Trout Fishing photo

Warning: This excerpt contains adult language and themes. Reader discretion is advised.

by Keith McCafferty


The fishing guide known as Rainbow Sam found the body. Or rather, it was the client casting from the bow of Sam’s driftboat, working a fly called a Girdle Bug in front of a logjam that parted the current of the Madison River. When the float indicator pulled under the surface, Sam winced, figuring a snag. The client, whose largest trout to date had been the size of a breakfast sausage, reared back as if to stick a tarpon.

The body submerged under the driftwood shook free of its tether, bobbed to the surface and floated, face down, the hook buried in the crotch of the waders.

The client’s reel screamed. The bloated corpse took line, steadily, implacably, in the manner of a large carp. Leaning hard on the oars, Sam closed the gap between his boat and the body. Calmly, in a voice that had coaxed a thousand neophyte anglers, he instructed his client to drop the long-handled net over the dead man’s head. The catch so enmeshed, he angled his Clackacraft downstream at the pace of the current, fanning the oars gently toward a bay at the bank.

“We got him!” the client beamed.

Sam thought, “Holy shit.” But he made a mental note to convert all his monofilament leader material to Orvis Superstrong in the future, just the same. The eight pound tippet had held like a stout steel cable.

“I’ll tell you what, Buddy,” Sam muttered, as he stepped out of the driftboat and gingerly lifted the meshes of the net over a hank of flowing hair. “You may not be God’s gift to trout fishin’, but you just got yourself a whopper of a story.”

Sam worked the hook from the waders, then rolled the body face-up. For the next few moments neither man spoke. The client, his florid face suddenly ashen, leaned over the gunwale and threw up, starting with the tin of kippered herring he’d had for a snack after Sam’s bankside lunch. He was a big eater and it took a half dozen heaves to get it all up.

Rainbow Sam just stared. It wasn’t only the ruptured left eye socket, from which a splinter of stick protruded like a skeletal finger, that riveted his attention. It was the lower lip, grotesquely swollen and purple as a plum. He bent down for a closer look. In the center of the lip was a trout fly. It was a Royal Wulff, a hair wing dry fly pattern about the size of an evening moth. Tied on a #12 hook, Sam decided. The barb was buried in the flesh; from the hook’s down-turned eye dangled a strand of monofilament leader material.

“Ah shit,” Sam said, having recovered from the shock of the mutilation. “I think I know this kid. Goddammit anyhow.”

For the angler was a very young man, little more than a teenager, Sam thought. He had floated past where the angler was wade fishing only a few weeks before, on a stretch of river not far upstream. He remembered the occasion because the fisherman wasn’t cut from the same khaki and Gortex cloth that stamped most Madison River pilgrims. Sam disapproved of anglers who dressed like pages out of catalogues. They projected a GQ quality that might serve one in good social stead at an upscale fishing lodge, but emphasized particulars to which trout paid no attention.

By contrast, this man’s waders were stained and patched and he fished without a vest, let alone one sporting the obligatory ten pockets. “How are you doing, Mr. Sam?” the young man had called out that morning as Sam glided by. And Sam, momentarily taken aback before realizing that the angler had read his name from the logo stenciled on the bow, had tipped his cap in reply. It was a grace note in the day, considering that wade fishermen and boat anglers competed for the same water. Tensions could become strained on a popular river like the Madison.

“Now why the f— did this have to happen to a nice kid like that?” the fishing guide muttered to himself.

He waded ashore, sucking the back of a tooth.

“Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to call the sheriff. Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.” Sam’s client, having clambered out of the boat, was sunk to his knees in the shallows, a string of drool hanging from his stubbled chin. A few feet away, a school of tiny fish flashed under the yellow wash of vomit. The man nodded dumbly.

Rainbow Sam climbed the steep riverbank. For just a second he took in his surroundings, the river reflecting lavender evening clouds and the deeper purples of the mountains, its current running between banks of wild roses. It was part of what attracted anglers from around the world to the Madison — the setting and the water quality, a champagne of intoxicating clarity that poured in one effervescent riffle from Quake Lake to the small fishing town of Ennis. And then, too, there were the trout, with their ruby stripes and polished flanks, as hard as metal and as perfect as God ever made.

Well, Sam thought, this poor bastard has caught his last one.

He noted the nearest residences, a log mansion sporting panoramic riverfront windows and, just upstream, a chinked-up homestead cabin with a rusted half-ton in the drive. He spat, automatically registering the 21st century Montana paradox — Big Sky native cheek to jowl with summer gentry — whose house being the eyesore depending upon your point of view. Well, one ought to have a phone, anyway. He cinched the belt around his waders and began to walk.
__Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Keith McCafferty_


Sean Stranahan leaned back in the swivel chair in his studio, paint-stained Crocs on his desk top, a tumbler stenciled with the emblem of The Famous Grouse in his right hand. A half-finished trout fly, a caddis pupa imitation resembling a wingless moth, was gripped in the clamp of the tying vise in front of him. His eyes, fatigued from the close work of fly tying, drifted to the newspaper opened on his desk, then to the fluttering leaves of the aspens outside the window. He took a sip of tap water from the tumbler. The afternoon was beginning to ebb and he’d have to make a decision soon if he was going to go fishing. A smile played across his lips. That is, he thought, if it was still safe to drive to the river. His eyes returned to the story in the paper.

“Body Found In Madison River,” ran the headline. Rainbow Sam was quoted in paragraph four. He said he hadn’t seen skin that white since swimming with the Polar Bear Club in Lake Superior. Initially, he had said since peeling the D cups off a biker chick at the Harley Rendezvous in Sturgis, but when the reporter reminded him that the Bridger Mountain Star was a family newspaper, Sam had come up with the tamer quote. Details were sketchy. The body of an early twenty’s white male, clean shaven, shoulder- length blond hair, had been discovered half a mile below Lyons Bridge at 7 p.m. Wednesday, by fishing guide Samuel Meslik. Cause of death unknown, pending autopsy. No mention of a trout fly, nor of a stick jammed into an eye socket.

Stranahan turned to the sports page and read the box scores of the Red Sox, who had split a double-header with the Yankees. He had moved to Montana from a chapel town in Vermont, near the Massachusetts border, only three months earlier. He really didn’t care about baseball, especially when the Sox were eight and half games back at the All-Star break, but found himself reaching for that toehold to the past nearly every time he opened the newspaper. Beth loved the Sox. He pictured her sitting in the kitchen of their farmhouse, drinking coffee from her favorite eggshell mug, her reading glasses pulled down on her nose.

He folded the paper and laid it on a corner of the desk.

The phone rang. Welcoming the distraction, he picked it up. Maybe this was a print catalogue, calling to tell him that one of the watercolors he’d submitted had been chosen for a limited edition release.


“Why do you have to answer the phone like that?” It was his sister. “Why can’t you use the Christian name Mom and Dad gave you?”

Stranahan sighed.

“Contrary to popular opinion, I am a businessman. The way to deal with a publisher, not that I am overwhelmed with experience, is to answer tough, then soften up. It creates an illusion of intimacy.”

“Tough?” she said. “You’re not tough, you just look like you are.

“Oh, Sean, when something happens like it did to you, people start letting themselves go. Appearances count in this world. You’re over thirty now. How are you going to pull yourself up if you’re sleeping on a couch? If Beth knew what she’d done . . .”

Stranahan interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about Beth. It’s not her fault.”

He glanced at his cluttered studio, watercolors hung on the cracked plaster walls, fly-tying feathers decorating the floor — the place looked like the dirt ring in the aftermath of a cockfight. His eyes settled on a tea saucer he’d scattered with breadcrumbs beside a mouse hole in the baseboard.

“Are you still there?” “Really, Karen, I’m fine.” He tried to put a positive note in his voice. “The Trout Unlimited banquet’s coming up. I have a painting in the auction. My work will get some exposure and a couple more sales or a limited edition contract and I can move into a proper place. All I really need to do is get back to work.”

“What happened between you and Beth, it’s not too late.”

“Stop,” Stranahan said, firmly but gently.

“But . . .”

“I’ll call you soon. Say hi to Carl and the twins.”

“I love you, too, Sean. Even if you didn’t say it first.”

“Ditto.” That started the trill of laughter he’d intended and he replaced the receiver halfway through it and stared out the window of the studio.

In the three months since he’d said good-bye to New England, Stranahan had done a lot of staring: out the truck window, at the forested ridges that defined Bridger, the Montana town where he had settled — stopped might be a better word — into hazy middle distance, at the door of his office. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly, only that he thought he’d know it when he saw it. And talking with his sister reminded him that a good part of him was still mired in the East. He had wanted to ask Karen if she had seen Beth around town, but had been afraid of the answer. Maybe she was with the lawyer who had handled the divorce, Ken Whatshisname. What a milquetoast name, Ken. The man even looked like a Ken doll, his blond hair holding the tooth tracks of his comb. Who put sticky stuff in their hair anymore? In Vermont?

Stranahan heard steps in the hall. His pulse quickened. The steps ceased in front of the door. He could imagine someone reading the etched letters on the frosted glass window — BLUE RIBBON WATERCOLORS. Underneath, in a discreet script that he devoutly hoped would be overlooked by all passersby, were the words “Private Investigations.” If Beth ever saw that door, Stranahan thought, she’d laugh him out of the building. True, he’d worked as an investigator for his grandfather’s law firm in Boston during college summers, but that had mostly been punching numbers on a phone. He’d done divorce cases, repossessions, assorted minor league snooping for a couple years in his late twenties, out of an office of his own, before devoting himself to painting full-time. But when Stranahan applied for gallery space at the Bridger Mountain Cultural Center in the spring, the building manager had said that while he was eminently qualified — that was the word she used — the center already housed a number of artists and she liked her tenants to represent a variety of interesting occupations.

“Well,” Stranahan had said, wracking his brain for resume credits, because the cultural center was non-profit and the rent was ridiculously cheap, “I’m a licensed private investigator in Massachusetts.” He winced at his words, even though the lie was only one of tense.

The manager, an outdoorsy, gap-toothed blonde in her forties, had tapped the eraser of her pencil against her front teeth thoughtfully.

“I like that,” she’d said. “The way you look, that dark knight thing that makes a woman look at you twice. Um-hmm, you know what I mean” — she’d looked him up and down frankly — “P.I. I like that a lot. Just don’t bring any guns in here. “

Stranahan stared at the reverse lettering on the glass, trying to resolve the indistinct human shape in the hall. Whoever it was seemed to be dressed in patterned clothes, but the glass distorted shapes grotesquely. The person had been standing outside his door for half a minute. Making up his mind? Her mind? To knock and ask him what? For a painting? Or for the goods on a rotten husband? He was about to get out of his chair and save his visitor the agony of decision when the footsteps sounded again, fading down the corridor.

“There goes money,” Stranahan said out loud. And under his breath, in spite of himself, “Or love.” Talking to himself was a habit he had picked up since the divorce, when the moorings started to shake.

He glanced out the window at the declining day and came to a decision. Picking up a scratched pair of dollar store reading glasses, he turned his attention to the half-completed fly in his vise. He added a few hackle fibers from a Hungarian partridge to simulate legs, then completed the size 14 pupa with a whip finish and painted a coating of clear nail polish to freeze the thread. He gave it a minute to dry before opening the jaws of the vise and sticking the fly into a patch of sheep’s wool on his Red Sox cap. Then he picked up the fly rod case hanging from its carry strap on an old-fashioned hat rack and went out the door, down two flights of steps, and into the angled sunshine of a July afternoon.

His ’76 Land Cruiser, which during the weeks of his cross-country journey had served as his home — the studio, he reminded himself, was a step up in that regard — squatted heavy and old-fashioned under the spreading ash trees along South Gallatin Avenue. He rolled down the windows to let the breeze in and stuck the rod case in the back beside his easel and paints. He shut the lift gate and straightened up.

Turning, he caught sight of a woman walking up the street toward him. She had auburn hair and wore a sleeveless, flowered dress that clung to her body in the heat. The vitality of her stride was reminiscent of a teenage girl, but she had seen more of life and he placed her as being roughly his age. She looked vaguely familiar. The woman gave him a passing smile and, stopping a few steps beyond, raised her right arm, cocked an imaginary pistol at her head — Stranahan saw a flash of gold ring — and dropped the hammer with her thumb.

She muttered, “Just like me, I’m always forgettin’ somethin’,” and started back toward him.

“At least you know which way to go to find it.”

She paused, lifting her eyebrows in a question.

“Oh,” Stranahan said, “I get in the truck, half the time I don’t know which way to turn the wheel.”

She chuckled. “Honey,” she said, “men never know where they are going. You’re just one who has guts enough to admit it.”

“You have a good day now,” she said, and swung on by him. She left a scent hanging in the air, like oranges.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Keith McCafferty


The sheriff of Hyalite County, so-named for the opal ore that studded the volcanic peaks south of Bridger, placed her hands on her hips and said, “Hmpff.”

“What we have here,” Martha Ettinger said, looking from her deputy to the logjam in the river where Rainbow Sam’s client had hooked the corpse, “is a case of simple drowning. Or not. Enlighten me, Walt. Humor me with some of that big city cop perspective.”

It was Thursday morning, the day after the body had been discovered. The previous evening there had been scant opportunity to search the area where the angler had received his prodigious strike. By the time Ettinger and Deputy Walter Hess had taken statements from Sam and his client, a banker from Atlanta named Horace Izard III, then waited for Doc Hanson to drive in from Bridger, pronounce the bloated, trout-belly white body dead and arrange for transportation to the county morgue, it had been growing dark. Ettinger had wanted to wade out to the logjam herself, but neither she nor Hess had packed waders with felt soles, which were necessary to keep one’s footing on the treacherous boulders. Sam had offered his services, and, when they were politely declined, his waders. Client Izard had seconded the offer, but as both men wore a twelve shoe, and as neither had been able to hit a toilet bowl with any consistency in more than a decade, owing to inaccuracy of aim with appendages their bulging stomachs concealed from view, their waders were comically large. It had been decided that Walt, who was only marginally taller than Martha at five-foot ten, would wade out in Izard’s waders, which looked more hygienic than Rainbow Sam’s, despite traces of vomit.

The deputy hadn’t taken a dozen steps before Sam had snorted, raised his eyes to Martha, and said, “Your deputy’s goin’ right in the drink.”

Walt made it a little more than halfway to the logjam, shuffling his feet carefully in the clown-foot wading boots, before slipping on a rock and taking a header. Rainbow Sam, who moved well for a big man, ambled casually downriver, waded out in his jeans, grabbed Hess by the collar, and, for the second time that day, dragged a waterlogged body to the bank.

Back on shore, Hess had thanked Sam sheepishly and grinned at Martha, who raised her eyes in exasperation.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.

Sam wondered if there would ever be a time when he didn’t have to deal with morons in water.

Put on the spot, Walt grimaced, spit a stream of tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth — he’d been a Chicago cop, taking a dip of snuff was a Western adaptation — and said, “I see it like this, Marth. Our John Doe here, he’s out of state, reads Fly Fisherman and Field&Stream like they was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, buys hisself a fly rod . . .”

“Which we haven’t found.”

“Which we haven’t found. Anyways, he has this rod but never learns how to cast. He’s fishing, hooks hisself in the lip on his backcast, slaps his hand to his mouth and falls into the river. He gets washed into a logjam and poked in the eye by a stick, starts swallerin’ water, and next thing you know he’s fishing that great trout stream in the sky.”

“We don’t know for sure yet he drowned,” Martha pointed out.

“No, but them’s the odds.”

“Walt, did you like, forsake the English language when you came out here, or were you always this much of a hick?”

“I fancy myself sort of the American Crocodile Dundee,” Walt said deadpan. He slapped the foot-long Bowie knife strapped to his waist.

Martha blew out her breath.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. That’s the scenario I come up with, too. But I’ll take exception with the non-resident assumption. He’s casually dressed, his waders are patched up, it makes me think he could be local. Plus the guide says he saw him here a few weeks ago, so if he’s on vacation it’s a long one.”

“What bothers me,” Walt said, “is how come no fishing license. No wallet, for that matter. No car. Leastwise, none nearby.”

“And no rod and no fishing vest,” Martha added. “Plus, the wader belt he’s wearing is inflatable but he doesn’t pull the cord to inflate it. If he falls in, you figure first thing he does is reach for the cord. It smells, doesn’t it. Let’s go have a look at that logjam. Maybe his wallet and his license washed out of his pockets and got caught in the jam.”

“Not likely. If you remember, Sheriff, he was wearing one of those shirts with zipper pockets and they were zipped. I checked.”

“Humor me, Walt. And do me a favor. This time, try not to fall in the river.”

The logjam had formed itself into long commas of debris around an exposed boulder in the middle of the river. The body had wedged underneath the mass of roots from a tree that had washed down during high water. Ettinger and Hess searched this area first.

It wasn’t easy. The current swirled around the boulder, scouring out a pocket of deep water that pressed against the roots and threatened to upend the sheriff and her deputy with each mincing step. Bending down to look under the tangle, Hess took in a few cups of the Madison over his wader tops and whistled.

“Hooey, Marth, that’s cold as my ex-wife’s udders!”

Ettinger harrumphed. She had spotted something blue back under the root ball and was reaching as far back as she could, her arm immersed in the icy water and her wader top within an inch of the surface. The tips of her outstretched fingers grazed across what felt like fabric. She scissored her fingertips together, but the cloth pushed away.

She plunged her arm farther under, the water seeping in her waders. “Mother” . . . she felt her nipples stiffen and sucked in a involuntary breath as the water sloshed against her chest . . . “of” . . . she grabbed the cloth . . . “mercy!” she exclaimed, shuddering as icy water seeped underneath the wading belt and tingled against her belly.

“Aha!” She withdrew her arm triumphantly.

“Looks like Mr. John Doe lost his hat,” Hess said. He waded over to examine the ball cap, which Ettinger pincered between her fingers.

“Moccasin Hollow Semen Sales. Julep, Mississippi,” Walt murmured. “Foreigner, just like I said.” Above the brim was a stitched emblem of a Jersey bull, walking on his hind feet, approaching a cow who looked coyly over her shoulder at him. We stand behind our product, read the back.

“Amusing,” Martha said. “Very amusing.”

She turned the hat over. Inside the crown, a small square of sheep’s wool, attached by two safety pins, held four trout flies.

Ettinger said, “You ever know a fisherman to wear one of these patches inside the hat? I thought the whole purpose was to dry the flies, so you pinned it to the outside.”

“Don’t reckon I do,” Hess said.

Ettinger withdrew a submersible point-and-shoot from the breast pocket of her khaki shirt. She snapped a photo of Walt holding the hat and another of the logjam. Then she withdrew a Zip-Loc from her wader pocket and sealed the hat inside it.

Hess shook his head. “This ain’t no crime scene, Marth,” he said.

She ignored the comment and stuffed the Zip-Loc inside her wet shirt. “We’ll have a closer look-see later.”

For the next twenty minutes they searched the tangle of branches that formed the logjam, Hess on one side, Ettinger the other. They found nothing else.

“What do you say we go back,” Hess said.

“Let’s give it another few minutes.”

“Marth,” Hess said, “just what is it we’re looking for? ‘Sides the rod?”

“Think, Walt.”

Walt went back to searching.

“I’m waiting,” Ettinger said.

“I’m thinking,” Hess said.

A minute later Hess straightened up. “Is this what we’re looking for?”

Ettinger waded around the downstream side of the jam and bucked the current to come up alongside the deputy. A willow tree had been swept against the logjam, its branches partially submerged. Walt was pointing to the end of a half inch-diameter branch that had broken off short near the trunk. The stub was splintered and clinging to it was a filament of fleshy tissue, pale as a blanched earthworm.

“That looks like eye matter to me,” Ettinger said. “But this is downstream from where What’s-his-face, Izard the Third, hooked the body. If our theory about him drowning holds up, how could he poke his eye out with this branch and end up 20 feet upriver?”

“Maybe that Southern gentleman and the guide were wrong about the position of the body.”

“What about the hat then, why was it upstream?”

“It came off his head and he swept on past it and ended up here.”

“That fishing guide was pretty positive about the body’s location, Walt.”

Hess rubbed his forehead with a sunburnt hand.

“Then how in God’s name . . .” He stopped. “Aw, Marth, are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

“Now you’re thinking,” Ettinger said. She took a snapshot of the limb, then fished around for another plastic bag in her wader pocket. Clasping the bag between her teeth, she opened the saw blade of her Swiss Army knife, grasped the stick a foot below the break and started to make sawdust.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Keith McCafferty


In Sean Stranahan’s philosophy of life, any man who had a fly rod, a quarter tank of gas and four decent tires was never too far from home. So while it may have been true that he wasn’t sure which way to turn when he left the Bridger Mountain Cultural Center, the fact remained that no matter which point of the compass he headed for, he’d be home in time for an evening caddis hatch. Within thirty miles of Bridger ran four of the greatest rivers in trout fishing lexicon: the Yellowstone, the Gallatin, the Madison and the Jefferson. He settled on the Beartrap Canyon of the Madison because he loved the barren hills and because the newspaper story of the man who had apparently drowned in the Madison’s current, albeit a good sixty miles upstream, exerted a perverse magnetism.

At the river, clouds of caddis flies pulsed over the willows, like dust swarming through shafts of sunlight in a musty room. Stranahan knotted the fly he had tied in his studio to the point of his leader. He worked the fly line out in tight loops, then dropped it gently to the surface. Immediately, the current swept it in a bow downstream. He flicked his wrist to roll a loop of line upstream, erasing the bow so that his line was straight and the fly, which imitated the immature stage of the insect, drifted naturally beneath the surface. Manipulating fly line was second nature to Sean, as was tightening when the first fish took and then letting it run freely to jump once, twice, three times before it sulked in the current. Stranahan worked the trout in and cradled it underwater while removing the hook. The iridescent violets, rubies and silver sheens trembled as the small rainbow trout twisted, catching angles of light. He released his hold and the trout arrowed away into the current.

He looked across the river. It always looked different after he had caught his first fish, more potent somehow. Although it had taken him time to adjust to the steeper gradients of Western rivers, Stranahan could now read the tapestry of currents as naturally as a field general interpreted military maps and plan his campaign accordingly.

Fishing was something he was very good at and had been since he was a boy, armed with a pole and a bobber, dunking worms for bluegills in the pond at his grandparents’ farm in western Massachusetts. Whenever the family had driven up to visit, Stranahan would snatch his pole and a rusted gardening trowel from the trunk of the car, then jog straight to the pond to dig for bait. His mother would call after him to show a little more courtesy for his grandmother and grandfather, who would come out of the house waving, but his father always said, “Let him go, Marge, it means so much to him.”

But if afternoons of dancing bobbers proved to be the most joyful and innocent of his childhood, the magic of fishing that transformed his life was experienced in darkness. After dinner, his grandpa and father would drink George Dickel and smoke pipes out on the porch. Sean would sit on the railing, listening to the crickets rubbing their legs, watching the weeping willow in the yard for the first lantern of light from the abdomen of a firefly. He would tap his foot impatiently on the peeled paint floor boards, waiting for his father to tap out his pipe.

It had become a father-son ritual. His dad would take the pipe from his mouth, examine it . . . Sean would hold his breath . . . and put it back between his teeth. The sigh escaping his lungs, which would become an irritating habit that Beth commented upon more than once, was incubated on those interminable evenings. At last his father would knock the pipe on the porch rail, watch it with a critical eye until it lost some of its heat, and replace it in the pocket of his shirt. Then from his pants pocket he’d withdraw his car keys, which he’d casually toss over.

“How about getting the tackle box out of the trunk?” he’d say. “Unless you’re too sleepy to fish. If you’re too tired, Grandpa and I can go alone.” His father and grandfather would exchange winks. “How ’bout it?”

Sean had never been too sleepy to sit in the bow of the old wooden rowboat moored at the dock. His father manned the oars, positioning the oldest and youngest generations of Stranahans to cast toward the indigo shoreline, where the cannibalistic bass, the big game of the pond, hunted frogs and bluegills, as well as young of their own kind. Sean’s favorite plug was a Crazy Crawler, a treble-hooked contraption with hinged metal wings that opened and closed like a wounded bird as it was reeled across the surface. He would never forget the first time a bass inhaled the lure, shattering the moonstone surface of the pond. The jolt of the strike had taken Sean completely out of the current of ordinary life, into a dimension of sensation and urgency where time was measured in heartbeats and minutes passed that could never be recaptured in the imagination, but that could be relived only if you were lucky enough to catch another.

“There you are,” he said, speaking around the stem of his Meerschaum pipe. The trout walloped on the surface, heavy sounding, then swung in an arc far downstream. There was nothing showy about this one — it exhibited none of the frantic antics of the first fish. For perhaps five minutes the trout bulled stubbornly before surrendering ground, a few feet at a time, to the pressure of the graphite rod. It wavered, thick-shouldered, in the thin water near the bank. Sean reached down and the trout fought back into the current, exhausting the fathoms of its heart. When it swung back in, he reached under its belly and lifted.

It was a brown trout, heavily muscled, with a sprinkling of dime-sized blue and crimson circles on its back. An old male, the fish had a jutting lower jaw and curved teeth that brought blood from Stranahan’s fingers as he worked the hook free. The brown settled to the bottom in a foot of water, its gills flaring as it regained strength. Watching it, Stranahan sat down on the bank. Twenty inches, he thought. Maybe better. Twilight was an amber smear on the horizon; the river glittered in the slanted light. In a few minutes the polish would fade from the surface, the current’s mercurial song would slide into bass notes, and the wild night would claim it against further human intrusion.

He said, “You’d have liked this place, Pop,”

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Keith McCafferty


Martha Ettinger groped for the phone.


“Sheriff, it’s Doc Hanson. Sorry to call so early, but something’s been nagging me about the autopsy.”

“What is it, Bob? He drowned, right?” She glanced at the bed stand clock radio. 5 a.m.

“Yea, he drowned. But, well, there’s a couple a things . . . I could explain, but it’d be easier if you came down to the morgue.”

“That where you are now?”

“Yeah, I woke up and got to thinking, so I came on down. He’s on the table in front of me as we speak, the poor fella.”

“Give me forty minutes. I gotta feed the horse and the chickens, or else I’ll have to drive back out here later on.”

“Take your time. He isn’t going anywhere.”

Martha hung up the phone and sat up in bed. Her cats, Elsa and Sheba, which slept intertwined at the foot of the bed, arched their backs, yawned, and walked up and began to rub their heads against Martha’s shoulders.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Give me a minute.”

She padded on bare feet to the bathroom and opened the hot water spigot in the shower. While she waited for the water to warm, she pulled her flannel nightgown over her head and looked critically at herself in the mirror. Thirty-seven years old, she thought, and wearing every day for the world to see. Martha Ettinger had a round face that was saved from ordinariness by blue eyes that seemed lit from within; when she smiled, which she didn’t when looking in the mirror, her face took on a glow.

“She’ll have boys flying to her like moths to a flame,” her father had been fond of saying, and that had been the truth. Problem was, they were never the right boys. The boy who might have been right, who had grown up on the neighboring ranch, had been too shy to approach her once she reached puberty. It had always been the football players and the rodeo boys who came on to her. She had lost her virginity at sixteen to a calf roper who wore skin-tight Wranglers and a belt with a buckle the size of an elk’s hoof. She could remember lying on her back on the rough straw of a horse trailer, the roper’s quarter horse, Charlie, peering down at her from the stall divider, while the roper pumped obliviously away. She remembered thinking, “He doesn’t even know I’m here.”

Both her attempts at marriage had ended on the same note. When her second husband, Burt, a cattle auctioneer from Miles City, had opened his mouth about ten times too often in the Mint Bar one night, she had stood screaming while a ranch hand beat him senseless. Flinging herself onto the hand’s back, she had been cast aside as if she was a bag of feed. Later, pacing the lobby of the emergency room while her husband’s jaw was wired shut, she found that she was furious at her own helplessness to do anything when the fight started. It wasn’t concern for Burt, who was an asshole and deserved the beating — the marriage had been on its way to the dumpster for several years — it was her own inadequacy to handle the curves life threw you. She’d been brought up in a tradition of self-reliance, but had the misfortune of being pretty and had allowed herself to be subjected to the wills of alpha males ever since high school, losing most of her self-esteem in the process. She didn’t know exactly how just yet, but that was going to change.

The day after she filed for divorce, she had put an application in for the police academy in Billings. She was accepted to fill a gender quota, but had risen through the ranks on her own merits, which included several marksmanship trophies and a brown belt in karate. Ten years after graduating from the academy, while she was serving as deputy sheriff of Hyalite County, she’d been invited to a dance annually held in the Cottonwood Inn during the August Sweet Pea Festival. By Montana standards it was a gala affair, where school marms in sequined flapper gowns vied for space on the dance floor with cowboys wearing jeans, Stetsons and tuxedo shirts. A fight had broken out over a divorce that one man had assumed to be final, and another had assured him wasn’t, and the next thing Martha knew she was standing over a two-hundred pound drunk with the heel of her shoe dug into his ear hole.

“Move one inch, dirtbag, and you’ll be the first man in Hyalite County to be deceased via a woman’s high heel shoe,” she had shouted at him. The night before, she’d been watching “Hill Street Blues” resurrected on a cable channel.

Martha had been only vaguely aware of a growing circle of dancers, among whom stood several of the city fathers, including the mayor, Stan Vogel. What they saw was an attractive, slightly chunky brunette woman, sweating and bra-less under a V-neck silk gown, who was totally in control of the situation.

With no handcuffs handy, Martha had marched the man outside and stuffed him into the passenger seat of her date’s Jeep Wrangler. Followed outside by a small crowd, she had declined invitations for help — “he’s not going to give me any trouble, are you, mister” — and driven away.

“Just like Gary f—ing Cooper in ‘High Noon’,” one of the dancers had written in a letter to the editor the following day. The newspaper quote, minus the F-word, had struck a chord with the city. Cooper was a native Montanan, had actually gone to high school in Bridger, back in the 1930s. Two and half months later, Martha Ettinger won a three-way race for sheriff by fifteen points. But the dance at the Cottonwood Inn had been the last chance she’d had to wear the blue silk gown.

“How are the boys?” Doc Hanson said by way of greeting. It came out all one word — “howrtheboys?”

“Too good to be longing for their mother,” Martha said. “Derek’s up in Alaska, he has a summer job with the Forest Service cutting trail. David’s with his father down in Arizona, hawking Navajo turquoise to tourists, cruising the roads at night, looking for rattlesnakes.”

“You don’t say? What’s a high school kid doing looking for snakes, for Chrise sakes?”

“That’s a story for a day when we don’t have to attend business,” Martha said.

“All right, fair enough. Just help yourself to some donuts and coffee and slip into these after.” He handed her a paper suit, mask and latex surgical gloves.

She decided to skip the donuts. Martha wasn’t squeamish. She saddled her horse every November, stuck her 30/06 in the scabbard and shot her elk, dressed it, skinned it, hung it in the barn and butchered it. But the autopsy suite at the morgue, with its cold floor, body fluid drain basins and copper smell of blood, quelled any appetite she might have brought to the double bay doors.

She walked over where the body was lying on a stainless steel table. Even with the bloating she could see the fine musculature and good cheekbones. Just a couple days ago, she thought, this had been an attractive young man. Who had dyed his hair, she noted. She tried to avoid looking at the torn eye socket where the stick had gouged.

“Like I told you yesterday, the ocular wound was post-mortem. No bleeding, he was already dead. It could have happened when he hit that log after drowning, but so close on the heels of his death you’d expect more lividity. Makes one think he could have been dead a while before fetching up. The trout fly’s another story. Swelling, bruising. Almost like he’d wrapped his hand around the leader and yanked on it.”

“Or someone else did,” Martha said.

“Or someone else did.”

“You got me out of my feather bed to tell me what I already know, or is there something else? Any signs of struggle? I’m taking shit at the department for hushing the newspaper and making this out to be a suspicious death. If it wasn’t for the stick being downstream from the body, this is an accidental drowning, cut-and-dried As it stands, I’m looking like a woman who reads too many detective novels.”

“I’ve been accused of being too thorough myself, Martha. But every once in a while it pays off.”

He picked up a surgical tool that looked like a cocaine spoon, lifted the blackened lip and inserted the spoon into the mouth of the corpse. He scraped deliberately along the inner lining of the esophagus — Ettinger turned her head away, suppressing a gag. The county medical examiner carried the spoon to a steel counter on which stood an old-fashioned microscope with a squat, black-matte body. Hanson deposited a peppercorn of debris onto a glass specimen slide, added a drop of staining solution, then compressed the sample with another slide. He inserted the sample under the microscope lens and made adjustments, talking with his eye glued to the eyepiece.

“My parents bought me this microscope when I was twelve. That was 1963. It was state-of-the-art then. I’ve probably spent more hours looking through this eyepiece than most people have looking at television.”

“What’s your point, Bob? Cut to the chase.”

He ignored her.

“I was fascinated with nature, not just the marquee attractions, the bear and deer and so on, but the world at my feet. Spiders, snakes — that’s why I asked why your son was interested in snakes, ’cause I was. Insects. Chlorophyll cells in leaves. Whatever I could squish between slides, I looked at with this microscope.”

He glanced up from the lens. “I wanted to be a marine biologist. Naturally, I’d never seen an ocean in my life. But here was Lake Erie practically in the backyard, my dad worked for Dayton Tire, and when I graduated high school I chose U of M, Michigan, cause they had a program in limnology. Dad was a Buckeye to his core, he’s called me a traitor ever since.

“Anyway,” he held up a hand when Martha started to interrupt, “I’m coming to a point here. Limnology is the study of freshwater systems, lakes instead of oceans. I was all set to go on to grad school, but then I had a temporary lapse of sanity. The Vietnam War was coming to a close, and as a child of the sixties I thought I could make more of a difference in the world if I concentrated on helping people, instead of writing scholarly papers on the taxonomy of mayflies. I’d already taken all the pre-med courses and had the grades, so I applied to med school and this part of me”–he patted his chest–“has regretted it ever since.”

Martha blew out a breath and waited.

“So my point is, you’re in luck. There’s not another M.E. in the state who would check out the flecks of debris in this fellow’s throat as thoroughly as I did, or if he did, would know what he was looking at.”

“Which is?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

Martha bent her head to the eyepiece. A mosaic of dots and green oblongs filled the lens.

“What do you see?”

“Pointillism,” she said. “Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon on The Island of La Grande Jatte’.”

“I’m impressed with your art history, but it’s blue-green algae,” the medical examiner said.

Martha waited for the explanation. But Doc Hanson, having contained his excitement for several hours, would not be rushed. A coroner didn’t get many cases that carried the romance of murder in Bridger County.

“Now I’m going to have you look at another slide,” he said. “This is a water sample, taken from the lungs. Man was a non-smoker, by the way.” He turned the microscope to a higher power, readjusted the focus and stepped aside.

“Christ,” Ettinger said. “They look like the face in ‘The Scream.’ Worse.”

“Nasty devils, aren’t they? The benign ones that look like haystacks are copepods. The ones with the wicked mouths are cladocerans. They’re aquatic invertebrates, eaten by carnivorous insect larvae and baby fish.”

“We drink these monsters?”

“We do if we drink lake water,” Hanson said.

He held her eyes, waiting for the shoe to drop.

“But he was drowned in the river, Doc. Right?”

“Was he?”

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Keith McCafferty