Frank drove slowly around the busy circle route through Yosemite Village, until he came to the National Park Headquarters on the right, close to the museum. Pedestrians darted into the street without regard to the nearly bumper-to-bumper vehicles and he shook his head, thinking LA traffic had nothing on this. Just ahead, he saw the beautiful Yosemite Lodge, a sprawling structure built of stone, massive logs, and glass, where he was supposed to meet Milt and Mark for lunch. Hope fluttered in his chest. Maybe they’d been found while he’d been driving hell-bent for leather to the park. Or maybe they were alright, and totally unaware of the flurry of activity generated by the death of the ranger and Frank’s fears about their safety.
But, as he parked and headed into the single story building, dread weighed heavily upon him. He’d get an update from the Park Superintendent, find out if they’d been found and, if not, he’d look for them in the Lodge. Maybe he’d get lucky – he wished he could believe it would be that easy. Once inside, he followed signs until he’d found the Park Superintendent’s Office, which was along a hallway just off the entrance, through a glass wall to an open bullpen. There, he stopped at the first occupied desk and showed his badge to the ranger.
“I’m Frank Harper, Los Angeles PD. I’m expected.”
“Yes, sir, this way,” the uniformed woman replied, standing to show him into the inner office. As he followed her, he couldn’t help thinking about how young she looked, like all the rookie cops back home. Ruefully, he supposed they seemed so young because he was getting older all the time, and had some of the aches to prove it.
She rapped on the open door and announced, “Sir, Lieutenant Harper has arrived.”
A strong baritone voice from within directed, “Show him in.”
The ranger nodded and stood aside for Frank to enter. Frank thanked her and, upon entering the office, he studied the Superintendent of the nation’s oldest, and one of the busiest, parks. A tall, middle-aged and apparently very fit African-American dressed in a crisp park ranger uniform stood from behind the desk to greet him. Briskly, Frank crossed the floor covered with Amerindian carpets to shake the man’s hand. “Good morning. I’m Frank Harper,” he said, returning the firm grip that he hoped was representative of a no-nonsense, forthright man.
“Lew Ferguson. Please, have a seat,” the Superintendent offered with a Midwestern accent, and gestured toward a circle of four leather-covered chairs around a round table. “Would you like some coffee?”
Frank nodded. “Please. Black.” While Ferguson filled two mugs from the pot behind his desk, Frank settled at the table and studied the large office, admiring the wall of glass that looked out at the picturesque street and the Lodge, the burnished burled wood of the desk, and the artefacts tastefully displayed on a bookcase. Then he turned to the map of the park on the wall beside him. The park was huge and he had no idea where anyone would even begin looking for two men on a weekend that was busy despite the rain and cold weather. “Have you found Judge Hardcastle and Mark McCormick?” he asked, turning back to Ferguson as the man approached the table and set a steaming mug before him.
“I’m sorry, no,” Ferguson informed him as he settled on the other side of the table. “We’ve done a quick survey of all the seasonal campsites and found no sign of their vehicle.” He paused to take a cautious sip from an over-sized mug that was emblazoned with ‘Dad’ and images of bighorn sheep.
Frank frowned and bit back the urge to shout at the man that they had to be there, and to demand that more be done. This wasn’t his turf and he suspected Ferguson knew what he was doing. “So, what happens now?” he asked, assuming there was more.
Setting his mug down, Ferguson gave him a wintery smile. “Now, we go further afield,” he replied, with a gesture at the map. “The campgrounds on the mountain were closed last weekend but we think they may have been directed up there by whoever killed Sam Waterman, the ranger at the Mariposa gate, yesterday afternoon.”
“Why haven’t those sites already been checked?” Frank asked, doing his best not to sound critical.
“The weather,” Ferguson replied, brisk and blunt. “Heavy rain has been falling since last night and the main road –Highway 120 – into both ends of the park are washed out. We can’t get a chopper up because the ceiling is too low. It’s snowing hard up there now – blizzard conditions – and the temperature is dropping fast.” He hesitated a moment, then went on, “A body washed over Yosemite Falls, just above the village, about an hour ago. There’s no identification but the man fits the general description you gave of Mark McCormick.”
Frank’s stomach flipped and he felt breathless, as if his chest was caught in a vice. “Body? An accident?”
“No; the man was shot before he drowned. We’ve faxed his fingerprints to the FBI – I’m sure you know national parks fall under their jurisdiction – but haven’t heard anything back yet. They’ll be sending an agent to investigate Waterman’s murder, and this latest suspicious death will be added to his or her agenda.”
Feeling bleak and tired, Frank heaved a breath and gave a tight nod. “I’m sorry about your ranger,” he said with complete sincerity. If Milt and Mark had stayed home, the unlucky man would likely still be alive. Mark. God, what if …? But no, he wouldn’t assume the worst.
Ferguson studied him. “Do you mind me asking, is your interest purely official? Coming all the way here from LA, well, you seem to be taking their disappearance personally.”
Nodding, Frank met the man’s steady gaze. “I’ve known and worked with both men for years. They’re good friends.”
“I see,” the Superintendent replied, his expression softening. “We’ll do all we can to find them.” Standing, he plucked his Stetson and a jacket from a hook by the door. “Well, let’s go take a look at the body; find out if it’s one of your friends or not.” Leading the way out of the office, he said over his shoulder, “They might have another problem.”
“What problem?” Frank asked, not liking Ferguson’s grim tone.
The older man turned to face him. “The reason we’re pretty sure they made it into the park is that their truck was spotted in Mariposa late yesterday afternoon, in front of the General Store. About an hour after they left, the shopkeeper collapsed and he’s in critical condition.” Settling his hat on his head and pulling on his jacket, he went on, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the diseases carried by rodents in these parts?” Frank shook his head, but he steeled himself for more bad news. “The mice have fleas, and the fleas have Yersinia Pestis. It can cause pneumonic plague in humans and that spreads from person to person. Your friends have been exposed and we have less than twenty-four hours to find them or it might be too late.”
Frank gaped at him, stunned speechless by the horror of such an unexpected, deadly threat, one that Milt and Mark not only didn’t know about but would have no way to defend against. Dammit, he thought with grim, desperate hope, next time, if I have to hogtie the man, he’s going into a safe house – where he’ll be safe! Looking away from Ferguson, Frank took a deep breath to regain his balance and composure. Where they’ll be safe, he corrected himself, surprised at how much the thought that Mark might be dead affected him. Resolutely, he squared his shoulders and gave Ferguson a small nod, signalling his readiness to proceed. He refused to assume the body he was about to view was Mark – it couldn’t be Mark.
What the hell would Milt do without the kid? And how would Milt ever forgive himself if … no, he couldn’t, wouldn’t go there. Mark was still up on that mountain with the Judge. Or he was until Frank saw proof to the contrary.
Ten minutes later, they were in the basement of the Dental and Medical Building, in a small, refrigerated morgue, and Ferguson was uncovering the face of the dead man. Frank gritted his teeth and schooled his expression to give nothing away but, when he saw the face, saw that it wasn’t Mark, his composure cracked. He wiped a shaky hand over his face and said a silent prayer of gratitude. “It’s not Mark McCormick,” he said for the record.
Ferguson covered the face and turned to a file cabinet. He pulled a box from one the drawers and said, “His personal effects. Not much here. But he was carrying a walkie-talkie. When we tried raising someone on the other end, a woman replied, ‘Chase,’ but didn’t respond when we identified ourselves.”
“Huh,” Frank grunted and rubbed his chin as thought about it. Then, he realized who the dead man had likely been. “We’ll need confirmation from his prints, but I think that’s Chase McCready.”
Ferguson’s raised brow invited more information.
“It’s long been suspected that he was a hitman for hire, but he was never charged,” Frank elaborated.
“If that’s so, then it looks like Judge Hardcastle literally dodged the bullet. Now they just have to survive the weather and the plague.”
But Frank shook his head. “McCready worked with an accomplice; his partner, Mindy McCready.”
“Chase and Mindy?” Ferguson echoed. “They sound more like a cheerleader and a quarterback.”
“Yeah, well, if suspicions are correct, she did more than cheer him on,” Frank replied dryly. “More like Bonny and Clyde. It’s rumored that she’s the more dangerous of the two. Which might be why he’s lying here and we don’t know where she is.” Shoving his hands into his pockets, Frank struggled to contain his concern for his friends. “We need to get up on that mountain,” he said with poorly hidden frustration, and immediately felt like an idiot for stating the obvious.
“Not possible, not until the weather lifts,” Ferguson told him. “Do they have wilderness survival skills?”
Frank thought about the last time they’d disappeared into the high country and couldn’t help the small grin that tugged at his mouth. “Oh, yeah,” he assured the Superintendent. “They’ve been known to survive worse than this. For months.” The brief spark of humor faded. “What do you think the odds are that they were infected by that shopkeeper?” he asked, but wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
Ferguson shrugged. “Hard to say but … well, the sooner we can get to them, the better.”
The deadly wash of water was rushing past the front tires. Familiar with flash floods in southern California, Mark knew only too well that only a few inches could carry away a car or truck. Fighting his frustration when the wheels spun in the icy ruts, he took care not to flood the engine as he rocked the big Ford, back and forth, to loosen the grip of the deep snow and gain some traction. “C’mon,” he growled in low desperation. Milt had awakened from his fevered sleep and was watching silently, his expression grim but resolute. The engine whined and the wheels spun, again and again, as he flipped the gearshift back and forth, in and out of reverse. More water spread under the truck, seeping into the ruts under the front of the truck.
Finally, the vehicle jerked and slid free.
Mark wrestled with the steering wheel as he backed up as quickly as he dared, doing his best to stay in the barely visible tracks they’d made only moments before. The last thing he needed was to drop them in a ditch. Twisted in his seat, looking back over his shoulder, he ignored the sharp flare of protest from the tear in his side. Between the heavy clouds and the thickly falling snow that left wet tracks on the back window, visibility was nearly zero. He drove with extreme caution despite his growing sense of urgency that if they didn’t soon find a way off this damned mountain, they never would. Finally, after about half a mile, he spotted what he thought was an entry onto a side road that would give them enough room to turn around safely. He was only able to breathe easily again once he had the truck turned and back solidly in the centre of the snow drifting across the road.
“So, we’re heading to the east gate,” Hardcastle observed, his tone mild, as if they weren’t in the midst of blizzard on a road that might lead to nowhere.
“Yeah, that’s the new plan,” Mark agreed, trying for nonchalance but not quite making it. His full attention was on the road, barely visible through the swirling wall of white. “If the road isn’t flooded out, and if we don’t get stuck in the snow, and if there aren’t any other killers out to get us, we might make the east gate in a couple hours.” He paused and cut a quick look to his friend. “We could be in big trouble this time, Hardcase.”
A frown furrowing his brow, the Judge blearily studied Mark. “You’re not usually a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of guy,” he husked, hoarse from coughing.
Mark shot him another fast sideways look while he debated pretending he hadn’t heard, or that the comment didn’t warrant an answer. But then, with a helpless shrug, he admitted, “I’m worried about you, Judge. You keep sayin’ it’s just a cold, and you pretend you’re indestructible, but you’re sick, maybe really sick. Maybe sick enough to need a hospital and we’re stuck out here in a blizzard on a mountain, with no obvious way off and maybe with another killer coming after us.”
Hardcastle rolled his eyes and waved off the concern. “It’s just a cold, McCormick,” he insisted, but nearly doubled over when another racketing cough gripped him. Panting to catch his breath, he again reached toward Mark, this time weakly gripping his arm, half in reassurance and half for support. “Yeah, okay, you’re right,” he admitted hoarsely. “I feel like hell. But I’m a long way from bein’ dead an’ we’re gonna be alright, y’hear?”
“Oh, yeah, I hear you,” Mark agreed with bleak humor. “But ….”
But what? But ‘I’m scared’? But ‘I don’t want to lose you’? He exhaled slowly, his breath clouding the air. His throat was tight but worry wouldn’t do Hardcase a damned bit of good. Bereft of words, he just nodded, as if he believed that everything was going to be just fine. Hell, might as well believe it – was better than assuming they were going to die on this blasted mountain road. Worried about how the cold was seeping into the cab, he turned the heat up as far as it would go.
Milt gave him a wan smile and an approving clap on the arm before he once again closed his eyes and sank into a restless sleep. No doubt he’d meant to be reassuring but his innate courage and determination to remain positive in the face of extreme adversity twisted in Mark’s heart and clogged his throat. What would he ever do without this crazy, wonderful, stubborn old man?
The wind picked up, swirling snow around the truck and making it even more difficult to see where he was going. Mile after harrowing mile, the truck ploughed through a pristine expanse of drifting snow, past one empty campground after another. Foreboding gradually sank into despair as Mark accepted that there was no one else up on this mountain. The man who had directed them at the ranger’s station was no ranger. They’d been sent to their deaths and no one knew they were up here. They were alone and there would be no help coming. Minutes dragged into an hour, and then into another but they didn’t seem to be making any progress. Trees lined the endless road to nowhere. Mark kept a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and drove into a world of white, cold silence marred only by the eerie moan of the wind.
The blizzard continued to get worse, the snow falling ever faster and heavier, the blowing drifts across the road growing higher than the front bumper. Abruptly, Mark noticed he couldn’t see anything in front of the truck. Thick, heavy snow swirled into a tunnel of white; wind buffeted the truck like a giant fist. They were in what he’d heard of but never before experienced: whiteout. He knew it was crazy to keep going when he couldn’t see more than five feet ahead. With the kind of luck they were having, he’d probably drive into a ditch or, worse, over the edge of a ravine. Despite his fears about Hardcastle’s health and urgent need for a hospital, Mark reluctantly slowed and stopped the truck.
“Huh, what? What’s goin’ on?” Milt asked, not quite awake but aware they’d stopped.
Mark looked at him, at the hot flush of fever on his cheeks, the heavy, watery weariness in his eyes, and knew he’d give anything, anything at all, to get the Judge somewhere warm and safe, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Unless … maybe if Hardcase could drive, then he could get out front and lead. Another violent series of deep coughs interrupted his musings and dropped him abruptly back into the real world. Hardcastle could barely breathe and had trouble staying awake. If he had a ragged coughing jag while driving, he could lose control of the truck.
“McCormick? I asked you why we stopped?” Milt demanded, sounding breathless and impatient.
“Well, two reasons,” Mark replied, doing his best to sound confident. “Reason number one: I can’t see the road and would prefer not to drive over a cliff; reason number two: it’s lunch time and you need to eat and drink something.”
Milt’s glowering look of confusion would have been funny if it wasn’t so scary. “Eat? Not hungry. Need to … where … where are we?”
“Oh, God,” Mark murmured, but said aloud, as steadily as he could, “We’re in Yosemite Park, Judge. You remember, we came up here to avoid getting killed back in Malibu.”
Milt studied him intently, then gave a vague nod. “Sleepy,” he muttered, curling back into the warmth of the sleeping bag covering him. “Don’t feel so good.”
“I know, Judge,” Mark replied quietly as he reached out to tenderly tuck the sleeping bag around Milt’s shoulders. “I know.”
The wind howled and a heavy gust battered the truck. Mark stared out at the swirling cloud of snow and wished they were anywhere but there. They needed help, but nobody knew where they were. Hell, he wasn’t even sure anymore exactly where they were. Where were the intrepid park rangers? Why hadn’t anyone come looking for them? Well, anyone besides two cold-blooded killers. “Where’s Yosemite Sam when you really need him?” Mark muttered despondently. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto are in heap deep trouble.”
He told himself to get a grip. There were still a few things he could do, including making sure Hardcastle kept drinking fluids. With that fever, the man needed all the water and juice Mark could force into him. And maybe he could get him to eat, even a little meat or cheese would be better than nothing. Resolved, he turned up his collar and shoved his door open, pushing against the banshee wind. Outside, the cold and violence of the blizzard took his breath away, and froze him to the bone in seconds.
“I really hate camping,” he complained wrathfully as he ducked his head away from the wind, and held onto the side of the truck to pull himself back to where he’d left the cooler. While he dug the cooler out of the snow that covered it, he studiously avoided looking at the white mound that had such a short time ago been a vibrant, beautiful, deadly woman. Using a plastic grocery bag that held sliced meats and cheeses, he loaded up on bottles of water and juice. When he couldn’t carry more, he went back to the cab and dropped his loot inside between them on the bench seat. And then he went back for more. If this storm got any worse, he did not want to have to face the elements the next time they needed water. After two trips, he was satisfied that he’d moved enough liquids and easily eaten foods into the warm cab of the truck. Finally, he opened a large bottle of apple juice and dumped it; the bottle would do as a urinal, and that would save them both from having to leave the warm cab to answer nature’s call.
By the time he climbed back inside, he couldn’t feel his hands or his feet, and the rest of him was shaking so bad his teeth were chattering. He stuck his hands in his armpits until he’d stopped shivering. Then, reluctantly because he knew how quickly the cold would leach the warmth from the cab, he turned off the engine. He needed to make sure they didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and he had to conserve fuel. The engine was their only source of heat and once the gas was gone, there’d be no way for him to protect Milt from the killer cold.
“C’mon, Hardcase,” he cajoled, holding out a small bottle of orange juice. “You need to drink this stuff. It’s good for you.”
Milt grumbled, not quite awake and not wanting to be bothered, but Mark persevered and managed to get him to drink nearly half the bottle. Then he got Milt to take a couple more aspirin with another half bottle of water. “Good, that’s good, Judge,” he said as he capped the bottle and then made sure Hardcastle was well covered by the sleeping bag.
Leaning back against his seat, Mark forced himself to eat some sliced turkey, Swiss cheese and a small bag of potato chips. Then he took two aspirin, and drank a bottle of water. Much as he wanted to, he couldn’t ignore the cough tickling the back of his throat or the burn in his eyes, the usual precursor for him to full blown chills and fever; couldn’t pretend he didn’t know what it meant. Shaking out the second sleeping bag, he huddled under it and prayed for the storm to end.
Frank had checked the restaurant in the Lodge, but Milt and Mark weren’t there waiting for him. They were definitely in trouble somewhere in the park. Frank had never felt so impotent in his life. Two of the people he valued most in this world were in deadly danger from three independent threats. A hired killer was unaccounted for, and could either still be hunting them or had maybe found them – but Frank didn’t want to dwell on what that might mean. Milt and Mark had been exposed to a disease that could become deadly within thirty-six hours, but they didn’t know it and there was no way to get to them, to get them to help. And, last but not least, the blasted weather could kill them if nothing else did. He looked up at the storm-shrouded mountains and tried to imagine his friends surviving prolonged blizzard conditions with only what they’d brought with them for an easy camping trip; hard enough by itself, but if one or both of them was also sick….
How had everything gone so wrong, so quickly?
“Dammit,” he cursed and turned away from the rain-splattered window to watch the bustle of activity in the Park’s headquarters. As an excess of water had cascaded down the mountains, growing in volume and accumulating mud and debris along the way, the overflowing streams and flash floods had put a lot of campers in danger in several of the campgrounds. Rangers, both on normal duty and on overtime or callback, hurried in and out, intent on their individual tasks and assignments. Through an open door along the nearby hallway, he could hear dispatch clearing calls, sending rangers out to specific locations, alerting local hospitals to the need for ambulances to deal with victims of car accidents and several near drownings. One man had been pinned under a fallen tree. Other campers were still trapped in an RV that had been crushed by a massive limb, blown down during the violent storm the night before.
Nor had Milt and Mark been the only people exposed to the infected shopkeeper. All the rangers who could be spared were engaged with visiting each and every campsite to alert people to the danger if anyone felt ill, or to take the sick people they found to the hospital for immediate treatment. The village clinic was overflowing and victims were now being shuttled to nearby hospitals in Fresno, past Mariposa, and west into Merced. Highway 120 had been closed because of the violent weather and landslides, leaving only Highways 140 and 41 in and out of the park, west toward San Francisco, or south, the way he’d driven in, through Mariposa.
Nor were the rangers the only park personnel who were working flat out. As fast as they could given the stormy weather, crews were opening one closed road after another, removing downed trees, bulldozing muck from roadways that had been submerged by flash floods, and clearing landslides. It was all hard, back-breaking and very time-consuming. But as hard and fast as the men were working, if either Milt or Mark were infected with the plague, the roads high into the mountains wouldn’t be cleared to allow help to get to them until long after it would do them any good. God help them if they were both sick. The only way to get to them would be by helicopter, but the choppers wouldn’t be able to get off the ground until the early winter storm cleared – not until morning, at least.
The more Frank thought about the whole mess, the more anxious and frustrated he became, and the harder it was to remain calm, to keep his emotions contained. His throat was parched by worry, and fear filled his chest. He hated being so useless. There had to be something he could do. Determined to get off the fringes and into the action, he returned to the Park Superintendent’s office. As soon as the man finished his latest phone call, Frank rapped on the open door and walked inside.
“I’m sorry, there’s no word of your friends,” Ferguson said, sounding a bit more brusque and harried than he had that morning.
Frank waved away the comment. “I’m not here to harass you. I know everyone is doing the best they can,” he said, flat with despair. “There must be something I can do to help – your team seems to be stretched beyond their limits.”
Lew Ferguson sighed and sat back in his chair. Unconsciously kneading the back of his neck to alleviate muscles tightened by tension and fatigue, gazing into the distance, he thought about it. But, ultimately, he shook his head. “I’m sorry. I know the waiting must be hard, and God knows, we could probably use the help. But you’re a civilian. Even if I wanted to use you to work with a ranger to check the campsites, I can’t allow you to be exposed to those who might have the plague.”
“Civilian?” Frank protested. “Not quite. I’m willing to take the risk. Let me sign a waiver.”
Ferguson studied him, and then nodded. “Okay, thanks. See the Dispatcher. She’ll have the appropriate form, and assign you to ride with one of the rangers who have been called in.”
“Good, thanks,” Frank agreed, quickly turning away, eager to be busy, to be doing something that would distract him from his own worries.
“One thing before you go,” the Superintendent called. When Frank again faced him, the man motioned to his phone. “That last call? It was an update on the condition of old Jimmy Carstairs, the shopkeeper from Mariposa.” He paused, then shook his head. Frank could feel the bad news coming. “I’m sorry to tell you, and maybe his condition was complicated by his age and the fact that he was a pretty heavy drinker, but he died a half hour ago.”
Frank’s gaze dropped away as he pondered the sad news. Milt wasn’t all that old, and both men were healthy and strong. Wordlessly, he nodded, accepting the information but unwilling to believe the stranger’s death was a harbinger of worse news to come. Blowing out a long breath, he met Ferguson’s dark gaze. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Ferguson gave a brisk nod of sober acknowledgement, and Frank wheeled away, thinking the sooner the Dispatcher could distract him with meaningful work, the better. But even as he strode down the hall, he knew that no matter how many others he might help in the next twenty-four hours, nothing would assuage the deep ache he felt that there was nothing – absolutely nothing – he could do to help his best friends, or sooth the sick fear inside that even then, at that very moment, they might be at death’s door.
If they weren’t already dead.
Snow drifted around and over the pickup, gradually burying the truck. Frost edged up all the windows in beautiful, fragile, deadly designs. The dreariness of the day deepened swiftly into dusk, and still the wind howled and the snow fell, inch after relentless inch.
Inside the cab, Mark shivered but wasn’t sure if the storm had leeched all the warmth away, or if he was suffering the chills of incipient pneumonia. He’d been coughing harshly so often, so deeply, that his chest ached along with every muscle in his body. He felt thoroughly miserable. Beside him, Milt was asleep, or at least, he hoped it was sleep. The Judge was breathing heavily, as if it was hard to get enough air. Squinting, Mark peered through the dim light and could just make out Hardcastle’s face. The deathly pallor and the relentless, hectic flush of fever on his friend’s cheeks scared him.
Shoving off the sleeping bag that covered him, he shifted forward. With shaking hands and trembling fingers, he felt under the steering column to find the wires he needed to twist back together to jumpstart the engine. His breath billowed into a cloud in the icy air. The effort was taking too much time, too much effort. He found it hard to stay focused, hard to stave off another coughing jag that would only pull him away from his task. Finally, finally, the engine caught and sputtered, and then rumbled with reassuring steadiness, and Mark blinked back tears of desperate relief. He wasn’t much good, and there sure wasn’t much he could do to help the Judge now, but he could do this – he could keep the man warm for as long as the gas lasted.
Mindful of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, he cracked open the window beside him, and winced at the sting of bitter cold and the biting snow crystals that hit his face. Coughing raggedly, shivering miserably, he hauled the sleeping bag back over his shoulders and hunched down into it. He’d just close his eyes for a few minutes, just a few minutes. Then he’d turn off the engine to ration the fuel for as long as he could.