and sat down in the chair in front of his desk.
“I wondered if you’d found out anything about those hunters out behind my house.”
Duncan twisted his lips and mulled over how to best proceed. Bureaucratic B.S. usually seemed to work. “I’m working on it. I have a few leads I’m following up on. As soon as I know anything I’ll let you know.”
She gifted him with another smile and reached up to smooth a few silvery strands of hair that had escaped the bun. “Oh well, that’s good. I hate to think of those poor animals being shot at. I have to tell you, I was rooting for that cheetah, and I never heard shots so I’m hoping it escaped.”
Duncan lunged forward in his seat, his hands flat on the desk. “What cheetah, Mrs. Humphreys? You never said anything about a cheetah.”
A puzzled frown creased her face. “Oh but I’m sure I did.”
Duncan shook his head. “No ma’am. You said lion. Not a mountain lion, but a lion.”
“Well, there was a lion too. Before the cheetah. Oh dear, maybe I forgot to mention the cheetah.”
Fuck. Now he had someone else who had seen Aliyah. Could it get any worse?
“Tell me about the cheetah,” he said, directing her back to the matter at hand.
“Well, it was early, and I’m always up early. I went out back to feed Riley, and I saw two SUVs driving across the back boundary of my property. They stopped at the bottom of the first switchback and started unloading a bunch of stuff. So I went inside to get the binoculars.
“I saw that they carried rifles and bows. And then, one of them opened the back, and they lifted out a cage. I couldn’t really see what kind of animal it was until they turned it loose. Now I wouldn’t swear in court, mind you, but it certainly looked like a cheetah. I’d just watched a documentary the night before on Animal Planet.”
Duncan blew out his breath and dragged a hand through his hair. “Did you get a good enough look at the men to be able to give a detailed description? And would you know them again if you saw them?”
“Oh my, I just don’t know. Maybe?”
He smiled kindly at her. “It’s all right, Mrs. Humphreys. You’ve been very helpful. I think you should keep this information to yourself, though. We don’t want people to get the idea that a bunch of wild animals are roaming around our mountains.”
The last thing he needed was a bunch of hot-to-trot good ol' boys armed with high-powered rifles mounting a search for dangerous animals. It would be more fun than the town of Elk Ridge had had since old man Hildebrandt swore he saw Bigfoot.
“Of course,” she said.
They were interrupted when Nick stuck his head in the door. “Duncan, I need a minute when you get time.”
Mrs. Humphreys rose from her seat and turned to smile at Nick. “That’s all right, young man. I was just going.”
Duncan rose. “Thanks for coming by, Mrs. Humphreys. I appreciate the information, and I want you to know, we’re doing all we can to make sure those poachers are found and arrested. In the meantime, if you see anything else, you call me immediately.”
She nodded and headed out the door as Nick walked in to plop in the chair she’d just vacated.
Duncan stared at Nick and tried not to let his impatience show.
“So what’s going on?” Nick asked.
Duncan blinked. “Going to give me an idea of what you want to know? Or do you want a detailed accounting of my entire morning?”
Nick’s brow arched. “Someone piss in your cereal? I’m talking about yesterday. You going looking for hunters, then calling dispatch and telling them to contact local hospitals to see if anyone showed up with injuries. Yet you come out alone, don’t file a report other than you have suspicions of illegal hunting. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something’s fishy as hell.”
Damn. He hadn’t even stopped to think about what asking dispatch to notify the local hospitals would imply. He took a deep breath and quelled his agitation. Nick was his friend and a damn good cop. He didn’t deserve Duncan’s impatience.
“I think one of them was injured,” he said slowly. “They were tracking a kill.”
“So you saw blood. What made you think it wasn’t the animal’s blood?”
“It was an idea,” Duncan said shortly. “I’m covering all the bases.”
Nick stared suspiciously at him. “You’re holding back on me, man. What’s that shit?”
Duncan nearly groaned. He and Nick went way back. Both had grown up here and felt a deep loyalty to the town and to the mountains. No, he hadn’t ever held out on Nick. There had never been a need. But he wasn’t ready to share Aliyah with anyone. And who the hell would believe him anyway?
Duncan grabbed for the phone in relief when it rang. After a few moments, he hung up and looked back up at Nick. At least now he could do something besides sit here while Nick stared him down like a bug under a microscope.
“Looks like their kill has been found. Locals out scouting found a dead lion about a mile up the mountain at the Turner Creek crossing.”
“No. A lion,” Duncan said evenly.
“You mean a lion as in fucking Lion King?”
“Holy fuck. So maybe Mrs. Humphreys wasn’t off her rocker when she said she saw a cheetah.”
Alarm prickled up Duncan’s spine. “You heard that?”
“Yeah, came in on the tail end of the conversation. What the hell is going on, Duncan?”
Duncan sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. He trusted Nick. There was no doubt about that. No, he didn’t want to tell him about Aliyah, but that had more to do with the possessive need crawling through his veins. The need to keep her to himself, sheltered from the rest of the world.
But the rest he could trust Nick with. “It would appear that our poachers are importing exotic animals into the states and turning them out to hunt here in Elk Ridge. Why don’t you head out with me, and I’ll catch you up to speed on what I know.”
Duncan got up, collected his jacket and walked out of the office, Nick on his heels. They climbed into Duncan’s truck and headed for Turner Creek.
They rode in silence for a long time. Frustration edged up Duncan’s neck and gripped his jaw. The longer it took him to run down leads, the longer Aliyah was left alone in his house. He was in a hell of a fix. He couldn’t have her with him while he worked to try and track down the men who’d hunted her, but he felt uneasy about leaving her alone and without protection for such a long period of time.
“You okay?” Nick asked.
Duncan glanced over at his friend. “Yeah, I’m good. Just tired. Wagged my ass all over the damn mountain yesterday looking for those damn poachers.”
Nick’s expression darkened. “I want them out of our mountains, Duncan.”
Duncan nodded. “You and me both. Last thing we need is a bunch of outsiders shooting up the damn woods and loosing animals like lions. The locals get wind of this and they’ll posse up and go after the poachers themselves.”
As they neared the Turner Creek crossing, they saw two trucks parked a quarter-mile up the road. Duncan pulled in behind them and hopped out.
He and Nick walked over to where Heath Barnes and his son, Michael, stood with Sam Crenshaw. They looked up.
“Sheriff,” Heath said with a nod.
Duncan looked down at the dead lion. Large adult male. Gunshot wound behind the left shoulder. Rigor had set in and the body temperature was cool, no warmth when Duncan touched the stiff body. Probably shot late yesterday or possibly early this morning.
He looked up at the three men who gathered round the fallen lion. “You fellows see anyone around?”
They shook their heads.
“What’s going on, sheriff?” Sam asked. “What’s a lion doing around here?”
Duncan rose and rubbed a hand through his hair. “I wish I knew. Looks like we have a poaching ring.”
faces twisted in anger.
“It’s bad enough we have to put up with so many damn out-of-state hunters every fall,” Heath muttered. “Now they’re running illegal animals?”
Duncan sighed and pulled out his cell phone to check his signal. One bar. A call might go through. He dialed Doc’s number, hoping this time he’d actually get a hold of the man.
After the fourth ring, Doc’s gravelly voice bled through the line.
“What can I do for you, Duncan?” Doc asked. “Sorry I didn’t get back to you last night. It was damn near two a.m. before I got in. Had a difficult delivery out at the Bransons.”
“No problem. Look Doc, if you aren’t busy, I could use you.”
“I need you to do an autopsy…on a lion.”
“A mountain lion? Whatever for?”
“No, Doc, a lion. African lion. I’ve got a dead one at Turner Creek. I need you to preserve what evidence you find, recover any bullet fragments and give me a detailed report of your findings.”
“You bringing it in or do you want me to come get it?”
“I’ll have my deputies bring it to you,” Duncan said.