August 9th, 2006
Spirit Flight

Marisa Lacoste doubled over as pain sliced through her sides.


Keep running!

She sucked in air. She just needed a minute, then she’d get moving.

Stupid! She’d been so stupid. So unaware. So naïve.

If she hadn’t returned to camp earlier than expected… If she hadn’t overheard them deciding to find her and kill her now, when the storm would work to their advantage…

She tried to quiet her breathing so she’d be able to hear them. Tried to force herself to breathe through her nose, her throat and lungs already aching from gasping cold mountain air.

How could Ethan be involved in this? And for money. He knew the most important thing to her was her art. It was all she’d cared about since she was old enough to hold a crayon.

A rumble sounded in the distance. Thunder to go with the darkening sky and gathering gray clouds.

Tears wet her face. She brushed them away impatiently. Tears wouldn’t do any good.

Maybe later. When she found her way off the mountain. When she flagged down a car or found a call box. When she got back to the last town they’d stopped in. Hohoq—so small it wasn’t on the map.

They’d eaten at a tiny home-style diner there and anyone who’d seen them together would testify they’d been in great spirits. A man and two women. Enjoying themselves the way people do when they’re on vacation. Laughing. Teasing. Probably in the area for rock climbing or hiking, or just to camp.

She and Ethan resembled each other so closely with their black hair and blue eyes that they were obviously related. Not that Kaitlyn wouldn’t have drawn her share of appreciative glances with her blonde, fashion-model looks.

Fresh pain ricocheted in Marisa’s chest. They’d played her so well. Not just for the last couple of days, but for months.

The beautiful tabletop books with pictures of the Cascades. Talking her into taking a rock-climbing class. All done so this trip wouldn’t seem out of character and her accidental death wouldn’t seem suspicious.

Stupid! She’d been so thrilled to be included!

But now, looking back, she understood how she’d set this in motion. She’d been so proud to realize that slowly, over the years, she’d begun living only on the proceeds from the sales of her paintings. She’d been so excited by the idea of putting the money she’d inherited from their father, the money her brother had been managing, into a scholarship fund so other artists could make it as she had.

Was any of the money left? Had Ethan been embezzling it all along? Or only since Kaitlyn came into the picture?

Marisa pushed thoughts of her brother and Kaitlyn aside. Forced herself to straighten. The air around her was getting colder and the sky darker.

A different fear gripped her. Its fingers icy dread.

Lost, her skin slick with sweat from running, exposed to the elements overnight with nothing more than the clothing she was wearing, she could as easily die from hypothermia as from a staged fall while rock climbing.

It’d be easy for them to claim she’d gotten lost while she was hiking. Gotten so absorbed in her surroundings, in the beauty and colors she’d try to pull into her art later, that she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going. They’d say she had panicked and run when she finally realized she didn’t know where she was or how to get back to camp.

Anyone who’d ever seen her when she became immersed in her work would testify that she could go days without answering the phone or opening the mail, would barely remember to eat. It wouldn’t take any great leap of imagination to believe she’d gotten lost.

Marisa shivered. The sweat chilled underneath her shirt and jeans.

They’d still want to find her body. They’d want to make sure she hadn’t overheard them or guessed their plans and used her art supplies to leave a note.

The breeze picked up, bringing the scent of rain. Thunder rumbled, louder, closer, confirmation that a storm was on its way and would turn the mountain and time into deadly enemies.

She wouldn’t last the night if her clothing got wet. She knew it with a certainty that came from being a news addict, not an experienced camper.

She would give every penny she had just to spot smoke curling upward from a cabin somewhere in front of her or below in the canyon. But there was nothing. No indication anyone lived in the area despite the No Trespassing signs and the beautifully crafted totem poles capped with ferocious thunderbirds that she’d passed earlier.

Another rumble sounded, not thunder but an off-road motorcycle. Her heart pounded faster, harder. Adrenaline and terror dulled the pain in her lungs and sides and thighs.

They knew she was missing. They knew she was running.

There was a grove of pine and cedar ahead but she wasn’t sure she could get to it before being seen. And if she did, the trees and undergrowth might slow her down and trap her instead of offering her shelter and protection.

The rumble of the motorcycle grew louder. She left the wide dirt path. Everything inside her screamed that she needed to get out of sight. Now. Now.

She reached the canyon edge. Her heart surged into her throat. She swallowed, trying to force its throbbing beat downward.

I can do this. I have to do this.

She went over the edge. Scrambled over rock, grabbing with her hands and trying to gain purchase with her feet while pebbles tumbled like the beginning of a rock slide.

All she needed to do was find a place where she could cling safely until the bike had passed and then passed again, returning to camp.

The bike drew near. Its engine roared, echoed in the canyon.

Hurry! Hurry! Just a little bit further and she’d be out of sight.

The rock under her hands and feet gave.

An involuntary scream escaped and sliced through the canyon.

She hurtled downward. Clawed at the canyon side, each wild grab dislodging more rock and earth.

There was a desperate awareness of speed and motion, of being momentarily airborne.

She landed hard on an outcropping. Pain screamed through her. Legs, ribs, arms. Broken. So many things broken.

She turned her head and vomited as debris struck her face and arms and torso before bouncing and continuing the journey downward.

The sound of the slide faded and only the purr of an engine remained. Fighting to remain conscious, Marisa saw the motorcycle stop far above her. The rider slid the helmet off to get a better view—or maybe Kaitlyn needed to reveal herself to make her victory more satisfying.

For long moments she looked down at where Marisa lay, and then with a wave, she put the helmet on and drove away.

Tears streamed from Marisa’s eyes. There was nothing left but pain. Emotional. Physical.

Bleeding, killing wounds inflicted to heart and soul.

Breaking, tearing wounds done to bone and flesh.

She faded in and out of consciousness. Aware on some level of the blackening sky, the rapidly approaching storm, the feel of cold rain pelting her exposed skin. The wetness of her clothes, their sodden mass a heavy weight on a frame barely able to sustain life.

The thunder was directly overhead now, a violent, crashing symphony.

Lightning flashed, flickering brilliance against Marisa’s eyelids.

She forced her eyes open, knowing she was dying and yet choosing to see the beauty around her. The magnificence of the storm. Far more powerful and real than anything she’d ever been able to capture in her art—though sometimes she came close, and those were the paintings she treasured.

Jagged streaks illuminated the sky. Thunder crashed like the clap of cymbals at a song’s crescendo.

Above her a thunderbird formed and hovered. His powerful wings beat the air with such force that clouds swirled around and under him. The bright colors of his feathers reflected off gray rock, painting it red and white with splashes of yellow and blue. His beak opened in a soundless scream and lightning sparked from coal black eyes.

She was hallucinating but she embraced the hallucination. A small laugh of sheer joy came. The wind caught the sound of her pleasure and carried it away as she felt herself floating upward, toward the thunderbird.

The great bird turned its eyes on her and swooped. Its dive scattered the clouds and drove Marisa’s awareness back to her body. To pain and cold. And finally—nothingness.