Who can you turn to when everyone betrays your trust? This is an especially important question for Ruth Gallagher. Severely injured at the same time that her best friend is killed in a mountain climbing incident, she later learns it was no accident. Repeated attempts on her life are made when a mobster believes she knows more about his criminal enterprises than she does.
Riding to the rescue is U.S. Marshal Emma Blake, but after all the perfidy can Ruth trust Emma? Barely healed from her previous encounters, she may not have a choice.
Ebook copies are available through Flashpoint Publications
Paperback copies are available through Bella Books. As always many
thanks to the readers. Without you, writing would be pointless.
“Karl, where are you?”
Ruth Gallagher peered upward in frustration and attempted to blow the sweaty bangs out of her eyes. The thirty-seven-year-old redhead was a novice mountain climber at best. Having her closest friend rush to the top while she dangled from a solitary line didn’t improve her mood. Ruth couldn’t see Karl anywhere near the ledge. She expected a middle-aged physician to be smarter than that. Leaving a climbing buddy behind was a serious no-no. Plastered against the granite face, Ruth blinked against bright sunlight and falling dust as she attempted to spot him.
With no response forthcoming, Ruth ground her teeth and dug her fingertips into the unyielding surface, mentally preparing to complete the climb on her own. She tried to motivate herself with the reassurance that she had the latest in mountain climbing equipment. Besides, they had deliberately chosen a short summit in direct relation to her abilities. How hard could it be?
As if the fates were taunting her, one of the pitons anchoring Ruth’s safety line in place suddenly gave way. A startled scream erupted past her lips as she plummeted twenty feet toward the scrub, rocks and trees of the forest floor. Fortunately, the other anchors held, preventing Ruth from slamming into the ground another thirty feet below. The rope snapped taut and she spun around before careening sideways against the rocky wall.
Ruth’s breath rushed out when the rope harness tightened abruptly around her groin and mid-section. Pain resonated up and down her spine. Gravel cascaded down over her head and shoulders. Ruth gripped the rope so hard her knuckles whitened. Her heart pounded in fear and adrenaline sang in her veins, but the balance of the pitons seemed secure. Suddenly, Karl’s blond head popped into sight as he peered down at her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, peachy.” Ruth spit out a mouthful of dirt and wiped grit from her eyes. She tried to ignore the cramps in her groin, generated by the overly tight harness. “Where were you?”
“I had to take a leak.”
“Charming. Do you think you could give me a hand?”
“Okay, hold on a second.”
The instant he disappeared Ruth heard a muffled thud. She thought he had probably tripped over his own feet. It served him right for leaving her hanging, literally. Still, she should check on him.
“Karl? Karl, is something wrong?”
He reappeared at the top and he seemed fine. Then a look of confusion came across his tanned face and he fell to the ground just out of sight. Ruth didn’t hear him moving around. She could barely see the top of his head and one hand that dangled over the edge.
“Karl!” Ruth screamed, as if the increase in volume could generate an answer from someone who was possibly injured. “What’s happened?”
A drop of something splashed against her cheek and she flinched. Ruth reached up to wipe the substance away and when she checked, she saw it was red. More saliently, it was blood. Karl’s blood.
Unexpected movement made her look up again. Someone dragged Karl from the ledge of the cliff. She thought a stranger must have seen what happened and had come to their rescue. Maybe, they were trying to perform first aid on Karl. That notion vanished when Ruth saw an unfamiliar form dressed in camouflage clothing step into Karl’s place near the cliff’s edge. Judging from the form, Ruth couldn’t tell if the attacker was male or female and she couldn’t see their face. She assumed from the violence of the attack that the perpetrator was a man. The fact that he wore a black stocking mask told her this person’s intentions were not benevolent.
Without a word, the assailant dropped to his knees and reached for Ruth’s safety line. His hands were also covered, encased in black leather gloves. He grasped the rope and began sawing through with a large hunting knife. Ruth’s focus seemed to narrow down to that one spot. She saw nothing except the blade, serrated along the upper edge and slightly curved at the end. Her brain kicked back into gear and she realized that in another moment, she would be falling to her death. Even if the distance didn’t kill her, it would definitely leave her severely wounded and easy prey for her attacker to finish her off.
Ruth struggled against that scenario, rallying herself to plant her feet firmly against the rock and reach for the spare line hanging at her side. She needed to tie off quickly before the stranger cut through the rope anchoring her to the top. With the spare line looped around her arm, Ruth quickly attempted to secure it to the piton from which she currently dangled. Before she made the first knot, Ruth felt the rope bounce and knew she wouldn’t have enough time. A sob escaped her but she kept trying, refusing to give in to the inevitable. Then, from the corner of her eye, she spotted an alternative that she should have thought of before.
Ruth grabbed for Karl’s rope where it still lay anchored beside her. She fumbled clumsily with her harness but finally unclipped the D-ring that released her from the safety line. Using the other rope, Ruth quickly rappelled toward the ground. She had gone barely ten feet before the line went completely slack in her hands. Perspective made it feel as though she hung in mid air for a moment before the realization that the line had been cut registered in her mind.
Arms and legs pinwheeled in the air as gravity asserted itself and Ruth plummeted toward the forest floor. Terror numbed her mind. Ruth felt the pain from bouncing off rock and branches. The crunch of breaking bone echoed loudly in her head as she came to an abrupt halt, forcing a shriek as agony tore into her body. The scent of crushed, musty moss surrounded her. Darkness closed in quickly, embracing her with the comfort of oblivion.
Sometime later, flashes of images danced across her corneas, disjointed without context or continuity. Ruth’s thoughts were unmoored. She couldn’t latch onto anything, real or imagined. Instead, she felt as though she was floating in a sea of confusion. Through an effort of will, she opened her eyes. Bright lights flashed by overhead, voices raised in a cacophony of pandemonium and accompanied by the sound of mechanical beeps. Reality faded once more and this time she didn’t struggle.