Book Three of the Bitter Root Mysteries
Murder in a small town is always personal.
When a young mother is murdered in the isolated ranching town of Lost Trail, Montana, the father of her child is the first suspect. In this case, there are two: the biological father who hasn’t seen his daughter in over a year and the adoptive father whose life hangs in the balance as he struggles with cancer.
Zak Waller is Lost Trail’s newest deputy. He’s also locked in a power struggle with the town’s old-school Sheriff. If Zak solves this case maybe he’ll finally get the respect he deserves. But is he willing to tear a family apart in the process?
Enjoy an Excerpt
Monday Night, December 3
A week before the murder trial Zak Waller was still at his desk in the Sheriff’s Office. The size of said office—a large bullpen and reception area with one closed office for the Sheriff—reflected the population of Bitterroot County, which hovered around two thousand souls, most of whom lived in or close to the town of Lost Trail.
This Montana town had been Zak’s home for all his life and though he was young, in his early thirties, he had no wish to leave. The wild Bitterroot Mountains, the hectares of unspoiled forests, and the undulating ranchlands constituted, to him, as to John Steinbeck, “the last, best place.”
Yet even here, where cattle outnumbered humans, and problems of organized crime and drug trafficking were non-existent, evil could be found. Usually it hid in dark corners, buried deep in the secret hearts of the afflicted few. But this past year evil had bubbled to the surface in alarming ways.
He knew he’d arrested the right person last February. Yet some undefined worry niggled in the back of his mind.
He poured what he hoped would be his last coffee of the day, then went back to reviewing the evidence. He’d been through it all today, several times. But he decided to read the transcripts again, the ones he’d made shortly after the arrest last February. He reached for the stack of papers. As he read the words, in his mind he heard the killer’s voice:
I never intended to shoot anyone. I just had to set things right. There was a skiff of snow on the ground. I followed the footprints, very careful not to step outside the tracks. When I finally caught up, we argued. And then I guess I pulled the trigger, though I can’t remember that part. All I recall is watching the red blood bloom as I reached down to take what I wanted…
Zak paused, reread the paragraph.
There was something not quite right…
Earlier That Year
Saturday, February 10
Zak Waller leaned against the corral fence, watching as Deputy Nadine Black ran her new horse, Making Magic, through her paces. He knew little about horses or rodeo, but it seemed to him Nadine’s new horse was living up to her name.
“Looking good!” he called out as they circled by him.
Nadine smiled, but kept her focus on the track. She’d set up a barrel-racing course in the corral next to the barn and was taking her time getting her new quarter horse used to the pattern.
Zak stamped his feet and blew warm air onto his gloved hands. He’d gone on a fifteen-mile run that morning and hadn’t been bothered by the February cold. Now that he was standing still though, the frigid air cut straight through his light down jacket and thin gloves.
“Going to be much longer?” he asked, the next time Nadine was close enough to hear him.
She pulled up alongside him. Making Magic gave an impatient snort and Nadine had to correct the mare to keep her in place. “Half an hour or so. You look cold. Want to go inside and get dinner started?”
“I’m on it.” He wasn’t much of a cook, but at least it was warm in the house.
The two-bedroom ranch house was still in a state of moving chaos. Nadine had taken possession of her acreage only ten days ago. He walked past a box marked “Boots” and down the short hall into the kitchen. Two stacks of boxes were on either side of the stove. One was empties, waiting to be collapsed and deposited in recycling; the other stack was waiting to be unpacked.
Stir-fry was on the menu tonight. He’d bought the ingredients this morning after his run. After finding a cutting board and a decent knife he sliced onion, carrots and bok choy, then cut the raw chicken into slivers.
Once that chore was done he washed his hands and then collapsed the empty boxes and took them out to his truck.
On his way home tonight he’d drive by the recycling depot and drop them off. Unless, of course, Nadine invited him to stay the night.
It hadn’t happened yet, but Zak figured it would eventually. He was a patient man.
“Hey thanks for doing all that.” Nadine pulled the elastic out of her blond hair and gave her head a shake. “Help yourself to a beer. I’ve got to shower. My hair smells like horse.”
“There are worse smells.”
Nadine jutted out her hip. “You angling to hop in the shower with me?”
“Wouldn’t say no.”
She laughed and left the room.
What would she say if he followed? But he didn’t. They worked together so he had to be careful. When they hooked up, he intended it would be for keeps.
He took his beer to the living room and looked out the windows to the west. He’d been here on a clear day when the view stretched out to the jagged snow-covered peaks of the Bitterroot range. But today only the nearest hill, covered in old-growth pine, was visible under the heavy clouds.
It was a sweet piece of land. One he’d been thinking of buying for himself before he’d learned Nadine was also interested in it.
He pressed his hand against the pocket of his flannel shirt and felt the hard metal of his brand-new badge. Thanks to pressure from the influential Stillmans of the Lazy S—who were grateful to Zak for figuring out who had murdered their mother, Lacy—Sheriff Ford had “promoted” him at the beginning of January.
The promotion to deputy hadn’t come with a bump in salary or any other benefit though. Zak was still expected to handle all his dispatching duties. The badge simply gave him the authority to do other work as well, when required.
“That feels better.” Nadine came into the room with her wet hair pulled up in a messy bun. Her faded jeans were torn at the knees, and her form-fitting, long-sleeved T-shirt had three buttons at the top. They were all undone.
“Smells better too.”
She came to stand beside him. Took his beer and had a long drink. “Sweet view, huh?”
He glanced from the window to her. Nadine was tall for a woman, muscular too. Her strength was one of the qualities he admired most. She had both kinds, physical and mental. “Yup. Very sweet view.”
She didn’t acknowledge the compliment. “I still can’t believe all that land is mine.”
“Well, ten acres of it.”
She laughed. “That’s enough for me. Gotta say, life is pretty good right now.” She took another drink of his beer.
He watched, admiring the way her skin seemed to glow. Fresh air and exercise. A hot shower. The combination suited her.
“By the way, the results came in from the coroner course you took. Congratulations, you aced it.” Just before Christmas, Dr. Pittman had retired from the position of county coroner. He’d been the one to suggest Nadine apply for the position.
In Montana, the duties of the county coroner—the person who was responsible for investigating human death and determining whether an autopsy by a medical examiner was required—were often carried out by a specially trained deputy, in addition to all her regular duties.
The prerequisites for coroner, unlike those for a medical examiner, were surprisingly simple. You needed to be a high school graduate of voting age, and a citizen of the county where you intended to serve. And you had to be willing to take a basic one-week course on specific death investigation training, which Nadine had done in January.
“Yeah?” Nadine’s smile was pleased, and a little shy.
“We should open a bottle of wine. Celebrate.”
“I’m not opposed. We should celebrate your promotion too.”
Again he felt the presence of his new badge. He carried it always now, wondering when he’d have the opportunity to wear it. “Ford only gave me the badge because he felt pressured. We’ll celebrate when he actually coughs up some money for a raise.”
“When will that happen?”
“Not for years, I’m afraid. Not only does Ford have to find room in the budget to bump my salary, but he’d also have to hire another dispatcher. The real problem is Sheriff Ford and Butterfield. Their combined salaries eat up most of our budget, while you and I handle the majority of the work.”
“Butterfield is such a loser. He’s always on patrol and all he ever has to show for it are a few citations a month. I bet he fudges his reports and spends most of his day parked in the forest somewhere, napping. Do you think Ford would ever fire him?”
“Not likely. If, or should I say when, Ford gets elected again this fall, first thing he’ll do is approve both himself and Butterfield a salary increase.” Zak went to the kitchen to find the Zinfandel he’d bought to go with the stir-fry. Nadine trailed behind him, then sat up on the counter to watch as he opened the bottle.
“I have a confession,” she said.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “Yeah?”
“I filed papers with the county to have my name go on the ballot for Sheriff.”
He froze. Slowly turned to stare at her. “You didn’t.”
“I’m not sure I can survive working for Ford another four years. I’d definitely pull my name if you were on the ballot, though.”
He didn’t say anything. Putting her name forward when she was so new to Lost Trail was a gutsy move and he admired her for it. But he also felt a bit ashamed, because he had filed his paperwork too. Only…he didn’t want to tell her yet.
He knew he had the support of some key people in the community. But was he really ready? He honestly wasn’t sure.
“Don’t pull your name.” He poured out the wine and handed her a glass.
Nadine scrunched her nose. “That office is all messed up.”
“Do you think I have a shot of beating Ford? We need a plan.”
He touched his glass to hers. “Besides drinking? Maybe if we solve another murder the citizens of this county will finally kick Ford out.”
“I like that. Except someone would have to die.”
“That would be unfortunate,” he agreed. “Maybe we should stick with the drinking.”
End of Excerpt
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