When a young girl is found dead in the mountains outside Timber Creek, life-long resident Officer Mattie Cobb and her partner, K-9 police dog Robo, are assigned to the case that has rocked the small Colorado town.
With the help of Cole Walker, local veterinarian and a single father, Mattie and Robo must track down the truth before it claims another victim. But the more Mattie investigates, the more she realizes how many secrets her hometown holds. And the key may be Cole's daughter, who knows more than she's saying.
The murder was just the beginning, and if Mattie isn't careful, she and Robo could be next. Suspenseful and smart, Killing Trail is a gripping read that will have readers clamoring for more Mattie and Robo for years to come. Fans of Nevada Barr and C.J. Box will love this explosive debut.
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Friday, Late August
Deputy Mattie Lu Cobb liked her new partner. In fact, she was quite taken with him. She enjoyed being with him, something she’d found lacking with previous partners, and they seemed compatible. She hoped she could learn to trust him.
She wondered what trust would feel like.
Pulling her cruiser up to a stop sign, Mattie stole a quick glance. Born in Russia, he was a handsome guy: straight black hair, intense brown eyes, and white teeth that flashed when he grinned. Large and muscular, strong and rugged, he was the only one in the department who could outrun her in a cross-country foot race.
In addition to all that, he could sniff out a missing person.
He was Timber Creek County’s new police service dog, a German shepherd named Robo. Together, Mattie and Robo made up the first K-9 unit ever mobilized in the small town of Timber Creek, Colorado.
Mattie turned right onto Main Street and accelerated, heading toward the town’s only high school. Timber Creek High sat at the end of the nine blocks that made up Main, its backside nestled against the edge of a hogback called Smokers’ Hill by students past and present. She was supposed to meet with Sheriff McCoy and John Brennaman, the school principal, to discuss setting up a K-9 inspection program for the school.
Thinking about the meeting stirred up a swirl of dread that churned in her gut. Her meetings with Mr. Brennaman during her junior year of high school had been decidedly unpleasant. Would he remember her?
She resisted checking her appearance in the rearview mirror. Usually, she didn’t care much about her looks. Her skin, hair, and eyes could be summed up with brown, brown, and brown. And usually, she didn’t care that her square chin made her look stubborn and belligerent. Both were true. Today she’d taken time to style her short, wispy hair so that it softened her features somewhat, and she hoped to send a message to Mr. Brennaman that she’d grown up and was now a different person.
She looked over at Robo. He panted and yawned, his tongue forming a pink curl.
Whatcha think about how we look?”
Deepening his yawn, Robo’s throat squeaked.
Yeah, I agree. Who cares?”
As she drove, Mattie scanned the streets and sidewalk out of habit. She cruised slowly past Crane’s Market, its stucco walls the color of Pepto-Bismol.
So Robo, you’re going to school, huh?”
Facing front with his ears pricked, Robo stood on the gray-carpeted platform that replaced the back seat of the Ford Taurus. He looked much more excited than Mattie wouldever be about school. But that was Robo. He was one of those dogs that K-9 officers referred to as a high-drive alpha male. It didn’t take much to get him excited.
She couldn’t believe how her life had changed. When drug traffic in the national forest had threatened Timber Creek, local merchants and ranchers had purchased a patrol dog for the sheriff’s department. And Mattie had won the assignment of being Robo’s handler by beating her colleagues in a cross-country endurance test. The twelve weeks she’d spent at K-9 Academy were among the best weeks of her life. She’d loved everything about it--learning how to work with and care for the dogs, mixing with the other handlers, learning from the trainers.
Static erupted from the cruiser’s radio, followed by the dispatcher’s voice: K-9 one, copy.”
Mattie noted her position. She was approaching the Water Hole Bar and Grill. She picked up the transmitter and pressed it on. Fifth Street and Main. Go ahead.”
Rainbow Anderson, the daughter of two hippies who’d settled in Timber Creek sometime during the sixties and the county’s improbable dispatcher, responded. K-9 one, we need you to respond to a ten-eighty-eight in progress. well...it’s not in progress this very minute, but...well, I guess you would call this a ten-eighty-eight that already happened. Over.”
What suspicious activity? Where? Just say it, Rainbow.”
Up Ute Canyon road about ten miles. A forest ranger called in a request to investigate suspicious activity and a blood spill.”
A blood spill? Hunting out of season? I’m en route to Timber Creek High School to meet with Sheriff McCoy. What’s my priority?”
Oh, the meeting’s canceled. Sorry I didn’t call you, but I didn’t know you were going, too. Sheriff McCoy is heading up the canyon now.”
Go, code two, up Ute Canyon Road. Ten miles from Ute Canyon turnoff, look for a two-track that veers left and leads to an old hunting cabin.”
Mattie signaled a right turn so she could head for the highway. The sheriff obviously thought this could be something important.
Copy. Show me en route to Ute Canyon. Over.”
Code two meant normal response without emergency lights and siren, but she quickly brought the cruiser up to speed. Sheriff McCoy might want her to search for evidence. If so, the sooner she got there, the better, before any of her fellow deputies could unwittingly contaminate the crime scene.
The dread she’d been feeling all morning changed to excitement. This would be her first K-9 assignment since the academy, and she couldn’t wait to get started.
Robo huffed a quick bark. In the rearview mirror, Mattie saw him wag his tail and shift from side to side on his front paws.
He must have caught hold of my mood.
You know you’re going to work, don’t you?”
Robo whined, licked the air, and stared out the windshield. At the academy, he’d outperformed all the other dogs. The few times he’d screwed up, it had been her fault, doing things like not paying close enough attention to his body language or not trusting his instincts. It seemed like she needed training more than Robo. Nervousness tightened her shoulders. The others would be watching. That put pressure on a dog--not to mention the handler--and it could be distracting.
The cruiser ate up the miles, and they reached the turnoff to Ute Canyon Road in no time. Leaving the smooth highway behind, she turned onto a hard-packed dirt road covered with loose gravel. It led upward into a canyon that cut through the mountains. She slowed for sharp curves, holding the steering wheel steady as the cruiser rattled over rough areas ribbed with washboard.
Willow and mountain juniper gave way to forests of towering pine: ponderosa with their sweeping boughs and great stands of stately lodgepole. She rolled down the front windows so she could take in the soothing forest scent to help settle her nerves.
Robo pushed forward to sniff, thrusting his nose through the heavy wire mesh that separated his compartment from the rest of the vehicle. He bobbed his head, obviously getting a nose full. She could tell from the satisfied look on his face that Robo enjoyed the scent of the forest as much as she did.
Mattie kept checking the odometer while Ute Canyon climbed ever upward. Five miles into the canyon, huge potholes threatened to swallow a wheel entirely. She steered around them, keeping to the middle of the road when she could. Leaving the canyon floor, the road clung to the side of the mountain and rose toward the peaks. Its edge, where there was rarely any guardrail, dropped off in a fifty-foot plunge.
By the time the odometer indicated she’d driven nine miles from the turnoff, the road narrowed to little more than one lane. She started up a steep rise, keeping watch for a two-track road that would veer off to the left. She hoped she hadn’t missed it.
At the top of the rise, she could see dense evergreen forest that stretched for miles and miles in an undulating mountain panorama. A hundred yards farther, she spotted the two-track winding away through the trees.
There it is, Robo. I think we’ve found it.”
Robo waved his tail but kept his eyes on the view outside the windshield.
Mattie slowed to creep forward as she directed the cruiser off the road and down into the ditch to access the two-track. When the roadbed scraped the bottom of the car, they lurched sideways, sending Robo skidding across his platform, though he remained on his feet.
Sorry about that.”
Again, Robo went to the window and sniffed.
After a couple minutes of rough driving, Mattie spotted the sheriff’s Jeep and another cruiser parked in front of an old cabin. She’d found the right place. Slowly, she bumped over the rocks in the track and pulled up beside the Jeep.
Sheriff McCoy stepped out of the cabin onto a plank porch, followed by a woman wearing a forest ranger’s uniform. Abraham McCoy was a big man, built solid as a tree trunk, with massive shoulders and a thick neck. He had skin the color of a Hershey bar, dark walnut eyes, and a bushy black mustache. He’d grown up in Timber Creek and attended the town high school, just like Mattie, but about fifteen years ahead of her.
Rumor had it that McCoy could have gone to any number of universities on a football scholarship, but he’d chosen to commute to a local junior college instead so he could help his mother care for his ailing father and younger siblings. He’d been a deputy for years before the county electorate voted him in as sheriff.
The first time Mattie met McCoy, she’d been a six-year-old kid, scared to death. Her world and family had just been shattered. He was a young deputy. She could still remember the sad look on his face as he picked her up and carried herto his patrol car. For a moment, she’d felt safe, enfolded in his arms against his solid chest. For one moment.
She switched off the cruiser’s engine. Getting out of the vehicle, she told Robo, You’re going to wait here.”
He protested with a short yip.
In return, Mattie gave him a look that apparently quelled any further urges to kick up a fuss. She walked toward McCoy, meeting him halfway between her car and the cabin.
He introduced the ranger. This is Sandy Benson of the US Forest Service. She called us up here.”
Benson gave Mattie a firm handshake. She was a strongly built woman, muscular, a little taller than Mattie’s average height. A broad-brimmed ranger’s hat sheltered her auburn hair and fair skin. Her hazel eyes held a look of concern.
I was telling the sheriff that I saw a pickup truck and dog trailer up here last week. I stopped to talk to the guy, and he said he was doing some search and rescue training with his dogs. Seemed different, him being up here alone. Usually people train in groups. But he didn’t seem to be breaking any laws, so I left him to it. When I passed by here this morning, I noticed the same rig.”
McCoy added a detail. You say that was about eight fifteen this morning.”
Benson nodded. I went up old Flowers Trail to clear some deadfall. About an hour later, I heard a shot coming from this direction. I started down the trail to check it out. On my way, I heard another shot. By the time I got back here, the rig was gone. I decided to take a look and found a large blood stain on the porch.” She shrugged, spreading a hand out front. I had no idea what to think, but with the narcotics problems we’ve been having around here lately, I thought I’d better call you guys.”