Book One: Caught Dead in Wyoming
Finalist for EPIC Mystery eBook award
They exiled her to a town with more cattle than people and where the best investigative journalism is done by an observant grocery store clerk. But now there’s a killer on the loose…
Top network news journalist Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher committed two major mistakes—she didn’t stay young, and she made an enemy of a powerful network executive—her ex-husband. So now she’s working out her big-city broadcast contract in rugged Sherman, Wyoming. She used to break national news. Now she’s the Helping Out consumer affairs reporter for tiny KWMT-TV. Her hard-hitting stories? Helping a senior citizen get a refund for a defective toaster and uncovering a travel scam. But Elizabeth won’t fade to black without a fight. Tough, funny and determined, she wrestles with her evolving self-image, the challenges of keeping her professional edge, her sudden isolation and the fear of never being in the spotlight again. Can she make Wyoming—the land of cattle, cowboys, tumbleweeds and less than six people per square mile—home, or is her first stop on the road to obscurity?
She doesn’t have much time to dwell on her fall from grace. Soon she’s in a battle of wills with an ex-football player turned journalist, who sees her as a handy rung on his ladder to fame. And then there’s the matter of a missing deputy sheriff—was he murdered? E.M. finds herself investigating the case at the insistence of a little girl who’s set on proving that her enigmatic father had nothing to do with the crime.
In journalism, it’s called a tick-tock.
It’s a piece that recaps a big, ongoing story by hitting each important date and occurrence in order to bring the audience up to date to that very moment.
Spewing blood from a battered nose and curses from a mouth of ill repute, Sheriff’s Deputy Foster Redus climbed into his brand new forest green Ford pickup outfitted with flared fenders, chrome brush guard, skid plates and Holley headers and drove into the Wyoming gloaming last fall. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. That was the last anybody in Cottonwood County admitted to seeing him.
That same week, in a land far to the east where the canyons are concrete and the herds are SUVs, I finally opened my eyes to the fact that my divorce decree covered not only a man, but a career.
A week before Christmas, the Cottonwood County, Wyoming sheriff arrested Thomas David Burrell, who’d caused the aforementioned spewing of blood and curses, and charged him with murder, though neither Foster Redus nor his pickup had been found.
I spent that week in my Illinois hometown with my family, which was evenly divided among considering me a marital failure, wanting to kick some ex-husband butt, and assuring me this would all turn out for the best because I could now get out of that nasty city and nastier business. That three-way split was not among the members of my family, it was within each and every one of them old enough to put sentences together.
It made for a trying week, since I never knew which one-third of a relative I was going to encounter at any given moment.
On New Year’s Eve day the Cottonwood County prosecuting attorney dropped the charges against Burrell without prejudice for insufficient evidence.
I signed off for the last time from a New York newscast that night. That’s right, after a week’s vacation, the schedule required me to return for one last shift – why waste a precious commodity like New Year’s Eve off on a has-been?
On April Fool’s day I arrived in Cottonwood County, Wyoming–no cracks about the timing, please–and went on the air the following week as “KWMT-TV’s ‘Helping Out’ reporter E.M. Danniher.”
The gap between New Year’s and April Fool’s Day?
Not a thing happened officially on the Foster Redus case. As for my life, no comment.
That brings you right up to a particular crisp morning in early May in Sherman, Wyoming.
I’d heard about the Redus case–it was hard not to in KWMT’s newsroom–but it didn’t occupy a lot of my attention. I had my own concerns.
Concerns like figuring out how come LL Bean and Harry and David had no trouble with my change of address, but my ex-husband’s lawyer couldn’t master the concept. Like finding more congenial surroundings (no matter how temporary my stay in Wyoming might be) than the hovel masquerading as a house that I was renting. Like adjusting to a landscape that looked as if it came out of the head of a science fiction writer. Like acclimating to co-workers who treated me either as visiting royalty or a particularly nasty-tempered shark circling their very private swimming hole.
As eighteen second-graders from Lewis and Clark Elementary School and three harassed adults scattered through the KWMT-TV newsroom’s maze of dented desks and mismatched chairs, I was specifically contemplating how to handle anchorman Thurston Fine, who’d botched the intro to my package the night before.
At five and ten. Who needs DVR when you have Thurston Fine?
Fine was KWMT’s star – of the variety used for a kindergarten pageant. A pattern traced out on cardboard, covered in tin foil and pinned up–glossy, neat and flat. He so obviously ascribed to the shark school of thought that I found myself looking around for Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss whenever we met. Fine hadn’t stuck a javelin down my throat–yet–but I figured he was looking for the right opportunity.
As a stop-gap measure he had undermined me, on air and off for the past month.
Last night he’d pulled one of the oldest tricks, stopping, as if he’d decided to leave off the last line of his script, then stepping on my first words as I tried to launch into my intro to the piece.
A good news director would have handled it.
KWMT’s news director was Les Haeburn.
Insert philosophical shrug.
“Helping Out” wasn’t Emmy material. It wasn’t even material enough under Haeburn’s dominion to keep me fifty percent occupied. Maybe I would change that, or maybe I would decide I liked it like this. More likely, it would become moot before long. In the meantime, I had plenty of free time to contemplate the niceties of taking a hunk out of Fine’s leg. Figuratively, of course.
That’s what I was doing when a thin girl with wispy brown hair falling straight at either side of a square face stepped in front of my new professional home, third battleship-gray desk from the windows. Sitting on a chair that only swiveled to the right put me eye-level with this detachment from the second-grade horde.
“Everybody went that way.” I pointed toward the control room door. She wouldn’t want to miss the comedy of Les Haeburn’s steady-hand-at-the-helm routine. Though it might take a somewhat more jaded outlook than a second-grader possessed to see the humor.
Her voice was assured. Her eyes, so dark brown they seemed to be all pupil, stayed on me.
Apparently, she had a need other than reattachment.
“Uh, the bathroom’s over there.” I pointed again.
“I know.” She didn’t move.
Enough of my contemporaries had beaten the biological clock lately that I knew the ground rules about diapers and babies, but where in the developmental continuum trips to the bathroom became a solo venture remained foggy.
“I’ll get your teacher and–”
“You’re Miss Danniher.”
Being recognized is not necessarily the thrill some people imagine. This time, however, a reprieve from potential bathroom duty offset the discomfort.
As my ex-husband took to saying, everything’s a trade-off.
“Yes, I am.”
“On TV. Mrs. George from next door said you’re a consumer advocate.” The girl said the final two words carefully. “So I watched.”
That surprised me. From the little feedback we’d gotten to “Helping Out,” I didn’t think it had any viewers, and here was evidence of two.
When I’d received the assignment, I checked with a few connections, who all said the consumer affairs beat was hotter than ever. But in the four weeks I’d been on-air, I’d gotten a grand total of seven phone calls from viewers, and four were from Ed Radey, who didn’t like his wife’s cooking and wanted me to “help out.” I could come cook or I could take them to dinner, he wasn’t particular.
The girl’s stare intensified and her thin body leaned over the desk toward me, turning down the corners of the Sherman Independence where it extended beyond the edge. “You help people. You got that man to fix that woman’s toaster.”
“Yes, but not everythi–”
“You told people with problems to tell you and you’d help them.”
The segment tag actually says “KWMT-TV will consider your problem as a potential topic for ‘Helping Out.’ ” I opened my mouth to educate this girl in the denim blue sweater and faded red plaid shirt on the importance of qualifiers such as “will consider” and “potential.” She didn’t wait.
“You’re going to help me.” Not a single qualifier.
“What we do in ‘Helping Out’ is look into your problem and – if we can – we try to find a solution that’s satisfactory to you and the other party.”
“You’re going to help me.”
“Now wait a minute–”
“You’re going to help me keep going to the Circle B and seeing Daddy. He needs me.”
“Someone’s trying to keep you from seeing your Daddy? Who?”
I am not a softy. It was simply the reporter’s instinct to ask questions kicking in.
“Mom and Mr. Haus. He’s her lawyer.”
“Are your parents divorced?”
A solemn nod. “But Mom wants Mr. Haus to get the judge to say Daddy can’t see me anymore.”
Her dark brown eyes might not show color, but they revealed emotion. Mom better not be hoping for roses this Mother’s Day from this offspring – maybe thorns, but definitely no roses.
“Why do you think your mother doesn’t want your father to see you?” Possibilities arose in a mental film clip of too many horrifying news stories. But this child wasn’t wary or withdrawn. And the only fear she seemed to harbor was of not seeing her father.
“She’s mad at him. She’s always been mad at him. Even when I was a baby.”
A woman using a child to punish an ex-spouse? Not unheard of. But why move to cut visitation now if she’d been angry all along?
“Your mother and Mr. Haus think they can get the judge to say your father can’t see you?”
“Yes.” After the single word, her teeth clamped over her bottom lip. Not to stop trembling–it wouldn’t have dared–but to prevent something from escaping.
Nothing gets a reporter’s juices going like somebody keeping a secret. Even somebody younger than my favorite pair of jeans.
“Why do they think that?”
Not a flicker of reaction.
“You know, I can’t help if you don’t tell me the whole story. Just like Mrs. Atcheson with the toaster. She told me everything–when she bought it and where and how much she paid.” A wary blink. “But if you’re not going to tell me, I guess you don’t really want my help. Of course you said you wanted my help, but that’s up to you–”
“He didn’t kill him.”
“What?” If Mrs. Atcheson’s toaster had turned into a Veg-o-Matic before my eyes, I couldn’t have been more surprised. “Who didn’t kill who?”
(I know, I know – it should be who didn’t kill whom – so shoot me.)
“They said he did and they put him in jail, but the man said they couldn’t say Daddy did, so they let him go. But Mom said they couldn’t say Daddy didn’t, so maybe the judge will say Daddy can’t see me. Ever.”
On the edge of my consciousness the sound of a door opening registered, but my attention stayed on the intense, square face leaning toward me.
“Let me get this straight. Your father was accused of killing somebody. But he was released. And your mother’s using the accusation to try to get the judge to rescind his visitation–” Remember the audience. “–To say he can’t see you anymore.”
“Yes. So you have to stop her and Mr. Haus.”
“Tamantha Burrell! What are you doing? The rest of the class is on the bus. You know you’re supposed to stick with the group.”
The least harassed looking of the three adults (likely the teacher since teachers build harassment immunity while parents move on to the germs of a new age) swept up to the thin girl. Smiling at me, she snagged my visitor–Tamantha Burrell, by name, and that information filled in several gaps–in obvious preparation for a speedy exit.
“You tell this nice lady how sorry you are for bothering her and how much you’ve enjoyed seeing how people like her work behind the scenes on a television station.”
Teacher clearly hadn’t followed Tamantha’s lead in watching “Helping Out” and didn’t have the foggiest who I was. She started drawing the girl away.
Tamantha held back long enough for parting words–not the ones her teacher had recommended but a repetition of her unequivocal order:
“You do it.”
The unexpected voice from over my left shoulder made me jump, and the clip I’d been reading fluttered onto a stack of manila-foldered brethren. The amused disbelief in the voice made me irritable.
“There are a lot of things I’m not, Paycik. Including in the mood for a chat with KWMT’s ‘Eye on Sports.’ Go away.”
He didn’t budge.
I stared at him. An attractive man, with the kind of strong bones cameras like, and great hair. Thick and just enough wave to look casual on air without requiring a lot of effort. He wore a crisp soft yellow shirt that would look fine on-air, and jeans battered to the point of fraying, because the news desk masked from the ribcage down.
I should have heard him coming. He wore cowboy boots – honest to goodness cowboy boots. No spurs to jingle-jangle, but clunky heals that should have made plenty of noise. Unless a man took special effort to be quiet.
I don’t ascribe to the theory that jocks are stupid per se. Some are, some aren’t. Limited observation of Mike Paycik nudged him provisionally toward the latter category.
For one thing, he’d taken time to get a degree while he was playing college football.
For another, he’d saved money from pro ball to buy a tidy spread, as it was universally described in these parts.
For a third, when doctors said quit torturing those knees or don’t ask them to hold you up, he’d quit.
And for a fourth, when he’d retired last winter, he’d returned home to Cottonwood to start his broadcast journalism career, coming to the spot where he would be forgiven all flubs. When he does burst onto the national scene–and he will, oh, yes, with that voice and those looks, he will–there will be no beginner’s gaffes to pollute the audience’s perception.
A smart move.
However, at the moment, Mike Paycik’s apparent inability to understand English had the “stupid” arrow slipping closer to “is.”
“You’re studying the Burrell case because of what that kid said to you?”
Who’d had time to study? I’d barely confirmed the bits and pieces I’d heard since coming to town.
Burrell acknowledged fighting with Redus the night the deputy was last seen–accounting for bloodstains found in Burrell’s house that matched Redus’ type but not Burrell’s–though the clips didn’t say what the men had fought about. Burrell swore Redus was alive and kicking when they parted, but no one admitted to seeing the alleged victim since.
The clips had explained one mystery Tamantha had left behind.
Going to the Circle B referred to her father’s ranch. When the Independence said Redus had been in Burrell’s ranch house, it wasn’t talking about house design.
“Eavesdropping?” I asked sweetly, leaning against a file cabinet at one end of the windowless cave KWMT grandly called the library. Except for a battered table against one long wall, file cabinets encircled the room. Old tapes occupied shelves above the cabinets. Freestanding shelves down the middle were backed by more filing cabinets. On top bulged cardboard boxes with labels too faded and dusty to read. The only open floor space was a narrow rectangular aisle around the room. “Maybe you got in the habit of listening in on the other team’s huddle in football, but in the real world it’s not polite to eavesdrop on a colleague’s conversation with a source.”
His grin widened. “I played offense, so the other guys mostly eavesdropped on us. And I’m not sure you can consider anyone under the age of reason a source, can you?”
“That’s the thing about sources, the age of reason is a sliding scale, not an absolute number.”
“Now, see, that’s the sort of insight I was hoping I might learn when Les announced that Elizabeth Margaret Danniher was joining our little family.”
I could hear Haeburn using exactly that phrase, and grimaced. Mike’s grin reached his eyes and for a second we connected, at least on the level of mutual distaste for our mutual boss.
Then Paycik ruined it.
“I’d heard of you, of course,” he said earnestly, “but when Les said you were coming here, I did some checking, all the way back to when you did newspaper work.”
The guy was a good decade younger than me, but all the way back? “You mean before I joined up with Edward R. Murrow in reporting the London Blitz?”
He waved that off–not generally a smart move when making reference, even obliquely, to a woman’s age. Especially a woman on the camera side of television. Especially a woman recently booted out of a prime spot in front of that camera.
I would’ve expected better from someone so obviously practiced in charming females, but his earnestness had blossomed into full-blown enthusiasm.
“You did some great stuff. Investigations. Exposes. You really stick with a story and dig.”
I was tired of bantering. I was tired, period. I’d looked up the file simply to satisfy a curiosity that had nibbled at my concentration on important matters like hobbling Fine, through a less-than-busy afternoon. But since I’d been off officially for twenty minutes, I was wasting precious time–my own.
It was a commodity I’d forgotten about in all those years with the network. And for the rest of the KWMT staffers it appeared as much of a rarity as in any other newsroom, maybe more. KWMT devoted no resources on up-to-date equipment or extraneous personnel. Which made it all the odder that Haeburn had me doing so little. Granted, the network was picking up my sizable salary –another of my sins when they could sign up fresh blood for much less — but it was still odd.
But who was I to complain?
“Oh, go away.”
“It’s a great story. Biggest around here I can remember.” He looked at me with speculation. “Thurston Fine grabbed the story when it broke, you know.”
And turned it into mush, no doubt.
I said nothing.
That didn’t stop Paycik. “He didn’t let anybody else touch it. But all he’s done is report the company line from Sheriff Widcuff.”
I hadn’t met Sheriff Robert Widcuff. As with jocks, I make no assumptions about politicians or law enforcement professionals–although anyone who would run for an office that combines two of the more thankless jobs around does nudge the “stupid” arrow. Reading between the lines of the clips, Widcuff had pushed it even closer to “is” by charging Burrell when he didn’t have a tight case and the prosecuting county attorney was out of town.
That meant the prosecuting county attorney, a man named Ames Hunt whose political ambitions had already reached my ear, had nothing to lose by acknowledging there wasn’t enough evidence to keep Burrell in jail.
Releasing Burrell took no skin off Hunt’s ambitious nose, but it made Widcuff look bad.
I closed the heavy metal drawer.
“I could go away,” Mike said, retreating to his bantering tone. “I could go away and you could go on reading that skinny file. But I’ve got a better idea–we’ll go get a drink and I’ll tell you all about Tamantha Burrell’s daddy.”
Half turning, I got a better look at his face. Despite his light tone and the returning grin, he was serious.
“Why would I want to hear what you have to say? The file’s the official information.”
“That’s exactly why you want to talk to me. There’s a lot about this case that won’t get in any official document. The whole thing’s pretty interesting, don’t you think?”
It sure beat Mrs. Atcheson’s toaster. But I wasn’t admitting that to him. Not yet.
“How would you know any unofficial information other than gossip?”
He grinned. “Welcome to Cottonwood County, where the people are few and the gossip is plentiful. But this goes beyond basic gossip. My aunt’s a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department over in O’Hara, where Redus had been stationed. She doesn’t believe in keeping secrets from family. And she’s inclined to agree with Tamantha–Tom Burrell didn’t kill anybody.”
Mike Paycik repeating his aunt’s theories, which were probably based on overheard sheriff’s department gossip and personal prejudices.
On the “how-reliable-is-this-source?” scale it ranked with a congressman running for re-election.
“Sorry, I have other plans for the evening.”
Paycik quirked a brow. “Washing your hair?” he asked politely.
Oh, yes, the guy had talent. That didn’t mean I had to applaud.
I answered with equal seriousness. “Grocery shopping.”
Besides, how hard could it be in a sparsely populated county to track down a sheriff’s department dispatcher who also happened to be Mike Paycik’s aunt, and talk to her in person?
That is, on the off chance that a little girl’s order, the potential to put Thurston Fine’s nose out of joint and the effort to keep myself from going stir-crazy caused me to do something as out of character as asking questions.COLLAPSE
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Reactions to Sign Off
“McLinn’s debut mystery kept me up well past my bedtime! Sign Off is a brisk, enthralling page-turner with just the perfect touch of romantic tension. E.M. Danniher is the ideal female sleuth—smart and capable, but with a core of vulnerability that won my heart. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.”
– P.B. Ryan, bestselling author of Still Life With Murder
“I loved this book. Colorful characters, intriguing, intelligent mystery, plus the state of Wyoming leaping off every page. A terrific start to this series. I’ll be standing in line for the next one.”
– Emilie Richards, USA Today Bestselling Author
“Entertaining story … well developed characters … a good intriguing mystery”
– Arlena Dean, GMTA Book blog
“Just when I thought I figured out who the villian was, McLinn turned the tables on me and I was, literally, guessing to the end. … But it was E.M. Danniher–Elizabeth–who caught my interest and I wanted to stay with her until the last page. She’s smart, dedicated to the truth, witty and sardonic. … I laughed a lot at Elizabeth’s dry humor and her jaded, mocking outlook.”
“4.5 Star Read” “…a wonderful cast of characters. The mystery aspect of the novel is especially well done with many twists and turns and a suspect list a mile long. McLinn has a fabulous writing style and she brings the small town of Sherman, WY and its inhabitants vibrantly to life. I am eager to see what lies ahead for Elizabeth, Mike, and the other residents I met in this wonderful first installment of the Caught Dead in Wyoming series. An excellent beginning to a promising new series that I highly recommend.”
-Book Reviews and More by Kathy
“If you enjoy mysteries, this one will keep you guessing with twists and turns up to the absolutely perfect ending. This book would be a good one to read again and again to see all of the little clues that are easily missed with only one reading.”
– 5* Paula Gibbs
“The mystery and suspense in this story were totally engaging, but it was E.M. Danniher’s dry wit that kept me reading late into the night.”
– 5* Wendy Lindstrom
“This is one of those books that you want to stop everything to read while hoping it never ends. E.M. Danniher makes a compelling protagonist who is easy to root for and even easier to believe in. But it’s the secondary characters that make the story larger than life.”
-5* review, Mary Buckham
“Fun read – well worth it!”
-5* review, Carlene
“A good story with lots of twists and turns in the plot! It was hard to put down! Read it, you’ll enjoy it!”
-5* review, Randi Lansford
“E.M. Danniher is a wonderful protagonist who has amusing talks with herself while picking up her divorced battled self and doing what she does best; investigating.”
-5* review, PW Reader