"Mystery fans who prefer their whodunits in a cozier form than the old school hard-boiled will be pleased." –IndieReader Approved
A mysterious fire in a remote forest clearing; a woman's charred bones; unexplained tracks in the rutted road—the only clues Deputy Andi Pelton has to what happened. Then she meets an old man living alone in a forest compound that obviously houses many people. Sex trafficking in the Montana wilderness? As Andi and psychologist Ed Northrup struggle to solve the brutal and fiery murder, Andi faces a fear she didn’t know she had. The horrors they unearth lead them deep into the appalling reality of prison gangs and a cult led by a malign Bishop—and threaten to overwhelm Andi and Ed’s romance and her growing bond with her “step-girlfriend,” Ed’s adopted daughter, Grace. Will that center hold when Andi finds the killer holding a knife against her throat? And if it does and she succeeds, will she be able to face her greater fear?
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Monday, Labor Day
As Ed yanked the cooler and folding chairs out of his pickup, he didn't bother to hide his irritation. "For a girlfriend, you're awful damn distant." A rotten opening to the question he wanted to ask her.
Andi was quiet for a moment. "Just thinking what a brutal five months we've gone through." She looked at him. "You haven't been much of a boyfriend lately, either."
"What's that mean?"
"When was the last time you were home in the evening?"
"Hey. Seeing patients all day, helping with the wildfires almost every evening in August, volunteering at the fire camps on weekends. Doesn't leave a lot of free time. And you were working overtime as much as I was."
Andi turned away.
Ed looked up at the ugly scar of the Hunter's Peak fire, 3500 acres halfway up the mountain, still smoldering. Thank God the wind had changed over the weekend, blowing the smoke out of the valley instead of blanketing it on their heads, as it had for weeks. There'd been talk of cancelling the fireworks tonight, but Magnus, whose field they were parked on, had decided to irrigate the field heavily and station the valley's four fire vehicles at the corners of the field in case of any stray sparks.
He pulled three lawn chairs from the truck. He heard Andi sigh.
"I'm sorry, Ed. You're right, we've both been crazy busy. No reason to argue with you."
He decided it was an offer of truce. "And tonight's for fun, not for arguing about not having any fun."
She grabbed the chairs. "Grab the cooler, will you?"
"Let the guy do the heavy lifting, eh?" Lighten it up, he thought.
Andi shrugged and started walking toward the field where families were already setting up their picnics. Ed watched her for a moment, wondering what was wrong. What Andi had said was true. Too true. It had been a lost summer, all work, no play. They were both feeling stretched way too far. The flood in early April, then Jared Hansen's threat to shoot his schoolmates and the surgery on his brain tumor in June, and weekend trips to Missoula so Grace could visit him, then the back-to-back wildfires in August. We're just tired and grumpy like everybody these days, he decided.
Behind him, a horn beeped. He turned. It was Grace's pink Volvo creeping along in a line of traffic finding parking spots along the dusty road beside the wide green pasture. He waved as she pulled abreast of him, rolling down her window.
"Hey, Northrup, could you please put a lawn chair in the back seat? I'm watching the fireworks with Zach's family."
"Andi carried them over already." He pointed toward the open field. "Find her and you can take one."
"Thanks, Northrup. Over and out."
As she drove on, Ed smiled. He liked how she always used his last name — unless she was annoyed with him. Times like that, she called him Dad. He set down the cooler at the edge of the pasture and looked around the green field for Andi. She stood fifty yards away. His last tinge of irritation with her vaporized; to him, she was the loveliest woman on this field...and he had his question to ask. Staying annoyed with her would be a lousy intro for that.
He lifted the cooler, grunted, and walked her way. When he reached her, he put down the cooler and touched her arm. "Sorry, pal. No call for me crabbing out the last night of summer."
Andi nodded, then pulled a bottle of Pinot Noir from the cooler. Silently.
"You upset about something?" He took the bottle from her.
She shook her head. "Yes. No. Don't take me personally. I'm one big menopausal nerve."
He moved closer. "Need a hug?"
She shook her head. "It'll just make me sweat."
Ed stepped back. "Well ..." He didn't know what to say. Over Andi's shoulder, he spotted Grace strolling in their direction, eyes glued to her iPhone. It was beyond him how she managed to not trip over the chairs and blankets scattered across the field.
Andi sighed. "I'm sorry, Ed. God, let's reboot this and I'll try to resemble a human being."
He relaxed. "Don't worry about it, kid. Let's enjoy a fine summer evening." It was a fine evening, and if his question worked the magic he hoped it would, it'd soon get even finer.
The afternoon sun was passing behind the towering cottonwoods at the edge of the field along the river. Deliciously cool air moved gently through the early evening. He opened the cooler and grabbed two plastic glasses. "You ready for a glass of that Pinot?"
"Oh my God, yes!" She took the glass he held out. "Pour, before I turn into the Hulk."
Grace arrived. "Hey, step-girlfriend."
"Hey, kiddo. What's up?"
Grace held up her phone. "I'm looking for Zach and his family. Hi, Northrup."
"Hi, honey. Here's your chair." He held out the third lawn chair to her. "How's your day been?"
"Until just about now, it's been like sliding down a razor blade into a pool of iodine."
Ed laughed. "Why? What's wrong?"
"Last day of summer vacation and nobody could do anything. Zach was haying with his dad, and my girls were all doing, uh, family activities." Andi laughed. "You meeting Zach here?"
"Soon as I find him." Grace resumed tapping her phone.
After watching her for a moment, Andi turned to Ed. "Think Magnus will make an appearance?"
It surprised him. "Why wouldn't he? It's his fireworks show."
Grace, beside them, still tapped her phone. Andi lowered her voice and leaned toward Ed. "After his trouble last spring?"
Ed quieted his voice too. "He'll be here, don't worry." Without lifting her head and still tapping, Grace said,
"Magnus almost killed the priest that abused him."
Ed's eyes widened. "How do you know that?"
"Magnus Junior told some of us."
"I'm always amazed at what you kids know."
"I'm always amazed at what you adults don't."
The lead vehicle, a dark sedan, edged slowly into the clearing that brooded under towering pines. The bishop ordered, "Stop here." Behind the lead car, a big van waited on the narrow forest road.
The driver nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Is the site ready?"
"Yes, sir." The driver cut the engine. "Virgil and Clinton say the shack —"
The bishop waved him silent and gazed quietly at the ancient weathered hulk, at its moss-covered shingles, its gray walls of gapped and mismatched boards, its warped door. "There is a window?"
"Yes, sir. Around the corner from the door. Clinton broke out the glass and nailed a couple two-by-fours across it."
"Good." The bishop pointed toward two two-by-fours resting against the wall beside the door. "Tell me." "When we're ready, Virgil will nail them across the door. There will be no chance of escape."
The bishop nodded again. "Well done. And the witnesses?"
"Here." He pointed to where a large rectangle had been cleared of its weeds, down to the dirt. It was about ten feet long, maybe six wide.
The bishop considered it for a long moment.
But the bishop shook his head. "Acceptable." He pointed at the edge of the forest, behind the rectangle. "What is that pile?"
A mound of junk rested against the trunk of one of the towering ponderosas hemming the clearing.
"It's the cabin's contents, sir. We wanted nothing left inside that could be used."
"Yes, or for suicide."
"Sir, I have a question."
"Are you worried someone will see the smoke?"
The bishop took a long breath. "Perhaps. But it will not last long, and I cannot afford to wait. The lesson must be taught and then we move the product on." He pointed beside the bare ground of the rectangle. "Direct Guy to park the van there, and station Virgil and Clinton in their places. Then we will begin."
Grace stood facing Andi and Ed, fingers still flying on her phone. The third chair, folded, leaned against her hip. She looked up. "I could use a little of that Pinot Noir you guys are drinking."
Ed laughed. "You could use a twenty-first birthday, too."
"Northrup, please. You let me drink wine at home."
"At home." He looked out over the field, quickly filling with families. "This doesn't look much like home."
"Think of it as a temporary homestead." She grinned. When Ed simply smiled back, she added, "Okay, I'm with the program."
Andi laughed. Ed liked that sound. Grace went back to tapping her phone.
Ed watched a moment. "He's not answering?"
She glanced up. "He'll answer. I'm texting Jen and Dana, see if they're here yet."
Here was a fifty-acre field along the Monastery River, a tiny part of Magnus Anderssen's vast Double-A Ranch. Townspeople were gathering for his Labor Day fireworks show, his annual gift to the valley before the opening of the school year. Ed looked out at the other groups scattered across the grass, irrigated for a month and mowed by Magnus's crew over the weekend. By the time the fireworks went off, three-quarters of the valley's families would gather here.
Grace's phone beeped. "Finally!" she blurted. After checking the phone, she stuffed it in her pocket. "Zach and his boys are under the trees. Catch you later, guys." She grabbed the lawn chair and swung it over her shoulder, then went zigzagging through scattered blankets and lawn chairs toward the tall cottonwoods along the river.
Andi and Ed settled into their chairs, watching her go. After a moment, Ed shook his head. "Can you believe it? She's a senior already."
"Time flies when you have kids."
Three years ago, Mara Ellenson, Grace's mother and Ed's ex-wife, had abandoned the girl and disappeared. It turned out, Mara was dying and Grace had no other living relatives, except her birth father, who was serving a life sentence. When Mara died, Ed had adopted Grace. They buried Mara in the Jefferson Community Cemetery.
He took a sip of wine. "What do you think senior year'll bring?"
Andi chuckled. "She told me, 'I'm going to do everything seniors do.'"
"Hmm. Not encouraged by that word everything. I probably should make a mental Post-it to have another FDPB chat."
"Father-Daughter Preventative Biology. What do you think she meant by everything?"
Andi shrugged. "Drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll, if her senior year is anything like mine was."
He looked at her. "What I was afraid of."
She touched his arm. "Just kidding. My mom died the summer before I became a senior. I pretty much hibernated the whole year. I was a wreck."
"I hope to hell nothing bad happens to her this year." Andi sighed. "She's got a good head, Ed. Trust her."
"Her, I trust. It's not what she does, it's what happens to her I worry about."
Andi stretched. "Let's change the subject, not spoil the evening. We need a good time."
He nodded. "You're on. Perfect sky, silky air ..." He wondered when the right moment would come for his question; it sure wasn't now. He'd almost driven their mood into the ditch. Again.
She looked up to the mountains. "Still dry up there."
He looked up toward the bare blue sky. "You know, just smelling fresh air again feels like a miracle. Thank God for the wind change." The second wildfire had been contained just last week, but both burns still smoldered behind them, high in the Monasteries. Ed took a long breath. The fragrance of mown grass and water anointed the air.
Andi looked at him. "You realize it's the first evening since Jared's surgery in June that we've spent together?"
Ed heard a tone that sounded like regret in her voice. "Yeah, I do. I've missed you, kid."
She patted his arm. "Even with all my whining about overtime and hot flashes?"
Ed stood and took her hand. "We're here now. What say we wander around and say hi?"
For a moment, Andi said nothing. Then she smiled. "You go." She stretched. "I'm going to sit here, sip my wine, and relax."
"Then I'm relaxing right here beside you."
He sat down and glanced over. She smiled again.
He almost asked his question, but decided to pour himself another glass of wine first. Wine warms the heart. He'd read that somewhere.
The big van pulled slowly into the clearing, and parked where the Bishop had indicated. The driver got out. At first, the woman beside him did not. He wore a sleeveless shirt and a milky orange ball cap. The bishop ordered him, "Guy, move them onto the witness area." He pronounced the French name, "Gee."
Guy opened the side door of the van, and the other men, Clinton and Virgil, roughly ushered out six terrified women and pushed them toward the weed-cleared rectangle, lining them up on the scalped dirt facing the shack.
The women — more like girls — were filthy, their eyes wild with terror; one girl pressed hers tightly shut. Old tears had streaked the filth on their faces. As they stumbled past him, the bishop's driver wrinkled his nose at their smell — sweat, urine, dried menstrual blood. The girls' brown foreheads shone with sweat, despite the cooling air. Their ink-black hair lay matted and wet against their skulls. Virgil and Clinton positioned themselves behind the girls, arms folded, waiting. Guy joined them, silently.
While the girls were being lined up, the woman who'd waited in the van, Beatrice, had climbed out and walked to the front of the bare earth rectangle. For such a large woman, her movements were fluid as a gymnast's, as graceful as her eyes were cruel. Now, facing them, she glared at the girls. "¡Levántese y observen!" she barked. Stand and watch!
The bishop moved to the edge of the witness area. One of the girls turned to look at him, and Beatrice swiftly slapped her. "¡Ojos al frente!" Eyes to the front. After the slap, though, Beatrice's own eyes briefly saddened and she fingered an amulet, a rusty triangle, on a string around her throat. Then she hardened again and threatened the girl with another slap. The girl cowered.
The bishop beckoned to Virgil and Clinton, then nodded toward the van. Guy remained behind the line of girls, his muscular arms folded.
Virgil led the way, and opened the rear cargo doors. He reached in and brought out the end of a rope, tugged it, softly first, then roughly. A woman, small like the others, so disheveled and foul that she might have been feral, was dragged out by the neck and fell to the ground. Virgil and Clinton seized her under the arms and stood her upright, facing the bishop, who walked slowly to her. The rope trailed behind her. Dried blood splotched her bare feet. Sagging against the men's hands, the woman whispered, "Piedad, Señor." Pity, sir.
The bishop slapped her face; her head banged sideways against Virgil's shoulder. One of the other girls cried out, and the bishop turned.
"Silencio," he said, very softly. Turning back, he directed his driver, "Remove the rope."
The driver opened his knife and cut the collar from around her neck, leaving a raw red scrape of blood. She started to drop again, but Clinton and Virgil yanked her up. The bishop approached her. Putting one finger below her chin, he slowly lifted her head and, like a priest bowing reverently over the holy bread, he leaned down and gently kissed her on the forehead. Her eyes drifted shut.
"Remove her," he ordered.
Andi took the wine bottle from Ed and topped off her glass. As she was putting the bottle back in the cooler, Pete Peterson, senior deputy in the Adams County Sheriff's Department, strolled up. Pete, like the other deputies, was quietly wandering, watching the crowd, absorbing the quiet murmuring conversations. It passed for crowd control in a community that mostly controlled itself.
"Ed, Andi." Pete grinned, saluting. "Look at you, lady, enjoying off-duty wine." Every Labor Day, Sheriff Ben Stewart chose one of his deputies to enjoy the fireworks off-duty, and this year, Andi had been the lucky one. "Me, I gotta make sure there's no mass murderers lurking." Pete chuckled.
Andi stiffened. An aftershock, she knew, from last April's high-anxiety Jared Hansen case, when the boy had amassed rifles and a pressure cooker and threatened to kill the senior class. It turned out the poor kid had a brain tumor, but words like mass murder still jarred. Ed would call me post-traumatic. Probably am.
She shook it off and said to Pete, "Go protect-and-serve, partner. Me, I'm all about wine-and-fireworks."
Pete grinned. "Enjoy, you two. I'm on my appointed rounds."
Ed saluted. "Take care, Pete."
Ed's salute struck Andi as funny. For a moment, she enjoyed watching Pete chatting with families as he made his rounds. She took another sip of the good wine.
Without warning, her body caught fire. Heat swept over her chest and shoulders, up her throat. She made her mother's gesture, fanning herself. As if this does any good. She took a long breath, then another, then leaned down to the cooler beside her chair and retrieved the cold wine bottle, pressed it briefly against her wrist. "Refill?" She passed the bottle over to Ed.
He shook his head, so she pressed the bottle against her wrist again before placing it back into the icy cooler.
"Does that really work?" he asked, nodding at her wrist.
"Naw. But it's something to do." She wanted to tell Ed about the anxiety that sometimes came with the hot flashes, but didn't want to get into it, not tonight.
He chuckled. After a sip and a long gaze over the field, his voice sounded thoughtful. "I've been thinking. You realize I'm going on fifty-nine?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bishop Burned the Lady"
Copyright © 2018 Bill Percy.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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.
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Monday, Labor Day,