After sixteen years serving and protecting the citizens of River Falls, ruggedly handsome Sheriff Henry Clark is pretty sure life holds no more surprises and is starting to think about hanging up his hat.
But then a gang of thieves busts the safe at the local resort and makes off with the jewels, and Clark finds himself playing catch-me-if-you-can, chasing a sexy female con artist with an affection for marsupials and ceramic oddities who stirs feelings in him he thought he’d never have again.
Release Date: December 3, 2019
Sheriff Henry Clark wouldn’t have minded so much, but River Falls was having a freakishly early snowstorm and Mrs. Wiltmire was insisting on showing him the outside of the window where the thieves had come in. He was pretty sure he could have gotten the same idea from the inside. He didn’t know what she wanted him to do, dust the sill for fingerprints in the snow? He had left his earmuffs at home, not expecting the change in the weather, and fat, wet snowflakes were collecting around the rim of his hat and down the back of his collar.
“Oh, yeah? Is that so?” he said during the pause in which Mrs. Wiltmire collected another lungful of air. One of these days, he promised himself, he was going to chuck it all and move to Florida, except he didn’t think he could afford it with alimony payments coming out of his pension checks. He really wished Mrs. Wiltmire would invite him in and offer him a cup of coffee. He could have borne her loquacity better indoors with his hands wrapped around a mug of French roast.
“And what’s more,” Mrs. Wiltmire went on, “Cynthia Flintlock says she saw three suspicious men lurking about in the trees outside her house.”
“Mm-hmm,” Clark said, because Mrs. Flintlock was an even less reliable witness than Mrs. Wiltmire. Bit prone to hysteria, these old ladies. Privately, he chalked it up to a house-bound life and too many late-night crime shows. He shifted his stance slightly, and some of the snow on his collar drifted down his back. He shuddered.
“You know, they broke into the safe up at the resort and stole all that jewelry two nights ago!” Mrs. Wiltmire was saying.
“Well,” Clark said carefully. “Somebody certainly did. Too early to tell who.”
“But Muffins is part Sphinx!” Mrs. Wiltmire was indignant.
Clark knew the animal in question well: a hairless, pink, scrawny creature with the devil inside it. He had more than one scar from when he had tried to get the fiendish animal down from a tree last April. His own guess was that Muffins had jumped out the broken window after the thieves had left and sauntered off out of sheer cussedness.
He rubbed his chin and tried to look suitably troubled by its loss. “And, er, besides Muffins, nothing else was taken?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” she asked. “I’m almost sure I did. There’s my grandmother’s earrings, and the pearl choker, and my amber necklace—the one with the gold beads.” She continued, ticking items off on her gloved fingers. “And,” she concluded, “that face jug my great-grandfather bought.”
“And this, uh, face jug thing—it’s valuable, is it?”
“Well, it’s old!” Mrs. Wiltmire declared, as if age necessarily increased its value. She frowned at him. “Shouldn’t you be writing this down?”
“Maybe indoors,” Clark ventured, still hoping for that cup of coffee, but there was the sound of a car, and they both turned their heads to watch its progress up the street.
The car pulled up to the curb and the engine turned off. The driver’s side door opened, and a chubby young man got out.
“Hey, boss!” he said. He had no coat but was wearing a brown trooper’s uniform with a black turtleneck underneath. On his shoulder there was a brown and yellow badge of the sheriff’s department. Clark had never seen him before in his life.
“Who the heck are you?” he demanded, remembering just in time to tone down his language because Mrs. Wiltmire was standing right there.
“Fred Orlick,” the kid said, extending his hand. “I’m your new deputy. Heard you were out on a call and came along to see how I could be of assistance.”
“There must be some mistake,” Clark said, returning the handshake in confusion. “I don’t have a deputy.”
“You do now!” the kid said cheerfully, hitching at his duty belt. “County sent me over this morning. Someone on high seems to think you could use the help.”
“I should say so!” Mrs. Wiltmire interjected. “All the crime we’ve been having around here!”
“Look,” Clark said, annoyed and trying to keep it out of his voice, because after all it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was standing here. “I’ve been sheriff here in River Falls for sixteen years, and I’ve always managed just fine on my own without a deputy. No offense,” he added.
“That’s all right, sir. Maybe I’ll change your mind.”
“No,” Clark said. “No, I’m pretty sure I’ve got things handled here, so—I tell you what, I’ll just make a few calls, and we’ll see you’re assigned to a good spot where they can really use you.”
An expression of concern settled into the young deputy’s face. “Gee whiz, sir. I was under the impression you had a ring of thieves working the resort area. Have you identified, apprehended, and brought the criminals to justice already?”
Clark gritted his teeth. “Not yet.”
The deputy’s face cleared. “Then I can help with that! What seems to be the problem here?” he asked, looking toward Mrs. Wiltmire.
Clark quickly jumped in before the old lady could take it from the top.
“Maybe you could invite this young fellow inside, give him a cup of coffee, and tell him all about it,” he suggested to Mrs. Wiltmire. He gave Fred a pat on the shoulder. “Brought a notebook with you?”
“Well, get it out. Mrs. Wiltmire wants to make sure you write it all down.”
Mrs. Wiltmire nodded emphatically. “That’s right. Make sure it’s all in the report.”
“I’ll let you two do that. I’ll just be getting back to the office, then,” Clark said. He touched the brim of his hat and took a big step backward in the direction of his squad car.
“You can count on me, sir!” Fred rapped out smartly. Clark half-expected him to follow it with a Boy Scout salute.
Clark pulled out his phone and dialed. He reached for his car door as Mrs. Wiltmire led Fred up the walk toward the porch steps, talking and gesturing with both hands.
“County offices,” a woman answered.
“Yes, this is Sheriff Clark. Anyone over there know what’s going on with this new deputy I got sent?”
“Oh, hey, Sheriff. This is Marlene. What’s this about?”
“New deputy. Name of Fred something. Begins with an O. He says he’s been transferred here.”
“I’ll look into it,” Marlene promised.
Clark was about to put his phone in his pocket again when he heard it ring.
“County sheriff,” he answered. He listened and then raised one arm, beckoning the deputy to come back just as Mrs. Wiltmire was opening the door to her house. “Deputy—what did you say your name was?”
“We got a murder to investigate,” Clark said.
“A murder?” Fred said, eyes popping. Even Mrs. Wiltmire looked impressed. Fred reversed direction and hurried down the steps.
“You know the Bull Valley area?” Clark asked.
“Not really, sir.”
“You can follow me.”
“What about taking my statement?” Mrs. Wiltmire called after them.
“We’ll look into your missing things,” Clark promised as he started up his car.
* * *
The GPS led Clark out of town into the wooded countryside where new developments were springing up. The Brody house was a towering three-story pile of magnificence built into the side of a hill, with steps down from the balcony past a gazebo to a private dock on the lake. In front, the driveway swooped gracefully down around the house to a four-car garage. A young man was pacing in the driveway and shivering in his down jacket. Clark noted the outdoor porch and garage lights and the lights upstairs were all blazing, despite it being late in the morning.
Clark turned off his car and got out, followed by Fred.
“Are you Mr. Welly?” Clark asked the young man coming toward them.
“Yes, I’m John Welly,” the young man said. “I’m the one who found the body. I’m the pet sitter. I’ve been trying to reach Mrs. Brody, but it just goes to voicemail. They’re supposed to be on vacation,” he explained. “At least, I thought they were. But all the lights were on when I came in this morning to check on the animals. I went upstairs to investigate and,” John paused dramatically. “There he was!”
“About what time was this?” Clark asked, moving toward the house as he spoke, one hand automatically drifting toward his holster.
“Just after ten a.m.”
“Animals plural?” Clark asked over his shoulder. He put one hand on the front door. It was unlocked. He raised his eyebrows at John.
“I didn’t think to lock it after I ran out,” he admitted, embarrassed. “But I’ve been out here, standing guard the whole time.”
Clark nodded and pushed in the door. Inside, there was the most terrible squawking and hooting. “You’d better stay outside, Mr. Welly, until we can secure the scene.”
“Right!” John looked only too happy to oblige.
Clark unholstered his Glock, still with the safety on, and nodded to Fred to follow. Single file they moved down the front hall, stepping softly, leaving dirty, wet slush marks on the Persian runner.
“Do you hear that, sir?” Fred asked out of the corner of his mouth.
“Hear what, son?” Clark asked. The racket from the animals was overwhelming.
“Sounds like...a woman’s voice, sir!”
Clark froze and listened. Underneath the cawing and screeching, he could pick out a muffled voice: Help, help!
“Check downstairs,” he told the deputy. “I’ll go up.”
Fred nodded. Slowly Clark made his way back toward the front door and ascended the staircase, past wall sconces carved to look like deer antlers. His heart was hammering, urging him to move faster, but he was experienced enough to know being hasty got you into trouble.
Upstairs he found a spacious loft and a maze of bedrooms, suites really, each with its own walk-in closet and jacuzzi bathrooms, occasionally an adjoining study or sitting room done up with rustic log fireplaces. The cries grew louder as he approached the master bedroom, which by itself, he estimated, could easily contain the living space of his own small house.
Not far from the king-size bed, a sixty-ish man, presumably the owner of the house, lay face down on the floor, nude apart from a purple velvet bathrobe fanning out around his girth. Clark wasn’t looking forward to rolling him over. Fortunately that job would fall to the coroner.
“Help! Help me!” The woman’s voice was very close now, coming from behind the bathroom door.
He gripped his semi-automatic more firmly and yanked at the doorknob. “It’s locked on the inside!” he called through the door. “County sheriff. I’m here to help!”
The cries ceased, and there was the mechanical sound of the lock turning. The door opened a tiny crack and a woman with a cascade of blond curls peered around it.
“Oh, thank goodness!” she exclaimed. “Did you catch the snake?”