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Down River

Karen Harper

  Praise for the novels of

  New York Times and USA TODAY

  bestselling author Karen Harper

  "A strong plot, a pair of well-written characters and a genuinely spooky atmosphere add up to yet another sterling effort from Harper. Fast-paced and absorbing, this one will keep readers turning pages far into the night."

  --RT Book Reviews on Deep Down

  "The story is rich...and the tension steadily escalates to a pulse-pounding climax."

  --Publishers Weekly on The Hiding Place

  "Strongly plotted and well written, featuring a host of interesting characters, Harper's latest is a winner."

  --RT Book Reviews on Below the Surface

  "Harper keeps tension high as the insane villain cleverly evades efforts to capture him. And Harper really shines in the final act, providing readers with a satisfying and exciting denouement."

  --Publishers Weekly on Inferno

  "Harper spins an engaging, nerve-racking yarn, alternating her emphasis between several equally interesting plot strands. More important, her red herrings do the job--there's just no guessing who the guilty party might be."

  --RT Book Reviews on Hurricane

  "Well-researched and rich in detail...With its tantalizing buildup and well-developed characters, this offering is certain to earn Harper high marks."

  --Publishers Weekly on Dark Angel, winner of the 2005 Mary Higgins Clark Award

  Also available from MIRA Books and Karen Harper


















  To the wonderfully independent Alaskans

  I met on our trip, and, as ever,

  to my traveling companion through life, Don.



  Fighting the Foam


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8


  Walking the Wave

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16


  Meeting the Monster

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27


  Author's Note

  Questions for Discussion

  Part I

  Fighting the Foam

  Like the dew on the mountain,

  Like the foam on the river,

  Like the bubble on the fountain,

  Thou art gone, and for ever!

  --Sir Walter Scott


  August 20, 1982


  isa Vaughn fought to pull her wrist loose from her mother's strong hand. "No, I'm afraid. I'm going to tell Grandma. No, Mommy, no, nooo!" They were up on the deck where everyone had done the lifeboat drill but now no one else was around. Eight-year-old Lisa loved the big cruise ship she was on in the middle of the blue sea with Grandma, Mommy and baby Jani. But Grandma was taking a nap in their cabin, and Mommy was crying. So was Lisa's baby sister, maybe because Mommy was holding her so tight against her chest with only one arm. With the other hand she dragged Lisa toward the back railing of the ship with lots of bubbling white water underneath.

  Walking around the deck with Mommy and Jani, Lisa had thought it was pretty at first, all that wild water like when you swished your hand real fast to make lots of bubbles in the bathtub. But Mommy kept saying something about "Getting away just like your father did, just getting away with my girls...peace forever..."

  Lisa started to cry, too, when her mother put one leg up high over the railing. Still, she didn't let go of Lisa's wrist, dragging her closer. Jani cried and squirmed. Wet-faced from her own tears, Mommy kissed her little cheek, then looked back at Lisa.

  "You have to come with us, Lisa. Stop struggling!"

  She gave Lisa a huge tug, trying to lift her over the rail, scraping her stomach.

  "No!" Lisa shouted as she pulled back and kind of shoved Mommy away at the same time.

  Lisa fell hard on the deck, so surprised and scared as Mommy, still holding Jani, fell backward, down. Lisa jumped to her feet in time to see Mommy and Jani drop and disappear, sucked into the sea by the wild white water.


  Duck Lake Lodge

  Near Bear Bones, Alaska

  August 20, 2008


  espite the calm beauty of Duck Lake ten feet below the pine-tree-lined path, Lisa Vaughn felt compelled to watch the Wild River on the other side of the low ridge where she stood. Because the summer sun had warmed the snow-tipped Talkeetna Mountains for hours, the snowmelt river roared. When the temperature dropped at night, despite the fact the skies barely darkened, the river rumbled like distant thunder. She was amazed by the reddish-colored salmon as they battled the fierce current on their long journey upriver to their breeding grounds. It almost looked as if the river was bleeding. But mostly the river awed Lisa because, exactly twenty-six years ago, she'd seen her mother and baby sister drown in the turbulent, foaming wake of a cruise ship. Since then, roiling water mesmerized her. And she had never seen anything like the rapids of the Wild River.

  She pulled her gaze away and hurried along the ridge toward the cutoff to the lake landing where she and Mitch had agreed to paddle a kayak to a picnic spot. "I know you've never been in a kayak," he'd said when he suggested it, "but we'll be fine as long as you match your strokes to mine, so we don't slam our paddles together."

  Match your strokes to mine. His words echoed in her head. Was it just she who was still furious about the death of their passion? Although their romance and future together had ended when they'd slammed their different goals into each other, the man still got to her in a dangerous way. This trip had to be all business for her, all about getting a promotion, not rehashing the wreck of their relationship. She'd been dreading this whole slippery situation, but maybe talking it out could help her to finally write the obituary for what she'd thought was mutual love. She let out a breath, then inhaled deeply, not to savor the fresh, pine-scented air, but to calm herself.

  Mitch Braxton seemed a different man from a year ago when they'd broken their engagement and he'd left her and Fort Lauderdale for the heart of Alaska. He'd broken her heart, but she'd been so angry with him that she'd quickly patched herself back together, at least on the surface. She'd gone on with a vengeance, not looking back until her boss set up this command performance at Mitch's lodge.

  Lisa had worked hard to pretend to get over her resentment of his shattering her prettily planned-out life. She had expected to be a skilled attorney, a wife, a working mother to their future children. Though she knew better, sometimes she felt that, at age thirty-four, her marital and biological clocks were not only ticking but clanging. Just when she'd thought never to see Mitch again, Graham Bonner, the managing partner of Carlisle, Bonner & Associates, had been adamant that he had a unique plan for s
creening the three candidates for the next senior partner of the prestigious law firm.

  Graham and his wife, Ellie, insisted they were taking the three junior partners to participate in the family/corporate bonding program Mitch offered at the lodge he'd inherited in Alaska. Since they'd only arrived yesterday, all they'd done so far was walk blindfolded through an obstacle course by following vocal directions--but so much more was in store. Scheduled during the week were ziplining and whitewater rafting, all the while being observed by the Bonners to decide who would get the coveted senior partner position Mitch had abandoned.

  Some of Lisa's friends had argued it was a crazy way to vet a lawyer, though it sounded like a great, free vacation. But Graham was clever and convincing. He'd learned the law-firm ropes from Ellie's father and her brother Merritt, who used to run the firm and had used it as a stepping stone to his fast-rising political career.

  Come hell or high water, Lisa intended to be the new senior partner, but she knew her competitors Jonas and Vanessa were just as tenacious and ambitious. Maybe that was what the Bonners were judging them by anyway. She couldn't help but wonder if, as upset and betrayed as the Bonners had also felt by Mitch's defection, they hadn't still enlisted him to help them make the important decision. He'd always been the Bonners' golden boy. Once Lisa had even thought they were grooming him not only to take over the firm but to partner--in more ways than one--with their twenty-four-year-old only child, Claire, who was now in law school at Duke University, and would soon join the firm as its third-generation lawyer.

  Stopping above another clearing where she could see the river, Lisa brushed several mosquitoes away, then put down the small plastic cooler she carried. The cooler had been beautifully packed, down to bright cloth napkins and a tablecloth by Mitch's lodge manager and chef, Christine. Like the lodge, Christine Tanaka seemed both down to earth, yet frontier elegant. Lisa had sensed something between Mitch and the striking, ebony-haired, high-cheek-boned woman, and was annoyed that it bothered her.

  While Christine knew where they were going, Lisa hoped they wouldn't be missed by the others during this three-to-five afternoon break, when everyone had some private time before gathering for pre-dinner appetizers and wine.

  She sprayed herself lightly with the bug repellent she'd brought along. Close to the lodge they fogged the area and the brisk breeze today kept most of the mosquitoes away. She was used to them, being from South Florida, but the Alaska version seemed especially voracious. At least, in his introduction to them yesterday, Mitch had mentioned the bug season was waning.

  She forced her gaze away from the river rapids and stuffed the small spray can back in the top of her sock, then rolled her jeans back down. She wore her running shoes and a life preserver over a light jacket and T-shirt, but the day seemed warm--too warm, if she kept thinking about Mitch.

  Turning back to the river, Lisa fastened the Velcro straps of her orange PFD jacket. Mitch had warned them, "No one, not even Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, if he shows up here, goes out on the lake or the river without a PFD!"

  She and her colleagues had joked that an attorney, on the losing end of a lawsuit, must have named it a Personal Flotation Device, but then it wasn't a plain old life preserver. PFDs were made of sleek, contoured neoprene, a far cry from those old bulbous, canvas jackets the cruise ships had passengers wear during lifeboat drills. For all she knew, that drill had given her mother the idea to jump overboard.

  If Lisa was getting in a kayak for the first time, she was going prepared. She could swim like a fish, but since her family tragedy--though she tried not to let people know--churning water not only horrified her but lured her.

  She picked up the cooler and glanced back down the path toward the sprawling two-story log lodge with its four rustic cabins huddled nearby like chicks around a mother hen. No sign of Mitch yet; he was busy here, king of his realm. But then, he'd seemed to be master of his fate in Florida, too, before the dam broke and their mutual future was swept away.

  She heaved a huge sigh, staring down into the river. Mitch said he'd bring the drinks, and she wondered if it would be wine. Last year, the night they had broken up, she'd snapped her wine goblet off at the stem when he'd told her he had to get out of the rat race and leave Fort Lauderdale. Her hand had bled from a puncture wound; she still bore the scar--that and too many others as she went on with her high-flying career. That terrible night, she had tossed her engagement ring at him, and would have thrown the gold bracelet with the flying seagulls he'd bought her as well, except the clasp had stuck.

  But now, when she looked back on that night, she knew she'd done things to upset him, too. She recalled Mitch's explosion when she'd told him she had volunteered both of them to testify at a state senate committee hearing. They were both under pressure then, working day and night on a high-profile money-laundering case. They'd been harassed, even stalked by someone, until Graham had suddenly taken them off the case for their safety. She was trying to find another way to keep them in what she thought of as "the local lawyer limelight." They were having drinks on the patio of her condo with its view of a golf course she'd never played.

  "No way!" he'd shouted, shocking her. "I just can't take time to testify at some senate hearing! Leave that political stuff to Ellie's beloved brother, who will probably be our next senator or even president, for all I know!"

  "Listen, I realize it will take time from your other cases, but it's great PR, and your name carries clout now," she'd insisted.

  "I may be successful, but I'm so stressed I'm getting distracted--careless--when people's futures are in my hands. I'm scared I'll not only ruin someone else's life, but my own. Carelessness can lead to self-destruction. Sometimes I don't give a damn about things I need to care for, to control. Half the time, all I've worked for seems pointless."

  "Including a future with me? Our love, our plans, both professional and personal?" she'd demanded in her best litigator's voice. "Mitch, we can have everything together, including our careers, helping people, not wasting time on something pointless!"

  That was when he'd dropped the bomb that he'd inherited his uncle's land and lodge and wanted to move to Alaska. He'd been meaning to find the right time to tell her. Would she change her plans to go with him?

  Shocked and angry, she'd refused, accused him of being self-centered. But she saw now she had been, too. Why couldn't he understand that no urban career woman who loved luscious, lively Fort Lauderdale needed a dropout who preferred the lonely wilds of Alaska? No, she couldn't risk loving someone who suddenly claimed to be nearly suicidal, not after all she'd been through.

  Now, lost in her regrets, trembling again at the memory, she frowned at the raging river. Then something happened. Somehow, it was as if her rage at her past, at her mother, at Mitch, pushed her over some psychic edge. She tumbled headlong off the path, off her feet. The cooler went flying, hit her knee. She screamed, lost her balance, then rolled sideways down the ridge.

  She landed on a spruce sapling, but before she could grab it, it bent under her weight to fling her forward. In the clearing, nothing else stopped her fall. Over, over she rolled, until she slammed into the rushing river, going under. The frigid water shocked her. She gasped and sucked some in. Choked. Her sinuses burned while her skin froze.

  The PFD lifted and righted her, head up, but foam crested over her. Mother with Jani in her arms fell over the rail again. The boiling foam devoured them, devoured Lisa. Had Mommy pulled her in with them? How did this happen? She was horrified for her family, for herself. Terror screamed at her, in her, echoing the smashing water, clawing at her courage.

  She was swept around, past jutting rocks. She pulled her hands and feet in close. She had to get out but found nothing to hold as she was tossed, whirled, pulled and yanked, bumped by boulders, cold and drowning, dragged downriver.

  Though the two glasses Mitch had thrown in his backpack with the cans of ginger ale were plastic, they clanked as he walked the ridge path, their dissona
nt sound nearly drowned by the river's roar. If Lisa thought he'd cart wine out here for some sort of a lovey-dovey reunion, she was wrong. This was strictly a business meeting, he told himself.

  So what if he still felt he wanted her? It was a pure physical reaction from hot memories. His body's reaction to being near Lisa again was something he could absolutely handle--had to.

  When he moved to Alaska, he'd needed to cleanse himself of the dirty feeling of defending clients he knew damn well were guilty. He felt guilt-ridden by his own obscenely high fees and the busy schedule that left no time for pro bono work. Pressure, pressure, pressure--and for what? Prestige? Cruising Lauderdale's canals in his boat, chasing women or raising a future family he didn't have time for? Unlike Ellie Bonner's brother, Merritt Carlisle, he didn't want the power that came from a place in national or even state politics. Back home--though this was home now--he'd been fed up with convoluted power connections in the fast-fleeting fame lane. Thank God, Alaska had helped to heal him. It was said people who came to Alaska from outside were either running from something or to something. He guessed, in his case, it was both.