-Wyoming Confidential Excerpt-

 

          Former Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Wolfe lay on the bench at the stern of his boat. A gooey glob of cow slobber dripped on his cheek, and he couldn’t drum up the enthusiasm to care. As far as bad days went, a little saliva didn’t even rate. One of these days, he’d figure out a way to keep the cow off the stock pond’s dock, but today wasn’t that day.

          A horn honked—a crisp bonk-bonk .

          Rodriguez .

          Wyatt grumbled and growled. Unless his ex-partner  had come to tell him that the sheriff wanted to give him his old job back, he wasn’t interested in talking. The way Rodriguez kept dropping by seeking advice on the  string of local prostitute murders, was cruel—like the callous kid teasing a starving puppy with a juicy scrap of steak.

A string of murders the local paper dubbed, “The Nightwalker murders.”

          Rodriguez’s Cole  Haans reverberated on the dock, and Wyatt struggled to sit. His head went wonky. A file folder that had stuck to his cheek fell away, scattering papers across his boat’s rear deck and into the gaping mouth of his open engine compartment.

          He caught himself on the gunwale, knocking a bottle of cheap whiskey into the hold, and spilling the last of it. Damn. The aroma of cheap booze wafted up and mixed with the charred undertones of burned oil.

He found the cleanest spot on his grease-stained T-shirt and wiped the cow spit off the side of his face.

          Rodriguez called out from the dock’s narrow gangway. “Yo!”

          Wyatt glanced up, but That-A-Way, an old brindle cow with crazy messed up horns that both pointed to the right as if giving silent directions to go that-a-way, blocked Wyatt’s view. He reached into a Ziploc bag and tossed the cow an alfalfa cube. If That-A-Way had been a dog, she would have jumped up and snagged it out of the air. But she was a cow with no eye–mouth coordination, and the cube bounced off her forehead and landed on the dock. She ducked her head and slurped it up.

          “Go on,” Wyatt said, shooing her away with his hands.

          The bovine gave him a slow blink, ran her pointy tongue up one pink nostril, and then ambled up the dock. Rodriguez glommed onto one of the pilings to keep from being brushed off into the water.

          “Jesus Christ,” Rodriguez said when he’d made it to the boat, pointing a manila envelope at Wyatt. “You’re a grown-ass man. When are you going to get a real place to live?”

          Wyatt flipped his ex-partner the finger and a fractional smile. “This is a real place. I’ve got water, electric, a new sewage pump for the head, and—”

          “It’s a relic, on a pond, in a cattle pasture, in Wyoming. If you had more than five feet of water beneath you, the boat would have sunk.”

          “Hey, I fixed that leak weeks ago.”  Wyatt held his arms out wide to encompass the whole vessel. “And Sea-Celia is forty-four feet of classic beauty .”

          “Right.” Rodriguez eyed him over the top of his sunglasses. “I hate to break this to you, buddy, but you can put lipstick, a push-up bra, and Spanx on that pig of a boat, and she still wouldn’t rate more than a two.”

          Wyatt ignored the comment. Some people couldn’t see that beauty was more than skin deep. “And it’s a cow pasture, not cattle pasture—since Evie is down to the one cow.”

          “I don’t get it. Why doesn’t the old bat ship the burger-on-a-bag-of-bones off and grind it into meat?”

          Wyatt shifted his focus to a spot behind Rodriguez and said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the ‘old bat’ yourself?”

          Cursing under his breath, Rodriguez turned. Evelyn Yates  stood behind him, a glass of lemonade in each hand, beads of condensation dripping down the sides. She was a slight woman, with steel in her hunched spine, a wily spark in her faded blue eyes, and compassion in her heart. She also didn’t take shit from anybody. And she was nosy. She only brought Wyatt lemonade when he had company. Thankfully, that wasn’t often.

          “This old bat thought you boys might be thirsty,” Evie said.

          Rodriquez made a choking noise in the back of his throat as if he’d almost swallowed his tongue.

          Wyatt gave Evie a wink with his good eye as she passed him a glass.

          “Your eye,” Evie said, “what—”

          “It’s fine.” At least it would be once the swelling went down.

          She harrumphed as he downed the lemonade in three large gulps. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to wash away the stale whiskey coating his tongue. Evie turned to Rodriguez. He shifted the envelope to his other hand and reached for the glass, but instead of handing it over, she brought it to her lips and took a sip.

          Rodriguez huffed out a laugh and glanced away. Back when Wyatt and Rodriguez were still partners, there had been some days where it seemed like it would be easier for Rodriguez to slay dragons with a sharpened Popsicle stick than to summon proper manners .

          Rodriguez met her assessing gaze. “My apologies, ma’am.”

Evie eyed him the way a woman does when she’s judging a man on the substance beneath the clothes. In Rodriguez’s case, beneath the rumpled dress shirt and the chinos that had long lost their crease. One of her penciled-on brows rose as if surprised to find him so lacking.

          But Wyatt knew better. Rodriguez could come off rude and uncaring at worse, or even ambivalent at best. But that was more smokescreen than substance. Underneath the gruff was a decent man with a tough past that he’d worked his ass off to overcome. That he’d now enjoyed the materialistic things in life now that he could afford it, Wyatt couldn’t fault him for it.  

          She took another slow sip of the lemonade, then handed Rodriguez the glass. To Wyatt, she said, “I have some stuff in the truck that needs unloading when you have a minute.”

          “Sure,” Wyatt said, “I’ll be up in a bit.”

          With the sun on its downward arc, the burr oak on the shoreline cast a long shadow across the boat deck. Evie turned and scooted back to her house. Rodriguez set the glass on the gunwale and stepped aboard, the boat rocking beneath his weight, then leveling out.

          Wyatt slumped on the bench seat, picked up Rodriguez’s ice-cold glass, and held it against his swollen eye. “I see you haven’t lost your golden touch with women, Romeo.”

         With a finger pointed at Wyatt’s black eye, Rodriguez said, “Apparently, you have, though.”

         “This was work-related. A little on-the-job training, you might say.”

         “What? Did your client get pissed when you showed him pictures of his wife blowing his best friend?”

         “Something like that.”

          Why had he gone into the PI business? He hated divorce cases. He hated the cheating husbands and the vindictive wives, the slashed tires and the bruised egos, the petty fights and the hurt feelings, none of which mattered in the whole grand scheme of things.

          He wanted real cases. The murders. The cases where he could do his job and make a substantial difference. What he wanted was his old job back .

          Rodriguez wobbled in front of Wyatt’s good eye. He couldn’t tell if the boat was rocking or if the booze was still talking. Wyatt waved at Rodriguez to have a seat.

          “What’s up? I know you didn’t drive all the way out here to give me shit.”

          Rodriguez spun the captain’s chair around and sat. “I have a job offer for you.”

          Wyatt sat up straight, his heart kicked his sternum, and the lemonade sloshed down the front of his shirt. He’d waited close to a year and a half for this news. “Day wants me back?”

          Wyatt downed the rest of the lemonade and reached into the cooler beside him for a couple bottles of water. He tossed one to Rodriguez and kept the other for himself.

          “Eeh,” Rodriguez scrunched up his face. Wyatt knew that face. It was Rodriguez’s how-do-I-spin-the-truth-into-something-positive face. “Not exactly.”

          Wyatt sat back. A nagging tightness clamped his chest. It shouldn’t hurt so bad that Jed Day, his mentor, the county sheriff, the man who’d taken Wyatt, as a petty-thieving, punk-ass teen, off the streets and brought him into his house and raised him as his own, didn’t want anything to do with him.

          Killing Caleb Steele, an undercover officer, hadn’t been Wyatt’s fault.

          And he had the No Bill from the grand jury as proof.

          That-A-Way eased belly deep into the pond and munched on a mouthful of pond weeds. The ripples fanned out and sloshed against Sea-Celia’s wood hull, slipping beneath her keel.

          “Then what kind of job is it?” Wyatt glanced up at Rodriguez, almost afraid to hear the answer.

          “Investigative work on the down-low.”

          “If you’re trying to be funny, it’s not working.”

          “No joke, buddy.”

          Wyatt reached for the whiskey bottle, forgetting it was lying empty at the bottom of his hull. For one pathetic moment, he wondered if there had been enough alcohol spilled for the bilge to pump it out. He could hold a Solo cup under the bilge port and…

          No, he wasn’t that desperate.

          Yet.

         “Who’d I be working for?”

         “Sheriff Day.”

          The offer hit him in the gut, and the whiskey-lemonade combo surged up the back of his throat. That bilge-whiskey plan looked better and better. “Forget it. If Jed had wanted my help, he should have come to me himself… and the answer would still be no. I want my job, not someone to throw me an off-the-books bone .”

          Rodriguez held up his bottle of water. “Got anything stronger?”

          Wyatt bumped his chin toward the open hold in front of his bare feet.

          His friend’s face twisted in confusion. “Since when do you store your liquor in the engine compartment?”

         “Long story.”

          Rodriguez leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Look, I know things are a little rough between you two ri—”

         “Rough?” Wyatt’s vocal cords squeaked as they hit a register unheard since puberty. “Day and I would have to be talking for it to be rough. I don’t know what you call all this static. This silence. This complete bullshit .”

         “Day has taken this harder than any—”

          Wyatt made a noise—part growl and part grumble, all incredulity. No one had taken Caleb Steele’s death harder than Wyatt except, he would imagine, his wife and family.

          “You’ve got to see it from Day’s perspective, Wy. He’s the freaking sheriff. Voted in, not appointed. It wouldn’t look good for him to be seen talking with you .”

          “The grand jury cleared me. Internal Affairs cleared me. I don’t see the problem.” Deep down, Wyatt knew, but he wanted to see if Rodriguez was man enough to say it to his face.

          “IA, the courts, they don’t mean as much in a small town as the court of public opinion. And in the people’s eyes, you took down one of your own—”

          Apparently, Rodriguez did have the balls.

          “The guy was deep undercover. The DEA slipped him in, never notifying Jed and the local task force. How—”     Wyatt cut himself off. This argument was nothing new. Facts don’t always change a person’s perception. The fucking Drug Enforcement Administration. What the hell had they been thinking?

          Emotionally, Wyatt was too beat down even to raise his voice. Constantly having to defend himself, endure the stares, the whispers, the sidelong glances... It wore on a man.

          But not nearly as substantially as his guilt had.

          Because even though his actions that day had been justified, even though he’d played it by the book, a man, an agent, was still dead.

          Forget the Solo cup for the bilge-whiskey, Wyatt would just put his mouth to the bilge spout and swallow.

Rodriguez held his hands out as if saying, don’t-shoot-the-messenger. “Hey, you’re my friend, I’ve always given you the benefit of the doubt.”

          Wyatt laughed. Cold humor was a wicked bitch. “Fuck benefit of the doubt. You. Know. Me.” He stabbed his water bottle at Rodriguez’s chest for emphasis. “Probably better than anyone. There shouldn’t be any doubt in your mind that I’m not a crooked cop .”

          “Look, that came out wrong. I know you’re not dirty. Day knows you’re not dirty.”

          “Yet he still fired me.”

          “With the elections that were coming up, you know there was a lot of pressure on Day—”  

          Wyatt stood and slammed the hatch closed. The deck reverberated beneath the soles of his bare feet, a catfish jumped, and That-A-Way stopped munching on pond weeds long enough to give him a baleful look and a muffled moo.

          Wyatt paced the deck. From the bench seat he’d custom fitted at the stern, he crossed under the overhang of the flybridge to the captain’s chair and back again. But Sea-Celia was only a forty-four-foot trawler. Three or four long strides each way and he had to turn around again.

          “Why me?” Wyatt asked as he turned toward Rodriguez again.

          “If some of those rumors are true—that whoever is killing all the prostitutes is a dirty cop—who would be better at catching the real dirty cop than the one everyone thinks is dirty?”

          Wyatt scratched at two days of scruff on his jaw, trying to ignore the prickle of apprehension that zinged across his scalp. Rodriguez smiled, a flash of over-bleached teeth in a clean-shaven face. That smile did nothing to soothe Wyatt’s nerves.

           In reality, the PI business sucked the soul out of him. And even with his expenses kept at a minimum, he wasn’t earning enough in the private eye world yet to keep from dipping into his savings from time to time.

           He did have a potential new client he had to meet in about an hour, but even with that, the long and short of it was, he needed the extra work. He finally stopped pacing and glanced at Rodriguez. “What’s involved?”

          Rodriguez flung a bulging manila envelope at him like a Frisbee. Wyatt caught it and claimed the helm chair beside Rodriguez. The chair creaked under his weight, and the cracked and yellowed white vinyl poked the back of his thighs. Mentally, he added the chair to his list of upgrades.

           Wyatt pulled the papers out and glanced at the first page.

           “It’s a copy of the casework on the Nightwalker murders,” Rodriguez said.

           Wyatt glanced at Rodriguez. “This is your case.”

           Rodriguez nodded.

          “I don’t understand.” Wyatt stuffed the papers back into the envelope. “I still don’t see why you need me.”

          Rodriguez pulled a face as if he had indigestion, but Wyatt figured it was the murders that didn’t sit right with his old partner rather than something he ate. Add in the fact that the sheriff wanted someone else’s eyes on the case, eyes that belonged to Wyatt—and yeah, if Wyatt had had any Pepto in his first aid kit, he’d be handing the bottle over to his old partner.

           “There’s something we’re missing,” Rodriguez said. “Three  prostitutes dead. They all knew each other.”

           “Unusual for a serial killer to pick victims that aren’t random.”

           “Exactly. Our working theory is that the women all saw something, or know something they shouldn’t. We also don’t know if there are other women in danger. If there are, this guy’s going to strike again. The first one was killed about a month before—” Rodriguez raised his brows in a you-know gesture.

            Caleb Steele. The undercover agent Wyatt had shot and killed. “Yeah, I know. That first prostitute was my case. I still don’t know why you think I can help.”

          “Turns out, Steele had been working that murder from the inside. He’d told his handler shortly before he’d died that he had a strong lead.”

          “Which was?”

          “He took that to his grave, which is why some people still wonder if you were somehow involved in the deaths.”

          “Yeah, yeah. Spare me all the armchair detective theories. Trust me. I’ve heard them all.”

          “Well, the killer had to be someone important enough that Steele wanted to verify his theory before he dropped any names.”

          “I’m still waiting for the why me.”

          A breeze kicked up and fluttered some of the loose papers that had fallen out of Wyatt’s folder that had been stuck to the side of his face earlier. Rodriguez gathered the papers up and waved them at Wyatt. “This is why you.”

          “That’s my own investigation. It has nothing to do with the Nightwalker murders.”

          “Yeah. Your investigation into Steele.”

          Wyatt shrugged. Wasn’t anybody’s business but his that he couldn’t let Steele’s death go. Wasn’t anybody’s business that not an hour, a minute, a second didn’t go by that he didn’t relive that trigger pull. Didn’t wish he could hit rewind on his life. Didn’t wish he could find a way to alleviate the guilt. Even though to this day, he didn't doubt that Steele would have shot him first if given a chance. One of the things that kept him up late into the night was the why.

          Rodriguez scooped up the rest of the papers before they blew away and stuffed them back into the file folder and dropped it in Wyatt’s lap. “Tell me why you can’t let Steele’s death go?”

          “I’d identified myself. Steele knew I was a cop. Knew I’d shoot if he drew a weapon. So why did he draw on me?”

          “Maybe he was afraid you’d figure out who he was and blow his cover.”

          “He was deep under. Even if I’d arrested him, his prints would have come back to his alias. Along with his fake rap sheet. So no, I don’t think that’s why. And who was the suit he was scuffling with that night? The guy that got away. I can’t help but think that he’s involved somehow.”

          “Or it was just what it looked like. A mugging gone bad. Or maybe all of this is connected. Maybe the rumors were right. Maybe Steele was dirty, too.”

          “Too? As in, dirty like me?”

          Or maybe deep down, Rodriguez believed Wyatt was a bad cop.

          “As in, that false rumor is what’s going to be what enables you to dig for the answers that we can’t. People see the cops, they clam up. They’re scared to talk. Scared they’ll be the next one killed. But you’re not a cop anymore.” Wyatt’s harrumph didn’t even slow Rodriguez down. “And in this town, a disgraced cop is on the bottom rung. The criminals are more likely to talk to you. And you can do things, get away with things that we can’t.”

          Wyatt narrowed his eyes and injected a full dose of sarcasm into his words. “You really know how to butter a guy up. That kind of flattery, how can I say no?”

          “You can’t say no because as much as you publicly deny it, you want answers. And even more than answers, you want back into Day’s good graces. Back into the fold and behind the thin blue line.” Rodriguez stepped back, that stupid all-knowing, I-got-you-where-I-want-you smirk on his face. “And as much as you want all that, you want to clear your name even more.”

          Fuck. It chapped Wyatt’s ass when Rodriguez was right.

          “You don’t have to give me your answer now. Read the file, think about it.” Rodriguez turned to leave, then stopped and glanced back. “And fair warning, Steele’s widow is on the warpath, doing her own investigation.” Rodriguez made air quotes beside his head at the word investigation. “So you’ll have to deal with her, too. Who knows, maybe she has something we don’t. There’s some info on her in the file I brought you as well.”

          Wyatt’s gut churned. Where was that Pepto when he needed it? Steele’s widow. Probably the last person on earth he wanted to face. Wyatt slouched in the chair. He’d told himself after the shooting, that at least Steele hadn’t had any kids. For some reason, that had been a small comfort to him. Knowing he’d taken a father away from his kids might have tipped him over the edge.

          After all, he knew what it was like growing up without a father figure .

          “Sleep on it,” Rodriguez said, “but a chance like this isn’t going to come around every day. You catch this killer, Day can put a positive spin on it, and you’ll be the golden boy again.”

 

Wyoming Confidential by Vicki Tharp.jpg