“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
No way would he be able to reach her, not with his bare hands. And Noah Rackham didn’t have anything else—just his mountain bike, which lay on its side a few feet away. In the pouch beneath the seat he kept a spare tube, the small plastic tool that made it easier to change a tire and some oil for his chain but no rope, no flashlight. He wouldn’t have packed that stuff even if he’d had room. For one, he’d come out for a quick, hit-it-hard ride before sunset and wasn’t planning to be gone longer than a couple of hours. For another, no one messed around with the old mine anymore. Not since his twin brother had been killed in a cave-in a decade and a half ago, just after high school graduation.
“Hello?” Kneeling at the mouth of the shaft where someone had torn away the boards intended to seal off this ancillary opening, he called into the void below.
His voice bounced back at him, and he could hear the steady drip of water, but that was all. Why wasn’t the woman responding? A few seconds earlier, she’d cried out for help. That was the reason he’d stopped and come to investigate.
“Hey, you still there? You with me?”
“Yes. I’m here!”
Thank God she’d answered. “Tell me your name.” “It…it’s Adelaide. But my friends call me Addy.
I want to know who I’m talking to. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Just get me out. Please! And hurry!”
“I will. Relax, okay, Addy? I’ll think of something.”
Cursing under his breath, he rocked back on his haunches. Ahead of him, the dirt road that temporarily converged with the single track he’d been riding disappeared around a sharp bend. To his left was the mountain, and to his right, the river, rushing a hundred feet below. He saw more of the same scenery behind him. Trees. Thick undergrowth, including an abundance of poison oak. Moist earth. Rocks. Fifty-year-old tailings from the mine. And the darkening sky. There were no other people, which wasn’t unusual. Plenty of bikers and hikers used this trail, but mostly in the warmer months, and certainly not after dusk. The Sierra Nevada foothills, and the gold rush–era town where he’d grown up, were often wet and chilly by mid-October.
Should he backtrack to the main entrance of the mine? Try to get in the way they used to?
He’d already passed that spot. Someone had fixed the rusty chain-link fence to keep kids from slipping through. Noah couldn’t get beyond it, not without wire cutters or at least the claw part of a hammer. That en- trance and this shaft might not even connect. It was likely they didn’t, or whoever was stranded down there would’ve made her way over—provided she was capable of moving.
Scooping up his bike, he hopped on and went to check. Sure enough, the fence, with its danger keep out sign, was riveted to the rocky outcropping surrounding the entrance. He couldn’t get through; he didn’t have the proper tools, and there was nothing close by he could substitute. The only foreign object in the whole area was a bouquet of flowers that lay wilting in the mud. Noah guessed Shania Carpenter, Cody’s old girl- friend, had placed them there. She’d probably come up here to commemorate the anniversary of when she and Cody had started dating, or become an item, or first made love or…whatever. She’d married, divorced and had a kid, in that order, but she’d never gotten over Cody’s death.
Neither had Noah. It felt as if a part of him had died that night.
And now someone else’s life could end the same way.
Certain that this entrance wasn’t the answer to his problem, he returned to the shaft. He never would’ve noticed this other opening if not for that cry for help. The boards that’d been pried loose were so covered by moss they blended in with the rest of the scenery.
“I’m not going to be able to reach you,” he called down. “Is there some other way out? A tunnel that might not be sealed off?”
Considering what had happened to his brother, was it safe for her to move?
“No. I—I’ve tried everything!”
The hysteria in those words concerned him. “Okay. Listen, I know you’re…frightened, but try to stay calm. How badly are you hurt?”
“I’m not sure.” It sounded as though she couldn’t suck in enough air to speak normally, but he couldn’t tell if that came from fright, exhaustion or injury. “Help me, please.”
He wanted to help; he just didn’t know how. The shaft was too deep to reach her without rope. But if he hurried off to notify rescue personnel, he wasn’t sure she’d be alive when he got back. Trying to bring others would take too much time. There was no place for a helicopter to land. And it wouldn’t be easy to get an ambulance in here. A Jeep or truck could make it, but even that would be a challenge in the dark. Flooding several years ago had washed away parts of the old road.
But if he stayed, he’d soon lose all daylight and he had no flashlight. Even if he managed to get the woman out, how would he transport her in the pitch-black?
“Can you walk?” he called.
There was a slight delay. “How far?”
“I’m wondering if you’re mobile, so I can assess the situation.”
That made a difference. It meant she wasn’t so badly off that he couldn’t sit her on his bike and run along- side. If he could get to her.
He was pretty sure he had a flashlight and a length of rope in his truck. He might even have food or something else that would come in handy. A sweatshirt would keep her warm, at least. He could use it if she didn’t need it. It’d been a nice day, hence his lightweight bike shorts and T-shirt, but it was growing colder by the minute.
“Sit tight,” he called down. “I have to go to my truck but I’ll be back. I promise.”
“Don’t leave me!”
Panic fueled those words. “I’ll be back,” he repeated.
Tension tied his stomach into knots as he ignored her protests and clipped his feet into the pedals of his bike. The uneven ground and rocks and roots that offered the challenges he so enjoyed suddenly became unwelcome obstacles, jarring him despite the expensive shock absorbers on his bike. He was moving faster than ever before, especially through this stretch, where the riding was so technical, but he had no choice. If he didn’t…
He couldn’t even think about what might happen if he didn’t. He’d seen his brother’s crushed head. They’d made the decision as a family not to have an open casket.
Small pebbles scattered, churned up by his tires as he charged through patches of gravel. Hoping to shave off a few minutes, he climbed a steep embankment he typically tried only when he wanted maximum difficulty.
He made it up and over the ridge, and down the other side without mishap, but it felt as if it were taking for- ever to reach the highway.
By the time the trail leveled out, his lungs burned and his quads shook, but he knew that had more to do with fear than physical exertion. He owned Crank It Up, a bike shop in Whiskey Creek, and raced mountain bikes professionally. Thanks to endless hours of training, his body could handle twenty minutes of balls- to-the-wall riding. It was the memories of the day he’d learned his brother was dead and the frightened sound of Addy’s voice that made what he was doing so difficult.
In case her life depended on his performance, he forced himself to redline it, but daylight was waning much faster than he expected. What if he couldn’t see well enough to return? Considering how narrow the trail was in places, and the sharp dropoff on one side, his tire could hit a rock or a groove in the hard-packed dirt, causing him to veer off and plummet into the freezing-cold river—an accident he wasn’t likely to survive. The road, though wider, would take twice as long.
You won’t fall. He knew this trail far too well. This was where he felt closest to his brother—and not because Cody had died here. They’d started mountain biking when they were only thirteen, used to explore these mountains all the time. That was how they’d found the mine in the first place. It was Cody who’d turned it into a popular hangout during the final weeks of high school. Kids could bring booze or weed up there without being noticed or interrupted by the police, so a core group from the baseball team had thrown parties that had occasionally gotten out of hand. Toward the end, Noah had stopped going. He hadn’t liked watching his brother snort coke, didn’t appreciate the way Cody behaved when he was stoned. Noah had also been afraid Cody would get Shania pregnant before they had the chance to leave for college and he didn’t want to at- tend San Diego State without him. They’d done almost everything together since birth.
He’d mentioned the risks to Cody many times, but no amount of warning seemed to faze him. Although Shania hadn’t been at the party—her parents had whisked her away to Europe as soon as she had her diploma in hand—his brother had gone a little crazy that night with all the drinking and drugs, and he paid the ultimate price. From what Noah had heard, the party Cody had thrown graduation night had been as wild as they came.
Maybe if his brother had been thinking straight, he…
After navigating a few final twists and turns, Noah spotted the gravel lot next to the two-lane highway where he’d parked, and raced down the straightaway.
Sweat rolled off him the second he stopped, despite the cold, but he barely noticed as he searched his truck. He found the towrope in his toolbox, a sweatshirt shoved under his seat not far from the flashlight and a stash of energy bars. He already carried all the water he had in a bladderlike contraption on his back. Unfortunately, he’d drunk most of it, but he found a first-aid kit in his jockey box, which was some consolation.
He had what he needed, but in case things didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, he wanted to call for help so there’d be a rescue team waiting.
He’d put his cell phone under his floor mat to keep it out of sight. There’d been a rash of car burglaries several months ago, courtesy of a group of teenagers who smoked pot and hung out at the river all summer— “river rats” they were called.
He fished his phone out to check for service. Coverage was spotty in these mountains. But obtaining a signal didn’t turn out to be the problem. His battery was dead.
“Shit!” He wasn’t one of those people who kept his phone attached to his ear 24/7. It was more of an afterthought—obviously, since he didn’t carry a charger.
He gazed up and down the road, hoping a vehicle would come by, but after a few seconds, he realized he couldn’t keep standing there. He had to make a decision. Should he drive to Jackson, which was closer than Whiskey Creek, or go back for the woman as he’d originally intended?
Jackson would take too much time. He’d promised he wouldn’t be long and for some reason it was important to him to make good on that.
Draping the rope around his neck, he tied the sweat- shirt to his waist and tossed out the extra tube and tire-changing equipment he had in his seat pack without even caring where it fell. He needed room to squeeze in the energy bars and the contents of the first-aid kit. Then he held the flashlight against the handlebars and took off.
He had to get back to the mine before full dark. Otherwise, he’d be forced to take the road or travel even more slowly on the trail, and he feared that whoever was stranded in the shaft couldn’t survive the delay.