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Get your sneak peek of THE HUNTED

 July 25, 2022

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

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The Hunted

The Hunted

When two prisoners escape and one is found dead, Marcus O’Connell finds himself being hunted—and the hunter could be someone he trusts.

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Chapter 1

The sound of crickets punctuated the quiet neighborhood. Darkness had settled in, but Marcus needed a minute, as he leaned against the large porch beam, before he could lock up for the night and feel that all was okay in his part of the world. He lifted his hand in a wave to his brother Owen and his wife, Tessa, as they drove away in her small compact. Again, he took in the neighbors’ houses. Next door, the lights were off and all seemed quiet.

Ryan and Jenny were already inside their house across the road, and the outside light was now off. Marcus waited for that feeling he got every night before locking up, an assurance that it would be okay for him to lay his head down and go to sleep. He counted heads, making sure everyone was okay, listening to the sounds inside his house, the fussing of Cameron, who was doing his nightly protest against going to sleep.

The screen door squeaked open behind him, and Marcus turned to see his dad step out, wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt. He heard his mom and Reine talking inside. His dad nodded to him and headed over.

“Your mom is finishing up in the kitchen with Reine and Eva,” Raymond said. “That boy of yours is just like you. You always fought your mom and argued every night about how you weren’t tired, but a second later you’d be out cold. You didn’t know how to stop.”

Marcus turned to look back at the street. He was still trying to understand his dad. He leaned against the post on the porch, breathing in the warm summer night. The smell told him tomorrow would be another hot day.

“You were rather quiet tonight,” Raymond said. “Everything okay?”

What was he supposed to say? This feeling had come out of nowhere. He couldn’t remember ever having felt so unsettled, and he didn’t have a clue what had caused it—family, life, something else?

“Just one of those days, you know,” Marcus said, unable to find words to explain it.

His dad only nodded. It wasn’t lost on Marcus that his dad had been forced to stick around Livingston because his mom had refused to leave her children and grandkids. His dad had a way of seeing everything. Marcus had figured that much out, but a stranger wouldn’t have been able to tell, as Raymond never let his gaze linger too long.

Now he did, narrowing his eyes, peering out into the darkness. The stars were out, and a few streetlights were on. “Always the sheriff, looking out to make sure everyone is tucked in, safe,” he said. “Expecting trouble?”

Marcus looked over to his dad. Inside, the house phone was ringing, and a second later, it was answered. “You know something I don’t?” he said. The sarcasm dripped.

His dad only shrugged. Marcus heard footsteps and pushed away from the post just as the screen door squeaked again, and Reine stepped out, her dark hair pulled back, wearing a peach sundress, barefoot.

“Marcus, it’s for you,” she said. “It’s Therese.” She held out the cordless phone.

Marcus didn’t look over to his dad, who he knew was watching him in the way only Raymond O’Connell could. Marcus took the portable phone. “Thanks, Reine,” he said, then waited as she walked back in the house. He put the phone to his ear, glancing only once to his dad, knowing his deputy called only if there was something he needed to handle. “What’s up, Therese?”

“Sorry to call so late, Sheriff, but I have a message from the warden from Montana State. Two prisoners have escaped, and all he said was that they could be headed this way. I was about to call him back…” There was static on the line. His deputy was cutting in and out, as if she were driving.

“Hey, Therese, you’re cutting out. You said two prisoners escaped from Montana State?” He was already walking back into the house and taking the stairs two at a time. Upstairs, Charlotte was reading to his son, whom he thought he heard jumping on his bed. Marcus was in his bedroom now, yanking open the closet door and opening the gun safe to retrieve his .357 SIG.

“Sorry, Sheriff,” Therese said. “I’m about twenty minutes away, and the cell service is like shit out here. Picked up the message on the way. All it said was that two prisoners escaped. The warden is…”

“Kellogg,” Marcus cut in, fastening the holstered gun to the waistband of his jeans. As he closed up the gun safe, he pictured a man he’d met only a few times.

“I missed that part of the message,” Therese said. “I’ll give him a call and let you know what he says.”

Marcus glanced to the open door. His wife now stood in the doorway. “No, Therese, I’ve got it,” he said. “I’ll have Charlotte check the message, and I’ll give the warden a call.”

She said nothing, and he noted her hesitation.

“Anything else?” he said, realizing it had come out rather short.

“No, that was all,” Therese said. “You sure, Sheriff? I don’t mind making the call. It may be nothing.”

“Or it may be a lot,” he said. “No, I’ve got this one.” Then he hung up and held the phone out to Charlotte, taking in her wide eyes.

“What’s going on, Marcus?”

He reached for his badge. “Prison break or something along those lines. Therese just called, said the warden at Montana State left a message. Two prisoners. I need you to get his number and play that message for me.”

She was already nodding and dialing the office. Something about his wife handling phones and dispatching again settled him in ways he couldn’t explain. She scribbled down the number on a pad of paper on the dresser just as his two-year-old son came running in, all smiles, appearing nowhere near ready to go to sleep.

Marcus reached for him and gave him a toss in the air, then held him and kissed his cheek. “Hey, you. Giving your mom a hard time? You’re supposed to be asleep.”

“Not tired.”

“Yeah, well, you will be soon. Go get a book and get in bed.”

“Here, Marcus, the number,” Charlotte said. “The message is kind of garbled, but yes, it’s something about two prisoners escaping.”

He put Cameron down after kissing him again and reached for the paper and the phone, shaking his head over his rambunctious son.

Charlotte shook her head. “He’s going to be the end of me. You know he argues every night about how he isn’t tired?” She pulled her arms over her faded green t-shirt, her dark hair pulled up in a ponytail. “You’re heading out, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, after I call the warden,” he said. “I don’t like this.”

There it was, that smile of hers he loved. She leaned in the doorway, glancing once over her shoulder down the hall to where their son’s bedroom was as he dialed the phone.

“Montana State, warden’s office.” The voice was muffled, and Marcus had to really listen past the rough twang.

“This is Sheriff O’Connell, from Livingston. Is the warden there? I’ve got a message from him about a prison escape.”

He heard a rustle on the other end, then a clunk. Evidently, whoever had answered barely knew how to use a phone. “Yeah, yeah,” the person said, then yelled out, “Warden! Call for you from that Sheriff O’Connell.”

Marcus reached for his wallet and stuffed it in his back pocket, then reached for his duty belt. Charlotte didn’t look away, gesturing for an explanation, but Marcus only shook his head. There was another rustle on the phone.

“Sheriff? Warden Kellogg here.” The man had a deep voice. “Afraid two prisoners escaped. Was discovered only a short time ago by one of the guards. We’re in lockdown now. Just finished a count and are interrogating some prisoners. We know two got out for sure, but how, we have no idea. They likely had help from inside. I suspect they could be headed your way. These men are dangerous, both of them. I’ve already contacted state officials, as well, along with the other sheriffs in the area. An order has already been issued: Shoot to kill.”

Marcus angled his head, looking right at Charlotte. He wasn’t sure he’d heard the warden correctly. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Who authorized that order? With all due respect, Warden, capturing the prisoners is the first priority.”

“Sheriff O’Connell, these prisoners are a danger to the community,” the warden said. “They will slit your throat and kill you without a second thought. If you want to dance around them and be the nice guy, do it on your own time and not at the detriment of the good people of Montana. You see them, you shoot them, because these two will do anything and everything to avoid capture. Killing, maiming, looting, burning. You want the details of what they’d do to your wife and sisters, everyone in your family, everyone you care about? If you want to argue with me about bringing them in alive, you can do it, but I don’t want these two getting anywhere near innocent people. I’ve already reached out to Judge Harris, and photos of the prisoners have been sent to you.”

Marcus didn’t have a clue who these two prisoners were or what they’d done, but that sick feeling was back in his stomach with the image of the horror the warden had painted. Damn, what kind of evil had the two men done?

On the other end, the warden was talking to someone else. Then he addressed Marcus again. “Anything else, Sheriff? If not, I suggest you get your ass out there and start looking. Stan has faxed over the photos, and emails have gone out statewide.”

Something about Warden Kellogg had always unsettled Marcus, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. “Yeah, you said they could be headed my way. Why is that? They have family, friends, contacts here? I need all that information.”

“Everything about both prisoners has been sent to you. One has a girlfriend, I understand, outside Livingston, and a brother up toward Billings. If that’s all, Sheriff, I’ve got a fucking mess to handle here. You have any questions, get in touch with Sheriff Lester up in Park County. He’s got more on them, and he’s been on this since word went out. And, Sheriff O’Connell? A word of advice. I understand you may want to give these men a second chance, but sometimes we’re all better off if a criminal is six feet under. You understand?”

Yeah, he understood, but a knot twisted in his stomach as he looked over to his wife. He wondered if this explained the sick feeling he had or the cold sweat that had broken out up his spine. “Understood,” he said. “I’ll start looking.” Then he hung up and tossed the phone on the bed.

“What is it, Marcus?”

Marcus counted the extra clips in his duty belt, then walked over to his wife and ran his hand over her shoulder. “Warden says the prisoners had help from the inside to get out. Says they’re dangerous. Photos have been faxed and emailed. Can you access those? I’m going to ask Mom and Dad to stay until I get back,” he said. It was just a feeling he had, the need to keep his family together. “See if you can pull up the prisoners’ files, too. Warden said they’ve been sent. I want to know everything about them: who they are, what they did, and exactly how dangerous they are.”

He hurried down the stairs, and Charlotte was right behind him. Raymond was back in the house, and he could hear his mom, Reine, and Eva in the kitchen. Marcus stepped off the

bottom step, and Charlotte moved around him into the living room, over to the small desk where her laptop was.

“What’s going on?” Raymond said as Marcus reached for his sheriff’s jacket and lifted it from the hook.

“Marcus, I just sent the photos and files to your phone,” Charlotte called out.

Marcus pulled his iPhone from his coat pocket and turned to his dad. “Can you and Mom stay?”

Raymond didn’t seem surprised. He only nodded and said, “Yeah, of course. You worried about something?”

Marcus pulled out the keys to his cruiser. “Two prisoners have escaped and could be headed this way. Warden says they’re dangerous, so much so that he wants us to shoot first and ask questions later, so I don’t want to leave Charlotte, Reine, and the kids alone.”

He knew his dad understood. “Yeah, you got it,” he said. “You be careful.”

Marcus thumbed through his phone and pulled up the photos his wife had sent. One was dark skinned, the other lighter, both with dark hair and brown eyes, the same bugged-out mugshot expressions. Their names were Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly. “Charlotte, send these to Harold and Ryan, too,” he called out over his shoulder as he opened the door, and his dad was right behind him, holding the inside screen. “Charlotte has the photos,” Marcus told him. “Take a good look.”

Raymond nodded. “I’ll call Ryan and Owen,” he said.

Marcus lingered just outside. He didn’t know what to say to his dad. Out of anyone, he knew Raymond had a handle on this. “Thanks,” he finally said, then started down the steps. He heard the door close behind him and the lock flick closed.

He dialed his cell phone, walking straight for his cruiser and climbing in. As he tossed his duty belt and coat on the passenger seat, the phone rang once, twice…

“Okay, what did you forget?” Suzanne answered. He thought he heard Arnie fussing in the background.

“Put Harold on,” he said, shoving his cell phone in the mount on the dash. He started the car.

“No can do,” Suzanne said. “He’s in the shower. What is it?”

There she went, playing interference. He knew she was still pissed at him because he wouldn’t let her play cop in his county.

“You tell Harold to get the hell out of the shower and call me back,” he said. “There was a prison break. This is serious shit, Suzanne. Charlotte just sent him the photos and files. I need him to dig into it and then meet me at the office. I’m not messing around. Have him call me. Can you do that?”

She was quiet for a second. “Don’t take my head off, Marcus. Yeah, I’ll tell him. Hey, big brother?” She always seemed to need to have the last word.

“What?” he said as he backed the cruiser out, ready to get off the phone. He flicked on the headlights and gave the vehicle gas, looking out into the darkness, knowing he’d be taking a second and third look at anyone he saw that night, scrutinizing who they were and what they were doing.

“Watch your back,” she said.

He felt a smile tug at the corners of his lips. “Always do,” he said. “Now have Harold call me.”

Marcus ended the call before his sister could add one more thing. As he rounded the corner, feeling his own angst, he drove slower than usual and took a good, long look at the few pickups parked along the street, scanning for anyone out walking. There was only a couple with a dog.

This was going to be a really long night.

Chapter 2

Marcus stood outside the station in the dark, looking right and then left, tracking the headlights of a car as it went by. He heard the distant laughter of a few teens skateboarding just up the block. He was getting a sense for who was out, doing what, and where.

He pulled out his key and shoved it in the lock, then pulled open the door. The hallway was dark, but he didn’t flick on the lights as he strode down it, his footsteps echoing. The lights were on inside the county sheriff’s office, and he thought he heard voices.

When he opened the inner door, Therese was there, her dark hair pulled back, wearing blue jeans and a gray t-shirt. Colby, the junior deputy, was there too, which Marcus hadn’t expected. He wasn’t in uniform but instead wore a jean jacket over what he thought was a red t-shirt with a Confederate flag. Both were standing by Charlotte’s desk and the fax machine, holding papers.

“Sheriff, the photos and files of the two prisoners came in,” Therese said. She held one for Rafe Jackson, the same one he’d already seen. “Colby just got off the phone with Sheriff Lester, who has all his men out looking.”

Marcus dragged his gaze over to a quiet Colby. “And?” he said, taking in the young deputy’s round face and eyes that were more brown than blue. Colby was lanky and tall, but Marcus still had a few inches on him. He hated this twenty-questions shit, and for a second, he didn’t think Colby was going to divulge anything.

“He said not to worry about coming out,” Colby said. “He has his men doing a grid search with the dogs, and he told me to pass along that you can stay close to home. They’ve got this.”

Marcus just stared at Colby, then dragged his gaze to Therese. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there had been a lot of discussion before he walked through the door.

The door opened behind him, and he expected Harold but glanced over his shoulder to see Suzanne, wearing the same blue jeans and bulky blue shirt under a faded old jean jacket, her long brown hair hiked high in a ponytail. She closed the door behind her.

“Where is Harold?” Marcus said. “Please tell me you’re not bringing the baby, too.”

Suzanne made a face only she could. “I’ll have you know Arnie is at home, fast asleep, and so is my husband. I left him a note.”

For a moment, he just stared at his sister, wanting to snap. She’d always been the hardest one to read. “Suzanne, this isn’t the time for you to pull this crap. You understand there’s been a prison escape? Call Harold. You go home.” He knew it had come out rather sharply, but he just turned back to Therese and Colby, who were watching the siblings with wariness. His frustration ramped up as he gestured at Colby. “And what were you about to tell me, Colby? You don’t get to talk to another sheriff as if you’re running things here. Sheriff Lester has no jurisdiction to tell you to pass along a message like that, as if I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head.”

“No, Sheriff, sorry, that wasn’t what I meant,” Colby said. “Or rather, it wasn’t what Sheriff Lester meant. I’m sure he was just trying to be helpful, is all.”

Now, why didn’t Marcus believe that? “So that’s it? That was all he said to you? You call him, or did he call here? Because I’m pretty sure my cell phone didn’t ring.”

Therese was now looking at Colby, and Marcus was starting to sense something else was going on.

Colby looked down to Charlotte’s desk and the papers there. “I was here first, and there was a message from the sheriff. I called him, thinking I could get a head start on things before you got here, is all. He told me they’re already on it and there’s no need for you, that they

have all the manpower they need. That’s all, Sheriff. He was neck deep, and I could hear the dogs in the background. We didn’t talk long.”

Marcus glanced back to his sister, who had her arms crossed, watching Colby. She shot Marcus a significant look, and he heard himself let out a weary groan under his breath. He pulled out his cell phone. “I spoke with the warden,” he said, “and he figures there’s a girlfriend here in Livingston and a brother outside Billings. See what you can find out.” He flicked his gaze to Therese, then over to Colby. “Both of you, start digging. What came through on these two?” He took in the message from his wife, a PDF, and tapped it open to see the mugshots of Jackson and Donnelly again, along with their arrest dates, prison records, and next of kin.

“We have a list of misdemeanors for both, nuisance charges, as well as trouble in prison,” Therese said, holding out a paper with the same notes that had been on his phone. “Career criminals, by the looks of it. Verbal threats, assault involving a police officer, criminal mischief, unpaid fines…”

Marcus reached for the paper, because Therese had to be missing something, but it was truly just a bunch of petty misdemeanor charges. A pain in the ass, for sure, but not dangerous. The public defender had been the same for both of them, George Wallace, someone he’d never heard of.

“Therese, call the warden back and find out where the rest of the file is,” Marcus said. “And call this public defender, Wallace, and find out from him what I’m missing about his clients. We were given an urgent warning, shoot to kill, which is not something I take lightly, and what I’m looking at here doesn’t warrant that. I want to know what they haven’t told me about how dangerous these two men are. I have a town full of people who have no clue about these prisoners on the loose. If anything, I need an alert put out to everyone in town to be on the lookout. You both got it?”

“Yes, Sheriff, absolutely,” Therese said, already on her way to her desk. Colby was still holding some papers, which Marcus snatched from his hands, but they were just a duplicate of the misdemeanor charges, as if someone had just kept faxing the first page.

“Colby, you tell me everything that was said between you and Sheriff Lester?” Marcus said.

Colby looked up at him with wide eyes. “He was just rushed, impatient, is all. Sheriff, he said not to worry, that he’s got it.”

Marcus glanced back to his sister, who only shrugged and widened her eyes. She thought she was being coy, but he knew her better. He dragged his gaze back to Colby. “Yeah, well, I doubt that. He’s got nothing in my part of the county. Go and give Therese a hand.” He turned to his sister. “You, come with me.”

Marcus headed for his office, hearing Therese on the phone already, wishing Harold were there. He waited as his sister walked into his office behind him, and he flicked on the light and closed the door behind her, holding the knob, taking a second. He walked over to his desk and dumped the papers on it.

“I know what you’re going to say, Marcus.”

“Oh, I highly doubt that,” he said. Everything in his sister’s face, her passion, her life, reminded him so much of the little girl who had tried to tag along on whatever he and Ryan had been up to as kids. They’d spent so much time ditching her, and it seemed she was still trying to find a way to sneak in, only now they were grown-ups, and she wasn’t scared of anything.

“You don’t have to be so nasty,” she said. “Besides, you’ve got Therese and Colby out there, making calls for you. You really should get notice out to the public. You don’t have to give details of what they’ve done, but you need their photos out there so people in the surrounding area know to be on the lookout and not open their doors for a stranger. We don’t

want someone to take the trash out and find one of these two hiding in their yard. People need to know to lock their doors tonight, Marcus, and maybe keep that shotgun in easy reach.”

He just stared at his sister, knowing she was right, but it was only because she was messing with him and interfering in his business, police business, that he wasn’t already all over it.

“Don’t worry, Marcus,” she said. “I can handle this for you, and then I promise you I’ll call Harold.”

He just stared at her. The phone was ringing from Charlotte’s desk, and he heard Colby answer it. “Fine,” he said. “Handle it. Get the notice out to local TV stations and cell phones, and then you call your husband and go home.”

Whomever Colby was talking to, he was now writing something down. “Yes, I’ll let the sheriff know,” he said. “He’ll be right out there.” Then he hung up. Marcus had just stepped back around his desk when Colby lifted the notepad and called out to him, “Sheriff, they found them! One’s dead, just past Miller’s Field. They need you out there to sign off. I can tag along.”

Marcus stared at Colby with a sinking feeling. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a long night after all. “No, it’s fine,” he said. “You go on home. I’ve got this.” Then he looked back to his sister, who was giving him that wide-eyed look. He shook his head and said, “You may as well come with me.”

There it was, a smile. For a second, he wondered whether she’d do a victory dance.

“Don’t get too excited,” he said. “Just making sure you don’t turn this office upside down.”

“Now, don’t be nasty, Marcus,” Suzanne said, thumping his chest with her fist as she walked past him and pulled open the door.

Marcus glanced back over to Therese, who was now off the phone. “You too, Therese, head on home. I’ll call you if there’s anything else,” he said.

Then he was out the door behind his sister, letting out a heavy sigh as he took in the paper he held. He knew well the location, a secluded spot in his county. His sister should have been home with her baby, yet there she was, sticking her nose in his crime scene.

“Well, are you coming, Marcus?” Suzanne called from the door and gestured impatiently.

“After this, you go home,” he told her. “Better yet, I’ll drop you off.”

She only angled her head, then gave it a shake and fell in beside him as they walked out to his cruiser. Harold’s Kia was parked right beside him.

“You didn’t tell Harold, did you?” he said, though it wasn’t a question.

Her hand was on the passenger door. Her mouth tightened, and she shrugged. “He really did fall asleep. I left him a note.”

He shut his eyes as Suzanne open the passenger door and climbed in. Yeah, he was going to have to have a word with his deputy about dealing with his sister. He slid behind the wheel and started the car. “When we get out there, Suzanne, I want you to stay out of the way.”

“Whatever you say, Marcus,” was all she said, and he knew she didn’t mean it. Damn, at times, he really did have a ton of sympathy for Harold.

Chapter 3

“Is that it?” Suzanne said. “Holy shit, Marcus, it looks like everyone’s here. What did Colby say happened, again?”

Marcus parked behind a sheriff’s cruiser from Park County and took in how many vehicles were on the scene just off the dirt road, surrounded in bushes and trees—another sheriff’s cruiser, a few pickups, and a van with Montana Corrections on the side. What had to be the crime scene was flooded with light. He shoved the vehicle in park, feeling his anger spike, because he wondered how many of them had missed the fact that they were now treading in his territory. Suzanne was staring out the window, glued to the scene. Yeah, he really wished she weren’t there.

“All he said was that it’s a crime scene,” he said. “I didn’t expect this. Like, what the hell? This is clearly on my side of the county line.” He stepped out of his cruiser and could just make out a sheriff’s deputy walking his way. It was a face he’d never forget. “Lonnie,” he bit out, still pissed that Sheriff Lester over in Park County had hired the deputy without so much as a damn courtesy call. Lonnie had been a source of misery for Marcus, considering how far the man had gone in trying to destroy his family.

“Marcus, we’ve got this all handled here,” Lonnie called out, actually raising his hands and waving as if Marcus were some bystander, as if he had any hope in hell of stopping him. Lonnie seemed to puff out his chest as he came to stand in front of him, sporting a mustache now. He settled his hand on his duty belt, another reminder of his arrogance. Then he held an arm out to stop Marcus from walking past him. “Whoa, stop right there.”

“You seem to forget yourself, Lonnie,” Marcus said. “This is my county you’re in. You ain’t handling nothing in my county. Now move the hell out of my way. You’re out of your jurisdiction with no authority. You hear me?” Marcus leaned in, biting the last part out.

He took a step and realized Suzanne was right there beside him. Of course, she hadn’t stayed in the car. Lonnie dragged his gaze over to her, lingering a little too long.

“Hey, Lonnie,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

Marcus didn’t look away. He couldn’t believe how calm Suzanne sounded.

“You keeping well, Suzanne?” Lonnie said.

Marcus gave his head a shake. “Fuck,” he bit out, then stepped around Lonnie, bumping him, and glanced back at his sister. “Let’s go,” he said, knowing he sounded pissed off.

He kept walking, and Suzanne fell in beside him. He couldn’t help glancing back to Lonnie, who was actually looking into his cruiser. “Fucking asshole! I swear, he puts one print on my cruiser and I’ll take him down.”

“Seriously, Marcus, let it go,” Suzanne said. “He was just flexing his non-existent muscles, making up for the fact that he was castrated as a kid and has nothing for balls—not real ones, anyway. You think I haven’t had to put up with those asshole moves? Just let it go.”

He couldn’t believe his sister sometimes. She kept up with him, her long legs matching his stride, hearing the crunch of debris, sticks, and leaves under his feet. It was still warm out. The trail was wide, and he passed another pickup, a four by four with the Park County sheriff’s logo. At another vehicle, a man had the back gate down and was loading three dogs in, two of them barking.

“Romi, who called you out?” Marcus said.

The dog handler was a big man whose dark hair had a natural messy wave. His beard was braided, his glasses were thick, and his belly was hanging over his belt. “Sheriff Lester over in Park County called me,” Romi said. “Got a call from the prison, too. Been a while since I had the dogs out, chasing someone down. Sheriff’s over there. He asked me to hold tight and

pick up the trail again for the other guy. The dogs need a break and some water, anyway. I told them if they keep tromping all over the scene, it makes it hard for the dogs to pick up the scent. It’s been a long night so far, and it’s about to get longer, I suppose.”

Marcus took in the dogs in the back of the pickup. Two were now drinking water from an old tin bucket, and one was lying down. Under the floodlights just ahead, he spotted Lester with a bunch of other cops he didn’t recognize. “Hold that thought,” Marcus said, “and don’t do anything until I give the word. This is my county, and any order to do anything comes from me first. Let me get up to speed here. One is caught, you said?”

“One is dead.” Romi gestured with his thumb, and even though it was dark, Marcus didn’t miss the disgust all over his face, though for what, exactly, he didn’t know.

“Don’t go far,” Marcus tossed out over his shoulder as he started walking to the lit-up scene. His sister had again fallen in beside him.

“How friendly are you and this sheriff?” she said.

“He’s tolerable, barely, considering he went behind my back in hiring Lonnie. Haven’t had to deal with him too much. He stays in his county, and I stay in mine. Now this…” He gestured to the scene and the six people he counted ahead.

“Marcus,” Suzanne said quietly, gesturing to Sheriff Lester, who was now walking his way, sweat stains on his brown uniform shirt and a sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest. He was balding, heavyset, and gestured to someone behind him who had called out.

Sheriff Lester took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The other man, the one who had called out, was in a ball cap and blue jeans, no one he’d ever seen before, another person in his county who should have been talking to him first. He was now walking the other way, though where to, Marcus had no idea.

“Well, Sheriff, sorry to drag you all the way out here and waste your time,” Lester said. “We caught one of the bastards—or found him, really. Not much for you to do here. We kind of got this all handled. Body bag will be here in a minute. We’ll toss the poor bugger in it, and the prison can deal with the remains.”

Marcus stopped and looked past the sheriff, who was a few inches shorter than him. In a circle of trees, a man lay face down, arms at his sides. One of Lester’s deputies was kneeling down over the body, and floodlights lit up everything. “I heard he’s dead,” Marcus said. “Just one, so the other is still on the loose?”

“Yup, afraid so,” Lester said. “That one’s Donnelly. Poor miserable soul, evidently not the smarter of the two.” He actually tsked under his breath, then looked at Suzanne but said nothing, and his silence only put Marcus further on edge.

Three other men stood by the body in uniforms, so he stepped around the older sheriff, but his hand slapped right to his arm, stopping him. Marcus let his gaze fall there, and the sheriff pulled it away.

“Again, Marcus, we’ve got this handled. You just need to sign off and we’ll finish up here. The guards will get the body hauled out, and everyone can go on home.”

“You don’t mind if I have a look, do you?” Marcus said. “After all, this crime scene is in my county. As you said, you need me to sign off. Seems you’re working pretty hard to send me on my way, which has me wondering why. And a word of advice? Don’t put your hands on me again.”

His pissed-off voice had held a clear warning, and the sheriff lifted his hands and made a face, taking a step back. Marcus glanced over to his sister again, who, he realized by her widened eyes, had evidently picked up on the fact that something was wrong. She joined him in stepping around Lester.

“Now, don’t go getting all hot and bothered there, Marcus,” Lester said, turning to follow them. “We’ve already

on home, crawl back in bed with that pretty little wife of yours, and have a good night’s sleep.”

Suzanne slapped her hand right to Marcus’s chest before he could say anything. The old sheriff had fallen in beside her. Evidently, she knew Lester was really stepping into it with Marcus.

Marcus realized three of the uniformed men ahead were prison guards, likely from the state prison, men who worked for Kellogg, one taller than the other two. They only nodded once to him, but no one said anything, and everyone had a look that put him on edge just a little more.

Marcus took in the four spotlights lighting up the scene. The man was facedown, unmoving. There was blood on his back, and instead of an orange jumpsuit, he wore dirty brown prison garb, pants and a short-sleeved shirt. His dark hair was messy, short. Marcus didn’t have a clue what had happened.

“So is someone going to fill me in?” he said. “I take it this is one of the escaped convicts. Bullet in the back, lying facedown, dead. Who did this? A man shot in the back poses a problem.”

The prison guards said nothing but exchanged the kind of look that had the hair on the back of Marcus’s neck standing up. A deputy who had been leaning over the body walked over to him. He was of medium height and build, wearing a Park County uniform, and had short dark hair.

“Jim Carlyle, Sheriff,” he said, pulling off his rubber gloves to hold his hand out to Marcus in the first show of respect he’d received since arriving at the scene. Marcus hesitated only a second before shaking his hand.

“So what happened here?” Marcus gestured to the body, waiting for someone to start talking. He glanced behind him to the three men from the prison, standing together. What was it about having his back to them that really unsettled him?

“He was hiding,” Sheriff Lester said, stepping in. “Came out of the bushes and took a swing at Peters over there. Lonnie shot him before he could do anything else. Dead by the time he hit the ground. Good thing Lonnie was there, or Peters could’ve been the one lying dead. Dangerous motherfuckers. Look, we chased him for miles on foot. He was a danger to the community, and the community is better off and far safer. He’d have raped, murdered, and done worse to any woman and child out there. This is better for everyone.”

Marcus could just make out Lonnie standing over by his cruiser. He spotted emergency lights pulling up, likely for the body. He turned back and looked at the ground, the debris, leaves, twigs. His sister was staring at the body, and her blue eyes flickered with something he was familiar with. She had the same questions he did, maybe. At least she was staying quiet, or maybe she realized he wasn’t in the mood to handle her, as well. It seemed Lester was speaking for everyone there.

Marcus stepped around Deputy Carlyle and angled his head as he took in the body again.

“Marcus, I understand your apprehension,” Lester said, “and I’m very aware this is your county, but we’re on the same team here.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” Marcus snapped, glancing back over to him. Lester had been sheriff in Park County for as long as Marcus could remember. He wondered which residents kept electing him.

“Now, don’t go getting all territorial,” Lester said. “You’re still new at being a sheriff, so you haven’t learned how things work here. You back us up, Marcus. Don’t go making this into something it’s not, because the folks around here won’t appreciate their sheriff wasting tax dollars and putting resources into a criminal who has already taken so much from so many. He’s dead, caught, and that’s all they care about. They don’t want this dragged out or stirred up, creating a problem. The investigation is done, you hear me?”

He heard the warning in the old sheriff’s voice, but he didn’t miss the awkwardness in Jim Carlyle’s stance, and then there were the guards, who had said nothing at all. He let his gaze linger on Lester. The man was doing his best to tell Marcus how to run his county and shut down questions about what had really happened there.

“Which one of you is Peters?” Marcus said, then waited. The one in the middle nodded. He was round in the middle, a few inches shorter than Marcus, and he realized none of them carried a weapon.

“That’s me,” the man said, then actually stepped forward and lifted his hand in the air. His hair was a lighter shade of brown, with messy waves. The other two guards had dark skin, one lighter than the other, one a few inches taller than the other, but both offered nothing, watching silently.

Lester appeared in his line of sight again, over by the guard, close to losing it on him. Evidently, he had missed the fact that Marcus was the kind of cop who actually did his own homework and allowed no one to tell him how to do his job.

“Well, how about you tell me what happened here?” Marcus said. He rested his hand over his duty belt, not missing the way the deputy glanced over at the sheriff.

“Just like the sheriff said, Donnelly sucker-punched me, knocked me down, and Lonnie took him out before he could take one of us out.”

Marcus let his gaze linger on Peters. He heard approaching voices. One he knew was Lonnie, with the arrogant twang that had always irritated the shit out of him. He glanced over his shoulder to see a man in a jacket, the coroner, walking toward him as well.

Marcus dragged his gaze back to Peters and Sheriff Lester, who was watching the guard closely. Marcus figured the men would do what their sheriff said and go along with everything he told them to do. Again, that off feeling just wouldn’t go away. He looked down at the body. The blood that covered the man’s back and the ground appeared dry.

“So you’re telling me he hit you?”

The guard hesitated, then nodded.

“Knocked you on your ass? And you were running around out here without a gun?”

The guard hesitated, narrowing his gaze. “Look, of course I had a shotgun. It’s secured now, back in the vehicle. Sheriff, this was a long chase, and he wasn’t about to go quietly. These are dangerous men. It could go down only one way.”

Marcus pulled out his phone and opened the camera to take photos of the body, then walked around to the head. The man’s arms were by his sides. Marcus crouched down and then gestured to Deputy Carlyle. “Roll him over,” he said. “You have another pair of gloves?”

Carlyle pulled gloves from his back pocket and held them out to Marcus, who snapped them on. The sheriff was saying something to the guards, all three of them talking in low voices. The deputy leaned down and helped him roll the body over. He was very aware the crime scene was both compromised and clean. The prisoner’s face had bruising, nothing fresh, and blood covered the front of the shirt. He found himself looking for an exit wound, aware that everyone was watching him.

“It looks like someone worked him over pretty good,” he said.

“Prison life is hard,” one of the other guards drawled.

Marcus didn’t bother looking up. “Maybe so,” he said. “You say he came out swinging, hit you? From here, it doesn’t look like you have a mark on you. You look like you have at least thirty pounds on him, give or take, but not a mark or a speck of dirt other than stinking of sweat? You don’t look like a man on the receiving end of a fight. If it went down as you said, the prisoner should have been lying in a pool of his own blood, but the ground is dry, and the way he was lying on the ground, his hands at his sides, it seems as if he didn’t even try to break his fall, almost as if he were placed there…”

“Now, you just wait a minute, Sheriff O’Connell,” Lester snapped, fire in his eyes as he stepped over to Marcus, right in the circle of a crime scene that no one seemed too concerned about keeping clean. Marcus already knew without a doubt that everything had been tampered with, but could he prove it? No. “You accusing us of lying? If I were you, I’d think real long and hard about what you say next. You forget about what a danger this man was? A shoot to kill order was issued, so we took that motherfucker out, and no one is going to question us—not the warden, who ordered it, or Judge Harris, who signed off on it. You and I both know there could be a lot of reasons for the way we found him, including the fact that he was dead before he hit the ground. The blood could have soaked into the soil. And he sucker-punched Peters in a low blow to the groin. You want him to drop his pants so you can inspect him?”

Lonnie still stood with the coroner, and everyone was watching Marcus as if he were the problem. He realized he was the odd man out. He dragged his gaze over to Suzanne and her horrified blue eyes, and he just couldn’t shake the feeling that time was up. She was in way over her head, and he needed her out of there.

“Marcus, the only one who has a problem here is you,” Lonnie said. “This was a dangerous criminal that the world is a safer place without.”

Marcus knew he made a face as he pulled off his gloves, standing up. “You shot a man in the back, Lonnie.”

“Shoot to kill was the order, Marcus, or would you rather it were one of us lying there, dead?”

Lester pulled his hand over his chin and took a step closer to him, dragging his gaze from Lonnie to him. “Lonnie is right, Marcus,” he said. “It was him or one of us, and I can tell you there was no goddamn way one of us was going down. You don’t take chances with criminals who pose a danger to the good people of your county. I’m going to save you before word gets out in Livingston that the sheriff is more interested in protecting dangerous criminals than the people who elected him.

“This is how it’s going to work, son: You’re going to sign off on this, and we’re going to handle all the paperwork, and then this thing is going to get filed away neatly. There’s nothing for you to see here, nothing other than an escaped convict. This is about your ego, is all. I know there’s bad blood between you and Lonnie, but set it aside, Marcus. Shake hands about this and move on.”

Marcus couldn’t believe the old sheriff was seriously treating this like some schoolyard disagreement. He let out a rough laugh and shook his head. “Un-fucking believable,” he said under his breath, then dragged his gaze back to the sheriff and over to the three guards. Lonnie still stood with the coroner, who was holding a folded-up body bag. “Two prisoners, one dead, the other still on the loose.”

His cell phone started ringing, and he saw Harold’s name on the screen. He handed his sister the phone and said only, “It’s your husband.” She took it and stepped away to answer, and Marcus turned back to the sheriff and said, “So that’s it?” He gestured to the body and to Deputy Carlyle, who was standing off to the side.

“As soon as you let it be and stop holding everyone up here,” Lester said. “Oh, and, Sheriff? No need for you to join in the hunt for the other prisoner. Romi has his dogs ready, and we’ll track him in no time. He couldn’t have gone far. We’ll find him.”

Calm, cool. The way the sheriff let his gaze linger on Marcus, he knew he was done there. He tossed his gloves to Carlyle, who caught them one-handed, and then he took one step and then another over to the sheriff standing in front of him.

Marcus jabbed his finger at Lester’s chest. “You come into my county again and pull this bullshit, you and I are going to have more than a problem, and you do not want that,” he said.

Then he glared at Lonnie, who stared at him with an arrogance Marcus wanted to wipe off his face.

He glanced over to Suzanne as she hung up, her back to him. The tension lingered, but he figured Harold had spoken his piece and then some. Marcus headed over to her and took his phone back.

“Let’s go,” was all he said as he started walking, and Suzanne fell in beside him again, glancing back only once. “Everything okay?”

“Sure, other than the fact that Harold is likely ready to file for divorce,” she said. “He demanded I get my ass home. Oh, and he asked me if I’ve lost my mind, considering Colby just called and filled him in, and that was when he saw my note.”

Marcus glanced down at his sister. “Harold isn’t going to divorce you. Don’t be so damn dramatic.”

She shrugged and nudged him. “No, he’ll get over it. You’re right, he loves me. But thanks for letting me tag along,” she said, her voice light.

He glanced down at his little sister, who, at times, knew how to push every one of his buttons, and grunted, “Don’t let this go to your head, but thanks for the extra set of eyes out there.”

And for just being there to watch his back, he thought, but he wasn’t about to tell her that last part.

Suzanne wrapped her arms around him, hugging him, and Marcus stumbled a bit. “Yay! Does that mean I can join the department?” She pulled back and tapped his arm with her fisted hand. He always knew when she was excited. Deep down, she was still a tomboy.

“Hell, no. I just have a feeling that if I’d shown up alone, this could have ended differently.”

Suzanne glanced back, unsmiling. They kept walking past Romi, who was leaning over the back of his pickup, running his hand over one of the dogs, talking on his cell phone. He only lifted his hand in a wave to Marcus as he walked past.

“Yeah, about that,” Suzanne said. “So who do you think moved the body, staged the scene?”

He shook his head, glancing again to his sister as they reached his cruiser. She walked around to the passenger side, and as Marcus climbed in and closed his door, she reached for her seatbelt. He pulled his keys from his pocket, shoved them in the ignition, and started it, considering everything that had happened, the scene, the night, and everyone who had been there.

He let out a sigh as he dragged his gaze to his sister. “Good question,” he said. “My guess? All of them.”

Chapter 4

As Marcus drove outside Livingston on a highway that went for miles, bordered by forests, mountains, privacy, and lots of places to hide, his mounted cell phone was ringing again, Harold’s name on the screen. It was dark in the car, but he knew Suzanne saw it. He pressed the green answer icon.

“You know where we are right now?” was all Marcus said when he answered, hearing the baby crying in the background.

“Yeah, well, not much I can do, where I am. You’re bringing Suzanne back? Can’t even pack Arnie up because she took my car.”

Marcus winced at the way Harold had snapped. Yeah, he was pissed, and could he blame him? Marcus kept on the road, his brights on the empty highway. His sister was quiet as he looked over at her, shaking his head again.

“Call my mom,” Marcus said. They were getting closer to Livingston. “She can send Jake over to pick up Arnie. Your car’s at the station. Just left the crime scene, where Donnelly’s body is. Goddamn Lonnie was there, put a bullet in his back. The way the body was laid out neatly, someone put it there. He was shot somewhere else. Makes no sense, considering the order was shoot to kill. Still don’t know why, and you know me; I don’t like puzzles where there are no answers. No one seemed too willing to come clean on what really happened. I smell a ton of bullshit, and the hunt is still on for the other prisoner, Rafe Jackson. If it’s all the same, I’d like to find him first.”

“Forget your mom,” Harold said. “I already called Owen. He and Tessa are on their way over and will watch Arnie. Suzanne, you listening? You can’t keep pulling this shit. A fucking note. You left a note about an active manhunt.”

Marcus turned to his sister again. They had reached a point where this wasn’t just between her and Harold anymore. “You two can hash that out later,” he said. “You spoke to Colby? He filled you in on what the prison sent over on those two? Because I remember the warden saying something about a girlfriend in the area and a brother up by Billings, but I didn’t get the details on them. Can you get me her address? And which one’s girlfriend is she? Also, I told Therese to call the warden back and get me the rest of the file, because what they sent was nothing. They based a shoot to kill on a bunch of threats and misdemeanors. I’m missing something, and I don’t like these kinds of holes.”

“Look, I talked to Colby,” Harold said. “He said Therese put in a call to the warden but didn’t talk to him. Had to leave a message. He didn’t tell me you were missing information. I guess if someone had actually woken me, I could have been at the station, handling this already, and we wouldn’t be two steps behind.” Harold paused. “Owen and Tessa are here.”

Marcus heard voices. Evidently, Harold was answering the door. The baby was still fussing. Suzanne said nothing, and when he glanced her way again, she stared straight ahead. Yeah, she was tough to crack.

“Well,” Marcus said when Harold had come back on the line, “get your ass to the station and dig up everything on those two, but get me the girlfriend’s address first and information on any other next of kin for Rafe Jackson. Everything on Donnelly, too.”

Headlights were coming his way. Marcus flicked his brights as the car passed. His phone beeped, another call on the line.

“Harold, someone is calling,” he said. “Just let me know when you’re at the station.” He hung up before his deputy could say anything else and answered the other call. “Marcus O’Connell.”

“Sheriff, I just got off the phone with the public defender, George Wallace.” It was Therese. “He couldn’t recall the names. Said he’d have to pull the files and he’d call me in the morning.”

“You tell him to get his goddamn ass out of bed and dig out those files now, not in the morning,” Marcus said. “Does he have no fucking idea what the hell has happened? Two of his clients broke out of prison, there is a shoot to kill order, and one is dead.” Damn, he was so done with no one giving him the answers he needed.

“Which, if you would have let me finish, was exactly what I told him,” Therese said. “And I told him to call me right back.” She sounded rather calm in response, considering he’d just taken her head off.

“Colby still there?” he said.

“Uh-huh. Told him to start digging around in the Corrections database.”

Okay, so she’d been thinking.

“Oh,” she said. “It’s the public defender calling back.”

He heard a phone ringing. “You know what, Therese? Put him through to me, and keep digging. And, by the way, Harold’s on his way in.” He glanced over to Suzanne in the darkened cruiser and realized she was looking right at him, shaking her head.

“Sure, I’ll put him through,” Therese said. Then she hung up, and Marcus glanced again at his sister.

“You know, Suzanne, stepping between you and Harold is not what I’m interested in doing, but you can’t pull this. He’s right. I depend on him. He’s one of the best investigators out there, and he finds things I wouldn’t think to have him look for. He’s that good.”

His cell phone started ringing again, and Suzanne said nothing. She was getting hammered from all sides. He pressed the green answer icon.

“This is Sheriff O’Connell.”

“Sheriff, this is George Wallace, public defender. One of your deputies called about two prisoners I represented, a Rafe…” He was flipping through papers. His voice was a little too soft, too abrupt.

“Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly,” Marcus said. “Donnelly is dead, by the way. Just left the scene. Jackson is still on the loose, so I need you to tell me why there’s a shoot to kill order on them both, considering the only thing I received from the warden was a history of verbal threats, assault involving a police officer…” He could see the edge of Livingston and its lights.

More papers were flipping. “Oh, here it is,” Wallace said. “Well, this doesn’t make sense. You said who was dead?”

Damn, a confused public defender.

“Holter Donnelly,” Suzanne said, jumping in. “Gunshot to the back. Was he a danger to the community?” Then, maybe because the public defender didn’t know who was talking, she added, “This is Suzanne O’Connell.”

Marcus wanted her to just stop, already.

“Okay, yeah,” Wallace said. “I remember these two now, but I hope you know I can’t share anything with you. Client confidentiality…”

“I’m not asking you to breach confidentiality,” Marcus said. “What I’m asking for are the charges. Explain to me what this is. Were they a danger?”

He heard a heavy sigh in the background, then papers shuffling. “All I can say, Sheriff, is that they were charged with misdemeanors that never should have landed them where they are. But I’m just a public defender. You have any idea how thick my case load is? I usually meet my clients for the first time when they’re dragged into the court room, shackled, and the only thing I have time for are quick questions about how they want to plead and whether the charges have merit, and then the judge is there.

“Dangerous? I don’t know where that came from. All I can tell you is that one of them was a street preacher, the other a veteran. Both, I think, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that altercation with a cop, the cop said they were the aggressors. I wish I could tell you more, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know anything about them. I had basically five minutes with each of them.

“Oh, here it is. Rafe Jackson was given five years and was up for parole soon. Holter was given a ridiculous sentence of eight years, plus three years’ probation over some bullshit. Excuse the French. But he was angry. I understand lack of sleep in jail does that, but he didn’t keep his cool in front of the judge, which landed him on his wrong side. The first thing I tell everyone is respect first, because the judge doesn’t give a shit about their problems, threats from other inmates, that they can’t get a shower, take a shit, or sleep, or that there’s some guy inside named Sue who won’t leave them be.” The lawyer sighed again.

Marcus glanced over to see how intently Suzanne was staring at the cell phone. “So why the shoot to kill order?” he finally asked.

“Honestly, Sheriff?”

“Please. Would be appreciated.”

“How often do you hear of prisoners escaping?”

Marcus shook his head. “Rarely, if ever.”

“My guess is you’re dealing with ego,” Wallace said. “A pissed-off warden of a state prison is not someone you want to be on the wrong side of. Can you imagine what would happen to the prisoners if caught alive? Their fates would be worse at the hands of the warden, who basically owns them, and there’s no one they can call for help. If that warden wants to, he can make sure a prisoner disappears, never sees the light of day, and everyone knows it, those inside, anyway. My opinion, Sheriff? The shoot to kill may have been a mercy.”

Suzanne hissed, and Marcus glanced over to her before saying, “You know anything about a girlfriend or family of either of these two? The warden mentioned something about one of them having a brother up towards Billings and a girlfriend around Livingston.”

The man grunted. “Here it is. Tracy Mitchell, girlfriend of Rafe. It just says Livingston. I don’t have an address or phone number. You said one of them has a brother? I have nothing here. The only reason I know about the girlfriend is that she’s left me a lot of messages, hounding me to file an appeal.”

Marcus shook his head. His sister had pulled out her cell phone and was typing something in, then held the screen up toward him.

“Marcus, an address right here for Tracy,” she said.

He only nodded. “Okay, thanks, George. If you hear from Rafe or think of anything else, you call me.”

“Goodnight, Sheriff,” was all the lawyer said.

Marcus hit the end call icon and turned to his sister. “How far is she from here?”

Suzanne tapped her phone, then gestured to the road ahead. “Not far. So does this mean you’re not taking me home?”

He pulled in a breath, knowing his sister wanted him to say the one thing he wasn’t about to. “Nope, but you’ll have to stay in the car this time. Now give me the address and don’t let this go to your head.”

He turned left on a secondary road just outside of town, still rural, with houses on lots that were an acre or two in size. A lot of places to hide. There was that feeling again. Just how far behind were Sheriff Lester and his men or Kellogg’s guards?

“I’m letting nothing go to my head,” Suzanne said. “I know my limitations very well, but at the same time, Marcus, I know how to look up an address, I know what a crime scene looks like, and I know when someone shouldn’t be someplace. Oh, Tracy Mitchell’s place is

right here.” She gestured to a dirt driveway with a small doublewide and an old pickup parked out front.

Marcus pulled in behind it and parked, then turned to his sister, who had unfastened her seatbelt and already had her hand on the door. “Suzanne, I mean it. This time, I need you to stay here in the car.”

She looked over to him in that way of hers, and for a moment, he thought she’d argue. He took in the double wide. The outside light was off, and the house was dark. In bed? Likely, considering it was well past midnight.

“If you want me to stay here, I will,” Suzanne said. “But, Marcus, you’re alone. There’s still the matter of this prisoner on the loose, and the warden wants him dead. If he’s here, you think he’s going to come easy? The least I can do is watch your back.”

Damn, why did she have to be so reasonable? He knew he needed to say no. He gave his door a yank. “You stay behind me and out of the way,” he said.

Then he stepped out of the vehicle, and so did Suzanne. He closed his door quietly, and she did the same. As he walked around the front of the vehicle, she fell in beside him. She gestured to the door, up some narrow rickety steps, and he nodded.

He pulled the screen door open and gave a solid knock on the wooden door behind it. “Sheriff’s department!” he called out, then glanced down to his sister, who stood at the bottom of the steps, looking at him and around. He heard footsteps inside, the outside light flicked on, and his hand went right to his holstered gun as he heard the lock click.

“Tracy Mitchell, open up!” he yelled.

The door cracked open a bit. A light was on inside. The woman standing there was short, with a narrow face, messy brown hair, brown eyes, and a dark blue robe. “Can I help you?”

He didn’t think she was that old. Mid-thirties, maybe. “Are you Tracy Mitchell?”

She nodded. “I am. What is this about?”

He looked past her, listening for anything. “There was a prison escape tonight, Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly. I understand you know them?”

She pressed her hand to her chest, pulling her robe closed. “I do, but I don’t know anything about them escaping. You must be mistaken.”

Again, he wondered if she was hiding something. “So you haven’t heard from either of them.”

She made a face and shrugged. “No, I haven’t.”

He wondered if she’d tell the truth. “Well, let me put it this way: The warden and the Park County sheriff’s office have a shoot to kill order out on both of them, and law enforcement has been alerted they’re both considered dangerous. I was just at a crime scene where the body of Holter Donnelly was, shot in the back. So, again, I’m going to ask you about Rafe. You see him? And before you answer me, know that I’m trying to save his life, but he’s got to turn himself in, because the law out there are looking for him, and they aren’t going to ask questions. They’re going to shoot first. You understand what I’m saying?”

She said nothing, just swallowed and licked her lips, nervous. She glanced out to his sister at the bottom of the stairs. “I don’t know what I can tell you, Sheriff, but if you’re really trying to help, and I hope you are, then you have to know the truth of the matter. Neither of them should have been in jail. The only thing they did wrong was stand before the wrong judge, and that was after a cop lied about what happened. They’re not dangerous, neither of them.” She sounded pissed.

“Then you won’t mind if we come in and have a look around.”

She was standing right in the doorway, her arms crossed, both scared and pissed. “You have a warrant? Because unless you do, you’re not setting one foot in my house.” She moved to shut the door, but Marcus slapped his hand to it before she could.

“I guess you didn’t hear me,” he said. “Rafe is a wanted man, a criminal, and in the eyes of the law, he’s already been convicted. I don’t need a warrant, so unless you want to find yourself arrested for obstruction or aiding and abetting a fugitive, a felony conviction for which you’d serve a good many years…”

Her eyes flashed with fury as she stepped back, letting go of the door. Marcus pushed it open, and she just stood there, staring at him with an anger he didn’t even know how to reason with.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” she said. “Come on in. But hear me well, Sheriff: I will not be intimidated, pushed around, or threatened. I already said Rafe isn’t here. Just don’t make a mess, and don’t be long. I have an early day tomorrow.” Then she turned her back, walked into the small kitchen, and lifted a kettle and filled it with water.

Marcus stepped into the living room, seeing a large flatscreen, a small green sectional, and piles of papers and books. On one wall, papers and notes were pinned up along with photos of a cop and a judge, as well as a timeline. He found himself looking back to the woman, who was now watching him.

“What’s this?” He gestured to the wall, on which there was also a copy of a police report.

“What does it look like?” Tracy said. “I told you Rafe and Holter didn’t deserve what happened. Their only crime was standing up to a bully for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. But as you said, Sheriff, he’s been convicted. To hell with whether it was right.” She put the kettle on the stove and flicked on the burner.

“I never said that,” Marcus said. “Right now, I’m just trying to prevent Rafe from also ending up on a slab in the morgue. If he’s innocent, I promise you I’ll look into it, but I’ve got to find him first.” He knew he sounded reasonable. He heard the squeak of the floor and turned to see his sister in the doorway.

Tracy shut her eyes for a second. He wondered if this was where she would come clean. She had to know something. Then she flicked her eyes open and gave her head a shake. “As I said, Sheriff, I haven’t heard from him, so if you don’t mind, have your look-see, and then, with all due respect, get the fuck out of my house.”

Chapter 5

Time was ticking. Marcus pulled open the driver’s door of his cruiser, then slid behind the wheel. Suzanne was still just inside the house, talking with Tracy.

He had searched the two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and small laundry room but knew no one was hiding inside. He still figured Tracy knew something, though, and he didn’t have a clue how his sister managed to talk to a woman who’d basically told him to go fuck himself. Tracy was gesturing passionately now, maybe because Suzanne wasn’t wearing a badge, carrying a gun, or representing a system that had incarcerated someone she cared about. Or maybe it was because Suzanne was less of a threat.

“You still there, Marcus?” Harold said. He had called a few seconds ago and was waiting on the line.

“Yeah. Tell me you have something, anything, on Jackson and Donnelly,” Marcus said. “The lawyer said one was a street preacher and the other a veteran. I’m at Tracy Mitchell’s right now, and she’s less than forthcoming. Suzanne is talking to her.”

“My wife, Suzanne?” Harold said rather sharply.

“Yes, your wife, my sister—who, evidently, Tracy likes better than me. She’s fine. Just don’t tell her she was helpful tonight.”

Harold made a rude sound on the other end. “Whatever. We’ll save that discussion for another time. About the two prisoners, they were friends. Rafe Jackson was a retired veteran, served in Afghanistan. He took the BUD/S training but washed out the first week, and apparently, that was it for him in the military. Donnelly was a minister who worked mostly with the homeless, vets, the down and out, anyone on the street. So he knew the streets and who was there, but he had a problem with the local authorities and butted heads with them all the time.

“He’d been issued numerous parking tickets, which I guarantee was because he pissed off the wrong person, or many of them, and they had him in their line of sight. He was fined for trespassing and mischief, but never anything more than a fine, so I’m having a hard time understanding what happened to escalate things to him standing before a judge, arrested. There was a charge of inciting violence, but that disappeared off the books. There were verbal threats to a cop, but not sure what was said. This is the first time I’ve seen just the charge with no explanation of what, why, and how.

“As for assault of a police officer, from what I’ve read, a cop sprayed gas over a homeless guy from his car, and either Jackson or Donnelly threw an umbrella at the cop’s car. A statement was filed by Donnelly about the cop, but I can’t find it anywhere. This was some cop over in Billings. He arrested him, and I’m not sure how all this had them before a judge and sentenced with what they were. As for them being dangerous…”

Harold paused. “Let’s see. They fed the homeless, tried to find shelter for those on the street, and were basically do-gooders who gave a shit and tried to help people no one would help. The shoot to kill order, I can find no reason for that at all. If something happened in the prison, I’ve got nothing here. You said they shot Donnelly? He was the preacher. Wow, something is wrong there. Jackson grew up in a small town, Shelby, over in Toole County, hunting, fishing, tracking. He’d know how to hide and stay hidden. Donnelly had a brother-in-law outside Billings, Jack Cooper, but I’ve got nothing here on a sister. I can send you the address, or do you want me to head out?”

Marcus took in Suzanne, who was gesturing to him from the open doorway. What the hell was she up to now? “I’m still here at Tracy’s,” he said. “Looks like I’m headed back inside to have a word, maybe. Your wife is waving me back. Why don’t you give the brother-in-law a call? I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t already b

or the Yellowstone County sheriff. But yes, call him, and let me know what he says. So no other family, friends? You said Donnelly was a minister. I think he pissed off the wrong person. From his face, someone had worked him over. Not recent. The bruising, from what I saw, was old. See if you can find out anything from inside the prison. Damn, I just have a feeling Tracy knows something. I mean, think about it. If you were in trouble and on the run, wouldn’t you go to Suzanne, or at least call and let her know you were okay?”

Harold grunted. “One, that would never be me. Right now, the best thing for me and Suzanne is for you to talk some sense into her. She’s got a baby. You do know what this is about with her?”

Marcus pulled in a breath and stepped out of the cruiser. He nodded to his sister, who gestured sharply and made a face as if he were taking too long. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ll talk to her.” He let out a sigh.

“You do that,” Harold said. “I’ll call you and let you know what I come up with.” Then he hung up, and Marcus pocketed his phone, closed his door, and started back to the double wide and up the rickety steps.

“Tracy, tell Marcus what you just told me about Holter,” Suzanne said as Marcus stepped inside.

Tracy was pouring a steaming mug of tea, and she gestured to Suzanne and said, “Cream or sugar?”

Suzanne walked over to the counter and reached for the mug. “No, this is fine. Thanks so much, Tracy. You really have done a lot of work here, your research. How long had Holter been ministering on the streets?”

Marcus knew he was frowning. It was the middle of the night, and his sister had a woman who’d basically told him to fuck off making her tea. He wanted to give his head a shake. Tracy lifted another steaming mug, standing on the other side of the small counter. She dragged her gaze over to Marcus, and he swore daggers appeared again in her eyes.

“Ministering was Holter’s life,” she said. “He’d been doing it for twenty years, started as a kid. Spent time in Panama, in Africa, at a church in Columbia Falls, over in Wyoming, and then in Billings. With everything going on, when the housing market fell and so many lost their homes, he was out there, helping where he could. He said most ministers want to preach to people who can pay. He said a lot have sold their souls and forgotten what it’s really about, helping those who need it, not those who can pay for it.

“In doing so, he had a knack for pissing off the wrong people. He called a spade a spade and challenged anyone who took advantage of the little guy. He was as politically incorrect as they come. He considered himself an activist, saying too many believe freedom is not something you really have to fight for. He believed our freedom was being snatched away every day by politicians and corporations who were all about profit. I think it was six years ago when Rafe got back, left the military, and went through a hard time. It was Holter who pulled him up, said he needed him to watch his back. Holter was a born warrior.

“Rafe turned him down, but when Holter was beat up and dumped in an alley, Rafe was there. Long story. After that, Rafe made sure no one messed with Holter. He watched his back. Said there were cops and business owners who wanted Holter gone and brought him a heap of trouble. Can you imagine, you’re just trying to help those who have nothing, nowhere to go, and then one day you lose it? Let me be clear, Holter had a temper, but if you saw how some of those cops, community leaders, and business owners treated the people he was trying to help, you’d be angry too.

“To be clear, it’s not all cops, but it takes only one or two. The brotherhood protects the ones who kick the shit out of innocent people. There was an elderly woman with a walker on the streets, and one day a cop took her walker and dumped it in a trash bin. Rafe filed a complaint with the county sheriff’s office in Billings. It wasn’t just one thing, either. One cop

took a shopping cart filled with all a man’s belongings. It was endless, the beatdowns, and everyone on the street was scared to point a finger.

“The gaslighting by the media was the worst, he said. He saw a story about a vagrant urinating at the back door of some big store, and it said the resulting confrontation turned ugly. The business owner was on the news, complaining about the homeless in the area, who were defecating all over and had damaged his property, trying to break in, stealing, threatening customers. Except it wasn’t true. The media put a few crisis actors there to say it had happened. Rafe said the shop owner didn’t want the homeless there, so he made up a story, created a lie. The people believed the news, and no one questioned it.”

Marcus glanced over to the clock, feeling the lateness, wondering where this was going. “You know, Tracy, I sympathize, I really do,” he said. “But how is this helping us find Rafe? So he watched Holter’s back, and now he’s on the run. Holter is dead. Someone worked him over in jail, and I’m afraid Rafe is next unless you level with me.”

Suzanne put down her mug. Tracy lifted her chin and glanced away.

“You know where he is, don’t you?” Marcus said.

Outside, an engine started.

Marcus ran to the door and slammed his hand on the screen to open it just as the pickup floored it and backed out. He glanced back to Tracy and saw it written all over her face. “He was here the whole time,” he snapped.

Tracy had put down her tea, fear in her eyes.

Marcus pulled his cuffs from his pouch as he strode to her. “Turn around,” he said, then slapped the cuffs on her and grabbed her arm. Suzanne was looking at him with wide eyes, and he said, “You stay here with her. Call Therese and tell her to get over here and pick her up.”

He ran to the door, and as he yanked it open, he heard Tracy yelling, “You’ll never find him!”

“Marcus, I swear I didn’t know,” Suzanne called out.

He just shook his head, still hearing the squeal of the truck as it reached the road. He sprinted out to his cruiser, started it, and gave it gas, spinning the car around and flooring it down the driveway. He hit all the ruts, following the trail of dust to another road that led farther from town. He drove faster than he ever had, his high-beams just reaching the back end of an old white pickup rounding the bend ahead.

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