Winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Contemporary Novel
In the fourth novel in the acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery series, PI Stranahan and Sheriff Ettinger reunite to investigate a teenage girl’s death. Cold Hearted River, the sixth in the series, is now available.
Spring snow still clings to the teeth of Montana’s Crazy Mountains when an unsuspecting member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club discovers a Santa hat in the fireplace ashes of his rented cabin. Climbing to the roof to see what’s clogging the flue, he’s shocked to find the body of a teenage girl wedged into the chimney. A rodeo belt buckle identifies the recently deceased victim as Cinderella “Cindy” Huntington, a rising rodeo star. Hyalite County sheriff Martha Ettinger has been hunting for the girl since she went missing the previous November.
Was Cindy murdered? Or was she running for her life—and if so, from whom? Suspicion falls on a buckskin-clad mountain man who calls himself Bear Paw Bill. But Etta Huntington, Cindy’s high-strung mother, herself a famous horsewoman, thinks the evil might lie closer to home. She hires fly-fishing guide and private detective Sean Stranahan to find the answers. Setting aside their after-hours relationship, Sean and Martha find themselves deep in an investigation that grows to involve a high-altitude sex club, a lost diary, cave pictographs, and the legends of the Crazy Mountains. With his signature wit and wry humor, McCafferty writes a pitch-perfect mystery that is as haunting as the Crazies.
About the Author
Keith McCafferty is the award-winning survival and outdoor skills editor of Field & Stream, and the author of The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders, and Dead Man’s Fancy. He lives in Montana.
Read an Excerpt
As he reached for the bottle of George T. Stagg fifteen-year-old bourbon, Max Gallagher thought wryly of his oft-quoted principle of writing, the first of “Max’s maxims,” which he’d once confided to an editor of American Crime magazine—“Always write on the level.” When he was working on A Nose for Trouble, the first book in his mystery series featuring a sleuth who was a “nose” for a perfume company, writing on the level meant a speedball, the cocaine slamming into his bloodstream seconds before heroin slowed the train to a more manageable speed. By the time he penned A Nose for Romance, his fifth novel and only best seller, he’d kicked his habit and was balancing the high provided by prescription Adderall with vodka and maintenance tokes of marijuana. By then his protagonist had gone through changes of his own. Having lost his wife in a car crash, he was bedding a Parisian film star who smelled of Dior J’Adore in a hotel room in Cassis, on the French Riviera. Gallagher was in fact writing a page from his own life, for he had traveled to Provence to research the setting, booked himself into a waterfront hotel, and carried on his own affair, the difference being that the woman between the sheets was not the French lovely of his imagination but his all too real Argentine mistress, who, having just come from a swim, smelled like kelp.
The mistress cost him his second wife and half his money; investing in a winery run by her uncles in Mendoza lost him the rest. His sixth and seventh books hadn’t sold, his publisher dropped him when the eighth failed to materialize, and now, halfway through the rewrite of his comeback attempt, A Nose for Tea, which his agent refused to shop until he’d made drastic revisions, he was alone in a Forest Service rental cabin in Montana’s Crazy Mountains, chickadees outside a frosted windowpane for company, chewing nicotine gum for the buzz and tamping it down with the whiskey.
“How the mighty have fallen,” he said aloud. He lifted his fingers from the typewriter keys and swished the bourbon in his mouth. At this rate, financially speaking—he permitted himself a smile—his next book would be written on Red Bull and beer. He laughed silently—his sense of humor would be the last of his qualities to desert him—then let out a sigh. Plot had never been his strong suit, and this one was particularly flimsy, revolving around an Indian mountain goat called a ghooral, which was being poached to extinction because its scent glands were valued by perfume mixers. The setting was Darjeeling, hence the title, and it didn’t help that, one, there were no ghooral in Darjeeling; two, the scent glands from an actual ghooral would make perfume smell like goat gonads; and, three, with no advance and residuals claimed by his vices, research consisted of scanning maps on Google Earth. Max Gallagher had never been to India. He didn’t even like tea.
He drained the glass. Though the cabin was chill with a clammy odor, he hadn’t bothered to build a fire after snowshoeing from the trailhead. The exertion had warmed him and he was in too much hurry to flesh out the thoughts of his road trip, which he’d scratched down on the backs of envelopes while driving with his elbows. Now he sat back in the rough wood chair, rubbed his sore fingertips—it had been twenty years since he’d worked on a manual typewriter—and declared himself satisfied by pouring another shot of the George T. Stagg. The clammy scent he’d noted when coming in the door had a moldy taint, earthy and with an unplaceable metallic tang that made his nostrils flare. He’d chosen a nose for his protagonist because his own sense of smell was acute, and the odor bothered him. Though the drive had long since caught up to him, he thought he’d better open the cabin’s windows, build a fire in the open fireplace that faced into the bunkhouse, and air the place out good before going to bed. He threw on a buffalo plaid stag jacket that made him look like a cigarette model—he’d been that model once and it was a look he cultivated—walked outside, and rendered several blocks of firewood into splits.
Breathing heavily in the altitude, he let his eyes wander to the pond below the cabin. The shoreline was rimmed with ice, the windless surface reflecting muted smears of lilac and magenta that made a drama of the evening skyline. It was the beautiful gloom that is April in Montana: the red wine ribbon of the Shields River far below, puzzle pieces of old snow on the mountainsides, subdued skies through which the sun shone only in the gilded edges of the clouds. Gorgeous if you were an artist, but in an unrelenting way that made the native want to bring an elk rifle to his forehead.
Gallagher stacked the wood and carried it inside, where he crumpled up newspaper and built a tepee of the splits. He looked for the chain or lever that worked the damper and, not finding it, lit the fire. In seconds the cabin had filled with smoke. Something had to be clogging the flue. He picked up an iron poker and stuck it up the chimney. It jammed against something solid, and as he withdrew the iron, a piece of red cloth dropped onto the firebox. He lifted it with the fireplace tongs, narrowing his eyes as he held it at arm’s length. The look on his face was one of perplexion, his frown deepening as he saw that the cloth was a Santa hat, complete with a tassel and a band of fake white fur.
A pack rat’s cache? Part of a bird’s nest? At the clubhouse he co-owned on the Madison River with three other fishermen, there had been problems with birds building nests in the flue, clogging the length of the passage with sticks. Well, he wasn’t going to sleep until he found out. He fished a flashlight from his jacket pocket and walked outside.
He looked up at the roof. No chimney cap. Might as well have handed out invitations to every feather in heaven. Against the eaves was a wooden ladder. Snow had thawed and frozen around the feet of the ladder, and the rungs were solid as a marble staircase as Gallagher ascended to the roof. Edging to the southern exposure where the snow had burnt off the shingles, he climbed on all fours until reaching the chimney. Built of river stones chinked with hundred-year-old mortar, it was the centerpiece of the cabin, much bigger than a modern chimney, with a wide, squarish opening.
As he got to his feet, hugging the chimney to maintain his balance, a great racketing sounded from within. He ducked as a crow burst out of the chimney, so close to his head that he saw the pebble of its eye and felt the air beating from its wings. The bird, an arrow of black, flew low into the gloom, cawing.
Gallagher watched it out of sight. “One crow sorrow,” he said under his breath.
It was the first line of the “Counting Crows” nursery rhyme his Irish grandmother had recited when he was a child. He tried to think of the second line, knowing that he was stalling. Something was bothering him, a conversation, no, an argument, the details lost to the alcoholic haze in which the memory had been made. Just do it, he told himself. Shielding his eyes in case there was another bird—Two crows mirth, that was the next line—he raised his head and shone the flashlight into the mouth of the chimney. A crosshatch of sticks woven around the broken tip of a graphite fly rod obscured his view. The crow had been building a nest.
Gallagher felt the tension flood out of his body. He let out a long breath. Now it was just work, and he started pulling up the sticks, tossing them onto the roof. He paused with the tip of the rod in his hand. The crow must have flown with it all the way from the river. Gallagher had pocketed the flashlight while dismantling the nest and switched it back on. There were still sticks too far down to reach and he pushed them aside with the rod tip until he could see into the flue. What stared back at him, from about ten feet down where the smoke chamber narrowed, were empty eye sockets that were as dead black as the wings of the crow.
ONE CROW SORROW
Three Degrees of Sean Stranahan
The way I see it,” Undersheriff Walter Hess said, “is we can go through the side of the chimney with a jackhammer, which would make a Judy of a mess, or we could drop a lasso around her neck and see if we could pull her up. Harold says he’s got a lariat in his pickup.”
“Humpff. And hope her head doesn’t come off?”
Martha Ettinger rested her chin on steepled fingers. Martha the thinker, the latest in a sequence of postures she’d run through since hiking in ten minutes earlier—hands on hips while looking at the chimney, fingers searching for her carotid, then rubbing her badge as if it was Aladdin’s lamp.
She popped a Chiclet into her mouth and drummed her thumb against the grips of her revolver.
“No,” she said, “we’re going to wait for light. Meantime I want to talk to the guy who found the body.”
They were standing outside, looking at the roof where Harold Little Feather was shining a six-cell flashlight.
“Warren’s babysitting him inside,” Hess said. “Named Gallagher. Says he schlepped back to his car and drove down to Wilsall before he got a bar of reception. I figured you’d want to do an informal before anybody took his statement.”
Ettinger nodded. “Harold, get on down here,” she said. She and Walt unnecessarily braced the ladder as he climbed down.
“It isn’t pretty” were the first words out of his mouth. “She backed down the chimney with her arms extended, so it seems like she’s reaching up at you. Her eyes are gone. The ancients would tell you the birds took them up to the gods, so they could reconstruct her soul.”
“Is that Blackfeet folklore?”
“No, I think it goes back farther than the people.”
“So how do we get her out?”
“I’m thinking we could drop ropes over her hands, cinch the loops on her arms, tug her out that way.”
“I was just saying maybe her head,” Walt said.
Harold frowned. “You might pull it off, she’s really stuck.”
Ettinger’s hands went to her hips. “When I fed the chickens this morning, this isn’t a conversation I thought I’d be having.”
“Maybe we could try fairy dust,” Walt said. “My mother told me that’s how Santa gets down the chimney.”
“Fairy dust is in somewhat short supply.” Martha was in no mood for Walt’s deadpan. “No, that body’s been there a while. It isn’t going anywhere, not until we can see what we’re doing.”
“What I’m wondering about is what she thought she was doing?” Harold hugged his jean jacket about him. “No one more than a year off the breast can get all the way down a chimney. Even if they made it as far as the smoke chamber, then you got your angle space to the damper, and the damper, door open, you’re talking six inches of passage, ten tops.”
Walt shook his head. “There wasn’t no damper, that’s what the fella said. It’s a straight shot to the firebox. Maybe she figured she could worm on down.”
“But how would she know it didn’t have a damper?” Martha said. “It makes me wonder if she isn’t from the area.”
Walt climbed the steps onto the rough-hewn floorboards of the porch and shone his flashlight on a piece of wood nailed above the door. Letters had been burned into the wood. “Mile and a Half High Cabin,” he read out loud. “Three X’s. I’d say somebody has a sense of humor.”
Ettinger jutted her chin toward Harold and they sidled to the edge of the porch.
“What makes you say that, her not being from the area?” Harold said in a quiet voice.
“Most people who deal with an eight-month winter know how a chimney works.”
“What about the Huntington girl?” Walt said. “You were the detective on that case, Harold. They never found her or the boy.” He’d been listening, after all.
“Could be. Bar-4’s the next drainage up. If it turns out, I don’t want to be the one tells the puma on the painted horse.”
“That what they call Loretta Huntington?”
“Among other things. Woman like her has a lot of names.”
“Tomorrow’s April Fool’s,” Walt said, apropos of nothing.
“April Fool’s the first day of the month, not the last.” Martha kneaded her chin, thinking about how long the girl had been in the chimney before dying, wondering if she was still alive when the crow carried her eyes to heaven.
• • •
Martha Ettinger’s first impression of the man who stood to shake her hand was that he was Rhett Butler’s ghost, risen from the mists of Tara. Wavy black hair, something in it to keep it that way, a squared-off chin with a dimple and heavy five o’clock shadow. He even had a pencil mustache.
“At last we meet,” he said. “I was beginning to wonder if Stranahan made you up.” The voice came from his diaphragm, the eyebrows lifting in self-amusement. But fatigue behind the gray-blue irises. The sweat sheen of man who’d been up for forty hours.
“How do you know Sean Stranahan?” Ettinger drew a notebook from her breast pocket.
“He’s a member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club. I own the clubhouse with Pat Willoughby and Ken Winston.”
“I feel like I should recognize your name, but I don’t.”
“That’s because it used to be Smither, Jon Smither.”
“Uh-huh.” Ettinger clicked her pen. “We’re going to get back to that, but answer a question for me first. If you own property on the Madison River, what are you doing up here in the Crazies?”
“It’s a long story.”
Ettinger glanced at Sheriff’s Sergeant Warren Jarrett. “Warren, do you have any coffee in that thermos?”
She took a chair at the cabin’s battered pine table, which was caked with swirls of wax that had dripped from candles stuck in wine bottles. She kicked out the chair opposite and nodded to Gallagher.
“Take me through what happened.”
“I’m a writer. I was writing.”
“Your car has California plates. Let’s back up a couple thousand miles.”
“One thousand and sixty-seven, door to door,” he said, and began to recount the steps leading to his grisly discovery, starting with a conversation he’d had in a bar that had inspired him to drive to his home in Marin County, throw his computer bag into his Lexus, and hit the highway. A night and a day had passed since he’d seen the Bay glitter under the lights of the Richmond Bridge. Certainly, he’d intended to stay in the clubhouse, but when he contacted the property manager from the road, asking to have the electricity hooked up and the antifreeze drained from the pipes, the manager had bad news. Getting the clubhouse up and running was an all-day job and it would be at least three days before a plumber was available. However, he knew the Forest Service supervisor and might be able to pull a string. Would Gallagher be interested in staying in one of the backcountry rental cabins? He was thinking of one on the west side of the Crazy Mountains, at the northern extreme of Hyalite County. The season had closed at the end of February, so it would need some airing out and he’d have to dispose of the mice in the traps, but there was a woodstove and he could tote water from the creek. Or melt snow. At seven thousand feet, winter waved a long goodbye. He called back in five minutes, having got the okay, said he’d leave a pair of snowshoes at the road end for the trudge in. He’d tape the combination to the door lock on one of the bindings.
As Gallagher talked, Ettinger watched the way he wrinkled up his eyes recalling details, how, when he leaned across the table to face her, his smile drew commas of irony through his cheeks. The insolent bastard’s trying to charm me, she thought.
“I’m still having trouble understanding the why,” she said. “Leave like that in the middle of the night. You’d think this big of a trip, you’d do some planning. Leave word where you were going.”
“Not really. My fishing gear is at the clubhouse. Groceries I can buy in Ennis. Do you live alone, Sheriff Ettinger?”
She looked at him without expression.
“Does anyone care what time you make it back to the house or whether you drink too much?”
“Why, do you drink too much, Max?”
“Sometimes. I did tonight. You would have, too. But that’s not my point. When you lay your head on the pillow knowing if you don’t wake up, nobody’s going to come looking until they notice the smell, it isn’t such a big deal.”
“Just up and take off, huh?”
“But if the point of the trip was to write this book and there’s no electricity . . .”
He shrugged. “I didn’t know I’d be staying here when I left. When I heard, I stopped off in Elko and bought a typewriter at a thrift store.” He reached under the table for the battered blue manual, which he’d zipped back into its case. “This is a Lettera 32 Olivetti, the same model that Cormac McCarthy used to write No Country for Old Men. It was made into a movie, the one where the killer uses a cattle gun to blow holes in people’s heads.”
“I’m familiar with it. Up here we’re old-fashioned. Murderers use bullets; it’s a time-honored tradition.”
“I thought pounding these keys, some of the maestro’s magic might rub off on my fingers.”
“That remains to be seen. Look, Sheriff, I’ll level with you. I went through a hard breakup a few months ago. Ever since, I seem to be gripped by inertia. And financially I’m not in tip-top shape. I tell people I changed my name to Gallagher because it starts with one of the first seven letters of the alphabet, and that’s better for book sales because it’s closer to the top of the bookshelf. Which is true enough. I’ve used Gallagher as a pen name for years, and half my friends have called me Max for just as long. But that’s not the real reason I petitioned to have it changed. The real reason is when you go bankrupt, you change your name to throw creditors off the trail. I had a good thing going and let it slide south. Now I’m trying to make amends.”
Ettinger wasn’t going to let it go. “You said you’d been talking to a bartender, a woman. What did she say that made you decide to go?”
“It’s what she didn’t. She was an acquaintance, a friend with benefits.” He scrolled quote marks with his fingers. “I was lonely and she was . . . well, not lonely enough.” He shrugged. “I walked out the door feeling sorry for myself, then thought, what the hell, why not go to Montana and finish the book? Do something right.” He sat back and gave her the right side of his face to admire.
“What were you before you were a writer?”
“I was a crime reporter for the San Francisco Herald.”
“You don’t say?”
“Why did you quit?”
“I burned out.”
“Were you drinking then?”
Gallagher folded his hands on the table. “Look, I’m just doing my civic duty.”
“Yes, you are.” Martha exhaled. “It’s late. I’m going to have Warren here take your statement and we’re going to call it a night. Then you can go crash in a motel.”
“I’d rather not. Is Sean Stranahan living in his tipi?”
“He’s in Florida.”
“Sam Meslik’s in the club. I suppose I could bunk with him. I was going to look him up and see if he wanted to fish some evening anyway.”
Ettinger scratched the back of her head with her pen. “They’re both in Florida.”
“Oh.” Gallagher nodded. “Yeah, I heard something about that. Sean’s helping Sam set up a guide business there for the off season. Key West, right?”
Ettinger kneaded her chin. “I know where Sam hides his key. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
Gallagher smiled, drawing the commas in his cheeks. He was, Martha had to admit, very good-looking.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said. “How we know each other. I mean, I know Stranahan because the club hired him to find those trout flies that were stolen, and I met Sam because Sean knows Sam. If I did that in my books, connected everybody up, my editor would say it was too convenient. She’d accuse me of cheating.”
“Your editor doesn’t live in Montana.”
“Six degrees of Sean Stranahan.”
“More like three degrees, and he’s a newcomer. Spot me an old-timer and I can link up the whole damned valley. Are you sober enough to drive? I don’t want you pulling a Signal 30 halfway up the valley.”
“After what I saw? I’m too sober.”
Love on Four Continents
It was midnight before Martha turned onto Cottonwood Road and lowered the window, hoping to hear the great gray owl who was the shaman of wilderness, whose voice, she’d often thought, was the lament of all women who lay in bed alone, sisters of a certain silence.
She let Goldie, her Australian shepherd, out for a quick tour of the property while she fed chopped-up elk venison to Sheba, her brittle-whiskered Siamese. She stood in the doorway and whistled to Goldie—she didn’t like to let her roam after dark, as there was a tom lion whose beat extended up and down the canyon. She whistled again and shut the door after Goldie bounded in.
Goddamn degrees of separation. It was bad enough to pass the silhouette of the tipi on her drive home every night, but why couldn’t a week go by without Stranahan’s name crossing someone’s lips other than her own?
I won’t hate him, she told herself. I won’t hate him for the wall I built to keep him out of my life. I have only myself to blame for the night I turned out the light.
For the light had been their understanding. On nights when she turned the porch light on, the signal that she was done with the workload she’d carried home from the office, he was free to drop by, to have tea, iced or hot as the season dictated, while they sat before the varnished tree stump that served as her desk, and on which she always had a partially completed jigsaw puzzle. They would work the puzzle and talk about their days—Sean was a fishing guide so his were spent on the river, but he also was a watercolorist, specializing in angling art, and a now-and-then private detective, which was how they’d met several years before. They’d stir the surface of life while the tension built underneath. At a certain point, it could be ten minutes, it could be thirty, Sean would carry his glass to the kitchen and come back—she’d hear the footsteps on the floorboards and shut her eyes—and he’d bend down behind her chair and wrap his arms around her, cupping her breasts while she let out a sigh.
“Take off your gun,” he’d whisper against the side of her neck, and she’d feel the tickling in the soft down of her hair. And she’d set down the puzzle piece in her fingers and stand up, lean back against him for a long minute, both of them feeling the other’s arousal, and she’d take him by the hand to the bedroom.
The first time they’d made love, she actually had been wearing her gun when he’d told her to take it off, and the puzzle on the stump had been elephants against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro. Since then they had shared each other’s desire after working other puzzles—the Spanish Steps, Machu Picchu, a box of gaudy steelhead flies called Dead Man’s Fancy, and a pride of lions in the Okavango Delta. They’d made love on four continents without ever leaving the log walls of her hundred-year-old farmhouse. Or so she had liked to think of it.
And then the day she didn’t like to think about, when she had walked to the door to switch on the porch light and hadn’t. She’d told herself it wasn’t any one thing, although it had happened the same night she’d had a call from her youngest son, David, who was a sophomore at the University of Arizona in Tucson. David, who, like his older brother, Derek, had chosen to live with his father after the divorce. David who made her heart jump when he said he’d like to visit her this June, do some fishing and hang out with her before earning credits toward his geology degree by spending six weeks in the Montana badlands on a dinosaur dig sponsored by the Museum of the Rockies. Martha hadn’t even known he’d applied for the position, and the prospect both thrilled and terrified her. Immediately she’d thought of Sean, what a good mentor he could be for her son, not only on the river. But how would David react, her dating a man in his midthirties when she had seen forty flow under the bridge last October? Of course, that wasn’t it at all, not if she was really being honest. She was simply, utterly terrified of being hurt when it ended. Because it was going to end, like every relationship in her life had ended, and how much it hurt was a function of how long it lasted. And so she had made the excuses, she had built the wall, and the light stayed out.
Stranahan had called her on it. “You cut your happiness to cut your losses later, that’s not a very courageous way of living your life.”
“That’s just it, though. It’s my life.”
Her porch had been dark now through the heart of the winter and into the thaw, four months during which they’d barely spoken. Now, because Sean knew Max Gallagher, she’d have to call him about the body in the chimney. She got into bed and opened her book, the Franklin Library illustrated edition of Gone with the Wind with a cracked spine that she’d glued and reglued, and yellowed pages that she had read and reread since she was a girl. Though she hid it under a dour smile and acerbic wit, what Doc Hanson, the medical examiner, called her “warts and graces,” Martha was a tragic romantic, her doomed love affairs the ever-present minor key of her life. The saga of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, with its deceptions and revenges, its cross-purposes and earthly passions, was the most tragic romance of all.
She propped the book on her chest, thinking about Gallagher, who had the blackguard’s insolence and devilish looks, and wondered at the color of his heart. He had showed her one side of his face. What did the other conceal? In her line of work, people changed their names either to hide something or hide from something. Gallagher’s explanations sounded logical enough, yet it bothered her. She looked over the book to regard Goldie, who was looking up with her amber eyes, her head resting on Martha’s thigh.
“I’ll take Scarlett’s advice,” she said to Goldie. “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
Entertainment, Romance, and Live Bait
Key West, Florida, is the end of the road in the way that the darkest bar is the end of the day. It’s a place where shattered lives exhaust their final hours, where fortune-tellers manufacture hope for the hopeless for a ten-dollar bill, where men who can’t recall when it all went wrong lean in 2 a.m. shadows among six-toed cats that are scarcely more than shadows themselves.
In Key West, people who would pause to consider if they were farther up U.S. 1, or farther up the ladder, don’t. And those who don’t smoke might just light one up.
When Sean Stranahan hopped onto his bicycle at five in the morning, the town was at slack tide, the only sound the hiss of the tires. A liquid trail of Spanish beckoned him toward the deli at the M&M Laundry, where he stopped for Cuban mix sandwiches to go and a shot of sweetened espresso.
“If you need sandwiches tomorrow morning,” the counter man said, “try the Ernesto.” He jabbed his chin toward a feral rooster pecking up scraps behind the kitchen. “It will be tough, but good.”
Ten minutes later he was at the dock, Sam Meslik waiting for him, fistfuls of fly rods bending over the pulsing jellyfish that floated in the oil-slicked water. The big man racked the rods under the boat’s gunwales and they were idling past the sign for the Harbor Lights Restaurant—ENTERTAINMENT, ROMANCE AND LIVE BAIT—then the skiff was up on a plane, shearing the moonstone surface.
Ten minutes later, Sam cut the motor inside a necklace of mangrove islands and Stranahan stepped onto the bow, feeling the way a fighter feels when he dances into the ring to face a better man. Tarpon fishing had proved to be the most masochistic experience Sean had ever had holding a fly rod, not because tarpon were so difficult to catch, but because after the first few jumps it was just your muscles against theirs, and then after a half hour or so it was your heart against theirs and a sober question as to whose would give out first. Men paid $650 a day for the pleasure.
Sixty feet away, the reptilian-looking back of a tarpon arched out of the water as the fish gulped air into its rudimentary lungs, its scales reflecting the fire of the sunrise. Stranahan pulled the fly once, he pulled it again . . . the line stopped. There was a point early on when he was looking up at five feet of fish coming down, and another, seemingly moments later, when the tarpon was so far away that, jumping, it looked like a tangerine minnow imprinted against the mangroves.
“Tell me that wasn’t more fun than eating a ham sandwich,” Sam said a half hour later, when the tarpon wrenched its head to spit out the fly. He smiled, showing the grooves in his front teeth.
Stranahan rubbed the muscles where the rod’s fighting butt had ground into his gut. He’d wear the bruise as a badge of honor. But that first cast was the extent of his luck; after that it was just one mistake following another.
“The tarpon doesn’t eat from that end,” Sam said, when Stranahan cast behind a cruising fish. “Not that left, your other left,” he’d said, when he tried to point out a fish at ten o’clock and Stranahan faced the wrong way. When Sean finally got another of the beasts to eat the fly, he forgot to bow to create slack line when the fish jumped. The leader snapped with the tarpon in midair, its gill rakers rattling like a diamondback rattlesnake. “You set that hook like you were in diapers,” Sam said.
At midmorning they anchored off Sawyer Key to wait out a tide change. “You’re getting better with your insults,” Sean said, removing his sandwich from its tinfoil wrapper.
“Thank you,” Sam said. “I’m thinking about putting a shock collar on my clients, give ’em a zap when they make a bad cast. Say twenty volts casting too short, fifty if they line one and it spooks. Anybody forgets to bow when the fish jumps, I juice him to his knees.”
“That will get you bookings.”
“They’ll be lining up.” Sam shook his mane of graying copper hair. “These guys are all type A’s, they’ve been ‘yes sir’ed all their life and they’re tired of it. They want to be cuffed and spanked. ’Course what they really need is a dominatrix with a whip. A flats guide with a badass tongue is the next best thing.”
“Sam, you’re full of shit.” Stranahan looked off toward the Gulf, marveling at the palette of colors as the depths changed—white grading to tan over the flats, a rind of lemon beyond, then one of lemon-lime, and cutting through the flat, a zigzag channel of deepest emerald.
The phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Don’t you dare answer that fucking thing,” Sam said.
Stranahan flipped the phone open and listened. “I wouldn’t call us friends,” he said. And after a minute: “No, I can’t see that. He used to do a little blow . . . okay, maybe more. Max had this thing about writing on the level, balancing uppers and downers . . . I fly out tomorrow, I thought you knew.”
Sam extended a tube of sunscreen. Stranahan clamped the phone to his ear with his shoulder and rubbed the cream onto his nose. “If you can’t pull her up, maybe you can push her down into the fireplace . . . I know that could make things worse, but you asked . . . You, too. Bye.”
Sam made a cross of his forefingers, as if to ward off a vampire. “I know who it was. She who must not be named. Not on my boat.”
Stranahan told him about the body in the chimney as Sam shook his head. “I don’t know Jon all that well, I didn’t even know he changed his name to Max, but I feel for him. Be hell to get an image like that out of your head.”
Stranahan removed the push pole from its chocks and stepped up onto the poling platform over the transom. “Your turn. I’ll see if I can come up with some creative insults.”
“That be Sam’s pleasure,” Sam said. He reached for the fly rod.
Ettinger parked behind Harold Little Feather’s truck at the road end and unscrewed her thermos cap. She looked back down the valley, her eyes following the switchbacks to the bridge across the river. The Shields was smothered in mist. Beyond it, low cloud cover lopped the top off Sacagawea Peak. A phrase came to her lips. “Into the gloaming.” Who had said that? Tennyson? Robert Burns? Someone from somewhere that saw a lot of rain. She sipped the coffee.
“Martha, my dear.”
Harold’s voice came from the depths of his sleeping bag, which was spread across the bed of his pickup and carried a sparkle of frost.
“Thrange thing happened lass nigh.”
“Unzip so I can hear what you’re saying,” Martha said.
Harold’s head squirmed halfway out of the sleeping bag. “A woman tells me to unzip . . . ouch.”
“Got my braid caught in the zipper.”
“Here, let me.” Martha set her coffee on the hood of the Jeep and climbed into the pickup bed. She frowned at the coarse black hair peeking out of the zipper threads. “I’m going to have to cut it. Goddamn it, stay still.” She wielded the scissors of her Swiss Army knife. “You move, I’ll cut out your heart instead of your hair.”
“You already did that once,” came the muffled voice.
“Yeah, tell yourself that. There, I think I got it.” She forced the zipper down and Harold’s head reemerged. He shook out his hair and saw her looking at him. “What?”
Martha shook her head. “Never mind.” She had cut his heart out once, at the same time he’d cut out hers and claimed it for his own. Then he’d taken back up with his ex-wife, who lived on the Blackfeet Reservation, and at some point Martha had given up waiting for it to fail. Two office romances, if you counted Stranahan, who had contracted for the county as an independent investigator on several occasions. It was strict violation of her own policy. But where else was she going to meet anyone?
She sat back and hugged her knees. “As you were saying,” she said.
Harold struggled into a sitting position. “Had a visitor last night,” he said. “Mr. Gallagher drove in, ’bout four in the morning. Seemed a little taken aback to find me blocking the road.”
“What did he want?”
“Said he forgot his computer. Wanted to hike in and get it because he could plug it in at Meslik’s place.”
“So much for magic.”
Harold raised his eyebrows.
“Something he said about working on a manual typewriter. I’m just talking to myself.”
“You shouldn’t do that, Martha. It’s a bad habit.”
“So I’ve been informed. What did you tell him?”
“I told him to come back this morning. If he was looking to take anything away from the cabin, it’s still in there.”
“Good. I got the impression he was hiding something. All that antebellum charm, he doesn’t fool me.”
“Well.” Harold was examining the damage done by Ettinger’s scissors. “The man hadn’t slept in two days, so sure as hell something was bothering him to come all the way back here.”
Martha nodded. “I just got off the phone with Stranahan down in Florida. He said Gallagher powders his nose. Maybe he left some blow in the cabin.”
“That would be an illegal search, Martha.”
“I don’t think so. But he can put a Canada goose up his nose for all I care. I’m wondering if there’s something else he left behind, something that could tie him to the girl.”
“You’re really thinking along those lines?”
“No. But he’s the only person of interest we have.”
“So how’s the morning shape up?”
“Kent’s driving in. He’s going to chain up and bust through the ruts, so we can caravan to the cabin. Walt’s coming, so is Wilkerson; that way we cover our asses. This looks like an accident, but if it turns out the victim died somewhere else and was placed in the chimney, I want Gigi to conduct the evidence search before the place gets mucked up. Then, by God, we’re going to get that poor girl out. I don’t want to bust up the stonework, but if that’s what it takes . . .”
“Any fairy dust?”
“Don’t go Walt on me today, not even a little bit.” She blew a strand of hair out of her eye and felt the cold of the metal pickup bed working into her bottom. Far below, they could hear Jason Kent’s four-by-four diesel grinding in third.
“This place gives me the willies, Harold.”
“You mean the legend of the crazy woman.”
“No, I think that’s a myth. I don’t mean it couldn’t happen. Indians pincushioned their share of settlers, I just doubt that a woman whose husband and children were slain by the Blackfeet would go on living here by herself, or they would let her. Never mind that her spirit would haunt the place ever since.”
“Glad you’re on our side.”
“No, it’s these mountains. You go to other ranges, the Madison, the Absaroka, they have a soft side, meadows, flowers, they show you their beauty. You can feel the breeze, hear them breathe. But the Crazies are just a jumble of peaks. They’re nothing but hard edges and cold winds. There’s a remoteness factor, a godlessness. You aren’t welcome here. You can feel it.”
“Rock has no heart.”
“Is that what your people say?”
“No, but aren’t you the poet this morning?”
Martha shook her head. It wasn’t like her to show a feminine side, to shed the insulation that hid her from the male half of the world.
“This one bothers me,” she said quietly. “Whether she’s the Huntington girl or isn’t, she was somebody’s daughter. I woke up last night thinking about that crow mincing down the chimney and cocking his eye, wanting dibs. What must go through a person’s mind at a time like that?”
“Nature might have given her a little mercy there, Martha. You figure she’d have been hypothermic in a few hours. You get dreamy. They say it isn’t a bad way to go.”
“I hope you’re right. Here’s Jase.”
• • •
Montana was a country of three-fingered men. It was hard to find a bar where at least one of the regulars didn’t shoot pool off a bridge made of knuckle stumps, and the sheriff’s department’s contribution to the count was Jason Kent. Kent powered down the driver’s side window of his truck. He draped his big left arm out the window and drummed his pinkie, ring finger, and thumb on the door panel. The middle and first fingers he’d lost in a farm machinery accident and kept in spirits in a Mason jar in his bathroom. In the passenger seat, huddled in a puff jacket that made her look like a hand grenade, sat Georgeanne Wilkerson. She was eating a carrot.
“What’s up, doc?” she said brightly.
“Good morning, Gigi,” Ettinger said.
Kent slowly nodded, moving his eyes from Martha to Harold. “You think you can move that truck for me, chief? Or are we on Indian time today?”
“No, I’ll move it. I know white men can’t walk.”
Martha looked from one to the other. Kent was a “just the facts, ma’am” man, as deliberate in his manner as a mudslide. Here he was trading insults with Harold at seven in the morning, an hour when Martha had scarcely ever merited more than a grunt out of him.
“You’re getting to be downright garrulous in your middle age,” Martha said.
Kent seemed to think about it. “Just naturally talkative, I suppose. Now, who wants to lie down on the snow and help with these chains?”
• • •
Harold’s perimeter search was perfunctory. It had snowed and melted several times in the past couple weeks and any tracks the girl had made were long obliterated. What first caught his eye was a tag of animal skin sticking above the snow under the eave of the cabin’s west wall. Upon excavation this proved to be an elkskin jacket that fastened with bits of bone. The jacket was stained to a dark color and had been crudely hand-sewn. Harold knocked the ice and snow off it and brought it under the porch. He continued his search, finding a link of chain that was attached to a metal contraption. He frowned, then, realizing it was a chimney cap, uttered a low whistle that brought Ettinger to his side. The cap was not a simple cover to keep rain out, but part of a top-mounted damper system that fitted flush with the chimney opening. The assembly was old and warped, the screws that had attached it rusted through, the gasket rotted away, but the link chain that dropped down the chimney so the occupant could open or close the damper was still attached. Harold thought it was possible that the girl had been strong enough to have pried the assembly off the chimney before climbing in. It threw a little water on Martha’s suspicion that the victim didn’t understand chimneys and might be from somewhere south, and he said so.
“If she had a flashlight, once she removed the damper she’d have seen it was a straight shot down into the firebox. She took off the jacket so she could fit. Maybe we need to give her more credit.”
“But she still managed to get herself stuck, didn’t she?” Ettinger said.
Harold canted his head.
“You don’t think so?”
“Just reserving judgment, like I was taught.”
Ettinger left Harold reserving his judgment and turned her attention to the cabin. Briefly she looked for the computer, but that was a waste of time. Gallagher had been lying, she was sure of that much. She noted that the floor had been swept by the last renter, the comb marks of the straw broom a pattern of whorls in the corners. She sat down at the table and began to leaf through the guest logbook, occasionally glancing at Wilkerson, who wore knee pads as she collected fiber and hair evidence.
“A lot of traffic,” Martha offered.
“I’ve got hair samples from at least a dozen individuals. Mostly Caucasian, a few strands of Latino or Native American. By the way, the Santa hat you bagged had samples from two people on it. Without doing the lab work I can tell you one is dark blonde, which Harold says is the color of the victim’s hair, but there’s also some curly hairs in a much darker brown. A lot of dogs have been in and out. Malamutes, huskies, longhair dogs. You’d think people came in here with sled teams.”
“At least one party did,” Martha said. “Here, look at this entry.” She pushed over the log. The entry was dated January 3.
Wilkerson read aloud, “Something was prowling around last night. The sled dogs set up a racket and Bill had to go out and calm them down, especially Molly. We found tracks this morning that were three lengths of a dollar bill. Bigfoot?”
The entry was signed, “Yikes! Carolyn.”
• • •
The electric line camera Harold lowered into the flue was scarcely bigger than a fountain pen. It offered a low-lux color recording that Ettinger, Wilkerson, and Jason Kent could view on the screen of Ettinger’s battery-powered laptop. As well as manual focus and zoom, the camera had remote-control pan and tilt, and it quickly became apparent how the girl had become fixed. It was not, as Ettinger had surmised, because the flue grew progressively smaller, but because she had brought one knee up to her chest, after which she could neither descend nor climb without dislocating her hip and was effectively trapped.
“Wouldn’t that be more likely to happen if she was climbing up, not going down?” Ettinger’s question was to the room.
Wilkerson nodded. “It could happen either direction. It’s the kind of mistake you’d make if you were trying to hurry. Looks like somebody’s going to have to go spelunking.”
Martha raised her eyes.
“We have to check the upper part of the flue before we pull her out. If we pull her up first, then the flue will be contaminated by fibers scraped off her clothes. The only way we’ll know that she got stuck in the process of going down is by finding fibers scraped off on the descent.” Wilkerson held up a bag containing a clear plastic jumpsuit. “That’s why I brought a condom. Do I go, or does anyone want to volunteer?”
It was a facetious remark. Wilkerson was the only one who would have any shot of descending the chimney, or, having done so, know what to look for. Ettinger was a strong, solid woman who stood eye to eye with many men. Walt was her size, add an inch. Harold was six foot two or more, and Kent, in his birthday suit, had to weigh 240 pounds.
“I’d volunteer,” Walt said, “but my package would get stuck. That’s luck for the ladies, but the downside of an endeavor like this one.”
Everybody laughed, even Martha. “You wish, Walt.” She cocked a finger at Wilkerson. “If you get stuck . . .”
“I won’t. I brought my Under Armours, just in case.”
Under Armour was compression underwear, and Wilkerson, dressed head to toe in stretch polyester with the plastic jumpsuit fitted over it, a neoprene cap to cover her hair, a face mask, safety goggles with a magnifying bifocal, and a headlamp clamped to her forehead, looked like a deep-sea diver as she climbed the ladder a half hour later. Martha had to hand it her. She wouldn’t have gone headfirst down that chimney for anything. The thought of coming face-to-face with a face with no eyes made her shiver.
“This is like something you’d see at a Salem witch trial,” she muttered, standing at the base of the ladder beside Kent, as Walt and Harold stood on opposite sides of the chimney, holding Wilkerson by her feet as they lowered her into the opening.
Half an hour after her head disappeared down the flue, Martha heard Walt say that he could see her toes wiggling. It was the signal that she wanted out.
A tense minute later, at least for Ettinger, who had a bad habit of envisioning the next day’s headlines—“Crime Investigator Suffocates in Chimney, Hyalite County Sheriff Mum”—they’d hauled Wilkerson up and she was sitting on the roof ridge. When she regained equilibrium, she rather shakily descended the ladder and took off her cap.
“Gigi, you look like a Kentucky coal miner,” Ettinger said. “That was . . . way beyond the call.”
“I’ll put today in my back pocket for the next time we negotiate a raise,” Wilkerson said. “But it was sort of cool, really. I’d rather get a little dirt on my face than sit in a lab any day.”
“So what’s the verdict?”
“She was going down. I bagged threads that look like poly. I’ll take some fibers from her clothing once we get her out.”
“Gigi, I wish we had some water here so you could clean up.”
“Just give me a minute to breathe clean air. I think if they lower me on a rope this time I can get far enough down to get a harness on her.”
Martha nodded. Beyond the call didn’t begin to describe it. “How does she . . . look?”
“Dead at least a week or the crow wouldn’t have had time to build a nest. Birds pecked her eyes and ate away her lips. Her gums are receding. Too bad it’s so cold up here or the Calliphoridae would make timing a cinch.”
“You mean blow flies,” Ettinger said.
Wilkerson nodded. “As it is, we’ll have to rely on decomposition rate. This time of year the initial process is largely from inside out, from bacteria and protozoa in the body. Her stage falls somewhere along the time line from initial decay to putrefaction. So the odor isn’t too bad. If that guy who found the body had got here a couple weeks from now, the stink would have dropped him flat on the floor.”
“This falls under the category of too much information. Let’s get her out and then you can work your magic.”
“I’m just trying to prepare you. A lot of law enforcement personnel think they’ve seen it all and can handle it, but their experience is usually limited to fresh kills and desiccated remains. It’s the in-between vics, the black putrefaction and butyric fermentation cadavers, that give you nightmares.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
• • •
They couldn’t get her out. The body rocked when they pulled on the harness, but the offending knee wouldn’t budge. Wilkerson offered to crawl up from the firebox and see if she could get a harness around the foot belonging to that knee. If they could pull it down until the leg was straight, there was a decent chance the body would follow. Ettinger agreed to the strategy.
Wriggling on her back into the firebox and elbowing up several feet, Wilkerson managed to get the harness over the shoe on the drawn-up foot. When she climbed down, Harold tucked his braid into his jacket and took her place in the firebox, looking none too happy about it.
The first heave yielded a half foot of progress and a sickening crunching sound as the hip dislocated. A shower of ash fell into the firebox. One more heave and Harold was able to reach up and place a hand on either ankle. Both legs were extended now and he wrestled the body down the flue a few inches at a time.
“Her torso reaches the smoke chamber she’ll come down all—”
He never finished the sentence, but started choking as a curtain of ash rained down into the firebox. A second’s hesitation, then the body cascaded through the ash, falling loose limbed into Harold’s arms. For a moment he cradled it, the way a fireman cradles a body from a burning house. Then he scrambled out from under the weight and backed crablike across the room until coming up against the wall.
“I haven’t seen anybody move that fast since Walt stepped on the rattlesnake in Yankee Jim Canyon,” Martha would later say.
But that was later. To a man and two women they just stared at the body, the legs sticking out from the hips in an obscene spread, and the chin resting on the chest so that the hair, matted with soot, fell forward in a wing across the face. Then, as gravity asserted its imperative, the body collapsed sideways, the head and neck coming to rest against the side of the firebox in that awkward position that airline passengers fall asleep against a stranger’s shoulder. She stared at them then, from the blackened holes where her eyes had been.
Nobody spoke. Finally Walt asked Harold if it was the Huntington girl. The question was absurd. What they were looking at was recognizable as having once been a human being, but only to the extent of a ballpark age and probable gender.
“I just had pictures and some video,” he said. He shook his head. “Be a hell of a thing if it was.”
“Why do you say that?” Martha asked.
“Because her name was Cinderella.”
Martha knew the name but hadn’t made the association with the chimney. She could see the headline, and hated herself for it.
Excerpted from "Crazy Mountain Kiss"
Copyright © 2016 Keith McCafferty.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In April, a young woman’s body is found stuffed in a chimney. She is Cindy, an upcoming rodeo star that disappeared last November with a ranch hand. Because of her disappearance the police don’t really know how to treat this case. Cindy’s mother just can’t let it go that someone happened and is refereed to Sean Stranahan. Sean is laid back and hates technology. He investigates the lives of various characters from the rodeo crowd, ranchers, and many others. He meets some good folk and others that could be considered an odd duck. His relationship with Martha also keeps things interesting for his investigation. I admit that this is my first Sean Stranahan book. I’m sure if I would have read the other three in the series it would have made more sense about Sean’s relation to Martha. But I didn’t feel very lost jumping into book four. This is a casual mystery, it’s not as fast paced as other books but it does remind me of the Longmire series. After you get into the book a little ways it does pick up. I grew up in Montana so it was interesting to me to read about it. I did laugh because you will find all kinds of people there, just like Sean meet in the book. Sean was a great laid back character. I also felt so bad for Etta; you can’t help but feel bad for her wanting to know what happened to Cindy. This is a really great mystery. There is a great story and wonderful characters. I will definitely be checking out the first three books in this series. I received this book for free from Viking and Penguin Books in exchange for an honest review.
Dollycas’s Thoughts I so look forward to my yearly trip to Montana to catch up with Sean and Martha. I have yet to be disappointed. This 4th installment takes us to the Crazy Mountains with some crazy characters and crazy situations. Cinderella “Cindy” Huntingdon has been found after missing for several months but sadly she is not alive and she is found in a most peculiar place, the chimney of a cabin deep in the woods. Martha has no choice but to look to Sean for help and suggests the girl’s mother hire him so they can try to get to the bottom of what happened and how Cindy ended up in that chimney. Their non-relationship has driven a bit of a wedge between them but they put the investigation first. I have said it before but will say it again, I love the way Keith McCafferty writes. He has a gift. The characters and the settings just come alive. I felt like I was trekking though the woods right along with these characters. The stars, the sky, the mountains, the rivers, the snow, all perfectly pictured in my mind because of the author’s wonderfully descriptive words. I truly escaped into this book. This story is filled with characters my mother would call “odd ducks”. They have disabilities, idiosyncrasies, odd ways and temperaments and some have more than one of these traits. Many of them are suspects at one point or another. Sean and Martha have their hands full. Most knew each other from their rodeo days and through the course of the story we get to know them each in depth. This is not a suspense filled edge of your seat story, although there are a few moments. Sean is a laid back guy. He lives in tipi and loves to fly-fish and hates cell phones and computers unless their use is absolutely necessary. The story unfolds much the same way, laid back. Sean asks questions, pokes around a bit, ruminates and ponders, talks things over with Martha, until all the clues start to fall into place and lead him in the right direction. I read this book in two evenings but it was one I wanted to savor and drag it out because I was truly enjoying my time in the Montana Mountains.
The story Crazy Mountain Kiss follows private investigator Sean Stranahan and sheriff Martha Ettinger as they try to solve the horrific death of a corpse found stuck in a chimney. The corpse is later identified as Cinderella “Cindy” Huntington a runaway girl who’s been missing for the past five months. As the story goes on we find out more about events leading up to her death. Crazy Mountain Kiss is an extremely well written mystery. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a fast paced thriller and that you can’t turn the pages fast enough. This is not that type of mystery. The author does an excellent job of telling the story. Every few chapters a new plot twist would be revealed and new information would come to light. At first the book was a little slow but after about 60 pages the pace started to pick up. I haven’t read the earlier books in this series so I wasn’t that familiar with the characters relationships and at times it would become confusing. I would definitely recommend reading the series in order because there are some instances where they refer to previous events in the story and will definitely spoil earlier books. Another interesting thing about this book is how the Crazy Mountain played an integral part of the story. The mix of characters consisted of ranchers, former rodeo stars, law enforcement and other disreputable people. They were all very well written and diverse. One of the main characters was a Native American so being able to read about the culture and their beliefs was a nice touch to the book. I did have an issue with the dialogue it read more like a 50s western than a modern day investigation. Other than that this book exceeded my expectations and was a quick leisurely read. I would recommend this series to fans of Jø Nesbø I think that their characters and their writing style is very similar.
Review: CRAZY MOUNTAIN KISS by Keith McCafferty I always enjoy discovering series new to me, in which the author is unafraid to really peel the characters apart and examine them, more keenly than they know themselves. Add to that a plot that is bordering on bizarre, while remaining realistically possible, and the exciting result is CRAZY MOUNTAIN KISS. [and yes, I will be reading this entire series featuring private investigator--fishing guide--tipi resident Sean Stranahan of high-mountain Montana]