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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 12

Love and death decisions ...

Will murder take a break while Elizabeth Margaret Danniher sorts the future of KWMT-TV and her personal life?

Don’t count on it.

A young woman comes to Elizabeth at KWMT to solve a kind of theft Elizabeth has never encountered before. That’s challenge enough, with the TV station for sale and the top candidate to buy it known for eliminating news departments. But Elizabeth also senses there something more bothering Hailey Newhall.

And then there’s Elizabeth’s personal life ...

She is drawn to both enigmatic rancher Thomas Burrell  and her former KWMT-TV colleague Mike Paycik, the home-town sports hero. But Mike has career aspirations of his own, and Tom has a feisty daughter who’s definitely Team Dad. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s ace videographer, Diana Stendahl, who manages to juggle her demanding job, parenting two teens, and new love, challenges Elizabeth to also open her heart.

Where will her heart lead her?

Team Tom? Team Mike? You’re finally going to find out the answer … and so is Elizabeth.

About the Caught Dead in Wyoming series

From the author: In Air Ready, Sheila will make up her mind whether she will pursue a relationship with Mike or Tom. And the Caught Dead in Wyoming series will continue to Book 13 and beyond.

Now available in print and audio

Caught Dead in Wyoming cozy mystery series by Patricia McLinn. Small-town western crime fiction with humor, romance and a rescue dog.

Narrated by Betsy Moore, Air Ready is out on my Shopify store (see link above left), at a discount. The audiobook's reach is now expanding to other retail outlets, including Audible/Amazon, Apple, Google Play and Kobo. I'll post links here as they become available.

And now Air Ready is available in more reading options: paperback, large print, and hardback, via my Shop.  Links are above left.

 

Genres:
Excerpt:

DAY ONE - FRIDAY

Chapter One

“I, uh, think I’ll go home now.”

That’s how I announced the midafternoon end of my workday in KWMT-TV’s newsroom. For good reasons, including, but not limited to, that I’d worked enough extra hours lately to challenge a calculator.

First, in resolving a murder, along with several cohorts. Most of those cohorts, joined by more KWMT staffers, then worked with me to produce a special.

That was just the beginning of the extra hours.

As a result of the murder investigation, newsroom staffing had gaps.

READ MORE

I can’t say we had a vacuum in leadership … though our previous leadership did suck.

What they left behind was more like a dustbuster with a dying battery.

But they had filled chairs.

I’d been available for substitute chair-filling over these weeks because the backlog of segments of Helping Out! with E.M. Danniher could dam the Mississippi River.

As far as my non-regular beat went, I figured we were due a long, quiet spell with no more citizens of Cottonwood County, Wyoming, killing someone or getting themselves killed.

We don’t have that many residents to start with. We can’t afford to lose more.

As tired as I was, I’m sure I would have noticed a murder, so I felt safe saying, so far, so good on the no murders front.

All in all, I could use a short day and a nap before tonight’s session of Contributions and Inventions of Native Americans, a community college course I was auditing. That was no reflection on instructor O.D. Everett.

It was the result of devoting too few of my sparse non-working hours to sleep.

A lot of things on my mind.

The station in Sherman, Wyoming — in case you couldn’t guess, the smallest TV market in the country — was on the sales block and the leading candidate to buy it was renowned for closing newsrooms.

Leading candidate? The only candidate I’d learned of.

Ideally, someone would have responded to my going-home announcement with sure, go home, get some rest, you deserve a break, nobody deserves it more.

I wasn’t surprised nobody did. The waiting and not-knowing meant the newsroom bullpen was not a fun place at the moment.

I was surprised Jennifer Lawton said to me, “You can’t. Someone’s coming to talk to you.”

Jennifer’s officially a news aide and unofficially a whole lot more, especially within the small group of us who’ve dug into a number of mysteries in the past year and a half.

“Who?”

“You wouldn’t know her name.”

“What does she want to see me about?”

“She’ll tell you. She should be here any minute.” In other words, Jennifer didn’t want to tell me why this mystery woman — at least I knew the gender of someone — was coming to talk to me, which did not bode well. And in more other words, Jennifer didn’t know exactly when this woman would arrive.

“Have her make an appointment for tomorrow.”

“No.”

Jennifer turned her back to me and resumed her work.

No and a turned back are among my least favorite things in the world. Right up there with Brussels sprouts.

It’s decidedly personal with Brussels sprouts. With no and the turned back it’s professional.

It’s my job to ask questions. Then, as a TV reporter, to make sense of the answers and bring news and useful information to viewers.

I’d done that while my TV journalism career traveled through Dayton, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and New York before crash-landing in — you guessed it — Sherman, Wyoming, for complicated reasons involving the shallowness of TV news, my once-considerable salary, a personal betrayal, pitfalls in my network contract, and the machinations of my vindictive ex-husband. Mostly my ex.

The size of the market doesn’t change the value of questions. They are how we find out things in this world. Especially things other people don’t willingly tell us.

That’s where my dislike for no and the turned back comes in.

These past weeks I’d discovered I also dislike being asked questions when I don’t know the answers.

Make that singular.

When I don’t know the answer.

To the question behind whatever my co-workers said.

What’s going to happen?

To KWMT-TV.

To them.

Owner Val Heatherton put KWMT-TV up for sale because she didn’t want to be tied to embarrassments associated with the station, even though she’d laid the groundwork for the embarrassments. As far as I could tell, embarrassments tangled with murder didn’t bother her. Personal embarrassments dinging her ego did.

The two-pronged what’s going to happen? became more pressing in the past two days since newsroom staff learned what I’d known for weeks. The only known contender to purchase the station was a religious network notorious for closing news departments.

I’d kept that part quiet while trying to discreetly work sources in my scant spare time.

No sense keeping my source-working quiet now.

I had more than a dozen calls out to learn about the network and to plant seeds with potential bidders that a station in Sherman, Wyoming, could be a good buy for a non-news-crushing organization.

The weird thing was it could be, because of an ads market with little competition.

Which reminded me, I needed to ask Needham Bender, the owner, publisher, and editor of the Sherman Independence, if his advertising was as lucrative as KWMT’s. I’d assumed he ran on a shoestring — shame on me.

But I wasn’t calling him now. First, he’d ask a lot more questions than he answered, and we’ve already covered how I felt about that.

Second, I was very busy.

All these return calls to not answer.

I’d started with a carefully crafted list of potential sources. Not too high up. Not too low. Not likely to dismiss KWMT as not worth discussing. Not likely to feel so sorry for me working in a news shop about to be obliterated that I couldn’t stand it.

After a day of no one answering or responding, I expanded the list.

By today, I stretched it to just about anyone I’d ever had contact with in the news business.

Not even Wardell Yardley — who never missed a chance to gossip about the biz — called back. Okay, as White House correspondent for a major network, he was traveling with the president in Africa.

If not even Dell would gossip about KWMT—

No.

He was working. Hadn’t picked up my messages yet. Had picked up a woman (anyone from a member of the host country’s cabinet to a fellow correspondent to a molecular biology post-doc who delivered hamburgers to the media pool as her part-time job. Dell had a knack.)

But what reasonable explanation could there be for Mel Welch not getting back to me?

Mel became my agent two years ago. My former agent proved more than china gets divided in a divorce and chose the network exec staying in New York over the one-time rising star reporter whose burnt-out shell landed in Sherman, Wyoming. Go figure.

Mel, who had never agented before, but has an enviable rep in Chicago legal circles, stepped in. He’s married to my mother’s cousin’s oldest daughter and — even more useful — is terrified of my mother. Most people are.

He did not have great connections in the biz except through me.

I take that back.

He’d had one hard-to-beat connection in knowing deep, dark Heatherton family secrets. With them no longer secret, there went his connection. Pffft.

Although, he’d bonded with a woman in the Heatherton conglomerate who’d overseen aspects of KWMT from afar. I hoped he could work that source for insight to potential buyers.

He hadn’t called back.

Along with every other person I’d reached out to.

Like they were avoiding me.

I am not paranoid.

Not even about coworkers whispering in corners, which might or might not be them wishing I’d kept my nose out of figuring out who committed murder, which then cascaded into this uncertainty.

Nobody said it to my face.

They did ask — repeatedly — what the heck was going to happen, like I had a direct line to all the Jeopardy questions.

It felt like we were in — rather than on — Jeopardy and I not only didn’t know the questions to their answers, but I was sure my buzzer didn’t work, even though I’d had no cause to use it, because — remember this part? — I didn’t have the questions to answer their answers.

Which led to the dialogue I ended by saying I was going home.

That exchange started with Jennifer saying to me, “Elizabeth?”

“I don’t know. Okay? I don’t know,” I said loudly. “Not any better than any of you. Just because I helped figure out what our station owner didn’t want figured out doesn’t mean I know what’s going to happen. Not to mention, why aren’t I asking you, Jennifer? You helped figure it out, too.”

“I was going to ask if you want coffee. Dale’s on a run to Hamburger Heaven,” Jennifer said.

The room had gone still and everyone looked at me. Everyone in the KWMT-TV newsroom bullpen didn’t constitute many people.

I deflated like a pinata hit by a tank. “No. Thank you, Jennifer. I, uh, think I’ll go home now.”

Before I snapped anyone else’s head off.

That’s when she pulled out the somebody’s coming to see you … threat? Bribe?

The Hamburger Heaven coffee Dale brought me was mostly gone when the interior set of double glass doors from outside opened and a young woman walked in.

She wore rugged jeans, work boots, a cowboy hat, and a winter jacket that would have told me she did ranch work even if the rest of her gear didn’t. Ranchers rarely wear ski parkas, puff jackets, lined trench coats. Have never seen one in a car coat or overcoat. They favor tough, multilayered jackets with — most important — multiple pockets.

Her pockets displayed lumps and bumps of essentials kept handy for a job with unpredictable demands.

The KWMT-TV doors led into an open walkway, with the newsroom bullpen to the left. The closest thing to a receptionist was Jennifer or a fellow news aide at the point where the hallway made a diagonal turn to the left, slicing out a space grandly called the break room.

Newcomers advanced well into the building before anyone greeted them. Most walked slowly or stopped to get their bearings.

This young woman went straight to Jennifer. No hesitation. Yet something was off about her walk. An old injury? Recent soreness?

Jennifer greeted her by name — Hailey Newhall.

What was the world coming to when Jennifer Lawton told me she didn’t know who someone was when she did?

No…

Wait.

Boy, was I ever off my game.

I asked Jennifer who was coming to talk to me and she said You wouldn’t know her name.

She was right. I’d never heard of Hailey Newhall until Jennifer said her name.

By the way they greeted each other, I knew they weren’t friends. Not enemies, either.

Jennifer gestured to my desk, then escorted the young woman toward me.

I flashed back eighteen months to Tamantha Burrell standing by this desk and ordering me to clear her dad of murder.

Tamantha must be on my mind from a recent trip we’d taken. That was the only explanation for this connection, because in our first encounter, Tamantha had been a second-grader with wispy hair down the sides of a square face, intense brown eyes, and features not yet in tune with each other.

This young woman in her mid-to-late twenties had wide cheekbones, a strong chin, and slightly larger than average nose. Her features and thick hair with natural streaks of lighter and brighter amid glossy dark brown hit all the right notes.

Unlike Tamantha’s faded plaid shirt and blue sweater, this woman picked jeans and shirt to fit precisely. Unless she was one of those women who walk into a store and find everything perfect for her.

Everything … perfect. The words jangled discordantly even as they formed.

Because of her eyes.

Not their shape or color. Those fell under the perfect column.

What was in them.

Everything not perfect.

Jennifer introduced us, gave me a quick look, then left.

“I need your help,” Hailey Newhall said.

That cut her connection with Tamantha, who favored orders over requests, as I’d come to know well.

“If you have an issue for Helping Out!…”

“I know it’s not something you’d usually look into. But it’s important to people around here and it doesn’t make sense. Why would somebody— Anyway, I thought I’d try.”

She looked at me. I waited for her to say more.

After several beats of stalemate, I gave in. Though I didn’t break completely. I lobbed the ball back in her court.

“Try what?”

“To get you to find out who cut off my horse’s tail.”

 

Chapter Two

I swallowed the Excuse me? that jumped to my lips, but she might have seen it in my expression.

“It’s not the first time there have been horse-tail thefts. Other areas of the country have been hit. Nobody sees a pattern. Not in the horses they hit or where or when. We had several here going on three years ago.”

“Several instances of people cutting off horses’ tails?”

“Yes.”

“You said thefts, so they take the tail?”

“Of course they take the tail — as much as they’ve cut off,” she said impatiently. “You think they’d cut off a horse’s tail and leave it there?”

I’d never contemplated the question. Possibly because I’d never thought about a horse’s tail being cut off. I had a vague idea those beer horses in the ads had short tails. Beyond that? Nothing.

“What do they do with the tail?”

“Sell it.”

“There’s a market for horse tails?”

“Several.”

Questions piled up in my head. I stuck to the basics. “When did this happen to your horse?”

“Last night. You should come see him now. It’s not far.”

Tamantha rarely softened her edicts with should or not far.

The germ of an idea started in the back of my brain. And it did not involve me going to look at a horse without a tail.

“Have you called the sheriff’s department?”

“No. Those other thefts here, they never found out who did it.”

“You should call them, get it on the record.” There’d been big changes at the sheriff’s department in the year and a half I’d been here. “I can ask around, but it’s your world. You know who to talk to—”

“I’ve talked to them. First thing I did. We’ve all talked to each other. Everybody knows Fred White and—”

“Fred—?”

“My horse. Fred White. Everybody knows him and they’re almost as upset as I am — or pretends they are. Somebody not from our world could see things clearer.”

She played dirty without even knowing it.

How many times had I said an outsider could see things more clearly under a lot of circumstances?

Now I was caught by my own argument.

Almost caught.

“I’ll think about it.”

She grimaced. “That’s what parents say to kids right before they say no.”

I wasn’t that much older than her.

“Best I’ve got. But we can get the word out wider about this happening. We could do an interview tomorrow or—”

“No offense, but your Helping Out! pieces hold a long time before they’re on air. No help.”

It didn’t offend me. For one thing it was mostly true.

What it did do was snap that germ of an idea into full bloom as a potential way to deal with this without committing myself.

After all, I had all these not-returned calls and messages to not answer. Busy, busy.

Besides, I’d heard the lineup for the A blocks of tonight’s newscasts at five and ten o’clock. We could use something fresh and local not involving a KWMT-TV staffer and murder.

“Where’s your horse now?”

“At our place.”

She named a road I knew from passing it on the way to Michael Paycik’s house.

The former NFL player and KWMT sports anchor had rented out the land since he bought the ranch a few years ago. Since he’d recently moved to Chicago, where he did sports on a network affiliate, he was looking to rent out the house.

Other thoughts connected to Mike, I sternly quashed.

They had nothing to do with this conversation.

Not even the part about not keeping him as updated on the station’s situation as I knew he would want to be.

Instead, I calculated drive time and how long good daylight might last, while automatically asking, “Who’s the we in our place?”

“My brother and me. My fiancé lives there, too.”

“Uh-huh.” I pitched my voice to reach the edge of the bullpen. “Jennifer, is anybody near—?”

“Jenks. On his way back from an assignment and he’ll go right by there.”

Diana Stendahl would have been my first choice, but Jenks was a more than decent cameraman.

“Is Audrey—?”

“Got her on the phone. Switched to you.”

With Jennifer’s last word, my phone rang.

The assignment editor was in a vehicle. I briefly outlined the story and said Jenks was in the vicinity and if Audrey didn’t have another assignment for him…

“Hell, yeah. Tell him I’ll get him in the A block. Thanks, Elizabeth.”

She disconnected before I could say she should be the one to call him.

With Hailey Newhall watching me, I debated how to handle this — preferably by getting out of it — for two beats, which was all I had before Jennifer announced. “Got Jenks. Coming to you.”

My phone rang again.

Jennifer and I needed to have a talk about her cutting my get-out-of-something time to nothing.

Me giving orders, including assignments, had been loaded with all sorts of baggage — think of a paper suitcase loaded willy-nilly with shatter-prone glass — under the recently-departed newsroom regime.

On the other hand, the regime was departed. And I’d be following Audrey’s orders.

“Jenks, it’s Elizabeth. Audrey’s out of the newsroom, but she told me to tell you…”

Without any sign from him of glass-like fragility, we covered logistics, aided by a certain uptick of interest in his voice.

That call finished, I turned back to Hailey. “You need to leave now to meet our cameraman at your place. And call the sheriff’s department.”

“You’re not coming?”

“No. I have another assignment.” Actually, my class this evening, but no need to explain my off-hours life to her. “This will get your story on-air tonight. That way we should hear quickly if there have been other occurrences.”

“You’ll start investigating tomorrow?”

Pushy, but not compared to Tamantha, who wouldn’t have settled for anything other than right that minute.

“We’ll see.”

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