She thudded painfully to a stop on the paved surface of the road. Again. Oh, God. How many times did it circle the butte on the way to the top? She half crawled across it. This time the guardrail was almost more than she could manage. Her legs felt weighted with lead as she lifted them, one at a time.
There was a roaring in her ears, and suddenly a bright light shone from the sky.
“Drop your weapon!” The voice was deep, metallic.
She might be imagining it. She felt so unreal now, she wasn’t thinking anymore. All she knew was that she had to keep going. Get away. Find someplace to hide.
The gunfire that broke out above was part of the nightmare, no more real than her pain.
She knew she’d reached the base when she fell onto her hands and knees on brutally rough lava.
* * *
THE SEARCHLIGHT SWUNG in arcs, briefly illuminating a dark figure plunging down the side of the volcanic cone. On the next arc, it found a man on the edge of the rim, holding a weapon in one hand and a big flashlight in the other. As the helicopter swung to take up position above him, he lifted his face. Unmistakably Duane, although the vicious expression was nothing Colin had ever seen on this man he’d thought he knew.
The handgun lifted and bullets began pinging off metal.
The pilot was swearing, a litany that rang through Colin’s headphones.
“Hold it steady!” he shouted, and opened the door.
He knelt, lifting the rifle. The helicopter bobbed and he cursed, grabbing for purchase. The pilot was apologizing and swearing. A hand gripped Colin’s belt.
“I’ve got you.” Jane’s voice.
Hoping she was well-braced, he lifted the rifle again, found Duane Brewer in his sights and fired. Bang, bang, bang, bang. He was distantly aware of the rotors spinning overhead. Earphones deadened his hearing. Another bullet pinged off the metal, close enough that he flinched. In his peripheral vision he saw flashing red, blue and white lights reach the top.
Suddenly the helicopter seemed to find an air pocket and was as still as if he were standing on a platform rooted to the ground. Narrowing his focus so that nothing and no one else existed, he sighted again and fired. This time his target dropped and stayed unmoving in the harsh white light. The flashlight had rolled away, its beam now pointing toward the crater. The weapon was visible a few feet from his outstretched hand.
My friend. The man who taught me so much.
A pedophile, and killer.
“Do you want me to bring us down?” the pilot asked.
“No, the troops have arrived.”
Running, the two deputies emerged into the spotlight, both holding weapons out, arms braced. As one kept his distance, the other edged forward, first kicking the handgun farther away. He bent cautiously, then after a moment straightened, holstered his gun and waved at them.
“Find Nell,” Colin ordered, backing away from the open doorway.
The helicopter swooped dizzyingly over the rim and pointed downward.
* * *
DESPERATE AND MINDLESS, Nell sought a place to hide from the white light sweeping across the lava field, hunting her. She staggered and swayed, barely keeping to her feet. She knew she was almost done; each step felt like her last. But she reached a taller outcrop of lava, and feeling her way around it found a concavity on the far side. She sank down, curling herself into the smallest ball possible.
Every part of her hurt. She felt like a wounded animal waiting to die. She wanted to die alone, not with him standing above her in triumph.
The beam of light moved slowly over the lava field right in front of her. So close. Nell squeezed her eyes shut. If she couldn’t see it, it couldn’t see her, she decided with the irrationality of a child.
A wind seemed to be whipping her. She hunched tighter and covered her ears against the roar that filled her ears.
It almost sounded like Colin’s voice. I’m dying. The thought was the most coherent she’d had in some time. She shook in great shudders, hearing footsteps crunch on the lava.
“Oh, God, Nell.” His voice again, this time breaking at the end. “He’s dead, Nell. Sweetheart, I found you.”
She almost believed that. She opened her eyes the tiniest bit but could only squint against the light that had found her.
“I think I’m dead,” she told him.
“No. You’re not. Thank God, you’re not.”
Very, very gently, she was lifted. There were too many hands to be only Colin’s. And, oh, it hurt to be touched, so fiercely she decided she wasn’t dead after all. People coming back from near-death experiences reported that following the white light was peaceful, and this wasn’t.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” he groaned, and the hands laid her on a flat surface that then lifted. She thought he was swearing.