Don't Look Down Read online

  Looking past it, he could see several eggs near the top of the mound and realized the gator was not a buddy but a chick. Well, that puts a whole new light on the situation, Tyler thought. Mothers and their kids-bad news there. He remained still, staring, until the alligator finally lowered her head back into the water.

  Won that one pretty easy, he thought.

  The sound of a branch snapping echoed through the swamp. The gator shifted its attention to the latest visitor.

  Tyler slid the sniper rifle up along his body into the ready position. He peered through the scope, getting only narrow snatches of clear vision through the leaves and branches. Something yellow, about three and a half feet above the ground.

  Then through an opening in the leaves he saw the damn Kid from the movie set in her mom's straw hat, taking tentative steps through the swamp along the almost overgrown dirt road.

  Nobody with you now, Kid, Tyler thought. Welcome to my world.

  Tyler watched her for several seconds, and then smiled as he pulled a small-caliber silenced pistol out of his backpack.

  Finally, something fun to do.

  Chapter 8

  Wilder was standing in the dark at the edge of the forest when Armstrong caught up to him, tripping on a root just as she reached him so that he had to catch her, the first time he'd ever touched her. "Slow down," he told her, keeping his mind on the mission.

  "Slow down?" She grabbed on to him. "Moot's in there."

  She was shaking under his hands, and he held on to her a moment too long, trying to make her calm. "I'm thinking." Trying to think like a five-year-old girl. "Moot's in the swamp, not the forest. As long as Pepper stays on dry ground, she'll be okay."

  For the first time since he'd met her, Armstrong lost her cool, clutching him tighter. "We have to get in there, she could be in danger-"



  "Stop it," he said, his voice sharp, and her head jerked up. "You're panicking."

  "But…" She drew in a deep breath. "Okay. Okay. No panicking. What do we do?"

  Wilder wanted to say, You go back to base camp and III go into the forest, but he knew that she wouldn't. "If you're coming with me, you're coming as part of the team, not as a crazy aunt, understand?"

  "Yes," Armstrong said, meeting his eyes, and he saw raw fear there, barely under control, and tightened his grip on her.

  "You stay behind me," he said quietly, trying to calm her down. "You watch my back, and if you see Pepper, you do not go rushing to her until I tell you to."

  She swallowed and nodded. "All right. Yes."

  Her voice was steadier, low again, and he let go of her and turned back to the road, figuring there was a fifty-fifty chance she'd follow orders.

  Okay, Pepper was looking for a mole and she'd gone into the forest. Probably looking on the ground, in the bushes…

  He walked into the woods, moving low, trying to see what she had seen, circling the base camp in a clockwise direction, searching in the dusky light for clues. He could feel Armstrong, silent behind him, staying close, and that was good. He came to an old dirt trail that headed deeper into the forest and paused. A kill zone-that's what a road like this would be taught as in Ranger School. But what would the pathway underneath the overhanging oak trees and the Spanish moss be to a five-year-old?

  An invitation to a mole hunt.

  Wilder went to his knees and crawled out onto the road, searching as much with his hands as his eyes in the dim reflected light from the camp. He felt Pepper's track, the faintest imprint. He lightly ran the tip of his forefinger along the dirt, getting the impression. Then he felt another. She had been heading down the road, away from the camp.

  Wilder got to his feet. "She went this way."

  "I'll get a flashlight," Armstrong said.

  "No. Ruins your night vision. I know this road. I parked my Jeep down there, off to the left away from the swamp. If we're lucky, that's where she went, to the left, into the forest."

  "Why-" Lucy started to say, but then she stopped. "You're sleep-ins out here instead of the hotel."

  Wilder nodded and began to move down the trail, eyes shifting left and right, trying to see it there was a point at which the little girl had left the trail, which he sincerely hoped she had not since there was swamp-and Moot-like creatures-to the right. Left would be better. Forest. Safer.

  Mole hunting, jeez. Wilder guessed that kids Pepper's age took things literally, something he'd have to take into account in the future.

  "Let me call for her," Armstrong whispered from behind him. "She'll come if I call."

  "No. I'm listening. Sound is more important at night than seeing." And you don't know what else is out there.

  He moved forward once more, taking short steps, eyes shifting, looking off-center of his pupils where the night vision was better. A small Hash of orange caught his eye and he stepped closer to it. A Fritos wrapper hung on a palmetto branch. On the right side of the trail, of course. "What was that fairy tale where someone left a trail of bread crumbs?"

  "Hansel and Gretel."

  Wilder pointed at the wrapper. "I assume Pepper knows it."

  Armstrong reached out for the wrapper, but Wilder grabbed her hand, stopping her. "Best leave it if Pepper put it there."

  Wilder shifted his focus to what was ahead. He pushed into the undergrowth and then he heard a soft popping sound, wrong for the forest, wrong for the swamp. "Stay ten yards behind me," he whispered to Armstrong and moved ahead, and as soon as he was clear of her vision, he drew the Glock. The ground went down ever so slightly and soon he was in a mixture of trees and swamp-bell, swamp- decorated every few yards with a Fritos or Cheetos bag. He kept the Clock extended in front of him with his gun hand and placed his off arm, bent at the elbow, in front of his face to protect his eyes from branches and leaves. It was getting dark. Damn dark, Wilder thought. But the popping sound had not come again. Was that good?

  He thought of Pepper alone in this place. What the hell had she been thinking? Did five-year-olds think? Wilder was in uncharted territory as far as the nature of his mission objective. He moved his feet carefully, stepping over the soggy ground without making a noise, in hunter mode.

  He heard another popping sound and then something large and heavy splashed through the water for several seconds before silence ruled once again.

  The damn gator.

  But not Pepper. No way the gator got her. She would have screamed. But he still felt the adrenaline pumping and something else-fear. Not for himself, but for Pepper, and it was a disturbing feeling because he had never experienced fear for another person.

  Damn kid.

  He took another cautious step and saw Moot, the upper half of her body out of the swamp, resting on a spit of dry land, her head going back and forth as if looking for something. Wilder took a step closer and stumbled on something soft, hitting the ground and rolling to avoid falling on Pepper.

  Moot swung her head in their direction and Wilder froze. If she went for them, would the Glock stop her? He was aiming it when something hit the water in the swamp and Moot swung her head around, back in the direction he'd come from. Something else splashed, and then Wilder saw a good-sized rock bounce off Moot's back. He followed the trajectory and saw a shadowy figure about fifteen feet away and realized what was going on.

  Lucy was distracting the gator from him and Pepper. She was risking her fool neck, but by God, she had his back. She had a damn good arm, too, he saw as she pitched another rock at Moot.

  Hell of a woman, he thought, and crawled back to Pepper, keeping an eye on Moot and his hand on his Glock in case the gator decided to head for Lucy. When Moot stayed where she was, he put his hand gently on Pepper's back, on top of her Wonder Woman cape. "Hey. P.L., you okay?" he whispered.

  ''Shh," Pepper whispered, staring into the swamp. "M-moot."

  "I see her." And she was too damn close, Wilder thought. Less than fifteen feet away, just some thick underbrush between her and their