When a book is on pre-order it's difficult to know what it's about, so take a peek at Hugs and Bullets, coming March 31st. You're seeing it first here!
Jack The Hunter-Gatherer
Even a cell phone acts as an iPod these days. Pink belted out Get the Party Started through my ear buds to the thud of my cross trainers pounding the mountain trail. Two miles of tough terrain so far—tree roots and jagged rocks jutting out from the footpath spelling disaster for a distracted runner—another half-mile before I reversed direction to head back home. A five-mile jog was my limit today in this heat, sweat dripping off me like summer rain.
I could argue I only run to exercise my dog, but that would be a flat-out lie. I run to clear my head, plan my day, keep my twenty-eight-year-old body toned and in shape. Some might say I'm a big woman, which I guess I am. Tall, raw boned, curvy but without an ounce of fat, I'm happy to report. So, yes, exercise is what I do to keep relatively sane while not puffing up like a blowfish after binge eating burgers, ice cream, and anything chocolate.
I'm also a former K-9 cop. A disgraced former K-9 cop, but that’s a story for another day. Speaking of which, where was my dog? I stopped on the trail and whistled. No response. I shouted out his 'failsafe' word, the one he wasn't allowed to ignore. I removed my ear buds; no sound of paws thumping through undergrowth to find me. I scanned the area on both sides of the trail. Trees, long grass, fallen logs, ditches, but no Jack. He must be out of range of my voice. I pulled the remote from my fanny pack, the one capable of sending a signal to his electronic collar. This time I transmitted the command. Sure enough, three minutes later and there he was, streaked with mud and panting like a freight train.
“Jack? What have you been up to?”
Bum waggling and passing gas before he assumed the sit/stay position in front of me, his mouth curved on a drooly grin as he dropped something between my feet. Whatever the gift, he expected high praise for retrieving it. I bent at the knees, staring in fascination at first, not realizing what he had found. The smell of decay hit me with a wallop. I struggled to take shallow breaths behind a couple of tissues I pulled from my hip pack. “You’ve been digging again. How many times have I told you to leave things where you find them?”
Jack flattened on the ground, put his head between his paws, and let out an “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again!” howl. That’s when his prize began to take shape. I jumped back, electricity jolting my spine as I noticed more detail. A human hand, a small one, most likely a woman’s.
“Good grief, Jack, you’ve really done it this time. We can’t leave this here on the trail.” I gagged, tasting bile while snapping photos with my iPhone. Wishing I was anywhere else but here. Realizing I had to call the police, not something I was eager to do. Worse than that, knowing I had to find the body that went with the hand because Jack was the only one who knew where it was. “Schnitzels.”
Using a clean poop bag, I scooped the hand up, knotting the closure around the belt of my hip pack. “Go, Jack! Find!”
For me it was like old times, out in the field hunting a perpetrator or searching for a victim. The difference was I wasn't packing a sidearm and the dog was my only backup. My relatively untrained one-eyed Pitbull rescue was not yet wise to all K-9 ways. Sheesh, but what else could I do? If I didn't find the body belonging to that hand right now, it might never be discovered.
Jack disappeared ahead of me for minutes at a time before circling back, anxious for me to keep up. We broke out of the woods to cross a secondary trail before plunging back in the forest on the other side. We hadn’t gone far when he barked twice and froze in place. He had found his prize.
I called the pittie back, fed him a treat before approaching cautiously on my own. Not too close to disturb evidence, just enough to confirm it was a woman lying half buried among the leaves and dirt. She had been dead for some time, at least three or four days by my estimation. Sadly, I had no doubt. She had been the victim of a violent crime.
Detective Hottie Pain-In-The-Buns
Murphy's Law is when you start off having a good day and it ends in disaster. I thought finding a dead body qualified. Then again, the dead woman was having a worse day, so I shouldn't complain about my own. It was July fifteenth, an unusually steamy morning in the Colorado mountains. A real scorcher with humidity in the red zone deep in the forest without benefit of summer breezes, the weather providing ideal conditions for me to smell the fetid remains. Of course, Jack helped the process along by dropping the human hand at my feet after a sprint into the nearby woods, and it was at that point my morning jog took me off trail to find the deceased.
I glanced at my Fitbit after an hour of watching the National Park Service and local, Gnarly Peak police rope off the crime scene. Now I was swatting at flies while waiting on some homicide detective from the Colorado State Patrol. He had been called to the scene by none other than my grandfather, the Gnarly Peak chief of police, who was the reason I hadn’t wanted to call the cops in the first place. There’s just something uncomfortable and unsettling about reporting to my grandfather I had found a dead body. Mainly because Grampy had wanted to hire me for his squad when I arrived back home in Gnarly Peak. But that’s another story.
The statie was last to arrive, the local squad detaining me until he could interview me himself. His five-o'clock shadow, shaggy dark hair, and tall, muscled body seemed at odds with the knife creases in his tight-fitting jeans, sky-blue dress shirt, and navy blazer. I thought he might look more at home on the cover of Sports Illustrated rather than standing beside a rotting corpse.
“And you are?” I asked.
“Homicide Detective Reid Tremaine.” He seemed bored, providing no other details about himself. We might have been exchanging meatloaf recipes for all he cared. He was far more interested in jotting notes on his iPad about the crime scene than quizzing me. I waited for him to notice me again, could hear voices of the coroner and crime scene techs examining the body.
Forensics searched the ground for clues and NPS uniforms protected the area from the occasional hiker or jogger. The air was still, no twitter of birds, not a sound in the undergrowth to suggest we stood in an area of woods inhabited by deer, bears, coyotes, and mountain lions.
“Your name is?”
I tuned back into Tremaine, catching my reflection in his mirrored shades. Mink-dark tendrils escaped my spiky ponytail to frame the sweat streaking my temples. The dirt smudged beneath my tawny eyes gave me a raccoon look. My ratty tee, jogging shorts, and worn-out runners added to my scruffy appearance. Somewhat embarrassed, I stooped to give Jack some bottled water while staring at the maggots crawling on Tremaine's shiny black cowboy boots. He should have worn paper booties over his footwear. I stifled the urge to grin as I stood. My conscience prickled for about half a second. Should I tell him? Nah.
“Agatha Sloan. My friends call me Aggie.”
Mr. Hottie Detective did something with his tablet. In a moment, my personal data flashed on the screen. “You were a Chicago K-9 Unit officer for three years. You have a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and another in Psychology.” He glanced up from his perusal to shoot me a smile. “I'm impressed.”
“Big whoop,” I said, rolling my eyes and chuffing out a breath. “What does any of that have to do with the body I found?”
The rancid smell permeating the air did nothing to improve my dazzling banter. Responding to repetitive questions from uniforms and my grandfather before Tremaine arrived had also tried my patience. “Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done. Listen, Red—”
“Don’t call me that. My name is Aggie.”
“With your fiery temper? Red suits you much better.” Tremaine's mouth twitched upward again while he typed something else on the iPad. I guessed he was stalling long enough to come up with an intelligent question. “I know you've answered this for the local police but tell me again. Did you recognize the victim?”
I shook my head, amazed he would even bother to ask. “Not without her face. Have you seen the body, Tremaine?”
He ignored me while a nearby NPS officer dressed in gray and green shot me the side-eye from under her Smokey the Bear hat. It was a sympathetic glance before she moved off to make room for morgue attendants transporting a stretcher and body bag. The mid-morning sun beamed through tree boughs, spotlighting the victim. My heart wrenched and I gulped in air to hold back tears. There was nothing dignified or private about a person's body when she was the victim of a heinous crime.
“Is there anything about her that seems familiar?” Tremaine focused on me like a bear toying with its next meal. “You sure she's not from around here?”
Enough was enough. I knew her own mother couldn't identify this woman. “She's been bloated and dead for days, in case you haven’t noticed, so body type is a tad difficult for me to make out. She's not wearing jewelry. Her hair was blasted off her head by what I assume was a shotgun, and animals have scattered her remains. So, no, I don't know her, and I'm out of here before you ask another stupid question.”
I turned to move quickly and bounced off Gnarly Peak’s police chief, Andrew Kelly, also known as my granddad. Bandy-legged with a fast-food paunch hanging over his belt, he resembled a potbellied stove stuffed into a police uniform. Unfortunately, I knew his mind to be sharp and fast as a switchblade. He took me by an elbow and eased me back around. “Ah, Aggie, I assured the staties you would be happy to work with their detective on this case.”
“Oh, brother.” I stared at the chief while tugging my arm free, a spark of anger in my voice. “I've answered his questions and now I'm late for work. I have to get moving.”
“One of my officers will drive you back. Take Detective Tremaine with you.”
Grampy flicked a leaf off a shoulder, pretending not to notice my astonished expression. I waited, but he did not explain himself further. Listen, if he didn’t care I was already late to open our restobar and grocery, who was I to complain? I was stuck and he knew it.
“It will be my pleasure,” I snapped. He laughed, knowing I was super steamed. He read me too well.
The drive home was quiet; the only sound was my dog snuffling at Tremaine’s neck, hair, and ears from the seat directly behind him. I sat behind Millie Shore, the slightly pudgy police officer driving. Millie and I used to smoke funny cigarettes behind the school during our days at old Gnarly Peak High—I guessed giving up weed had caused her to pack on a little extra weight.
I did not tell my pittie to cease and desist his fascination with the pain-in-the-buns detective. Tremaine said nothing; although I'm sure he kept his hand on the butt of his Glock. I knew excessive interest from a potentially attack-trained dog could be unnerving. On the other hand, the sooner this jerk moved on to finding the killer, the better for me and my peace of mind. Good dog, Jack. Keep it up.
Still, my gut churned and not in a happy way. I had left police work back in Chicago. Along with my cheating, hop in the sack with any female with a pulse, ex-boyfriend. And I had absolutely no interest in renewing my acquaintanceship with either one, which drove Grampy crazy.
We rolled up the drive to my home tucked in the mountains along the shores of Black Bear Lake, five miles northeast of the small tourist town of Gnarly Peak. I love my house. It's a two-story built by my great-grandfather of thick beams, wood shingles, and screened porches covered by a green tin roof. I upgraded the plumbing myself with a little help from my friends, installed more glass to let in the sunshine and spectacular views, and took down walls inside to allow an open concept on the ground floor. Carpentry is something I learned at my grandfather's knee as well as the plumbing and electrical.
Grampy moved to town to be closer to his work after Grammy died and this cabin became my hidey hole from the world. In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m mostly a loner, except for a few friends left over from my high school days. The ones who hung in there when I tried to push them away after returning to Gnarly Peak. Thank goodness they did. My previous life in Chicago drained me of all things good in my life, except for Jack, and I became a sullen, pathetic mess.
A small inheritance from Grammy when she passed on six months ago allowed me to pay for upgrades to the cabin, which now belonged to me. Grammy’s passing was also part of the reason I was here running the restobar and grocery, so my gramps could continue as police chief of Gnarly Peak.
I unlocked the French doors off the kitchen at the side of the house while glaring at super cop trailing after me. “Knock the maggots off your shoes before you come inside.”
Tremaine did, looking surprised to see them invading a pant leg. He slid the doors closed behind him, filling the room with a play of muscles and loose-limbed grace I found more than distracting. He moved like a wildcat ready to pounce. And his skin-tight jeans molded his backside in such a way my breath stalled in my lungs. No, wait, that’s wrong on so many levels. What I meant to say was his clothing style and larger-than-life presence in my kitchen caused me to reassess my previously poor opinion of his homicide detecting skills. It had nothing to do with how he looked, how he smelled, how his strong hands might feel wrapped around my waist.
“It's odd,” Tremaine said.
His voice pulled me from those X-rated musings. Snap out of it, Aggie. You’re not some hormonal teenager wanting to go behind the bleachers in high school with the football MVP. Heck, no, I had already done that. A big mistake.
Jack slurped from his water dish while I moved to a granite counter and the coffee machine, feeling heat rise from my neck into my cheeks. I hoped Tremaine hadn’t noticed me giving him a full body scan. I was disgusted with myself. I wasn’t that insecure girl anymore and the last thing I needed in my life was another man.
I hastily added water, a filter, and fresh coffee grounds before hitting the ON switch. I needed caffeine before I showered and dressed for the day ahead. I also needed to stop losing myself in Tremaine’s mysterious smoke-gray eyes, his too masculine…everything. I turned to see the detective staring at me, arms crossed over his expansive chest.
“The fact you've got someone killing where you live, and you don't seem to give a rat's butt about it.”
Well, that statement was a mood killer, jolting my previous gushy feelings back to hard reality. I felt my eyebrows arch almost to my hairline while I washed and dried my hands. “One body in the woods does not mean there's an offender in the area. Whoever killed that woman has likely moved on.”
“Seriously? You don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned?” His gaze drilled into mine. “The person who killed her is still out there, unless you think she shot herself and then disposed of the shotgun.”
“I don’t know what happened to that woman – God rest her soul – but it’s not my job to find out. Just do your job and leave me the heck alone.”
I avoided his scowl by grabbing the bread knife and slicing open rolls, then digging sandwich makings from the fridge. Ham, provolone, lettuce, and mustard landed with a thunk on the counter. Jack and I enjoy a big lunch when we manage the restobar and grocery. Greasy burgers and fries from the grille don’t cut it when it comes to a healthy lifestyle, much as I loved eating them. I probably needed my head examined but I made enough for Tremaine as well, since he seemed to be my new best friend and had no obvious transportation back to the state police office in Pinecone Falls.
I glanced at him again over my shoulder while I grabbed a fresh jar of dill pickles from the pantry. “I’ll drive you as far as my place of business where someone can pick you up. I’ve got things to do, and they don’t include you.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Tremaine shook his head, his jaw tightening until I thought it might crack. “My gut says whoever slaughtered that woman is living somewhere outside your front door. You’re a Chicago trained police officer, first on the scene of this murder, and I need your cooperation to find her killer.”
I reached for the soft-sided cooler, adding carrot sticks and apples. I was tempted to add Ho Hos because he was pushing my buttons and causing a need for massive amounts of sugared snacks, but I held back the urge. It was my turn to do a headshake. “Can we wrap up this conversation and move on?” I glanced at the wall clock, stress jangling my nerves. “Just spit it out and get to the point. You'll feel better, and I might actually gain a clue to what you're blathering about.”
“I’m happy to. By all accounts, you were a crackerjack police officer in Chicago.”
Inwardly I cringed, wanting to avoid any mention of my time living in Chicago. I slapped a to-go coffee mug on the counter beside him, a bad feeling prickling my spine. How much did Tremaine know about me? “What are you getting at? What the heck do you want from me?”
He walked into my personal space, standing inches away from my nose. The smell of his woodsy aftershave did little to calm my fears. “I want you to be my eyes and ears in Gnarly Peak. Since the murder appears to be a crime of passion, I’m guessing the killer is male. I’m also thinking he’s one of your neighbors in this friendly little community. And you're going to help me find him.”
“In a pig’s eye, Tremaine.” Was this guy for real? “I’d rather eat worms.”
“Let’s put it this way, Red,” he said, shooting me a tempered grin. “If you don’t want the truth to come out about why you really left Chicago, you’ll toe the line and do what I want.”
And that said it all. I was in deep crapola.