Jamie Kemp was good at her job. Working for the FBI in search and rescue as a dog trainer and handler was fulfilling work. Never laying down many roots, Jamie was ready to head out on assignment with her dogs at a moment’s notice.
Mark Cross and his family had lived in the Smoky Mountains for ten generations, and he loved the land, but of late, he was feeling rather lonely. Mark and his entire family were bears, black bears that blended into the wooded areas better than any wild ones in the park.
Jamie and her dogs were called in to find a missing woman. Instead, Jamie found herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer. Mark showed her pictures of the women this maniac had killed, and she could be their twin. And to complicate things more, Mark was her mate….
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Mark counted to ten, then counted again. Looking at the mother and the three kids with her, he could only think they had been told to be like this. There wasn’t any way he would believe someone could allow their children to behave like these were and think it was all right. It wasn’t. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to control your children. We’re walking into dangerous territory, and I wouldn’t want to see them get hurt.” He might if he had to put up with this much longer. “Could you please restrain—?” “Are you telling me I should lock my children up?” He said he’d not said that. “Yes, you did. You told me to restrain them. Well, I’m not going to. We’re outside.
They’re not hurting anyone, and I’d think you’d be thrilled to have someone come on this walk with you. You’ve been quite boring if you ask me.” “He didn’t.” They all turned to the elderly man that had come on the tour too. “And if you would pay attention to what is going on around you, you’d see it’s not the least bit boring at all. Don’t you see what a wonderful treat we have right here in this man? He’s very knowledgeable. If you’d listen.” “Whatever.” She looked at her three children, two boys and a little girl. Mark figured they were about the same age, twelve to fourteen.
Tall for their age if they were any younger. “My kids are here because they wanted to be out in nature. We’re in nature. In the event that it slipped your mind, it is your job to entertain them. You should be doing a better job of keeping their attention rather than complaining about how they’re acting. Again, we’re outside. A little noise is to be expected.” “Ma’am, I’d really appreciate it if you and your children would keep it down. Loud noises will attract the bears. They’ll want to come out and see what the commotion is all about, and that—” “Did you hear that, kids? You’re doing a better job than Ranger Rick here in showing us nature at its finest.”
The woman looked at him. “That’s the only reason we’ve come on this little walk of yours. To see some bears. It’s what we all want. I would love to have a great big bear not only come and see what is going on but to come up close and personal with us. How about any of the rest of you?” Mark pulled out a bear claw he’d found earlier today. He showed the woman how large it was. Even compared to his own hands, it was massive. Mark took a step toward the woman, hoping to scare her, but she just grinned at him.
“This would cut out your throat in a split second. The bears here aren’t domesticated. They’re dangerous killers. This is their land we walk upon. Their territory that they eat and sleep in. We’re only visitors to them. And if we, any of us, gets in their way, disturbs their sleep or whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’ll not come up and thank you politely for making them nervous.” “I know better.” He asked her what she knew better. “I’ve seen online how people get their pictures taken with all kinds of animals around here. And we’d better see a bear today, Ranger Rick, or I’m going to complain to your boss.”
“My name is Federal Wildlife Officer Mark Cross. Not Ranger Rick.” He looked at the others and decided he’d had enough of the family. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to go back to your car. This trip is too dangerous for you to be on if you’re not going to follow—” “Listen here, buster. I am not going back to my car or my cabin. I am not going to do anything but stay on this shitty walk with you. There is nothing for them to do there but whine and drive me up the wall. We’re here, and you’d better be getting a move on.
I have shit to do later. You’d better pray I see a bear, or I’m telling you right now, we’ll make such a ruckus on our way back that the dead animals will come to investigate what’s going on.” Counting to fifty didn’t help. Turning on his heel, he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly four times before he turned back to the group. He was finished with the family and wasn’t going to let them bother them one more minute. He hoped. Pointing out the vegetation was one of his favorite things to do. Even as he walked this particular path a thousand times a season, he still found things to marvel at. His family had lived in the Smoky Mountains for ten generations, and he loved every aspect of it. You all right, big brother?
Sighing, he told Gibb what was going on. I think I might have encountered them the other day. Three brats and a woman? Yes, that’s them. Mark let the others view the area from where they were, high atop the mountain. She threatened me and said she’d better see a nice cuddly bear, or she was going to go over my head. I really don’t care. I know for a fact that this group was told four times that I wear a body camera with sound on it. Let the higher ups come out here and deal with her if they think I messed up. Frazier is out running this morning. An idea came to him, and he loved what Gibb was suggesting. Let me find him and get right back to you.
She’ll get her bear and the scare of the lifetime if I tell him what’s going on with your people. Mark and his entire family were bears, black bears that blended into the wooded areas better than any of the wild ones here in the park. And because they were protected, they could run in any field or pasture they wanted and not have to worry about being seen. Mark did wonder what his grannie would say if she found out what he and Gibb were planning. Grandda would think it the funniest thing ever, but Grandma would be— He’s not too far from where you are on the trail at Abrams Falls.
Frazier and Ewing are out there playing in the water. There aren’t any humans around, he told me, but he can hear those kids coming. Mark said he was about fifty yards from the falls. Good. Just keep on the path for a few more minutes, and he said they’d be ready for you. They’d done this before, come to the park for a person to see a bear. Mostly they did it for children, never getting too close but letting them see them. Mark would bet most of the millions of pictures taken of bears in the park included one of them. Today was going to be something none of them had ever done before—scare someone that had come to the park for a visit. “Look, I see a bear.”
He was startled from his thoughts when one of the men spoke in a whisper. Of course, the mother and her brats didn’t do anything like that but started whooping and yelling for them to come to them. One of the kids even pulled out a large cow bell and started shaking it like his life depended on it. “Christ, they’re big, aren’t they?” Before he could take action in getting the humans to remain quiet, the bears, three of them, charged. Mark knew immediately that they were not his brothers, nor were they going to stop until he killed them. Pulling out his rifle, he shot the first large male in the head.
He dropped quickly. The second bear, this one limping, was coming at an alarming rate that had him wondering if he was going to be able to put the other one coming down on time. Number two dropped too—he was only about four feet from them. A third shot and the third bear dropped as well, sliding to his death no more than six inches from his booted foot. There wasn’t a sound in the air. Nothing was chirping, singing about the beautiful weather. The three kids were finally not acting up. Mark let what he’d just had to do settle around his mind. He’d killed three bears, his kind. Ones he shouldn’t have had to murder because of the people with him.
He was turning on his heel. Mark was ready to blast the family when the elderly man from the beginning of the walk beat him to it. Christ, he was glad for the camera on his vest. Mark thought he could go on watching this for the rest of his life. But he had to take care that the animals were cared for first. Calling it in, it was Gibb that he spoke to. All his brothers worked for the forestry in some way. Even their grandparents. Gibb was the dispatcher. Mark, as calmly as he could, told him what had happened. “Are you all right?” He said he thought he was. “Grandda was here.
He heard what you said when calling it in. He’s going to go out with the rangers.” Then through their link, he asked Mark about their brothers. They weren’t here. I knew these were wild bears as soon as they started after us. I hope they’re far away about now. He told him they’d both gone home when they heard the shots fired. Good. I should have known this was going to be a bad idea. Hopefully, however, the kids got a scare out of it. Just as he was closing the connection to Gibb, the mother of the brats slapped him hard, enough to make him off balance a little. Had it not been for the tree behind him, he would surely have fallen. He asked her what she thought she was doing. “You killed those innocent bears. Don’t you think you could have just wounded them?”
He said no, that would have made them twice as dangerous. “You fucking bastard. How am I supposed to explain this to my children? They’ll have nightmares for a month. They were only coming to see us. You just had to shoot them and ruin all our fun. You fucker. I’m going to make sure you lose your job over this.” “Ma’am.” She turned and looked at his grandda. Every part of his body was tense in the event this bitch took her anger out on him. “Fifty years ago now, I was out with a bunch of my buddies when we came across some bears getting their fill at the falls.
Catching salmon, they were. We didn’t think anything of it—it was a cold day, and we were downwind from them.” “So? Why do I care what you did fifty years ago, you old man? This person here, he killed those bears like they were nothing. They weren’t going to hurt anyone. I even have some jerky I brought to feed them. See?” Mark knew then that was what made them charge. They could smell the opened package of fish jerky because they weren’t downwind of them. Grandda asked if she’d had it out when they arrived at the falls. “Yes. Duh. How were we supposed to attract them to us if we didn’t wave it around all the time? You people need to take a chill pill.
Nothing was going to happen. You all know, too, if you’d think for one moment that my putting out a bad review for this place would totally shut you down. I’m an influencer. That’s right. I make or break companies like this one every day with just my review alone. I can take a five-star place, give it one bad review, and they’re out of business.” “Excuse me. You think that because you put out a bad review about this national forest, no one will come here again? Just all by yourself?” The elderly man looked at him, then at Grandda before he laughed.
“Go on, mister. You show her what a bear will do to you when they’re angry and denied whatever some idiot is waving around them. Because as surely as I’m standing here, that woman right there killed those three bears as surely as if she pulled out a gun and fired it.” “I wasn’t worried about that shit. I have my own gun.” She was on the ground with dirt in her mouth before she got her gun all the way out of the back of her pants. When it went off, hitting his grandda in the foot, all hell broke loose. “What the fuck are you doing to me now? Christ, it’s not like I killed him or anything. It was a fucking accident.
Get off me, you shits. I’m going to sue you all for this.” The other guests were taken back to the parking lot where they’d started out this adventure. Mark stayed with his grandda until the other rangers came back and took pictures. Of course, it was all on all their cameras, from different views, as a matter of fact, but they’d need to document this so that when the arrest warrant was filled out for the woman, they’d have all their shit together. “You all right, son?” He told his grandda he didn’t know. “Yeah, I can see that written all over your face. Seems to me people are getting more salty daily.
What do you think?” “Salty? I suppose that’s as good a term as any. Are you all right, Grandda?” He lifted up his foot to show where the bullet had gone right through the top. “Grandma is going to be seriously mad at you. I’d not expect her to make you any pie for dinner tonight either. She doesn’t like you or any of us to be hurt.” “You think she’ll be a little less fussy with me if I tell her a madwoman did this to me? And that you had to kill three bears to save the life of eight people, three of them kids?” Mark pretended to think about it and then told his grandda he didn’t think it would be any different. “Yeah, I don’t think she’ll be any happier anyway I tell her.” ~*~ The body was still where he’d left her. The rangers, he knew, were busy this time of year—early spring meant spring breakers of all sorts. Deciding he’d have to do a better job of putting them out in the open, he decided to find himself another woman to kill.
Women were too stupid to realize they were being targeted. The Smokies were the perfect place for him to have his fun. He’d been out west at one of the larger parks, but that had become boring. There were too many visitors out there year round to make it so he could do his thing. Really, all he did was murder women, lay them out in an open field, and watch as the other animals tore into them. He didn’t rape them or mutilate them in any way that would get him caught. Just popped them in the head or heart with a bullet, then he’d lay in waiting while something found them. Usually, it was a wolf, but lately, in early spring, there had been a lot of other animals coming around to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Making his way back to his truck, he saw the commotion going on near one of the falls. Just wandering over there to see what had happened, he saw that someone had shot three bears. He thought of their size. Most people thought of black bears as being huge. He supposed the bigger ones could be six hundred pounds tops, but little did they realize there were much bigger bears in the wild that were not only larger but more vicious than a black bear. Grizzlies were large, but the Kodiak bear was bigger by far. They were taller, being as large as ten feet tall when standing, and had a larger bone structure as well. The most dangerous bears were the grizzly and the polar bear. However, there were none of either of these bears in this park.
Sadly. When the ambulance showed up, and an old man was loaded into it, he watched for a few more minutes to see if anyone would say anything he might be able to use. But all they did was do their job quietly and with a great deal of efficiency. He knew the bears would be left where they were. The path would be closed to visitors until such time as they were taken care of by the other animals in the park. The eco system worked well here.
Watching while they drew blood, skin tissue, and other things he’d not seen them do before, he found himself a better place to watch, which had him backing into a tree and sliding down it. There hadn’t been a sound made. He was sure of it. Not a whisper of a leaf falling. Nothing shifted under his feet. Yet right now, he would swear the younger man in a ranger uniform was looking directly at him. As if he had peeled back the veneer of the forest and seen right into his head. Staring back at him, making sure not to even breathe too quickly even though he was terrified for the first time in longer than he could remember, he sat that still.
Finally, when the man broke his peering into his head—what it seemed like even now— he found himself breathing harder than he had since he’d first come to this place and had to climb the mountain. Getting down on his hands and knees, he made his way out of the area. Not sure if he was being watched anymore, he made sure he was careful where he’d put his hands and knees, never breaking a twig or crushing a leaf. As soon as he was over the hillside from them, he stood up. It took all of his willpower not to take off running the rest of the way into the town.
It was busy this time of the day, but not nearly as bad as it would be later tonight. Careful not to get too close to people, he knew that in the short walk to his favorite place to eat, he’d been brushed against by at least two dozen people. Slipping inside, he was seated right away and brought a large glass of sweet tea. The nectar of the gods as far as he was concerned. “What are you having tonight, Jon? We’ve a special running on chili mac.” He’d nearly looked around when his waiter called him Jon. It startled him that he knew his name. Not that he really knew his name, not really, but he’d been going by Jon Smyth for a few weeks now, and it seemed to suit everyone’s curiosity.
Jon told the waiter he’d have lasagna. “Yes, sir. Coming right up.” Jon Smyth. Such a stupid name now that he thought on it. However, no one questioned why he was called such a fake name. Going with it at the time had seemed like a brilliant idea. But his name, his first anyway, was really Jon. He’d have to be more careful in the future. His salad was set before him, and he picked at it. Jon wondered why anyone would eat a special in a place. Basically, it was whatever crap they had left over from the night before—or worse yet, something that was nearly ready to turn green. They’d mix it with other crap they had, and poof, they had a special.
Some people would fall for just about anything, he supposed. Like him. Jon didn’t have much in the way of confidence in people telling the truth. It stemmed, he supposed, from his mom telling him that his daddy was coming to get him and the bastard never showing up. Lies—all of them lied to him. When he’d been old enough, just barely into his teens, he’d hunted his father down and killed him. Precisely what he’d done was shove him into moving traffic, but he had done the pushing. He’d wanted to kill off his mom too, but he needed her more than he wanted her dead. There had been a couple of times he’d made her suffer at his hands. She would sometimes not give him what he wanted. Or would make him do something he didn’t think was his job. Like cleaning his room.
Christ, why did parents want you to clean your room all the time? So what if it was messy? Don’t open the door if that was your issue. Laundry wasn’t getting done? Okay, who cares? It’s his stuff. If he wanted to stink all day, then that was his problem, not hers to harp on. Besides, if he wanted clean clothing, he only had to go down to the local stores and steal what he wanted. They, too, knew better than to fuck with him. Everyone did by the time he was sixteen. His food was put in front of him, and his drink was refilled. Then the pitcher was set on the table with him. It had taken only one time of him not being happy with being hovered over while he ate before they just left him alone. No asking if everything was all right.
He was eating it, wasn’t he? There was no seeing if he needed anything else with his meal. Had he wanted anything else, he would have ordered it when he sat down. Jon often times wondered if there was a person that told the waitstaff to bother the fuck out of someone while they were eating. He didn’t get it at home, so why did he have to put up with it when he paid someone else to cook for him?
Even his check was put down without any fanfare. No pointing it out—just drop it off and take themselves elsewhere. Just the way he liked it. After eating his big lunch, he made his way back to the other end of town. There were as many attractions at this end as there were at the park entrance, but he would walk this way, head up in the woods, and make his way back to his place through the wooded mountain tops. Smiling to himself, he thought of the first time he’d done this. Jon had thought himself in fairly good shape. He didn’t exercise at all, but he did chop wood for himself. Climbed stairs when he needed to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b.’ Then he’d moved here. The very first time he had to go through the woods to his shack, he thought he was going to die.
The air was thinner the higher you got. He knew that. But what he’d not counted on was just how difficult it was to do simple tasks, like chopping wood, building himself a better shelter, or digging a hole. Christ, he thought for sure when he got out of bed that first morning, after digging a hole deep enough to put a refrigerator in, that he’d pulled every single muscle in his body. Some he was sure that even scientists hadn’t ever encountered. After digging the second hole to put his refrigerator in, lying on its side with the lid to open up for him to store things in, he didn’t hurt as badly. The blisters had even turned to callouses, and he felt better.
The third and fourth ones were a piece of cake. Now he had a cooler system that needed no electricity to keep his perishables cold. It had been the heat that had caused him the most issues. The first time he’d set a fire in the new digs he’d built, it had smoked him out. It had taken him three more tries to figure out how to make it smokeless, so he’d not draw attention to himself. Small fires, using only dried wood, had been the trick. So when winter set in, which was earlier up here in the mountains, he was as prepared as he’d ever been. Walking along the path he’d made for himself, he was just about to cross over the fence when he heard a noise behind him. Dropping to the ground, he laid still as he waited for the sound to come again. It hit him almost as soon as he saw them that it was a sleuth of bears. A large group of them, too. He’d never seen a bear play around like these seemed to be doing. Wrestling around in the dirt, they seemed to be having a great time.
As he watched them carefully, he made his way back by sliding his body along the rocks and dirt. When he was out of sight of them, he still crawled for another fifty feet or so until he was sure they couldn’t see him. Christ, that had been scary. Getting to his home a little later than he’d thought he would, Jon was happy for the bed he’d brought up with him. The fact he’d had to bring things up in the summer made it difficult, with all the tourists around, but he’d managed to get not just a stove for his heat, but a cot with a good mattress, the refrigerators, as well as a chair. He’d made his own table, but the chairs he’d tried weren’t cutting it. Lying on his bed, he thought about what he was going to do tomorrow. The first thing he was going to have to do was find himself another woman to kill.
This time, he was going to make sure her body was found sooner. It was one thing to get his jollies in killing them, but he wanted someone to find them so they’d be worried. Rolling to his side, he thought of the first woman he’d killed since arriving here. She’d been too easy to follow. Oblivious to her surroundings, he’d killed her without much in the way of thought as to why she might be standing so close to the edge of the falls.
Hitting her in the back of the head with an ax he’d just happened to be carrying around, she was considered an accident. Falling into the water, she’d been beaten up badly, he supposed, and his hitting her hadn’t been an issue. Damn it. He’d not gotten the attention he so desperately wanted. Jon wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d not be caught killing women. He had a backup plan he carried around with him all the time. It had cost him a great deal of money and pain to have one of his teeth drilled out so the little capsule would fit inside of it. A cyanide pill that would kill him instantly.
Well, not instantly, but he’d be dead all the same. He wasn’t going back to prison. Juvie hadn’t really been a prison, he supposed, but it had been prison-like. He was monitored all the time. He didn’t get to sleep when he wanted or eat when he was hungry. It was no less than he deserved, he continued to tell himself. When you act out, as they called it, there were consequences to your actions. His had been a consequence he never wanted to repeat. Closing his eyes, he let sleep take him under. Jon wasn’t plagued with nightmares about his deeds. Nor did he have a moment’s hesitation in thinking he was some sort of monster. He did what he did because women were too stupid to realize they were the lesser sex and should have a man at their side to keep them safe. It was exactly what got his mom killed.
She’d been too carefree with her body, and someone, not him, had killed her when she didn’t put out when he was there to save her. Of course, he’d been the one that had been beating her up and only stopped when she was unconscious. But his mom hadn’t been grateful enough, as the man had thought she should have been, to suck him off. Yet another prime example of women being stupid. Waking in the middle of the night, he went out into the moonlit night to take a piss. There were creatures close by—he could see them scurrying around. Jon never bothered with a light. That would get him caught. But he did keep an eye out for anything larger than he was, as well as sliding snakes that would crawl up his pant leg in a minute. Going back inside, washing up at the water bowl he’d rigged up to take in water off the roof, Jon went right back to bed and to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a good day. He could feel it in his bones.