Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 11
Prime Suspect: The most annoying man in Sherman, Wyoming
That’s right, Thurston Fine, the egotistical anchor at KWMT-TV is the first person deputies want to talk to when his self-described biggest fan is found dead.
What’s Elizabeth Margaret Danniher to do? The station’s in an uproar, heading for a train wreck, and desperately needs her experience and leadership. At the same time, here’s an intriguing puzzle right in front of her … which might free or condemn her greatest enemy.
In TV news, cross talk between the anchor and reporter is supposed to elicit new and interesting information. But Thurston’s version twists the tale into a corkscrew. And his simmering resentment could bring danger to Elizabeth.
Facing a true test of their resilience, Elizabeth’s crew – Diana, Jennifer, Mike, and Tom – must resolve mysteries swirling around KWMT-TV for years. But will that reveal what’s behind the death of Thurston’s biggest – only? – fan?
Even amid the mayhem, the complex yearnings among the trio of more-than-friends take important steps toward resolution. The stage is nearly set.
Family, friends, enemies mix together with a dose of a historical scam in a case of Cross Talk.
DAY ONE - MONDAY
If you’ve seen movies where a soldier carrying his flag in battle is shot and one of his brethren picks up the staff and carries it forward, you get the general idea of what happens when a major cog in a daily newscast goes down.
In this case, the cog was Thurston Fine.
He’s the anchor at KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming, where I also work. E.M Danniher, ““Helping Out!”” consumer affairs reporter, that’s me.
Despite Thurston’s lack of ability — rare among anchors — he is, by definition, a major cog.
He refuses to share anchor duties, so there’s no co-anchor to take up the slack as at most semi-sane news operations. (None is totally sane.)READ MORE
In sports, the theory is called Next Man Up, the expectation that if one player goes down, another will move into position and carry the flag, so to speak. That’s how former NFL player and KWMT-TV alum Michael Paycik explained it to me.
I asked what happened if there was no one left who played that position. He said I was harping on details when the concept mattered.
I argued details counted, including in football. Great game plan with no execution meant your team was a goner.
You’d think, with no co-anchor and with our supposed news director being Les Haeburn, that KWMT-TV also was a goner. We certainly had no game plan. What we did have—
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me tell you how I learned Thurston Fine wasn’t available for Monday’s five and ten p.m. newscasts.
After working long hours on a special that aired Saturday night, I arrived Monday just before noon, planning to make an appearance, then take off the rest of the day to attend a funeral.
Before I reached my desk, I picked up an airborne buzz of something big happening.
I dropped my belongings and headed for the coffeemaker, both for caffeine and to discover the source of the buzz.
This buzz didn’t come from something identifiable like excited voices or lots of activity. Because no one occupied any other desks in the bullpen.
Instead, what I picked up on was an effervescence in the atmosphere, residual adrenaline from major happenings past that newsrooms — even KWMT-TV’s — emit when there’s a big story afoot.
Audrey Adams, the day’s assignment editor, turned the corner from the back hallway and gave a muffled sound.
“Elizabeth.” She hurried at me. “Have you heard? Do you know?”
I kept moving toward the widened area in the hallway serving as a break room. Toward the coffee pot, specifically, despite knowing what awaited me there.
Jennifer Lawton, a news aide by title and salary, but far more than that to the station, zoomed toward me from the direction of the still-swinging door to the ladies’ room.
She cut directly to the news bulletin.
“Thurston’s the prime suspect in a murder.”
“Thurston?” I repeated. Then asked, “Another one?”
Not another time the anchor of KWMT-TV was a prime suspect in a murder, but another murder.
The special we’d aired Saturday night had been about one, too. That one solved. For which I can take some credit, along with Jennifer and several of our investigating colleagues.
“This one didn’t take place here in the county,” Audrey said.
That would be a relief to my friends — using the term loosely — in the Cottonwood County Sheriff’s Department, some of whom pointed to a jump in their murder rate since my arrival. I pointed to an even higher jump in their cases-solved rate.
“We don’t know it didn’t take place here. All we know is the body wasn’t found in Cottonwood County.” Jennifer was showing off a little. I liked it. The young woman had been a huge help in several investigations since I landed in Wyoming a year and a half ago, and she’d learned a lot.
“What’s the connection to Thurston?”
“We don’t know that, either. Except he went to the sheriff’s department a few minutes ago—”
Jennifer hijacked Audrey’s words to follow her own path. “So we haven’t had time to organize the celebration and order champagne.”
“A banner’s certainly in order,” I said.
“Knock off the comedy routine you two,” Audrey ordered. “Or I’m not telling you anything else.”
Audrey’s first sentence reflected her efforts at being more authoritative as she aspired to move to larger markets and better operations than KWMT — most newsrooms are both.
The second sentence demonstrated an even more important skill — knowing what makes the people she supervised fold. And fast.
Cutting off a source to answers to my curiosity sure did it for me.
I raised one hand in half a surrender. The other hand opened a cabinet for a coffee cup. I needed caffeine.
Under ordinary circumstances I needed caffeine. Under these circumstances, I really needed it.
“Okay, so you think Thurston’s a murder suspect because…?”
“Because,” Audrey said with emphasis, “sheriff’s deputies came here, demanded to talk to him, took him away, and said not to expect him back soon.”
That ratcheted up my attention, qualifying the events as quite different from went to the sheriff’s department a few minutes ago.
From the standpoint of producing newscasts today, it also created a crisis.
In my share of newsroom crises, I’ve seen people freeze, I’ve seen people get tunnel vision, I’ve seen people act before they had the information needed to make good decisions.
The trick was getting enough to prioritize, but not waiting to know everything before acting on the most pressing issues.
Questions were the answer.
“Was he in handcuffs?”
“No… But they woke him up and insisted he go with them right away. He wasn’t happy.”
He seldom was. Especially not when awakened from his post-lunch nap. The guy came in late, took lunch early enough to be on East Coast time instead of Mountain, then settled in for a long nap in his office. Real tough schedule.
“It wasn’t only Cottonwood County deputies, either,” Jennifer continued. “The Horse Creek County deputies seemed to be in charge. I’m surprised you didn’t see them leaving.”
As I poured coffee from the pot kept going from the newsroom’s first arrival to the last departure, I shook my head, confirming I hadn’t seen law enforcement vehicles as I drove in. “Was Les here then? Is he here now?”
Les Haeburn’s door with the legend “News Director” on it was closed, which was standard and not indicative of his absence.
“No and no.”
“Did Thurston say anything as he left?”
“To us?” Jennifer’s disbelief was at my thinking I needed to ask. Thurston mostly talked to a handful of acolytes and Les. That excluded most of the newsroom, including the three of us.
“To anybody. Like call my lawyer?”
Looking at each other, Jennifer and Audrey shook their heads. Tentatively at first, then more firmly as they faced me.
I sipped. And grimaced. I should have raised both hands in surrender and skipped the coffee. Whoever made this pot must have been really unhappy about being at the station.
“Was anybody else here?”
We all meant in the newsroom area. A spattering of non-newsroom people would be elsewhere in the building.
I put down the coffee cup and took out my phone.
“Who are you calling?” Jennifer asked.
The lawyer’s assistant answered immediately. I identified myself and asked to speak to James.
“For Thurston? Why get a lawyer for Thurston?” Jennifer demanded.
Audrey took another angle. “We don’t have time for that, Elizabeth. We have to have a newscast in a few hours, and then another one at ten. We need you to anchor—”
I held up an index finger commanding her to wait.
“Yes, hello James. Thank you for taking my call.” In a couple sentences I told him what I knew of the situation, finishing with “…and I doubt he’ll think to ask for, much less call, a lawyer. If you need a retainer—”
“The station has me on a retainer. I can stretch it to see what’s going on. But not until after Sally’s funeral.”
Sally’s funeral. I’d almost forgotten.
With whatever measure of human kindness or professional consideration I owed a colleague — even this stinker colleague — paid out in full, I could concentrate on the next major issue.
Making sure that flag got picked up.
In other words, that we had newscasts on air at five and ten.
As soon as I clicked off, Audrey resumed. “We need you to anchor, Elizabeth. Without Thurston — I can’t believe I’m worried about not having Thurston, but with so little warning… You have to do it, Elizabeth. We can’t do this without you.”
Although reporting floated my boat a lot higher than intro-ing and outro-ing other people’s stories, I have anchored. Including in major markets, though mostly on weekends. That was all before being drop-kicked out of that career and life to Sherman, Wyoming.
Still, anchoring was comfortably in my skillset.
“Of course, you can do it, Audrey. What’s the hardest part of a newscast with Thurston anchoring?”
“Making it Thurston-proof.” She added ruefully, “Trying to. He once read a story about someone being tried in absentia and ad-libbed that he didn’t know what part of the state it was in. Like absentia was a town.”
I hadn’t heard the story before, but it fit. “So, you gain all sorts of time from not having to Thurston-proof the copy. Besides, your local packages are in progress.”
“Oh.” Her gaze shot to her computer screen. She couldn’t see details from here, but she had all the assignments in her head anyway. “We can get in held pieces—” Because Thurston insisted on room for his pet puff pieces on his cronies. “—and maybe more non-local news.”
“Exactly. But, first, call Leona.”
Leona D’Amato was the part-timer who had covered what passed for society in Cottonwood County, Wyoming, and its county seat, Sherman, since the station opened. She knew everyone, everyone knew her, she loved that job, and hated anchoring.
The last point was why Thurston approved of her as his substitute. She’d never try to take his job.
Audrey wilted a bit after her momentary cheer. “She hates hard news. She’ll hate me for making her do it.”
But I saw it as another good sign that she said making Leona anchor, not asking her.
“She’s a pro and she’ll do it. Besides, she’ll be familiar to viewers.”
“Right, like when she fills in when Thurston’s gone for a long weekend,” Jennifer said. “But you’re wrong about one thing, Elizabeth. Not all the stories are in progress. What about the one on Thurston being arrested?”
“Oh, God,” Audrey groaned.
“You said he wasn’t handcuffed. Very unlikely he was arrested.” I spoke automatically over Audrey’s groans. “He’s cooperating with law enforcement in looking into this tragedy.”
“That’s it,” the assignment editor said with abrupt intensity. “That’s exactly the sort of phrasing we need. You have to do the story, Elizabeth. You know what we can say and what we shouldn’t. The rest of us — I guess we can pull together everything else. But that story? You have to do it. You have to anchor.”
Jennifer nodded her support.
Jennifer switched to head-tilted interest. “Oh, because if Thurston gets out of this murder charge, he’d try to kill you and be right back in jail. Right? But he wouldn’t succeed, you know,” she said, reassuringly.
She was probably right he’d try to kill me and land in jail. I hoped she was right about him not succeeding.
The other possibility was he’d die of apoplexy, but I didn’t raise that. No sense getting her hopes up.
“Leona’s the only appropriate person to anchor. Make the story the A block lead, deal with it right off the top, then briskly get on with the rest of the news. I’ll help write the copy if we can’t find Les— Where is Les?”
It was telling that we’d all moved so easily past his absence. In a good news operation — even most not-good news operations — the news director would lead the charge in a situation like this.
He or she might not pick up the flag from the fallen anchor, but he or she sure as heck would order someone else to.
“I don’t know. He went out for an early lunch, even earlier than usual, like about ten-thirty, and not with Thurston. He hasn’t been back. Should I try to call him? But I don’t think the number I have works anymore. Because he said he was getting a new one and he wasn’t telling anyone the new number. Ever. He said he was changing it after someone called him over lunch after he said we should never, ever call him over lunch for any reason and—”
“Slow down, Audrey. Take things in order.”
She sucked in a breath. “Okay. Yes. First…”
She ground to a stop, her face blank.
I said, “No working number for Les settles the issue of whether you should call him. We’ll work on the newscasts. If he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, we’ll worry about that later. But, first, call Leona.”
“Right, right. Okay.” She hurried off to her desk.
I looked at Jennifer, who’d gone quiet and oddly interested in the ceiling.
The KWMT-TV newsroom’s walls aren’t interesting, much less its ceilings.
“What?” I asked her.
“I have his number if you want it.”
“You have Les Haeburn’s super-secret phone number he doesn’t want anyone to know much less use?”
“Uh-huh. Remember he had me program a special ringtone?”
“Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” That stuck with me, since he used it for Val Heatherton, the station owner, no less. A person I’d yet to meet in more than a year here. “That was for email alerts.”
“Also his ringtone for her. Thurston heard it and had me do his ringtone with music about Valkyries for Val Heatherton. Anyway, when Les got this new phone, he had me program it with the same ringtone. I, uh, happened to note the number on the phone. In case.”
“Okay.” I slowly nodded. “In fact, great. But let’s see how this develops. Would hate to use up our really-need-it opportunity and then need it later.”
“Because if we called him, he’d get another new phone.”
“How do we know when we really need it?”
“We keep going without using it until it’s the only possible avenue of attack left.”
“Okay. But you know even if he didn’t have me program a ringtone, I could get—?”
Audrey turned back toward us and called from her computer, “Leona had a few choice words, but she’s coming straight from the funeral. Now what?”
I checked the time. I could still make the funeral.
“Adjust your blocks for the Five and Ten as you need to. Call the folks out in the field on daily stories to adjust. If you need to cut—”
“Cut? More like we’ll be short. Because the first thing I’ll do is trash two puff pieces Thurston insisted on.” She smiled for the first time. “In fact, I can cut more padding because he insists on those long on-camera intros and Leona won’t.”
“Hah. Well, if you’re short, run one of my backlogged “Helping Out!” pieces.” My supposedly regularly-scheduled consumer affairs pieces were the first things held. As a result, I had enough stored up to coast for years. “I have one on scams involving fake celebrities that—”
“Or more regional news.”
“Already breaking reporters’ hearts. You’re made for this job.”
Audrey ignored my piteous plaint. “Plus, we’ll need time for the story about Thurston being arrested. Or not arrested,” she amended quickly.
* * * *
With the anchoring situation sorted, our coverage of Thurston Fine’s absence became the outstanding issue for tonight’s two newscasts.
That brought attention back to why deputies knocked on Thurston’s office door during his nap.
“What do we know about this person who died and the circumstances?”
I was going straight to heaven for not giving in to the temptation to say This person Thurston’s suspected of murdering. I would never use that language on-air, but not using it in newsroom exchanges? Definitely straight to heaven.
Jennifer looked toward Audrey, letting her take the lead. A vote — probably unconscious — for Audrey’s strides in leadership.
“All we know is female, mid-to-late thirties, who lives — lived — in Sherman. But they found her body in Horse Creek County.”
That was an eyebrow-raiser, though it did explain why their deputies were involved in waking Thurston.
Horse Creek County is not to be confused with an unincorporated area in the southeast corner of the state also called Horse Creek.
I consider that part of Wyoming’s ongoing efforts to deflect invaders.
It’s not the first location with that goal, as I learned during my time in Washington, D.C. In its core, diagonal state-name streets overlay a grid of east-west alphabet streets and north-south number streets. The diagonal intersections of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan result in circles or squares to baffle and delay the British if they invaded again after burning the city during the War of 1812.
The layout still baffles and delays tourists.
Wyoming doesn’t have big enough cities for that, so it employs other tactics.
For example, neither Fort Laramie nor Laramie — which are not near each other — are in Laramie County, but rather Goshen and Albany counties respectively. While Horse Creek is in Laramie County, not in Horse Creek County.
Actually, not much is in Horse Creek County.
It is east of Cottonwood County and one of the smallest counties in a state favoring giant, economy-sizes.
KWMT-TV reached Horse Creek County viewers, but never covered news there during my tenure here. I did not know if that was because nothing happened or the station had a policy of not covering it.
If there was such a policy, we would make an exception for finding a dead body, especially one of a Cottonwood County resident. More accurately, former resident.
“How do you know about the body. The location? Where she lived? ID? When was she found—?”
“This morning,” Audrey said with the air of someone jumping onto a moving train. “We don’t know exactly when. A bulletin came over the wire during the morning meeting that the Horse Creek County Sheriff’s Department had responded to a scene, without any details.
“After Les, then Thurston left, Jennifer caught something saying Horse Creek’s sheriff’s department had found a body, they had an ID on the body, and an address here in Sherman.”
I nodded approval at Jennifer for staying on top of events.
She picked up the tale. “I called the Horse Creek County Sheriff’s Department. They said they had an ID, but weren’t telling us. Amateurs. Cottonwood County wouldn’t have admitted having an ID. Anyway, since I could follow the two departments’ communications—” She hurried on and I pretended I hadn’t recognized she didn’t want to detail how she managed that. “—I heard them say our deputies were meeting theirs at a location in Cottonwood County. Very cagey. No address given. It was like they’d figured out I was listening and were purposefully not saying much. But definitely Sherman. So, I told Audrey.”
The assignment editor said, “I was trying to figure out how big a deal it was and who to pull off what story if we needed more— Oh! I never said. I’d already sent Diana—”
The station’s best photographer and my good friend.
A veteran reporter.
“—to the neighborhood based on what Jennifer heard. Before the deputies came for Thurston, Walt messaged that law enforcement vehicles were around, but it wasn’t clear which house was involved. I have to let them know about Thurston and—”
“Do that. Get them up to speed.” They’d get what there was to get. Especially if they knew the story had grown. “Jennifer will tell me the rest of what happened.”
Audrey hurried off and Jennifer resumed reporting.
“It wasn’t long after I’d told Audrey the intersection for Walt and Diana to focus on, when deputies walked right into the newsroom and said they needed to talk to Thurston. Guys from Horse Creek County, along with a couple from Cottonwood County — including Sergeant Shelton. Audrey said Thurston couldn’t be disturbed, like we’re supposed to, but they weren’t taking no for an answer. Then—”
“Wait.” In years in this business, I’d learned speed was good, but rushing rarely paid off. Especially rushing past important details. “How does Thurston’s timeline today fit into this?”
She frowned in concentration. “When Thurston came in from lunch, I’d connected the earlier stuff about a body being found in Horse Creek County with chatter about arriving at a residence in Sherman.”
“Did you say anything to him about the events?”
“Thurston? No way.”
It was the answer I expected, but better to ask the question than assume the answer. “Go on.”
“He went to his office for his nap, as usual.”
“How long after did deputies come?”
She turned and looked at her computer, as if recreating what she’d done during that span. “Twenty minutes. Tops.”
Drive time isn’t much in Sherman, but still left the law enforcement types only ten, maybe fifteen, minutes at the dead woman’s house to encounter something connecting her to Thurston.
Something with the power to bring them straight to the TV station, pick him up, and persuade him to accompany them to the sheriff’s department.
Not handcuffed, but also not a quick chat in his office.
“What are you thinking, Elizabeth?”
“Not thinking a thing. Except about what we need for the story tonight. The circumstances, where the body was found—”
“Not a lot of detail, but a Horse Creek County deputy found her this morning. Audrey sent Jenks to shoot that scene, figuring law enforcement will still be working it, so there should be good video. He called just before you came in and says it looks like the body was in a vehicle on an unused road.”
Raising the question of why a deputy was on an unused road.
I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to stop Jennifer’s flow of what she did know with something she probably didn’t.
“Oh,” she added, “also right before you came in, I heard one deputy tell someone else the victim was thirty-seven. Not mid-to-late thirties, but specifically thirty-seven.”
Knowing the dead woman’s age made it far more likely law enforcement had a complete identification. Identification associated with the vehicle was a good bet. Possibly her personal ID.
As for why they weren’t releasing the name, possibly as benign as ensuring they notified next of kin before it hit the news or as not-so-benign as wanting to spring a trap on … someone.
“We have to find out this woman’s identity.”
“We don’t have the exact address, but from where deputies were parking, it’s a couple blocks from the bed and breakfast, in that area of old houses north of the courthouse.”
The Wild Horses Bed and Breakfast opened last year as part of a neighborhood resurgence and was well-known in town, since it offered only the third option for lodging. It was particularly well-known to KWMT-TV staffers because the couple who owned it included Krista Seger, the niece of the station’s owner.
“The neighborhood where she lived,” Jennifer continued, “and her age should be enough to confirm — once I have a possible name.”
“Anything else?” From her expression, I thought there was.
She grinned. “They mentioned her car. A VW Beetle.”
“Ah.” Not the most common vehicle in Cottonwood County, Wyoming. “Checking every female of the right age associated with a VW Beetle — and keeping in mind the possibility that it could have been borrowed — might be a tedious route to a name,” I warned.
“I hadn’t thought about it being borrowed. Still, not so bad. Not like a Chevy pickup around here. I’ll find her.”
“I’m not hacking. I’m using human capital.”
“Something you learned while you were visiting Mike in Chicago?”
Michael Paycik, our former colleague — and integral part of our previous investigations — had taken a TV sports job at a major station in Chicago and Jennifer recently returned from visiting him. Her trip also resulted in her being offered a spot in a Northwestern University program starting after the first of the year.
“Nah. Learned a fancy term for what I was already doing.” Ah. The guys. Her online buddies with skills rivaling her own. Though I worried their ethics didn’t fit into my comfort zone. “I told them no hacking.”
I grinned briefly in acknowledgment of her mind-reading, “Before you get back to overseeing your human capital, finish telling me what happened with Thurston and the deputies.”
She lifted one shoulder. “They knocked on his office door. He bellowed. They knocked again and said they were from the Horse Creek County Sheriff’s Department. He snatched open the door, his hair sticking up on one side and bellowing how he’d get anyone who disturbed him fired — then stopped mid-bellow when he saw their uniforms.
“They all went in, except one burly guy from Horse Creek, who stood outside with his arms crossed over his chest like we’d storm the door. As if I couldn’t have listened in if I’d wanted to.”
“Don’t tell me how. Just don’t tell me.”
“Okay, I won’t,” she said cheerfully. “So, after about fifteen minutes, they all came out — Thurston was not in handcuffs. He said in that lofty voice like he’s ordering servants around, that he was going to the sheriff’s department to clear up a misunderstanding for them, like he was doing them a favor. Audrey asked when he’d be back — you could tell she was thinking about the Five — and a deputy from Horse Creek County mumbled something about taking as long as it took. As he went by, Shelton said, low, not to expect Thurston back today.
“I think he was trying to be nice. Sort of. But it knocked Audrey sideways. Gotta admit, it surprised me, too. Sure glad to see you coming in the door.”
I knew what I had to do.
I’d known it almost from the minute Audrey and Jennifer started telling me what happened.
There’s nothing like a crisis to focus your thinking.
Mine focused on getting two newscasts on-air for KWMT-TV in the next few hours. Ones that included adequate coverage of the news would be nice.
But before I did that, I had a funeral to attend. Not for the benefit of the deceased, a woman named Sally Tipton. But for Emmaline Parens, who had arranged the funeral and for whom I had great regard.
Audrey objected. I stood firm.
As it was, I arrived at the small church after the service started and slipped unobtrusively into a seat at the back.
The readings were uplifting, the music simple and compelling, the speakers brief and to the point.
I heard about twenty-five percent of any of it, with my mind on what came next at KWMT.
The minister and Mrs. P, accompanied by Gisella Decker, her neighbor, ally, and rival, and rancher Thomas David Burrell, exited directly into a covered side entry area where they would form the compact reception line.
Having attended other funerals in Cottonwood County, I knew I had an opening and I took it, walking New York speed down the side aisle while the rest of the attendees were slowed by exchanging greetings with those in nearby pews.
Even so, I caught a number of questioning looks from people who clearly had already heard about Thurston and wondered about my reaction. Most of those looks also held a measure of concern for me, which I was sure I’d find warming if I weren’t moving so fast.
The look from Leona D’Amato held no such concern, but, instead, comradely irritation. I totally understood.
My strategy put me fifth in line to greet the receivers, behind three women and a man of Mrs. P’s generation. They must have been in the other front pew to have gotten here ahead of me.
Over their heads, I briefly met the gaze of Tom Burrell, who stood behind and to the side of Mrs. Parens — not in the reception line, but clearly in support.
He lifted one brow at me in a subtle version of the others’ questioning concern. Something I saw because he had not yet put his cowboy hat back on.
Things are complicated between Tom and me. Part — but not the biggest part — of that stems from things being complicated between Mike Paycik and me.
Things are not awkward between Mike and me. They have been awkward between Tom and me, but we’ve made progress in that area recently.
Nothing is complicated or awkward between Tom and Mike. At all. Which can be downright annoying.COLLAPSE