Bo Tully, sheriff of Blight County, Idaho—and a fellow who dropped twenty pounds on Atkins—had been thinking about asking out Jan Whittle, his grade-school sweetheart. Problem is, he’s already promised to celebrate his dad’s seventy-fifth birthday with him. Thwarted romance proves to be the least of Bo’s problems, however, when a dead body turns up on Batim Scragg’s ranch. Forced to put on his sleuthing hat, Bo finds himself faced with a whole slew of possible suspects. And what quickly becomes apparent is that, while the sheriff’s investigative methods may not exactly be legal, they are, for better or worse, The Blight Way.
A bestselling author with more than two million books in print, the curmudgeonly wit Patrick F. McManus delivers a page-turning mystery filled with mirth and misadventure set in hook-and-bullet territory.
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After happily noting that the mud puddles of the parking lot had frozen over during the night, Blight County Sheriff Bo Tully momentarily regretted having established the departmental policy that neither he nor any of his deputies could use obscenities while on duty. Otherwise, he would have uttered a four-letter one at the sight of Jan Whittle. She was frowning at him from the back doorway of the courthouse, hands on hips. Tully decided that his stomping a few puddles on the way into the courthouse would not please Jan Whittle. Stomping frozen mud puddles was one of his great satisfactions.
He pulled his Explorer into the sheriff's reserved parking spot and got out. Jan rushed him the second his feet hit the ground.
"About time you showed up," she snapped. "I'm almost late for school."
She was principal of Delmore Blight Grade School. Tall and thin, with rather sharp features, Jan seemed to be a person in a permanent rush.
"Sorry," he said. "If I'd known you were waiting for me, I'd have gotten here earlier."
"Oh, sure," she said. "Listen, I want you to go after that Cliff boy right now. He's been off in the Hoodoo Mountains for six weeks!" Jan had the annoying habit of focusing her entire attention on the person under interrogation, probably something she had learned in her years as a teacher.
"No way," Tully said. "I chased that brat all over two mountain ranges last year, and I'm not doing it again. Besides, it'll snow up there soon. He'll get sick of that quick enough."
"He'll get sick of that! Glen is only twelve years old!"
The boy, Glen Cliff, simply didn't like school. To his credit, he would try it for a couple weeks each September, see that he didn't like it any better than the year before, then take off for the mountains. Bo Tully hadn't been much different himself, as far as school was concerned.
"Listen, Jan, I'll see what I can do. I've got murders to solve and stuff like that, but if I get a break in my schedule, I'll go up and have a look for the kid, okay?"
"Murders to solve! Don't make me laugh!"
Jan Whittle didn't seem to be in much danger of laughing. She spun on her heel and stomped over to her car, smashing the ice on several puddles as she went. She needed to work on her technique some, Tully mused, no doubt about that.
Tully wondered if she remembered that when they were both in sixth grade she had been his girlfriend for a while. It was possible, he supposed, that she hadn't realized she was his girlfriend, since they had never even talked. But that's how love affairs in sixth grade had been back then. Her dark brown hair had streaks of gray in it now, but she had aged nicely, keeping herself trim and fit. Too bad she was still married to Darrel Whittle, the oaf of a city attorney. Otherwise, he wouldn't mind dating her again. Maybe this time they would even talk.
Before entering the courthouse, Tully checked his image in the glass door. He turned to check his side profile. Perfect. Sticking to Atkins for two months had stripped twenty pounds off his six-foot-two frame. Feeling instantly energetic, he ran up the marble stairs that led to the main floor.
The Sheriff's Department occupied a large suite of rooms in the rear of the building, with the jail directly beneath. A hallway stretched the length of the building, with a couple dozen watercolors displayed on the walls. For once, Tully approved of the paintings. They were good. Clearly the artist was a person of considerable talent.
As he entered the office, he was amazed to see that both the night shift and day shift had managed to leave one medium-dry doughnut on the tray next to the stainless steel coffee pumps. Probably because it had been dropped on the floor. Tully took his Picasso clown mug off its hook and pumped the decaf. It sputtered and fizzed out half a clown's worth.
He sipped the lukewarm coffee and munched the doughnut as he strolled through the briefing room. Tully thought the walls had been painted puce. He didn't know what color puce was, but it had the right sound. His undersheriff, Herb Eliot, gave him a nod from the doorway of his own cubicle and went back to his newspaper. The Blight County Sheriff's Crime Scene Investigation Unit was hunched over his computer. Byron Proctor solved more crimes with his computer than did the rest of the department put together. Tully figured that hiring the kid had raised the average IQ of the department by at least ten points. Byron had short brown hair, most of which seemed engaged in an effort to stand straight up. He wore rimless glasses half an inch thick perched on an overly large nose. He had both the posture and complexion of a clam. He was twenty-seven years old and, as far as Tully was concerned, a genius. He had several visible tattoos. He might also have had body piercings, but Tully didn't want to hear about those.
"Hey, Lurch!" Tully yelled at him across the room.
Byron looked up from his computer and grinned his snaggletoothed grin. "Hey, Sheriff!"
Tully had given Byron his nickname, Lurch. He was the kid's hero.
At forty-two, Tully's thick brown hair was already going gray. So was his thick brown mustache. The mustache drooped crookedly over one corner of his mouth, possibly a result of his tugging on it whenever he had to do some hard thinking. His nose had been struck more than once with a hard object, fortunately so, in Tully's opinion, for otherwise he might have been far too good looking.
"Morning, Sheriff," Daisy Quinn said, perkily. With short black hair and brown eyes, she was small and compact and gave off an aura of pure efficiency. She wore a white blouse beneath an open gray vest and a tiny black skirt. "Your mom called. Said to remind you again to get a haircut. She's tired of you going about 'practically looking like a hippy.' Her words."
"Yeah yeah," Tully said. He treated Daisy to a quick grin. He was pretty sure Daisy was in love with him. Then, what woman wouldn't be? Well, sure, Jan Whittle. Can't please everyone.
As he entered the door of his glassed-in office, he noticed that a fly had paused on the window behind his desk. It was a good fly. Not a great fly by any means but still a good one. Apparently engrossed in the view of Lake Blight, the fly failed to detect the sheriff's approach. Tully picked up the swatter from his desk, whopped the fly, flipped the swatter over and caught the tiny corpse in mid-fall.
"You are so quick!" Daisy said, watching him from her desk.
"Thanks," he said. He tipped the swatter and rolled the fly onto the windowsill. Aside from being dead, the fly was still in good shape. He gave the sill two sharp raps with the wire handle of the swatter. Then he stood his index finger up straight as a sentinel in front of the fly. Wallace scurried out from his lair behind the gray metal filing cabinet, stopping in front of Tully's finger. It could have gone around either side and grabbed the fly, but Wallace knew the rules. Trembling with eagerness, the spider waited, twitching ever so slightly forward, until the sheriff slowly raised his finger to a full stop. Only then did Wallace rush in, grab the fly and haul it back behind the filing cabinet. Tully imagined Wallace smacking his lips. If he had lips. If he was a he. This was a fairly choice fly.
"I wish you'd stop fooling with that spider," Daisy said. "It gives me the creeps. One of these days it's going to nip your finger. It could kill you, Sheriff, if it's one of them Hobo things."
"Danger's my game," Tully said. "Besides, I like getting into a spider's mind. Gives me an edge on our clientele."
"Speaking of spiders," Daisy said. "If you have a moment for some law enforcement, Batim Scragg's on the phone. Says he's got to talk to you right away. Line one."
Batim Scragg. Tully had once put Batim in prison. Later he had done the same for Batim's two sons, Lem and Lister. He picked up the phone.
"Sheriff Bo Tully here. How you doing, Batim?"
"Doing fine, Bo. How you?"
"Fair to middling. To what do I owe the honor?"
"Well, I kinda got this situation out here at the ranch. Fust thing I got to tell you, though, me and the boys we ain't got nothing to do with it. Hey, we'd done it, there wouldn't be no awkward situation at all, you get my drift."
Tully tugged on the corner of his mustache. "I get your drift, Batim. So what is this situation?"
"We got a dead body draped over one of our pasture fences."
There was a pause at Tully's end.
Batim said, "Bo?"
"Yeah, go on, Batim, I was just thinking."
"I know what you was thinking. But if me or the boys had anything to do with it, there wouldn't be no body hanging over one of our fences. You know that. I wouldn't be on the phone discussing the matter with you neither."
"Exactly my thought, Batim. So what kind of body is it?"
"We ain't been near it. Course the boys wanted to go fool with it, but I said no, it might be a crime scene and the sheriff won't want you messin' round out there. That's what I told them, Bo."
"Good for you, Batim."
"But I did take a look with the binoculars and it appears to be a white male dressed in a dark-blue pinstripe suit. Got a shiny black shoe on one foot and only a black sock on the other."
Crime scene. White male. Batim was up on his TV police jargon. Everyone in the whole country talked that way now.
"Pinstripe suit," Tully said. "Doesn't sound much like any of our local characters. Make sure nobody goes out there, and I'll get a deputy over to secure the scene. Buck Toole's up near Famine right now. Should be there in half an hour. I'll be up pretty quick myself. You tell the boys they better not mess with Buck, they know what's good for them."
"You got it, Bo."
Tully hung up. "Daisy, get in here and bring your pad!"
Daisy scooted in, lowered herself into a gray metal chair, her back straight, pencil poised.
"Okay, we apparently got a body draped over a fence out at the Scragg ranch. Batim certainly knows a dead body when he sees one. Get Florence to radio Buck Toole and tell him to get over to the Scragg ranch up past Famine. Pronto. Tell him to let us know right away what he finds out."
Herb Eliot had come over from his cubicle and leaned against the door frame, listening. "You letting Buck go onto the Scragg ranch all by himself? He's the dumbest guy we got. Which is saying something!"
Tully tugged on his mustache. "Herb, you of all people should know this, but there are times for dumb in law enforcement. This is one of them. You can't get just anybody to go on the Scragg ranch all by himself. Anyway, Daisy, you better alert that new medical examiner that we have some work for her. What's her name again?"
"Parker. Susan Parker. Came up from Boise yesterday. Very pretty."
"Really? How pretty?"
"About half as pretty as I am."
"All right then!"
Daisy laughed, obviously pleased.
"Next, get hold of the old man and tell him to throw together his camp kit. And a bunch of those smoked elk sausages he makes. We may be spending a few days roughing it."
Eliot said, "You taking Pap?"
"Yeah, it's the sorry old devil's seventy-fifth birthday. No present he'd like better than a good juicy murder. But don't say anything about a body, Daisy. I want to surprise him. His birthday and all. Plus he knows the Scraggs inside and out."
"Geez, seventy-five," Daisy said. "He sure doesn't look it. Shoot, I'd date him myself."
"A lot of women have lived to regret those very words," Tully said. "Oh, and I don't want him armed. He shows up with a gun, he ain't going, you tell him that."
"One more thing. Call Bill Fetch at the State Police. Tell him we seem to have a dead body up at the Scragg ranch a couple miles north of Famine. Ask him to get one of his troopers up there soon as he can, to protect the scene. Be sure to tell him we got Buck on the way. Bill will understand the need for haste."
He got up and walked to the door of his office and yelled across at the Crime Scene Investigation Unit. "Lurch, I want you to stay in the office all day. I may need you up at Famine."
"I'll stick around all day, Sheriff. All night, too, if you need me."
Tully went back to his desk and finished off the doughnut as he replayed Batim's phone call in his head. This was probably the first time in his life Batim Scragg had cooperated with the law. Probably the first time any Scragg in the whole history of the world had cooperated with the law. But Batim didn't fool him for one second. If there was a murder, Tully would simply sort Scraggs until he found the culprit.
He unlocked his office gun safe and took out a Winchester .30-30 carbine, a 12-gauge Remington 1100 semiautomatic shotgun and a Glock 9 mm with belt holster. He loaded them and put extra shells for each in a leather gym bag, including a box of Number 8 bird shot.
Herb gave him a puzzled look. "Eights?"
"Yeah. Never know when you might run into a flock of quail either going or coming from the Scragg ranch. Got to work in your hunting where you find it. Number eights work pretty well for getting a Scragg's attention, too."
"I guess. Wouldn't tear one of them up terribly much, at least if he had enough sense to be running away."
As an afterthought, Tully added a Colt Woodsman .22 pistol that he sometimes liked to tuck in the back waistband of his pants, or even down one boot, just in case. He checked the clips of each pistol. Full. Before replacing the clips, he pulled back the slides to make sure the chambers were empty. People were all the time shooting themselves and others because they forgot to check the chambers on their auto pistols. He slipped the Colt into the pocket of his suede sports jacket.
One of the few perks of being sheriff was that Tully could dress pretty much any way he liked. Today he wore cowboy boots, jeans and the suede jacket over a tattersall shirt open at the collar. He wore his sheriff's uniform only when the county commissioners required the department to march in a parade, on which occasions he and his deputies looked like a strange assortment of disgruntled Gene Autrys who had lost their horses.
Tully didn't know who had come up with the design for the uniform, but he suspected his own father, Eldon "Pap" Tully. Pap had always fancied himself something of a cowboy. Tully had worn the uniform for five years himself, before he replaced Pap as sheriff. Tullys had been sheriffs of Blight County for over a century, except for a couple of brief intervals when the voters had suffered a lapse of sanity.
The rifle hanging by its sling from his shoulder, the shotgun in one hand and the bag in the other, Tully walked out through the briefing room. Eliot had gone back to his newspaper. "Hold down the fort, Herb!" Tully yelled at him. "And don't do any thinking on your own, okay?"
Daisy stifled a giggle. Lurch did his snaggletoothed grin.
"Right, Sheriff!" Herb yelled back without looking up from his paper.
As Tully ambled over to his parking spot behind the courthouse, some of the current residents of the jail stopped shooting baskets long enough to give him their hard stares through the wire mesh of the exercise cage.
He held up the shotgun. "Expect some company, boys!"
Sorry nincompoops. Nobody ever told them you can't be dumb. Half of them wouldn't live to see thirty, done in by booze, drugs, cars, AIDS, guns, knives, pool cues, enemies and friends. Mostly friends. The inmates intensified their hard stares. The stares were meant to tell him that as soon as they got out they'd settle the score with him. Two former inmates had actually tried. They hadn't made it to thirty.
He climbed into the mud-coated, red Ford Explorer and clamped the shotgun upright in its clip on the dash. He slid the .30-30 into a gun rack attached to the heavy wire screen that separated the front seat from the back. The gun rack also contained a fly rod, separated into its two sections but rigged with leader and fly, a size fourteen Dave's Hopper. A man had to be ready. He locked both handguns in the glove compartment. As he drove out of the parking lot, he grinned at the inmates hanging against the wire. They didn't grin back.
Copyright © 2006 by Patrick F. McManus