Crazy Mountain Kiss: A Novel (A Sean Stranahan Mystery)

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9780143109051: Crazy Mountain Kiss: A Novel (A Sean Stranahan Mystery)
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Winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Contemporary Novel

In the fourth novel in the acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery series, PI Stranahan and Sheriff Ettinger reunite to investigate a teenage girl’s death. Cold Hearted River, the sixth in the series, is now available. 


Spring snow still clings to the teeth of Montana’s Crazy Mountains when an unsuspecting member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club discovers a Santa hat in the fireplace ashes of his rented cabin. Climbing to the roof to see what’s clogging the flue, he’s shocked to find the body of a teenage girl wedged into the chimney. A rodeo belt buckle identifies the recently deceased victim as Cinderella “Cindy” Huntington, a rising rodeo star. Hyalite County sheriff Martha Ettinger has been hunting for the girl since she went missing the previous November.

Was Cindy murdered? Or was she running for her life—and if so, from whom? Suspicion falls on a buckskin-clad mountain man who calls himself Bear Paw Bill. But Etta Huntington, Cindy’s high-strung mother, herself a famous horsewoman, thinks the evil might lie closer to home. She hires fly-fishing guide and private detective Sean Stranahan to find the answers. Setting aside their after-hours relationship, Sean and Martha find themselves deep in an investigation that grows to involve a high-altitude sex club, a lost diary, cave pictographs, and the legends of the Crazy Mountains. With his signature wit and wry humor, McCafferty writes a pitch-perfect mystery that is as haunting as the Crazies.

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About the Author:

Keith McCafferty is the award-winning survival and outdoor skills editor of Field & Stream, and the author of The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders, and Dead Man’s Fancy. He lives in Montana.

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Prologue

As he reached for the bottle of George T. Stagg fifteen-year-old bourbon, Max Gallagher thought wryly of his oft-quoted principle of writing, the first of “Max’s maxims,” which he’d once confided to an editor of American Crime magazine—“Always write on the level.” When he was working on A Nose for Trouble, the first book in his mystery series featuring a sleuth who was a “nose” for a perfume company, writing on the level meant a speedball, the cocaine slamming into his bloodstream seconds before heroin slowed the train to a more manageable speed. By the time he penned A Nose for Romance, his fifth novel and only best seller, he’d kicked his habit and was balancing the high provided by prescription Adderall with vodka and maintenance tokes of marijuana. By then his protagonist had gone through changes of his own. Having lost his wife in a car crash, he was bedding a Parisian film star who smelled of Dior J’Adore in a hotel room in Cassis, on the French Riviera. Gallagher was in fact writing a page from his own life, for he had traveled to Provence to research the setting, booked himself into a waterfront hotel, and carried on his own affair, the difference being that the woman between the sheets was not the French lovely of his imagination but his all too real Argentine mistress, who, having just come from a swim, smelled like kelp.

The mistress cost him his second wife and half his money; investing in a winery run by her uncles in Mendoza lost him the rest. His sixth and seventh books hadn’t sold, his publisher dropped him when the eighth failed to materialize, and now, halfway through the rewrite of his comeback attempt, A Nose for Tea, which his agent refused to shop until he’d made drastic revisions, he was alone in a Forest Service rental cabin in Montana’s Crazy Mountains, chickadees outside a frosted windowpane for company, chewing nicotine gum for the buzz and tamping it down with the whiskey.

“How the mighty have fallen,” he said aloud. He lifted his fingers from the typewriter keys and swished the bourbon in his mouth. At this rate, financially speaking—he permitted himself a smile—his next book would be written on Red Bull and beer. He laughed silently—his sense of humor would be the last of his qualities to desert him—then let out a sigh. Plot had never been his strong suit, and this one was particularly flimsy, revolving around an Indian mountain goat called a ghooral, which was being poached to extinction because its scent glands were valued by perfume mixers. The setting was Darjeeling, hence the title, and it didn’t help that, one, there were no ghooral in Darjeeling; two, the scent glands from an actual ghooral would make perfume smell like goat gonads; and, three, with no advance and residuals claimed by his vices, research consisted of scanning maps on Google Earth. Max Gallagher had never been to India. He didn’t even like tea.

He drained the glass. Though the cabin was chill with a clammy odor, he hadn’t bothered to build a fire after snowshoeing from the trailhead. The exertion had warmed him and he was in too much hurry to flesh out the thoughts of his road trip, which he’d scratched down on the backs of envelopes while driving with his elbows. Now he sat back in the rough wood chair, rubbed his sore fingertips—it had been twenty years since he’d worked on a manual typewriter—and declared himself satisfied by pouring another shot of the George T. Stagg. The clammy scent he’d noted when coming in the door had a moldy taint, earthy and with an unplaceable metallic tang that made his nostrils flare. He’d chosen a nose for his protagonist because his own sense of smell was acute, and the odor bothered him. Though the drive had long since caught up to him, he thought he’d better open the cabin’s windows, build a fire in the open fireplace that faced into the bunkhouse, and air the place out good before going to bed. He threw on a buffalo plaid stag jacket that made him look like a cigarette model—he’d been that model once and it was a look he cultivated—walked outside, and rendered several blocks of firewood into splits.

Breathing heavily in the altitude, he let his eyes wander to the pond below the cabin. The shoreline was rimmed with ice, the windless surface reflecting muted smears of lilac and magenta that made a drama of the evening skyline. It was the beautiful gloom that is April in Montana: the red wine ribbon of the Shields River far below, puzzle pieces of old snow on the mountainsides, subdued skies through which the sun shone only in the gilded edges of the clouds. Gorgeous if you were an artist, but in an unrelenting way that made the native want to bring an elk rifle to his forehead.

Gallagher stacked the wood and carried it inside, where he crumpled up newspaper and built a tepee of the splits. He looked for the chain or lever that worked the damper and, not finding it, lit the fire. In seconds the cabin had filled with smoke. Something had to be clogging the flue. He picked up an iron poker and stuck it up the chimney. It jammed against something solid, and as he withdrew the iron, a piece of red cloth dropped onto the firebox. He lifted it with the fireplace tongs, narrowing his eyes as he held it at arm’s length. The look on his face was one of perplexion, his frown deepening as he saw that the cloth was a Santa hat, complete with a tassel and a band of fake white fur.

A pack rat’s cache? Part of a bird’s nest? At the clubhouse he co-owned on the Madison River with three other fishermen, there had been problems with birds building nests in the flue, clogging the length of the passage with sticks. Well, he wasn’t going to sleep until he found out. He fished a flashlight from his jacket pocket and walked outside.

He looked up at the roof. No chimney cap. Might as well have handed out invitations to every feather in heaven. Against the eaves was a wooden ladder. Snow had thawed and frozen around the feet of the ladder, and the rungs were solid as a marble staircase as Gallagher ascended to the roof. Edging to the southern exposure where the snow had burnt off the shingles, he climbed on all fours until reaching the chimney. Built of river stones chinked with hundred-year-old mortar, it was the centerpiece of the cabin, much bigger than a modern chimney, with a wide, squarish opening.

As he got to his feet, hugging the chimney to maintain his balance, a great racketing sounded from within. He ducked as a crow burst out of the chimney, so close to his head that he saw the pebble of its eye and felt the air beating from its wings. The bird, an arrow of black, flew low into the gloom, cawing.

Gallagher watched it out of sight. “One crow sorrow,” he said under his breath.

It was the first line of the “Counting Crows” nursery rhyme his Irish grandmother had recited when he was a child. He tried to think of the second line, knowing that he was stalling. Something was bothering him, a conversation, no, an argument, the details lost to the alcoholic haze in which the memory had been made. Just do it, he told himself. Shielding his eyes in case there was another bird—Two crows mirth, that was the next line—he raised his head and shone the flashlight into the mouth of the chimney. A crosshatch of sticks woven around the broken tip of a graphite fly rod obscured his view. The crow had been building a nest.

Gallagher felt the tension flood out of his body. He let out a long breath. Now it was just work, and he started pulling up the sticks, tossing them onto the roof. He paused with the tip of the rod in his hand. The crow must have flown with it all the way from the river. Gallagher had pocketed the flashlight while dismantling the nest and switched it back on. There were still sticks too far down to reach and he pushed them aside with the rod tip until he could see into the flue. What stared back at him, from about ten feet down where the smoke chamber narrowed, were empty eye sockets that were as dead black as the wings of the crow.

 

 

PART ONE

ONE CROW SORROW

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Three Degrees of Sean Stranahan

The way I see it,” Undersheriff Walter Hess said, “is we can go through the side of the chimney with a jackhammer, which would make a Judy of a mess, or we could drop a lasso around her neck and see if we could pull her up. Harold says he’s got a lariat in his pickup.”

“Humpff. And hope her head doesn’t come off?”

Martha Ettinger rested her chin on steepled fingers. Martha the thinker, the latest in a sequence of postures she’d run through since hiking in ten minutes earlier—hands on hips while looking at the chimney, fingers searching for her carotid, then rubbing her badge as if it was Aladdin’s lamp.

She popped a Chiclet into her mouth and drummed her thumb against the grips of her revolver.

“No,” she said, “we’re going to wait for light. Meantime I want to talk to the guy who found the body.”

They were standing outside, looking at the roof where Harold Little Feather was shining a six-cell flashlight.

“Warren’s babysitting him inside,” Hess said. “Named Gallagher. Says he schlepped back to his car and drove down to Wilsall before he got a bar of reception. I figured you’d want to do an informal before anybody took his statement.”

Ettinger nodded. “Harold, get on down here,” she said. She and Walt unnecessarily braced the ladder as he climbed down.

“It isn’t pretty” were the first words out of his mouth. “She backed down the chimney with her arms extended, so it seems like she’s reaching up at you. Her eyes are gone. The ancients would tell you the birds took them up to the gods, so they could reconstruct her soul.”

“Is that Blackfeet folklore?”

“No, I think it goes back farther than the people.”

“So how do we get her out?”

“I’m thinking we could drop ropes over her hands, cinch the loops on her arms, tug her out that way.”

“I was just saying maybe her head,” Walt said.

Harold frowned. “You might pull it off, she’s really stuck.”

Ettinger’s hands went to her hips. “When I fed the chickens this morning, this isn’t a conversation I thought I’d be having.”

“Maybe we could try fairy dust,” Walt said. “My mother told me that’s how Santa gets down the chimney.”

“Fairy dust is in somewhat short supply.” Martha was in no mood for Walt’s deadpan. “No, that body’s been there a while. It isn’t going anywhere, not until we can see what we’re doing.”

“What I’m wondering about is what she thought she was doing?” Harold hugged his jean jacket about him. “No one more than a year off the breast can get all the way down a chimney. Even if they made it as far as the smoke chamber, then you got your angle space to the damper, and the damper, door open, you’re talking six inches of passage, ten tops.”

Walt shook his head. “There wasn’t no damper, that’s what the fella said. It’s a straight shot to the firebox. Maybe she figured she could worm on down.”

“But how would she know it didn’t have a damper?” Martha said. “It makes me wonder if she isn’t from the area.”

Walt climbed the steps onto the rough-hewn floorboards of the porch and shone his flashlight on a piece of wood nailed above the door. Letters had been burned into the wood. “Mile and a Half High Cabin,” he read out loud. “Three X’s. I’d say somebody has a sense of humor.”

Ettinger jutted her chin toward Harold and they sidled to the edge of the porch.

“What makes you say that, her not being from the area?” Harold said in a quiet voice.

“Most people who deal with an eight-month winter know how a chimney works.”

“What about the Huntington girl?” Walt said. “You were the detective on that case, Harold. They never found her or the boy.” He’d been listening, after all.

“Could be. Bar-4’s the next drainage up. If it turns out, I don’t want to be the one tells the puma on the painted horse.”

“That what they call Loretta Huntington?”

“Among other things. Woman like her has a lot of names.”

“Tomorrow’s April Fool’s,” Walt said, apropos of nothing.

“April Fool’s the first day of the month, not the last.” Martha kneaded her chin, thinking about how long the girl had been in the chimney before dying, wondering if she was still alive when the crow carried her eyes to heaven.

 · · · 

Martha Ettinger’s first impression of the man who stood to shake her hand was that he was Rhett Butler’s ghost, risen from the mists of Tara. Wavy black hair, something in it to keep it that way, a squared-off chin with a dimple and heavy five o’clock shadow. He even had a pencil mustache.

“At last we meet,” he said. “I was beginning to wonder if Stranahan made you up.” The voice came from his diaphragm, the eyebrows lifting in self-amusement. But fatigue behind the gray-blue irises. The sweat sheen of man who’d been up for forty hours.

“How do you know Sean Stranahan?” Ettinger drew a notebook from her breast pocket.

“He’s a member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club. I own the clubhouse with Pat Willoughby and Ken Winston.”

“I feel like I should recognize your name, but I don’t.”

“That’s because it used to be Smither, Jon Smither.”

“Uh-huh.” Ettinger clicked her pen. “We’re going to get back to that, but answer a question for me first. If you own property on the Madison River, what are you doing up here in the Crazies?”

“It’s a long story.”

Ettinger glanced at Sheriff’s Sergeant Warren Jarrett. “Warren, do you have any coffee in that thermos?”

She took a chair at the cabin’s battered pine table, which was caked with swirls of wax that had dripped from candles stuck in wine bottles. She kicked out the chair opposite and nodded to Gallagher.

“Take me through what happened.”

“I’m a writer. I was writing.”

“Your car has California plates. Let’s back up a couple thousand miles.”

“One thousand and sixty-seven, door to door,” he said, and began to recount the steps leading to his grisly discovery, starting with a conversation he’d had in a bar that had inspired him to drive to his home in Marin County, throw his computer bag into his Lexus, and hit the highway. A night and a day had passed since he’d seen the Bay glitter under the lights of the Richmond Bridge. Certainly, he’d intended to stay in the clubhouse, but when he contacted the property manager from the road, asking to have the electricity hooked up and the antifreeze drained from the pipes, the manager had bad news. Getting the clubhouse up and running was an all-day job and it would be at least three days before a plumber was available. However, he knew the Forest Service supervisor and might be able to pull a string. Would Gallagher be interested in staying in one of the backcountry rental cabins? He was thinking of one on the west side of the Crazy Mountains, at the northern extreme of Hyalite County. The season had closed at the end of February, so it would need some airing out and he’d have to dispose of the mice in the traps, but there was a woodstove and he could tote water from the creek. Or melt snow. At seven thousand feet, winter waved a long goodbye. He called back in five minutes, having got the okay,...

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