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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 8

One of their own becomes a target ...

Hot Roll is a broadcast term. It can simply mean cutting away from an interview to "b-roll" (scene-setting or explanatory footage) or it can mean the adrenaline-pumping drama of broadcast live from a bureau or TV truck because there’s no time to do anything else.

The horrible news that Jennifer’s dear friend has died starts TV reporter Elizabeth Danniher, with friends Mike, Tom and Diana plus the rest of the Caught Dead in Wyoming crew, on an investigation that moves faster -- and closer to them -- than any of them could ever expect. One of their own becomes a target and they race time and a murderer before this Hot Roll burns them all.

I’m extremely fortunate to have found amazing Wyoming photographer Nicolaus Wegner, whose  landscapes and stormscapes have provided the background for all the Caught Dead in Wyoming covers since Shoot First  This cover was chosen in an informal poll of my newsletter subscribers and was designed by the equally wonderful Art by Karri, my go-to cover designer.

Hot Roll is available at all the major ebook retailers and at my ebookstore, and in paperback at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

The most effective means of communication for every TV newsroom I’ve worked in is eavesdropping.

It’s faster and far more interesting than any memo. Also more accurate.

But newsroom eavesdropping is specialized.

A good newsroom eavesdropper quickly learns who to eavesdrop on. In other words, the best sources. And then this good newsroom eavesdropper refines the input by tuning in or out according to the nuances of the eavesdropping target’s volume (Whisper? Must be something good) and tone (Excitement? Dismay? Listen up.)

It’s not bragging to say I’m one of the top TV newsroom eavesdroppers. Colleagues and even the more fair-minded of my rivals will tell you Elizabeth Margaret Danniher is up there with the best.

Not that there’s much scope for my skills in the KWMT-TV newsroom in Sherman, Wyoming, not even my eavesdropping skills.

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I’d begun to wonder if those particular skills will rust, since news is not a daily occurrence here, much less multiple times a day.

Will rust? Who was I kidding? I was worried they had rusted.

Only two days ago I’d overheard Jennifer Lawton, someone I considered a mentee, a friend, talking about a breakup with a boyfriend I hadn’t even known she had, a roustabout for a local oil company.

I gathered the breakup had come almost two months ago, while their dating had been some time before that.

And I hadn’t heard a thing.

Yes, we’d all been involved in solving a murder until a few days ago and I’d been on real estate overload since. Plus, I wasn’t entirely unpacked from a trip East that included tying up loose ends with my ex and stopping off to see family.

No excuse for a pro eavesdropper.

It came down to this: If my eavesdropping was only good for retroactive information, I might as well hang it up as KWMT-TV’s “Helping Out!” consumer affairs reporter much less as a real newsperson.

Knowing I’d missed the beginning, middle, and end of Jennifer’s relationship probably sensitized my eavesdropping now.

That didn’t mean listening to every word.

As a production assistant and news aide, Jennifer answered the phone a lot at KWMT-TV. Constant eavesdropping on her would be like those people with hyperthymesia who remember every detail of everything.

I first tuned in from across the scramble of old desks that passes for a newsroom when I heard “This is her. She. Her. I’m her. She.” She huffed out a breath. “Jennifer Lawton is me.”

I made a mental note to suggest, during our next discussion on making a career in journalism, that she go with “This is Jennifer Lawton” to avoid grammatical breakdowns under pressure … which she seemed to be experiencing at the moment.

“Who are you?” Her tone confirmed my pressure theory and kicked me into full eavesdropping mode.

“What? … No. No. … But … That’s not possible. There must be some mistake — Oh … Oh, no.”

She was typing into her computer. Presumably what the person on the other end said. I knew from experience that she could type as fast as I could talk, which was considerably faster than most people I’d encountered in Wyoming.

“Yes. I will check … But I don’t understand … You have to tell me — No … Yes. Good-bye.”

She stood, half turning toward me, phone still in her hand.

I was already out of my chair, picking up speed when I saw her expression.

But instead of coming toward me, she continued pivoting and headed for the door marked Ladies’ Room.

I adjusted my path and entered a space so small the sign should have said Lady’s Room.

She hadn’t reached either of the two stalls, falling to the floor, collapsed against the wall and half under the farther sink, sobbing.

*   *   *   *

“What is it, Jennifer? Tell me what’s wrong.”

I was on the floor, too, with her head pulled into my shoulder and really wishing I’d kicked off my shoes first.

I’d been celebrating the someday-I-might-be-warm-again promise of the weather by not wearing boots — snow or otherwise — but now the cute little heels were digging into me. One into my derriere as I sat on that foot, the other into my thigh. These kitten heels were fully clawed. Or was it their teeth biting into me?

“She’s dead…”

My heart clenched. “Who? Who’s dead?”

She lived with her parents here in town, would someone have called her at the station if—?

“Calliope.”

Not her mother’s first name. I didn’t recall what it was right now, but I would have remembered Calliope.

“Oh, God. I can’t believe she’s dead.” She sobbed harder into my shoulder, but I caught fragments. “…I’m a horrible friend … My best friend…”

I knew she was close to a group of computer whizzes online, though they’d never met in person. One of them—?

“…little kids … into high school … the best. The best … deserted her…”

Not an online friend. Someone she’d known in real life.

Her lament of sorrow, guilt, regret continued along with the tears.

I wanted to say something wise. Something consoling.

I had nothing.

Worse than nothing.

Any possibility of inspiration could not get past the pain of these heels stabbing into my flesh.

Holding Jennifer’s shoulders to minimize the jolt to her, I shifted to my hip and pulled the heel-in-my-derriere shoe-wearing foot out from under me.

Swallowing a huff of partial relief, I managed, “You were the best friend you could be, Jennifer.”

“No, I wasn’t. I was a terrible friend. She wanted me to come down to Colorado to visit her. She kept asking. She really wanted me to come and I kept making excuses. Work and my parents — They’ve never really liked her.”

That brought on a renewed bout of sobbing.

I came up partway on my knees and reached around with one hand, working this shoe loose.

“But…” She mumbled directly into my shoulder and I didn’t catch it.

“What?” Flexing my foot and tugging at the heel, the first shoe finally came loose. I dropped it to my side.

“I lied to her. It wasn’t because of work or my parents.”

With the worst pain gone, the second-worst pain — the one in my other hip — shot to the top of the list.

“It was because I didn’t want to risk missing out on anything if you and the others … you know.”

I knew.

A group of us had pursued a number of investigations and we’d often called on Jennifer’s computer skills and other connections to help us figure things out.

“How selfish could I be? I ignored my friend for a little excitement and now she’s … Oh, God, now she’s dead.”

With this fresh bout of crying came shudders. I held her tighter.

She sucked in deep, open-mouthed breaths like she’d been underwater. In a way, she had been, with all her tears.

“Easy. Easy,” I advised.

Stroking her shoulder and back to encourage her breathing, I reached around with my other hand, trying to get the second heel out of my thigh.

It felt selfish and petty to concern myself with my minor woes at the moment, but as I would tell her — eventually — beating herself up for pursuing her interests didn’t do any good and wasn’t what a true friend would want, my suffering served no purpose.

Besides, I’d think better post-torture.

But the frame of the stall behind me prevented moving my foot away from my body. The only way to remove the shoe was to press the heel deeper into my flesh.

Jennifer had calmed a bit, even lifting her head. Possibly wondering what I was doing.

“Your friend — Calliope — had she been sick?”

“Sick? No. She’s totally healthy, that’s what my parents didn’t get. She kicked it. She really did. But they couldn’t see her any different.” She gave a coughing kind of sob. “I’m no better. I couldn’t be bothered to go see her or anything.”

I bit my lip against the pain of the heel driving deeper.

I could ask Jennifer about not seeing her friend for a long time. I could ask about an apparent rift over this friend with her parents. I could ask what I really wanted to ask — how did she die. Or…

“What did she kick?” When the safest topic is someone’s addiction, you are definitely in touchy territory.

“Cocaine.”

I made a noncommittal sound. That was an achievement. Not only because of the kitten claw stabbing me. But because the idea of a contemporary of Jennifer’s having been addicted and beating it by that age…

I know. A sure sign of aging when law enforcement, athletes, actors, and recovered addicts all look like they’re twelve.

“But she’s done really, really well,” Jennifer continued. “She went to rehab down there, got off the stuff, and she’s stayed off. She’s gone totally healthy. She does—” She blinked, swallowed, then started again. “She did all this hiking up in the mountains. She knows — knew her way around.”

My heel finally slid free. I unwedged the shoe and almost groaned with the relief. I pushed the shoe to the side.

Jennifer straightened away from me. “Sorry.”

I had groaned with relief.

“No, no. It’s okay.” I hugged her.

Lots of people would think this was a natural point to get Jennifer talking about something different. To change the topic. To get her to stop crying.

My experience said this is the time to keep the tears flowing, to let out as many as need to come, so they don’t clog up the system later. Possibly forever.

“You said she went to rehab down there. Where?”

“North of Denver. She did great. And she stayed because she had support and—” She gulped. “—friends. And she fell in love with hiking and stuff. That’s why it doesn’t make sense.” More tears came and her shoulders shook, like a young tree lashed by rain. “It doesn’t … make sense.”

A knock — determined, but hesitant — sounded at the door.

“Go away,” I told the knocker.

“Elizabeth? It’s Mike.” Michael Paycik was KWMT-TV’s “Eye on Sports.”

He also was a former NFL player and a strong prospect for a great TV news career. But that wasn’t why he was knocking on the ladies’ room door.

Paycik, camerawoman Diana Stendahl, a rancher named Tom Burrell, Jennifer, and I, aided by an assortment of Cottonwood County citizens, had solved a number of crimes together including the oh-so-recent one.

Based on that partnership, I suspected someone or multiple someones in the newsroom enlisted him to get the story of what was going on with Jennifer.

Also, possibly, to clear the ladies’ room. But more likely to find out what was going on, since no one could eavesdrop effectively through the door.

Mike being outside the door told me Diana was not in the building. She would have been everyone’s first choice for this job, especially Mike’s.

“Are you two okay?” he asked.

“No, but there’s nothing you can do right now.”

“Can I stick my head in?”

I looked at Jennifer. She nodded. She had her back and one shoulder to the door anyway.

“Okay.”

The door eased open slowly. Mike’s thick head of brown hair came into view first and then his cameras-love-that-bone-structure face. He gave the closet-sized room a quick, curious glance, then zoomed in on us, sitting on the floor.

“I don’t want to pry,” he fibbed. But he was a good guy who tried to curb the curiosity but at inopportune moments. “But thought you should know Thurston called in from lunch, looking for Jennifer to do something for him. Audrey told him she might be in the archives, so that bought some time, but…”

We all understand what came after the but.

…Thurston will call back, brooking no excuses for not getting what he wanted.

Thurston Fine, the station’s one and only full-time anchor took lunches long enough to do a bacchanal proud. But between lunch and his afternoon nap, he not only would get irked at not having his work done for him, he might be alert enough to make her pay for thwarting him. If she was here.

“I take it back, Mike. There is something you can do. Get our coats and purses — Jennifer’s and mine. We’re leaving.” She looked up at my executive decision. “No arguing. Mike will tell Thurston and Les that you’re sick and I’m taking you home.”

“I don’t want to go home. My parents … Calliope … No. I don’t want to go there.”

I understood her not wanting to be with parents who had disapproved of her friend right now. I also could understand her parents’ viewpoint, which surely included concern about the friend’s cocaine addiction. Was there more they hadn’t approved of?

Jennifer’s broken off sentences about her friend and her parents might bear digging into at some point, but not now. I stuck with the practical. “We’re not going to your house.”

“Yours?” Her question held a measure of relief.

My house?

The phrase felt odd. Unnatural. Yet it was true. Sort of.

I was about to move to a house in town. I planned to rent it until legalities concerning a will and probate were sorted out. Then I’d buy it in an already done deal. But that wasn’t where we’d be going.

“The Bunkhouse,” I said of the efficiency apartment on Diana’s ranch I’d been renting.

“Aren’t you packing?” In response to my head shake, Mike added, “Shouldn’t you be?”

“Not much to pack, but come to think of it, the Bunkhouse isn’t the best place. I have clothes all over to sort.” On my trip East, I’d shopped in Washington, D.C., plus picked up items from a wardrobe stash my parents were storing. “It’s a mess. We’ll go to Diana’s. She won’t mind.”

“I could—” Mike was about to volunteer to come with.

“No, you can’t. You have to work.”

We exchanged a look. I hoped my side conveyed — tactfully — that it wasn’t only his professional duties keeping him from joining us.

Jennifer needed to let her emotions out. She didn’t hang on Mike the way most females did around here. Most men, as a matter of fact. Still, sobbing unreservedly was easier to do without a good-looking, hometown hero, and former pro football player around.

His nod confirmed message received. He let the door close slowly behind him.

“C’mon. Let’s get up. This is going to take some planning. I’ll go first.” I pulled my legs back from their stretch into the stall, got them under me and, by grabbing the edge of the sink with both hands, stood without encountering those heels that could double as an ice pick.

A knock, followed immediately by Mike’s voice. “Ready.”

I opened the door. He handed over the purses first. What is it with men not wanting to touch a woman’s purse? You’d think they were radioactive the way they hold them gingerly and unload them with more speed than grace. It frequently leaves the female to struggle to get her arms into the coat while encumbered with a purse strap.

Maybe I’d maligned Mike, however. Because, while he handed me my coat, he held up Jennifer’s. To get into the coat, she had to turn away from the curious eyes in the newsroom. It also put the coat and Mike’s taller and wider body between the curiosity and Jennifer.

He truly was a good guy.

“Call me after the Five,” I said quietly to him in passing. Waiting until after he did the sports segment on the evening news should give Jennifer time to regain her footing.

I whisked her out of the building and to my SUV.

All the while, hearing her words from just before Mike knocked pricking at me.

It doesn’t make sense…

What was that quote from Shakespeare about by the pricking of my thumbs, knowing evil this way comes?

It doesn’t make sense…

COLLAPSE
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