The Branson Beauty: New Excerpt

The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth
The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth
The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth is the debut book in the Sheriff Hank Worth Mystery series. (Available July 19, 2016).

The Branson Beauty, an old showboat, has crashed in the waters of an Ozark mountain lake just outside the popular tourist destination of Branson, Missouri. More than one hundred people are trapped aboard. Hank Worth is still settling into his new role as county sheriff, and when he responds to the emergency call, he knows he’s in for a long winter day of helping elderly people into rafts and bringing them ashore. He realizes that he’ll face anxiety, arguments, and extra costs for emergency equipment that will stretch the county’s already thin budget to the breaking point.

But he is absolutely not expecting to discover high school track star Mandy Bryson’s body locked inside the Captain’s private dining room. Suddenly, Hank finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, with the county commissioner breathing down his neck and the threat of an election year ahead of him. And as he wades deeper into the investigation, Hank starts to realize he’s up against a web of small town secrets much darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.


His feet crunched on the snow as he stumbled behind the Company Man. The guy had loafers on and still managed to keep his footing as they scrambled down the incline toward the lake. Hank’s heavy-duty snow boots, on the other hand, were not living up to their billing, he thought, as his feet went in opposite directions on a patch of ice.

Finally, he skidded to a stop at the edge of the water. The lake wasn’t a terribly wide one, but it was pretty. It lay like a shard of glass in the middle of the granite Ozark Mountains, its surface that glassy sheen only possible when it’s a degree or two from freezing solid.

It was, he thought, nature at its finest. Except for the boat. That was nature at its worst. Or human stupidity at its worst. His guess was the latter.

“It seems to have run aground,” the Company Man said. He had the grace to sheepishly clear his throat.

Hank fished his binoculars from inside his parka. He raised them toward the huge, immobile paddlewheel, which he judged was about five hundred yards from where they stood on the shore.

“Yep. Seems that way,” Hank said, still looking through the binoculars. He could see some movement through the windows, but no one was out on the deck. At least the passengers seemed to have some sense.

“How often does the boat go out?” Hank asked.

The Company Man cleared his throat again.

“Every day except Thursdays,” he said.

“New captain?”

“Uh, no. It’s Albert Eberhardt. He’s the same one’s been doing it for almost twenty years.”

“New route?”

The Company Man sighed. “No. Same route as always. It was windy earlier, though, so we think maybe the boat got blown this way and stuck on the rocks.”

“You take it out when it’s windy?”

“Um, well. It is up to the captain’s discretion.”

“And he decided to? He’s the only one who makes that decision?”

The Company Man frowned.

“Not anymore, he’s not.”

Hank snorted. He aimed the binoculars to the left. The nearest shore to the boat appeared to be only about one hundred yards to the east. That wouldn’t be fun, though. They’d have to carve a road through the woods to reach that spot. Then they would need something that could coast right up onto the shore. Maybe rubber dinghies? All those little old ladies out for their luncheon cruises bobbing instead on the near-frozen water like so many corks in a barrel. He tried not to grin and hid behind the binoculars.

“Um, Sheriff? We, uh, we were hoping to keep this quiet.” The Company Man smiled eagerly.

Hank lowered the binoculars.

“Quiet? There’re a hundred and twenty tourists on that boat. My guess is they’re not satisfied customers at this point.”

“Yes, but they’re out of cell range right now,” the Company Man replied. “It took a radio transmission for the boat to notify us about this at the home office. No one else knows about it.”

Now Hank was starting to get irritated. He hoped the guy’s feet were cold.

“Unless you think that the two of us alone are somehow going to either unstick that boat or swim all those people to shore, I don’t think this is going to stay quiet.”

The Company Man sighed again. Hank started hoping for frostbite.

“We would just rather this not turn into a public relations disaster. You know, something that would reflect badly on the company.”

Hank decided it would not be wise to smack the guy with the binoculars. Instead, he reached for his own radio.

“Unless you want to get those shoes wet, I’m calling in the cavalry.”

*   *   *

Hank’s radio call notified not only every one of his deputies, but the highway patrol, the state water patrol, the mayor, the Coast Guard, the television stations that bothered to listen to police scanners, and Lovinia Smithson, the widow who lived just west of Branson and had bought her own scanner a few years back.

She got there first.

“Hey, Lovinia,” Hank said.

She grinned at him. Even her little puffs of breath seemed excited.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it, Sheriff?”

Yeah, it was beautiful like the North Pole was beautiful—something best viewed in a picture, not in person. He was pretty sure his nostril hairs were frozen.

“Just stay out of the way, okay, Lovinia?” he asked. “I’ve got to go meet the EM guys at the road.”

She nodded and plopped down on a boulder that would afford her a good view of the whole operation. How she’d avoid having her pants freeze directly to the rock, he had no idea.

He climbed back up the incline to the road, which was the nearest access point. So they’d have to start hacking through the woods toward the boat from here. His boots hit the mercifully plowed surface, and he paused to take a deep breath. He spotted the Company Man standing dejectedly at the road’s curve as a big blue sedan slowly pulled up.

As the back door swung open, the Company Man squared his shoulders and stepped forward. Hank couldn’t help but cringe for him. It looked like the boss had arrived.

Henry Gallagher unfolded himself from the car and stood in the middle of the road. He listened to the Company Man for a few seconds, then held up his hand and turned toward Hank.

“Worth,” he called.

Here we go, Hank thought, and walked toward Gallagher.

“Hello, Mr. Gallagher. I assume he…” Hank realized he hadn’t paid attention to the Company Man’s actual name. He pointed instead. “I assume he’s explained the situation?”

“Yes.” Gallagher’s voice was about as cold as the surrounding air. He visibly got a grip on himself and softened his tone. “Of course, the company will assist in every way possible to get these poor people off my boat. I have a passenger manifest with me.”

Good. It would be quite helpful to know exactly how many people he was going to have to shuttle to shore. Maybe this would be easier than he thought. Gallagher handed him a crisply folded sheaf of papers.

“The asterisks denote those in wheelchairs,” he said.

Maybe not.

As they talked, the emergency vehicles started pulling up. The county emergency district chief leaned out the window of his rig.

“Hey, Hank.” He could barely talk as he tried to choke back laughter. “Did I get your broadcast right? The Branson Beauty ran aground? On the lake it’s been sailing for more than thirty years?”

Gallagher scowled. The Company Man swooned a little and stifled a groan. Hank grinned.

“Yep, Larry, that’s what happened.” He tried to focus the conversation on the task at hand. “How many guys you got who can help?”

“Oh, I’ve called everybody in. And Thompson over in the next county said he’d loan us anybody extra he’s got.”

“Good,” Hank said. He jerked his thumb toward the woods. “Why don’t you go park and start talking with the road department guys about cutting through those trees.”

“Sure thing,” Larry said merrily. “I’m glad I decided not to take vacation this week. This is gonna be a fun one.”

As the rig pulled away, Hank was sure he heard Larry whistling the Gilligan’s Island theme. From the pinched look on Gallagher’s face, he’d heard it, too. Hank pasted on his best try at a diplomatic smile.

“Sir, if I could get you to stand off to the side here,” he said. “Oh, and perhaps you should start talking with this gentleman.”

Hank pointed toward a man who had just climbed out of a Ford F-150 truck with a Bass Pro fish logo magnet on the side. Gallagher raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t have the resources to rescue these people by yourselves?” he asked.

Hank stared at him for a long second. What world had he been living in lately? We barely have the resources to pay for the gas to get out here, he thought. He took a deep breath through his frozen nose.

“No, sir, we do not have thirty or forty boats sitting in a warehouse just waiting for the opportunity to rescue your stranded tourists. However, this nice gentleman does.”

He pointed at the Bass Pro man, who was giddily pulling a store catalog out of his coat pocket.

“I’ll send a water patrol officer over to help you pick the appropriate watercraft for our needs,” Hank said evenly. “Then I’m sure Bass Pro will be happy to take a check.”

He turned on his heel and walked away. He fought the urge to swear. Then he fought the urge to whistle. A three-hour tour …

*   *   *

He stepped away from the water patrol officers. It seemed they needed to get out to the boat a bit more quickly than they had thought. They’d been informed through the company’s radio communications that situations were developing aboard the Beauty. Several passengers were complaining of heart palpitations. A diabetic’s insulin supply was running low. And they were almost out of coffee.

He crunched through the snow over to Larry.

“I need at least two of your paramedics. That’s all we’ll have room for in the boat we’re taking out there,” he said. “Stock them with everything they could possibly need. I think I’ll have to leave them on the Beauty until everybody’s off. There will only be more medical issues as this thing drags on.”

“Yeah,” Larry said. “I saw the asterisks.”

One of the water patrol guys gave a shout. A tiny motorboat was gliding into the nearest dock, which thankfully wasn’t too far from the original spot Hank and the Company Man had hiked to earlier. Two paramedics jogged up, juggling what had to be hundreds of pounds of gear. They wrestled the huge bags on board, then hopped on. The boat already held the water patrol officer most familiar with the lake and a ramrod-straight Coast Guard commander. There was room for one more. Hank sighed and swung his leg over the side.

They pulled away from shore and headed toward the Branson Beauty. With its two tiers of white gingerbread railings crowned with an ornate wheelhouse and giant red paddlewheel wedged on a rock, it looked for all the world like a beached whale in a prom dress.

Hank shaded his eyes. He’d forgotten his sunglasses, and the glare off the water was brutal. It was like there was no atmosphere when it was this cold. The sun shone through as if you were standing five feet away from it. Except for the warmth, of course. There was none of that. His breath rose in clouds.

He turned and scanned the shore. He spotted Lovinia, still sitting on her rock. He wondered if her clothing had frozen to it yet. She gave him an energetic wave. He turned back around as the water patrol’s Bill Freedman cut the engine and their boat glided up next to the Beauty. He hit his mark exactly, coming to a stop directly in front of the gate in the gingerbread railing where a slight young man in a Beauty uniform waited. The kid swung open the gate, caught sight of Commander Ramrod’s officious-looking blue Coast Guard uniform, and gulped. His hand went to his forehead in a hesitant salute. Bill, in his much more modest water patrol jacket, smirked at Hank.

“Son,” Bill drawled, “permission to come aboard?”

“Sir! Yes, sir!” Another salute.

The three men climbed through the gate. They turned back to hoist the gear the paramedics handed up. Man, that stuff was heavy. Bill lashed his little boat to the Beauty, and the group set off toward the front of the boat. The kid led them to large double doors that opened into the main salon. Dozens of round tables sat between them and the huge stage at the other end of the room. About half the tables had people at them. Some were playing cards, some talking. There were a few older women in a prayer circle off to the side. One man was stretched out on the floor asleep, using what appeared to be a wadded tablecloth as a pillow.

A young teenager saw them first. He shouted and pointed, and the room burst into applause.

“We’re rescued!” the teen shouted. Bill looked at Hank. “I’m just here for the boat, man,” he muttered. “You’re here for the people.”

“Yep,” Hank said. He arranged his face into what he hoped was a reassuring smile and stepped forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “My name is Hank Worth, and I am the Branson County Sheriff. We are here to help, but—”

He was interrupted by more applause. Maybe he should take the stage at the other end of the room. He smiled some more.

“But…” he continued, “we need to do this in order of priority.” The longer he could go without mentioning that no one was getting off the boat anytime soon, the better.

“First, is there anyone who needs medical attention? We have two paramedics here who will be able to help anyone in need.”

He felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and looked at the kid who’d brought them on board. Then he noticed one of the paramedics was missing.

“Sir,” the kid said, then coughed nervously. “I already sent one of your medics to the second deck. That’s where the diabetic is resting, and a lady who’s been having breathing problems. I hope that’s okay.”

Huh. He’d underestimated the boy.

“What’s your name?”

“Tony, sir. Tony Sampson. I’m, uh, the first mate.”

“Okay, Tony. How many more people are on the boat other than the ones in this room?”

Tony’s mouth twisted in thought as he did a few mental calculations.

“There are about a hundred here. And maybe twenty up with the other medic. Then there are the cast members and the serving staff and the kitchen folks. So all together probably a hundred and sixty, a hundred and seventy people.”

Shoot. The staff had not been on the manifest. Hank had not factored them into his rubber dinghy rescue plan. Well, that meant an even happier Bass Pro man, at least. It always surprised him how many people it took to run a tourist attraction. So many waiters, cooks, maids. And then on something like the Beauty, there was the show—a big, skirt-twirling, fiddle-playing, tap-dancing extravaganza that took at least another couple dozen people to put on. He should have thought of that. He and Maggie had taken a dinner cruise last year for their anniversary. She had loved it. He had thought the salmon was rubbery.

He shook his head and refocused on the one hundred people in front of him. Several were beginning to gravitate toward Commander Ramrod, asking breathless questions about rescue. He didn’t think so. The Guard, like Bill, was here to examine the technicalities of the boat’s problem. Just because the guy could keep his uniform spotless didn’t mean he was in charge of the people aspect of the deal. Hank cleared his throat loudly and held up his hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he repeated, “I need to ask for your patience. We do not yet know the best way to get you off this boat and safely to shore. That’s why the Missouri Water Patrol”—he purposefully pointed to Bill first—“and the Coast Guard are here. They are going to assess the situation. In the meantime, I need you to do exactly what you have been doing. Remain calm, relax, and know that we are doing everything we can.”

There was no applause this time. A few women stifled sobs, several others went back to praying, and the dude on the floor rolled over and started snoring.

*   *   *

Tony unlocked a door and led Hank upstairs to the second deck, where Medic One was busy treating the people clustered together in the observation lounge. Several lay on the long bench seats. One older woman was getting oxygen through a non-rebreather mask as her weary-looking companion patted her hand. A petite middle-aged brunette paced along the back wall of windows. A well-dressed man about the same age stood in the corner jabbing viciously at his cell phone. And there were a few teenagers sprawled out on the floor, looking bored. None of them appeared to be attacking their phones, though.

The youth contingent would not counteract the senior citizens when it came to rescue, Hank thought. Not only were there a lot of folks in wheelchairs here and downstairs, but several others looked like they needed them. He began to think that his rubber dinghy plan was not going to float.

“I don’t think ferrying these people to shore is going to work,” said a voice behind him. Hank turned and saw that the commander had followed them upstairs. “Now, I don’t know the currents on this lake like the water patrol does,” he said, “but I do have a tugboat.”

“Can it get in this far?” Hank asked. “Could it dislodge this thing?”

“That’s what we need to figure out,” the commander said. “I’ve ordered it out here just in case. I’ll go find Freedman and see if we can take a look at that paddlewheel.”

He spun on his heel and marched out of the room. Several little old ladies sighed after him. Tony looked at Hank and grinned.

“Uniforms sure do the trick, don’t they, sir?”

Hank looked at Tony’s navy blue shirt with the absurd gold piping and smiled.

“How long you been doing this, kid?”

“This is my second season, sir.”

“And pardon me for asking, but are you really the first mate? Or are you, uh, the ‘first mate’ cast member?”

Tony grinned again. “Good question, sir. I’m not technically a cast member—not part of the entertainment at all. I’m the assistant to the captain.”

That was good. Seemed like the kid’s abilities would have been wasted if he … wait a minute. The captain. Where was Albert the Moron? He needed to get on that pronto.

“Where is your captain?” he asked quickly.

Tony gave a start. Then he looked down at his feet. “Um. Yeah. Well, he was up in the pilothouse. I don’t know how he’s doing…”

Hank raised an eyebrow.“You mean now that he’s run the boat aground?”

Tony continued to stare at his feet. “Yeah. He’s pretty bad … I dunno.”

“Take me to the wheelhouse,” Hank said.

Tony, still looking at his feet, cleared his throat and mumbled, “Pilothouse, sir,” as he left the lounge and headed down a plush corridor. Hank’s feet sank into blue carpet held down with brass fittings. The lake and the snow-covered shoreline glittered through windows on the left. They passed a couple of doors and windows with the shades pulled on the right, and then Tony swung one open at the end of the hall.

A narrow set of stairs led straight up. Tony lightly trotted ahead. Hank grabbed the cold metal rail and followed. They came up at the back of the wheel-, er, pilothouse. Tony pushed open another door and there they were, with a panoramic view of Table Rock Lake. And the back of a man’s head.

Tony nervously cleared his throat. The man did not move. Hank stepped around the first mate and pivoted in the small space to stand directly in front of him. Albert looked like something out of a ’70s biker movie. Beat-up leather bomber jacket with the collar turned up, faded jeans, sailor cap pulled low over his face. Aviator sunglasses hid the rest. He hadn’t so much as twitched.

Hank leaned down until he was pretty sure he filled Albert’s entire field of vision.

“Sir?” Hank drew out the word into one long, exasperated growl. Albert remained a statue. He was breathing, at least. Hank resisted the urge to poke him in the chest.

“Are you all right?” Hank growled.

The boat creaked against the rocks. Tony’s shallow panting grew more rapid. There was no other sound. Then Albert peeled his sweaty palm off his leather armrest. The ripping noise made Tony jump back into the doorway. Hank just scowled. Albert slowly raised his hand and took off his sunglasses. His eyes were huge. Bloodshot, watery messes. He blinked once. Then he carefully replaced the sunglasses and did not move again.

Hank did not take his eyes from Albert’s face. He pointed in Tony’s direction. “Go get a medic. Tell him I’m going to need a blood draw.”


Copyright © 2016 Claire Booth.

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Claire Booth is a former true crime writer, ghostwriter, and reporter. She lives in California. The Branson Beauty is her first novel.

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