were focused like icy lasers on Johnson. “You get away from there. You hear me? Move. Who the hell are you?”
A flustered Johnson backed away, said, “Sorry, there, just interested in the RV.”
“Yeah. For the love of God, don’t go peeking into our windows.”
And she slammed the door.
Virgil said to Drake, “Sorry about that; Johnson really does like the RV.”
“Cheryl gets a little spooky,” Drake explained, casting a what’re-ya-gonna-do smile at Virgil. “She’ll cool off. No worries.”
Virgil nodded, not thinking the woman was going to calm down any time soon. Spooky? More like going ape shit. She was mad. “Thanks for your time, we’ll be on our way.” He motioned to Johnson and they headed to the Escalade.
As Johnson drove Virgil twisted so he could see Katy in the backseat. “Listen, even if the local deputy isn’t any good, you’ve got to report the theft. If they can show this Phillip kid took the money, and he’s not eighteen yet, his old man might be held responsible by a court, and you’d get the money back. Some of it, anyway. Or if your father has homeowners’ insurance.”
“That could take forever,” she said, lower lip extending, looking miserable. Lost in her thoughts she drew on the condensation on the Escalade’s window, and Virgil decided to give her some space as the Escalade bounced down the rutted road to the dude ranch.
They dropped off Katy, then headed into Grizzly Falls, the local town, where Virgil bought a copy of every newspaper the convenience store had, and Johnson bought some tourist crap that he planned to give to his girlfriend. The town was tiered, a newer section built on the crest of a hill, homes and businesses running along the ridge, the older part of town in the lower section spread out on the shores of the river where falls fell across shelves of flat rocks.
They stopped at a restaurant called Wild Wills where a stuffed grizzly bear stood on display in the lobby. Not only did the thing seem to be on guard near the front desk, it was dressed in a witch’s costume, black hat tilted jauntily on its head, the brim dipping below a glass eye, black cape tossed over its huge shoulders, a broom tucked under one forearm. A black pot with steam rising from inside sat beside the thing’s huge feet.
“What the hell is that?” Johnson asked, recoiling as he stared at the bear’s shining claws and teeth gleaming, frozen in a perpetual scowl.
“The official greeter,” Virgil guessed.
“Man, this is one weird fuckin’ town. All those statues of Big Foot lining the street and now this.” It was true, they must’ve passed half a dozen statues of Sasquatches on their way into town, including a ten-foot-tall wooden image in the parking lot of the convenience store where Johnson had bought the touristy crap.
They ordered cheeseburgers and fries and ate them in silence.
On the way back to the dude ranch, Virgil said, “You’ve gone kinda quiet. What’s with that?”
“I dunno,” Johnson said. “Thinking things over, I guess.”
“That doesn’t sound like Johnson Johnson. Thinking things over.”
On the way back, the Rosestone RV passed them, going in the opposite direction.
They didn’t wave.
At the ranch, Johnson said he was going to take a walk.
“In the rain?”
“I can’t tell it’s raining; this is a seven-hundred-dollar rain suit,” Johnson said.
“Still thinking things over?”
Johnson rubbed the back of his neck and looked across the golf course where two men in Gore-Tex were chipping near a soggy green.
The door to the owners’ cabin burst open and Katy, carrying a waterproof bag, leaped across the porch to dash through the drizzle. Ignoring the rain, she grinned widely. “You guys won’t believe what happened.”
“From the way you’re smiling, I’d say you found your money,” Virgil said.
“Nope.” She was shaking her head. “Phillip’s dad came down here.”
That didn’t sound like good news.
She went on, “He said Phillip called from the bus station and said he was going to Minneapolis and wasn’t coming back. He told his dad he’d taken the money for a bus ticket but felt bad about it. And then Bart Weeks told my dad he didn’t want any trouble, and he wanted to pay it back.” Her grin widened and she blinked against the rain, oblivious to the fact that she was getting wet. “So he did, every penny of it. In cash.”
Virgil said, “That’s a little hard to believe.”
Johnson spread his arms and said, “Hard to believe, but we’ll take it. We’re gold.”
Katy said, “Yes, we are. I want to thank you guys for what you did. Thank you so much.”
Then she looked directly at Johnson.
“I’m sorry I said you look like a crook.”
THE NEXT DAY WAS COOL, the sky still tinged with darkness, the remaining clouds occasionally spitting some drizzle, but they could see stars far to the west, the cloud cover breaking up as night surrendered to dawn. Virgil and Johnson got their gear together and pulled on rain jackets, then took the insulated bag from Ann Waller who had made sandwiches and filled a thermos with coffee for them.
“An extra thanks for helping with Katy,” she explained. “It’s a big deal to her. To us.”
They were on their way to the Escalade for the trip to the river when Dan Cain stepped out on the porch of his cabin with a cup of coffee in his hand and called after them, “Good luck. Leave a couple fish for us.”
Johnson stopped, turned, and asked, “You coming?”
Cain shook his head. “Not yet. That fuckin’ Lang had one too many last night. He’s just getting up now. We’ll be a half hour behind you.”
The river was shallow and quick, with occasional pools, and it was gorgeous, with the stone-cut bank on the far side looking like a piece of petrified wood rising a hundred feet above them, the dawn coming, sunlight glinting on water. As dawn gave way to daylight Virgil spent almost as much time looking at the landscape as he did fishing, and the fishing was decent. A little after eight o’clock they stopped to sit on a rock and eat the egg-salad sandwiches that Ann Waller had made them for breakfast, when they heard a pop from upstream.
The report of a rifle echoed over the water.
They both stared downriver and waited.
No second shot.
Nothing to disturb the silence but the lapping of the water and the cry of a blackbird, its red wing visible in the brush on the shore.
“That was a rifle, a center fire,” Johnson said with a frown. “What the hell was he shootin’ at?”
Virgil didn’t know, and he had no idea what was in season for a hunter here in Montana. “If that was target shooting, the shooter was easily satisfied.”
“I don’t like the idea of people shooting around in heavy brush when there are lots of folks out on the river, fishing,” Johnson said. “It gives me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades. Like we oughta be wearing our blaze orange.”
They finished their sandwiches as the sun rose over the eastern horizon, then climbed back into the boat and went down the river. Fishing. Catching nothing for half an hour.
And then a man started screaming.
“Virgil Flowers. Where the hell are you?”
The voice sounded frantic, scared as hell.
They both looked back upstream, trying to pinpoint its location.
They’d just pulled their boat to the side of the river and were heading toward the sound of the shouting, when Jim Waller, driving a John Deere Gator on what was little more than two ruts in the brush, found them. His face was grim, his lips compressed.
He didn’t bother climbing off the idling utility vehicle but shouted, “Dan Cain’s been shot. He’s dead. For the love of Christ, some dumb ass shot him in the back.”
“You call the cops?” Virgil asked as he and Johnson slogged through the reeds, mud, and bitter brush to Waller’s vehicle.
“Yeah, but they’ll
There was nothing to see.
No crime scene.
Virgil’s gaze swept up and down the river as he stood over the body and listened to a barely coherent Lang who had been fishing with Cain, the men in separate boats.
“I don’t know what happened. I mean, he was trailing me down the river about a hundred yards or so.” He was sweating and breathing hard, though it wasn’t from the temperature. Exertion and adrenaline had turned his face beet red. Fear rounded his eyes and he kept swiping at his forehead, wiping away the sweat.
The man was freaked.
As was Johnson.
He wasn’t good with dead bodies, and at the first chance he took off along the road, heading back to the spot where the car was parked.
Virgil listened as Lang explained in short bursts, his gaze traveling from the body to Virgil, along the river’s edge and back to the body.
He had looked Cain over, the shot had gone through his back, exited his chest, probably caught him right through the heart. Good shot, Virgil thought, if Cain really was the intended victim. If the whole thing was an accident, then both Cain and the shooter were damned unlucky. But if it were an accident, why hadn’t the shooter showed himself? Run for help?
A kid? Or just a coward?
Or a cold-stone killer?
Cain had been trailing Lang down the water by a hundred yards. Lang had gone around a bend in the river when he heard the shot. He’d gone on, but when Cain hadn’t reappeared around the bend, Lang, now worried, went looking for his friend and found him out of the boat, in the river, already dead, aground on some shallow rocks.
Lang said he’d dragged Cain’s body to the riverbank and pulled it up on shore. He believed Cain was dead, but wasn’t sure, and he’d run to get help.
“I found Jim, here,” he said, pointed at the owner of the ranch who was standing near his Gator, taking in the entire scene. “And we called 911.”
“That’s good.” He paused. “You own a gun?”
“A rifle?” Lang asked.
“Don’t keep one in the car.”
“No, and Dan didn’t either. Neither one of us hunt and I don’t believe in that self-protection crap. Too many people get killed with their own weapons.” His gaze strayed to the body again. “Oh, Jesus, who would do this? Why? God, it must’ve been an accident, right? Some asshole with a rifle.”
“That’s what we’ll have to find out,” Virgil said. “Now, everyone step back onto the road. Clear this area.”
He could do nothing but keep people away from the body, keep them out of the woods along the river, where the shooter might have been.
And wait for the local cops.
A deputy arrived a few minutes later, parked away from the area, and walked in. He was a tall man and introduced himself as Pete Watershed. He wore aviator sunglasses and a scowl. Virgil told him what he’d done, which was almost nothing aside from clear the area around the body and where a shooter might have been potentially hidden. A couple more deputies arrived, then the sheriff, Hooper Blackwater. About six feet, he was all compact muscle and carried himself as if he were in the military. Short-cropped black hair, coppery skin, and high cheekbones suggested he might be part Native American. He was all business. He surveyed the area, frowned, barked out some orders to his men, took a closer look at the body, then pulled Virgil aside and after checking his ID said, “You’re an investigator? You do this kind of thing all the time?”
“When I’m on the job.”
And often, when he wasn’t. Like now.
Blackwater asked, “What do you think? What happened here?”
“Haven’t figured out where the shooter was or if this was an attack or an accident. If it was intentional, it’s hard to figure out why. Random target? Paid assassin? Some nutcase getting his rocks off? Someone with a grudge? So far that’s all unknown. I talked to Lang; he and Cain are from Bismarck, and they really don’t know anybody here but the Wallers. They’ve been at this camp a couple of times. This trip up they haven’t left the camp since they got here, day before yesterday. They fished the first day, sat out the rain yesterday, and got back at it today. Mr. Waller said there’d been no trouble at all at the camps, no arguments, nothing like that.”
“And you and your friend think it was a rifle shot.”
“We both have experience with all kinds of firearms. It was a rifle.”
“What happened to the guy you were with?”
“He went for the car. He doesn’t do well with this kind of thing.”
“Not a cop.”
“Lumber business. You can catch up with him back at the WJ Guest Ranch if you want, but I’ll vouch for him. He was with me the whole time.”
The sheriff rubbed his forehead. “We’ll want to talk to him.” Then he asked, “Got any theories?”
“Too early. Lang found him in the river, dragged him out. Cain’s a big guy. Would have been easy to see in the woods, as it was light. There was only one shot. I suppose somebody could have been poaching deer. We’ve seen a couple.”
“That’s pretty thin. One shot, hits the guy through the heart from the back, and the shooter disappears.”
“It’s thin,” Virgil said. “I kinda think he was murdered. You need to get an investigator in here, soon as you can. Start looking at their backgrounds. Lang doesn’t really have an alibi. He seems real. I mean, looking and listening to him, I buy his story. Still, I’d hate to think it was something else, that you might have a crazy out there.”
“We’ve got a detective on the way,” Blackwater said. “I’ll ask her to stop and talk to you, your friend, Cain, and Waller when she gets here, which ought to be pretty soon.”
The sheriff’s lips compressed as he surveyed the area again.
“This is bad business. Real bad business.”
Johnson Johnson wasn’t at the cabin when Virgil got back and his Cadillac was gone, so Virgil grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and went into the bathroom to shave, shower, and put on fresh clothes. He was just pulling on his pants when he heard a truck pull up in front of the cabin, and then a second one. He looked out the window and saw Johnson Johnson getting out of his Escalade and a woman shutting the door of a Jeep.
She was tall and solidly built. She had a good figure but wasn’t slim. Nor was she heavy. Just solid and athletic-looking. Her hair was light brown with hints of red, pulled away from her face and tied at her nape. Her lips showed a hint of gloss and when she shoved a pair of sunglasses onto her head, he saw that her eyes were greenish, with flecks of gold. From habit he noticed the gold band on her left hand.
Had to be the detective.
Here to do her job.
Regan Pescoli was pissed as she drove into the parking area of the WJ Guest Ranch.
She’d already stopped by the river where deputies had blocked off what appeared to be the crime scene. She’d viewed the body, got all the particulars from Blackwater, then headed here to talk to Virgil Flowers.
This morning wasn’t the first time she’d been here. Her daughter Bianca knew the oldest Waller girl, Katy, and had spent some time here a few years back. The dude ranch and golf course hadn’t improved much. In fact, it looked more dilapidated than ever, as if surviving on a shoestring.
The apparent homicide of a fisherman was the first case she’d
MatchUp by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes