ran? Did they take in girls as well as boys?

In the darkness below, he saw flashing lights. The Butte County unit turning off the highway, accelerating again.

“Coming up ahead,” the pilot warned.

“We’re ready.”

Please, God, let her still be alive.

* * *

WHEN HANDS GRIPPED her, Nell let her body flop. The trunk light might not be bright enough for him to see that she was still breathing. Even if it was, she wanted him to believe she was unconscious, to fail to notice the awkward angle of her arm that disappeared beneath her.

With an impatient growl, he rolled her toward him. She used the momentum he was providing to add power to her swing. He shouted with surprise and fell back, but not in time. Unfortunately, one of the cross pieces of the tire iron had skimmed the rim of the trunk, causing her blow to lose force. Still, it glanced off his shoulder and gave her time to roll out of the trunk and—almost—get her feet under her.

She fell jarringly to her knees, but she took another hard swing and caught his knees. The crunch was satisfying but nowhere near enough.

“You bitch,” he snarled.

Nell staggered to her feet and, backing away, brandished her weapon. She’d been in the trunk so long, her eyes were probably better adjusted to the darkness than his. The moon was nearly full, though, shedding a silver light against which he was a dark, hulking figure.

Where am I? But she didn’t dare take her eyes from him. All she knew was that there was pavement beneath her feet, and that space seemed to drop away somewhere off to her left.

“Why didn’t you die the first time?” he asked her.

Taunting him wasn’t smart, but she did it anyway. “Because you were careless.”

With another growl, he launched himself at her. She swung and connected with his forearm, but he got a grip on the tire iron, too, and wrenched it away. Nell scrabbled backward until she came against the car. She inched along it.

He flung the tire iron away. Sparks skittered in its path. She spun and raced around the car. Behind her, Duane laughed.

Nell saw enough to know that they were on the summit of a lava cone, as she’d guessed. No city lights below, only darkness. The crater was greater darkness one way. A trap.

Ducking, peering through the windows, she saw he had something in his hand now. A handgun. He started around the car, and she ran. A dark building wasn’t far away. Probably an old fire lookout. Duane wouldn’t have brought her here if it was still manned, but getting past it bought her precious seconds.

Her feet slapped on pavement, then slid on the looser cinders. The gun barked and the bullet bit into the wooden side of the lookout inches from her head. She focused on a small stand of stunted trees growing on the crater rim maybe twenty-five yards away. Nell ran for all she was worth, zigzagging a little.

He fired again, then yet again. A blow struck Nell in her back and she almost fell, but somehow she kept going. Another bullet passed so close she felt the brush of air, but she was almost to the trees. Almost there. And then she plunged into them.

Small branches whipped her face and ripped at her parka and pants. She fell and went down once, landing on her wounded side. It hurt so much for a moment she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get up, but she did.

Risking a glance behind her, she didn’t see him for a moment. What was he doing? Then the headlights of the car came on, shining directly at her, followed by another powerful beam. He’d gone back for a flashlight.

With a moan, Nell plunged over the edge of the cinder cone, trying to keep on her feet as she half slid, half fell down the steep side.

* * *

JANE LEANED FORWARD. “I see headlights.”

Colin, too, was staring until his eyes burned. He’d seen only darkness a moment before. The lights had just come on. Did that mean Duane had disposed of Nell’s body and was about to depart?

Not a praying man, he found himself doing it again. Please, God, no.

The helicopter was rapidly closing the distance.

* * *

NELL CRASHED PAST small trees clinging to the steep side and the eroding cinders. She reached the road that spiraled to the summit, dashed across it, had to scramble over the guardrail and plunged once again into the safer darkness. A moment later she fell and rolled, bouncing off outcrops of rough lava. The precipitous descent into darkness was terrifying, but nothing like the man above, so desperate to kill her.

The sweeping beam of the flashlight found her and the gun cracked again. More burning: this time in her arm. Once again she fell, rolling, rolling until she was sickened and dizzy, but the shots were missing her. Even the flashlight couldn’t keep up.

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