Called to investigate the theft of valuable timber, Katrina finds the dead body of young singer Sharon Rose lying in the snow, shot execution style. When Sheriff Billy Blevins arrives at the crime scene, his strong reaction to seeing the victim is as baffling as a pretty corpse surrounded by tree stumps . . .
Until Katrina learns that Billy was involved with Rose. The sheriff's refusal to confide in her, coupled with his erratic behavior, not only puts a strain on their already complicated relationship, it hobbles her homicide investigation. With Billy going rogue, Katrina can't rely on anyone but herself. Secrets and suspects abound, even in the singer's own family, and the key to the murder may lie in the lyrics of what is now her swan song . . .
Praise for Robert E. Dunn
"This tale of deceit, corruption and betrayal from Dunn is long on violent action . . . Fans of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns will find a lot to like."
-Publishers Weekly on Dead Man's Badge
""Brutal, vivid, and unforgettable . . . a modern-day western morality tale in crime-novel wrapping with a blood-red bow. This one will haunt you.""
-Lee Goldberg, #1 New York Times bestselling author, on Dead Man's Badge
"This is hardboiled fiction at its best. We're talking Elmore Leonard territory. A fantastic read and I hope there's more to come." -Hunter Shea on A Living Grave
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The difference between death and murder is not always obvious. Executions are different. It didn't take an experienced eye to pin a definition on what I faced. The entrance wound in the temple, stippling from hot powder burned into the skin, lack of an exit wound — indicative of a small-caliber weapon — and the bindings on the girl's wrists, make the kind of story we've all seen in a million movies about mobsters. But she was no mobster. That would be the hook this particular drama hung on.
The victim was a girl, maybe in her teens, no more than twenty-five, I guessed. There was no sign of anything personal about the killing. Pretty, young girls, the kind who wore puffy down coats with snow boots and lip gloss all in matching pink, were not usually murdered with such dispassion. I was already thinking that this was a business killing.
I stood no closer than fifteen feet from the body. Bitter flakes, so cold they were almost desiccated, dropped through bare trees. The breeze carried them in streams across the surface of older, crusted-over snow. Creeping white followed the currents and eddied along the crooks of the girl's body. She was being buried slowly by clean, crystalline water.
Watching took me back to a burial in my own life — a moment in Iraq, when I thought myself dead and desert dust piled over me. I came back from that. This girl wouldn't.
I backed away from the body, taking note of my path and the fading footprints leading in. It wasn't until I was another twenty feet back and had reached the first fresh-cut stump that I turned around. Snow and January daylight conspired to make the scene unreadable. I needed help, fast.
Threading my way around the cast-off limbs that littered the snow-covered ground, I waved at the truck idling at the edge of the new clearing. Hosea Fisher grudgingly came out into the cold. I called dispatch as he trudged over.
"How goes the great tree-rustling case?" Doreen asked as soon as she connected.
"It's a little something more," I answered.
"Did they take shrubbery too?" She laughed.
My call-out had been in response to Fisher's complaint that someone was stealing trees from his property. I thought it was some kind of joke too, until I had arrived to find a newly cut clearing and obvious signs that large trees had been harvested.
"Tell the sheriff we have a body on-site. Definite homicide. Get the crime scene tech out here as quickly as possible. Get me some deputies to secure the scene. Send the coroner out. Tell someone to bring coffee. A lot of it, and hot."
"You got it, Hurricane. Anything else?"
Doreen knew I hated that nickname. Everyone in the department knew. It didn't seem to be the time to remind her. "No," I said.
"Just everything quick."
I disconnected and looked at Mr. Fisher, who was staring at me with a gaping mouth.
"You said a body?" he asked.
"Yes." I pointed at his truck. The bed was piled with wood, tools and what looked mostly like junk. Everything was covered with a blue tarp held down by bungees. "Do you have another tarp?"
"Just that one."
"Get it. Bring it up there." I pointed again. This time to where I had found the girl.
"Who?" he asked. His mouth still had trouble staying closed.
"I don't know yet."
I looked at him. Hosea Fisher was not ancient. It was the best you could say about his age. He had stringy hair and a gold tooth where his upper far-right incisor belonged. The man looked like a perfect suspect. The problem was he also looked stunned. "You and your tarp are going to help me make sure we figure that out."
"I don't like it," he pronounced. "Not one bit."
"I understand, Mr. Fisher. Death gets pretty inconvenient."
"You think I'm some kind of monster? Thinking only about myself?"
I looked into his saggy-lidded eyes. I didn't answer because that was exactly what I was thinking.
"Whoever you got up there is done with troubles. I figure mine are just starting."
"If you don't get moving quickly, you're going to have fresh troubles with me. Bring me the tarp."
He sniffed and wiped at the clear drop of moisture tracking under his drinker's nose. He looked at his truck, then back at me, then up where the body was. Whatever calculations he was doing must have come out on my side. Fisher turned and dragged feet through the snow to his truck.
I knew a little about the man. Everyone in this part of Missouri did. He had gotten into the Branson music business when it was still roadside attractions and hillbilly shtick. It was still that in a lot of ways, but in multimillion-dollar theaters and thousand-dollar sequined suits. Fisher owned one of the biggest. And the Ozarks Star Road Theater had made him a rich man. A few years ago he had married his stage manager. She was much younger and even more talented at the family business. Mostly she worked the show side now and he tended the land that he obsessively acquired.
He was an ugly man with an uglier attitude. But I didn't think he murdered the girl in the snow.
I returned to where I had stood earlier and pulled out the pad and pencil I always had in my pocket. Fisher came through the tangle of cut wood dragging the tarp as soon as I had the basic layout drawn.
"Stop where you are," I ordered.
He stopped but looked as though he didn't like it. "You told me to get the tarp up here."
"I don't want you to drag it." I tucked my pad and pencil away. Then I nodded at the footprints he was about to tramp through.
"And I don't want you walking over them."
Fisher stared at the tracks as I approached him.
"What are you looking at?" I asked.
He wiped his nose and snuffed in the remaining drip. "Nothin'."
"Hand me two corners."
He passed the tarp and we pulled it out like a married couple about to fold up the laundry. "Walk it over with me. Stay as far away from the tracks as you can and keep the tarp up off the snow."
Hard flakes of icy snow ticked on the plastic tarp as we carried it along the path. I was watching for the best remaining set of prints. Fisher was watching the ground too.
"You see something," I said.
"Can you tell about someone from tracks like this?"
"We can learn things. Maybe match shoes to the print. Find the right shoe and you might find the person who walked in them."
"What about those?" He looked down.
I didn't need any more indication than that. The smaller set of prints were treaded snow boots. And I was certain they matched the pink camo pair still thirty feet ahead of us. The other set of tracks was larger in size and stride. They were oddly oval and indistinct.
"I don't know," I admitted. "They look like an overshoe or something. Rounded at the bottom like a foot in a sock if the foot had no toes." I stopped over a set that was still unfilled by drift snow. "Here. Lower the tarp straight down and hold it against the ground."
He did as he was told, crouching to keep the forward corner in place.
I scooped up snow and piled it on a corner, then did the same for the other. "Why?"
"Why what?" Without being asked he scooped snow and piled it on his side. He didn't look at me as he worked.
"Why are you so interested in those footprints?"
He stood and looked right at my eyes. "Yeah. Don't believe me?"
"Most people are more curious about that." I nodded my head sideways toward the small body in pink being slowly buried in white.
Fisher turned to look. I kept watching him. I could see his eyes searching for meaning in what he saw. Then I saw the meaning blossom. It settled on him like a weight dragging down his face, then his shoulders. For a moment I thought his knees were going to buckle. They didn't, and he didn't look away, either.
"Rose?" He spoke the question as if he was walking up behind someone he didn't quite recognize.
"You know her, then."
I watched the burden of knowledge grow heavier on the old man. He watched the pink-and-blonde mound continue to be buried without making a move to get closer. I glanced at the girl, then back at Fisher. It took me a while but I began to understand. Rose had to be Rosemary Sharon, the young singer they dubbed the Rose of Sharon. She was a star in the local Branson music scene but she shone even brighter than that. Branson had not yet produced the kind of true country music star that its rival Nashville was famous for. The entire community believed Rose would be the first.
"I need you to back away, Mr. Fisher," I said.
He didn't move.
He looked at me and seemed momentarily surprised that I was there.
"Back away," I commanded. As soon as he started moving I told him, "Back to your truck." It was a long, cold walk.
By the time we got back to where his truck sat, still idling, by the fence, a deputy was pulling up to park beside my GMC. He was one of the new guys. I didn't know his name yet.
"Hey, Hurricane." He had a jolly grin and waved as he walked up.
"Don't call me that."
"Sorry." He dropped the grin.
I pointed back along the tracks that I'd left in the snow. "There is a body up there. You can't miss it. Tape the perimeter. Give it fifteen feet on a side. Tape off the tracks leading in from between that pair of trees. Don't walk in the tracks and don't mess up the tarp that's on the ground."
"Got it," he said, then turned to get what he needed from the trunk of his cruiser.
Fisher was in his truck with the door closed. I knocked on the window. He rolled it down.
"I have to ask you questions," I said.
"You didn't know she was out here?"
"I didn't know anyone was out here but tree poachers. And they were long gone by the time I found the damage."
"You didn't know about the trees until you got here?"
"Course not. I found it like this." Fisher wiped at his nose with the back of his hand, then pressed the heel of the same hand into his eyes.
"Why were you out here?"
"It's my land. I got a right to be here."
"That's not an answer."
"What do you want from me?"
"I'm trying to understand things. You came out here, found a crime, then I found a girl who hasn't been dead that long. Sometimes things line up. Most times they don't. Why did you come out to this piece of land on this particularly crappy day, Mr. Fisher?"
"She was part of the reason."
"You were looking for her?"
"Hell no. I was trying to get away from her. Her and my wife, and my stepson and that whole shitstorm I married into. Next time I marry I'll get myself a big dyke like you and be left alone."
I get that a lot. I'm a six-foot tall female cop. Every older man I meet assumes I'm a lesbian, some with more condemnation than others. "It's a new world, Mr. Fisher. It's not okay to say dyke."
"I'm too old to relearn and too old to care. It makes me no never mind if you like the girls. I like 'em too." He almost smiled at the feeble joke. Almost, but not quite. He was talking, but his head was still trying to deal with what he'd seen in the snow.
"If it makes you no never mind, don't talk about it," I said. "Tell me what you mean about getting away from family. Is Rose Sharon family?"
"May as well be. She lives in my house." He stopped and dropped his face. I could see his lips move silently to say "lived."
"Mr. Fisher," I prodded.
He lifted his head and said, "She was one of my wife's projects. That's all she has, projects. They infest my house. It ain't my home anymore. That's why I come out here. Pretty much every day I amble out to check the fences and the land. Trees don't talk back."
I thought about that a second and nothing about it made sense. But on a basic level I understood murder. It was the trees that really confused me. Who would kill a girl to cut down some trees? "Start from the beginning," I told Fisher. He was wiping his nose again. "With the trees. A minute ago you said something about tree poachers. Who does that and why?"
"If I knew who I wouldn't have bothered calling the sheriff. And why do you think? Money."
"I don't understand. What money?"
He looked at me like I was a complete idiot. I didn't mind. It was the first time since Fisher had seen the dead girl that his eyes had any spark at all. "See that stump?" He nodded in the direction of several truncated trees.
"I see a lot of stumps."
He shook his head vigorously, then stuck his arm out the window.
"That one. Lowest to the ground and already covering up with snow."
I followed his waggling finger with my eyes. There was a low lump drifting over with blowing snow. It was bigger around than I could have reached. And what was showing was dark as tobacco stain. "Walnut?" I asked.
"You got it, girl." Fisher pulled in his arm. "That tree was about sixty feet tall. The span from the ground to the first limb was at least fifteen feet. The other trees were good wood, but that one was Grade A veneer-quality walnut."
"That's good, I'm guessing."
"$2,000 good at least. Maybe $2,500."
"The other trees?"
"Three prime quality white oak, about $750 each. Another oak — veneer quality — at least $1,000. Over at the edge, the smaller one was walnut but probably not veneer quality, say another $750."
"So we're talking about ..." I tried to do the math in my head.
"Somewhere between six and seven grand." Fisher beat me to it.
I looked over at the piles of cast-off branches. It was hard to wrap my head around such a high price tag for trees. If it was true, then the wood theft could definitely have played a part in murder.
"Is there a chance Rose Sharon was involved with the tree poachers?"
The light that was in his eyes when Fisher talked about the trees was gone again. He shook his head and said, "Nah." Then he turned away to stare out his front window again.
He was hiding something. I still didn't think it was murder. I had the feeling it was more about family and shame. "Here," I said, handing over my card. "Call me if you have anything at all to add. And expect to hear from me even if you don't."
I left him to go back and check on the deputy and my victim.CHAPTER 2
The new guy had strung tape only halfway around the scene. He was standing back from the girl and putting something away in his pocket when I came out from behind the pile of cast-off limbs. He saw me and looked guilty. I was about to ask him what was going on when I noticed the still-steaming froth of vomit off to the side.
Because he had had the sense not to puke on my crime scene, I cut the guy some slack and didn't say anything about the unfinished job.
"Hey, Hurricane," he said as I got closer.
"Don't call me that," I reminded him.
"Yeah, I'm sorry." He said something more but it was lost in the wind. I assumed it was something I wasn't meant to hear anyway.
"You need to finish the job," I told him. "Get your tape to that tree, then over to there ought to do it, and down the line of tracks."
"You know who she is?" he asked, sounding a little awestruck.
"You recognized her?"
"Yeah. She's the biggest thing in town."
"All the more reason to get to work."
He took the hint and trudged off with his crime scene tape in hand.
"When you finish that, wait down by your cruiser. When the crime scene tech and coroner's van show up, keep them there. I'll let you know when I'm ready for them."
The new guy raised his hand in acknowledgment but kept walking his yellow ribbon to the next tree. I thought he might have said something else, but I didn't hear that, either. My focus was on the dead girl and a circle of ten feet around her. I pulled off my gloves and brought out the pad and pencil I always kept with me.
Crime scenes are always photographed extensively. There was no evidential value to my drawings. But I've always found that photos show all the details of what things are. Sketching helps me see the details between all the whats. My first husband was a very successful artist before he died. He helped me improve my sketches and clarify how I looked at the things I drew.
I sketched out how she lay. Then I drew the footprints that showed her killer had stepped over to examine the girl's face. The closest pair of prints were gouged out and irregular. There was an additional divot in the snow a few inches ahead of the left print. The killer had knelt beside the girl. The small forward impression was where the left knee had imprinted the snow. Had the killer just been making sure the job was done or was there an instant of regret?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Killing Secret"
Copyright © 2019 Robert E. Dunn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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