Dark Signal by Shannon Baker is the second installment in the Kate Fox mystery series, starring a female Longmire in the atmospheric Nebraska Sandhills (available October 17, 2017).
Reeling from her recent divorce, Kate Fox has just been sworn in as Grand County, Nebraska Sheriff when tragedy strikes. A railroad accident has left engineer Chad Mills dead, his conductor Bobby Jenkins in shock. Kate soon realizes that the accident was likely murder.
Who would want to kill Chad Mills? Kate finds that he made a few enemies as president of the railroad workers union. Meanwhile, his widow is behaving oddly. And why was his neighbor Josh Stevens at the Mills house on the night of the accident?
While her loud and meddling family conspires to help Kate past her divorce, State Patrol Officer Trey closes in on Josh Stevens as the suspect. Kate doesn’t believe it. She may not have the experience, but she’s lived in the Sandhills her whole life and knows the land and the people. Something doesn’t add up—and Kate must find the real killer before he can strike again.
Sometimes, you’ve got no choice in life but to jump off the cliff. I’d jumped and landed on a crumbling ledge, clutching a root to keep from falling.
That’s why I stood sandwiched between Betty Paxton and Ethel Bender in the drafty commissioner’s meeting room at the Grand County courthouse. I raised my right hand and swore away my next four years.
The whiny strains of country music jangled from the radio in the treasurer’s office, one door down. Clete Rasmussen, commissioner since the days of Moses, continued addressing us in his booming, if pained, voice. “I will not advocate nor become a member of any political party or organization that advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States or of this state by force or violence. So help me God.”
My mumbled “I do” mixed with that of Betty and Ethel.
Betty’s spiked hair was probably cutting edge when she first sported the do twenty years ago. Now it reminded me of Bart Simpson. She tossed off a smile. “Good to have you aboard.”
With her scowl and thin lips that looked like someone drew them with a pencil, blue-haired Ethel let out a sigh like a deflating tire.
Betty and Ethel exited the room, leaving me and Clete alone.
This was my first, and hopefully only, pledge to protect and serve the good people of Hodgekiss, Nebraska, and the four widely spread communities that populate the sprawling ranch country of Grand County, where cattle outnumber people by more than fifty to one.
I adjusted the stiff brown shirt I’d washed several times to soften and smoothed my hands down my hips, knowing the twill uniform pants didn’t flatter my figure. Who cares?
Clete clapped his hands. “That about does it.”
The bruising purple of evening showed outside the two-foot-high windows that ran along the top of the meeting room. A clear night like this wouldn’t temper January’s knife-cold. It’s the kind of night the cows huddle in the corner of the pasture, pressed close together to share warmth.
I didn’t need to worry about cows anymore. Later tonight, with wool socks keeping my toes toasty, flannel pajama pants, and long-sleeve T-shirt, I’d snuggle under a down comforter. Alone.
Clete cleared his throat, a sound like thunder in a box canyon. He lifted a cardboard carton from the hulking desk in the corner. “Here’s the sheriff stuff. Ted dropped it off this afternoon.”
For Ted—the previous sheriff and my husband of eight years and ex-husband of nine months—giving up the tools of the office would have been a knife in his heart. Too bad.
Clete rested the box in my open arms. “There’s the inventory sheet you need to fill out and sign, along with the phone and, uh…”
“The gun.” I finished for him. Taking that gun off his hip must have felt to Ted like disrobing in public. In truth, I probably hated that exchange more than he did. Guns and I didn’t have a love relationship.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Dad always said, so I’d better open my heart to the .40 caliber Smith and Wesson. Tomorrow.
The phone in the box let out a chirp so familiar to me, yet one I hadn’t heard in nine months. It took a moment to convince myself it wasn’t Ted’s phone, but the sheriff’s phone. And I was the sheriff.
I set the box on the conference table and pulled the phone out, punching it on. “Sheriff’s phone.” I winced. That’s how I used to answer it when I was Ted’s wife and he was sheriff.
“Sarah?” I recognized the voice of my best friend and sister-in-law.
She let out a breath of relief. “You didn’t answer your phone, so I took a chance you’d already got this one. I didn’t want to talk to Ted.”
I glanced at Clete, who eyed me with irritation. Or indigestion. With Clete, it was hard to tell. Sarah wasn’t likely to call me to chat, so I stepped into the hall. “What’s up?”
She huffed into the phone. “Damn, it’s freakin’ freezing! Why did you have to be born in January?”
Oh no. My stomach sank. “Tell me it’s not.”
She gave an irritated sigh. “It is. Louise planned a surprise party at your parents’ house. We’re pulling up now.”
My brother Robert hollered in the background, “Surprise!”
I hated that my older sister Louise was using my birthday as an excuse to get a goodly portion of the eight Fox kids together. I groaned. “Dad and Louise are the only ones who like these things.”
Sarah groaned along with me. “I feel ya. Looks like your dad is late. His pickup isn’t here, but according to Louise, he was supposed to be back an hour ago.”
You couldn’t count on the railroad. Dad had worked for BNSF for close to forty years. We were all used to his unpredictable schedule. “Thanks for the heads up.”
“Consider it my birthday present to you. Now get your butt over here. Don’t leave me alone with these crazy people.”
I laughed. “You had a choice whether to join this family and I warned you.”
“We love them, though.” Her voice quavered as if she ran. “Just hurry, because, you know, sometimes love isn’t enough.”
I pocketed the phone and went back to the commissioner’s room. Some kind of Cinderella midnight magic happened at the Grand County courthouse at the stroke of five. By the time I got off the phone, every sign of life had vanished. Even my breathing seemed to echo in the now-empty building. I didn’t spare more than a single thought for hundred-year-old ghosts before grabbing my new brown sheriff’s coat, complete with patch featuring a windmill in a pasture.
I hesitated and gave myself a big mental push to settle my gun into my holster. Like a puppy with his first collar. Eventually I’d get used to it.
I clattered down the wide steps that led to the back door of the courthouse, not wanting to head home to a house filled with well-meaning but boisterous family. My breath retreated down my throat at the first intake of the frigid night air. The cold made me cough, and my nose hair stuck together. I retrieved Thinsulate ski gloves from my pocket one split second before my fingers froze and shattered.
I climbed into the cruiser and jammed the keys in the ignition to fire her up. The key turned, and headlights blasted, the radio blared, wipers lashed across the windshield, and I yelped. With a flash of adrenaline, I slapped at switches, frantic to turn off the chaos, and in the confusion hit the toggles near my right elbow, and the siren screamed and light bar sprang to life.
Smack, whap, punch. The noise and lights died and I spent a second slowing my heart rate. Eight brothers and sisters meant I was no novice with practical jokes, but I hadn’t expected this petty mischief from Ted. In the official cop car.
Wincing in anticipation of some other prank, I slipped the gear shift into drive. The Charger’s heat blasted on before my headlights brushed the street. I caught a whiff of Irish Spring overlaid with a musky, man scent. Ted. He was all over this car. Tomorrow I’d buy one of those pine tree deodorizers.
The phone rang again. I considered not answering it, assuming if Sarah thought to call me on the sheriff’s number, other brothers or sisters would figure it out, too. But it was the official number, and I’d best get used to responding.
This time, though, I was ready with a firm “Grand County sheriff.”
“Kate?” The familiar voice sounded surprised. “Oh. Didn’t know you’d already been sworn in.”
“How’re you doing, Marybeth?” I knew the dispatcher in Ogallala from my years as the sheriff’s wife. With way more prairie than people and several counties boasting the sheriff as the only law enforcement officer, all 911 calls routed to Ogallala, a town of not quite five thousand souls. Marybeth had been dispatching down there for a long time.
Marybeth’s serious voice struck me. “Highway 2, mile marker 146. BNSF tracks. Possible death. Ambulance called.”
A call. Not traffic, not a kitten in a tree. Something big. Something bad.
What had I sworn in for? My mouth dry, I said, “On my way.”
Marybeth hung up and left me with a terrible thought.
Possible death. Just east of town a few miles. Dad was coming from the east. He was late. An icy chill that had nothing to do with the winter ran over my skin.
Copyright © 2017 Shannon Baker.
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Shannon Baker lived for twenty years in the Nebraska Sandhills, where cattle outnumber people by more than 50 to 1. Baker was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. She now makes her home in sunny Tucson. She is the author of Tainted Mountain, Tattered Legacy, Broken Trust, among other books.