hree hundred acres up in smoke. Four thousand man hours and the bitch of it was burning wasn’t always bad. Flames were nature’s way of hitting the reset button and pruning out the dangerous tinder cluttering up the forest floor. Big Bear Lake was at the heart and center of the wildfire. The noise of water tankers flying overhead almost drowned out the roar of the chainsaws and the cheerful curses of the men cutting line beside him. Four hundred firefighters giving their all, but the damned fire was still hungry for more. Hell, Sam Clayton reminded himself, it wasn’t as if he’d know how to spend the downtime anyhow. He fought fires. He was a hotshot, U.S. Forest Service, and damned proud to serve.
Summer after summer.
Year after year.
Four years ago he’d made superintendent and he’d lead his team of twenty hotshots for as many years as he could pass the annual physical. The Big Bear Rogues, or Rogues for short, were based out of Sequoia National Park’s Big Bear Lake and the Rogue River basin. They were a type one team and the elite of the firefighting forces, hitting the field a few days into a blaze and patrolling the hottest, fiercest portions of the line. His guys were the best of the best for fighting fire on the ground.
The muscles in his back burned as he dug line, but the ache was familiar. It had been thirty-six hours in the field with no sleep because there was still a chance his team could beat this one back.
Working in the canyons could be deadly. His team was waist deep in thick underbrush and getting a bead on where, exactly, the fire was could be almost impossible. Trees blazed up left and right, those thin threads of smoke adding to the general cluster fuck as the fire slowly chewed through the sagebrush on the canyon’s eastern wall. With the right wind conditions in that canyon, there’d be more trouble. The rugged terrain had meant hours to get a hand crew in, so the hotshots stayed near the access roads and the smoke jumpers took over deeper inside the park. Just in case, because a man needed to know where his safety zone was. One canyon wall burning wasn’t so bad. If both walls burned, however, the combination would be lethal, creating a deadly wind tunnel sucking in oxygen and spitting out nothing but flame.
Which meant it was time to fall back because tiny flames were crawling up the western wall.
. He hated waving the white flag.
Dade Johnson, his team’s second-in-command, loped up, jamming his portable radio back into his belt and clearly itching to share some new update from headquarters. Sam wasn’t manning the com-lines himself right now because he wanted to see and smell this bastard fire. He had a finger on its pulse and he was chasing the flames hard now.
The sudden shift in the wind, though, was another game changer.
That little breeze was a cool pick-me-up on the back of his neck, but the gust of air also sent small licks of flame dancing along the fresh-dug earth. The fire was hungry and the wind aimed to feed it, the fire laddering straight up a nearby ponderosa pine like Jack on the beanstalk. The dry wood lit up like a torch as he grabbed his chain saw and got to work. Sparks flew, the chain chewing through the crusty bark.
Dade Johnson’s work boots hit the ground beside him and stopped. They’d fought together and driven a crash truck together as CFR, the Marines’ Crash, Fire and Rescue unit. Sam had usually occupied the driver’s seat, but Dade, riding shotgun as they tore up the runway to the day’s crash, had always kept his eyes open. There was no better right-hand man.
The guy shifted uneasily and cleared his throat; whatever Dade had to say, the man figured Sam wasn’t going to like it. Sam finished making his undercut.
No surprise there. When HQ radioed in, the news was usually unhappy.
It didn’t matter, though. Sam didn’t have time to do the polite dance. The way he saw it, their fire line was about to give. “What you got for me?” he barked. Then, “Watch the top.”
Dade tilted his head back, monitoring the treetop while he considered his words. Dade couldn’t be rushed—Sam had seen him take two to calmly assess a five-plane pileup before setting to work—so Sam watched right alongside him while his second-in-command got his words in order. At least, neither of them would get hit by a widow-maker while they waited. When a dead tree collapsed and went down, you didn’t want to be in the way.
“Fire’s run southeast in the crown.” He pointed to the treetops, assessing the fire’s likely path while he waited for Dade to get down to business.
Eventually, Dade did speak up.
“Got us a handful of U.S. military in the park, beating the bushes with an FBI agent and looking for America’s most wanted. Or some such.” After giving the agent’s coordinates, Dade adjusted his hard hat and waited.
Sam eyeballed the western ridge while he got started on the back cut with the saw, mentally plugging the coordinates in . . . and, yeah, that was about the worst possible place for anyone to plant himself right now. The fire was shifting. No aerial had come in yet, but when the boys overhead reported, he knew in his gut that his suspicions would be confirmed. This fire was a shit storm that had just taken a right-hand turn.
Dade’s FBI agent had a definite death wish.
He set the chain saw down and Dade jammed a wedge into the raw slice with a smoothly practiced gesture. “Any chance the government’s finest will wrap their manhunt up in the nearer future?”
“Unlikely in HQ’s opinion.” Dade passed him an axe and Sam vented his frustration on the wedge. His first hard drive had the tree leaning, raining down embers. Two, three more strikes and the tree would come down. “They’re running on radio silence while they hunt this guy.”
“And the U. S. government can’t save a buck and let the bad guy go up in flames?”
Dade shrugged. More embers and small branches bounced down, so Sam picked up his shovel and turned a load of dirt, extinguishing the small flames swirling about his work boots. It was a scene straight out of Dante’s
or, as Sam liked to call it, just another day at the U. S. Forest Service office. “Something about needing proof, followed by terrorist yadda-yadda,” Dade volunteered.
“Fuck,” Sam rumbled. The snag toppled.
“About sums it up.” His second nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off the dead tree coming down. The burned-up trunk slammed into the ground a few feet away. “You think those uniforms understand they’ve been issued an invite to a barbecue?”
“Nope.” Sam thought about that possibility for a moment, running scenarios in his head. None of them ended happily without a little intervention on his part—or God’s. Since divine mercy wasn’t a sure bet, and he was, the way forward was unfortunately all too clear.
be going in, because he wasn’t pulling his team off the line here and he knew these woods best. “What’s their access route? Where’d they go in?”
“Dispatch says the FBI team used the same fire road we did, but turned off at the northwest trailhead. It’s likely they ditched the Humvee at some point and cut cross-country on foot. Satellite footage is showing smoke and not much more.”
“Radio contact really isn’t happening?”
“None. Team went silent when they hit Big Bear Lake because intel said their target was monitoring the airwaves.”
“Then their target should be long gone,” Sam said dryly. “Unless he’s deaf, blind, and his nose isn’t in working order, he’s not going to be sitting still in the middle of a raging forest fire.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Intel also said the target had bunkers and might have pulled back to an undetermined canyon to ride this one out.”
Sam considered that possibility as he strode back to his truck, and decided it was barely feasible any way he looked at it. On the other hand, a man on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list was likely desperate. A man like that might be stupid enough or clever enough to go to ground in the middle of a firestorm and emerge unscathed.
. Reaching into the cab, he snagged the radio. He wanted to confirm Dade’s 4-1-1 for himself. Dispatch proved happy to hand him over to the federal marshals taking up room in the command center so those boys could finish connecting the unhappy set of dots. One FBI special agent. Three backup soldiers playing escort and security detail. Oh, and they also had themselves one bona fide crazy who’d posed for a photo op a few weeks back with part of the arsenal the man had stashed somewhere in Sequoia National Park. And Sam had thought his job was a whole lot of too-little-too-late. Finding their target would be like looking for a needle in a haystack—not to mention there was the unasked, unanswered question of why Sam was only now learning that his forest might contain enough explosives to blow his hotshot team sky high.
Some days, it didn’t pay to get out of bed.
He hung up and turned toward Dade.
“Hell. I’m really going to have to go in and pull them out, aren’t I?”
“Ten-four that. Better you than me.” Dade gave him a two-fingered salute.
Flames snaked overhead through the tree crowns—and her ride wouldn’t start.
A hundred-thousand-dollar, military-grade Humvee and the engine refused to turn over.
Olivia Albert fought the urge to kick the tires.
This was supposed to be the cherry on the career sundae she was enjoying. March straight into Sequoia National Park and track down a wanted domestic terrorist. Pass Go, collect two hundred dollars, and score a much-wanted promotion while taking out a bad guy who gave her chills. Simple stuff. Holm Arthurs looked more like a mild-mannered accountant or a soccer dad than a domestic terrorist. Slimly built, with a healthy tan, and neatly trimmed brown hair, the man had a penchant for khaki chinos. He also went to church semi-regularly and pulled in a good income from selling insurance—insurance, for God’s sake. Last year, he’d won a trip to Cancun as a sales bonus. He’d gone, too, as the swim trunk shots on his Facebook page announced.
And the whole time he’d been stockpiling ammo and arms in the bunkers he’d hand dug throughout Sequoia National Park.
Today’s recon had been a bust so far. Based on satellite photos, she’d worked her way inside the park with the Humvee, before it had given up the ghost, and had got her team close to several likely spots. Witnesses had spotted Holm’s truck at various trailheads in the area and their target was still here—she knew it. Maybe their guy was homebred crazy, certain he had the inside line on the due date of the apocalypse, or maybe the forty thousand rounds he’d ordered online through four shell accounts meant he had larger plans than the two American soldiers he’d already killed. Either way, she had to shut him down. Today. Before he loaded up his truck with explosives and hit a shopping mall or a school.
Tricked out in hiking gear, wearing shit-kicker boots on her feet despite the summer weather, she was good for hours more on the ground in the forest. Her team had gone in incognito as a group of weekend hikers. Intel warned that Holm Arthurs would be watching for military pursuit—and that he was likely armed with a high-powered rifle. If he made Olivia’s team and he had a scope, they’d be dead. So posing as a group of day hikers was the safest approach, even if it meant running on radio silence so as not to spoil their illusion.
Despite the fire blowing up over the eastern ridge, at first it had been merely a slightly smokier, darker day in the woods. The smoke plume behind them wasn’t pretty, but she wanted to bag her man. Now, the situation was changing. The temperature had risen throughout the afternoon. Not only was it hotter now, but the occasional little lick of flame shot out of the underbrush and darted around the tree trunks. The flames were visibly longer, too, several inches instead of sparks. She wanted to bring in her target—not star front and center in a barbecue.
“We make one last pass,” she decided reluctantly. “Then we hit the road and hike out of here.”
Falling back wasn’t her first choice, but she couldn’t, wouldn’t be stupid about this.
Lieutenant Mayne, the leader of her backup posse, nodded. “Ten-four.”
He motioned, a sharp, forward flick of his gloved hands, and his men moved out. She scanned the ground, watching for tracks, while she tried to put herself in Holm Arthurs’s shoes.
Holm was a digger, a man who’d go down rather than up when he had the choice. The first two bunkers they’d discovered were dug deep into the forest floor, which meant she could be walking across an armory right now and not know it. All she could do was look for fresh-cut trees or disturbed earth and hope the man had accidentally left some sign of his passing behind him.
Unfortunately, Holm was damned good at hiding.
She knew these woods, though.
She’d spent the better part of the summer between high school and college exploring every inch of Big Bear Lake with one very sexy park ranger. She’d been one of the vacationers whose family arrived in a rented RV to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the park. She’d never been this far out West, but she’d fallen in love with the place, and almost lost her heart to the man, too. Twenty-three to her eighteen, Sam Clayton had already been a ranger and he’d looked plenty hot in his uniform. She’d chased him through the woods and he’d chased her, so if Holm Arthurs thought he’d out-hide or out-hunt her, he could think again.
She was no stranger here.
And she was that good.
Thirty minutes later, she gestured for a stop. Squatting down, she examined her find. Bingo. The homemade snare beside her boot said she was close. Hunting wasn’t allowed in the park, although undoubtedly some visitors chose to ignore that particular rule. This snare, however, wasn’t just anyone’s handiwork—it sported Holm’s trademark knot. Concise. Spare. Lethally simply. Whatever else he was, Holm wasn’t a wasteful man. If he’d set a snare, he’d planned on coming back to check for dinner.