Megan's Mark(3)

By: Lora Leigh

She braked at the edge of a deep gully, her eyes narrowed at the tire tracks that led into it. They were fairly recent, cutting deep into the sandy soil, like a wound carelessly inflicted. A chill raced over her flesh at the sight of it, cutting through the peace that had previously filled her.

She turned her gaze to the report log scrolling across the small screen to the right of the steering wheel. There was a report of a missing hiker from Carlsbad, various APBs and stolen vehicles.

She scratched at the top of her nose thoughtfully before muting the music and flipping down the microphone that was attached to the transistor at her ear.

She couldn't ignore it. Adrenaline pulsed through her, heightening the already sensitive receptors in her brain.

Something was in the gully. Something she could battle, could face without the presence of others. A chance to still the restless, driving energy that rarely had an outlet.

"Control, I'm at Gully B-4. There are signs of recent passage heading into it. Do you have a mark on any vehicles in or out?"

"Negative, Fields," Lenny Blanchard, satellite stats officer and general gopher answered with a lazy drawl. "We have no tracked movement in or out for the past month. GPS shows your vehicle only."

She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, her lips in a thoughtful pout as she stared at the tracks.

It wasn't unusual for owners to disengage their GPS unless they wanted to use it, though it was heavily frowned upon and in certain areas could result in high fines. This was one of those areas.

Danger almost shimmered in the waves of heat that drifted over the vehicle.

Making up her mind quickly, she exited the Raider, moving to the front of it and bending down to inspect the tire tracks more closely. They cut deep into the ground, the off-road tires leaving a distinctive mark as they made their way down the steep slope into the narrow valley below.

She reached out, her fingers brushing over the tracks as she tried to focus on the impressions coming from them.

Fear. Determination. She could feel the emotions from inside the vehicle on the impressions in the loose sand and dirt.

Staring at the area, she moved farther to the right, her fingers running over the edge of another print. Mountain boots. Someone had followed the vehicle in on foot. And they weren't there for the scenery either.

She rubbed at her chin, frowning as she tried to remember the lessons her grandfather had given her in tracking as a young girl. The tracks were at the least twenty-four hours old, no more than forty-eight. The

mountain boots were more recent, within the past eight to ten hours.

She tilted her head then, her eyes narrowing at the lack of emotion or sensation that came from touching the tracks. They were calm, centered.

As though whoever made them had known no fear, no anger, no emotion as they made their way into the gully.

"Control, I'm heading in to investigate," she announced as she rose and moved back to her vehicle. "There's evidence of someone following on foot. It could be our missing hiker from Area Two."

"That's miles away, Fields," Lenny pointed out. "A good two-day hike."

"Yeah, but who the hell knows with some of these greenhorns." She sighed as she closed the door and attached her seat belt once again. "I'll check it out before heading home. Fields: out."

She engaged the vehicle's rough-terrain drive with a flip of the switch before heading down the steep incline into the sluicing path made by the millions of flash floods that had traversed it over the centuries.

Maneuvering slowly, she kept her eyes narrowed for signs of the vehicle or the hiker. The wide gully split into several smaller tributaries, some leading to secret caves that flooded easily during the rainy season, others cutting a course in the land before slowly narrowing to dead ends.

This gully was deeper than most, the steep walls easily reaching ten to fifteen feet above the sandy base. Rock houses and deep craters had been cut into the walls, proof of the incredible force of the water that had gouged a path into the gully. Through the center of it, the tire tracks continued until they disappeared around a steep bend.

Megan watched the curve as she approached it slowly. She could feel a building sense of danger as she drew closer, of something not right. The sun seemed too bright, the heat radiating off the hood of the Raider too intense.

All her senses suddenly kicked in and spiked in strength. Wariness filled her, as did the sense of impending doom.

Rounding the curve, she braked slowly, staring at the black SUV sitting silently beneath the golden rays of the sun.

Damn. This wasn't exactly what she had expected.

The vehicle, while not as desert-friendly as her own, was definitely built for off-road maneuvering. The heavy,terrain-cutting tires were made to aid in pulling the vehicle from muddy or sandy ground. At least. when they weren't flat, as these tires were.

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