Until she solves her husband’s murder, she’ll stay a target… Nothing will stop Cassie Wheeler, bounty hunter and owner of Rock Solid Bail Bonds, from tracking down her husband’s killer when new information surfaces—not even being hunted herself. Her employee Leon Bragg vows to have her back, sticking beside her as they follow increasingly dangerous leads. Because someone wants this five-year-old case to stay cold. Someone who’ll kill again to keep secrets hidden… A ROCK SOLID BOUNTY HUNTERS ROMANCE From Love Inspired Suspense: Courage. Danger. Faith. Rock Solid Bounty Hunters Book 1: Fugitive Chase Book 2: Hostage Pursuit Book 3: Cold Case Manhunt
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 224
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Cold Case Manhunt
Bail bondswoman and bounty hunter Cassie Wheeler had already survived several storms in her life. This late-spring squall, complete with booming thunder, jagged lightning arcing across the night sky and pouring rain was not going to bother her. She wouldn’t allow it.
She was driving her SUV along the eastern edge of Lake Bell in Stone River, Idaho, heading for home after spending the last three hours in a courtroom. Bryan Rogan, a former bail-jumping client who’d been recovered by Cassie and her team, had been on trial for selling weapons stolen from a national guard armory.
Rogan was a thirty-year-old man with a string of increasingly violent crimes behind him, and he was known to associate with hardened criminals. The prosecutor had asked Cassie to testify to her interactions with Rogan when she’d apprehended him after he’d jumped bail. How he’d fired several rounds at her and screamed that was going to kill her. The intent of her testimony was to influence the sentence he ended up serving. The man was a danger to society. He needed to be put away for a while.
Cassie had been happy to appear in court, ready to describe the events in detail. But, as sometimes happened, the court proceedings had not moved along as briskly as scheduled. She would need to go back tomorrow.
Several of Rogan’s criminal buddies had sat in the courtroom, glaring at her in an obvious attempt to intimidate her. Cassie had not been impressed.
Her phone rang and she glanced toward the screen in the dashboard. It was Leon Bragg. One of the bounty hunters who worked for her at Rock Solid Bail Bonds.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I just wanted to let you know that I personally saw Rogan get into the transport van,” Leon said in his signature deep drawl. “I followed him over to the county jail where the van drove into the sally port and the security door dropped down behind it.”
Cassie felt a slight smile lift the corners of her lips. Leon was worried, so he thought she must be worried.
“He’s on a no-bond hold thanks to his escape attempt. Since I didn’t put up a bond for him to appear in court this time, I’m not out any money if Rogan takes off again. Rock Solid Bail Bonds has no financial investment at all in him right now. So stop worrying, Mom.”
Leon laughed, and the low rumbling sound coming through the speaker in Cassie’s SUV had the effect of a warm, relaxing bath, easing all the tense muscles that usually led to a slight headache and neck ache by the end of every working day. In a world gone awry, where so many things were not okay, Leon—who’d had her back more times than she could count—often made her feel like things could be okay. Even if just for a short while.
Cassie gave herself a few seconds to enjoy the feeling before she made herself stop. Because Leon was her employee. And she believed in maintaining strong business ethics guidelines, which included a business owner not becoming romantically involved with an employee.
And beyond that, Cassie wasn’t someone who should be involved in a romantic relationship, anyway. Her husband, Idaho State Trooper Jake Hollister, had been murdered five years ago. There’d been no known witnesses and minimal physical evidence left behind. The few leads that were developed had quickly turned into dead ends. The investigation had eventually become a cold case.
Cassie thought about her husband’s murder several times a day, every single day. More so lately, after getting a hint of information that might be helpful in solving the case. Then again it might not pan out at all. She’d gotten her hopes up only to be disappointed before.
“I know you want to make certain Rogan stays off the streets whether or not you have a financial interest,” Leon said, continuing the conversation he’d started. “I think we all feel that way.”
“Okay, I’m heading back to the office,” Leon said. “Harry and I both have some files we need to update, and then we’ll close everything up for the night.”
Cassie had hired Harry Orlansky and trained him as a bounty hunter a few months after his wife passed away four years ago. The skills he’d learned in the military, plus his experience as a volunteer with search and rescue alongside Cassie and her dad, had paid off. Harry was a natural. He’d recently gotten remarried. Proof that life did go on after the heartbreaking loss of a spouse. For some people, anyway.
“Man, this rain is really coming down,” Leon commented.
“Tell me about it.” The downpour had nearly flooded the road Cassie was driving on.
“You almost to the ranch?” he asked.
Cassie rolled her eyes even though he wasn’t there to see the gesture. For a guy who made his living hunting down dangerous men—a guy with a past darker than the lives of many of the criminals he now chased—Leon sure could be a worrier.
“I’m just about to the Shackleford Inlet,” she said as a flash of lightning illuminated the short bridge ahead. Lake Bell was to the right. The marshy, shallow-water inlet was to the left, with forest just beyond it.
The entrance to North Star Ranch, where she lived with her dad and a husband-and-wife team who helped care for the horses boarded on the property, was only seven miles beyond that.
“Before I forget, Harry wanted me to ask you something,” Leon said.
Cassie never heard the question. A bullet ripped through the windshield of her SUV. Two more immediately followed.
“No!” The word flew out of Cassie’s mouth as small shards of glass sliced across her face. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and fought the impulse to turn right or left. She was on the bridge and either direction would take her into the water. If she were knocked unconscious by the impact, which was highly likely, she’d drown before anyone could rescue her. If she slammed on the brakes, she’d be a sitting duck for the shooter. The bridge was too narrow for her to make a U-turn. Her only option was to drive forward, toward the source of the gunfire. She grit her teeth and hit the accelerator.
“Cassie, tell me what’s happening!” Leon barked through the speaker.
“Someone’s shooting at me!”
She was aware of hearing his voice again, but his specific words didn’t register. At the moment, she had a higher priority than listening to him. She needed to get past the shooter without getting killed.
She flicked a switch beneath the dashboard to dim the instrument panel lights in the hope of making herself a more difficult target, but almost immediately a bolt of lightning flashed overhead, lighting her up like a Broadway theater marquee.
A barrage of bullets tore across the windshield and front of her SUV. The safety glass held together, but the spiderweb of cracks along with the pouring rain made it nearly impossible to see. The SUV slowed and the engine started knocking. A bullet must have made it through the front grill and gotten into the engine.
The disappearance of the reflector buttons on the bridge railings told her she was back on solid ground.
“Cassie!” Leon’s voice boomed through the speaker.
“I made it across the bridge,” she said while flooring the accelerator, trying to push her damaged vehicle up to at least normal speed so she could get through this ambush—or whatever it was—and make her way home.
She drove into the slight curve just beyond the end of the bridge. At the same time, she heard the loud crack of a rifle shot from just ahead and to her right. The front driver’s-side tire blew out and sent her SUV sliding across the wet road.
“Lord, help!” She offered up that same short prayer repeatedly as she fought with the jerking steering wheel to keep her SUV on the asphalt. She lost the battle. The driver’s-side tires went off the pavement into the mud and momentum kept it sliding until the tires sank deeper, got caught in the muck, and the SUV flipped over onto the roof.
One jolt after another rattled her body until all of the various movements finally came to a stop. The air bags had done their job and started to deflate. Cassie, held in place by her seat belt, bit back on the feeling of dizziness and disorientation. She reached to unfasten the clasp and dropped down onto the ceiling. The rollover meant she was now on the side of the vehicle closest to the road. And, presumably, closest to the shooter. She had to move quickly despite the pain in her wrenched neck and shoulders.
The vehicle’s electrical system was out. The headlights and interior lights were off. The storm had apparently stalled over Stone River, with lightning still flashing overhead. That could make it easier for the shooter to see her.
Her phone had disconnected from the SUV’s hands-free system. She crawled around on the ceiling and found it among a lot of the other stuff that had fallen when the SUV flipped over. She hit the side button to silence it and slid the phone into her pocket. The last thing she needed was to be hiding in the woods and have her phone start making noises.
Cassie made her way to the passenger side and reached down for the door handle out of habit before realizing she needed to reach up. The door only opened an inch or so and then froze. It had been dented. She didn’t have time to waste. The shooter was likely closing in, ready to finish her off. She kicked at the door frantically until it finally opened enough for her to slip out.
Just before she did, she reached up for the console between the front seats and pulled the latch. Her gun fell out and she caught it. “Whoever you are, I’m not going to make this easy for you,” she muttered, already thinking about the very long list of bail jumpers who held a grudge against her. Maybe this attack was related to her time in court today with Rogan. Maybe it was related to something else entirely.
Her holster was somewhere in the back of the vehicle with her pepper spray, night-vision binoculars and the rest of her bounty hunting gear. She didn’t have time to go digging around for it now. Instead, she shoved the gun into the waistband of her pants, pushed out of the SUV into the pouring rain, and immediately found herself ankle-deep in mud.
There was another boom of thunder and flash of lightning overhead and she risked a glance back toward the road. She saw a man standing at the edge of the pavement where her SUV had left the asphalt. He was wearing a ski mask and hat, and had the collar of his jacket turned up. She couldn’t see his face. But she could see the rifle in his hands. And she knew that he saw her. Because he’d been turning his head from side to side as if searching for something when she’d first spotted him. Now he locked his face in her direction and lifted the rifle to take aim.
Cassie turned and took off into the woods, trying to run, but the sludge grasping at her boots made it difficult.
She needed to call 9-1-1. But before she could do that, she had to find a place where she could stay safely hidden until help arrived. Taking a stand and trying to fight back against the gunman in the dark when he could have night-vision equipment and she did not was foolhardy.
She headed deeper into the thick forest, her hair and clothes snagging on pine needles as she shoved her way through the stabbing tree branches. In broad daylight, the clues she was leaving behind would be as obvious as flags marking a hiking trail for an experienced tracker. She could only hope that the lunatic chasing her was not skilled at hunting humans. Or that he was in too much of a hurry to look around.
She was used to hiking in the woods, and jogging on occasion to stay fit, so she made good headway. Given the rocks, exposed tree roots and uneven terrain she was traversing, there was no way she could make a call for help while running. She had to pay attention to her footing. Finally, she reached a point where she thought it might be relatively safe to stop and make that call.
Lightning flashed again. Seconds later, Cassie heard the crack of a rifle shot, followed by booming thunder. Burning pain creased her left arm and she stumbled forward, falling onto her hands and knees. She’d been shot. She felt the gun fall out of her waistband and, for a few frantic seconds, couldn’t find it on the forest floor in the darkness.
When she finally did recover it, she decided to hold on to it, safety off and ready to fire, rather than tuck it back into her waistband.
The rain was pattering so loudly on the tree limbs and on the small expanses of exposed ground that she couldn’t hear if the gunman was moving in on her. Without the flashes of lightning, she couldn’t see much. But she knew there was a nearby stream that came down from the mountains and emptied into the lake. If she hiked in the bed of the stream, she wouldn’t leave a trail. She headed for it, finally stepping into roiling water and fighting to keep her balance on the uneven layer of river stones.
Following it downstream would take her back to the road. The last place she wanted to be. She headed upstream, anxious to move at least a couple hundred yards so she might finally feel it was safe enough to stop for a few seconds to try to make the call again. She also needed to check her gunshot wound. See how bad it was and figure out if she was in even worse trouble than she already knew she was.
“Cassie, answer your phone!” Leon Bragg drove his truck full-throttle around Lake Bell toward the bridge over Shackleford Inlet. He knew that yelling in frustration at the ringing sound coming through the speaker would not accomplish anything, but at least it was something he could do.
Sixteen minutes ago, he’d heard a popping sound on Cassie’s end of the phone, followed by her yelling no, and then a jumble of sounds before the call disconnected. He’d been on his way to the office and had immediately changed direction, heading toward Cassie to see what had happened and to make sure she was okay. He’d tried repeatedly to call since then and had gotten no answer.
The weather was bad. She could have had an accident. Maybe a tire blew out. Or maybe one of the criminals she’d helped put away over the years had tracked her down looking for revenge. A lot of fugitives they recovered made that threat to Cassie. Leon could only think of a couple of times when someone had made that threat to him. They didn’t threaten his fellow bounty hunters Harry Orlansky or Martin Silverdeer nearly as often, either. The reason for the difference was obvious. It was because she was a woman and she didn’t look particularly intimidating.
Leon knew that despite her smaller stature, Cassie was smart and strong and tough. ...
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