First Chapter, Let Loose, Dusty Deals Mystery Series: Book 4
Recently, however, my kind-of-employee, kind-of-partner, Phyllis, had – in the name of public relations – been more than pushing me to do good. She’d been kneeing me in the back and shoving me in front of every do-gooding train she could find.
I’d licked envelopes, picked up trash and done the chicken dance in a chicken suit for a group of chicken-hating senior citizens.
What did I have to show for all of this? A tongue that stuck to the roof of my mouth, a pair of snow boots that reeked of old cheese, and an aching back from dodging one particular chicken-hater’s cane.
And a day off, but that I’d given myself, and without Phyllis’ approval.
Staring out my front window at the snow, I half expected her to pull up with a sleigh filled with orphans.
Luckily, no sleigh arrived. No malamute either though.
I’d let Kiska out an hour earlier and hadn’t seen so much as the tip of his tail since.
I glanced at the oversized round thermometer that I kept just outside the window where I could observe the temperature and relish the fact that I was snugly inside.
Not bad. I could see why my dog was staying outside.
I started to walk away and did a double take.
The thirty was on the wrong side of the zero.
Thirty below. Crap.
I tilted my head up and let the shame wash over me. Even a nicely blubber-lined Alaskan malamute had to be cold in that kind of weather.
With my shamefest done, I hobbled to the door and yelled for Kiska again.
He didn’t come.
I tilted my head, this time to keep the curse words from bubbling forward.
Initial reaction suppressed, I hobbled to the closet and pulled approximately 300 pounds of snow-gear on over my fleece jams.
Looking like a giant chocolate-covered marshmallow in my brown down coat and brown snow bibs – both presents from my mother that I would never wear in front of another human even at 100 below – I stumbled out into the cold.
I lumbered around the side, to the space between my main house and the original homestead cabin that sat a hundred feet or so away.
With a sigh, I stared upward.
My property, bordered on the back by national forest, sat on the side of a mountain. My backyard was one giant vertical climb. Something I found challenging to traverse even when not wrapped in two feet of down and encumbered by a chicken-hater injury.
“Ki—” I started to yell before remembering that it was seven in the morning. I didn’t have a lot of neighbors, but I had a few, twenty actually, and at least some of them would still be asleep. And with our houses all nestled in the same tiny crevice between two mountains, sound carried.
Mumbling to myself about dogs who – only when I was down and out and the temperature was even lower – decided to get up at the crack of dawn and insist on being let out, I pigeon walked down the path that led to the road and my unattached garage.
I was halfway down the slope when I spotted my wayward pet. His back half anyway. The front half was hidden by a small pine tree, but I was able to guess that he was watching something or someone in the road.
I stopped and considered leaving him alone. He was alive, and if he was focused on something, it wasn’t like he was going to listen to little old me. And little old me was in no shape to drag him back up the hill.
I was all ready to declare my duty as responsible pet owner done when I caught a flash of red outside my fence, right next to my dog.
Kiska’s back end moved, not side to side, but forward. As in all the way forward, perilously close to going through my fence and out into the road.
Back forgotten, I lurched. My feet, encased in my only pair of non-reeking snow boots – which also happened to be two sizes too big – caught on the snow. Arms out in a windmill motion, I teetered forward and back. Then, just as I thought I’d found my balance, a dog barked. I jerked toward the noise, fell onto my side and rolled like a log down the path.
Too padded to move more than my arms, and too cold to risk shoving my hands into the snow to slow my descent, I let myself go until I smacked, like the oversized snowball I was, into my garage.
I lay there, back shrieking and mind swirling, for a full minute before remembering what had sent me tumbling in the first place.
Kiska had been wiggling out of my fence.
Kiska never left the fence. It wasn’t that my fence was some miracle of engineering. It was just that he was, well, lazy.
It was honestly one of his most redeeming qualities.
The call came from nowhere. I looked around, or tried to, but positioned as I was, flat on my back and stuck that way as surely as a box turtle in the same position, the effort was a waste of the pain it sent shooting through my spine.
I heard scrambling behind me; then a wool-knit hat with a bright blue tassel on the end popped into my view.
“Can you move?”
The voice was masculine and with a slight accent I couldn’t quite place.
“So happy I was here, eh? I was a boat to leave when I saw you take the tumble.”
He leaned forward and I found myself staring into a pair of the biggest, most delicious toffee-colored eyes I’d seen on a non-furry face.
“A boat?” I asked, wondering if I’d hit my head in the “tumble” too.
“Yes, a boat, but your malamute was talking to me, and my three wanted to join in.”
He knew Kiska was a malamute. My heart pinged. Then I remembered a certain police detective with whom I’d had the longest lasting romantic relationship of my life, and the ping dulled to more of a guilty pong.
My new hat-wearing friend moved forward again, this time to run his hands over my arms. “Does this hurt?”
Swaddled in down as I was, I could barely feel his touch, giving me the perfect excuse to keep my answer to myself for a bit.
“How a boat this?”
A boat… “About,” I murmured.
He leaned back on his heels to look at me again. Even upside down, I could see the concern on his face. “Did you hit your head?”
His chin had a dimple. The observation, completely innocent and ping-free, caused my concentration to slip.
He jerked off a bright blue glove and held out his hand. “How many fingers?”
“Four,” I answered, feeling only slightly insulted.
He smiled and moved back.
Maybe I should have said two.
“If you don’t hurt anywhere, you’re probably just winded. Let me help you up.”
He tromped through the snow until he was standing at my feet. His coat, I noted, was some kind of high-tech thing built to provide warmth without the bulk, as were his water-proof pants. Around his waist was a wide black belt that looked a lot like the kind of thing a box boy at Wal-Mart might wear, except that it attached in the front with skinny nylon straps, rather than wrapping tightly around his entire body.
He noticed the direction of my eyes and for a second looked startled. Realizing where I’d been staring, or the general vicinity of where I’d been staring, I flapped my hands and began to stutter.
He, however, waved off my discomfort. “We were skijoring. A bit cold for it, but the dogs need their run. Plus we were all getting a bit stir crazy at the campground.”
I nodded as if I completely understood what in the world anyone would be doing at a campground when it was 30 below, or the compelling need to be up and out of bed before 8 a.m. in these conditions, much less doing anything that involved the word run.
He reached down with both hands to pull me to my feet. I was three quarters of the way upright when I remembered what had brought me to this position in the first place. I jerked to the side, wrenching my back and sending new jolts of pain shooting through me. With a grimace, I forced down the discomfort and called for my dog.
“He got out. That’s why I fell,” I mumbled, staggering and wincing and cursing the damn coat, which dragged in the deep snow, gathering a foot or so inside it with each of my steps.
“You mean him?” My rescuer pointed toward the pine tree that I’d seen Kiska disappear behind earlier.
And there my beloved pet was, his head shoved between the rails of the fence and his butt still very much inside.
“Oh… I thought I saw him go outside the fence.”
“Must have been one of mine you saw. Sorry about that.” He motioned again.
Moving side to side like a penguin, I managed to maneuver myself with minimal pain so that I could see the road past my fence. Three dogs lay just outside it, their noses resting on their paws and their eyes closed.
“Huskies?” I guessed. They didn’t look like the purebred huskies I knew, but there was definitely a resemblance and they were definitely not malamutes. Way too small for that.
“Alaskan,” he clarified. “Best sled dogs in the world.”
That explained the red harnesses each wore and, I realized, the belt he was wearing.
He touched his waist. “In the winter, when we aren’t racing, I use skijoring to keep them in shape.”
Another hand wave drew my attention to a pair of cross country skis propped against my fence.
“They’re so calm,” I commented, eyeing Kiska and wondering just how long I had before his curiosity overcame his laziness and he tried to wriggle his plus-sized form through the fence.
“It’s the exercise.” His gaze moved to Kiska and stayed there about three beats too long.
“Uh, yeah.” The magic of our moment broken, I waved at my dog as if he might actually listen and bound toward me. “Time for us to get inside.” I lumbered a few steps toward the hill that led to my house, tightening my jaw against the pain shooting through my back as I did.
“Do you live here?”
I turned, wondering why else he thought I’d have rolled down this particular hill this morning.
“You should come to the fund-raiser.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two bright green slips of paper.
Fund-raiser equaled charity and my charity cup had bubbled up, overflowed and almost drowned me in the process.
I shook my head, but he held out the slips anyway. With a sigh, I took them.
“The Silver Trail?” I knew about the sled dog race in part because Betty, my part-time employee, had entered their poster contest every year for the past twenty years. She had also, for the past twenty years, lost.
“It usually starts in Lincoln, but the trail got washed out a few weeks ago, so they’re relocating it.”
“To here?” I glanced around. My little town had at one time been a booming mining community. Now only about twenty of us called it home year-round. Visitors were usually limited to log trucks and the occasional tourist who overshot the campground a couple of miles up the road. The campground I assumed he and his dogs must be staying at.
“Starting at the campground, actually, but we’ll be going right through there.” He pointed across the road and past the creek where an old railroad trail lay.
I rose on my toes as if doing so would give me a view of this yet-to-come event. “Really? I hadn’t heard that.”
“The route hasn’t been officially announced yet. We’re doing it at the fund-raiser.” He pointed at the tickets I held.
“Oh.” I grasped the slips of paper tighter. Finally a do-good opportunity I could embrace. “Do you need volunteers?” No more crotchety old people or cheese-saturated garbage for me.
As he climbed over my fence and slipped into his skis, I planned my attack. First, I’d tell Betty I’d gotten tickets to the event. My show of support for her twenty-first effort at the poster contest would surely buy me something. Then I’d slide the news to Phyllis that my time serving seniors and bagging trash was done. And finally, I’d bring the grand news of the race to my little town itself.
Ding, ding, ding, three wins, all from one little roll down a hill.
My day had suddenly taken a giant turn to the good.
Two days later, it had warmed up to a balmy minus 5. I popped some pain killers, loaded Kiska into the Jeep, and headed to my antique shop, Dusty Deals.
I’d owned the place for a few years, after getting a little money in an inheritance and leaving my job as a reporter for The Helena Daily News. I even occasionally turned a profit, more so since Phyllis Cox had declared herself my partner. Phyllis was an ex-Texan and an ongoing blessing and pain. As was my part-time employee Betty Broward. Honestly, the two of them made as many decisions about the shop as I did, mainly because after watching the two of them battle any choices out, I had no energy to take on the winner.
I walked inside to find both Phyllis and Betty already there. Normally this would be cause to feign some pressing engagement that would take me right back out as quickly as I’d entered, but today I was happy to have them both present for my race news.
I pulled the tickets out of my pocket and waved them in the air. “Guess what I have?”
Betty cocked one hip against a Victorian washstand and waited.
Phyllis, completely ignoring my question, shook her head and placed her hands on her hips. “A ruined reputation. Ethel Monroe expected you to drive her to the ophthalmologist yesterday.”
I lowered my hand. “It was Sunday. The ophthalmologist wasn’t open.”
“Doesn’t matter. Ethel was expecting you.”
“But I never told anyone—”
“Do you know who Ethel is?”
Obviously, I didn’t. I glanced at Betty for support, but the look on her face gave me zero reassurance.
“Only the biggest donor to the Historical Museum of all time. She knows everybody who is anybody in western Montana.”
Being a big fat nobody, it was obvious why I wasn’t acquainted with the lady.
Phyllis, however, wasn’t finished talking. “She’s also on the Humane Society board, a founding member of Montana Mommas, past president of the Lloyd Monroe Performing Arts Center…” She ticked off on her fingers Ethel’s many accomplishments as she talked. “And…” She drew in a big breath and looked at Betty. In unison they said, “The originator of the Helena Jazz Festival.”
“She is,” Phyllis finished. “Everything we want you to be.”
The level of maternal disappointment in her eyes was so intense I fought to keep from hanging my head in shame.
Instead, I pulled in a breath and declared, “I’ve never heard of her.” I’d lived in Helena longer than Phyllis. If this Ethel was that important, I would have heard of her.
Both women stared at me in shock.
I had, it appeared, just proven Phyllis’ belief that I was sorely lacking in all things civic and public relations oriented.
Looking, if possible, less tolerant than ever, she spun her diamond embellished watch around to the front of her wrist. “You have half an hour to get to the retirement home to pick Ethel up and drive her to the hair salon.”
“But…” I held out the tickets.
Phyllis plucked them from my hand and frowned. “It’s a nice gesture, but I don’t know. Does the Humane Society support this?”
The Humane… I glanced around, guilt washing over me more from habit than any real knowledge of the group’s stance on sled dog races.
Betty, unencumbered by the perpetual guilt that I seemed incapable of shedding, crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “Those dogs love to run. Taking that away from them would be like taking wind from Everett. It’s what they are.”
Everett was Betty’s trumpet-playing husband.
She stepped closer to Phyllis. “I didn’t hear you shaking your feathers when Stanley sponsored that steer wrestler in the rodeo circuit.”
Phyllis might be more city than country, but as a proud Texan, she still respected rodeo as the sport of true Americans.
She made a hmphing noise and crossed her arms over her chest.
The chill that settled over the shop would have given a polar bear frostbite.
I rescued my tickets from Phyllis’ rigid fingers and shoved them into my messenger bag.
“Well, then, maybe I’ll be…” I stepped backward, careful not to disturb the tenuous silence, and kept going until the back door was safely closed behind me.
In the retirement home parking lot, I pulled out my phone and dialed Peter Blake. Kiska, who had followed me during my exit from Dusty Deals, ran his nose over the window, leaving dog-nose-shaped streaks.
I shook my head and focused on my call.
The police detective and I had been dating for going on a year. Things had been getting progressively more serious. He’d even offered to let me stay with him this coming summer when my parents planned a visit, also known as the upcoming invasion of my life and home.
But for the last month, he’d been working some statewide case that seemed to take him out of town more than it kept him in.
The phone rang five times before he answered.
The gruffness of his tone told me this wasn’t a good time, but there didn’t seem to be a good time, at least not lately. So I put a smile in my voice and chirped out the good news of my fund-raising ticket score.
His voice softened. “Sorry, Lucy, I can’t. I have to be in Great Falls in three hours, and I won’t be back until the weekend.”
I tamped down my disappointment and focused, remembering that he was serving the greater good, whatever that meant. “This weekend?” I asked, keeping the chipper thing going as much as I could.
“Yeah, maybe we can go for a drive or something.”
His voice lowered on the something and my heart and few other of my pertinent parts purred.
“I’d like that,” I murmured, releasing the purr in what I hoped was a sexy don’t-forget-me way.
“Are you catching something? George has been out for a week. There’s definitely something going around.”
I cleared my throat and sat up straighter in my seat. Kiska, apparently sensing my humiliation, moved his nose from the window to my throat and inhaled loudly.
“That really doesn’t sound good,” Peter added.
I put my hand on Kiska’s face and shoved him into the back seat. “I’m fine. Maybe we could—”
“Sorry, Lucy, I have to go. The detective from Bozeman just arrived. We have some people to talk to here before we head out.”
I scowled and stared at my dog, who seemed completely unconcerned with the dive my love life seemed to be taking.
“Lucy? Are you there?”
“Yes.” My purr seemed to have changed to a growl.
Peter’s voice lowered again, this time into a soothing apology. “I’m sorry I’ve had to cancel so much. You know I wouldn’t if… You know I want to see you, right?”
“I guess.” I stared out the window and wallowed in some well-deserved self-pity.
“Take Rhonda to the fund-raiser. You know you’ll have more fun with her anyway, and I promise I’ll see you Friday… Saturday at the latest.”
Peter didn’t make promises. Peter didn’t even talk this much at one time unless he was admonishing me for something I’d done that he deemed… frivolous. And his tone was apologetic. It really was impossible not to forgive him.
“Okay.” I purred again.
“Good. Sorry. Have to go.”
A dial tone buzzed in my ear.
I muttered a curse and clicked “end call” on my phone. My fingers wrapped tightly around the Jeep’s steering wheel, I stared out the windshield at the snow-covered parking lot.
I was still sitting there, staring, when a loud rap on the driver’s side window sent me shooting upright.
“Are you Lucy?” A porcelain doll of an older woman smacked a carved wooden cane against my window. My discerning eye couldn’t help but notice the age – mid-1800’s, wood – walnut by my best guess, and an ornate handle shaped like the head of some kind of sharp-nosed dog.
I rolled down my window. “Wolf?” I asked, still eyeing the cane. Wolf items flew out of my shop, especially during tourist season.
Her pink baby doll lips pursed. “Coyote.”
Hmmm. I settled back against my seat. Coyotes just didn’t have the universal appeal that wolves did.
She raised her brow and tilted her head, giving her an unsettlingly innocent look for someone who had to be post-eighty.
Kiska shoved his way past me to push his entire head out the window.
“Are you my ride?”
With a side of malamute pressed up against my face, I couldn’t see her expression; her tone sounded calm, but I had to imagine that my dog, friendly though he was, might be somewhat intimidating to someone of her size and most assuredly frailty.
“Back!” she barked.
Kiska jerked his head into the Jeep and floundered into the seat beside me, where he sat looking almost as stunned as I felt.
I turned to look at the woman I’d classified as frail. The coyote head of her cane bobbed next to her cornflower blue eyes.
“My second husband had a team. None of them were as big as him.” She eyed Kiska, who hadn’t completely recovered from his brush with authority. He stared studiously out the passenger side window, refusing to acknowledge either the porcelain doll turned drill sergeant or his loving owner.
“But they were just as stubborn.” She lowered her cane to the ground and tapped one finger on the coyote’s head. “Northern breeds. They’re all the same.”
Then with one last assessing gaze at my dog, she teetered around the front of the Jeep and yanked open the passenger door. Kiska, with no urging from me, scrambled into the back.
It all happened so fast, I completely missed my opportunity to be the caring polite Girl Scout my mother and Phyllis dreamed of me being. I turned toward my door, wondering if it was too late to do some scurrying of my own and at least close the door behind my elderly but speedy passenger.
She jerked the door shut, ending my indecision.
“My appointment’s in ten minutes. I hope this rig moves fast.” She tapped the cane against the floor board in three decisive raps.
When I made no move to start the vehicle, she tapped again, but this time with the coyote head against the steering wheel. “Drive,” she demanded.
And I did. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure where I was going, but Ethel, as I was ordered to call her, did.
A few minutes later, we stopped in front of a house with a pickup truck connected to a trailer carrying two snowmobiles parked in front.
“Kitchen sink wash and set,” Ethel announced, shoving open her door and sliding out into the snow. “Carol Kennedy’s been doing my hair for fifty years.” She muttered the last as she stomped and struggled through two plus feet of snow that had been plowed up along the edges of the driveway.
A little more alert this time, I hopped out of the Jeep, leaving Kiska to snooze inside, and hurried over to help her.
Stuck knee-deep in the snow, she grabbed hold of my offered arm and let me tug her out of the bank and up onto the sidewalk.
Huffing and puffing, I bent over and wondered how someone so small could weigh so much. My back shrieked. I pressed a hand to it and gritted my teeth against the pain. After the count of ten, the pain subsided, at least enough that I was able to open my eyes and see my octogenarian Peter Pan bending nimbly at the waist to pick something up off the ground.
“You dropped something. Oh… tickets.”
Remembering Phyllis’s’ concerns about the Humane Society and the race, I flushed, but then I remembered Ethel’s remark about her second husband and relaxed a bit. “It’s a fund-raiser,” I said, virtuously as I could.
Ethel nodded. “I’ve heard of it. Kind of fancy.” She narrowed her eyes and stared at me in a way that made me distinctly uncomfortable. I glanced back at the Jeep as if Kiska might do something to save me from whatever was about to come.
“In my day, a girl did herself up right for something like this. Are you planning on that?”
Uh, yeah, well… “I suppose.”
“You suppose? You have a date?”
A great deal more uhing echoed through my brain.
“You don’t, do you?” The tickets fluttering in a light breeze, she shook her head.
She looked so knowing and unfairly empathetic, I had to defend myself. “I have a boyfriend. He’s just…”
“What? Too busy to take you?”
More head shaking. “If five marriages have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t let a man take you for granted. Are you letting him do that?”
Me? Let someone take advantage of me? That was just… I dropped my gaze to the snow.
“Carol!” she bellowed, causing me to jump and almost lose my balance on the recently cleared walkway.
The door to the house opened, and a woman probably pushing 80 herself, but with orange hair that would have made Carrot Top pea green with envy, peered out at us.
“Carol,” Ethel assured me. “Never turns down a girl in need. Now get inside and we’ll teach that boyfriend not to send you off by yourself. You’ll have a team of mushers waiting on you once Carol’s done with you.”
I stared at Carrot Top’s next of kin and then back at my Jeep. I’d done the makeover thing before and it had gone okay, but…
“Get.” Ethel tapped me on the shoulder with the coyote’s head. Then, after opening the door so Kiska could join us, she prodded me in the back and forced me into a house that smelled of stewed meat and massive quantities of peroxide.