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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 6

Long Memories Fade, but Murder Never Dies

Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher has been among TV journalism’s elite. But divorcing her network exec husband ends not only her marriage but her career, and she’s banished to tiny KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming, to finish out her contract. Now she’s exploring what comes next -– in her career, her life, and her relationships with family, friends, and those who’d like to be more than friends.

But she’s not being left in peace to wrestle with these issues because she keeps being drawn in to murder investigations. Now Elizabeth, and handsome KWMT colleague Mike Paycik, rugged rancher Thomas Burrell, and her colorful cast of collaborators, plunge into mysteries from the past that threaten the present. To succeed, they must untangle characters and plotlines from a long-hidden Back Story.

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Excerpt:

Monday, December 26

Chapter One

“A tragedy that no one in Cottonwood County has — or can — forget is being revisited upon us this very day. More on that tragic and unforgettable event when we return.”

I looked up at the ceiling-hung TV screen in time to see that KWMT-TV anchor Thurston Fine’s countenance matched his lugubrious tone. Then, blessedly, the five o’clock news broadcast in Sherman, Wyoming cut to a snowmobile dealer’s commercial.

“Did I miss something while I was gone? Something worthy of doubling down on unforgettable and tragic?” I asked the newsroom at large.

Don’t be misled by that phrase at large.

The KWMT-TV newsroom is the opposite of large. Also the opposite of cutting edge. In fact, the opposite of from-this-century.

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I added, “Did Thurston’s favorite golf course get invaded by prairie dogs again?”

“Yes, but he won’t know about it until spring,” said Leona D’Amato. Leona had been with the station since it started. She worked part-time, covering what she called “social dos” and was no fan of hard news. That was by preference, not from any lack of awareness of what made a good story. Which meant she didn’t hold Thurston in high regard.

“And let me tell you,” she continued, “it’s a lot of work relocating the critters to that one golf course.”

That drew a laugh from all of us. All was Leona, Audrey, and me. The KWMT-TV’s staff runs lean-and-not-so-mean at the best of times. During this week between Christmas and New Year’s it was leaner than usual. Of the few who had been here today, the rest had left early.

Glowering twilight seeped in from the few windows, leaving the décor more colorless than usual. And since usual was battleship gray desks, chairs, and floor, that was saying something.

The only reason I was here was to wait for Mike Paycik to finish his sportscast before we met more friends for dinner and — inevitably — a slice of chocolate pie at the Haber House Hotel restaurant.

I might have said I was here to complete my work day, since I’d come in late after a return flight to Cody from Illinois, where I’d spent a few days for Christmas with family.

But it wouldn’t have been the truth. If it weren’t for this dinner, I’d have worked a half-day with no qualms. And that wasn’t only because the News Director, Les Haeburn, was off, thought that didn’t hurt.

I would have expected Thurston to be off, too.

True, he trusted few people to sub as anchor, a group that did not include yours truly. I almost said despite my having experience anchoring, but it’s almost certainly because of that experience.

On the other hand, it was such a slow week it would have been the smart time for a paranoid anchor to take off.

Thurston Fine’s strongest supporter would have a hard time saying he wasn’t paranoid or — in Fine-esque phraseology — obsessively protective of his self-perceived prominent position.

Yet here he was, on the air, tossing out no one can forget and unforgettable, tragic and tragedy in two sentences.

“He’s talking about the Yolanda Cruz case,” Audrey told me. “A woman was murdered by the boyfriend of her employer’s teenage daughter. The daughter committed suicide. The boyfriend was convicted and sent to prison for life.”

“Thurston wasn’t here when that happened,” Leona said. “How does he know anything about it?”

“Apparently he got a tip about a new angle and did some digging. By which I mean he ordered the news aide on duty — that would be Dale — to get him the clip files from the library. And—” Audrey paused for dramatic effect. “—Thurston read them.”

That deserved a moment of awed silence.

Fine’s reporting usually consisted of receiving news releases and taking them as gospel.

“What’s the new angle that’s stirred him to such excesses?” I asked.

Audrey shrugged. “Thurston threatened Dale divine — or at least Fine — retribution—” A short break for her audience to groan. “—if he breathed a word. And with Jennifer not here, we couldn’t get it out of him.”

Jennifer Lawton was a sort of news aide heroine to Dale. I suspected he dreamed of a closer relationship. But since she stayed fully occupied with her duties at KWMT-TV, with computer magical arts beyond my comprehension, and now and then with plying those arts on behalf of a group of us who’d looked into crimes, I also suspected Dale’s dreams were unknown to their object.

This week, Jennifer was among the staff on vacation. She had gone with her family to visit relatives in Idaho.

That’s why it was Dale, not Jennifer who called across the mesa of empty desks to me, “You have a phone call from Deputy Shelton. Line Two.”

“Oooo,” Leona and Audrey chorused in the same tone and with the same expression they would have used if Dale had said Sasquatch was on Line Two for me.

Deputy Wayne Shelton, born and raised in Cottonwood County, was a dedicated, respected, and effective law enforcement officer. He was also a pain in the ass for anyone in the media. Particularly me.

Our paths were unlikely to cross for my official beat as the “Helping Out!” consumer affairs correspondent, but on some of the extracurricular inquiries I’d been involved in they’d crossed, clashed, and — for rare, fleeting moments — coincided.

Through all that one thing could be safely said: We did not call each other to say hi out of the blue.

“Elizabeth Margaret Danniher. KWMT-TV’s consumer affairs reporter. Have a problem? Tell us all about it. KWMT-TV will consider it as a potential topic for ‘Helping Out.’ ” I made the answer as long and chirpy as I could.

“I want to talk to you.”

“I hate to jump to conclusions, but I was leaning toward that conclusion when you called me.”

“Smart ass.”

Was I deluding myself that he said that with a modicum of affection?

Yes.

“I hope you had a good Christmas, Deputy Shelton.”

“Yeah. I’ll pick you up—”

“I did, too. Thank you for asking. Got back from Illinois earlier today. And, yes, my family is well. Thank you for asking about that, too.”

His growl deepened. “—in fifteen minutes.”

“I’m not available tonight. I have plans.”

He was silent for half a beat. “Morning might be better,” he said, as if that were the only reason he accepted my response. “Seven. Meet you then.”

“Seven? The sun’s not even up then.”

“That’s what headlights are for. Be at the EZ Gas at seven—”

“Oh, no. Not that early and especially not when I’d have to get into town.”

The EZ Gas wasn’t actually in town. It was worse from my standpoint, because it was on the far side of town from the direction I’d be coming from — the cozy place I rented on the ranch belonging to my co-worker and favorite camera person, Diana Stendahl. Mind you, the opposite side of Sherman wasn’t exactly like driving in traffic across D.C. or like driving across Manhattan any time. It would add five, maybe ten, minutes to my trip.

“Seven-thirty at Diana’s,” I countered.

“Out of the way. Seven-twenty at the EZ Gas.”

“Seven-thirty at the station.”

Thurston came on screen, but I wasn’t worried about missing what he said. I could listen to two things at once, especially when one was Thurston.

“…summer visitors to our county…”

“Seven-twenty at the EZ Gas.” Apparently, Deputy Shelton had maxed out his negotiating ability.

He had an advantage, and he knew it. He’d caught me by most sensitive attribute — curiosity. “All right, all right.”

“Dress like you’re not an idiot.” He hung up.

“…the convicted murderer in the tragic death twenty-six years ago of Yolanda Cruz has been released from prison.”

I looked up to see an old, grainy photo of a young man in handcuffs.

I turned to the others. “Did you know about this?”

Dual head-shakes.

“Not only is this murderer being released, but he is being released into our peaceful, idyllic Cottonwood County—”

“He clearly doesn’t read the weekend police report from the Kicking Cowboy,” Leona said of a Sherman bar that did a thriving trade in alcohol and fisticuffs, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

The possibility flitted across my mind, like a delicate late-season butterfly, that Shelton’s call might have something to do with this convicted murderer returning to town.

Then a fire hose of reality shredded those gossamer wings.

Shelton.

Inviting me into a case — uh, potential story.

Yeah, right.

“—after serving only twenty-five years of a life sentence for that brutal murder of beloved housekeeper Yolanda Cruz, the mother of five and much loved in the Cottonwood County community. Now, Dean Isaacs will be on parole—”

“At least they’re going to keep track of him, not just releasing him,” Audrey muttered.

“—living among us with no oversight, with impunity for whatever he might do—”

“Fine doesn’t know the meaning of parole or impunity?” I asked rhetorically.

“—to follow up on his heinous act of twenty-five years ago—”

“He said twenty-six before,” I said. “Which is it?”

Audrey said, “The murder was twenty-six years ago, the conviction twenty-five years ago.”

“—Yolanda Cruz was shot in the head in her room at the home of renowned professor Nora Roy on that late June night twenty-five years ago—”

“Twenty-six,” we chorused. It wasn’t like Thurston didn’t know the dates. He must have in order to get it right once.

“—then Dean Isaacs was convicted of the ruthless, execution-style murder—”

Groans followed that cliché. Mine might have been the loudest.

“—the following year and sentenced to life in prison. Instead, the parole board let him out—”

“They have to consider him for parole,” Audrey said. “Since the Supreme Court ruling about juvenile murderers sentenced to life having to be eligible for parole.”

I was impressed. Nodding, I said, “The Miller v. Alabama ruling said juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life with no possibility for parole, even for murder.”

“And Montgomery v. Louisiana made it retroactive to those already sentenced,” she added.

Very impressed.

“—and now we will have him walking our peaceful streets. KWMT — and I, Thurston Fine, personally pledge to keep you, our valued viewers and fellow citizens, fully updated as this story develops.”

“Which will be when the next news release arrives,” grumbled Leona.

“And now in other news…”

We all tuned out at Thurston’s transition.

“It was a good story,” I said into the momentary silence.

“He should have had the background of those Supreme Court rulings. Should have included that context instead of making it sound like the parole board did it on a whim,” Audrey said. “So it could have been better.”

“You could say that after any Thurston effort.” Leona paused, then added, “Every Thurston effort. Probably mine, too.”

The last was said cheerfully.

“Audrey, is there still family in the area?” I asked.

“Of Isaacs’? I don’t know.”

“That’s what I meant when I asked the question, but it would also be interesting to know if Yolanda Cruz’s family is around here. And the family of the girlfriend, too.”

She shrugged.

“Laura Roy’s family is still here,” Leona said. “Her mother, Professor Roy, her father, her sister, and brother-in-law. They moved to a new place after the murder, but stayed in the county.”

“Could be worth checking into them,” I nudged as I looked up those Supreme Court rulings to refresh my memory.

That was me being diplomatic.

It absolutely was worth checking into. It should have been in the initial report.

Audrey knew that. Moreover, if she’d been the producer it would have been. Though Thurston might not have read it. He had a tendency to skip things when he read his copy. That way he had plenty of time to toss in his oh-so-wise perspective.

But it didn’t hurt to remind Audrey, who’d been down since mid-December, when a job she’d applied for in Seattle went to someone else.

I’d talked to her about taking at least one intermediate step before she tried for a Top 20 market. Leaping from a Bottom 20 to a Top 20 market was darned near impossible. There was too much competition.

The rejection shouldn’t have surprised her, even if it did disappoint. I hoped she shook it off soon.

“It’s Thurston’s story,” she said gloomily.

Thurston claimed every good story. He also held on to them with a death grip, even as he screwed them up, underreported them, gave only one side of the story, or all the above and more.

Sometimes, he could be persuaded a story wasn’t worthy of his great talent. I’d managed to sell that argument a few times. But even Thurston had recognized the zing of this story.

Darn it.

“Perhaps he’d be open to someone else exploring one of the smaller angles,” I suggested gently to Audrey. Missing an impossible leap left bruises. “It’s at least worth asking Dale if Thurston’s already checked—”

But there would be no asking Dale at the moment because he was answering another call.

He turned and shouted, “Call for you, Elizabeth” without covering the mouthpiece.

If it was Shelton calling back to say he’d thought it over and decided I’d had logic and reason on my side, so we’d meet when and where I preferred, he’d surely been deafened by Dale’s shout.

COLLAPSE

Readers' 5-Star Reviews

"I will confess to being addicted to this series and characters. I LIKE them . I wish they were real.... Elizabeth's co-workers and friends are showing her what is important in life. I am rooting for a romance between her and a certain rancher, but in the meantime, I enjoy the series and can't wait for the next installment."

"McLinn’s writing style is insightful, and well-organized so that all the loose threads, clues and motives weave together and tie with a bow. I appreciate the way she develops her characters using drama, mystery and humor."

"The books in this series just keep getting better and better. When I read other authors I can usually figure out the villains but not in these stories by McLinn. Thanks for making us think."

 

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