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Caught Dead in Wyoming Book 5

“There’s a body in my bed. A dead body.”

The call from a friend staying at Sherman’s newest – okay, only – B&B starts Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher on a twisting, turning journey where appearances not only deceive, they turn deadly.

When her TV reporter friend Wardell Yardley comes to visit, they take a weekend trip to Yellowstone Park and encounter a surprising set of people. Including a team-building group from social media mega-force VisageTome, a mysterious older couple, and someone from Elizabeth’s childhood.

Elizabeth senses undercurrents in this strange assortment that just about pull her and her friends underwater for good when everyone shows up in her tiny Sherman, Wyoming, town.

Not only is there a murder to solve – and fast – there’s also a new sheriff in town, whose No. 1 rule might be No Sleuthing By Journalists.

Look Live is a TV news term. A reporter appears to be live at a scene, perhaps for an introduction or the toss back to the anchor desk, but in fact the entire report is taped. A misleading perception, carefully set up. Ah, the dangers of deceiving appearances …

Elizabeth, her KWMT-TV colleague Mike Paycik, rancher Tom Burrell, and their supporting staff of idiosyncratic sleuths untangle what happens when it’s not enough to merely … LOOK LIVE.

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Excerpt:

The Beginning

My phone rang as I neared the doors to the KWMT-TV newsroom that Tuesday morning. I didn’t even check the number. That’s how good I felt despite the early hour.

“E.M. Danniher, KWMT-TV’s ‘Helping Out!’ reporter.” Usually I answer with my name alone, but I was feeling chipper after surviving a long weekend of wild animals at Yellowstone Park — that was two-legged wild animals. The four-legged ones had been well-behaved.

“Elizabeth?”

“Yes.” Belatedly, I recognized the voice, though not the phone number. “Dell? Why are you whispering? How was the B&B? Better than the Haber House Hotel?”

“Elizabeth,” he said, still whispering. “There’s a body in my bed.”

I rolled my eyes. “That kind of bragging is crass, even for you, Dell.”

“I’m not bragging. It’s … It’s a dead body.”

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“Right. So now you’re calling to give me first-thing-in-the-morning grief about dabbling in murder investigations? You didn’t do enough of that over the weekend? Really? You’re as bad as the new sheriff. I should—”

“Elizabeth.”

I stopped. The plea in that one word — though still a whisper — was more compelling than just about anything else he could have said.

“You’re serious? There’s a dead body in your bed?”

“Yes.”

I turned and headed back across the parking lot toward my SUV for the privacy.

“You’re not pulling my leg? Because if you are—”

“No.”

He meant it. There was a dead body in Wardell Yardley’s bed in the new bed and breakfast in Sherman, Wyoming. The one KWMT’s owner had wanted me to do a piece on.

My first thought was not for the person — and I had a good idea who it was — who had been demoted to dead body.

That first thought also wasn’t for Dell, a network White House correspondent, my former colleague, and most-of-the-time friend, despite his predicament.

It wasn’t for my job, either, though that, too, might be affected.

Or for the owners of the not-even-officially opened B&B, who were unlikely to agree right now with the maxim that bad publicity was better than no publicity.

No, my first thought was for the brand new Cottonwood County sheriff.

Now, we’ll see, I thought. Now we’ll see.

But that is getting way ahead of the story.

Because a story is supposed to start at the beginning.

The Previous Thursday

Chapter One

Once Upon a Time. That’s how the stories of my childhood memories began.

The newsroom equivalent is “I got a phone call.” Or, these days it might be a text or an email or a photo or a video.

Whatever the form, it starts with communication to a reporter or editor from that big, wide, crazy outside world where news is born.

Some stories are recognizable from that first instant.

For others, it takes a while from the Once Upon a Time/I got a phone call start until the story truly takes recognizable shape. A gestation period of sorts.

For some stories you only realize that a phone call, text, email, photo, or video was the beginning when you reach the end of it and look back. Rather like those women who say they had no idea they were pregnant until, oops, out pops Junior.

I certainly wasn’t expecting much when newsroom dogsbody Jennifer Lawton called out, “Someone on the main line wants to talk to you, Elizabeth.”

She called out rather than transferring the call to me because I wasn’t at my desk, but instead, about eight feet from her, with my head in the mini-fridge in the bump in the hallway that masquerades as a staff break room at KWMT-TV, Sherman, Wyoming.

I could have sworn I’d left some peach yogurt in that mini-fridge. Of course that was before I’d bought the latest package of Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Milano cookies. Had to eat the cookies first. Yogurt will last for centuries, but I hear Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Milano cookies will go stale.

Never experienced that myself, because who’d want to risk it?

Apparently yogurt, however, can go missing.

Since the search was for yogurt and not Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Milano cookies — which I never would have trusted to the communal fridge, because I am not stupid — I was willing to walk over to the nearest empty desk and ask Jennifer to transfer the call to Line 4.

“E.M. Danniher, KWMT,” I answered.

“Ms. Danniher, I am calling from Sheriff Conrad’s office. He would like to see you.”

Hot damn.

News, especially TV news, obsesses about what’s happening now. What’s right in front of it this moment — especially if there’s good video.

It’s all about the pointy tip of ice showing above the waterline, not the iceberg holding up that pointy tip. Even though it’s the iceberg below, not the pointy tip, that always gets the Titanic no matter how many times you watch the movie.

I’ll admit it. I wasn’t looking around for icebergs when I took that call. I was focused on the story’s pointy tip.

And the pleasure of getting in ahead of anchor Thurston Fine.

There was a new sheriff in town and I’d been trying to get an interview with him even before he arrived in Sherman.

Of course that was only yesterday, and he’d been officially named sheriff only a couple days before that. But still, I’d placed a lot of calls, both directly to him, at his previous home and new office, and indirectly, working sources to see if any knew anyone who knew anyone who knew him.

I’d come up blank.

Cottonwood County had been without a sheriff or a county attorney for more than five months. Some say I instigated those departures. I prefer to say their actions were responsible. I just reported what they did. Mostly.

“When?” I asked the caller.

“Three o’clock. At his office.”

Not much time. Good thing I was prepared.

It would cut it close to meet a friend and former competitor who was arriving in town on assignment — much to his chagrin. Still, it was do-able.

“We’ll be there. Thank you.”

We hung up. I immediately called the assignment desk.

Yes, I could have walked over to talk to Audrey Adams directly with little chance of being overheard.

That’s why I called.

“Audrey? It’s Elizabeth. I need Diana for an assignment at three.”

“Today? She’s already assigned and—”

“We have the sheriff.”

Heads popped up around the newsroom like prairie dogs out of their holes, though few were anywhere near as cute. I took note of which heads emerged.

It’s a valuable journalistic skill to be able to leave your eavesdropping frequency open for names and terms associated with hot stories while otherwise going about your business. Those head-poppers had that skill. They were people I’d want to work with in the future.

Well, most of them.

Two of the head-poppers were minions of our unesteemed anchor Thurston Fine. But they, too, were useful, because they would carry the news that I had the first interview with the new sheriff to Fine.

“You got the sheriff?” Audrey spoke into the phone, but was audible across the small newsroom bullpen.

“But you did not shoot the deputy,” sang a familiar voice from right behind me.

Michael Paycik, KWMT-TV’s Eye on Sports, had demonstrated truly impressive head-popping, since he’d been editing in one of the mini-bays around the corner when I’d last seen him … unless he’d taken a break from editing and had been right behind me because he was on the hunt for food, as he so often was.

“You’re channeling Bob Marley now?” I asked Mike as he sat on the edge of the unassigned desk I’d commandeered for my short-distance phone call.

“Never heard of him, but I know that song,” Jennifer said. “I’m sure I heard it recently.”

“Probably the Eric Clapton version,” Mike said.

“Never heard of him, either. I think it was on a commercial.”

Stabbed in the heart by the generation gap. As if being a television journalist weren’t a strong enough reminder that tempus fugit, classics have become soundtracks for commercials.

“Back to the sheriff.” Audrey’s voice came in stereo, live and through the phone. “Are you sure?”

More heads had joined the initial popping-up crop. Since they could hear both sides of my conversation with Audrey, the head-swiveling rivaled the grandstand at a tennis match.

“Yup. His office called and wants us there at three.”

“Isn’t your reporter friend flying in around then? I could take the story for you,” Mike offered. The same way someone offers to take those stray hundred dollar bills off your hands.

“It is when he’s flying in — but to Billings. He’s renting a car and driving here.”

I was looking forward to seeing Dell.

Wardell Yardley — yes, that Wardell Yardley, the leader of the White House press corps who’s been on your TV more times than you can count — was a long-time colleague, buddy, and competitor. Since circumstances in my life and former marriage had conspired to banish me from news mecca New York to lead-with-the-cow-in-the-highway Sherman, Wyoming, I no longer constituted much in the way of competition for Wardell Yardley, which had strengthened our buddyness quotient.

Dell was among the last half dozen people on the planet I would have predicted would come to Cottonwood County.

But a bright idea by an exec at his network had brought about the unpredictable.

Dell wasn’t taking it well. I tried to restrain a tendency to view it as a spectator sport.

“So that gives me plenty of time to do my story,” I said. Emphasis added for Mike’s benefit. “Well, with Diana, of course.”

“You know, more and more stations have reporters do their own filming. Especially stations our size. Video journalists or multimedia journalists, they call them,” Audrey said.

“Has Haeburn programmed you?” Mike asked incredulously, citing our News Director Les Haeburn, as unesteemed as anchor Thurston Fine and nearly as irksome. We didn’t have to see him butcher the news on TV, but we all got caught in the vise of his penny squeezing. “Besides, have you ever seen Elizabeth’s video?”

“Hey,” I protested.

“I bet she could do it if she put her mind to it, like she’ll get the hang of horseback riding eventually.” Jennifer’s effort at supportive loyalty fell a tad flat to my ears.

“My talents aside, I’ll tell Diana you suggested I handle her camera,” I said into the phone.

From her desk Audrey waved a one-handed surrender. “Never mind. Bad idea. Never said it. Thought never crossed my mind. I’ll juggle the schedule.”

“That’s all I ask. Thank you.” I’d captured Thurston Fine’s intonations well enough to draw chuckles from several in the newsroom, even though none of us had ever heard him use those last two words.

We hung up and most of the heads returned to their burrows. A few, apparently inspired by seeing the break room in the background during their tennis-match head swiveling, ambled over toward where Mike and I were.

The two Thurston minions stood.

They looked at each other. Minion in the white oxford shirt started a zig-zag path between the desks that might take him toward the men’s room. Or might not.

Minion in the brown plaid shirt started toward the hallway, casually mentioning to no one that he was going to the editing bay because — wait for it — he needed to edit.

That caused a flurry of look exchanges, since he usually edited only under duress and if he couldn’t foist it off on someone else.

White oxford shirt didn’t fall for the ploy. He zagged more than zigged, changing his trajectory from the men’s room to the hallway, which led to the editing bay, but also to Thurston’s private office.

Thurston’s office is in the quietest spot and has the best furniture in the building, complete with a comfy couch and full-sized fridge for his sole and exclusive use, while the rest of us piled into the mini version chugging along on its third or fourth decade. He keeps a nanny cam in the studio so he can watch over the door to his office when he’s in the studio.

Both minions picked up the pace, throwing aside pretense, as they raced for where the hallway began just past Les Haeburn’s office door.

They jostled each other, and brown plaid shirt banged an elbow into the closed door. But he regained his momentum and they were in a dead heat when they disappeared from view.

“Maybe you should get out of here before the eruption,” suggested Audrey. “I can send Diana after you.”

I shook my head, listening.

Another thud echoed to us from deeper in the hallway, then absolute silence.

Mike looked at his watch, tapped it, and looked around. He and several others nodded wisely as he said, “Afternoon nap time.”

The minions apparently were demonstrating their good judgment by restraining themselves from thundering into Fine’s office during the most important part of his day.

Haeburn’s door jerked open, he glared out, and said, “What?”

“What what?” Jennifer asked.

“Who knocked on my door?” There it was, the Les Haeburn management style distilled to a closed door and a hostile question.

Nature, apparently recognizing it had shorted Les on sincerity, shoulders, honesty, hair, charm, and chin, had opened full throttle on ambition. Until he assessed how helpful or unhelpful any event might be to him, he moved cautiously.

He also kept Thurston Fine happy. Because if Thurston moved up, Les was not releasing that coattail.

The sad thing is, Thurston might do it.

Isn’t television grand?

COLLAPSE

From Readers' 5-Star Reviews

"Really enjoying this series, with its humor and vivid characters. The love triangle is very well done and E.M.'s problems are believable. There's a real love for the "wide open spaces" in McLinn's writing and it's a pleasure to visit the world she so beautifully creates."

"Another engaging murder mystery. McLinn injects humor at just the right times, keeping it always interesting and light, and with a surprising ending. You never know 'who done it' till the very end!"

"Love the whole series, the ensemble cast of characters, the town's quirks and the descriptions of the area and the TV news business. The author's voice is wonderful, full of fun."

 

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