The sharp crack of gunfire split the silence.
Tanner Brody froze, his paddle hovering a few inches above the water. A second crack came right after the first.
He released a pent-up breath and shook off the tension. This wasn’t one of the scariest areas of Louisville where he grew up. Or even the rough neighborhood there where he’d spent the past eight years as a beat cop. He was on the Nantahala River, at the edge of the Smokies. Someone was hunting—shooting at whatever happened to be in season in North Carolina in early April.
He resumed paddling, adjusting course in time to avoid careening into a rock protruding from the center of the river. Water surged around him, gentle swells tipped in white.
Another shot rang out, and tension spiked through him again. He rolled his shoulders. It would be a while before the pop of a rifle didn’t send him into action mode.
Eight weeks ago, when his life in Louisville imploded, his friend Colton talked him into moving to Murphy, North Carolina. Six weeks ago, he drained his savings account and made a down payment on a house on two wooded acres. A few days ago, he stuffed everything he owned into a U-Haul and rolled into the drive at almost midnight. He had three weeks to enjoy his freedom. Then he’d start the job he’d landed with Murphy PD.
He wasn’t regretting his spur-of-the-moment decision. If there was anyone he trusted, it was Colton. They’d been friends since age thirteen, three of them—him and Kevin and Colton. They’d all shared the same nightmare. Except Colton had gotten out sooner than he and Kevin had.
Tanner reached a calmer section of the river and stopped paddling to take a swig of water. It was still early in the season. Other than a couple sitting at a riverside picnic table some distance back, he hadn’t seen another human being.
But rather than feeling lonely, he found the solitude therapeutic. The river flowed around him with a steady shhh that drowned out all but the calls of the loudest birds and the occasional rumble of a truck moving down the highway a short distance to his right. The firearms had even fallen silent.
He dipped the paddle into the river with smooth, alternating strokes. A roar reached him from somewhere beyond the next bend, warning of an upcoming patch of rapids. Anticipation surged through him. He was ready for whatever the river dished out.
The next moment, a shriek rent the air, short and shrill, as if cut off midstream. He stiffened, the sound like glass across his nerve endings. That was no bird. That was a woman’s scream. It came from somewhere to his left, deep in the woods. The internal alarms he’d silenced sounded again. A scream meant trouble, regardless of setting.
He cut a diagonal path toward the river’s edge. Once he’d pulled the kayak onto the bank, he checked his supplies. Nothing in the way of first aid. And he’d finished his lunch. He stuffed a granola bar and napkins into his back pockets and grabbed a bottle of water. As he climbed the slope at a stumbling jog, rocks and roots threatened to trip him. Had someone lost their footing and fallen? Or was the scream related to the shots?
He drew in a breath, ready to bellow a loud “hello,” then snapped his mouth closed. Three years in foster care, six in a group home and eight on the force had honed his instincts to a fine point. Right now, something warned him not to give away his position.
For several minutes, he scaled one steep slope, skidded down its opposite side and tackled the next. Briars and other thorny vines grabbed at his clothing and scraped his arms. More than once, his foot found a rock and he caught himself before landing facedown on the hard ground. If he found someone injured, carrying the person over the rugged terrain wouldn’t be easy. His best bet would be to call 911.
He stopped and listened for any sign of movement, a moan or whimper. But there was only the whisper of the wind through the trees and the occasional call of a bird. Even the sound of the river had faded and disappeared.
He set out again at the same hurried pace and crested another ridge. Contrast snagged his gaze—faded denim blue against the greens of early spring. He half ran, half slid down the steep grade. As he drew closer, his pulse kicked into overdrive. Trees and underbrush concealed the rest of the body, but what he’d seen were jean-clad legs, ending in well-worn hiking boots.
He dropped to his knees and placed the water bottle on the ground. A woman lay on her right side, eyes closed, lips parted. Her black hair was woven into a thick braid, and her left hand rested near her face. She held remnants of a tan, a band around her ring finger one shade lighter than the rest of her hand. A lightweight jacket was tied around her waist. Judging from the scrapes on her arms, she’d run or rolled through some nasty thorns.
Was she simply unconscious or… No, she didn’t have that pallidness of death. He’d seen it on enough occasions to know. The first time was up close and personal at eight years old.
Just to be sure, he placed two fingers against her neck, where her pulse beat strong. He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. She was alive but needed help. She could have head trauma or internal injuries.
He pulled his phone from his pocket. No service. Not surprising, so far from civilization. His gaze dipped to the woman again, and his jaw tightened. Were the people he’d assumed were hunters shooting at her? Had any of the bullets found their mark?
He leaned over her to check her back. There were no patches of moisture on the black tank she wore. She wasn’t bleeding from her left side, either.
Maybe the right or front. Twenty minutes had passed since he’d heard her scream. He needed to turn her over. She could have spinal injuries, but if blood was pouring from a bullet wound, she wouldn’t last long enough to worry about possible paralysis.
Decision made, he gently rolled her onto her back. She released a small moan but didn’t open her eyes. Her chest rose and fell with a steady rhythm. There were no signs of blood.
He expelled a breath. No one had shot her. Maybe no one had tried. Maybe the shots really had come from hunters.
He looked beyond her to where the ground rose sharply upward. Had she been hiking and lost her footing, emitting a brief scream of panic as she’d tumbled downward?
It was possible. The Appalachian Trail crossed Highway 19 at the Nantahala Outdoor Center some distance northeast of where they were. He’d seen it when he’d left his truck there, before Colton had taken him to the launch site several miles upstream. Maybe the woman had ventured off the trail.
He gave her a gentle shake. “Can you hear me?”
Another shake. “Ma’am?”
Her eyes snapped open, the dark brown of their irises almost disappearing into the pupils. She sat up and tried to scramble away. But a boulder at her back stopped her. If someone had been after her, that boulder had likely saved her, shielding her from the view of anyone above.
He held up a hand. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her fear-filled eyes widened further, and she released a blood-chilling scream. The next moment, she was on her feet, running away from him. She apparently didn’t have any of those spinal injuries he’d worried about.
“Hold up.” He took off after her. No way was he leaving her to fend for herself. He’d thought she might be a hiker who’d wandered off the trail and fallen. Now his gut told him it was a lot more. And he always listened to his gut.
He closed the distance between them. It wasn’t difficult. Her balance was off, her gait faltering. He wrapped both arms around her from behind, clamping a hand over her mouth to cut off a second scream. Though she was a good head shorter than him, she was firm and athletic. Definitely an outdoor kind of woman, based on the build and the tan.
An elbow came back to jab him in the ribs the same time a boot caught him in the shin. He released a grunt, thankful she wasn’t functioning at a hundred percent. When he tightened his hold, she struggled harder. The other elbow shot back, but this time he avoided it.
“Stop fighting me.” He hissed the words in her ear. “I won’t hurt you. I came to help you. I’m…” He hesitated. “A nice guy.”
He’d almost said “cop.” But if it was her own bad deeds that had gotten her into trouble, gaining her trust as law enforcement wasn’t going to happen.
“We need to get you out of here. But no more screaming. We don’t want to give whoever you’re running from any more hints of your whereabouts.” He paused, letting his words penetrate her panic. “I’m taking my hand away now.”
He loosened his hold but didn’t relax his vigilance. If she tried to scream or run, he’d have her back in his embrace before she could draw another breath.
She turned to face him. Her eyes still held wildness, and she looked ready to bolt. But she nodded agreement.
“I’m going to get you to safety.”
He retrieved the water, and when he offered it to her, she drank almost all of it without stopping to breathe. While she finished, he looked around them. He needed to get her medical aid as soon as possible. Since he’d found her unconscious, she obviously had a head injury. Without cell service, he had no option but to walk her out of the woods. Once they made it to the highway, they could flag someone down and catch a ride to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. After an ambulance arrived, he’d ask a Good Samaritan to give him a ride back to where he’d left Colton’s kayak.
Of course, that was all contingent on someone stopping. Actually, there was a more serious problem. If someone was after the woman, he’d expect her to hike toward the highway. They could walk into a trap. Maybe the kayak was their best option.
After he took her empty bottle, he waited while she untied her jacket and slipped her arms into the sleeves. Then he extended his arm, palm up. “Let me help you.”
Her gaze dipped to his hand, and indecision filled her eyes. She’d apparently experienced something traumatic. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been so terrified of him.
As they walked, she kept her hand in his. Her grip was firm. Strength had to be a good sign. Or maybe the firm grip meant she felt unsteady. Whatever the case, she wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
He offered her a friendly smile. “I’m Tanner.” His tone was just above a whisper.
One side of her mouth lifted a sliver. “Hi, Tanner.”
She didn’t give him her name. Maybe his hunch she might be running from crimes of her own was dead-on.
Right now, that didn’t matter. His responsibility was to get her to safety, which meant a hospital so she could be checked out. It would be up to local authorities to decide what to do with her after release.
As they walked, he kept scanning the woods. He’d left his pistol in the glove box of his Silverado, never dreaming he’d need it kayaking. What he wouldn’t give to have a weapon now. The three-inch blade on his multi-tool didn’t count.
When they reached the river, he heaved a sigh of relief. They’d made it. Almost. He still had to get her to a working phone. Fortunately, whoever was after her likely wouldn’t look for her on the river.
After lowering the kayak into the water, he helped her into the front and took the seat at the rear. Colton had bought the small boat with his wife in mind, so it was a two-seater.
“Keep an eye out.” The command was probably unnecessary. He couldn’t see the woman’s face, but her head slowly pivoted side to side.
A half minute later, they rounded the bend, and a long stretch of white water lay ahead. Theirs was the only boat in either direction. In another month or two, activity would pick up, but April was early. Though the sun was shining, the air still held some bite.
Over the next several minutes, he split his attention between navigating the rapids and scanning the trees that bordered both sides of the river. A gasp drew his attention to the front. The woman had twisted and sat looking over her right shoulder.
He followed her gaze. “Did you see something?”
“I thought I did. Now I don’t.”
He didn’t, either. Without slowing his pace, he gave hard looks in that direction. Pines, firs and other evergreens stood interspersed among trees budding with new spring growth.
Then there was movement. Something dark, out of place with the greens of nature. He continued his powerful strokes, casting repeated glances over his right shoulder.
Something shifted, and the dark area became a black shirt or jacket. There was more movement. Then a flash. A glint.
Like the sun reflecting off something metallic.
Someone had a gun. It was likely aimed at them.
And he had about one second to react.