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The first bullet whizzed by his head and ricocheted off the rock behind him. The second caught him square in the shoulder and burned like fire immediately upon impact. Pain shot down his arm, and he could feel the blood dampening his shirt as it pooled around the wound.
FBI agent Jack Mitchell took a fortifying breath, then cast a quick look around the tree and returned fire. A shootout was the last thing he'd expected when he'd come to the isolated cabin looking for a lead in his current case. But while he hadn't been expecting the gunmen, they had clearly been expecting him.
As best he could tell, there were at least two men out there shooting at him. He fired again and heard a moan as one of his bullets struck home, eliminating one of his enemies. He took cover again behind the tree and patted his pocket to assess his ammunition stock. He still had one full clip of fifteen cartridges left. He hoped it was enough. The remaining gunman was still shooting at him, and bits of bark and leaves f lew like fireworks as the bullets decimated the surrounding forest.
The shooting stopped abruptly, and Jack guessed that his opponent was reloading or changing his position. He looked quickly around the tree and saw no movement, but he knew the remaining shooter was still out there somewhere. He bent and looked carefully around the surrounding area. It was time for him to move, toohe just needed to decide which direction was safest. He grimaced as pain from his shoulder intensified and he shifted to ease the throbbing. With a short prayer, he headed up toward a boulder to his right. He never made it.
Another bullet caught him in the thigh and he fell hard, way short of his destination. He struggled to stand again and make it to cover as agonizing pain radiated through his leg, but he could barely do more than shift himself forward. The pain on its own was nearly debilitating, and it didn't help that he was losing blood fast.
Suddenly he heard a noise from directly in front of him and realized there was a weapon pointed straight at his chest. He glanced up to lock eyes with the man holding the gun and saw a coldness there that chilled him right to the bone. He'd known Brett Stevens since they'd gone to the academy together. They had been partners for almost five years, yet he had never suspected the man of being dirty. Stevens had hid it well. And the gun he held on Jack with no hint of regret made it clear that he planned to hide it awhile longer.
Dread washed over him. He was going to die, right here on the forest floor. Regrets flashed through his head. He wasn't ready to die. He was only thirty years old, and the rising star in the Bureau's local field office. There were still plenty of things he was planning to do with his life. Apparently, he wasn't going to get the chance.
"You shouldn't have come out here, Mitchell," Stevens said, his voice grating like gravel. "Put your gun down now."
Another gunman joined them in the clearing and Jack realized that there had been more men out in the woods than he had originally thought. With three guns against him he had been outmaneuvered from the beginning. He glanced at the new man, but once he realized that the guy was a stranger, Jack ignored him and focused on Stevens. Maybe he had a chance of convincing his partner that murder wasn't the answer.
"This can all be worked out, Brett. If you give yourself up now, we can still fix this. Don't throw your life away."
"My life? My life has been over ever since my team lost the Super Bowl. I have debts, Jack. Colby offered me a chance to make the cash to pay what I owe. It was all working out just fine until you decided to start digging. You brought this on yourself." He motioned slightly with his gun, then brought it back to point at Jack's midriff. "Besides, Jack, out of all the lives out here, the one you should be worried about is your own."
"Don't do this," Jack said, shaking his head, his hands up in a motion of surrender. "I'll help you get back on the right track. I'll do whatever it takes."
Stevens laughed, but it was filled with bitterness. "Nobody can help me. I'm too far down the road to turn back now." He motioned with his pistol again. "What's in the bag?"
Jack glanced down at the satchel he had dropped on the ground. He had found a laptop and quite a few papers in the private investigator's cabin that he had just searched, but he needed time to analyze everything before he would know the true value of what he had discovered.
Earlier he'd hoped the laptop and papers would contain the evidence he had been hunting for that would implicate a ring of conspirators operating out of the federal courthouse. Apparently Stevens was also one of the conspirators. The knowledge was a bitter pill for Jack to swallow. He had considered that maybe someone on the FBI payroll was involved, but it had never occurred to him that Stevens would turn on his own. How had he missed that? Why hadn't he seen the evil lurking right below the surface in this man he had worked with every day for the past five years?
He glanced up at Stevens, whose familiar eyes now looked dark and sinister. "Just a laptop and some papers," Jack hedged, hoping that if he somehow survived this encounter he could still use the evidence to break the case.
Stevens aimed and shook his head. "Goodbye, Mitchell."
Jack tried to dive behind a tree to escape, but it was an exercise in futility. The impact from the bullet caught him hard and spun his body around as it ripped into the flesh on his side. He was still falling when the second shot caught him in the head. For the moment, gravity had saved his life, giving him enough momentum that the bullet sliced a trail across his forehead rather than passing straight through to his brain. But how long would it take before blood lossor another bullet from Stevensfinished the job?
His body hit the ground hard. Pain enveloped him and he struggled to stay conscious. He felt Stevens kick his ribs, but he had enough presence of mind to try to remain as still as possible. He felt another kick, and it took everything inside him not to react to the agony that radiated up his side and around the assortment of bullet wounds. He heard the other man take a few steps toward him and holster his weapon.
"Now what? This partner of yours was a pretty good shot. He managed to kill Milo down on the ridge. Now we've got two bodies to dispose of."
"Let's take care of Milo's body first." Stevens shifted and Jack could hear his partner's shoes rustling the leaves as he started to pace.
His partner had always had a creative side. Jack guessed Stevens was already devising a plan in his mind to explain what had happened this afternoon. The man would probably tell just enough truth to keep him from mixing up the story if he ever got interrogated, but he would name Jack as the criminal and would try to get the conspiracy investigation closed as soon as possible. The thought made Jack sick inside.
A moment passed, then another. Suddenly Stevens stopped and a laugh erupted.
"What's so funny?" the other gunman snarled, his voice gruff. "I don't see anything to laugh about in two dead bodies that might somehow come back and bite me."
Stevens secured his weapon and snapped the holster shut. "Let's put Milo in Jack's trunk and park his car back at his apartment. It'll throw the local cops off our trail, and Jack won't be around to defend himself or point the finger at us. That should keep the heat off and make such a huge stink that nobody will even think to look in our direction. After we dump Milo, we can come back up here, clean up the scene and bury Jack. My uncle has some property near here that'll be the perfect place to hide the body. Nobody ever goes over there."
"You're the boss. I've got some plastic in my trunk for just such an occasion. We can make it look like he was about to dispose of the body but got interrupted."
A wave of nausea swept over Jack as he fought to keep in the here and now. Still, he struggled through the pain and tried to concentrate on their words. He heard Stevens reach down, grab the satchel and sift through the contents. A few seconds passed and then the bag closed with a snap.
"See anything in there that's a problem?"
"I don't know. It's going to take me some time to sort through it all. I'll take it along just in case."
Jack tried not to tense as he felt Stevens reach over, pat his pockets and pull out his car keys.
"Aren't you even gonna check the guy's pulse? There's an awful lot of blood, but I'm telling you I don't want to take any chances."
Stevens's voice took on a menacing tone. "Relax. You worry too much. I know killing Jack wasn't part of the plan, but I think it can actually work to our advantage if we play our cards right." He paused. "All right. If it makes you feel better, I'll check." Jack felt Stevens reach toward his neck, but suddenly a cell phone ring broke the silence.
Stevens pulled back and answered the phone. "What? Okay. I'm on my way. Don't move without me." The cell phone snapped shut with a click and Stevens stood abruptly.
"We have to go. Now. Colby has an emergency and needs us downtown. Let's get Milo's body and get out of here. We'll come back and take care of Jack later."
Jack heard them retreat and breathed a sigh of relief. He was alivefor now. But his thoughts were getting fuzzy and he could feel the life ebbing from him as his blood soaked into the ground. He tried to move and groaned as another wave of pain swept over him. He paused a moment, then tried again. His limbs felt heavy and nothing seemed to work right. With another groan he succumbed to the blackness, wondering if he would ever see the light of day again.
Casey Johnson gasped and shrank back against the bushes. From her position on the cliff she had clearly seen the entire scene play out, and her heart was beating overtime as fear washed over her. They had just killed that man in cold blood!
She'd been out taking her daily run when she'd heard the first shot and had quickly made her way toward the edge of the cliff to see the valley below. Seconds later she had crouched behind some shrubbery, hoping the plant and her green shirt would camouflage her from the murderers' sight as the horrible scene had played out in front of her. What were they doing up here? Why had they killed that man? Her heart felt as if it was about to come right out of her chest and her limbs felt frozen and numb.
A movement caught her eye and she saw the two men get into a blue two-door vehicle, drive down the road a short distance and pull onto the grass before exiting the car again. A few seconds later the two men returned, carrying a body out of the woods. Casey swallowed hard as realization swept over her. Two men were dead, not just one. She watched, horrified, as they wrapped the body in a large sheet of plastic and threw it into the trunk of the car. Seconds later, the blue car and a brown sedan, each driven by one of the shooters, sped down the road, leaving a plume of dirt and a dead man behind them.
Questions and trepidation spun through Casey's head. What had happened? Why had there been a gun battle out here only a short distance from her cabin? She sat back and tried to keep her hands from shaking. Did the gunshots have anything to do with her situation? Various scenarios abounded in her mind, and she stayed hidden a few moments, mulling over the possibilities. She'd thought she was still safe, but she should have known better than to have assumed anything. Still, the idea that her brother-in-law had sent them didn't quite fit. If the men had been looking for her, they wouldn't have ended up shooting each other, or left so quickly without finding their quarry. No, it seemed clear that their target had been the man that was still lying on the ground below.
She quickly raced down the mountainside, anxious to see if the man who had been left on the forest floor was indeed dead or had somehow survived. Even as she approached, two questions rang through her head. Why hadn't the murderers taken his body, as well? Would they be back? She'd seen the men talking from her spot on the ridge but she hadn't been able to overhear their words, so she couldn't be sure about their plans.
Nothing about this scenario made sense. They were pretty high up in the mountains, and it was rare for Casey to have any human company other than her niece, who lived with her. Only a few cabins dotted the mountainside, and most were empty except during the summer months. She had picked this location for that very reason. She didn't want any visitors. In fact, keeping her location a secret was vital. Still, she couldn't just walk away without at least checking on the fallen man.
She tripped on a root but righted herself quickly and continued down the mountain, slowing her pace to make sure she didn't reveal her presence in case there were others still in the woods. It didn't take long for her to find a blood trail, and she gasped at the red stains that painted the ground. Surely the man was dead, or there wouldn't have been so much blood. She followed it back to where it had probably started with the man's first injury, before the final confrontation. A large pool of blood had soaked into the ground, and even more droplets of blood painted the leaves of the nearby bushes. She looked around carefully, searching for any other clues that might explain what had happened and why the men were in the woods in the first place, but she found nothing.
"Help me." The voice was soft, so soft that at first, Casey thought she'd imagined it. She quickly headed up to where she had seen the shooting and heard a soft moan as she approached. She stepped over a fallen log, her eyes warily searching the area around her. She heard another moan and moved cautiously toward the sound, constantly looking over her shoulder, just in case.