By Lori Armstrong Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Almost, just a little lower. Right there. Oh, God, yes, that's it."
I'd shamelessly splayed myself over the filing cabinet, but the warm masculine hands caressing my vertebrae froze.
"Knock it off, Julie. Sheriff hears you moaning like that, he'll think we're doing it on your desk."
"Al." I sighed lazily. "If I thought you could find my G-spot as quickly as you zeroed in on that knotted muscle, we would be doing it on my desk."
"Smart ass. Don't know why we put up with you."
I twisted, heard the satisfying crack and pop of my spinal column realigning itself. No more sex on the kitchen table for me.
"You put up with me because I file, but I'm not dedicated enough to devise my own system."
My blond, waist-length hair curtained my face as I slipped my heels back on.
"Besides my pseudo-efficiency, I look a damn sight better manning the phones than Deputy John. Admit it, tiger," I added with a snapping, sexy growl.
Al colored a mottled burgundy, a peculiar habit for a forty-five-year-old deputy. He adjusted his gun in a self-conscious gesture, which made me wonder if he'd finger his manhood in front of me as easily. In law enforcement the size of your gun was closely related to the size of, well, your gun. Hmm. Was Al's private stock an Uzi? Or a peashooter?
"Regardless," he continued, unaware of my questioning gaze on his crotch. "If my wife heard me trash-talking with you I'd be sleeping in the den for a month."
I set my hands on his face and slapped his reddened cheeks while I maneuvered around him.
"I've seen your den. And your wife ... Wouldn't be much of a hardship."
Light spilled across the mud-crusted carpet when the steel front door blew open. All five-foot-one inch of Missy Brewster, my 4:00 relief, sauntered in.
My tolerance level for Missy was lower than a stock dam during a drought. She embodied the skate-by-with-a-minimum-amount-of-effort civil servant attitude, versus the work ethic my father had literally pounded into me and which I couldn't escape, no matter how menial the job. Lazy, whiny, and petty were Missy's least annoying characteristics.
I guessed she'd compiled her own list of my irritating quirks: punctuality, humanity, a stubbornness born of desperation.
Her crocheted handbag thumped on the filing cabinet. She peeled off her NASCAR jacket, and slung the silver satin over the chair with a loving touch before adjusting her cleavage with a slow overhead stretch. A haughty look followed.
"Hey, Julie. Stud boy is waiting. Said something about you getting your ass out there pronto."
I watched Al's gaze linger on Missy's mammoth breasts, crammed tightly into a pink t-shirt. My eyes followed his, but I refused to glance down at my own 36C chest in comparison; there was none.
"Stud boy? You call him that and flash those boobs in his face?"
Her lips, the color and consistency of candied apples, turned mulish.
"I didn't flash him."
"But I'll bet he looked."
"Honey, they all look." With a fake sigh of resignation, she squeezed her big butt in my chair and swiveled toward the computer to clock in.
She reached for a pencil, deigning to answer the phone on the fifth ring.
"Bear Butte County Sheriff's office." Her tone oozed sweetness. "Hey, Gene."
Yuck. I added disinfecting the receiver with Windex to my list of duties for tomorrow.
"Yeah, I just came on."
Missy flicked an irritated glance my direction.
"No, she's still here." Pause. "He's probably messing with his computer. Want me to ring him?" A minute of silence followed; her false eyelashes batted with apparent panic.
Al, sensing Missy's damsel-in-distress signal, stepped forward.
I stayed put.
"Well, glad it didn't happen here." She muttered a bunch of "uh-huhs" before adding, "No problem. I'll tell him straight away. Bye, now."
"What's up?" This from Al, the brave, blushing warrior.
Missy's shifty gaze wavered between Al and me. "Nothing in our neck of the woods."
Skirting the desk, she hustled down the hallway, Al hot on her Ferragamo heels as she rapped daintily on the sheriff's door.
I got the distinct impression Missy wanted me to leave. So, naturally, I followed the merry little band into the inner sanctum of Sheriff Tom Richards' office.
He didn't respond immediately to our interruption. His back, roughly the size of a Cadillac hood, greeted us, a constant click clack click clack echoed from the keyboard. The plastic slide-out tray bounced, and although I didn't see his hands, I knew they fairly danced over the keys. My typing skills are half-assed on a good day. It amazed me thick fingers could be so nimble when it came to office drudgery.
His acknowledgement was a harsh grunt.
"Gene Black called."
"Yeah? What did he want?" Tap, tap, tap.
"They found a floater."
His movement stopped; his spine snapped straight as an axel rod. He turned. "When?"
"This morning. Some fly-fishermen hooked it in Rapid Creek."
He scowled at the clock. "He's just calling me now?"
Missy's fleshy shoulder lifted; the gesture a nervous twitch, not a casual shrug. "Wanted to give you a heads up before the media did."
"Whereabouts was this?"
She plucked a loose paperclip teetering on the desk edge. "Up in the Hills, off Rimrock." Her pudgy fingers twisted the metal into a caricature of modern art.
"Pennington County claimed jurisdiction, but Rapid City PD was on scene as a courtesy. Then a whole mess of people showed up."
The sheriff chugged his coffee, gorilla hands dwarfing the cup.
Being around him every day makes me forget how immense, how out of proportion he is with the rest of the world. At six-foot nine, he has the distinction of being the biggest sheriff in the state. His arms, legs, and torso are perfectly balanced, but his huge head isn't: It resembles an overgrown honeydew melon with ears.
His button nose is centered in a grayish face; his coffee-colored eyes withhold any trace of softness. Spikes of black hair protrude from his head and chin, reinforcing the ogre-like image from a fairy tale. The knife scar connecting the right side of his mouth to his jaw line creates a constant scowl and discourages most comments, either about the state of the weather up high, or whether or not he plays basketball.
"Gene said they weren't allowed to move the body right away," Missy continued. "They called in the DCI from Pierre. Which also caught the interest of the Feds."
"The Feds and DCI? Why not the NPS, too? Who the hell did they find up there?"
Don't go there, my brain warned, but my mouth ignored the plea. "With that much manpower?" I said. "I'll guarantee it wasn't another Indian."
Ugly silence followed, thick as buffalo stew.
In the past two years, five transient Lakota males - varying in age from thirty to seventy - had become life-sized bobbers in Rapid Creek, which twists from Pactola Lake and zigzags through Rapid City before dumping into the Cheyenne River. Despite the toxicology reports of the drowning victims, which revealed blood alcohol levels approaching blood poisoning range, cries of outrage among the Sioux Nation and resident supporters fell on deaf ears.
It seemed neither local law enforcement nor federal agencies were spurred into action, especially the FBI, still smarting from Yellow Thunder Camp in the 1980's and the controversy surrounding the 1972 siege at Wounded Knee. Not even the appearance of Native American activist/Hollywood actress Renee Brings Plenty, who'd lodged a protest march down Main Street to the Pennington County Courthouse, had changed the status quo.
The "so-what" local attitude remained: Another dead, drunken, dirty Indian out of the gutter and off the welfare rolls.
Three years had crawled past since the discovery of my brother Ben's body in Bear Butte Creek. Unlike the other Native Americans, Ben hadn't drowned, no alcohol or drugs showed up in his tox reports. With his throat slashed, his body discarded like garbage, he'd washed to the bottom of Bear Butte Creek, an area the Lakota consider sacred.
And like my mother's death, I hadn't gotten over it, I hadn't moved on. In fact, I'd moved back to South Dakota from Minneapolis for one specific purpose: to find out who had killed my brother and why.
Probably masochistic to abandon a promising career in the restaurant industry to apply for a secretarial job in the miniscule county where Ben had been murdered.
In my pie-eyed state following his funeral, it'd made sense. With unfettered access to legal documents, I suspected I'd uncover a secret file on Ben - like on those TV detective programs - detailing why, how, and whodunit, and I could get on with my life.
There wasn't any such file. So, here I am, years later, stuck in a rut that's developed into a black hole: a dead-end job, sexual flings that masquerade as relationships, and the tendency to avoid my father and his new family like Mad Cow disease.
No one understands my anger, frustration, and the sadness wrapped around me like a hair shirt. Some days, I didn't understand it. Time hadn't healed the wound of grief; rather it remained an ugly sore, open for everyone to gawk at and for me to pick at.
In the immediate silence, Missy's globes of cleavage turned into blushing grapefruits. She avoided my eyes, but her clipped tone was the voice of authority. "They prefer to be called 'Native Americans'."
I snagged the mangled paperclip and pointed it at her, hating the saccharine tone she bleated in the presence of testosterone. "No, they don't. Most of them prefer their tribal affiliation. Native American is a politically correct term."
"Whatever," Missy said with a drollness she'd yet to master.
"So, fill us in," I said. "What color was the body they found?"
Al shifted toward the fax machine, away from me.
Missy furnished me with a view of the bra straps crisscrossing the folds of her back. "White. Young, female, about sixteen, fully clothed. The body wasn't decomposed, according to Gene."
"Suicide?" Tom asked.
"Didn't say. They're keeping the details quiet."
A disgruntled sound cleared my throat before I stopped it.
Missy whirled back to me, coquettish manner forgotten. "Don't start. This doesn't have a thing to do with your brother's case." She whined directly to Al. "See?"
Hands shoved in my blazer pockets, my fingers curled longingly around the pack of cigarettes stashed there. Damn those crusading non-smokers.
The sheriff shot me a withering look, but asked Missy: "She been identified yet?"
"They notified next of kin."
"What else did Gene tell you?" His gaze swept the bulletin board overwhelmed with official notices and the never-ending explosion of papers on the desk. "I don't remember seeing any reports of a missing local girl."
In a community our size, a missing dog is big news. A missing child is tantamount to calling out the National Guard.
"That's why they're keeping it low key. The girl was a minor living in Rapid City, but for some reason her parents didn't report her missing."
Again, my mouth engaged before brain. "Well, lucky thing we've got local law enforcement, the Feds, DCI and everybody and their fucking dog concerned about this one dead white girl."
The sheriff gaped, hooking his thumbs in his gun belt loop. His sigh was a sound of utter exasperation. Touchy, feely crap was not his forte' but I didn't give a damn. Let him flounder. God knows I'd done more than my fair share.
"Aren't you off shift now? Go home. Forget you heard any of this."
"I think that's why Gene waited to call," Missy offered slyly. "He knew she'd react this way."
Again, my reputation for resentment had eclipsed the real issue.
"This case doesn't affect us," Sheriff Richards said. "Ben's death is irrelevant."
"Irrelevant to whom? Not to me." My thumb ran along the grooves of my lighter. In my mind I heard the click, watched the orange flame fire the tip of my cigarette. Mentally I inhaled.
"Surface similarities, but we don't know the details. Besides, your brother's case is cold, so I'm missing the connection."
"Come on," I intoned, rookie teaching a veteran a lesson. "A death in any local creek is a connection. Maybe now that one with the right skin color has surfaced, Ben's case will get the full investigation it deserved."
The ogre in him bellowed, "Julie, will you stop? Jesus! We did a full investigation. Everybody and their fucking dog - as you so eloquently put it - busted ass on his case."
Paws slapped his desk, sending a family picture snapped at an old time photo studio in Keystone crashing to the carpet.
"You know the BIA and AIM still sniff around, so don't give me that 'we don't care because they were Indian' line of bullshit."
So much for the short-lived touchy, feely crap. I struggled not to flinch under the discord distorting the airless room.
He sighed again. "Take the weekend to clear your head; get drunk, get laid, whatever it takes to get you out of here until Monday."
His finger shook in the same manner as my father's. I braced myself for the slap that wouldn't land, waited for the invariable but.
"But I hear one word you were up there playing PI at the crime scene, or asking questions of any agency involved and I'll suspend you without hesitation and without pay, got it?"
In my mind's eye, I zoomed inside the safety of my TV screen, a cool cat like Starsky, blasé about getting my ass chewed. There, in the perfect fictional world, the stages of grief were wrapped up within the allotted hour. I wished it were simple. I wished I didn't live every damn day with sorrow circling my throat, choking the life out until my insides felt raw, and hollow, and left me bitter.
So, for a change, I didn't argue with him, press my viewpoint or try to change his; it was useless. Recently, even I'd grown weary of my combative stance and reputation. Unfortunately, my uncharacteristic silence didn't help the sheriff's disposition. He'd brought meth-crazed bikers to tears with his practiced glower, which quite frankly, right now aimed at me, tied my guts into knots that would make a sailor proud.
"Get some help," he said. "Grief counseling, anger management, whatever. Deal with your loss and stop making it some goddamn," he gestured vaguely, plucking the appropriate word from mid-air, "soapbox for racial injustice."
Neither Al nor Missy spared me a glance. Wasn't the first time he'd broached the subject, nor would it be the last. At this point it wasn't worth my crappy job. Playing PI indeed. I was a PI - albeit part-time. Although Sheriff Richards disapproved, legally, he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
I smiled pure plastic. "Fine. I'll drop it. As far as grief therapy? I'll be doing mine at home, in my own way, but gee, once again, thanks for your overwhelming concern."
Self-indulgence aside, the door made a satisfying crack as I slammed it on my way out.
Excerpted from Blood Ties by Lori Armstrong Copyright © 2005 by Lori Armstrong. Excerpted by permission.
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