Book 1 in the Bitter Root Series
Murder in a small town is always personal.
Dispatcher Zak Waller prefers working behind the scenes in the Sheriff’s Office of Lost Trail, Montana, but when a newcomer to the sparsely populated town is brutally murdered—and the Sheriff is quick to pin the death on an unknown outsider—Zak starts his own private sleuthing.
On the surface Lost Trail is a picture-perfect western town, offering a simple way of life revolving around the local ranches and ski hill. But almost everyone has a secret to protect, and no one knows that more than Zak. He’s part of a younger generation hoping to revitalize the town. But evil has dug in deeper than he knows.
Book 1 in the Bitter Root Series
Book Discussion for Mysteries
Some questions for your next book discussion...
1). Discuss the mystery aspect of the plot line. How effective is the author's use of plot twists and red herrings? Were you able to predict certain things before they happened, or did the author keep you guessing until the end of the story? Did you find that the novel held your interest throughout the story, or were there times when it failed to totally engross?
2). Did you enjoy the setting of the book? How important is this setting to the story?
3). What is the most important part of a mystery or thriller to you—characterization, action, dialogue, or setting? How does this book rate in each of these areas?
4). Is the author equally invested in both character and plot? Or did the author put more effort into developing the story than in creating compelling and believable characters? Were the motivations of the characters believable, or did their actions feel like a means to further the plot?
5). Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography about her dislike of mysteries having a romantic subplot. Do you agree or disagree with her views? Do you feel the love aspect enhanced or detracted from the story?
Bitter Root Trilogy Trailer
Zak Waller, dispatcher for the Lost Trail, Montana Sheriff’s Office, expected the morning after Halloween to be busy, but he hadn’t anticipated a homicide case. The call came in early morning just after he’d made coffee.
As was often the case, he’d been the first into the office, and was still the only one here. The Sheriff wasn’t what you’d call a morning person and Deputy Butterfield, who was nearing sixty, never saw the point in working if his boss wasn’t around to notice.
Usually Deputy Black was punctual, but she’d only been on the job about three months so there was still time for bad habits to develop. A former barrel-racer, she’d brought her drive and competitiveness into this new career with her. Though she obviously thought she was hot stuff—she was tall, long-limbed, in great shape and in possession of a confident smile—Zak himself hadn’t quite figured out what to make of her.
Earlier Zak had checked the messages and recorded two complaints of Halloween-style vandalism. A report of some flattened pumpkins on the porch of the biggest house on Lost Creek Road, and, as happened every year, an egged front window for retired schoolteacher Miss Christensen. Both would have to wait.
“Can you slow down and repeat that please,” Zak said to the freaked-out nurse on the other end of the line.
“There’s a dead woman on the walkway.” Her voice was a little calmer this time. “I found her on my way to work. She’s been beaten. Badly. Poor, poor thing.” She gave a quiet sob before adding, “Probably been dead for hours. She’s so cold…But rigor hasn’t set in, so…”
Zak made notes, grateful it was a nurse who had made the discovery, though this one seemed on the verge of losing her professional calm. From his training at the Academy—which he’d finally convinced the Sheriff to pay for after two years of working and learning on the job with precious little in the way of instruction—Zak knew lots of people blanked out, or panicked in a tragedy. In the simulated emergency situations during his training he’d scored well for his ability to focus logically on what needed to be done.
That same urgent yet calm focus came over him now.
“Don’t touch her more than medically necessary. Be careful not to contaminate the scene. Can you give me your name and number please?”
The nurse did so quickly. “You need to send someone right away. It—she looks awful. It’s not right that she’s just lying out here. Can I cover her up at least?”
“Don’t touch anything. I’ll have someone there soon.” He entered the location, the medi-clinic on Tumbleweed Road, into his log book. “You say you’re in the rear parking lot?”
“Y-yes. Her—the body—was pushed up against the back entrance.
“Do you recognize her, Farrah?” In a county of less than three thousand citizens, this was more than possible.
“No, but she’s young. Early twenties. It’s hard to be sure though because…her face is pretty bad.”
“I’m going to hang up now to call this in. Stay calm, help will be there soon.” He heard voices in the background, someone calling out, What happened? “Keep any passersby well back from the scene. Can you do that Farrah?”
He called the Sheriff first, catching him on his way to the office. “Farrah Saddler, the nurse at the medi-clinic on Tumbleweed, found a woman’s body on the street when she showed up for work this morning. Said it looks like the woman’s been beaten to death.”
“What the hell?”
Zak forgave him his confusion. In all his career Sheriff Ford had probably fielded only a handful of calls like this one. Yes, death occurred here. Lots of it. But potential homicide? Very rarely.
Zak repeated everything Farrah Saddler had told him.
“Okay. I’m only a few minutes away from the scene. Send Butterfield out here. Hell, might as well send Black too. You said the woman looked beaten? Make sure Black has the evidence kit. Oh, and don’t forget to call Doc Pittman.”
Doctor Pittman was the local coroner and Zak had his number next on the list. He caught the doctor, a widower in his mid to late fifties, at his breakfast table. Pittman took the call with the measured calm of a man who had weathered a good many emergencies in his decades of being the only doctor in town. Pittman assured Zak he’d be at the scene pronto.
“Thanks Doc.” Next Zak called Butterfield, who claimed to be on his way to work, even though Zak could hear his wife talking in the background.
Just as Zak was about to move on to Deputy Black, she stepped into the office. Zak had scored top marks in his anti-bias training, too, but he could not help appreciating the snug fit of her regulation trousers and shirt. She had her blond hair up in a bun which formed a handy backstop for her aviator sunglasses.
“What are you staring at?” She slung her jacket on a peg, then moved toward the coffee machine.
The woman had attitude, no doubt about it.
“Don’t bother pouring that coffee, Deputy. We just had a call—”
“Damn, I hate Halloween. But I’m sure the outraged citizen who had their car egged, or their window broken can wait until I get some caffeine into my system.”
“This wasn’t about vandalism. We have a suspected homicide.”
She froze, cup only half-full, then set down the pot. “Homicide.”
He glanced down at his log book. “Call came in at seven-fifty. A nurse found a body behind the medi-clinic on Tumbleweed. The woman was dead, her body already cold. The nurse said she’d been beaten.” Zak paused before adding, “The Sheriff wants you to bring the evidence kit.”
“Homicide,” Deputy Black said again. Then she smiled. “And I didn’t think there’d be any action in this one-horse town.” She poured a generous splash of milk into her cup, then downed the coffee in several swallows. When she set down the empty mug she clucked at him with mock sympathy.
“Poor Zak. You have to stay here and mind the phones while we have all the fun.”
Zak shrugged. Black often tried to goad him, but as the runt of a litter of four boys—the three oldest much taller and broader than him—he’d learned to never rise to tossed bait.
Black’s expression shifted from smug to puzzled. “I don’t get it. If you’d applied for the deputy position when Redford retired, you would have been a shoe-in. Not that I’m complaining, since I’d be out of luck if you had. But why the hell didn’t you go for it?”
Zak hated having to state the obvious, but Black obviously wasn’t going to let this go. “I didn’t want the job.”
“You actually like being a lowly dispatcher?”
Zak’s answering smile might be a front, but no way was he going to let on his true feelings about his profession, certainly not to Black of all people.
“What’s wrong with you? You’re reasonably smart. Not in terrible shape. If you made an effort, in ten years you could probably be Sheriff.”
“If I don’t want to be a deputy, what makes you think I want to be Sheriff?”
She stared at him. Curled her upper lip. “You don’t make sense.”
“Great. I love being an enigma.”
Finally he’d shut her up. She snatched the evidence kit and her jacket and left.
* * *
When seated at his law office desk on the second floor of a modest brick building on Tumbleweed Road, Justin Pittman had a clear view of the single-story building across the street that housed both the local medi-clinic and the town’s one, small pharmacy. So he couldn’t help but notice when the Sheriff’s black SUV pulled up, and the man himself jumped out to the street with significantly more energy than usual.
Sheriff Ford wasn’t one for wasted effort, so something had to be going on. Justin’s hunch was confirmed when Deputy Butterfield showed up a few minutes later, followed shortly by the town’s newest deputy. He hadn’t met her yet tall, but his father had approved the hire, stating Nadine Black was exactly what this town needed.
A former rodeo competitor, Nadine was attractive, in her early thirties…and single, Justin’s father had made a point of emphasizing.
Of course this had been before Willow showed up in town, with her daughter in tow.
Justin pulled the cord on the window blinds, raising them to the highest level. It wasn’t often the full force of the law in Lost Trail congregated in one place, unless it was after hours for beer and burgers at the Dew Drop Inn. What the hell was going on out there? Sheriff Ford and Deputy Butterfield had moved to the back of the clinic, out of sight. A small group of onlookers was quickly assembling, and soon the new female Deputy was waving people out of the way and yellow taping around the back of the clinic.
And then a very familiar sedan appeared—his father’s silver Volvo. Justin’s dad emerged from the driver’s seat carrying the black case he always took when he was acting in his capacity of local coroner. Someone had died.
Justin checked his watch. His first appointment wasn’t for an hour, which left him plenty of time to indulge his curiosity. He left his office and walked through the empty reception room. His hopes of eventually hiring a receptionist/assistant dimmed with each year that passed since he’d hung up his shingle in Lost Trail. There was hardly enough business in this county to support him—now his wife and child, too—let alone a second employee.
A few times he’d almost offered the position to Willow, who was having a difficult time adjusting to her new role as stay-at-home mom. But she would hate the mundane, clerical work, and he suspected she wouldn’t be very good at it either.
Willow thrived on excitement, travel, action. Life in Lost Trail, Montana had held little appeal to her when she’d been growing up and it held even less now. But she had a daughter to think of and he had his father.
So for now Lost Trail would have to do for all of them.
Justin hurried down the stairs to the ground level. On the main floor landing the office door to Dr. Edmond’s suite was closed, but Justin could still hear the soft grinding of the dentist’s drill and smell the distinctive antiseptic odor.
He pushed through the door to the street and winced as the frosty air on this first day of November hit his face. Justin buttoned his sports jacket as he walked across the street. His father had joined the Sheriff and Deputy Butterfield well beyond the taped barrier. Justin eased his way through the onlookers, until he came face-to-face with the new Deputy.
“Hi, I’m Justin, Dr. Pittman’s son.”
She didn’t look impressed.
“I work across the street.” He nodded to the window front with his name embossed in gold letters, Justin Pittman P.C. Attorney at Law.
Still not impressed.
“You need to keep back, sir. We have an investigation going on.”
“Someone’s died, have they?” He caught a glimpse of his father and tried to catch his eye. But his father was focused on something—or someone—just out of Justin’s field of view.
At the deputy’s impassive shrug, Justin felt a snap of annoyance. Butterfield or Ford would have given him the inside scoop right away.
“It’s not my place to say. I suggest you go back to your office. We won’t be releasing details for a while yet.”
The Deputy moved on, pushing the crowd back from the taped-off area. Gertie Humphrey, who worked at the gas station convenience store patted his arm.
“They say it’s a young woman. Beaten to death.”
Justin’s heart stalled irrationally before he reminded himself that he’d left Willow, sipping coffee at the breakfast table, only thirty minutes earlier. “Does anyone know who she is?”
“No one’s positive, but Cody, who works at Lolo’s, figures it might be that new worker they hired at the Raven’s Christmas Tree Farm. Riley’s her first name, not sure about the last.”
“And she’d been beaten?”
“Cody got there before the tape went up. He said her face was all swollen and caked with blood.” Gertie shivered. “Who would do such a thing?”
A blast of wind scattered some dead cottonwood leaves across the sidewalk. Gertie tugged her toque firmly over her wiry gray hair, and then moved on, no doubt to share her juicy tidbits with more of the fine citizens of Lost Trail.
Justin gave one last glance at the scene beyond the police tape. He felt badly for his father, having to deal with such an ugly situation. In many respects Lost Trail, Montana was a model American ranching town. Friendly neighbors, well-kept properties, a charming main street designed to attract tourists from the neighboring ski hill.
But Justin knew—both professionally and personally—about Lost Trail’s darker side. No doubt his father had treated many female patients who’d suffered a beating—often at the hand of a violent man who claimed to love her. But to Justin’s knowledge, this was the first time one of them had died.
* * *
The drama of the day was exhilarating but Zak never forgot for a moment, that the cause was the violent death of a young woman. He hadn’t known Riley Concurran personally—apparently she was relatively new to Lost Trail—but he still felt badly. According to her California driver’s license she was only twenty-two. Missed calls on the cell phone that had been found in her back pocket had been traced to Kenny Bombarb, the new manager at the Raven’s Christmas Tree Farm. Apparently he’d hired Riley as a temporary employee about a month ago.
Zak had only a moment to wonder what his school friend Tiff Masterson, who now lived in Seattle, would make of this—more death on her family’s farm, though this time at least, not someone she loved—before the Sheriff called to ask him to track down Riley’s next-of-kin.
“Her cell phone is one of those cheap, pre-paid models. Only has a few numbers, her boss and Lolo Pizza’s. So that’s no use. You’ll have to follow up on the address from her driver’s license. Got a pen?”
“Sure do, Sheriff.” He jotted down the address, then added quickly before the Sheriff disconnected. “Um…do you know the cause of death yet?”
“She’d taken a couple hard blows to the head. Doc says she would have lost consciousness immediately and probably died a short time after. He also suspects she was moved during that period. But his preliminary report won’t be ready until later tomorrow.”
Finding next-of-kin proved harder than expected. The address on Riley Concurran’s driver’s license turned out to belong to an old-school friend, Emily Blake, who hadn’t seen Riley in over four years.
All the young woman could tell Zak was that Riley’s father had never been part of her life and that her mother had died five years ago, four months before Riley’s eighteenth birthday. There were no other living relatives that Emily knew of.
“My parents let Riley live with us for a year after her Mom died. It was supposed to be only for four months, until she turned eighteen, but Riley was super helpful with housecleaning and stuff, and so Mom let her stay longer.”
“When did she move out?”
“About halfway through our first year of college. We both qualified for state scholarships, but Riley met this guy who really messed with her head. She was super cute, but quite shy. She hadn’t dated much before she met Connor. I never understood what she saw in him. He was a mean dude.”
“Do you know his last name?”
“Riley must have told me, but I don’t remember. Connor was into drugs and drinking, stuff Riley had never had much interest in before. Soon she was going to classes stoned and staying out all night with Connor. My parents saw what was happening. We were all worried about her. But when Mom and Dad tried to set some strict rules, Riley moved out.”
“Did she stay in college?”
“No. Her boyfriend wanted her to work, so she got a job waitressing at a real dive. I pretty much lost track of her then.” Emily paused, then added softly, “I should have made more of an effort. She was a good person, she really was.”
“Did you and your parents know she was still using your home as her permanent address?”
“I’m not surprised. We still get mail addressed to her sometimes. Mostly junk from the college. My Mom has kept it all somewhere.”
Zak made a note to follow up. “Do you remember the name of the bar where she worked?”
“Yeah, Jack’s Cellar. I drive past it every now and then and it always makes me think of Riley. I can’t believe she’s dead…”
Minutes after the call with Emily ended, Zak was still taking notes. They needed to reach out to the Sheriff’s office in San Francisco. Get them to make inquiries at the bar and with the Blakes. This Connor fellow seemed like a promising lead, but without a surname locating him could be tough.
A ping from his computer alerted him to an email from Deputy Black, subject line: Crime Scene Photos.
The reality of what had happened truly sank in when he opened the attached images of the victim and the crime scene earlier that morning. Studying them grimly, Zak had flashbacks from his own past. Usually his dad landed his punches where they wouldn’t be seen by people outside the family. But one time he’d given Mom a hell of a bruise on the side of her face.
Zak, himself, had rarely been the victim. At a young age he’d mastered the talent of slinking out of a room, or being quiet and unobtrusive when no exit was possible.
What he was looking at here though, exceeded by far, anything that had happened in the Waller household. The left side of Riley’s face was so swollen and discolored she looked nothing like the photo in the driver’s license.
Whoever had done this had been enraged. But what could Riley have done to engender such feelings? She’d been in Lost Trail for barely a month. Surely that wasn’t long enough to make this sort of an enemy.
Around noon Butterfield came in with bagged evidence from the scene. His chest was puffed with self-importance as he dropped the sealed plastic bags containing bits of trash, the victim’s phone and wallet, and an empty beer can onto Zak’s desk.
“Label these will ya? And get them off to the lab ASAP.”
Technically this was Butterfield’s job but there was nothing the paunchy law man enjoyed more than barking orders to those he considered beneath him. And in this office that meant Zak.
Zak honestly didn’t mind though. It amused him when people assumed his job as dispatcher was boring. While the Sheriff and his Deputies might have the more active roles in gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, he, as the communication hub for the office, ended up with the best overall picture of the investigation.
Since he did all the filing, there wasn’t a report in this office that didn’t wind up on his desk. He might have the mundane task of sending out the evidence to the crime lab in Missoula, but he was also the first person to find out lab results when they came in.
Between all that and fielding calls, relaying messages and listening to whatever conversations took place around him, there wasn’t much that went on here he didn’t know about.
“Is this all of it?” he asked when he was finished with the last label.
Butterfield didn’t lift his head from the report he was scratching out. “She had car keys in her pocket, but Black took those. She’s out trying to find the car.”
“What model of vehicle did she drive?”
“Why should you care?”
After a few seconds Butterfield said, “It’s a Ford.”
A cog turned over in Zak’s mind and he realized that he had, in fact, seen the victim before. He’d even spoken to her.
For the past month or so an old, navy Focus with California plates had been parked at the trailhead where he went for his morning run. After the first week, he’d approached the woman sleeping in the back, telling her she needed to find a proper campground. She’d assured him the situation was temporary. She’d seemed vulnerable and young and so he’d looked the other way.
He picked up the phone and called Deputy Black. “I hear you’re looking for the victim’s car?”
“Damn it, yes. I’ve been over this town twice, with no luck.”
“Give the parking lot at the beginning of Tamarack Trail in Lost Creek Park a try.”
Silence. And then, “Any particular reason for the suggestion?”
“Just a hunch.”
As he disconnected the call he felt a wave of sadness. If he’d reported Riley’s illegal camping earlier, would she still be alive?
* * *
A vehicle parked haphazardly by the Mountain Side Cemetery caught Zak’s attention on his drive home from work. It was past seven o’clock and fully dark. Last to leave the office after an incredibly busy day, Zak craved a quiet evening in his cozy basement apartment, binge watching a few more episodes of the X-Files with his cat Watson. He’d discovered the older series recently and was hooked.
But something felt off here.
Zak pulled his truck behind the small, unfamiliar SUV, then killed his lights. Beyond the glow from the street lamps, the cemetery was unlit so he grabbed a small flashlight from the glove compartment.
Last night pretty much every residential street in town had been swarming with ghosts, goblins and superheroes, but tonight the sidewalks and roads were quiet, especially on Harvest Road, where mostly senior citizens lived in the small bungalows that faced the expansive cemetery.
Did the seniors mind looking out their front windows at their most likely next—and final—real estate purchase? Or did they appreciate the proximity to family and friends already gone?
As Zak left his truck he shone the flashlight in a wide arc. Trees—some spruce, some bare-limbed weeping willows—stood guard over the array of grave markers and tombstones. Zak searched for signs of movement among them but saw none. Next he checked the parked vehicle. No passengers, but a duffel bag and purse in the front passenger seat and a large suitcase in the open cargo area.
An out of town guest? If so, why stop here?
He turned and followed the path leading to the graveyard. A keening wind from the Bitterroot Mountains drowned out the sound of his boots on the gravel and dried leaves as he moved up the hill. Over his shoulder he noticed the half-moon momentarily break through the cloud cover, before disappearing again. He walked for almost a minute without seeing anything unusual. Then a silhouette emerged from the shadows, a tall slim woman, her body encased in a wrap-around red wool coat, standing a mere twenty feet in front of him.
He heard her suck in a startled breath, obviously noticing him at the same time. She pulled her hand from the tombstone where it had been resting and took a step away from him.
He was about to identify himself and explain he worked at the Sheriff’s Office, when he recognized her. “Tiff Masterson?”
Her quiet voice was barely audible over the wind. “Is that you Zak?”
“This is a surprise.” He moved closer. “Saw your car and thought some kids might be up to no good.”
He hadn’t seen Tiff in Lost Trail for years, at least five, maybe more. They’d been childhood friends, going to school together in town from kindergarten until Dewbury Academy had been dissolved and the students parceled out to the bigger regional schools in Hamilton.
Their friendship had survived and grown stronger during those high school years. But they’d drifted apart since she’d left for college.
Seemed like she’d grown taller since her last visit, which wasn’t likely. Probably she’d just lost weight. The gauntness in her face emphasized her high cheekbones and her large, wide-set eyes.
“It’s good to see you. Your Mom must be happy you’re visiting.” Rosemary Masterson still lived with her older sister Marsha Holmes in the large house on the Raven Christmas Tree Farm, about a mile out of town.
Tiff’s gaze shifted sideways. “Not so sure this is only a visit. And Mom doesn’t know I’m here, yet.”
“Oh?” He glanced at the engraving on the slab of granite she’d been touching. Casey Masterson, beloved son of Irving and Rosemary. Tiff’s brother had been just twelve-years-old when he’d died from complications of his congenital heart condition.
Zak didn’t need to read the inscription on the adjoining marker. Tiff’s father Irving had passed away in a car accident scant months after his son’s death. Her mother—also in the car, as well as the aunt—had escaped serious physical injury but had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown and hadn’t been the same since.
“Yeah, I know it’s weird I stopped here first,” Tiff acknowledged.
“They were your family. You’ll never forget them. But you’re doing well, right? Still doing well at the CPA firm in Seattle?”
She shifted her gaze. “I was. Now, not so much.”
He waited, then finally had to say. “There has to be more to the story.”
“I’ll tell you sometime over beers at the Dew Drop.”
“Let’s make it soon.” He took a closer look at the older model SUV she was driving. The plates were Bitterroot County Montana, not a rental.
“Is that a borrowed car?”
“Nope. Mine.” She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Just bought it today.”
“So you’re here to stay?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“I didn’t mean to put down Lost Trail, Zak. It’s just…” She shrugged again. “Coming back is hard. I still feel so angry…”
They’d talked about this lots when they were younger. Tiff blamed the cardiologist for not operating on Casey soon enough. And she blamed her father for his accident, believing he’d taken the easy way out, leaving her and her mother alone to deal with Casey’s death.
It seemed the more Tiff’s mother retreated into her own little world on the Christmas tree farm, the more Tiff’s anger had grown, until finally, moving away had seemed like the smartest—and perhaps only—option for all of them.
As Tiff ran her hand over the grave markers one more time, Zak turned away. “Sorry. I should let you have some privacy.”
“That’s okay. I was just about to leave anyway.” She pushed her hands into the pockets of her coat and ducked her head against the wind. “You’re looking very fit—still into running?”
In high school they’d both been into track. “Training for another marathon in the spring.” At his last one, in Sacramento, he’d placed in the top ten of his age group. But no one in his life—none of his friends, certainly no one in his family—knew this. “Maybe you can join me on a trail run one day?”
“Not likely. I’ve been doing some hiking but the running has totally fallen off.” She pulled her keys from her pocket, then gave him a closer look.
“So. What else is new Zak? Mom told me your dad’s hardware store closed and you’re working at the Sheriff’s Office now.”
The liquidation of Waller Hardware had been, in many ways, a positive turning point in his life. Mostly because his parents and three older brothers had decided to blame the citizens of the county for the failure, and leave not just the county but the state of Montana.
He alone of the Wallers had opted to stay, to rent a small basement apartment and to find a new job for himself.
“Yup. Been there for over three years now, working dispatch.” The position, which was usually filled by a woman and viewed as entry level, suited him well, at least for now.
Lost Trail—now that his family had left—was turning out to be the perfect place for him.
“You answer 9-1-1 calls? I can’t imagine there are many of those in a small county like Bitterroot.”
“You might be surprised. Besides there’s a lot more to the job than that, especially since we have only four of us in the office.”
“Is Archie Ford still Sheriff?”
“Will be until the day he dies, I guess.”
She nodded, then waited a moment before asking, “Do you see much of Derick?”
Back in the day the three of them had hung together all the time. But after Tiff left for college, Derick got wrapped up in his family business, and then he’d fallen in love and married a pretty local girl, a few years younger than them. “Derick’s always busy. He’s practically running Spark Construction since his dad had his heart attack last year. And just two months ago he and Aubrey adopted a baby boy. So he’s a father now, too.”
“Yeah, I chat with him sometimes on Facebook.” She made a face at him, probably her way of giving him grief for not having a profile of his own.
Zak didn’t have anything against Facebook per se. He just valued his privacy.
Tiff’s gaze shifted to the nearest house on the other side of the cemetery. The pristine bungalow had a tidy yard, fresh paint on the siding and a pretty autumnal themed wreath on the front door. And an egg smeared window.
“Oh no. Looks like Miss Christensen was the target of a Halloween egging.”
Damn, he’d forgotten to pass along those vandalism calls today. “Local kids hit her house every year.”
“I don’t get it. She was such a great teacher and anyway, she’s been retired for over a decade.”
During her years as teacher and then principal of Dewbury Academy, Cora Christensen had chosen her favorite students. While Tiff had been one of them, Zak never had, and he understood why kids still targeted her house. Miss Christensen was sweet and caring on the outside, manipulative and mean on the inside. She had a talent for discovering and probing her students’ insecurities. She’d certainly honed in on his. But he knew he’d never convince Tiff of that.
“You headed home now?” He shone his flashlight on the curb so Tiff could safely make it to the driver’s side of her car.
“I guess. How about you? Do you still live in the same house?”
“No, that was sold.” And good riddance. “I rent a basement apartment from Mr. Gruber, at the far end of this road.” He hesitated. “One piece of bad news I should probably fill you in on. A woman was killed sometime last night, possibly early morning. I understand she worked at Raven Farm.”
“What?” Tiff’s eyes widened as she swung back to face him and her body tensed. “I don’t understand. Who was this woman and what happened to her?”
“Her name was Riley Concurran. She moved to town about a month ago and started working at your family’s place at about the same time. Last night someone gave her a couple of hard hits to the head and she died. Her body was discovered outside the medi-clinic this morning.”
“That’s dreadful.” Tiff shook her head, as if she could somehow negate the news. “Ed—he’s the manager—generally hires two or three employees every fall to help harvest the trees for the season. This year Riley must have been one of them. Poor woman. Do you know who did it?”
“Not a clue so far,” he admitted. “Sorry to spring this on your first night home.”
“I appreciate the heads up. I’m sure mom and aunt Marsha are going to be beside themselves.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Tiff opened her car door, then looked back at him. “After my dad died I began to believe there was a dark cloud hanging over Raven Farms. I guess it’s still there.”