When a Missouri farmer doesn’t come home to milk the cows, his wife reports him missing. Ex-spy Phoenix Smith and her dog, Achilles, answer the call with Acting Sheriff Annalynn Carr Keyser. Achilles tracks the farmer to a gate, but the women locate his body in front of a duck blind. A broken antler sticks out of his back. His rifle lies near his hand. Phoenix suspects a human framed a deer for murder. Under the guise of hunting for the deadly deer, Phoenix checks out more likely killers: the victim’s widow, a hostile neighbor, a purported ecoterrosist. The cynical retired covert operative establishes rapport with suspects to question them and gain illegal access to information. Compassion compels her to protect the most vulnerable. Rule-bound Annalynn struggles to protect Phoenix and to pursue her leads. Achilles grapples with his fears to back up the women in the fields and on small-town streets.
Tires skidding around the corner violated the June evening’s quiet. I dropped my trowel and reached for the Glock 27 stashed among the unplanted petunias.
Annalynn’s black SUV braked as it passed me and then careened into her driveway.
Not like my lifelong friend to race down the quiet residential street. Even so, I’d overreacted. Tamping down the paranoia developed during three decades in Eastern Europe—and reinforced during five weeks back in my Missouri hometown—I tucked the gun into the back waistband of my shorts.
Annalynn jumped out and strode across our adjoining driveways, the setting sun’s beam bouncing off her bronze sheriff’s star. “Thank goodness you’re home, Phoenix. I need your help.”
I rose to meet her. “What’s wrong?”
“A farm woman called to report her husband didn’t come home. He left Laycock, or at least Harry’s place, at three o’clock. That gave him plenty of time to drive home to milk the cows at four. Would you please go with me to find him?”
Relief gave way to annoyance. Why should we run around in this heat looking for a tardy husband? “You’re acting sheriff, remember? You assign cases, not work on them.”
Annalynn threw up her hands. “I have no one to assign. The regional major case squad borrowed my deputies to help investigate the killing of that Highway Patrol officer.” She took a deep breath. “Besides, the man hasn’t been missing long enough for an official search. He probably ran out of gas or hit a deer.”
So why the rush? “Let’s wait a little while. Someone will spot him.”
“I can’t wait. It will be dark in an hour.” She squared her shoulders. “I’ll go alone if need be.”
Light dawned. Her husband’s shocking death six weeks ago compelled her to answer another wife’s call for help. “Okay, I’ll go with you.” I pushed back the short black hair sticking to my forehead and glanced down at my sweat- and dirt-stained green tank top. My grimy appearance contrasted with her pristine beige uniform, the flawless makeup obscuring her fifty-plus years, and the perfect French roll of her brown, chestnut-highlighted hair. “I need to run through the shower first. Could you feed and water Achilles? He’s out back guarding the hummingbirds from stray cats.”
“Of course.” Her shoulders relaxed as we hurried toward her house, my temporary home. “We’ll take him along in case we need to do any tracking.”
Tracking? She expected trouble. “Do I know the missing man?”
“No, the Tornells moved to Vandiver County years after you left. I know their names but not their faces.”
She cut left to go to her backyard. “Please carry your reserve officer ID.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “And Phoenix, if you can’t bring yourself to leave the house without that gun, for Pete’s sake, carry it in a holster.”
Annalynn turned on her giant cop flashlight to check the county map. “The Tornells live just past this crossroads.”
Three white-tailed deer bounded across the blacktop road a few yards in front of her SUV. I braked to a stop. “When did northern Missouri become a deer preserve?”
“At least twenty years ago. When my kids were little, seeing deer was a treat. Now they’re a road hazard. They may even come into Laycock and eat your petunias.”
The deer hopped over a shoulder-high barbed-wire fence into a cornfield. I drove on until we spotted a white mailbox. I turned left into the gravel driveway running between the lawn and an unpainted board fence and stopped near the back door of a two-story white house. An outdoor light illuminated a crumbling cement walkway and three steps.
A sturdy woman in a red T-shirt and cut-off jeans stepped through the screen door of an enclosed porch. A shadow fell on her face, but her rigid posture indicated tension.
Annalynn got out. “Dorothy Tornell? I’m Annalynn Carr Keyser, the acting sheriff. Any word from your husband?”
“No. I’m real worried,” the woman said in a low-pitched voice. She pushed back a strand of short ash-blond hair. “Jesse’s never late for milkin’. It’s hard on the cows.”
I climbed out of the SUV. “Hi. I’m Phoenix Smith.”
The woman shifted her attention to me. “Mary Smith’s daughter?”
“Yes.” I’d never seen this woman. “You knew my mother?”
“No, but I know Bessie Hamilton. She told us how you invited her to live in your house for free after your mother died.” Dorothy Tornell pointed at Achilles, whose dark head with its drooping right ear stuck out the back window. “A police dog?”
“No, a pet.” I stroked his head.
“He’s not a German shepherd, even though he looks a lot like one,” Annalynn added. “He’s a Belgian shepherd, a Malinois.”
Damn. I’d forgotten Missourians call German shepherds police dogs. I opened the door for Achilles, and two white cats dashed off the porch steps.
The woman peered at him. “In this light, you could mistake him for a fawn.” She motioned for us to come in. “I’ll get you that photo you asked for, Sheriff Keyser.”
I hesitated. Gramma had never permitted animals in her farmhouse. “I’m afraid Achilles might play rough with your cats. Is it okay for me to bring him inside?”
“Sure.” The woman led us into the large kitchen typical of old farmhouses.
An outdated fluorescent light revealed rough, red-stained hands and a deeply tanned face. She looked older than her forty-six years and stood a bit taller than my five six but shorter than Annalynn’s five nine. Four handbaskets of strawberries (the source of the stains?) and a transistor radio rested on a polished round oak table in the middle of the room. Three past-prime white refrigerators lined a wall.
She went toward a door to our left. “Help yourself to the lemonade in that middle fridge while I dig out a photo.” A moment later stairs creaked.
Annalynn took glasses from a drainer by the double sink.
I scanned the room for insight into the Tornells’ life. Worn but waxed beige linoleum. Oak cabinets. A spotless white but aging electric stove. A beige Formica counter with a set of red, white, and blue metal canisters. More elbow grease than money here. A shotgun hung on spike nails driven deep into the top of the doorframe the woman had gone through. So where was the rifle? I checked above the door leading to the porch. The nails were there, but no rifle. When Annalynn handed me a glass of lemonade, I pointed to the shotgun and then to the empty nails.
“You ask her about it,” Annalynn whispered. “You’re much sneakier than I am.”
True. Hearing footsteps on the stairs, I picked up a ripe strawberry. “These berries look delicious, Dorothy. Did you pick them this afternoon?”
“Yes. I raise produce for the farmers’ market. You’re welcome to take enough for shortcake.” She handed a five-by-seven photo in a wood frame to Annalynn. “This is our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary photo. It’s two years old.”
Annalynn held it so I could see, too. Jesse Tornell was a thin man with dark-blue eyes and curly strawberry-blond hair. His smile, unlike his wife’s, looked forced.
I added together the berries, the radio, and the empty nails. “Dorothy, would you have seen or heard your husband if he came home while you were picking strawberries?”
She cocked her head and wrinkled her brow. “Maybe not. The patch is on the far side of the garden, and I had the radio on. What makes you ask that?”
“My grandfather used to keep a rifle over the back door. I gather you do, too. Did your husband take it with him today?”
“No, he didn’t.” She glanced at the empty nails. Her cheeks turned pink. “He coulda come back and gone after a fox that’s been hanging around.”
A lie. I waited for her to elaborate on it, something many amateurs can’t resist. She didn’t. A smart liar. I nudged her to try another: “Or maybe squirrel hunting?”
“No. He hates squirrel meat.” Her voice shook. “Got his fill of it as a kid.”
Annalynn patted the woman on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry yet. I’d like for you to call your neighbors to ask if they’ve seen him. We’ll look around the farm. Maybe he stepped in a hole and sprained his ankle.”
The woman thought a moment. “We got a dozen black Angus on the back forty. He might’ve gone over to turn on the water. We got a pond-fed tank there.”
Annalynn nodded. “A good place to start. How do we get there?”
“Go on down the road about half a mile. At the second corner you’ll see a gate.” She looked at Achilles, who sat with his nose twitching and his good ear pointed straight up. “I’ll get the T-shirt Jesse wore yesterday. If you find the pickup, your dog can track him from there.” She stepped onto the porch and came back in with a gray T-shirt.
Annalynn took a notepad from her shirt pocket. “I’ll give you my cell phone number in case you hear anything.”
“We ain’t got—I mean, you can’t get cell service out here.”
I suppressed a smile as Annalynn opened the door. People watched their grammar, and their manners, around her just as they had around her father, Judge Carr.
As soon as we were in the SUV, Annalynn said, “I can guess what Tornell’s doing with that rifle: hunting deer. I remember that one of their neighbors claimed he was shooting deer out of season and wanted Boom”— her voice faltered as she said her late husband’s nickname—“wanted the sheriff’s department to search the Tornells’ freezers.”
I backed out of the driveway. “Makes sense. A watering hole is ideal for shooting game. She’s afraid we’ll catch him hunting out of season, but she’s so convinced he’s hurt that she’s willing to risk it.”
The edge of our headlights showed low rows of soybeans in the field on our left. “We could be on a wild goose chase. The guy might have had too many beers and fallen asleep somewhere.”
“He never has more than one beer. I called Harry’s to check.” Annalynn cleared her throat. “It’s ten past nine, and she’s sure something’s wrong. I trust her instincts.”
At the second corner, the headlights picked up a closed pipe gate.
Annalynn reached over from the passenger seat and turned the SUV’s searchlight on it. “The padlock’s on the chain. He’s not here.”
Having relocked doors to hide illicit entries, I wasn’t so sure. “We’re here. Let’s check.” I drove the SUV down a slight slope to the tractor-wide gate. Its six rows of rust-red pipe were too close together for me to crawl through. Beyond the gate, a grassy dirt road ran toward the pond.
Annalynn swung the searchlight to the right and held it on red metal behind a large oak tree. “His pickup! We’ll have to go back for the padlock key.”
I turned off the motor and took my set of keys from the ignition. “No need.” I listened and heard nothing but frogs and crickets. I sniffed and smelled nothing but grass and weeds. Nothing stirred as I walked to the gate and, blocking Annalynn’s view, opened the lock with a pick concealed in the miniature flashlight on my keychain. Out of habit, I used a tissue to remove the padlock and push the gate back to the barbed-wire fence bordering the dirt road. The hinges creaked all the way. “Drive through and I’ll close the gate. We mustn’t let any cattle out.”
Annalynn scooted into the driver’s seat and drove through. “Please get back in. This place is creepy.”
When I climbed into the passenger seat, my sixty-pound dog tried to squeeze between the seats to get into my lap.
I rubbed him behind his drooping ear. “Settle down, boy.” His unease elevated my own. I drew my gun and lowered the window. “Let’s drive up parallel to the pickup.”
Annalynn edged her SUV forward and stopped. “Should I draw my gun?”
“Not yet. You operate the searchlight. Do a sweep starting with the pickup.”
The first sweep showed the big oak and three baby oaks amid thigh-high grass and weeds to our right, a gently rising grassy pond bank straight ahead, and rows of ankle-high soybeans on the other side of the barbed-wire fence to our left. Annalynn swept the light back. Nothing moved. She focused the light on the pickup. “Now what?”
Achilles’ anxiety dictated caution. “Get a round in your chamber and then keep the gun in your holster. I’ll check the pickup.”
“Something’s wrong. I’m coming with you.”
Too risky. “I’d rather you stay here and watch my back.” Turning off the overhead light and tucking a hefty flashlight under my arm, I eased out the door. I left it ajar in case I had to make a rapid retreat. Achilles came right after me. “I hope you studied tracking before you flunked out of the canine corps.”
His good ear up and his nose extended, he pressed his shoulder against my left leg as we moved the few yards to the pickup.
I switched on the flashlight, holding it out to my far left so the beam wouldn’t direct a shooter to my body. The driver’s window was down. The keys were in the ignition. The window on the passenger side was also open.
Careful not to touch the pickup, I walked around it—and saw nothing but an old Dodge pickup that had been parked in the shade on a hot June afternoon.
Achilles, still pressed against my leg, barked a question.
“Whatever you’re asking, I don’t know the answer,” I muttered.
“I couldn’t hear you,” Annalynn said from the SUV. “Did you find anything?”
“Just an empty pickup.” I thought aloud: “If he’s nearby, he heard us drive in. Either he doesn’t want us to find him or he can’t call out.” But he didn’t know who we were, and he had a rifle. I shouted, “Jesse! Dorothy sent us to look for you! Jesse!”
A cow mooed somewhere off to the right. Two others replied.
“We’re going to have to look for him,” Annalynn said. “All three of us.”
“Okay.” Definitely something wrong here. Must minimize the risk. “Let’s leave the SUV here with the searchlight on and hope Achilles can pick up his scent.”
“I’ll bring the T-shirt.” Annalynn trained the searchlight on the pond bank some fifteen yards away and turned off the motor. “Should I draw my gun now?”
“I feel safer with it holstered.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Damn. I’d damaged her confidence. I’d coached her in target shooting, but she had little experience with guns. “Stumbling around in the dark holding a loaded gun is a bad idea.” I lowered my voice. “I knew an idiot who stepped in a hole and shot himself in the leg. He almost bled to death.”
Annalynn handed me the T-shirt. “One of the informants you smuggled out of Hungary into Austria?”
“I’m an economist, not a human smuggler. You’re jumping to conclusions.” Correct ones. I held the T-shirt under Achilles’ nose. I didn’t know the right command. Sure to be short. “Find.”
Achilles sneezed and looked up at me.
I knelt by the pickup door and pushed his nose to the ground. “Find.”
He sniffed and raised his head to lick my face.
I hated that, as he knew. “Oh, hell! What’s the magic word?”
“That’s what I used to ask my kids. Find, please.” Annalynn chuckled as Achilles dropped his nose to the ground. “Good boy.”
He licked her hand and trotted toward the dirt road, head low. He followed the road, turning right a few feet from where the pond bank sloped upward.
Now outside the searchlight’s beam, we stayed close behind our tracker. My light swept from Achilles to the right and Annalynn’s from Achilles to the left. We saw little but tall grass and weeds.
Achilles stopped and raised his head. Hackles up, he faced the pond. He wheeled and darted to me. Closing his teeth on the hem of my T-shirt, he pulled me toward the SUV. I dropped the flashlight, drew my gun, and grabbed his collar. “Sit, Achilles, sit.”
He whined, but he let go of my top and obeyed.
Annalynn had drawn her gun and focused her beam on the bank. “Oh, God! I see sneakers. To the right of that old duck blind. Mr. Tornell? Jesse?”
Gott im Himmel! “Hold Achilles while I take a closer look.” I picked up my flashlight and walked along the pond bank until I spotted grass that had been mashed down and not sprung all the way back. Two feet from that rough path, stepping as lightly as I could, I made my way toward the shoes. They were attached to jeans-clad legs. Insects swarmed over dried blood on a blue T-shirt and around a jagged stick protruding from the man’s back. His shoulders and head lay just inside a blind made of rotting boards and ragged camouflage cloth. A rifle lay by his outstretched right hand. I sniffed. No hint of gunpowder.
Annalynn didn’t need to add this grim tableau to the crime-scene photos of her dead husband that haunted her sleep. “Take Achilles to the car and radio your dispatcher to get the evidence tech and medical examiner out here.”
“You mean somebody killed him.” Annalynn’s voice was flat, matter of fact. “Stay, Achilles, stay.” She followed my footsteps until she stood behind me. “I asked to be appointed acting sheriff. I have to do the job.” Her beam rested on the dried blood and then moved on up to the strawberry-blond hair. “I have to be sure he’s dead.”
“I’ll do it.” I moved close to the head, bent over, and stretched my hand out to touch the carotid artery in his neck. No pulse. Cool skin after a hot day and a warm evening. Keeping my tone businesslike, I said, “He’s been dead a while. I don’t think we should touch anything.”
“No, no. Of course not. What’s the weapon?”
I shone my light on the stick in Jesse Tornell’s back. But it wasn’t wood. Doubting my sharpshooter eyes, I bent down to get a better view. “It’s a broken antler.”