To Catch a Thief
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Only rocky slopes met her sharp scrutiny.
Of course you’re alone, idiot. Any climbers with good sense are inside huddled before a roaring fire right now.
But a climber didn’t turn away in an emergency. Rules of the road.
Rules of life, too.
Turning back into the cutting wind, Nell nursed her aching right knee and chose each step, careful not to trigger a slide in the loose rock. Her face was cold, wet from the wind driving up from the sea. She estimated she’d reach the missing climbers’ last coordinates in another twenty minutes. If the weather didn’t shift, she could begin guiding them down off the peak immediately.
But Nell was prepared for a dozen unknown variables from shattered morale to shattered ankles. Any one of them could hamper a fast descent.
No point tilting at windmills, MacInnes. Every rescue was different, so she’d tackle each obstacle as it appeared. She eased her pack lower on her shoulders, trying to stay loose.
Once again she was struck by the twitchy feeling that someone was down the slope in shadow.
One hour before sunset.
WIND RAKED Dakota’s neck.
Icy rain howled over the cliff overlooking the restless Sea of Hebrides.
Visibility was down to zero and already the storm was driving intermittent gusts of nearly sixty miles per hour.
Over the slope Nell MacInnes had made contact with the frightened climbers. Thanks to the howl of the wind, Dakota could only pick up one word in three, but from what he heard, Nell was dealing with the rescue quickly and by the book.
She assessed injuries, boosted morale and passed out dry trail rations and chocolate, then radioed down to the SAR leader to have transport with a medical team waiting at the foot of the mountain. The climbers were teenagers from an international school in London, and their leader, a burly ex-naval officer from Brighton, was clearly out of his element. Why he had tried the ascent was still unclear, but Dakota knew the speed of weather changes on Skye could take anyone by surprise.
He fingered his transmitter. “Alpha to Teague.”
Instantly static crackled. “Pizza to go. What can I get you, Alpha?”
“I figure a large cheese with double pepperoni is out,” Dakota said dryly. “So I’ll settle for backup medical response at the lower trailhead. One girl up here has full-blown asthma with signs of respiratory distress.”
“Roger that. I’ll wander on by to help and make sure it looks like a coincidence. What about the other climbers?”
“There are seven in all, plus their leader, Ian Westlake. He might have had a heart attack. He’s holding on, but he’s no help to anyone. Nell’s about to try guiding the able ones down and I’m going to meet her on the slope to help out.”
“Copy that. Better get the lead out, Alpha. That storm is picking up speed.”
Bad news, Dakota thought. “Roger. I’ll check back in ten. Alpha out.”
The SEAL stared across the slope.To his right a steep cliff fell away in a vertical drop straight down to the loch. To his left a lower ridge vanished into the notched teeth of the Cuillin range.
There would be no climbing down tonight.
They were on their own. No rescue chopper could land in this wind, even if any were available in this remote corner of Skye. Dakota had to help Nell hold the kids together, dig in on the ledge for the night and wait out the storm.
In exactly eight minutes he rounded a turn and saw the little group, huddled beneath a ledge. Nell was snapping out crisp orders to a gangly teenager in a brand new parka.
“Hamilton, get your pack lashed over that boulder. Then I want you and Meyerson inside your tent in sixty seconds.”
“Yes, sir. I mean ma’am.”
Once the boy’s pack was secure, he joined his terrified partner in the tent that had been pitched and tethered around stones in the lee of the wind.
What lee there was.
Another icy gust pounded over the ridge.
“Wu, secure your tent. Hernandez, get that lantern ready to help him.”
Dakota watched Nell work beside the kids, making temporary shelter. She was using their last names, which created distance and the comfort of hierarchy, making orders easier to give and follow.
He noted that two other boys were working to secure another tent to nearby boulders, with packs tied down near the tent entrance.
“Good job,” Nell called. “Now all of you get inside.”
So where were the wounded ones? Dakota wondered.
A tent flap opened. A slim girl crawled out, looking for Nell. “I found that radio you asked about, ma’am. “It’s—”
“Wilson, go back inside and take cover. This wind is—”
The rest of Nell’s order was swept away in an icy gust that screamed over the ridge, caught two unsecured backpacks and threw them into the teenage girl, knocking her into a spine of sharp granite. As her scream was swallowed by the wind, Dakota dove forward and caught her waist, pulling her away from the cliff edge. She moaned brokenly as he lifted her into his arms. Blood streamed over his fingers from a gash down the side of her forehead. Dakota noted her erratic pulse and diminished pupil response.
Neck wound and probable concussion. Internal injuries were also possible.
“Who the heck are you?” Nell blocked his way, looking angry and wary and relieved, all at the same time.
“I was climbing over on the far side of Blaven when I picked up a distress alert from the local SAR. I changed route, circled the corrie and came up to see if you needed help.”
Nell bit her lip, studying him intently. “You’re American.”
“Navy.” Dakota gave a wry smile. “This was supposed to be a little holiday until I’m redeployed out of Coronado. I wasn’t counting on the weather going all to hell.”
Nell seemed to relax slightly. “It does that a lot here. So you’re a good climber? Can you help me get these kids down?”
“I’ll do whatever I can. Say the word.” Dakota frowned. “You’re up here alone?”
“Yeah, I am. Look—it’s a long story and I don’t have time to fill in the gaps. I’m Nell MacInnes.”
“Lieutenant Dakota Smith.”
“Well, Lieutenant Smith, you can put Amanda Wilson inside this tent.” As she pointed to her right, wet sheeting snow cut off every sign of the terrain. “All of you stay in your tents and keep your backs to the rock. No one moves. Hammond, get that flap closed.”
Dakota checked his watch as the teens obeyed Nell’s terse commands. She had chosen the camp site well, bunkered down under a ledge in the narrow rift between two cliff faces.
The teenagers looked cold and confused as Nell went from tent to tent, giving calm orders. “Remember, you are fit and you are smart. We will survive this. Lieutenant Smith out there is going to help us.”
“But what about Amanda?” A younger boy cut in, his voice shrill with panic. “She hit her head. Is she going to be okay?”
“She’ll pull through.” Dakota’s voice was firm as he set the wounded girl carefully in the tent Nell had pointed out. Despite his assurances, he knew the girl was far from safe. If she had internal injuries, she might not last the night without medical intervention.
Briefly, he considered packing the wounded girl into an improvised travois and pulling her down as soon as visibility returned. But that would leave Nell alone in deteriorating conditions—and protecting Nell was his mission priority.
As he rose from the tent, the wind howled over the ridge. Nell staggered, tossed sideways, and Dakota caught her quickly, his arms locked around her waist.
He felt the strength of her slim body as she fought the wind, trying to stand. “Thanks,” she rasped. “We’d better get inside.”
Beneath her safety helmet her eyes were calm and dark, the color of racing gray water through the mountains near his home in northern California. As the two squeezed inside the tent next to the girl named Amanda, Dakota pulled a silver thermal blanket out of his backpack. “Looks like you could use this. The girl’s shivering. She doesn’t seem to be breathing very well either.”
“Asthma.” Nell spread the blanket over the girl’s body and tucked it in. “Thanks again, Lieutenant—”
“Dakota will do fine.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a few other seasoned climbers with you who could help guide these kids down?”
“Afraid not. I’m traveling alone.”
Nell glanced at him intently. “Not many people I know climb alone.” She raised an eyebrow, waiting for his answer.
“If I wanted noise and crowds, I would have stayed in London,” he said easily. “I prefer climbing alone.”
She nodded. “I can understand that.” She unclipped a rope from her belt and wrapped it in neat coils, every movement smooth and precise.
She was definitely a professional, Dakota thought. He gave a small nod toward the motionless girl and the boy at the other side of the tent. “She needs care. The sooner the better.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Nell muttered. She turned to the other frightened teen, made a little light banter, then leaned back toward Dakota. She studied his shoulders, his high-tech boots and climbing gear. “How good are you, Lieutenant?”
“Good enough.” There was no empty boasting, just cool truth in the words.
“Then you can help me rope a safety line?”
Dakota shook his head. “Maybe you haven’t looked outside. This storm is gaining steam. I heard that sixty-mile-an-hour gusts were clocked near Portee. With windchill factored in, we—”
“We’re screwed,” Nell said quietly. “I got that much already. Right now as I see it, our only choice is to get these kids down as soon as possible. They’re not dressed for a night of wet, freezing conditions.” Short copper hair tumbled around her flushed cheeks as she leaned down to check Amanda Wilson’s pulse.
Dakota had seen that hair before. He’d seen her excited and tired. But he’d never seen her so focused or so worried, as if these kids really mattered to her. Somehow it didn’t fit with the thrill-seeker image captured in her file.
But what she was suggesting was one step short of crazy.
“You can’t get them down in a whiteout. One wrong step and they plunge into freefall, and you’ll go over with them.” Dakota kept his voice low so the others wouldn’t hear. “We’ll have to stay put.”
Nell looked down at the girl named Amanda, whose breathing was growing more labored. “I know a way. This ridge leads down to a back trail. If you help me, I can set a safety line in fifteen minutes. I can get them down one at a time after that.”
“I’ll clip each one into a harness, secure them to the safety line and work back down to the mid-peak.”
“You’ve got only an hour of light left, and that will be pushing it.” Dakota stared out the tent flap at the gray slope. He didn’t like the risks—not for Nell or the stranded kids. “Have you ever handled a rescue like this?”
“At least a dozen times. A lot of climbers get cocky and forget that the weather up here can change on a dime. But I can get these kids down to the SAR meeting point. Trust me, I know this area pretty well.” Her mouth curved in a sudden smile, and Dakota blinked at the force of the determination. Did anyone say no to Nell MacInnes?
The danger didn’t seem to bother her, and her choices seemed logical. A good leader took controlled risks as necessary.
Dakota couldn’t help but admire her courage and her skill.
“I’ve got a radio for contact. I’ve also got this.” Nell pulled a silver whistle from inside her parka. “The SAR people will be expecting an alert once I’m close to the bottom of the safety line. I’ll hand off each teenager and then head back up.” She smiled gamely and gave an experimental whistle. “But if we’re going to do this, it has to be now.”
Dakota had to admit that her plan made sense, especially since staying put offered a risk of exposure and hypothermia.
But habit was habit. A SEAL never trusted any plan he hadn’t tested himself. Watching on the sidelines wasn’t in a SEAL’s job description.
He had to keep Nell safe.
But he couldn’t let any of these kids die in the process.
He watched Nell slide her climbing rope through her fingers, testing each coil. The fibers were smooth with no frays, clearly well tended.
She tugged on fingerless climbing gloves, frowning. “Look, Lieutenant—”
“We have to move, Dakota. In twenty minutes we really will be boxed in here. Do you want to save these kids or not?”
“I want to see all of you get down safely.”
“Don’t worry about me. Last year I took third at Chamonix. That’s an open climb with professionals—both men and women.”
“But you were probably climbing in good weather, fully roped and hydrated.” He glanced back and lowered his voice. “These kids are frightened and near the end of their endurance.”
“I’ll get them down the ridge. My safety line will hold, trust me.” Nell leaned closer, her voice falling. “Otherwise we could lose them up here in the cold.”
Dakota listened to the howl of the wind beyond their narrow, protected ridge. It was a perilous point of safety, one that would vanish as the temperature fell and the poorly dressed group of kids faced hypothermia. With gale-force winds in a whiteout, the disoriented teens could crack at any minute, driven by panic to do something stupid.
He was trained to be flexible, and he did that now, assessing the choices and the risks. As wind roared over the ridge, Dakota made his decision.
He zipped up his parka. “Show me where you want to set this safety line.”
NELL SHIVERED IN THE biting wind, painfully aware that every second they were losing light.
So far she had managed to guide five of the teens down, turning them over to the Scottish SAR people at the waist of the mountain. The sixth one was clipped in and ready to escort down.
But conditions were getting risky. In a few minutes all light would be gone.
She rechecked all the carabiners and anchors, then gave a reassuring smile to the gangly boy who was watching her in abject adoration. “You’ll be fine, Jess. Just keep breathing and count your steps the way I told you. Stay cool and stay focused. I’ll be on the rope right in front of you, so don’t crowd me. Can you do all that?”
“I—yes.” He tried to hide his fear. “Let’s go.”
Nell touched his face and held his gaze with the force of her own. “You’re going to survive this, Jess. The others are down and you’re next. Just do what I told you and you’ll be fine.”
“You—you’re amazing.” The boy gripped the safety line with both hands, but his gaze was locked on Nell. “I thought we were all dead, but you walked out of the rain like some kind of angel.”
“I’m glad I was around to help.”
“What about Amanda? Is she going to make it through this?”
He was a nice kid, Nell thought. They all were. None of them were going to die, she vowed. Not while she had hands to knot a rope and lungs to breathe in icy air.
She checked that all the carabiner gates were fully closed and secure, then gave the boy a jaunty smile. “Now get yourself down to the inn and warm up. They’ll have a fire and dry clothes ready. Drinks tonight in the pub are on me. Cokes, of course.”
He smiled crookedly. “I’ll be waiting. You couldn’t keep me away.”
Nell looked down into the swirling blanket of clouds and gave two short bursts on her whistle. Seconds later she heard the faint answering notes from the SAR people waiting at the end of the safety line, followed by the answering whistle from her climbing partner lower down the slope.
Then a gust of wind slammed over the cliff face and she forgot everything but keeping her footing as darkness closed in around them.
WHAT THE HELLwas taking her so long?
Dakota stood at the top of the safety line and checked the luminous dial of his watch. Nell had been gone almost twenty minutes.
He fought an urge to follow the line in search of her, but he needed to go back to keep an eye on Amanda, who had roused once, asked for water, then slipped back into unconsciousness, struggling for breath.
Asthma and possible internal bleeding, with hypothermia a distinct risk. In addition, the British tour leader had nausea, sweating and crushing chest pains that radiated down his left arm, clear indicators of a heart attack. Dakota had given him a small aspirin to chew, followed by sublingual nitro, but the man didn’t look good.
He couldn’t afford to lose Nell in the storm, the SEAL thought grimly.
He stared down at the safety line, thinking about the night two weeks before when a Renaissance masterpiece worth thirty million dollars had disappeared from a locked vault….
South Conservation Workroom of the National Gallery
Two weeks earlier
THE SECURITY LIGHTS BLINKED, a nonstop race of green against a high-tech control panel. The night guard, fresh from six years at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, reached for his log sheet to verify a completed security cycle.
Even then his eyes didn’t leave the sleek security panel, where half a dozen cameras picked up deserted hallways and an empty loading dock. Two floors above, Rogers walked the offices, checking every door. At the end of the hall he used his passkey to call the elevator, then continued on his rounds.
The night was quiet and uneventful. Even the streets were calm, with no sirens for several hours. But the museum was on special security measures due to a new piece of art entered for appraisal. Only five people on the staff knew that the work was judged to be from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, a Renaissance masterpiece that would command millions when it eventually went up for auction.
The air-conditioning clicked. The head guard, Everett Jonell, checked the control panel. Lights flickered briefly. The locked room with the new da Vinci blurred to gray.
Everett’s hand went to the alarm.
Then the power came back on, with the hum of the HVAC restored. The row of monitors showed empty corridors. The door to the vault in south storeroom #3-A was locked as before.
Everett Jonell relaxed, leaning back in his chair. He felt sweat bead his forehead and shook his head. He’d be relieved when the art in storeroom #3-A was on its way and things settled back to normal. Until then, people would be edgy, under orders to report anything that seemed unusual.
On the black-and-white monitor, Jonell watched Rogers cross the big atrium and move toward the new sculpture wing. There was something off about the man. Two nights earlier Jonell had stopped at a small jazz club for a drink after work and he’d noticed Rogers getting out of a parked car across the street. The sleek black Mercedes M-Class sedan had seemed way above Rogers’s pay grade, so Jonell had made a point of checking out the driver and noting the license plate.
He’d been surprised to see one of the senior curators emerge, a slender workaholic from Harvard who never went anywhere without her cell phone headset in place. There were no explicit rules forbidding social contact between security and academic staff, but you didn’t see it happen just the same. Different worlds, different goals, Jonell thought. But the way the curator had plastered herself all over Rogers as they’d kissed long and intimately in the shadows across the street had Jonell scratching his head.
Maybe you never knew what made people tick. After twelve years in the Marines he’d seen a lot of things and figured he was a good judge of people. Rogers seemed like an okay guy, but it wasn’t up to Jonell to judge.
He’d report what he’d seen to the head of museum personnel, just in case. Until the da Vinci in storeroom #3-A left the premises safely, they would all be under extra scrutiny and Jonell wasn’t risking his job and a nice pension for anything. Not with a new grandbaby on the way and three more years until Medicare kicked in.
He frowned into the security monitor as he saw Rogers reach into his pocket and pull out a cell phone.
What was the man doing? He knew that personal cell phone use was forbidden during work hours for security. Now Jonell would have to write the man up, which involved reports in triplicate and copies to both union representatives.
Blast the man. Didn’t he know that the video cameras would pick him up?
The monitors flickered again and the HVAC clicked off. Lightning crackled high overhead, the sound muffled by the museum’s thick walls.
Jonell sat forward as all the monitors went dark. Cursing, he lunged for the security phone, but the line was dead. He grabbed the battery-powered walkie-talkie to put in a radio alert to the general switchboard, standard procedure, even though a backup generator would kick in any second.
The movement came from his left and he dropped the walkie talkie as a leather strap locked him to the chair, his hands caught behind his back. He struggled against cool fingers that gripped his neck.
“No, you can’t—”
The needle prick came quickly, burning against the inside of his nose, which made no sense at all. The room blurred and he tried to speak as he heard the sound of the security panel door being unlocked. Someone was removing the surveillance board timer, he realized. Blurring fingers ejected the surveillance disk.
It had all been planned to the second, Jonell thought dimly. Planned by someone on the inside.
Was it Rogers? Another one of the new guards they had hired in the past month?
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