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Clouds of dust swirled down Dead River's main street as the small Wyoming town hunkered against the early fall winds sweeping across this vast, drought-ravaged region of cattle-ranch country. A wet front had helped quell the wildfires and brought a dusting of snow to the distant Lara-mie peaks. But rain had done little to quench the parched ranchlands, and the wind easily cast exposed topsoil adrift.
Jagger McKnight blinked against the blowing grit as he pushed open the door of the Dead River Diner. He was greeted by a blast of warm air and the smell of fried foodyet another greasy spoon, like so many he'd frequented over the past twelve months as he'd drifted aimlessly across the United States. But it was almost 6:00 p.m.he was cold and famished. He also had questions. A local diner was as good a place as any to start.
Choosing the empty booth closest to the door, Jagger hefted his kit bag onto the red vinyl seat and scooted it toward the grime-streaked window. He removed his jacket, then his cowboy hat. But as his fingers brushed against the ragged scar under his hairline, Jagger stilled, instantly disoriented. A soft panic began to lick through his stomach.
No. Not now
He concentrated on breathing in slowly and folded his tall frame into the booth beside his gear. Pressing both hands down hard on the table, Jagger focused on the view of the parking lot outside the dirty window. He mentally cataloged what he sawthe gusts of sand piling into soft yellow drifts against a wall. The cracked wall, peeling plaster. Like the bunker.
Tongues of panic licked again, a little deeper, faster. And for a white-hot instant he could no longer see the parking lot. He was back. Trapped. Golangal Valley. A desert windstorm, the sound of blowing Afghan sand like screaming banshees as it funneled through rocks. They were surrounded by heavily armed insurgents in the hills. An invisible enemy. Dark was coming.
A pot banged suddenly in the diner kitchen and Jagger jumped, his pulse spiking as his brain scrambled to translate the noise into mortar fire, explosions.
Enough! You can stop this
He turned his concentration back to the present, to the two Harleys parked out front of the diner. Across the parking lot, two eighteen-wheeler semis were angled for an easy exit. On the opposite side of the street, a young woman pushed a covered stroller as she bent into the wind, a scarf protecting her face. Civilian. Semis. Harleys.
No grenades hidden in scarves, or the folds of a burka or clutched in the small brown hands of a liquid-eyed child. No tanks. No guerillas around the side of the wall. If Jagger wanted, he could simply stand up, step out the diner door, hit the road. He was free. Free to go.
A tumbleweed bounced past the semis, driven by the vagaries of wind, en route to nowhere in particular. Just like he'd beendrifting. Seeking to numb his nightmares with too many beers, too many late nights, too many one-night stands with women whose names he couldn't even begin to remember. A shrink would have a field day with him, but Jagger had walked away from all that medical crap. He had to do this himself.
And now, at least, he had a small hook on which to hang a future, however tenuous.
It had come to him Tuesday night, almost nine weeks agosomething to grab on to, something he could use to claw back a semblance of his life, and he'd grabbed it like a lifeline.
Maybe the timing had just been right. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe blind folly or sheer desperation. Hell knew. But on that Tuesday night, Jagger had been nursing a warm beer in a dive bar on the outskirts of Casper in east-central Wyoming when a breaking CNN news story on the TV behind the counter had riveted him to his stool.
It was a piece about a kidnappinga three-month-old baby girl named Cheyenne Colton had been snatched right out of her crib in her family's mansion on Dead River Ranch about forty miles northwest of Cheyenne. The child's governess had been shot dead in the process. The CNN reporter had noted similarities between this kidnapping and another thirty years earlier, when a baby boy, Cole Colton, had been abducted from the very same mansion at around the same age.
A few weeks later, the TV news reported that baby Cheyenne had been located unharmed. Baby Cole, however, had never been found. The infant was presumed dead, all leads in that case long gone stone cold.
The story had rattled Jagger. Thirty years ago, also at three months old, he himself had been abducted in a carjacking gone terribly wrong. He'd been raised by one of the kidnappers under a false identity until his real family had finally found him shortly after his ninth birthday.
Was it possible that Cole Colton could still be alive, raised under a false name, never knowing where he'd come from?
Jagger's family had never stopped searching for him, had never once allowed themselves to presume their son had died. Why had Cole's family given up? Cole's father, according to the news, was Jethro Colton, a billionaire rancher from Wyoming. He certainly had the financial means for a protracted search. And why had there never been a ransom note?
The reporter in Jagger had latched on to these questions with a desperation he didn't like to acknowledge in himself, but deep down he knew that in the unsolved mystery of Cole Colton he'd finally seen a glimmer of something that he could focus on. If he could get to the bottom of that thirty-year-old mystery, and find out what happened to that baby boy, it could be his absolution, his way back into mainstream society, back into a journalistic career he'd all but forsaken.
Jagger had bought a small laptop in Casper, and a cell phone, and he'd begun to research the Colton family, focusing first on the billionaire patriarch himself, Jethro Colton. It didn't take Jagger long to discover Jethro had once been a petty criminal who'd done time for robbery. This had piqued Jagger's news instincts further. He'd begun to slow down on the beer, started getting better sleep and sworn off sex with nameless women.
Jagger learned that after being released from Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution just over thirty years ago, Jethro Colton had mysteriously come into some big money. He'd used it to buy Dead River Ranchalmost two thousand acres of cattle country in the Laramie foothillswhere he'd fashioned himself into one of the most notorious, ruthless and prosperous cattlemen in Wyoming. Forbes magazine had not long ago run a feature on him, dubbing him Wyoming's Billionaire Rancher.
However, there was a dark cloud over Jethro Colton. After Cole was born to Jethro and his first wife, Brittany, she was killed in a drunk-driving accident. Then just after Brittany's funeral, Cole was abducted from the mansion in what appeared to be a robbery gone wrong. The Dead River P.D. and the FBI mounted an extensive search. No ransom note ever came. And all leads eventually died.
This information just raised further questions for Jag-ger. Ranching did not ordinarily billionaires make. And where had Jethro's sudden cash injection come from? How had the petty ex-con gotten so stinking rich overnightproceeds of an earlier crime? Organized criminal links forged in prison? Was his first wife's death really an accident? And why had Cole been abducted, if not for ransom?
Could it have been revenge? Payback?
Had the child been murdered?
Or was there a faint possibility that Cole Colton was still alive, living somewhere under another name, oblivious to his own past, just as Jagger had been for the first nine years of his life?
Then, near the end of July, after Cheyenne Colton had been found and one of Jethro's ranch hands had been arrested in connection with the crime, Cheyenne's mother, Amanda Colton, along with her two sisters, Gabriella and Catherine, appeared on national television offering a reward of $500,000 for any tips that might lead to finding their long lost half brother, Cole.
The move surprised Jagger. All of a sudden the family was looking again? Why?
With his news instincts now on fire again for the first time in over a year, something else had awakened deep inside Jaggera desire to find justice for a baby boy who could so easily have been him. A tiny victim without a voice.
With a renewed sense of purpose, and yes, Jagger knew this newfound passion might just be another way to beat back the nightmaresbut it was a better path than the one he'd been onhe pitched his story idea to a major television network on the premise that he, a kidnap victim himself, would go undercover at Dead River Ranch in an effort to solve a thirty-year-old mystery tied to a billionaire ex-con. And in some way, he would bring justice to Cole Colton, alive or dead.
The television producers jumped on the idea. With the TV deal came an agent, then a book contract. Jagger McKnight was back! This story would be his route back into a semblance of life as he'd once known it, before Afghanistan. Before the ambush. Before he'd been forced up against a journalistic line he'd been unable to cross, and because of it, everything he thought he'd known about himself had been shattered. Dead River Ranch and a thirty-year-old cold case had become Jagger McKnight's personal Rubicon.
"What'll you have, handsome?"
Jagger jumped and glanced up sharply.
A brown-haired waitress was leaning on one hip, chewing gum, her pen poised over her order pad. She had a coffee stain on her apron and a weary look around her eyes. Her name tag said "Grace."
"Ranch burger is on special," she said with a jerk of her chin toward the menu that she'd managed to place on the table without Jagger noticing.
He cleared his throat and quickly scanned the menu.
"Special looks great," he said with a forced smile. "Extra fries. And a Budweiser. Thanks."
Grace scribbled the order onto her pad then lifted her eyes, holding Jagger's gaze a fraction longer than necessary. He recognized the lookit was one he'd seen in the faces of the nameless women he'd taken into his bed. The waitress found him interestingattractive, even. And suddenly, like a sharp, blinding flash of light through his body, Jagger yearned for something clean and sunshiny fresh. For bright mornings without hangovers, for pure smiles. For the scent of shampoo with a name like Spring Breeze. The aroma of freshly baked muffins, laundered sheets that smelled like flowers and pine. A real and good woman in his arms. Hell, he couldn't even articulate to himself what he was feeling right nowwhere these intense feelings came from. But they startled him in both their suddenness and ferocity, and inside he felt himself beginning to shake again.
One day at a time, McKnight. Just focus on the story
"So, you just passing through, hon?" The waitress said as she took the menu from him.
"Looking for work." He forced another smile and the waitress flushed slightly as she tucked the menu under her arm.
"My name is Grace. I'll be right back with your beer."
She sashayed pointedly behind the counter, and while she yelled his order through a hatch into the kitchen, Jag-ger took stock of the diner and its patrons.
In the booth across from him, two gray-whiskered men in plaid shirts nursed coffees, their large bellies propped up by faded denim and suspenders. Probably the semi drivers on a pit stop before they hit the road for the long, lonely night haul. Jagger had caught plenty of rides with men like them over the past year, sat beside them in truck cabs, allies through the solitary night.
Behind an old-style cash register on the diner counter near the door was a woman who looked to be in her early sixties with dull, dyed-black hair. She was writing something in a notebook. Diner manager, or owner, figured Jagger. Farther down the counter, three men were perched on padded stools, their backs to Jagger, cowboy hats at their sides. Their bodies were honed, their skin tanned. Men who labored physically for a livingranch hands most likely.
A few more cowboys gathered around a table at the back of the diner where the lights were dimmer and music played from a jukeboxthe ubiquitous Wyoming sound of country and western. Overhead, a fan slowly paddled the warm, greasy air.
Grace returned with his beer and plunked it on the table along with a glass.
"So, where are you looking for work, then?" she asked as she placed a caddy containing ketchup, salt and pepper in front of him.
Jagger reached for the beer and took a fast, hard draft straight from the bottle. He swallowed, relishing the sensation of calm spreading through his chest. "I heard Jethro Colton at the Dead River Ranch is hiring." He dug into his jacket pocket and produced the job ad that he'd cut from the newspaper.
He slid the piece of paper across the table so Grace could see it, and he tapped it with his fingers. "Says here Dead River Ranch is seeking general ranch and maintenance handsfencing, haying, minor mechanics, working cattle, four-wheeler operation." He took another swig of beer and grinned. "Right up my street. Pay includes beef."
The three men at the counter suddenly stopped talking.
One turned and eyed him. Jagger gave him a nod. With a subtle tip of his head, the cowboy returned Jagger's acknowledgment before returning his attention to his meal on the counter. But Jagger could feel the men listening now. The black-haired diner boss had stopped writing in her book and was now studying him intently from her post at the counter. Slowly she reached for the phone at her side, dialed.
A soft prickle of unease ran up Jagger's neck.
"That would be Gray Stark, the ranch foreman, who's looking for hands," Grace said with a nod to the piece of paper. "Jethro Colton's dyinghe's not doing any hiring anymore, that's for sure."
The chef placed a plate of food in the hatch and yelled out a number.
"That'll be your orderI'll be right back." Grace hustled to fetch it and placed the plate in front of him.
"So you know about folk out on Dead River Ranch, then?" Jagger said.
"Some," Grace said. Her gaze flicked to the diner owner talking on the phone, and she lowered her voice. "Dead is a small town. Talk gets around."
"What's wrong with Mr. Colton?" Jagger asked as he bit into his burger.
"Leukemia. He's been given maybe six more months to live, max. He's refused all treatment and is basically waiting to die. His family is real choked about it, trying to rally his spirits and get him to see a specialist. And they've been trying to find his long-lost son, Cole Colton, who could possibly be a bone marrow donor."
Bone marrowso that's why the renewed search and big reward.
"Long-lost son?" he asked, chewing his burger, feigning ignorance.
"Yeahbaby Cole was kidnapped thirty years ago, right out of his nursery, just like the recent kidnapping on the ranch.
Jagger swallowed his mouthful then said, "Must be rough on the old guy, being sick at the same time his niece was kidnapped. It must've brought back old memories." He reached for his beer. "I heard about the recent abduction on the news up in Casper."
Behind him the diner door opened, a gust of wind blowing in and bells chinking. A cop, burly, balding, swaggered up to the counter as the door swung slowly shut behind him.
"Evening, Maggie," the cop said to the woman up front, his voice loud, resonant. "What's the pie today?"
Jagger watched in his peripheral vision as Maggie poured a cup of coffee for the officer and dished up a slice of warm pie from under a dome. She squirted a good helping of cream atop the pie and slid the plate in front of the cop. She leaned over the counter to talk quietly to him. The officer forked a mouthful of pie into his mouth, chewed slowly as he listened then slid his gaze toward Jagger.
For an instant the officer's eyes met Jagger's and Jagger wondered if Maggie had called the cop on the phone. That sense of foreboding burrowed deeper.
"Yeah," Grace was saying. "That recent kidnapping stuff has opened old wounds like it was yesterday. It's all the talk of town. Pie in the sky if you ask methe sisters looking for Cole Colton now. That baby boy is long dead, I figure."
Something in Jagger tightened.