Danger, Falling Rocks!
I'm delighted that Val de Grace Books has published the first in my series of mystery novels set in the Sierra.
Here is a link to a podcast with a Napa Bookmine Author's night about the mystery. Available from: Amazon.com, Target.com, and other online retailers, as well as Napa Bookmine and
Copperfields in Napa, Readers Books in Sonoma, and Mountain Home Gifts and The Mountain Bookshop in Sonora.
Coming soon: the second book in the series, Bones of the Earth, will be published in early January of 2022,
Bones of the Earth
First Chapter: a teaser for my next Dan Courtwright mystery
Until they walked in with their photos, it had been a good day for Dan Courtwright. He had arrived at the Summit Ranger Station early, as he often did. It gave him a chance to walk around the building, tidy up any obvious trash, and take a few minutes to organize things in the office.
The car that was waiting for him in the parking lot brought a small smile to the tall ranger's bearded face. A VW that was well past its shiny new phase had been covered with best wishes, streamers, and a big "just married" scrawled across the back window. Inside, the little car was crammed full of camping equipment. Dan noted that the packs looked as if they had been used many times before.
The young couple in the car jumped out when they saw Dan arrive, and eagerly waited by the door for him to open it.
"We don't open until eight," Dan apologized with a smile that he hoped would lighten the impact of the news.
"We're just really anxious to get out on the trail," the young woman replied. She reached out and took the hand of the young man next to her.
Dan chuckled. "Give me a minute to get the lights on and boot up the computer and I'll see what I can do," he replied.
Once inside, Dan took a quick look around. There were four messages on the answering machine, but Doris would take care of those when she arrived. She should be here soon. And while there were plenty of emails, none of them seemed urgent, or came from Dan's boss. So far; so good.
Dan flicked on the radio, turned on the cashed register, and scanned the area behind the counter. There was nothing that needed his immediate attention. He took a deep breath, glanced at the young couple outside the door, and waved them in.
"We really appreciate this," the young woman said.
. “I saw your backpacks in the car,” Dan noted. "Are you here for a wilderness permit?"
"Yeah," she agreed with an energetic nod. "We're going to Hyatt Lake."
Dan pulled out the form and slid it across the counter, holding out a pen with his other hand. He glanced at the clock. It said 7:54.
The young woman started filling out the form. She stopped to look and what she had written, smiled, and showed the form to her husband. "Cheryl Monez" she said quietly to him.
The young man smiled and then leaned over and kissed her softly on the side of her head, his lips just touching her hair.
Dan checked the permit and asked them where they were going to camp.
"Oh, we're going straight to Hyatt lake today, and we're just going to stay there for three days, then come back out," she said.
Dan noticed that she was wearing make-up--something that might not last over four days in the back country--but it made her glow more than the usual backpacker that stopped in. He found it charming.
Dan handed the couple their papers and briefly talked them through the regulations about fires, bears, and trash. Before he could finish, Doris swung open the doors and marched into the station. Her short gray hair and round face and body were all just a bit too bouncy today. The energy she brought seemed to explode into the office.
"Good morning" she practically sang, her face transformed into a collage of shining teeth, wire rim glasses and teary eyes, framed by short curly hair. She stopped to study the two young people. "Oh, you are so lovely!" She said to the girl. "And you are so lucky!" to the young man. "Do you have everything you need?"
The two nodded, still holding hands.
"Maps?" she prodded.
Young Mr. Monez explained that they had a GPS.
Doris became serious. "Where are you going? A map or two doesn't weigh anything. And if your GPS goes dead, then what?"
"We're really fine," the young man assured her. His wife nodded.
Doris quickly thumbed through her charts and handed him two topo maps. "These are all you should need," she said.
Looking embarrassed, Cheryl started to open her purse. "Oh no honey, these are on the house," Doris stated emphatically. "They are a wedding gift from the US Forest Service."
The new Mr. and Mrs. Monez thanked her effusively and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Doris called out. "Give me your phone. Let me take your picture!"
A few minutes later, Doris came back inside smiling broadly. Dan met her with a bemused grin.
"Don't worry," she reassured him. "I'll pay for the maps."
Dan laughed. He pulled out his wallet and was surprised to see fewer bills than he expected. Where had the money gone? "Here," he said, handing her a five dollar bill. "This will help."
The rest of the morning Dan spent listening to Doris hum happily. She hummed while he gave a permit to a troop of boy scouts leaving for their fifty-mile hike merit badge--even through his rules and regulations speech. From the look of their young faces, there would be a few tears before that hike was over.
She hummed while she waited on hold to tell Gretchen Turner that two of her cows were out on the highway by Long Barn.
When Dan left to take a quick tour of the lake and grab some lunch, Doris was humming. And she was still humming an hour later when he returned.
She stopped humming when a young family came in about 3:30 that afternoon. The mother and father ushered their two little girls into the ranger station.
The two girls, maybe 5 and 8, stopped and looked at Dan, then at Doris. The older girl watched carefully, her expression guarded.
"Good afternoon!" Doris greeted them with exaggerated enthusiasm, leaning over the counter to bring her face closer to the little girls.
"Do you have a question?" The father quietly asked the girls. He stood back to give them room.
The younger of the two wore thick glasses, and peered through them intently at Doris. Her dark bobbed hair gave her a perky look. With a lisp she stated seriously; "we want to know about the thquirrelth."
And with that, Doris was off and running, asking questions of the girls, describing chipmunks and squirrels, and which ones they might find nearby. This is what Doris lived for, and the girls did their part as they listened in rapt attention.
Dan let his mind drift. The older girl reminded him of Lisa, Cal Healey's daughter. But Lisa was older now. She must be a teenager. Cal was a deputy sheriff in Toulumne County, and Cal's wife Maggie had invited Dan to dinner tonight. That alone was something to look forward to with pleasure. Maggie was a good cook. Nothing fancy, but everything she made was always delicious.
And when she invited him, Maggie had mentioned that she had also invited Kristen Gallagher. Dan wasn't sure if Maggie was playing matchmaker, but he was delighted to know that Kristen would be there. He'd taken her to dinner once last month, and they’d traded a couple of voice mail messages since then. He wasn't quite sure what the next step should be. And while he thought he might be falling in love with Kristen, Dan wasn't sure how Kristen felt about him. Maybe, if it all worked out, he could ask her out again tonight. Maybe to a movie, if there was a good one showing. Dan didn’t go to movies much, so he would have to ask Kristen about it.
He glanced up when a couple in their fifties opened the doors and walked in. With one glance he guessed they'd been out on the trail for a while. The man's face had the look of someone who hadn't shaved in a few days, and his hat hid most of his hair—but the hair that was showing needed a good wash. His wife's shirt had a dusty smear across the front, and her hair was hidden underneath a red bandana. The huge amount of dust on their boots and socks made Dan think they had climbed up out of Pine Valley. That trail always had six inches of powdery brown dust on it by this time of the year.
As Dan waited expectantly, the woman looked at Doris and the two little girls and leaned close enough to her husband to whisper something in his ear that Dan couldn't hear. The husband nodded in response, and the two of them turned to peruse the bookshelves on the far wall of the ranger station. It was as if they wanted to keep a secret. And it wasn’t going to be a good kind of secret. Something in her face told Dan that.
The girls' mother noticed this, and stepped in to wind up their conversation with Doris. "OK girls. Let's buy this book that can tell us about the animals, and then let's let the rangers get back to work," she said. She glanced over at the older couple while her husband paid Doris.
Dan could see that the backpackers were killing time, waiting for the girls to leave. It seemed to take a long time for Doris to ring up the sale. And then she made the mistake of asking which of the girls wanted to carry the bag. That set off another discussion. Their mother eventually had to intercede and carry it herself, the two girls still arguing about it as they left the office.
Once the family was out the door, Dan turned to the two backpackers, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
"We didn't want to talk about this with the little girls here," the husband said quietly. "I'm Glen Bartlett, and this is my wife Martha."
Dan nodded in greeting.
"We were up above Yellowhammer Lake," he said. "A couple of days ago, and we saw some...um well, we think we found some human remains."
Doris stopped humming. The sudden quiet in the office allowed Dan to hear a light breeze outside blow through the pines, and the slight hum of the computer fan.
"Where did you see this?" Dan asked.
"We were trying to go from Yellowhammer up to Leighton Lake," Glen explained. "It was pretty steep, and we were getting pretty far up the ridge. It’s all granite up there, and we started seeing a couple of bones...well, Martha saw them…"
Dan began to relax a bit. At least once a year a hiker would find deer or bear bones and mistake them for human bones. This was probably no different.
"What did they look like?" Dan asked.
Glen noted the skepticism in Dan's voice. "We took some photos," he said, pulling out a small black digital camera from his pocket. “They were kind of spread out, but we took a lot of photos.”
Dan waited patiently while Glen Bartlett pushed the tiny buttons on his camera and beeped through his photos. Doris hovered nearby. "OK, here they are," Bartlett said.
He handed Dan the camera and explained how to push a button to scan through the photos. The small screen didn't show a lot of detail, and it was hard to tell what the photos really showed. Doris peered over his shoulder at what looked like white sticks among pine needles.
"We didn't move anything, so some of them are not too clear." Glen explained, with his wife nodding her agreement over his shoulder. They craned their necks to try and see as Dan clicks through the photos. Rocks, pine needles, something white on the ground—that one there did look a bit like a human rib, he had to admit. The tiny screen really didn’t give Dan much help.
And just then Dan found himself looking at something that removed his doubts. In the tiny screen of the camera, Dan could clearly see the unmistakable image of two white bones. The bones were coming straight out of a high-top hiking boot.
Dan looked at the wall clock. It was 3:49