Another Man's Ground by Claire Booth is the second book in the Sheriff Hank Worth Mystery series (available July 11, 2017).
It starts out as an interesting little theft case. Branson, Missouri’s new Sheriff Hank Worth is called out to look at stands of trees that have been stripped of their bark, which the property owner had planned to harvest for the booming herbal supplement market.
At first, Hank easily balances the demands of the investigation with his fledging political career. He was appointed several months earlier to the vacant sheriff position, but he needs to win the fast-approaching election in order to keep his job. He thinks the campaign will go well, as long as he’s able to keep secret the fact that a group of undocumented immigrants—hired to cut down the stripped trees—have fled into the forest and he’s deliberately not looking for them.
But then the discovery of a murder victim deep in the Ozark backwoods sets him in the middle of a generations-old feud that explodes into danger not only for him, but also for the immigrants, his deputies, and his family. He must rush to find a murderer before election day, and protect the vulnerable in Branson County, where politicking is hell and trespassing can get you killed.
The dispatch call said there was stripping going on in the woods, and the property owner was not happy about it.
So now Hank stood at the base of a fairly tall tree that was, well, naked.
“Do you see that? Do you? All of the bark, gone. And those are just the first ones.” Vern Miles waved his rifle in the air to emphasize his grievance and headed deeper into the woods. “More. Here, and here. Over there. Every single one I’ve got. Stripped.”
Hank turned in a circle and took in what looked to be a perfectly normal patch of Branson County forest. Birds chirped from the trees. Flowers poked through the earth, and the foliage was the bright young green of early summer. Sunlight pierced the high canopy and dappled the ground. Peaceful and pretty. Except for the mutilated trees. They stuck out like the stripped things they were.
The bark had been cut away from the trees up to a height of at least eight feet. He slid his hand along the soft inner wood, tracing the deep, haphazard gouges left behind. Whoever had done this had not been careful.
“That’s seventeen … wait, no. Eighteen … no … nineteen trees, Sheriff. And I haven’t even been over my whole property yet. This is my main grove, though. I’d have never even thought this could happen. It’s just terrible. Terrible.”
Vern took off his battered Kansas City Chiefs ball cap and rubbed at his bald head. He must have been spending a lot of time out here recently, and enjoying it, Hank thought. His sunburned face was just starting to turn to tan, except for the laugh lines around his eyes. Pulled taut now by his frown, they ran like pale streaks up to his temples. Vern slapped his hat back on his head and cradled his.22 in the crook of his elbow.
“So, you’re going to put out an APB, right?”
For a barknapper? Hank tried not to smile.
“Vern, I gotta be honest. You don’t strike me as much of a tree hugger. Why are you so wound up? This is sad and all, but they’re just trees. You want to explain to me why this is more than just simple vandalism?”
Vern leaned his gun against the nearest tree and looked around. He wandered through his denuded grove for a minute before coming back. He slapped a curl of bark in Hank’s hand and splashed it with water from his canteen, turning it into a slimy goo.
“Uh, Vern, what the hell is this?”
“It’s what they took. From my slippery elms. It’s the inside bark stuff. Medicinal. It gets processed and then sold in those froufrou drugstores.”
Hank looked at the stuff oozing through his fingers, which was apparently a cash crop.
“How much are we talking?” he asked.
Vern scratched his head. “Well, when I do it proper, I strip sections off the branches of each tree. That doesn’t kill the tree. This”—he waved at his woods—“this all has to be at least three grand. And they took so much, it’ll kill the trees.”
Well, now. That upped the ante.
That amount could make it a felony, and an interesting one at that. Hank smacked his hands together and turned back toward Vern’s truck, which was parked on the muddy track that ran along the east end of the stand of trees. The department’s Crown Victoria hadn’t been able to make it that far into the woods, so it was still parked up at the Miles homestead.
“C’mon. I’ve got to get the evidence bag out of my car. We’ll have to tag and catalog all of this. And”—he looked down at his slimy palm—“I’m going to need to wash my hands. This stuff’s gross.”
* * *
They ended up finding twenty-four stripped trees, including two that Vern hadn’t even realized existed. That’s what you get when you inherit thirty acres from your crazy old man, who didn’t bother to pass on any information about the land before kicking the bucket last fall, he grumbled as he helped Hank mark each elm with red flags. Hank half-listened as he snapped photos and jotted notes. And mostly breathed in the sweet fresh air. He was enjoying himself immensely. He hadn’t been out of the office for what seemed like months. And when he did get out from behind his desk, it was for budget meetings, or staff reports, or all that other organizational crap that he hadn’t realized came with the top job.
But this, well, this was excellent. A nice little crime to investigate, but with no violence, no trauma. Sure, Vern was bent out of shape, but it was more of a financial upset than an emotional one. Hank marked the last tree and turned toward Vern, who was now muttering something about a work crew.
“Should we check the other side of the creek?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” Vern said. “That’s not mine. The creek is the property line. That’s Kinney’s land.”
Hank nodded. He’d have to get this Kinney guy to take a look then. He doubted the tree barkers had been stopped by the easily waded creek. And the woods on the other side looked identical to where he was standing. In fact—
He raised the camera to his eye and zoomed in on a tree about a hundred yards away. It was hard to see, but the trunk looked pale and smooth when the shifting sunlight hit it directly. All right. Mr. Kinney was next.
“How long has he lived there?” Hank asked.
Vern laughed. “Longer than we have. Four, five generations, maybe more. Old Mr. Kinney is still alive, though. Probably happier than a clam that he’s outlasted my dad. They never did get on.”
Growing up, they were under strict instructions not to cross the creek, Vern said. But they had the run of their own property.
“I hunted these woods all my childhood. Camped in them, played cowboys-and-Indians in them,” he said as he retrieved his rifle from its place against an unmolested hickory tree. “Then I went off to college in Springfield and got a decent job there. Never thought much about this place. Now I own it. And I got to figure out what to do with it. The property taxes are going to kill me if I can’t figure out some way to make an income off it.”
The two men started walking back to the truck.
“The slippery elm was great. It brought in a little, but dependably. And it was one of those … those sustainable crops they’re always talking about now. Keeps on going if you do it right.” He sighed. “Now I’m back to square one, I guess.”
* * *
Kinney’s land might have been right next door, but it took two miles and several winding roads to get to the entrance to the property. Hank pulled the Crown Vic up to the driveway, which was blocked by a chain-link gate padlocked to a tree. Which did not appear to be a slippery elm.
He sighed and got out of the car. He hated this. Houses so far off the road that you couldn’t see them, and most of them behind locked gates. No landlines so you could call and have someone meet you to let you in. He moved his sheriff’s badge from his belt to a more prominent place on his shirt pocket, double-checked his gun, and climbed over the gate.
The satellite map had shown the house about three hundred yards in from the road. He strode up the gravel driveway, half expecting someone to pop out of the trees with a twelve-gauge pointed at him. But he made it to the front porch without incident and rapped on the door.
The house was old and had obviously been added on to in various stages. One room jutted out from the right side, and he could see a long, low addition out the back to the left. The brown paint was peeling and the roof was old, but the windows were clean, and the porch railing showed signs of recent repair. He knocked again.
Heavy footfalls approached the door, and it slowly swung open. A rail of a man stood there. Thin, tall, hard, and probably preserved with creosote. His eyes were deep-set and almost black. His skin was dark with sun damage and tobacco use, and the lines etched in his face were deep and currently bent in a frown. He stared at Hank’s face and then deliberately lowered his gaze to the badge on his chest.
“What brings you onto my property, Deputy?”
Hank didn’t bother to correct him.
“I’m investigating a theft, and I think you might also be a victim.”
The man raised an eyebrow split in half by a scar.
“Really? I was not aware I’d had anything stolen.”
“That’s not surprising, sir. It’s probably out at the edges of your property,” Hank said. “It’s trees. A certain kind of tree, actually.”
The eyebrow climbed higher.
“And why the hell would someone steal my certain-kind-of trees?”
Hank explained about the bark stripping. The man’s expression did not change.
“I will look into it. Thank you for the information.” He started to swing the door shut.
Hank held up his hand. “Sir, wait. Your neighbor’s tree bark was stolen this way. I’m fairly certain I saw trees of yours with the same damage. I need to get out there and take a look.”
“My neighbor? Who—ah, Miles. Those assholes. Never could take care of their land.” He let out a laugh that sounded like a dry cough.
“I need to know if you’ve seen or heard anything, and I need to see your trees,” Hank said.
Kinney, who had seemed plenty sturdy before, squared himself in the doorway and became even more solid.
“I have not seen or heard anything. Thank you for your concern, but even if someone did take bark off of one of my trees, I will not wish to press charges. So your business here is done, Deputy. Good day.”
Hank drew himself up and looked him in the eye.
“I don’t want to have to get a search warrant, sir. I’m simply asking that you let me walk through your woods.”
Another cough-laugh was cut off by the door closing in Hank’s face. Well then, he’d just go find a judge. And he’d bring back more than a warrant. He’d seen the stock of a shotgun poking out from behind the door, within easy reach as they stood there and talked. He had no desire to see the business end of it without backup.
* * *
“Sheila, can you draw me up search warrant paperwork? Up in the northwestern part of the county. Rockbottom Road, off N Highway, owner name of Kinney.”
Sheila, who had been about to write on the big whiteboard filled with deputy scheduling, stopped with her arm in midair. She turned around to stare at her boss, the Magic Marker still dangling from her upraised fingers.
“Who? Who did you just say?”
“Kinney. Jasper. I want to get it signed and get back out there fast. I don’t know what he’s up to, but he wouldn’t let me in his woods to look at his trees. Don’t want to give him time to hide anything.”
Sheila finally lowered the marker. She slowly capped it, patted at her already immaculate black hair, and sat down at her chief deputy desk.
“Are you nuts?”
“Are. You. Nuts. Jasper Kinney?”
“What? What’s the problem? You act like I asked you to draw up a warrant for Jesus.”
That broke her stunned slowness. She guffawed.
“Oh, honey, he ain’t no Jesus. He’s just one of those people you don’t touch. You’re never going to get a judge in this county to give you a warrant to search the Kinney place.”
“Why the hell not?”
Sheila pursed her lips, then stood and walked across the room to Hank’s office. She stood at the door and waited for him to follow. He let out an exasperated sigh and followed her. She was taking the fun out of this.
She closed the door behind them.
“Jasper Kinney is the Kinney family. The Kinney family is about as old as they come. They’ve been in this area forever. They’ve got roots that go everywhere in that part of the county. And I mean everywhere.” She emphasized the last word.
“What does that mean? They’ve got people in their pocket?”
She shook her head.
“There’s no need. That implies there’s some kind of payoff, or bribes, or the like. That’s not it. You just don’t cross the Kinneys. Folks’ granddaddies didn’t cross them, folks’ daddies didn’t cross them, folks today don’t cross them.”
Hank leaned up against his desk. “So because of nothing but historic reputation, this guy is considered untouchable?”
Sheila shook her head again. “No. They’re not untouchable. Jason—Jasper’s youngest son—is up at Jefferson City Correctional. He killed his wife. That was hard to ignore. But even during all that—which was about ten years ago—I don’t think anybody ever searched that property. Gibbons was sheriff then and he even went and let Jasper know that he was arresting his son. Like a courtesy call.”
This was unbelievable. Hank slumped against the desk. All he wanted to do was look at some stripped trees. And now he was being told he couldn’t, which was never something that set well with him.
“I agree,” Sheila said.
“What?” He shook himself out of his sulk.
“It is bullshit. But it’s something you’re going to have to think about very carefully. Do you really need to get onto that property right now? Can it wait? Can you solve whatever crime you’re looking at without getting involved with the Kinneys?”
What on earth was she getting at?
“What else is going on in your world right now?”
“That’s right. The election is next month.” The look on her face said the rest. Tread carefully, ignorant newcomer.
Great. His nice little felony theft had turned political in the space of an hour. He sat down at his desk and stared at the empty blotter as Sheila left to return to her whiteboard. He didn’t like politics, and he sure didn’t like limiting an investigation for that reason. So he wouldn’t. He’d hold back on Jasper Kinney for now, but he’d get to the man soon. Even if it was just to charge someone with trespassing on his property. Just to prove to Kinney—to everyone—that it was the law that called the shots in this county.
Copyright © 2017 Claire Booth.
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Claire Booth is a former true crime writer, ghostwriter, and reporter. She lives in California. Another Man's Ground is her second novel, following The Branson Beauty.