When the call comes in that Mike Wilson, the unlikable owner of West Branch Lodge, has gone missing, Sheriff Tully is delighted. This is an excellent opportunity for Tully, his tracker pal Dave, and his retired sheriff father, Pap, to enjoy a few evenings of hot tubs and single-malt scotch at the luxurious lodge while working the case. However, visions of R&R vanish in a flash on the drive up, when Tully and Pap suddenly realize an avalanche is thundering down the mountain, straight toward them.
Tully manages to outrun the crush of snow, but the road behind is blocked, and there's no telling for how long. Tully's stranded at the lodge with a motley group of vacationers and locals: a sassy co-ed, a group of rambunctious fraternity boys, a shadowy group of what looks like ex-cons, the missing owner's wife, a suspiciously good-looking bartender, and worst (or perhaps best) of all, Tully's old flame, who shows up with her dogsled and naughty intentions.
Both vacationers and locals start to look like suspects when Tully discovers startling evidence proving that the avalanche was no accident of nature. But why would anybody want him dead? And then the missing persons case turns into a murder case when Mike Wilson's body turns up in the river a couple of days later. But who killed him, and how? Furthermore, when another murder in Blight City is reported that week, the only suspect who makes sense...is the dead guy, Mike Wilson. But how could that have happened? It's up to Tully to figure it all out in this comic romp through the wilds of Blight County, from bestselling author Patrick McManus.
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He stood at the window studiously watching the large fluffy snowflakes fill up his mother's backyard. Rose, seating herself at the dining room table behind him, said, "Honey, I wish you'd do something besides stare at the snow. Maybe you need a hobby."
"Staring at snow is my hobby," Blight County Sheriff Bo Tully replied. He was forty-two years old, with thick brown hair and a thick brown mustache, both beginning to show signs of gray. "In January anyway."
Rose set a flat carton on the table. "Come help me eat this pie. It's from Crabbs. They make the best pie. Oh, not their coconut cream or their banana cream. They're all right, but they don't put enough coconut in their coconut cream. Maybe coconut is too expensive. They put something in their banana cream I don't like. It's probably to keep the bananas from turning brown."
Tully sighed. "You plan to eat the whole pie right now?"
"Goodness no, not the whole pie. I offered you a piece, didn't I?"
"I guess," he said. He walked over and sat down across the table from her. Her hair had been freshly done that day and appeared to have a silvery tint he hadn't noticed before. Her bifocals had slid down onto the tip of her elegant nose. She peered sternly out over the top of them, her ash-blue eyes closing to mere slits.
"I prefer you not wear your gun at the table," she said.
Tully sighed again. He took off his shoulder holster and hung it on the chair next to him. His mother frowned. He lowered the holster to the floor.
"So, what kind of pie is it, if not coconut or banana cream?"
"Peach. Of course they use canned peaches this time of year, but sometimes in the summer they have fresh peach. It's heavenly."
She cut a piece of pie, placed it on a saucer, and handed it to him.
"Looks good," he said. "You got any ice cream to go with it?"
"In the freezer. I thought you were on a diet."
"I am. The pie-and-ice-cream diet. You want a scoop?"
She handed him her plate. He went out to the kitchen and returned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on each piece of pie.
She said, "Have you seen the monster lately?"
"Yeah, I saw Pap yesterday as a matter of fact. Stopped by his mansion on the hill. I'm sure you know he has a young and beautiful new housekeeper."
"Housekeeper my eye! Yes, I know all about Deedee. She's a nice girl, actually. Why she has anything to do with that old man is a mystery to me."
"He's rich, for one thing," Tully said. "He used to be corrupt and rich but now I think he's only rich. By the way, he seems to be shrinking."
"Good. Maybe he will get small enough a cat will eat him."
"I don't think he will get that small, but he used to be about two inches shorter than I am. Now, I doubt he's much over five ten, if that. You sure he's my father?"
"Pretty sure. Why do you ask?"
"As far as I can tell, we don't have a single thing in common, except for the surname."
"You should be thankful. When he was sheriff, which was practically forever, everyone in the whole county was scared to death of him. They probably still are. Blight County was wide open back then, with gambling and prostitution everywhere you looked, and Pap getting a cut of everything illegal and even some things that were legal. Drinking and dancing and carousing every night all night! It was wonderful! Oh, the fun we had in those days!" For a brief moment, a devil-may-care look flashed across her face.
Tully still had childhood memories of his mother as a flashy young woman. He had heard old men talk about her as the most beautiful girl in all of Blight County.
"Is that where he made all his money, getting a cut off the prostitution and gambling?"
"Not all his money. He and that rascal buddy of his, Pinto Jack, sold their gold mine for a fortune, two fortunes in fact. They had this thin little vein of gold they'd been working and somehow persuaded a greenhorn from Pennsylvania that it would get bigger all the time. And it did! The greenhorn made a ton of money out of that mine. Pap was furious with Pinto, for talking him into selling. Pinto is lucky to still be alive."
"Pap hasn't mellowed much." Absently, Tully picked up the linen napkin beside his plate and wiped pie and ice cream from his mustache.
His mother cut the point off her second piece of pie, placed a dab of ice cream on it, and forked it into her mouth. A dreamy expression came over her face. "Perfect," she said.
Even in her sixties and a little plump, his mother was still beautiful.
"You always were a pie person," he said.
"One of my many vices."
Tully licked his fork clean and pointed it at two watercolors on the wall across from him. "I like what you did with the paintings."
"Yes, well, it cost me a fortune to get them properly mounted and framed. They're very expensive museum mounts. My son painted them, you know, so I had to go first-class. Why he wastes his time being sheriff I have no idea."
"The main reason is I sell only about four or five paintings a year, and I like to eat at least every other day."
"I can remember when you and Ginger built your log cabin out on the eighty. You both figured the place would be self-sustaining, and you could spend your lives being starving artists, you a painter and she a potter."
"What's it been, almost ten years since she died? I remember how she used to follow you around when you went out hunting those little birds."
"Quail," Tully said. He remembered, too. Ginger hated hunting but she went along anyway, just to be with him. She would hold the dead birds and pet them before putting them in the game bag. Sometimes she would get tears in her eyes. He would think to himself, she doesn't have to come. He liked that she did, but she didn't have to, just to be with him in the hills and fields that both of them loved. Well, maybe she did have to come.
His mother was silent now, concentrating on her pie. Tugging on a soggy corner of his mustache, Tully watched her, Katherine Rose McCarthy Tully O'Hare Tully Casey. One of the last three husbands was dead, with Tim Casey maybe still alive but whereabouts unknown. Had his whereabouts been known, he too probably would be dead. He was one of those persons Pap said deserved killing. Pap would have been happy to oblige, if he had ever found him. Maybe he had found him, Tully thought. That would certainly explain Tim's disappearance.
"How come you married the old man twice?"
"I was crazy," she said.
One of the things Tully liked most about his mother was her talent for focusing totally on a single thing in a single instant, in this case the piece of pie she was eating, each bite of peach achieving its own individual identity. For this single moment, her world was peach pie. Tully could eat two Big Macs, one after the other, with no recognition of the fact before, during, or after the operation itself. Perhaps, he thought, that explained the ten pounds he had gained since his last Atkins. He stared down at his pie plate. The pie and ice cream were magically gone. Man, I've got to stop doing this.
Rose looked up from her plate. "So, are you taking the night off, Bo? You should. You look tired."
"Nope, I've got to get over to the office and shake up the troops."
"I know you think you can never replace Ginger, but you should start seeing other women."
"I do see other women."
"I mean women who aren't already married!"
"Yeah, that can be a problem, married women. It's just they can't help themselves. They love me. I don't sleep with them, though. I hope you know that."
"Oh yes, I know that. I did hear about that pretty medical examiner you took on a camping trip up on the West Branch. She isn't married."
"I don't want to talk about it!"
"I thought it was foolish the first time I heard about it. Taking a woman camping in a tent in November!"
"I said I don't want to talk about it!"
The phone rang. Rose got up and answered it. "Oh, yes, dear... No, no he isn't. Could I give him a message, if I see him?...Really! My goodness!"
"Is that Daisy? Let me speak to her."
Rose shook her head and turned away. "Yes yes, dear, I'll tell him...Who was it?...And she doesn't know how or where?...Just disappeared like that? I'll tell him, dear, if he stops by...You're welcome, dear."
Tully was on his feet now, headed for the phone, his hand reaching.
Rose hung up.
Tully's eyes closed and his chin sagged down onto his chest. "What?"
"That was your perky little secretary."
"I know. What else?"
"It seems Mike Wilson has gone missing up at the West Branch Lodge."
Tully slipped back into his shoulder harness, then put on his three-quarter-length black leather coat and his gray Stetson. "Now that you got all the information out of Daisy, Ma, maybe you'd like to go find Wilson."
"I probably could. But not until I finish this pie."
Copyright © 2007 by Patrick F. McManus