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Authors: Jennie Leigh

Bitter Wild

BOOK: Bitter Wild
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Bitter Wild

 

By Jennie Leigh

Bitter Wild

 

Copyright 2012 Jennie Leigh

 

Kindle Edition

 

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hard work of this author.

CHAPTER ONE

His
teeth were grinding. That was never a good sign. Special Agent Jack Hall paced
the confines of the sheriff’s office because he couldn’t sit still for longer
than couple of minutes at a time. The office wasn’t large. Jack was. It took
him exactly two strides to cross the small space. He’d lost count of how many
times he’d pivoted in the past forty-five minutes. His partner, Skip Reynolds,
had long since stopped trying to tell him to settle down. Skip had worked with
him long enough to know when to give him room. Jack glanced at his watch for the
fifth time in as many minutes, then stopped pacing and turned to glare at the
man seated behind the desk.

“Where
the hell is your guide?”

Sheriff
Stan Pritchard shook his head as he instinctively defended his man. “Casey’ll
be here.”

The
sheriff’s words sounded confident, but the look in his eyes didn’t quite match
up. He looked worried. He’d been looking worried ever since he’d picked up the
phone and called the local mountain guide. Jack wasn’t the only one who had an
uneasy feeling about the so-called expert tracker. The sheriff had acted like
he didn’t want to make the call. He’d done it while Skip and Jack were out of
his office, but Jack had watched through the windows that made up the walls of
the small space. The sheriff had looked like he had to beg to get this guide to
even come down to the station. That had been almost an hour ago and there was
still no sign of the man the sheriff insisted was the best tracker and guide in
the state. Jack walked over to the sheriff’s desk and leaned forward, flattening
his palms against the top.

“When?
Every second that passes, Russell Jester is putting more distance between us.
If your guide doesn’t walk through the door in the next five minutes, you’re
going to get on that phone and find us someone else.”

The sheriff
shook his head. “There isn’t anyone else. There’s not a person alive who knows
those hills better than Casey Nolan.”

“This
is a mountain town. You’ve got to have some sort of organized rescue service,
someone who goes after lost hikers and the like. Are you telling me that none
of them are capable of leading us on this manhunt?”

“They’re
capable, sure. But from what you’ve told me about this man you’re hunting, he’s
no fool. He’s got all the gear he needs to survive out there for an extended
time, if not indefinitely. He’s bound to know you’ll be coming after him. He’s
also bound to figure the best way to avoid being caught is by getting off the
beaten track, so to speak. Once he goes off the trail you’re going to need
someone who can track him down. Rescue workers know the area well and they have
been trained to look for signs that might lead them to a lost victim. With luck
they can track down a person who’s wandered off and is smart enough to stay
still to wait to be found. However, they are not trained to deal with someone
who doesn’t want to be found and who would gladly shoot them if they got lucky
enough to pick up his trail.”

“And
Nolan is?”

“Formally,
no. But Casey knows how to deal with trouble.” He paused for a moment, then
pushed to his feet so that he could meet Jack’s gaze eye to eye. “You get
anywhere near those woods without Casey and you’re asking to die. It’s that
simple.”

Jack
turned away from the sheriff and met his partner’s gaze. They’d been working
together for almost a decade. They could read each other at least as well as
most married couples. Skip held Jack’s gaze for a moment, then turned and
walked out of the room. Jack followed, glancing back over his shoulder as the
sheriff swung his office door closed with a bit of force. He turned around and
shot Skip a frown.

“I’ve
got a bad feeling about this.”

Skip
nodded. “Yeah. Did you notice the looks on the faces of the locals when he
asked the dispatcher to get Nolan on the phone?”

“I did.
Would I be exaggerating if I described it as surprise?”

Skip
frowned. “Hell, I’d call it shock.”

Jack
turned to glare at the sheriff through the glass walls of his office. “You
don’t think it’s some kind of power trip, do you?” He swung his gaze back to
Skip. “You know, the local leos trying to make the federal agents sweat?”

Skip
shook his head. “I don’t think so. Pritchard seems to be pretty straight up. I
just get the feeling that there’s some history or something that no one is
talking about.”

That’s
exactly what Jack believed, too. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair,
which by now had to be standing straight on end. At the moment his appearance
was the last thing on his mind, though. He only had room for one thought and
that was the nearly blinding need to track down and apprehend Russell Jester.
He and Skip had been on his trail for just over a week. Technically, Jester had
been on the run for three months, but he’d only become a federal target eight
days earlier. That’s when his killing spree started.

It
began when he and a friend held up a liquor store. They started by killing the
owner. As fate would have it, a patrol car just happened to be passing by at
the time. The two uniformed officers heard gunshots coming from the store and
investigated. One of them was killed and the other seriously wounded in the
shootout that ensued. Jester’s friend was wounded as well, though he and Jester
managed to escape. From what they’d been able to piece together, it appeared
that Jester had killed his own friend to keep him from slowing him down. His body
was found in the car the pair had been driving when they fled the liquor store.
Since then, Jester had killed seven others. The first body they found was that
of a sixty-eight year old man who’d been beaten to death. He was in the back
seat of his own car which Jester left at the scene of his next crime.

This
time it was a gas station. The clerk behind the counter was eighteen years old
and on his way to college the following fall on a sports scholarship. Inside
the store were the bodies of two more victims. A man in his late thirties and
his six year old son. The man’s wife was missing along with their car. Jack and
Skip found her stuffed into the trunk of the car, which Jester abandoned when
it ran out of gas. He drove through the desert during the hottest part of the
day. The woman’s fingers were raw from clawing at the lid of the trunk in her
desperation for air. The preliminary report from the coroner said she’d been
raped and had died from suffocation.

Jester
got his last vehicle from a car dealership, of all places. He just walked right
into the office and put half a dozen bullets into the salesman. It was a small
used car lot and everyone else was out to lunch. Jester took the car he wanted
and that’s the one he was still driving when he rolled into Decatur, Montana.
He stopped at the first place he came to, the home of a fifty-six year old
widow by the name of Millie Pratt. No one knew for sure what time he got to her
place or when he left. What they did know was that this time he didn’t steal a car.

Russell
Jester was a career criminal who’d been born and raised in the backwoods of
North Carolina. He’d been a guest of the state most of his adult life. He
started with petty theft and graduated to sexual assault and attempted murder.
He finished his sentence for the latter three months earlier. He walked out of
the prison and disappeared into the mountains, though not before nearly beating
to death the man whose testimony had gotten him convicted. There was a massive
manhunt, but to no avail. Jester knew the mountains too well. No one could
track him down and the fact that he had a lot of family and friends who were
willing to help him didn’t make it any easier.

For
whatever reason, a week ago he’d decided to come out of the hills. Maybe he was
bored. Or maybe he just had a taste for violence and came to civilization to
satisfy it. Whatever had brought him out of hiding didn’t really matter. What
was important was that he had clearly crossed some sort of mental line. He knew
if he was caught this time he’d never get out of prison. Moreover, two of the
states he’d committed murders in had the death penalty. He didn’t have a prayer
of escaping it. Basically, he had nothing to lose and he clearly intended to
take as many people with him as he could.

Jack knew
it wasn’t over. Jester was too violent. He’d developed a taste for killing and
he wasn’t going to stop until someone forced him to. Jack had every intention
of being that person. Millie Pratt had been spared any sexual assault, though
that was little comfort considering the fact that she was dead. Jester tied her
to a chair then put a bullet in her head. Sometime before or after that murder
he raided the woman’s large store of equipment and supplies. Millie’s husband
had been an avid outdoorsman. They had every piece of conceivable gear that
could make a trek into the mountains successful. Tents, sleeping bags, portable
stoves and easy to carry and prepare food. She also owned half a dozen horses,
two of which Jester had disappeared with. As if that wasn’t enough of a worry,
it turned out that Millie’s husband also had a fondness for firearms. He had an
extensive collection, including the ammunition for each weapon. Jester must
have felt like he’d hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, he had.

Jack
felt a burning in his gut that had little to do with the fact that he hadn’t
slept or put anything other than coffee into his stomach for the past
forty-eight hours. The need to catch up to Russell Jester was like a living
thing. It clawed at his insides, making him feel more desperate than he could
ever remember feeling at any time in his life. They had to find him and stop
him. Before he found his way out of the mountains and continued his killing
spree. The problem was, they couldn’t go anywhere until the damned guide showed
up. Where the hell was the man?

Jack
had barely thought the question when the front door of the small police station
opened. His gaze snapped to it instantly as he straightened in anticipation.
Then he felt the breath still in his chest as his eyes lit on the person who
stepped through the door. He sensed the stillness that settled over the room.
Everyone came to a halt and stared at the newcomer. Beside him, Jack heard Skip
release a low whistle. It didn’t even begin to express the things Jack was
thinking and feeling.

He’d
seen beautiful women before. He’d even bedded a few that could honestly be
called gorgeous. But the woman he was staring at now had to be one of the most
incredibly lovely women he’d ever seen. His gaze slid from the top of her head
all the way down and then back up again. She had a thick mane of chestnut
colored hair that fell well past her shoulders. She wore a dress that Jack
would have called prim on anyone but her. It buttoned nearly to the neck and
fell well past her knees. The skirt flared out over hips that swayed enticingly
as she walked, seemingly straight toward Jack. He pulled his gaze off her body
and focused on her face. The instant he did, he realized she was looking
directly at him. Jack felt a shocking flash of awareness rip through him as
their gazes locked. Her eyes were the oddest color. Too pale to be truly called
brown, they were much closer to amber. They tilted slightly, adding an exotic
flavor to her features. She had the kind of bone structure any model would be
jealous of and skin as flawless as a newborn’s. Jack allowed himself a brief
flash of fantasy in which he imagined what her mouth would taste like. He was
still pondering that question when movement to the right of the woman caught
his eye.

He
blinked in surprise as a dog trotted to the woman’s side. It was huge. So large
that as it moved in close she slid her hand over its big head without even
leaning toward it at all. It wasn’t just the size of the animal that shocked
Jack, though. It was the fact that unless he was imagining it, the dog was
actually a wolf. As if sensing Jack’s gaze, the animal looked up at him. Jack
felt an odd little tingle run along his spine as he realized the dog’s eyes
were almost exactly the same color as the woman’s. It held his gaze for a long
moment, seeming to dare him to move, then it turned away and Jack released the
breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. His heart was beating too fast.
The animal hadn’t looked at him like a domesticated dog. It had seemed to be
sizing him up the way a wild animal took measure of a potential threat or meal.
Jack didn’t particularly like the idea of being either one. He was still
staring at the dog when movement on the other side of the woman drew his
attention. Jack lifted his gaze and stared at the man who reached out to cup
the woman’s elbow as she turned the corner and headed for the sheriff’s office.
Instantly, Jack’s brain kicked back into gear, and he realized that this must
be the guide they had been waiting for.

The man
wore boots and a pair of clean but well-worn jeans. There was a knife strapped
to the leather belt around his waist. His long-sleeved chambray shirt did
little to disguise his muscular build and he had brown hair peeking out beneath
the Stetson he wore on his head. The physical features suggested he was at
least physically fit and accustomed to working outside, judging by the deep tan
he bore. What caught and held Jack’s attention, though, was the expression on
the man’s face. It didn’t take much to interpret it as fury. The small group
reached the office door and the man opened it, waited for the woman and dog to
enter the office before following them, then slammed the door so hard that Jack
half expected the glass in it to shatter. His question was shouted loud enough
to echo through the small station.

BOOK: Bitter Wild
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