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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 7

Spring Beckons, but Winter’s Chill Remains …

In television, a cold open sometimes rolls before the opening credits, often a teaser to news or a feature to follow. For TV journalist Elizabeth Margaret “E.M.” Danniher, a frigid March and April are just a tease for spring after a long Wyoming winter.

In her short time in tiny Sherman, she’s learned that winter starts in October and might not end until June. Since last June, a series of murders have tested her and her KWMT-TV colleagues’ reporting – and amateur sleuth — skills. And the small town’s rumor mill is churning about her relationship with handsome sports reporter Mike Paycik – or is it rugged rancher Tom Burrell?

As winter winds down, Elizabeth is ready for spring and looking for a place of her own. House hunting can drive you crazy. For Elizabeth, trying to find a home in Cottonwood County, Wyoming might do a lot worse after she finds a dead body in a house for sale. Diana, Mike, Tom and Jennifer swing into action to help sort out whodunit.

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Chapter Two

Starting from mid-March, most of the rest of the civilized world has spring break, NCAA basketball’s Final Four, possibly Easter, maybe Passover, perhaps Ramanavami, now and then calendar-roaming Ramadan, certainly St. Patrick’s Day.

Wyoming has calving season.

All those other celebrations involve people doing something all at the same time. Go to church, scream, worship, observe, drink, get sun burnt.

Sure, spring break is spread out. Its multiple dates depend on the vagaries of school boards from pre-school through universities, whose claims to good sense are shaky as they make defenseless kids go to school earlier and earlier — in the day and in the calendar. At the rate they’re going, spring break will be in February. Those who can’t afford Florida, the Caribbean, or Tenerife, can stay home and toast themselves by a portable heater.

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But even spring break is reasonable and organized compared to calving season.

The date of calving season is not only a moving target, it’s a dodging, weaving, camouflaged target with a few yucks thrown in by Mother Nature.

That’s because, it depends — at the macro level — on the approach, techniques, thought processes, and best guesses of Wyoming ranchers. I have yet to meet two who share all the same opinions, including — or especially — those in the same family.

On the specific level, the dates of calving season depend on when each individual cow puts up with the bulls getting it on, along with slight variations in gestation period.

Calves are born every hour of the day from mid-March — talk about March Madness — to May 1. But things heat up in April — that’s a Wyoming joke, because anything that combines heat up and April is laughable.

Those factors explain why I was touched by Thomas David Burrell joining us for dinner that night.

Us was me, Mike, and Diana Stendahl, my favorite camera person and, as owner of my bunkhouse and the ranch it sat on, my landlord. Working together, some combination of the three of us frequently had meals together. That multiplied if we were involved in … let’s call them special inquiries.

For most of those, Tom has been a regular part of our group. But not during the past weeks. Although Tom owns a highway construction company, his true calling is ranching. During calving season, he’s fully occupied with birthing cows.

I also hadn’t seen his daughter, Tamantha, though she called and texted me. First to ask how my dog, Shadow, was doing and requiring an up-to-date photo. Secondly, about a social engagement tomorrow night.

I was going to the theater.

Okay, I was going to the Lewis and Clark Elementary School gymnasium for the third-grade spring performance. I was confident I would be thoroughly entertained.

Tonight was the dress rehearsal and Tom arranged for a part-time ranch hand to play nursemaid to his cows who might give birth during these few hours, so he could drop Tamantha off, eat with us, then pick her up.

After Thurston’s cold open, Diana and I went to her ranch, her to feed and check on her two teenagers, me to feed and check on Shadow. Tamantha would approve.

Mike, who had to stick around the station to do the sports report at the end of the broadcast, and Tom walked into the Haber House Hotel’s dining room immediately after Diana and I did.

Our conversation ranged wide and fast over the doings of the past month, then, as the chocolate pie that made dinner at the Haber House worthwhile arrived, Tom asked, “How’s your search for a house coming, Elizabeth?”

First, I’d lived in a Sherman rental unlovingly called the Hovel. Then, I moved into Diana’s bunkhouse. Time to find my own place.

“It doesn’t have to be a house,” I said. “Diana and I stayed in a nice condo when we got stranded in Cody last month. Cozy western with a touch of industrial. What are you laughing at, Paycik?”

“Condos in Sherman. And the touch of industrial would be a World War II Quonset hut. Hey, Tom’s got one on his place. Course you’d have to move out the cows.”

“Cows’re staying.” Tom said. “What have you learned about real estate—?”

“I know a good amount about real estate.” I remained friendly with the agents, both named Jane, who had helped me — and my ex — buy, then sell houses at a profit in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. I’d felt the Janes were as interested in my wants and needs as their commissions, which is fair.

“—in Cottonwood County, Wyoming?”

“Oh, well, if you’re going to limit it to here, I’ve learned that ‘Great shop’ in a listing does not mean Nordstroms or Neiman Marcus. It refers to a workshop. Leading a listing with the workshop’s charms is a strong indicator that the house is not something I’ll like.”

Mike grinned. “Yeah, she learned a lot from showings with Chuck Hoskins and Folly Rucker.”

Tom’s brows rose. “Why them? Don’t see either being your style. What did you learn?”

“Two of the top sellers in the county,” I defended myself. At least the name Folly provided subliminal warning. The second agent had been a folly in Chuck’s clothing. “I learned that Plenty of convenient parking means an all-gravel front yard. That 360-degree panoramic views are uninterrupted by anything resembling a place to live. Zero bathrooms was not a misprint. It was a one-room cabin with an outhouse.”

“At which point,” Mike said, “Diana took her aside and said this had to end.”

“I was tired of hearing about the Chain Link House where—” Sweeping her hand down from her shoulder, palm up, Diana did the take-it-away gesture.

I took it away. “Chain link wasn’t limited to fencing. It was over the windows, on the roof, used as stair rails and—”

Diana overrode more details. “Or the Pine Box, where—”

“Every surface, interior and exterior, was unfinished pine, including toilet seats,” I supplied.

“Or the seven-bedroom sprawl with income potential from renting rooms, because when you said you didn’t want to be a landlord—”

“Chuck didn’t realize that ruled out running a boarding house. Okay, okay, I might have mentioned those disasters a time or two.”

“Or ten or twenty,” muttered Mike.

Diana said to Tom, “I gave her the name of a real estate agent recommended by two couples I know. She said—”

“ ‘Just two?’ ”

Mike crowed at Tom’s lucky guess of what I’d said.

“I reminded her,” Diana continued as if I weren’t there, “that two recommendations are a lot around here, and, considering how she’d done finding a rental place on her own when she moved here, she needed help.”

“Hey, Stan Newton’s ad for the Hovel was darned near criminally misleading. It didn’t even mention the kitchen wallpaper resembling giant measles spots. But I agree, I want an agent.”

Newton, my landlord when I’d lived in the Hovel, was a Cottonwood County businessman who spent a considerable amount of time on the shady side of the ethical line for someone not actually in jail. In addition to the Hovel, he had considerable other real estate holdings. The biggest was his “low side” ranch. It’s not in the fertile “high side” section of the county. Newton’s spread makes up for that by … well, spreading. It’s huge.

“I’m meeting Renata for the first showing tomorrow morning,” I said.

Was I looking forward to it? Couldn’t say my optimism ran quite that high. On the plus side, the photos didn’t show a lick of chain link fencing.

Mike said under his breath, “Don’t get her started on the last house—”

I have good hearing. “The Folly straw that broke this camel’s back. There was a mounted deer head in the bathroom.”

“Antelope.”

I glared at Mike’s correction as I told Tom, “A mounted animal head in the bathroom. A fish in the laundry room. Over the dryer. Every time you pulled out a load, that thing would give me the fish-eye. The way it was bolted and glued to the wall, it would be easier to remove the wall than that thing.”

“Where was this?”

“Norman Weld’s house,” Mike said.

Burrell laughed.

“What?” I asked.

Now they were both going. Diana wasn’t far behind.

“Norman’s a taxidermist,” Mike said at last.

Tom added, “Though what surprises me most is he has a laundry room.”

THURSDAY

Chapter Three

The snow had stopped falling, but not moving.

I would bet not a single flake remained where it first fell, thanks to last night’s wind. But the gist of the formations would stay put until the wind got serious again. Oh, sure there’d be fringes floating and bellowing through fences, across roads, against rises.

Under a sky so blue it could make your teeth ache, I drove from my apartment at Diana’s ranch, through town for a brief drive-through stop for coffee, then west to a left turn that would take me toward the southwestern quadrant of the county and the listing Renata Santo called the Debbens place.

I hadn’t been in this area much, though I knew this road led to the Cody airport. I turned on GPS to alert me when to turn east off the highway.

In our meeting at her office, Renata Santo tended toward brisk and upbeat. In contrast, she’d sounded almost subdued about this listing when she’d called, saying it would give her a better handle on my wants and needs.

Little did she know that I had with me a copy of my list with subheadings: Must Haves, Really Wants, Would Be Nices, and As Long As I’m Dreamings.

Houses fascinate me. Always have.

My parents still live in the Northern Illinois house where I was born. Maybe that security gave me roots to let my imagination play at living on the prairie with Laura Ingalls, in New England with Louisa Mae Alcott, in Georgian England with Jane Austen, at Camelot with T.H. White.

No such magical places lurked in the Sherman real estate listings.

In fairness, the underlying problem is Cottonwood County doesn’t have a lot of houses for sale … because it doesn’t have a lot of houses.

This listing had more acreage than I was after. I preferred the three on the right side of the decimal point, not a couple stops to the left. What was I going to do with thirty acres except wonder what was out there that might try to get in?

No, I’m not afraid of cows. Much. But Wyoming had a lot more than cows. For starters, its bugs qualify as animal kingdom predators. With a short season, they maximize their impact by growing at lightning speed and being vicious. I’ve seen moths that could conquer Manhattan.

The Debbens place also was farther from town than I wanted and in the opposite direction.

The GPS announced my left turn, Wagon Road.

It was overly optimistic. Not on the distance — that was correct. On labeling it a road. This bump and grind terrain laughed at the worst of city potholes. It laughed at sink holes.

I slowed way down, gripped the wheel, and tried not to clench my teeth as I was pitched nearly into the passenger seat, then the top of my head brushed the liner.

I finally hit a patch flat and smooth enough to allow me to look at the time. I was late. A stretch on the map I’d mentally translated to a five-minute zip, had taken twenty. I started to call Renata, but here came another loop-de-loop. I prioritized survival over courtesy.

At last, around a curve, I spotted the house.

Good news and bad news.

The good news was the house looked promising. It was long, with a second story over the main section. Rock pillars supported a broad front porch, with more rock on the chimney. Large windows promised natural light. The rest was an unobtrusive earthy reddish-brown.

The bad news was a sweeping drive passed a hunkered down barn, then turned left to rise toward the three-car garage. Why was that bad? Because I was on a rutted track that came from the opposite direction, making it all too clear I’d come the wrong way.

Renata’s SUV sat to one side, leaving the prime spot for me. D.C. Jane the Real Estate Agent had told me she figured if she did a dozen small things that made a prospective buyer feel more at home, the chance of a sale doubled.

Renata couldn’t claim credit for the first of the dozen.

A red barn, prominent in the online photos, had been a mark in my “con” column. But, seeing the way it sat, well off to the left and below the house, it looked … cozy. It made the house seem less isolated.

If I rented out the acreage, maybe I could rent out the barn, too. I didn’t want to be a landlord, but hosting one rancher and a bunch of cows might not be so bad.

Up broad steps to the porch, I turned to look at the barn. The top third was visible, looking bright and jaunty, while the topography hid the functional part. Nice.

Yet something jangled, something off-key. The thirty acres? The location?

The porch light was on, even in the daylight, I realized, as I turned toward the door, which optimistically sported a spring wreath — homey touches two and three. The heavy wood door arched, making a nice counterpoint to all the straight lines and angles. I felt my heart thud a little harder the way it had when I’d first seen what became our house in D.C. … and had not done for the apartment in Manhattan.

With the door slightly ajar. Renata was up to No. 4 and I wasn’t even inside yet.

“Hello, Renata? It’s Elizabeth.” I nudged the door wider. “Sorry I’m late. I took a wrong turn somehow. Came in the back way.”

No response.

The front door opened into a slate-floored vestibule, with doors on one side promising a coat closet and glass French doors straight ahead.

The French doors buffered the house against visitors letting in winter cold or summer dust, yet revealed a bank of windows and glass doors across the back of the house that framed a view of the mountains.

I pushed open the interior doors and called again. “Renata? It’s Elizabeth Danniher.”

Maybe I could have stayed in the vestibule, but that view drew me. The living area was to the left, gathered around a restrained rock fireplace, the kitchen was to the right, demarked by a large island with stools for kibbutzing, then a smaller working island in the center, and a wide window over the sink promising more of the view I enjoyed through the center set of French doors, opening to a step-down deck.

I went out.

Ka-thud, ka-thud, went my house-hunting heart.

This was a great house.

Thirty acres? I could deal with thirty acres. Bug spray by the drum, for starters.

Farther out of town than I wanted? That’s what four-wheel drive and audiobooks were for.

Away from my friends? Hey, they were Wyoming natives, used to long hauls.

“Renata?” I called.

Belatedly, I realized that if she was inside, she wouldn’t hear me. If she was outside, she still wouldn’t hear me, because the breeze shoved my voice back into my face.

Following the deck to the right, I came to a deeper, covered area with a moderate outdoor kitchen and seating around a square fire pit.

This covered area sat behind the three-car garage, so its roof blocked none of the living area’s views. A door gave easy access to the kitchen.

An extra-large coffee cup from Hamburger Heaven sat on the stone edge of the firepit. I recognized it immediately because I had its twin in the cupholder of my SUV. Mine was empty after the drive. This must be full or nearly full. Any cup holding less would tip over, even in the current blow, mild by Wyoming standards.

I reached for it to take it to Renata, then stopped. If she’d set it there to provide an excuse to enjoy the view one last time, who was I to deny her one of her dozen homey touches?

I retraced my steps, calling her name as I went inside.

She might be upstairs. Before I checked, I wanted to see the master bedroom, which the listing showed as beyond the living room. I passed the stools at the island, one with a large blue-striped satchel plopped there. That gave me another view of the TV-topped fireplace and built-ins on either side, framing displays of Native American artifacts. I liked the baskets to the right better than the weapons to the left.

Down a short hallway, past a powder room, I saw a door cracked open. I swung it wider.

The room was good-sized, with sunlight slanting in big windows, and another cracked-open door promising a bathroom. These breadcrumbs of partially opened doors pulled me through the house. If each counted as a homey touch, Renata was rivaling D.C. Jane.

I nudged the partially open bathroom door and recoiled.

COLLAPSE
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