The Rabbit and the Fox
It had been years since he’d been this close to home. RT McCombs drove south along the Blue Ridge Parkway. He’d left Bakersfield four months ago, following the trail left by the hacker who’d stolen information from his clients, information they wanted back. He’d been closing in on her in Nashville when she’d vanished. It had taken months and a new linguistics data analysis tracker to pick up her trail.
The drive through the Chattahoochee National Forest signaled he’d soon be on familiar home ground. The word tasted strange on his tongue. Was it home, really? Would it ever be home again? Bitterness filled his mouth. No, Nantahala wasn’t home. It hadn’t been for many years. He’d stayed away, would still be away if this job hadn’t dragged him back. He pressed the button on the wheel to activate his Bluetooth device. He’d make the obligatory call to Jason, the head of the Southern Dominion, and let him know he was back, if only briefly. His older brother liked to keep his thumb on the pulse of the collective, so he wouldn’t appreciate a stray wandering into his territory, even if the stray was his baby brother. The call went to voicemail and RT hung up without leaving a message. Time enough to contact his brother after he arrived in Nantahala.
Tracking the little rabbit from Reno to Nashville had been easy, but just when he’d been ready to spring, something had spooked her and she’d gone underground. She’d cleaned out her bank account, what little there had been in it, and gone off the grid. Using the new tech tracking software he’d developed, he’d finally picked up her trail. Damnedest thing, the little bunny had surfaced in Nantahala, Georgia. This time she wouldn’t get away. She’d landed right in his home territory. He knew the area like the back of his hand. He’d grown up here. His family lived here. Never mind that he hadn’t been home in years. Nothing ever changed in Nantahala. The Dominion, old as the forest itself, still sheltered there.
Old secrets, traditions and values flourished here. Home, he’d come home. As a courtesy he’d stop by the Homestead and let his mother know he was in town. Then he would find out just what she was up to in an out-of-the-way little town like Nantahala.
The homestead, tucked into the side of Panther’s Peek, looked just like any other expensive vacation cabin nestled against a mountainside, but RT knew better. The large rustic cabin with two storied glass walls looking over the valley below hid a secret, one that no outsider ever learned about, the Southern Dominion.
What had once been little more than a fox hole in the side of the mountain had expanded to a cavernous size and housed the headquarters of the southern collective. From there Jason ran the Dominion as the mega consortium it had grown into, with few outsiders any the wiser. Hundreds called the Dominion home, and at any given moment dozens housed there. The entire southern half of the mountain was honeycombed with warrens.
RT turned off the Blue Ridge Parkway heading home. He let the windows down and drew in deep breaths of the fresh mountain air. His body responded to the fresh fragrance of Spring in the mountains, his skin tingled, the hair along the back of his neck stood on end. The animal in him stretched and pushed, seeking freedom. Too long, it complained. Too long since it had been allowed to run free. Soon, RT promised and clamped iron hard will on the little rogue seeking to escape. He turned south, leaving the Parkway and heading toward the Georgia line and home. His nose twitched with the familiar scents of the North Georgia Mountains. He picked up Highway 19 and drove faster, his instincts sharpened. The air carried
the very embodiment of the Dominion. Only a member of the collective would recognize the subtle essence wafting through the gentle mountain breeze. His brethren gathered more than usual. Their pungent scents carried on the wind. Only his sensitive nose allowed him to separate and identify each individual. They were moving south like he was, converging on the encampment. He scented links, wolf, bear, deer, beaver and more, all moving steadily toward the Dominion.
Something was up.
Tears for the Past
For being early spring, the stifling heat had Douglas Benge dripping in sweat. Of course wearing a fur coat on the inside didn’t help matters. He inhaled, taking in the smells of the forest and the stench of the gut pile at his feet. Flies swarmed around the mess. He noted a few maggots squirming on what he made out to be the large intestines, so the body wasn’t that old. At least scavengers hadn’t carried it off.
“What’s your take, Doug?” Mathew Autry asked. “You know Mayor Dumbass is going to have a field day with this.”
Doug chuckled. There was no love lost between the Sheriff and Nantahala’s mayor, David Wolverton. Those two have been at each other since high school. And they thought bears held grudges. “From the scent, I’d say we have another bear mauling. My question is, where the hell is the rest of the body?”
“I can answer that question, gentlemen,” a woman said as she stepped from behind a bush.
“This is a crime scene!” Mat yelled.
“Detective Isabell Halifax, GBI.” She flipped out her badge. “My partner is at the other scene.”
“GBI?” Mat crossed his arms over his chest. “This is my town, my crime scene.”
Of Mountains and Mysteries
“And you are?”
“Sheriff Mathew Autry and my Deputy Doug Benge. I did not notify the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. So what the hell are you doing here?”
“That is correct, sir.” The woman glanced between Mat and Doug.
Doug took in the woman’s healthy figure and muscular arms. Her light brown hair she’d pulled back into a ponytail. He noticed she wasn’t painted up, either. He couldn’t understand why women thought they had to cover-up their beauty with paint. He breathed her scent deep into his lungs. Human, with an overlaying scent of something lethal. He inhaled again, trying to distinguish the scent. His canines lengthened and his nails itched. One thing for sure, she wasn’t a frigging bloodsucker, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t in league with them.
“I don’t plan to seize your crime scene, Sheriff Autry. This happened to be my weekend off. I wasn’t expecting to stumble onto a murder.” She glanced between Mat and Doug. “As you said, Deputy, bear attacks are on the increase. Looks as if you have a rouge with a wicked sense of humor.” She turned and pushed through the thick underbrush.
“It’s either Sheriff or Mat, you can call me sheriff.” Mat grumbled something about intruders and uppity GBI agents as he followed the detective. “You coming, Doug? Or are you just going to stand there?”
Yep, it was going to be one of those days. Doug trudged through the underbrush. His keen hearing picked up a murmured conversation up ahead. Sounded like Mat was pissed again. Nothing new there. Hell, Mat had been more of a bear than Doug since Mat’s 13-year-old son Gabriel took an interest in Wolverton’s 15-year-old daughter, Arabella. That was saying a lot, seeing Mat was human.
Doug stepped into a clearing at the edge of Crying Woman Falls, where his sight promptly fell on the Elf, leaning against a tree. Doug knew he’d scented danger on the woman.
Isabell whirled around in time to see the deputy shift into the largest frigging bear she’d seen in her life. The massive black bear reared back, standing on his hind legs. He had to be over ten feet tall, and she guesstimated he weighed about eight hundred pounds.
She was so dead.
But instead of killing her, he batted the sheriff, knocking him several feet backward. To make matters worse, her partner, Rowan, decided to fling a fireball at the bear. She snatched her firearms, pointing one at Rowan and the other at the deputy.
“I will so pepper your asses if you don’t put your dicks away, or would you both prefer I hand you a magnifying glass so you can see who has the biggest?”
“Damn, lady, I like your gumption,” the Sheriff cachinnated. Once he’d gained control of his laughter he pushed to his feet then stomped out the small brush fire Rowan started. “Doug, shift back.” The Sheriff cocked a black eyebrow at her. “Hope you don’t mind a little nudity.”
“Not at all. Seen one prick, seen them all.”
“You haven’t see—”
“No, not a word.” She cut off Rowan’s comment. She wasn’t in the mood to hear what he had to say, not after spilling her coffee, then refusing to get her another cup. The man knew she couldn’t function without her morning dose of caffeine.
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