Arapahoe Junction, Colorado
"I know I'm late, dammit." Alex Graham's hand clenched on her cell phone. "I'll get those pictures to you as soon as I can."
"You'd get them to me sooner if you'd stop working in the rubble and start taking pictures of those rescue workers whose job it is to do it," Jim Karak said sarcastically. "Old news is no news, Alex. That dam broke almost a week ago and the magazine goes to press in two days."
"They're still digging survivors from the landslide caused by the dam break."
"Then you should be taking warm, heroic pictures instead of manning a shovel. You're breaking one of the cardinal rules. You're becoming part of the story."
"There may be people alive beneath that--" It was no use. Karak had one priority and that was the story. "You'll get the pictures." She hung up and leaned back against the wall and rubbed her temple. God, she was tired. She'd be lucky if Karak didn't call her back and tell her to find another magazine to publish her work. She wasn't being fair and certainly not professional. If she hadn't had a decent track record before this, Karak would have dumped her days ago.
"Problems?" Sarah Logan and her dog, Monty, were standing in the doorway of the trailer.
"A few." Alex grimaced as she rose to her feet. "It seems I'm not doing my job. I'm not focusing on what's important."
"You could have fooled me." Sarah filled Monty's bowl with water and sat down on the floor beside him while he drank. "We found a baby alive in that hellhole this morning. I'd say that was pretty important."
"Me too." Alex smiled. "Screw Karak."
Sarah didn't return her smile. "I don't want you to lose your job, Alex. I know how much your work means to you. There are other volunteers out there helping to dig."
Alex lifted her brows. "Oh, then you have too much help?"
"You know there's no such thing in a disaster like this. We have to work fast or-- Okay, we need you. I just don't want you to be hurt. God knows there's enough pain in this world."
And Sarah Logan witnessed a good deal of it, Alex thought. She and her golden retriever, Monty, were in a canine search-and-rescue team, and Alex had run across her on half a dozen disaster sites during the last five years. In the horror of natural and man-made tragedies, a strong bond of friendship had been forged. "I'll be okay."
"Your editor is right. This isn't your job." She shook her head. "Look at you. You're covered in dirt from head to toe. Your hands are bleeding from that shovel and you haven't slept in twenty-four hours."
Sarah ignored the question. "And it's more than your hands that are bleeding. Take a step back, Alex. It will break you if you get too close to it. Believe me, I know."
"It's not as though I haven't been to other disaster sites."
"But then you weren't as involved. You were taking photographs and helping in the first-aid tent. You weren't uncovering the bodies of people you hoped would be alive."
She didn't want to think of those bodies. There had been too many in the last few days. "Yet you do it all the time. You could stay home and live soft and yet, every time there's a call, you and Monty are off and running. I'm surprised your husband doesn't raise hell."
"He doesn't like it, but he understands." Sarah frowned. "But we're not talking about me. I've watched you work and there's no one more dedicated. You love what you do and you've told me a dozen times that your job is to tell the story. Don't get sidetracked."
"I'm not sidetracked. I'll get it done." She bent down and stroked Monty's soft fur. "I just can't-- I'll get it done."
Sarah stared at her, troubled. "I don't think you should accept assignments like this anymore. I've seen it coming since Ground Zero, but it's getting worse. You've . . . changed."
Steel and concrete and that stinging smoke that seemed to cover the world like a shroud.
"Ground Zero changed all of us."
Sarah and Monty crawling among the ruins while Alex watched helplessly.
Sarah and Alex holding desperately to each other while the tears poured down both their faces.
Sarah nodded. "But I had someone to go home to while I healed. I should have made you come with me."
"Life had to go on. I had to go on." She shrugged. "And if I took some baggage with me, then that's the way it had to be. I'm usually okay. This one is rough. It's brought back too many memories."
"But it's not the same," Sarah said gently. "We've found survivors here, Alex. Seventy-two so far."
"That's not enough," she whispered. "It's never enough. I can't stand by and let--" She cleared her throat and changed the subject. "Is it your rest time?"
Sarah shook her head. "I just had to get Monty some water. My canteen was empty. We still have a few hours to work until dark. It's less dangerous for Monty if he can see clearly what's out there." She paused. "But we've just had two bits of good news. The President is coming here next week."
"It's about time. Vice President Shepard was here the day after the dam break."
"Yeah, I was impressed. But it's when the President shows up that FEMA and all the aid organizations get a boost."
"That's good." She made a face. "Maybe I can convince Karak I was only waiting for Andreas to show up so that I could give him a really big story." She shook her head. "Nah, I'm no good at lying. Besides, security is so tight around the President right now that I wouldn't get within a mile of him."
"I'm surprised he's coming at all. There was a bombing at the embassy in Mexico City last night."
"The same terrorist group?"
Sarah nodded. "Matanza claimed it. And an effigy of Andreas was left burning on the lawn."
"Bastards." It was the third embassy attack by the Guatemalan terrorist group in the last six months. If it wasn't the Middle East, it was Guatemala or Venezuela. Juan Cordoba and his Matanza group had always been rabid revolutionaries in their own country, but now--fueled by drug money and Al Qaeda support--they had grown powerful enough to take aim at Andreas and the administration that was trying to stabilize the party in power. It seemed impossible to Alex that there had ever been a time when her country hadn't been surrounded by terror and ugliness and threats. Yet she could remember a childhood filled with trust and innocence and the belief that nothing really bad could come knocking on her door. The memory filled her with frustration and anger and immense sadness. "I hope your second bit of good news is better than your first."
"Hey, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. At least Andreas isn't letting anyone scare him into ignoring people who need him. He should be safe enough visiting this site. All the evidence points to a natural disaster here." She smiled. "And the preliminary report on the ground on the other side of the dam says it appears to be fairly stable. They're sending some teams up there tomorrow morning to do a final check. When the landslide buried this area, they were afraid the ground on the other side might be compromised."
"Jesus. That's all these poor people need. Another landslide."
"They tried to evacuate everyone from that area just for safety's sake. But it looks like they can go back home." Sarah stroked Monty's head. "Time to go back to work, boy." She stood up and headed for the door. "And it's a good time for you to take some photographs."
"How bossy can you get?" Alex followed her and stood in the doorway, gazing out at the disaster site. Every time she looked at the devastation it made her sick. The Arapahoe Dam had broken five days ago and the water had rushed down into the valley below, killing over a hundred twenty people. But the series of landslides caused by the explosive force of the water on either side of the valley was the horror they were dealing with now. The rock slides had covered the homes and businesses of Arapahoe Junction under tons of rock, and the area was still so unstable the rescue had to be done painstakingly by hand, not machine. Her glance shifted across the jagged wreck of the dam to the hills on the other side. The rocky terrain looked blessedly sturdy in a shaky world.
Christ, she was glad there wasn't going to be another horror piled on top of this one.
"Stop looking at it," Sarah called back to her. "Take those photos."
Sure, take the pictures. Ignore the fact that there might be more people alive under those rocks.
"Promise me," Sarah said.
"I promise. I'll take the damn photos. I'll get them and send them out today." She grabbed her shovel, which was leaning against the trailer. As Sarah had said, there was still light and the job on this side of the gorge was monumental. "But not now. I can't do it now. . . ."
It was late afternoon when Alex stopped working and went back to the trailer to get her camera.
She'd cut it close and she'd have to work fast to get the photos before dark. Well, if she didn't get all she needed she'd improvise.
A helicopter was descending at the first-aid tent a few hundred yards away from the trailer and she waved at Ken Nader, the pilot, as he got out of the aircraft.
He waved back and called, "I brought you that special lens to replace the one you said you damaged."
"Thanks. I don't need it right now. I'll be over later to get it." She turned and started up the hill.
The hillside was still crawling with men and women carefully picking away at the rocks. She'd gotten to know a few of them this week as they'd worked side by side. Janet Delsey was a resident of the town that had been buried beneath the landslide. She'd been in Denver when the tragedy happened. She worked in the local library, and her parents had not been found yet.
Alex focused and took the picture.
Bill Adams was a truck driver who had been passing through when he'd heard about the dam. He'd parked his rig and volunteered to help.
She snapped the picture.
Carey Melway was a college student, full of idealism and hope, who had come down from Salt Lake City. Alex had watched him change from a kid to an adult in these last few days.
She took the picture.
She took four rolls of film in the next hour. The volunteers, the canine rescue teams, the flooded gorge.
"You left it a little late." Sarah was carefully making her way down the side of the mountain, followed by Monty. "Are you going to have enough material?"
"Too much." She looked at Janet Delsey again. "Do you think she has any chance of finding her parents alive?"
"A chance, if we can get to them in time. At least this isn't a mud slide. There are pockets of air beneath those rocks." She motioned for Monty. "I have to get down and feed him his dinner and vitamins. Are you almost finished?"
Alex shook her head. "I've got most of the human-interest shots, but I need a photograph that tells the big story, the scope of the rescue operation."
She waved her hand. "Good luck. You'll need it."
Sarah was right. It was difficult to encompass the full depth of a tragedy when you were on top of it.
On top of it.
Her gaze flew across the gorge. The terrain was higher there and it probably afforded a view of both the flooded valley and the workers laboring on the landslide. Sarah had said they were ninety percent sure the ground over there was safe.
If she could get across the gorge.
She couldn't walk across it or swim across it. Which left only one other means of transportation.
She turned and hurried down the slope toward the first-aid tent.
The helicopter circled and then dipped closer to the trees. "If that ground looks even a little wobbly, I'm not leaving you here," Ken Nader told Alex grimly. "You got the aerial shots. That should be enough for you. I don't know why I let you talk me into this."
"Because you're a good guy and you knew I had to have these pictures. And you can see it's safe here. The worst that can happen to me is if I fall down that slope into the floodwaters." She grinned as she stowed her camera in her backpack. "And if I'm that clumsy, then I deserve to drown. Just go back to the first-aid tent in case they have an emergency and pick me up in an hour."
"You'd better be here." He set down in a glade in the trees. "I don't like this, Alex."
"It will be fine. I'm not stupid. I don't take chances." She jumped out of the helicopter. "Thanks, Ken." She adjusted her backpack with her equipment, waved, and turned away. "One hour . . ."
It took her fifteen minutes before she could get out of the forest and start climbing the hill toward the huge red rock on the pinnacle she'd seen from the other side of the gorge.
The sun was going down and twilight was hovering.
Hurry. Get up there before it's fully dark.
She was quickly loading and adjusting her camera in the last few minutes before she reached the pinnacle.
Now, if she had enough light . . .
Oh, my God.
The entire valley was spread before her. The tops of houses drowned in the floodwaters below. Moving lanterns and floodlights dotted the site of the landslide. Men and women looking small and helpless as ants trying to stop the death and destruction.
She drew a deep, shaky breath, raised the camera, and took the picture.
Then she took another and another.
She didn't stop until it was fully dark and she could see only the lanterns and floodlights.
How long had she been here? She wondered as she repacked her equipment and started down the hill. Probably too long, but she hadn't heard Ken's helicopter, so she still had time to get to the glade. He'd wait anyway. In spite of his threat, he wouldn't leave her here.
Her pace quickened when she heard the rotors of the helicopter. Strange, she hadn't seen the aircraft lights when she'd been looking out over the gorge. She supposed it could have been circling and come in from the east, but she couldn't--
Excerpted from Dead Aim by Iris Johansen. Copyright © 2003 by Iris Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.