Excerpt

Tracking Game

Margaret Mizushima

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Tracking Game, by Margaret Mizushima. An explosion outside a community dance in Timber Creek causes Mattie Cobb and Cole Walker to investigate. They find a murdered outfitter, but when they research his background, they discover a love triangle, a tangle of family dynamics, another shooting victim, and a wild predator lurking in the woods. Cole, Mattie, and her dog Robo, must put the pieces together before everything comes crashing down.

In the dim light of dusk, she’d lost sight of Robo, and she stepped up her pace. She focused on dodging tree roots, deadfall, rocks, and other barriers that seemed bent on catching her toe. She kept her eye on the ground with an occasional glance uphill to try to spot her dog. She hated to call him back and interrupt his drive to search, but she had begun to wonder if she should.

As she broke free from some trees, she finally saw Robo up ahead, still near the creek. The sun had set, and his black fur and tawny markings blended into the forest in the waning light. He was skirting the area, winding around a cluster of bushes, when he stopped, sniffing the air.

As Mattie neared, she could see his hackles rise. “What do you smell?” she murmured as she reached him. He was standing still, sniffing as if trying to sift through the air. She wished she possessed his special power and could help.

A low growl rumbled in his chest.

“What is it?” Mattie squinted, peering through the forest, struggling to detect something in the shadows that her dog could smell but she couldn’t see. “What’s out there?”

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A chill ran down her spine, and Mattie drew her Glock from its holster. She had no idea what they were facing, but she understood her partner’s warning.

Robo edged closer, hovering at her left heel, growling as he searched the area with his eyes as well as his nose. A chill ran down her spine, and Mattie drew her Glock from its holster. She had no idea what they were facing, but she understood her partner’s warning.  

The forest was still, all the normal evening sounds hushed. A low-pitched roar rumbled from somewhere uphill, a primordial sound that shook Mattie to her core. For a few seconds, she and Robo froze, and then he broke into a furious bark. Several rattling chuffs from uphill answered, followed by the long, drawn-out growl of an apex predator.

The hair at the back of her neck stood at attention. What on earth was that? A bear? A cougar?

Her first concern was for her dog. She sure as hell didn’t want him trying to protect her by charging to attack. “Robo, heel! Stay!”

She backed up to a pine tree, taking shelter against its rough bark. Robo stayed with her but continued to carry on, barking and snarling.

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The predator responded with a rattling growl that ended in a roar. Mattie strained to see through the feeble light of dusk. Nothing but trees. She grabbed her flashlight from her belt and directed its powerful beam uphill. Again, nothing.

Robo hovered at her side, his front paws lifting from the ground with every ferocious bark. A downward glance told her where he was looking, and she shone her light in that direction. She glimpsed the shape of a large cat before it whirled and darted away.

Her dog’s hair bristled, and it reminded her of a strategy to use during a wildlife encounter—look big. She raised the flashlight above her head with her left arm while keeping her handgun trained in the direction of Robo’s line of sight. The light beam wavered in her trembling hand.

Another roar echoed through the forest, but this time it sounded like it was farther uphill. Was the cougar going away?

Mattie huddled against the tree, her heart pounding at a fearful pace. Robo continued to bark and growl, and she decided to let him. She held the flashlight aloft until her arm felt numb. After a series of fading growls from up above, the forest fell silent and Robo settled at her heel.

When she decided it was safe to move, she lowered the light and reached for her cell phone. There were enough bars on the screen to try a call. A quick swipe brought up Brody’s number.

“Where are you, Cobb?”

She spoke quietly into the phone, hoping her voice wouldn’t quiver. “Not far from when I talked to you last, maybe a mile and a half from my vehicle. Where’s Johnson?”

“He just passed your unit, but he’s sticking to the road. He should be near.”

“Tell him to stay in his cruiser. There’s a big cat out here, and it’s on the hunt.”

“Just a minute.” She heard Brody pass on her message to Sam, who would notify Johnson. “Are you safe?”

“I don’t know, but I think so. As far as I can tell, Robo barked enough to make it go away. I don’t want Johnson com­ing up on it unaware.”

“He’s still in his cruiser. He’s driven a mile uphill, but that’s as far as he can go. The road’s too bad for him to get closer. Retreat downhill so you can get to the safety of his unit.”

Despite the terror she’d felt a few minutes ago, she hadn’t forgotten the urgency of her mission, and evidently Robo hadn’t forgotten either. He paced a few feet out in front, sniff­ing the air, and then turned to stand at attention and pin her with his eyes.

“I think Robo’s hit on something, Brody. I’ve got to go uphill to check it out.”

“Don’t be stupid, Cobb.”

“I’m not. Robo scented the cougar, and now his body lan­guage tells me it’s gone. He’s got a hit on human scent this time.”

There was a long pause before Brody responded. “Keep this line open as you move forward.”

“Will do.” Mattie put her cell on speakerphone and shoved it into her pocket before clipping a leash on Robo’s collar. She wasn’t going to take the chance of losing him in the dark. “Okay, Robo, let’s go find someone.”

With Robo’s leash in one hand and her flashlight in the other, Mattie followed him uphill. She watched the hair on his back while keeping an eye on the rugged terrain at her feet. Robo didn’t hesitate as he led her straight uphill, his nose to the air instead of the ground.

Her flashlight showed her a still form beneath the trees, and as they approached, it gradually assumed the shape of a human lying spread-eagle, faceup.

Robo sat a short distance from the body, as if he’d taken Mattie as close as he dared. She scanned the form, but her eyes were drawn to its most ghastly aspect. The body’s shirt had been ripped open and its belly plundered, skin and viscera torn apart, bloody organs and tissue scattered. Mattie tore her eyes from the nightmarish sight and shone her light on the face.

It was Wilson Nichol, his mouth frozen open in a final scream. His passing had not been peaceful. Mattie recalled the low-pitched, rattling growl of the mountain lion that had fed on this man, and it touched a spark of terror in her soul. She reached for her phone.

“Brody, Robo found him. It’s Wilson Nichol. He’s dead.”

“Are you in a safe place, Cobb?”

She scanned the dark forest around her. A branch snapped off to her right, and she whirled to train her light in that direction. Nothing. She looked at Robo. He sat calmly, staring up at her.

“I think so, but tell the others to be careful as they approach. Have the posse come in a group, and tell them to bring lots of lights and make lots of noise.”

“Stay with me on the line, Cobb, while I get you some help. I’m coming, too, as soon as I can get there.”

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From Tracking Game by Margaret Mizushima. Used with the permission of the publisher, Crooked Lane. Copyright © 2019 by Margaret Mizushima.

 

 




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