Authors: Sandra Robbins
WITNESS IN JEOPARDY
When Gwen Harwell witnesses someone dumping a body into a Tennessee river, she knows she’s the killer’s new target. Far from home on a work assignment, she isn’t sure where to turn—especially when her ex-husband appears. Five years ago, Dean Harwell’s burdens from his police work tore their marriage apart. But now he says he’s changed. He’s working as a rancher; he’s put his problems behind him. And he’s committed to keeping her safe until the killer is caught. With their troubled past, trusting him with her life is hard enough. Can she trust him with the truth about the child he doesn’t know they have?
Smoky Mountain Secrets: Love and danger collide in the Southern wilderness
“Gwen, are you all right?” Dean asked.
Gwen looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, and his stomach tightened at how often he’d been the cause of her tears in the past. She had once said she would never forgive him, and he believed her.
He wished he could let her know how he regretted that, but now was not the time to tell her.
She nodded. “When I smelled that gasoline, I was so scared. Then I thought I was the only one who’d survived the wreck.”
Dean smiled. “But you called 911 anyway. That was quick thinking.”
Her cheeks flushed, and a smile pulled at her lips. “I’m just glad that your cell phone fell out of your pocket.”
Their stilted conversation reminded him of how different things were now between the two of them compared to what they’d been years ago. How he wished he could go back and tell that young police officer to do things differently, but he couldn’t.
“Gwen, I—” he began, then stopped as someone approached them.
What was done, was done, and the past couldn’t be changed.
But the present could.
is an award-winning, multipublished author of Christian fiction who lives with her husband in Tennessee. Without the support of her wonderful husband, four children and five grandchildren, it would be impossible for her to write. It is her prayer that God will use her words to plant seeds of hope in the lives of her readers so they may come to know the peace she draws from her life.
Books by Sandra Robbins
Love Inspired Suspense
Smoky Mountain Secrets
In a Killer’s Sights
The Cold Case Files
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IN A KILLER’S
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Dedicated to Kylie, who gave me the idea for
setting a story on a dude ranch in the Smoky Mountains
wen Anderson planted her feet in a wide stance and stared down into the crystal clear waters of the Great Smoky Mountains stream twenty feet below. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the fall foliage, casting shadows across the water. Her position provided the perfect photo op for her research. In a few months, she would begin producing a documentary about the most visited national park in the country for WNT, a New York–based television network.
Her camera hung on a strap around her neck, and she raised it to her eyes. A strand of hair slipped out of her metal hair clip and wedged itself in front of the viewfinder. With a sigh, she adjusted the clip and tugged on it to make sure it was anchored in place. Then she raised the camera and peered through it, scanning the terrain below in an effort to get the best shot.
As she inched closer to the edge, she stepped on a loose rock she hadn’t seen in the moss, and her foot slipped. With a scraping sound, the rock tumbled downward. She cringed at the sound of it knocking against the limestone face and releasing a small avalanche of other stones. For a moment she teetered on the edge of the cliff, thinking she might very well follow them, but then she steadied herself.
The thud of stones striking the ground reached her ears, but it was another sound that made her breath hitch in her throat. A surprised cry rang out from below. The thought that a hiker or camper had been on the riverbank and was injured by one of the falling rocks set her heart to pounding. Dreading what she’d see, Gwen stepped carefully to the brink and stared down.
Her eyes widened in shock at the sight below. A man dressed in camouflage, with a body draped over his shoulder, stood at the edge of the water and stared up at her. Although the black ski mask he wore covered his face, his eyes glared at her through the slits of his disguise.
Neither of them moved for a few seconds as they gazed at each other. Then, with a shove, he dumped the body into the rushing water. Gwen watched in horror as it bobbed a few times before the current carried it away downstream.
Instinct kicked in, and she raised the camera and snapped a picture, just as the man lifted his arm—with a gun in his hand. A moment later, the sound of a gunshot echoed in the valley. Pieces of shattered rock exploded around her as the bullet struck inches from where she stood, making her flinch back automatically and squeeze her eyes shut. She took a deep breath and peered through the viewfinder once more, but the man was no longer there.
Panic welled up in her. It was time to get to safety. Her car sat at the trailhead parking lot a mile away, and she needed to head there now. Careful not to slip on the mossy rocks, Gwen scrambled toward the trail as fast as she could. Once there she took off running, but she could hear the sound of someone sprinting behind her.
Knowing her life depended on it, she pushed her body to move faster, to outrun the killer, who sounded as if he was gaining on her with every step. The deserted trail stretched ahead, and she groaned, unsure she could make it all the way to the parking lot before she collapsed—or got caught by her pursuer.
What should she do? Continue on, or take her chances in the forest on either side of the path? Of the two, the forest seemed the better choice. Although the vegetation would slow her progress some, she might be able to find a hiding place in the dense woods. Before she could decide, another gunshot sounded, and bark on a tree to the right of the trail exploded in small fragments.
Her nostrils flared in fear as she realized he’d gained even more ground and it would be only a matter of time before he caught up to her. Already she was weakening, and her chest was heaving as she gasped for air. The better choice was to take her chances off the trail. Veering right, she plunged into the thick forest and wove among the tree trunks.
The heavy footsteps slowed a bit, but didn’t stop. Now they were crashing over the fallen limbs and leaves that littered the ground. And worst of all, he was still right behind her.
There had to be somewhere she could hide. But where? The trees in this part of the forest were too small to conceal a figure behind them, and she wasn’t close enough to the hillside to find a cave. Just when she was about to give up hope, she spotted a large rotting tree off to her left, a big hollow in its trunk. She didn’t know if she could fit into it or not, but needed to try. Her pursuer would catch up to her any minute.
With a burst of speed, Gwen raced to the tree. Her research had told her that black bears in the Smokies liked to hibernate in hollowed-out trees, and if this was a bear’s den, she hoped no one was home today. Swallowing the bile that poured into her mouth, she dropped down on her hands and knees and scurried into the gaping hole.
She wiggled in and pressed her body against the back side of the trunk. With any luck the man from the stream wouldn’t see her. The sound of approaching footsteps crashing through the forest caused her to stiffen and hold her breath. He came closer and then ran on by without stopping.
She waited a few minutes, catching her breath, before she crawled out and looked around. He was nowhere in sight, and she couldn’t hear him running. Taking a deep gulp of air, she turned and ran.
What felt like endless moments later, she was back on the trail and racing toward the parking lot. If she could just get to her car, she could get away. Then she’d go to the sheriff’s department and take her camera. She wasn’t sure if the picture of a man’s face hidden by a ski mask would be helpful or not, but there might be another way to identify him. And a way to find out who his victim was.
When the parking lot came into sight, she breathed a sigh of relief and urged her tired body to jog the last few feet to where her car was parked. She was almost there when she heard a shout behind her.
“Stop! Or I’ll shoot!”
Gwen glanced over her shoulder, and her legs almost collapsed at what she saw. The man, still wearing the ski mask, ran from the woods, his gun aimed at her. Her car sat no more than twenty feet away. He was at least twice that distance. Should she stop or try for the vehicle?
Before she even knew what she had decided, she willed her legs into a new burst of speed and barreled toward her car. A shot rang out and struck beside her foot on the paved parking lot. She gasped, but didn’t stop.
She was almost to the car when another shot rang out and bounced off the fender. The sound of the ricochet sent terror flowing through her, and she stumbled. Her arms flailed the air as she fell forward, landing facedown on the asphalt. The strap holding her camera around her neck broke, and the device skidded across the parking lot, out of reach.
Gwen scrambled to get up, but by then the killer stood a few feet away with the weapon pointed at her. His eyes blazed with anger through the slits of the mask, and his chilling laugh sent shivers up her spine. Without taking the gun off her, he slowly reached down and picked up her camera.
“Well, well,” he snarled. “Thought you could get away from me? It looks like today’s not your day.”
Gwen pushed herself into a sitting position and scooted backward until she felt the door of her car behind her. “Please,” she begged. “I don’t know who you are, and I won’t say anything. Just please don’t hurt me.”
He chuckled again and shook his head. “You should have thought of that before you became so nosy.”
She raised her hands in front of her as if they could shield her from a bullet. “There’s no need to do this.”
“Sorry,” he said and raised the gun.
Gwen closed her eyes to say a quick prayer for those she loved and would leave behind, but snapped them open again at the sound of a voice shouting from nearby. “What’s going on here?”
Her assailant whirled and stared at the road to the parking lot. Gwen’s heart slammed against her chest as she spied horses with riders in single file—a trail ride. The leader spurred his mount forward, and she cringed against the car, waiting to see what would happen next.
The man in the mask appeared to waver, uncertain. He retreated a step, pointed the gun at the rider and then back at her. He gave a strangled cry and then fired. Gwen sat there, stunned, as she felt something wet trickle down her face. Puzzled, she reached up, touched the side of her head and felt blood. With a groan, she toppled forward. The rough pavement scraped her cheek, and she heard the hoofbeats of a horse speeding past. Then darkness settled over her, and she slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *
Dean Harwell hadn’t counted on stumbling on a crime in progress when he’d led his dude-ranch guests on their first trail ride in the Smokies. But despite his surprise, he didn’t hesitate to act.
Years of service as a police officer served him well as he spurred his horse toward the gunman in an effort to save the woman’s life. His heart dropped to the pit of his stomach when the man aimed and fired at her. Out of the corner of his eye Dean saw her slump facedown on the pavement before the man turned and ran into the woods.
His foreman, Emmett Truitt, rode up beside him. “Did we just witness a murder, Dean?”
“Looks like it,” he replied. “The shooter’s gone into the forest. I can’t risk injury to my horse by taking him in there. Call 911 for the woman, and I’ll go after him.”
He dismounted, threw the reins to Emmett and plunged into the forest after the fleeing gunman. After about a half mile he stopped and listened. No sounds came from around him. Even the birds had chosen to go quiet. He hadn’t caught sight of the man even once since following him into the woods, and he couldn’t hear anyone running.
It was time to admit he’d lost the trail. With a sigh, Dean turned around and retraced his steps to the parking lot. When he got there, emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were scattered across the parking lot.
An ambulance with its back door open appeared to be ready to transport the victim. Sheriff Ben Whitman, Dean’s friend since they’d met in middle school years ago, stood beside his police car talking to one of his deputies.
Even from this distance it was easy to see Ben’s Cherokee heritage in his high cheekbones, coarse black hair and reddish skin tone. They’d played football together, double-dated and shared confidences since they were kids. But it was what Ben had done for him in the past five years that meant the most. He had been Dean’s sponsor when he’d entered an alcohol rehabilitation program, and Ben was the main reason he’d been successful in overcoming his addiction.
When Ben spotted Dean, he hurried over. “Did you see where he went?”
Dean shook his head. “He disappeared as soon as he left the parking lot. He must know these woods well to get away so quickly.” He glanced at the gurney where the woman lay, with EMT Joe Collins and another man in scrubs bent over her, administering aid.
Only her feet were visible. It was impossible to tell how badly she might be hurt. “Is she dead?”
“No,” Ben said. “She’s unconscious, though. The paramedics are about ready to transport her.”
Dean craned his neck to get a better look at the woman, but still couldn’t see her face. “How badly is she hurt?” he asked.
Ben tugged at the brim of his hat to straighten it. “Not nearly as bad as we thought at first. Emmett and your guests said they saw a man with a gun aimed right at her head when he fired. The only thing that saved her life was a big metal hair clip she had on. The bullet apparently struck it and bounced off. Grazed her head when it ricocheted and the wound bled quite a bit, but she’s going to be fine.”
“I guess God was watching out for her today,” Dean said. “When I rode up and saw the guy about to shoot her, I thought it was a robbery gone bad. Was it?”
“That was my first thought, but I won’t know until I can talk with her. The impact of the bullet knocked her out, and she hasn’t regained consciousness yet.”
“Have you ever seen her around before?”
Ben shook his head. “Probably a tourist. She’s in a rental car. We found a wallet in her jeans pocket and her driver’s license is from New York. I’m guessing she may have encountered her attacker on the trail or in the parking lot and was trying to get away from him when you arrived.”
Dean nodded. “That makes sense. Maybe she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Ben said before he stared off into the woods. “I’m going to call in some guys to help us search this area on the chance that we might find something that points to our shooter. Want to come along?”
Dean nodded again. “I’ll be glad to. I’ll take my guests to the ranch and come on back.”
“Good. There’s not a guide around that knows these mountains like you do,” his friend stated. “I sure am glad you came back home to live. Now, if you’d give up that dude ranch and come work for me, I’d be perfectly happy.”
Dean frowned at that. “My days of being a police officer are over. I loved it until I...” He paused and stared down at the wedding ring he’d never been able to take off. “Well, you know some of what happened. It ruined my life for a time.”
“But you overcame everything.”
Dean sighed and raked his hand through his hair. “Not everything, buddy. There are some people I never will get the chance to make it up to. People who I’ve had to learn to live without. One especially.”
Ben clamped his hand on Dean’s shoulder. “You know I’ve always been glad to listen to you about what happened, but I know there’s a lot you’ve never told me. When you’re ready, I’m willing to hear.”
Dean smiled briefly. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.” Then he took a deep breath. “Now I’d better get these guests home so I can come help you with the search.”
“See you later,” Ben said before he turned and walked to his cruiser.
Dean started to head to where Emmett stood, but noticed the EMTs were about to load the woman in the ambulance and detoured to check on her. He walked over and stopped behind Joe. “How’s she doing?” he asked.
The paramedic glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “Still passed out, but she’s going to be fine. If that bullet had been a half inch to the left of that hair clip, we’d be taking her body to the county coroner’s office instead of the hospital.”