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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book Three

Death hits close to home for Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher  – or, rather, close to Hovel, as she’s dubbed her decrepit rental house in rustic Sherman, Wyoming.

Shoot First . . . 

Elizabeth’s elderly neighbor has killed a man apparently after her Western artifacts. As a former top-flight national TV reporter, Elizabeth knows self-defense can satisfy the legal system, yet leave her neighbor in danger.

Doing what she does best – asking questions – Elizabeth sidesteps her boss and a nosy, jealous anchorman to inquire into an eccentric billionaire, ambitious curator, rival collectors, family feuds, and Cottonwood County crimes from a century ago.

As she digs deeper, Elizabeth is helped by friends. That’s canine as well as human friends, and includes two male humans who’d definitely like to be more than friends.

Before this is over, Elizabeth will need every one of them, as her questions push someone to decide that Elizabeth should

. . . Die Later

Genres:
Excerpt:

Day 1 — Monday

CHAPTER ONE

“Holy smokes,” Jennifer said. “You’ll never guess what just came over the police radio.”

Only she didn’t say smokes and said is mild for the sound that crossed the KWMT-TV newsroom.

Like everyone else in the open room cluttered with desks, computer terminals, filing cabinets, and KWMT employees, I turned toward Jennifer. She is officially a newsroom aide, unofficially a sometimes-production assistant, and very unofficially the computer guru for me and sports anchor, Mike Paycik.

Offsetting all that good, Jennifer loaded FreeCell on my computers at home and work . . . . She had a lot to answer for.

“Elizabeth?” she called to me, then added, as if the newsroom were littered with Elizabeths, “Elizabeth Margaret Danniher? What’s your address?”

As a light and airy casual question, it failed.

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Every face in the newsroom turned toward me. Without moving from my chair, I had provisionally stepped across the knife-sharp boundary between newsroom colleague and poor schmuck who’ll be the subject of a news story tonight.

Journalists are not heartless about the subjects they interview or report about.

Let me rephrase: Most journalists are not entirely heartless about many subjects they interview or report about.

However, there is a necessary distance. Necessary to do a good job as a journalist, and necessary to retain a few shreds of sanity. If you shed a single drop of blood with each sad, tragic, woeful, heart-tugging story you encountered, you’d be a bloodless corpse in no time.

So there is a firm line between us and them. Us being the newsroom folk, and them being the poor schmucks.

Jennifer’s words connecting my address with a police radio call shoved me across the line to them.

That wasn’t a new position for me at KWMT. When I’d arrived in April to serve out the remainder of a network contract, I’d been viewed as an alien. Not from outer space, but perhaps from an even more distant universe from Sherman, Wyoming — major-market TV.

Now, with September nearly here, about half the newsroom no longer waited to glimpse my antennae, while the rest kept a wary eye out for any green tinges to my skin. Jennifer was part of the former group. Mostly.

“Why do you want my address?” The question was reflex. I was already heading for her.

“Oh, just wondering.”

“Jennifer.”

The threat in those syllables worked. “There’s a call on Lewis Street. The four-hundred block. That’s where you live, right?”

She knew that since she’d been to my rental several times. But I was admitting nothing. Not while surrounded by media vultures. Plus, I hesitated to claim the tiny, disheveled house I’d dubbed, with not a shred of affection, the Hovel.

“What?” I asked Jennifer.

“You live on Lewis Street, right?” she repeated.

“Not what did you say. What’s the call for?”

“Oh. A body’s been found. A dead body.”

“Oh, smokes,” I said, although I didn’t say smokes. “Mildred.”

“I thought you named the dog Shadow?”

I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to claim the dog any more than the house. Although that might have been self-protective, because he didn’t seem in any hurry to claim me, either. “Why would I name a dog Mildred? Especially a male dog?”

She shrugged, conveying she didn’t put anything past me, though she was open-minded enough not to hold it against me.

“Mildred is my elderly neighbor across the street. Mildred Katarese.”

“Oh.” In concert with her syllable I felt the newsroom’s interest evaporate. The death of an elderly neighbor was unlikely to reach the evening news. “If they repeat the address, I’ll write it down and let you know.”

I suppressed a sigh. Writing it down the first time was a basic Do in the journalism Dos and Don’ts I’d been sharing with Jennifer.

But this wasn’t the time to go over that again. I had a decision to make.

I could wait to see if they repeated the address, and if Jennifer caught it this time. I could call the sheriff’s department to see if they would fill me in over the phone. Or I could …

“I’m going to go see what’s going on. If anyone—” Meaning Les Haeburn, the News Director and my boss, or Thurston Fine, the news anchor and not my boss though more than willing to make trouble for me. “—asks, I’m on assignment.”

* * * *

Police and sheriff’s department vehicles littering a street from one corner to the other is never a good sign. The ambulance in Mildred’s driveway was worse.

Earlier this summer, there’d been another ambulance at the door of another elderly woman in the neighborhood. I now knew the woman in the house behind Mildred’s had been her cousin.

My limited contact with my neighbors had mostly been with Mildred. Primarily of the wave-cheerily-and-call-Good Morning-across-the-street variety, with a few conversations when our trips to put out or retrieve garbage cans overlapped.

Mildred was seventy-nine years old. She’d been born and raised on one of Cottonwood County’s many far-flung ranches, then moved in with her grandparents to attend school. In the way of some older people, she was vague about what had happened since, while telling stories rich in detail about her family’s history, the ranch, and the social whirl of her school days.

At times the details were so unrelenting and so plentiful my attention unplugged while her voice and memories streamed around me.

Right now, though, I would have been thrilled to listen to every last I remember when.

I really didn’t want the ambulance to be for her.

I could sit here in my car, a block shy of the Sherman police vehicle turned astride to block access to Mildred’s house (and my driveway), and hope against hope Jennifer had it wrong about the reason for the ambulance. Or I could get in there, find out, and possibly offer assistance. Of some kind. To somebody.

I eased my foot off the brake to roll closer.

A familiar figure wearing a sheriff’s deputy uniform on its shorter-than-average frame gave a peremptory wave, ordering me to get lost.

The wave was also familiar. I’d received it from officials all over the globe. One of those universals that made you want to hum “It’s a Small World After All.”

It might seem strange, a Cottonwood County deputy hanging around a Sherman Police Department vehicle, but it wasn’t. The Sherman Police Department was tiny, befitting its jurisdiction within city limits. The Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Department, responsible for the rest of the county as well as the jail and courts, had six or seven times the personnel to cover seven- or eight-hundred times the territory. For nonroutine calls, the departments adopted a whoever’s-available policy.

I rolled closer. The gesture became more commanding. I rolled closer. The figure came to my car window, not needing to duck much to look inside.

“Ma’am, turn around and— Oh. It’s you.”

“Deputy Shelton, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you in town before.” That was notable, since everyone in the county shopped at the Sherman Supermarket, and considering the time I spent in the place, I would have expected our paths to have crossed.

I’d first encountered Wayne Shelton on a ranch whose owner planned to repel burglars single-handedly. Deputy Shelton handled the situation, with timely assistance from three KWMT-TV staffers — Mike Paycik, camerawoman Diana Stendahl, and me.

Far from acknowledging our aid, Shelton had seemed to view us as pesky encumbrances. On the plus side, he’d delivered a succinct stand-up interview.

Now he heaved a sigh. “I wouldn’t have come in if I’d known you’d turn up. Now that you have, go away.”

“I live across the street. I want to get into my driveway.”

He turned to look at the house I’d rented sight unseen. It might have been a trick of the late August light, but it appeared to be leaning to the right.

“You live there?”

An entirely unreasonable surge of protectiveness for the place washed through me. “Yes,” I said shortly. “And I’d like to get into my driveway.”

He didn’t move. “You happened to come home now? In the middle of the morning?”

My brief knowledge of Deputy Shelton told me not to pull my punches. “No. I came because I am concerned about a police call saying someone died. Mildred, my neighbor, lives there.”

He looked at me with squint-eyed concentration. A long enough stare that, even as the perennial runner-up in Danniher Family Stare-Offs, I started to feel restless. Damn. Shelton was even better than our family dogs.

“I believe you are concerned for your neighbor,” he said at last. “Park in your driveway, and come see me.”

“Deputy!” I called as he walked away. “I need the police vehicle moved.”

He looked at the uncurbed slope on either side of the street. If this had been a cartoon, the bubble over his head would have said, “Why not go around like any ordinary Wyoming driver?”

He looked at me, sighed, and waved to a whip-thin youngster wearing an SPD uniform.

The next panel’s bubble would have said, “Because you’re not like any ordinary Wyoming driver.”

My only solace, as I meekly drove through the narrow opening created by the backed-up police SUV, was that Deputy Shelton’s gesture to his colleague was as peremptory as the ones to me.

I deposited my car in the rutted driveway, stopping short of the ridge that loved to catch low-hanging auto parts. After crossing the street, I bypassed a sheriff’s department four-wheel drive angled across Mildred’s drive and front yard, as if the driver worried someone might try a getaway in Mildred’s staid pickup.

Even sporting that peculiar lawn ornament, Mildred’s house looked so much better than my rental it was hard to believe they were the same vintage.

Eight to ten decades ago, most of the surrounding houses started with the same basic design as the Hovel. The front door opened into the living room, with a hallway leading to two small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. The kitchen sat behind the living room with one corner large enough for a table and chairs, if you were a good packer.

Some houses had bedrooms and bath on the left, some on the right. The Hovel is a rightie, and so is Mildred’s, making them mirror images as they face each other.

Most of the houses had been improved, expanded, updated, and otherwise tweaked, some into a happy result, some not. The Hovel and Mildred’s house retained the original design, though Mildred’s had an attached garage.

Yet they had not aged the same. Mildred’s house was Dorian Gray, and the Hovel his mirror, escaped from the attic to come sit across the street. The Hovel had the leaning thing I mentioned. Mildred’s house sat rock-solid straight, like a matron encased in whalebone.

As I approached, the thin Sherman police officer left Shelton and scuttled past.

Growling erupted behind me.

I spun around to see Shadow advancing from around the corner of my house. The dog moved toward the SPD officer, who immediately peeled off toward his SUV. Apparently satisfied, Shadow turned his focus to Shelton. Still advancing slowly, still growling, with his message loud and clear: Go away.

“Shadow. Quiet,” I said.

He flicked me a look but didn’t falter.

I had no idea what came next.

In the spring, I’d spotted a nearly skeletal stray lurking around the Hovel. I’d put out food and water, and he’d lurked closer, while remaining a thoroughly independent contractor. He was still wary of everything and everyone, except a third-grader of my acquaintance named Tamantha Burrell.

Yes, we’d made progress in the past months. But obeying my commands? Fat chance.

Still, I had to try.

I stepped toward Shelton, whose only movement was slowly moving his hand to his gun.

“Quiet,” I said again.

The growling continued. I realized with a jolt that the dog — a little taller and longer than a border collie — had filled out, no longer looking pathetically scrawny. And that made him appear more dangerous.

Another step and I was beside Shelton. I put a hand on his gun-touching arm. “It’s okay. He won’t—” But I didn’t know that he wouldn’t.

“Shadow. Sit!” I tried in desperation, facing him, now two yards away.

He did.

He actually did.

And he stopped growling.

He still stared at Shelton with less than full confidence, but he was quiet and he’d sat on command. He’d sat.

“Good dog,” I said, as if it would mean something to him. Then I pushed it. “Okay, Shadow. It’s okay.”

His gaze came to me, returned to Shelton for a long moment, then he stood, turned, and trotted back toward the Hovel’s wild backyard.

I felt discomfort in my left hand and realized my fingers clutching Shelton’s uniform sleeve had cramped. I released his sleeve, flexing my hand.

“You’ve got him well trained,” Shelton said. His hand was no longer on the gun. “Saw him earlier. Didn’t growl, though. Not until you showed up. Probably thinks you need protection.”

He chuckled. He might have meant it as a compliment that he found it laughable that I could need protection. Or not.

It didn’t matter. My heart hammered with the adrenaline response to Shadow’s behavior and its potential consequences. I’d been scared the dog would be hurt. How nuts was that? Terrified for an animal that barely tolerated my presence.

Pushing aside thoughts of my lopsided relationship with a dog, I shifted to journalist mode. “What happened here, Deputy Shelton?” I asked.

“That’s what we’re determining,” he said dryly. “Want to see her?”

“I, uh…”

He hadn’t waited for my insightful answer, but headed to the door. Dead people were not my favorite sight, but niceties such as squeamishness and sentimentality took a backseat when pursuing any story. Even what happened to the neighbor across the street.

He opened the door and gestured for me to go ahead.

As I crossed the threshold, I spotted one reason Mildred’s house sat so upright in comparison to the slouching Hovel: Its walls were thicker than a postcard.

After the brightness of an unencumbered Wyoming sky, the interior was a dark void.

That didn’t prevent me from smelling death, heavy and pungent. Another smell . . . sharp and smoky. Gunpowder? Mildred shot herself? Why—?

I never completed that internal question. I was stopped by a voice saying, “Elizabeth, what are you doing here?”

The voice of a dead woman.

CHAPTER TWO

Mildred wasn’t dead.

I had assumed. A cardinal sin for a journalist. Perhaps the reddest of cardinal sins. As numerous professors and longtime editors had singsonged at me over the years, assume made an ass of you and me. Get it?

Deputy Shelton had played me beautifully.

Mildred stood with her back to the closed kitchen door and her arms crossed under a substantial bust.

The room was rigidly neat but packed, making it feel even smaller inside than the Hovel, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. The only sign of turmoil, besides the frown she directed at Shelton, was a section of her silver hair standing out from her head, as if teased, then coated with industrial strength hairspray.

“She told 911 that she shot him, but she won’t tell us more,” the deputy said from behind me. He remained by the door with an air that in someone else I might have called self-effacing,

“You. I won’t talk to you, Wayne Shelton,” Mildred said in her uncompromising tone.

He bowed his head in acceptance, then looked at me. “She won’t talk to me. Apparently my mother’s rhubarb pie beat hers at the county fair back before I was born.”

“It didn’t beat mine. Oh, it got the ribbon all right,” she said with her voice at high tide of bitterness, “because your father was a judge and he was sweet on her. Only sweetness around, because that pie was as sour as a lemon. A miscarriage of justice. A miscarriage—”

My phone rang. Shelton grumbled something under his breath. Mildred came closer and looked up at me with suddenly bright eyes. “Hadn’t you better answer? It might be one of your young men.”

My mouth opened to inform her I had no men, young or otherwise. But her look was so expectant, and I had feared she was dead until a minute ago…

I answered.

“You went to a murder without me?” The accusing voice on the phone belonged to Michael Paycik, KWMT-TV’s sports anchor. In fact, KWMT-TV’s sports everything. But not for long if I knew TV news talent, and I did. Add in good looks, a notable college resume, a creditable NFL career with the Chicago Bears before his knees ended his playing days, and Mike Paycik would make the leap from Sherman to some big market, and never look back.

“It’s not a murder,” I told him. “I’m at my neighbor’s house, trying to help straighten out a little confusion.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“Then you heard wrong.”

“Aunt Gee said it’s a murder.”

That stopped me.

Mike’s Aunt Gee is acknowledged queen of the Cottonwood County law enforcement grapevine, as well as in charge of dispatch for the sheriff’s department substation in O’Hara Hill, the county’s second-largest town.

Something tugged my sleeve.

“Just a minute,” I told Mike, then looked down at Mildred.

“You’ve got it wrong,” she said.

“I have what wrong?”

“About there being a little confusion here. The man is dead. The only confusion is this Shelton accusing me of committing murder. Self-defense is what anyone with a brain would call it.”

Deputy Wayne Shelton had a brain.

I shot him a look. He also had a poker face.

Something was not adding up.

“Mike, I’ve got to go.”

“I heard. Dead. Accusation of murder. That’s good enough for me. I’ll be right there.”

“There’s no—” But he’d hung up.

“That was one of your young men? Is he coming over now?” Mildred asked, her eyes now bright with more than curiosity.

“I don’t have any young men, and—”

“Of course you do. Two I know of. One from the TV, and that Tom Burrell who has the Circle B Ranch and has that little girl.”

“We’re . . . colleagues, Mildred.” That applied to Mike. Whether Tom Burrell — definitely not a KWMT-TV employee — qualified was dubious. But the word would do.

She cackled. “Colleagues they’re calling it now, is it?”

“Mildred, you should sit. Let’s find somewhere quiet to talk about this.”

“This is my chair.” She indicated a large, worn piece upholstered in blue and red stripes. Then she pointed to a chair with swirls of magenta and emerald under plastic. “You sit in the new chair, then we can talk without twisting our necks. I should have invited you in long ago. But I’ve been so distracted with Avis passing and all.”

I was wondering if there was room to invite me in now.

All the wall space was occupied by shelving and display units. Two walls appeared devoted to Indian artifacts. Even my untrained eye recognized tomahawks, bows and arrows, arrowheads, leatherwork, and apparel. Another wall was filled with bleached skulls of animals. One row of freestanding shelves held pottery bowls. Another row showed spurs, branding irons, bits, buckles, and other items from Wyoming’s early cattle days. The remaining floor space consisted of narrow aisles. Tucked amid all this like afterthoughts were the two upholstered chairs, a small table holding a laptop computer, and a flat-screen TV. The computer, she’d told me, for inventory and to track sales and prices. The TV, no doubt, for the game shows, crime dramas, and reality shows she loved.

“I understand,” I said over the crackling and creaking of plastic as I tried to get comfortable. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. It’s the strange young man who’s not.”

“What strange young man?”

“The one I killed.”

“Mildred, are you certain you killed him?”

“If he were still alive, I’d think they’d have taken him to the hospital instead of leaving him on the basement stairs.”

COLLAPSE

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From 5-Star Reviews for Shoot First

"Strong characters, solid mystery. A great feel for the newsroom, as well as Wyoming. McLinn does a stellar job of clouding the identity of the murderer, while leavening the tension with sly humour. Highly recommended!"

"Clever, fun characters set in Old West with quick, intelligent wit and plot. Love this author and her in-depth characters."

"I read the complete series and loved it! These books have it all, mystery, love, friendship and humor. She writes a little like Janet Evanovich only better. The story is more developed. A good read, modern western. I can't wait for #4."

"With each book I've read, I've appreciated McLinn's storytelling abilities more & more. From Shadow to Deputy Shelton & all the great characters in between, each is written with understanding of human nature & heart. I'm hooked & ready for my next Wyoming adventure!"

 

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