June’s muted sunlight jabbed through the canopy of towering old-growth conifer trees, lighting the moss-covered trunks and making the verdant green more vibrant on either side of the hiking trail deep in the Hoh Rain Forest of the Olympic National Park of Washington State. A mist hung in the air, dampening Pacific Northwest K-9 officer Willow Bates’s hair and beading on the waterproof ballistic vest covering her canine’s torso.
Star, a German shorthaired pointer specializing in explosives and weapons detection, sniffed along the narrow trail cut through the thick ferns deep in the woods, searching for explosive devices. Two days ago, such a device had been detonated at the trailhead of a hiking trail near Madison Falls, and a pair of hikers had suffered minor injuries. Thus far no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Anger for the senselessness burned in Willow’s gut, digging at an old wound and renewing her determination to protect the park and its inhabitants. A resolve that had already cost her so much.
The ache in her heart throbbed, but she refused to dwell on the past.
Pausing to let Star check out a rotted, felled tree trunk, Willow searched the shadowed forest. A sense of foreboding tightened the muscles across her shoulders. Maybe coming out alone today had been a mistake.
She put her hand on the flak vest covering her abdomen. Not really alone. But still…
Willow’s boss, Chief Donovan Fanelli, had sent Willow and another PNK9 officer, Jackson Dean, and his Doberman, Rex, out to patrol the park. Because the Olympic National Park encompassed nearly a million acres of diverse ecosystems ranging from glacier mountains to rain forests to the seventy miles of wild coastline, she and Jackson had taken different sections of the park.
Jackson had with him two of the recruited candidates vying for a spot with the PNK9 unit. The four K-9 officer candidates were trying out by shadowing team members while being evaluated on their skills and to see if they would fit in with the unit. Donovan had told Willow she would have a candidate with her soon, but the remaining two were helping on another case in one of the other national parks in the state that the Pacific Northwest K-9 Unit patrolled.
Normally, Willow enjoyed teaching others about the job that had given her such purpose, but after the news she’d received recently, she was still processing and had set out by herself with Star. Until now, she’d confidently patrolled these beloved trails, determined to keep this part of her world safe. As a kid she’d always imagined this rain forest as being something close to the Shire from Tolkien’s books. Becoming a park ranger had been her dream since she was little.
Then somebody had blown up the kiosk at the north park entrance at the exact moment her father had gone to pay for day parking.
Because she’d begged him to take her hiking in the park.
The culprit had never been caught.
The tragedy had formed Willow’s future.
Working in the national park gave her a sense of purpose, belonging. And she would not let anything or anyone deter her from protecting this part of her world.
Not even her husband.
Make that her soon-to-be ex-husband.
A stab of grief wrapped up in disappointment hit her smack-dab in the middle of her heart.
Signs of trampled undergrowth redirected her thoughts to the task at hand, and she steered Star over, giving the search command. While Star did her job of sniffing out explosive residue, Willow allowed her senses to grow attuned to her surroundings.
A rustling off to her left had her nerves jumping. Probably one of the many animals that called the rain forest home. Star lost interest in the underbrush and started down the trail. Willow followed, trying hard not to think about the man who’d stolen her heart seven years ago and had broken it more recently.
Star’s pace picked up, stretching her leash taut, her nose lifting in the air and then going to the ground. Willow released more of the lead attached to the dog’s collar, allowing Star to range farther ahead. The dog was tracking something. Anticipation revved in Willow’s veins and refocused her attention.
As a trailhead sign came into view, marking where the trail she was on split into two different trails leading in opposite directions, Willow’s stomach knotted.
She lifted up a quick prayer. Please, Lord, no. Not another one.
The forensic team had determined the last explosive device had been set on a timer and attached to the base of the trailhead sign, allowing the suspect to be far from the explosion.
Sure enough, Star stopped at the sign and sat staring at the large wooden block atop a thick post with the names of the trails and arrows pointing away from each other carved into the face. This was Star’s passive alert for an explosive device.
A bomb must be attached to the backside of the sign or the post. Willow reined Star close and kept an alert eye out for anyone suspicious; she was thankful there were no hikers in sight. After giving her partner a treat, she hustled away several yards, keeping Star close.
She didn’t know what a safe distance would be, since she had no idea the blast radius of whatever device was attached to the sign or how it might trigger. She contemplated peeking to locate the device, to determine size and if it was rigged with a timer or remote detonator, but then decided she would wait for help. Once again, she put her hand over her abdomen. Her baby was safe beneath the flak vest covering Willow’s torso.
She needed to be patient. Jackson would send the bomb unit to her location. Until then, she needed to make sure no civilians wandered into the area. She thumbed the mic on her uniform.
The radio crackled, and then Jackson’s voice came over the radio. “Willow?”
“Star has alerted. Turning on my GPS locator.” She gave him her location and hit the small device attached to her flak vest, knowing it would send a signal back to headquarters and they in turn would send it to Jackson.
“On our way. Calling for reinforcements,” Jackson replied, his voice clipped with concern. “Stay safe.”
Willow clicked off. Star lifted her head, her tail standing straight up, and her ears twitched. The dog was spooked. A shiver of unease lodged in Willow’s chest.