"SOMEBODY PLEASE help me! Somebody please! Can anybody hear me?"
Max's screams pierced the clear mountain air. Her throat and lungs were beginning to hurt, to burn.
The eleven-year-old girl was running as fast as she could from the hateful, despicable School. She was strong, but she was beginning to tire. As she ran, her long blond hair flared behind her like a beautiful silk scarf. She was pretty, even though there were dark, plum-colored circles under her eyes.
She knew the men were coming to kill her. She could hear them hurrying through the woods behind her.
She glanced over her right shoulder, painfully twisting her neck. She flashed a mental picture of her little brother, Matthew. Where was he? The two of them had separated just outside the School, both running and screaming.
She was afraid Matthew was already dead. Uncle Thomas probably got him. Thomas had betrayed them and that hurt so much she couldn't stand to think about it.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. The hunters were closing in. She could feel their heavy footsteps thumping hard and fast against the crust of the earth.
A throbbing, orange and red ball of sun was sinking below the horizon. Soon it would be pitch-black and cold out here in the Front Range of the Rockies. All she wore was a simple tube of white cotton, sleeveless, loosely drawn together at the neck-line and waist. Her feet were wrapped in thin-soled ballet slippers.
Move. She urged her aching, tired body on. She could go faster than this. She knew she could.
The twisting path narrowed, then wound around a great, mossy-green shoulder of rock. She clawed and struggled forward through more thick tangles of branches and brush.
The girl suddenly stopped. She could go no further.
A huge, high fence loomed above the bushes. It was easily ten feet. Rows of razor-sharp concertina wire were tangled and coiled across the top.
A metal sign warned: EXTREME DANGER! ELECTRIFIED FENCE. EXTREME DANGER!
Max bent over and cupped her hands over her bare knees. She was blowing out air, wheezing hard, trying to keep from weeping.
The hunters were almost there. She could hear, smell, sense their awful presence.
With a sudden flourish, she unfurled her wings. They were white and silver-tipped and appeared to have been unhinged. The wings sailed to a point above her head, seemingly of their own accord. Their span was nine feet. The sun glinted off the full array of her plumage.
Max started to run again, flapping her wings hard and fast. Her slippered feet lifted off the hardscrabble.
She flew over the high barbed wire like a bird.
FIVE ARMED MEN ran quietly and easily through the ageless boulders and towering aspens and ponderosa pines. They didn't see her yet, but they knew it wouldn't be long before they caught up with the girl.
They were jogging rapidly, but every so often the man in front picked up the pace a significant notch or two. All of them were competent trackers, good at this, but he was the best, a natural leader. He was more focused, more controlled, the best hunter.
The men appeared calm on the outside, but inside it was a different story. This was a critical time. The girl had to be captured, and brought back. She shouldn't have gotten out here in the first place. Discretion was critical; it always had been, but never more than right now.
The girl was only eleven, but she had "gifts," and that could present a formidable problem outdoors. Her senses were acute; she was incredibly strong for her size, her age, her gender; and of course, there was the possibility that she might try to fly.
Suddenly, they could see her up ahead: she was clearly visible against the deep blue background of the sky.
"Tinkerbell. Northwest, fifty degrees," the group leader called out.
She was called Tinkerbell, but he knew she hated the name. The only name she answered to was Max, which wasn't short for Maxine, or Maximillian, but for Maximum. Maybe because she always gave her all. She always went for it. Just as she was doing right now.
There she was, in all her glory! She was running at full speed, and she was very close to the perimeter fence. She had no way of knowing that. She'd never been this far from home before.
Every eye was on her. None of them could look away, not for an instant. Her long hair streamed behind her, and she seemed to flow up the steep, rocky hillside. She was in great shape; she could really move for such a young girl. She was a force to reckon with out here in the open.
The man running in front suddenly pulled up. Harding Thomas stopped short. He threw up his arm to halt the others. They didn't understand at first, because they thought they had her now.
Then, almost as if he'd known she would — she took off. She flew. She was going over the concertina wire of the ten-foot-high perimeter fence.
The men watched in complete silence and awe. Their eyes widened. Blood rushed to their brains and made a pounding sound in their ears.
She opened to a full wingspan and the movement seemed effortless. She was a beautiful, natural flyer. She flapped her white and silver wings up and down, up and down. The air actually seemed to carry her along, like a leaf on the wind.
"I knew she'd try to go over." Thomas turned to the others and spit out the words. "Too bad."
He lifted his rifle to his shoulder. The girl was about to disappear over the nearest edge of the canyon wall. Another second or two and she'd be gone from sight.
He pulled the trigger.
KIT HARRISON was headed to Denver from Boston. He was good-looking enough to draw looks on the airplane: trim, six foot two, sandy-blond hair. He was a graduate of NYU Law School. And yet he felt like such a loser.
He was perspiring badly in the cramped and claustrophobic middle-aisle airplane seat of an American Airlines 747. He was so obviously pathetic that the pleasant and accommodating flight attendant stopped and asked if he was feeling all right. Was he ill?
Kit told her that he was just fine, but it was another lie, the mother of all lies. His condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes featured nasty anxiety attacks that left him feeling he could die right there. He'd been suffering from the disorder for close to four years.
So yeah, I am ill, Madame Flight Attendant. Only it's a little worse than that.
See, I'm not supposed to be going to Colorado. I'm supposed to be on vacation in Nantucket. Actually, I'm supposed to be taking some time off, getting my head screwed on strai