Wait for Me

By: Susan May Warren

1


HE WASN’T LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, but if Pete didn’t act right now, at least one person was going to die.

And more than anything, SAR incident commander Pete Brooks was sick of failing, of seeing lives destroyed. Especially on his watch.

“You should wait.” His co-rescuer, Aimee, grabbed the back of his shirt, as if to keep him from sliding down the slope into the churning black floodwaters of the Meramec River. The 218-mile river had overflowed its banks two days ago under a torrent of rain caused by the tail end of a Cat 4 hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast, then traveled northward. All six Ozark highland counties, nearly three thousand square miles, sat under grimy waters, and the rain continued to fall.

Pete and his disaster team had spent the past twenty-four hours hauling people off roofs, pulling them from debris, and searching for the unaccounted.

Now, heading back to their hotel in their SUV, they’d come upon a washed-out bridge. And in the frothing waters, a caravan, drowning fast in the swift current.

Please, let there not be a family inside.

“We don’t have time. We need to move, now.” The SUV’s headlights scraped over the bridge, most of which was submerged, having taken a hit after an old railroad bridge from upstream slammed into the girders.

Pete had watched it happen, wanted to scream at the caravan edging its way over the swollen waters. He’d pumped his brakes, slammed the SUV into park, and was halfway out when the bridge collapsed.

“You can’t go in there alone,” Aimee said, scrambling up the bank after him.

“I’m not an idiot,” Pete snapped, and instantly regretted it. It wasn’t Aimee’s fault he’d had barely four hours of sleep in the past day and a half. Everyone on his team was functioning on raw, serrated nerves, their veins pumping more coffee than blood. “Sorry.” He turned to Jamie Walsh, who was climbing out of the SUV. “Walsh—throw me that rope and tie it off.”

The recruit, ex-navy, all muscle and get-’er-done, pulled the coil of line from the back end and secured it to the jack. He tossed the rest of the coil, plus a harness, to Pete.

Pete pulled the harness on, one eye on the gray caravan as Aimee shined the Maglite on his movements.

“Don’t lose them!” he said to Aimee. He could buckle on his gear in his sleep, for Pete’s sake.

She directed the light across the frothy waters.

He clipped on the carabiner, buckled on a helmet, and grabbed the life jacket Walsh handed him. “Give me two more.”

Walsh loaded him up, and Pete also grabbed another harness.

The roar of the river drowned the thunder of his pulse.

Maybe he should wait. Going in the water was always the last choice. The waters frothed, choked with debris and who knew what lethal underwater booby traps.

But now the caravan lay on its side, half-submerged, trapped fifty feet downstream against a cement pylon that could give way at any moment.

“Turn the truck and keep the lights on the river,” he said to Aimee, then glanced at Walsh.

Good man. He’d anchored himself in with webbing to a nearby tree and would belay Pete into the wash.

Don’t let go. He wanted to say it, but it sounded, well, weak.

Afraid. As if he expected disaster.

Although, with his recent run of luck . . .

Instead, “Call for backup,” he said to Aimee, because, well, he wasn’t an idiot. His simple plan in this torrent was to get whoever was trapped in the car out and wait for help.

The night sky was dark as ink, the drizzle insidious as it soaked his shirt, his canvas pants, and sent a shiver down his back.

He waded into the wash. The current nearly swept his feet out from under him.

He should wait. He nearly turned back, except for the voice lifting from the vehicle, haunting across the waters.

“Help!” A man had crawled out of the van and was waving his arms, screaming, the words eaten by the violence of the storm.

Pete still made out the word child. Went cold.

“Stay put! I’m coming for you!”

A tree with stripped arms twisted past him. Pete let it go, then plunged into the frigid water. It rose to his shins, then his knees. When it hit his waist and higher, he sprang out, swimming hard for the other side.

He’d always been a strong swimmer, but he was no match for the flow as it caught him up, tumbling downstream. Walsh belayed out his line, and twenty feet from the vehicle, Pete turned onto his back, feet downstream, and let the current have him, paddling hard with his arms for the right trajectory.

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