It was way too late at night to think straight. If Ryan Kimura had still been on the clock, his training and experience as an EMT would’ve kept him sharp. But it was long past midnight, he’d been off work for three hours and the only thing on his mind was Dani Oliver. It didn’t help that he was in his truck in the driveway of the empty house his friend owned on the edge of town. The house he and Dani could’ve rented if they’d taken the next step and lived together.
The ostensible purpose of the visit was to check in on the house for his friend. So why was he lingering? Testing a year-old wound to see if it had healed? He knew there were beers in the refrigerator. He knew where the spare key was hidden. And he was very aware of how having a simple drink alone would only reinforce how much he wanted to fill the forested quiet of the hills with the sound of Dani’s voice. Her laugh, smoky and low, would’ve laced perfectly through the tall pines around him.
Instead, Ryan’s ears were filled with a mellow electronic jazz track played by the community college radio station. His hand was on the ignition key, one click away from turning the engine on. Do it, he told himself. Get out of here. Get some sleep. He stared at the dark windows of the wood-paneled house. The chimney that could’ve been whispering smoke from a lingering fire. If things had been different.
Headlights stuttered behind the trees in the hills behind the house. Someone was on one of the old fire roads. Ryan leaned forward, trying to get a better view of the car. Teenagers joyriding? He’d done the same himself in hidden corners of the hills around Los Angeles. But everyone knew the high road in these hills was washed out. And that car was going way too fast to recover once they found out.
He turned on his engine and hit the gas, professional resolve firing his muscles and mind to full alert. There was no way to connect with the high road from where he was. His best bet would be to parallel them from below and somehow warn them. Tearing away from the house, he found the first outlet off the remote street and bounced his way across a short field that lead to the hills. The all-wheel drive on his truck held traction and he was soon merging onto the lower fire road.
But he was behind the speeding car. Catching up meant going too fast for his own safety, but he had to take the risk. Tree trunks and foliage blurred past. His pulse raced and he focused hard on the road. The pool of his headlights gave him only a split second to react to changes ahead. The smallest mistake would wrap him around a tree and end his night in a very bad way.
Honking his horn, he hoped to catch the attention of the racing sedan on the road thirty yards up the side of the hill. They didn’t let up at all. Then he saw why. Another car surged forward on the high road. The hulking SUV handled the rough road better than the sedan and was soon parallel to Ryan on its way to the sedan.
This wasn’t a joyride. This was real trouble. His phone was in his pocket, but he needed both hands to steer. And cell coverage was spotty at best this close to the hills. Maybe someone in one of the country houses would hear his honking and call 911, but that was no guarantee.
Ryan pushed his truck harder and outpaced the SUV. Time was running out. Last year’s rains had slid a huge chunk of the hillside onto the high road less than a mile away. If the sedan didn’t stop soon, it would wreck right into that pile of rocks.
After what felt like an endless two seconds, he finally pulled parallel to the sedan, flashing his lights and honking his horn. He risked driving with one hand to stretch his arm out the window and point forward in a warning.
He glanced up the hill to see if the driver might be understanding his signals. His heart froze. No. No. The car on the high road, the one being chased toward certain death. It was Dani.
The SUV closed in. Dani’s arms ached from muscling the steering wheel around the winding path at this breakneck pace. She tried to remember the contours of the fire road coming up, her only advantage against her attacker. But it had been a long time since she’d been up here. Since Ryan had given her a few lessons on riding a motocross bike, and she hadn’t been mapping the terrain at the time. There was a huge switchback somewhere up there, she knew that, and it could be her opportunity to navigate a surprise turn while leaving the SUV behind.
Her sense of hope plummeted into her stomach when another car joined in the chase on the road sixty feet below. Two attackers? This pickup truck drove with as much aggression as the SUV, and maybe more recklessness, allowing it to parallel her.
Unlike the dark SUV’s silent menace, the pickup flashed its lights and honked its horn. At first she thought it was a distraction meant to take her eyes off the road and wreck, or let the SUV catch up and finish her off. But she recognized the truck, and her hurried breath caught in her throat. Ryan was down there, speeding down a dark path and pointing out his window as a warning.
There was no time to process how he knew she needed help or how he found her. He was telling her that danger was ahead. At the speed she was going, she barely had time to see that the road ended abruptly in a jumble of boulders. If Ryan hadn’t been there to signal her, she would’ve rushed right to her death. She slammed on her brakes and pulled to one side. The SUV hit her rear bumper and pushed her off the road and sliding down the hill. But the SUV pulled away abruptly, as it must’ve caught sight of the rocks. Her vision was filled with angled trees and scrub swirling around her and she could hear only the crunch of metal and glass from the road above. Hopefully that was the end of the SUV.
But she wasn’t out of trouble. She steered as best as she could while careening sideways down the hill. Her car lurched over a fallen log and she was thrown back into her seat with an impact that rattled her bones. She lost control and the car spun backward. The world sped past going in the wrong direction. Was Ryan still out there? Had he ever been there, or was it just her panicked mind hoping for help?
Her car stopped abruptly with a massive impact. For a second she saw her headlights streaking up along tree trunks toward the dim sky. Then the car slammed down and everything went black.
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