Bitter Truth

Book Two of the Bitter Root Mysteries

Murder in a small town is always personal.

In the isolated ranching community of Lost Trails, Montana, Lacy Stillman, a rich elderly rancher has died of a heart attack in her own bed. What could be more normal than that? As Zak Waller, dispatcher with the local Sheriff’s Office, joins the town in mourning the loss of the community matriarch, some disquieting information makes Zak wonder if Lacy’s death was not what it seemed.

Meanwhile, Zak’s friend Tiff Masterson is overwhelmed by her mother’s escalating mental breakdown and her aunt’s stubborn denial of the problem. Tiff assumes the root of the problem is the death of her brother and father sixteen-years-ago. But the real atrocity goes back much further than that.

When the truth is revealed in a shocking twist, Tiff’s world is turned completely upside down. The ramifications affect many of the most prominent citizens and provide the missing clue to Lacy Stillman’s murder.


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Chapter One

The death of an old woman from a heart attack wouldn’t normally cause much concern.

But Lacy Stillman wasn’t your typical old woman.

And Zak Waller wasn’t your typical dispatcher.

Zak was at the coffee machine when the call came in on the Lost Trail, Montana, emergency line, three days before Thanksgiving. He’d been about to offer a refill to Deputy Nadine Black, mainly to see if she’d stop communing with her laptop and actually look at him—something she’d avoided doing since she showed up at work two hours ago.

As dispatcher, he was used to being treated like low man on the totem pole by Sheriff Ford and Deputy Butterfield. But he thought he and Nadine had broken through that barrier. Apparently he’d been wrong.

Zak abandoned his mug and leapt over a box of evidence from their last big case to grab the phone. “You’ve reached 911, what’s your emergency?” He grabbed his notepad and pen, ready for whatever was to come.

Deputy Black was also priming for action. In her case this involved checking her gun and slipping it into her holster.

The man on the line said, “Not sure it’s an emergency. I didn’t know who else to call.”

Zak knew he’d heard that voice before but no address or name had popped up on the display. Probably the caller was using a cell phone.

“Your name?”

“Oh, right. Eugene Stillman. I’m at my mother’s house.”

Zak had no trouble placing the caller then. The Stillmans owned the largest ranch in the county, and Eugene’s mother was the wealthiest woman around.

“Mom didn’t show up at the barn this morning. She’s never late. I knew something was wrong, but I figured…I figured she’d caught a bug. I never guessed…”

His voice sounded like it was grinding through gravel until it finally choked to a stop. Zak waited for the tough, old rancher to get control. For men like Eugene it was weak to show emotion. Even at the death of a loved one.

“I found mom in her bed. Dead.”

“You check her breathing? Her pulse?”

“She’s already cold. Must have had a heart attack. I didn’t know whether to call 911 or Doc Pittman.”

“You did the right thing, Eugene. I’m sorry for your loss. Are you alone at the house?”

“Yeah. I need to tell my wife and my brother. But I thought I should report the death first.”

“Definitely. We’ll handle things from our end now. Call your family and get someone to come over and keep you company while you wait for the paramedics to arrive.”

“What’s the story?” Nadine Black was towering over his desk, vibrating with anticipation of a juicy emergency. The fitness she’d gained in her years of competing in barrel racing still showed in every muscle of her body.

“Lacy Stillman had a heart attack in bed last night.” A part of him was still absorbing the news. He’d liked Lacy. Almost everyone in town did. Her loss was going to hit hard.

“Oh.” Nadine deflated, dropped back on her heels. “I take it this Lacy Stillman was old?”

“If you call ninety-one old.”

Nadine acknowledged the humor with an almost-smile. “Even if ninety is the new eighty, it’s still old.”

Encouraged by the moment of rapport, Zak considered asking her about last night, why she hadn’t shown up at the Dew Drop as planned. But she’d already turned back to her desk.

He eyed the stiff set of her shoulders a few seconds longer, then dialed Doc Pittman, the county coroner. He wasn’t surprised when the doc decided against driving to the scene. An examination at his clinic would be sufficient.

Zak wanted to argue the point, for reasons that were slowly coalescing in his mind, but he had nothing concrete to offer. So he dispatched the paramedics, then completed his paperwork.

When it was time to move on to the next task on his desk, thoughts of Lacy wouldn’t leave him alone. “I saw her less than a week ago.”

Nadine glanced up from her computer screen, where she was finalizing the reports on the Concurran homicide case. The old radiators clicked and clunked, the sounds loud in the quiet office. The Sheriff was in Missoula for the day and Deputy Butterfield was making rounds in the foothills of the Bitterroots. Not much else was going on. A normal state of affairs in this sleepy corner of Montana.

“You talking about the old woman who died?”

He ignored the marked lack of interest in Nadine’s tone. “Yeah. Last Thursday Lacy was leaving the medical clinic when I was on my way home. She insisted on buying me a beer at the Dew Drop. Said she wanted to celebrate.”

Lacy had been dressed like a rodeo queen with her hand-tooled boots and fitted shearling coat. Petite and spritely, with alert, bright eyes and an I-love-life smile. No one would guess Lacy was in her nineties. She still led cattle drives every spring and fall and volunteered for the 4H club.

“Lacy told me she’d just got a clean bill of health and a vitamin K shot for good measure. She figured she was going to live another decade for sure.”

Nadine gave him the sort of condescending look he’d once gotten daily from his brothers. “There are no guarantees when you’re ninety-one.”

“It’s kind of sad, is all.”

She waved her hand. “You’re too soft-hearted for this job.”

Really? A few weeks ago she’d given him hell for not applying for a Deputy position. Now she questioned whether he could handle the dispatcher role—a job previously held by Rose Newman, whose main skill, as far as Zak could tell, had been knitting doilies for every wooden surface in the office.

On Zak’s first day on the job, the Sheriff had tossed those doilies. “Hope you don’t knit, Waller.”

Zak had smiled at what he assumed was a joke. That was before he realized the Sheriff had zero sense of humor.

Unlike Lacy who had an excellent one. She’d looked so mischievous when she’d told him her sons were going to be happy, because the doc had green-lighted her continued active involvement on the ranch.

He hadn’t missed the irony. It was no secret around town that Lacy’s old-fashioned ideas about ranching drove both Clayton and Eugene crazy.

Then there was the more recent disagreement about selling off a small portion of land to a real estate developer, which Zak had only learned about last night.

“The timing of her death sure is convenient for her sons.”

“Yeah?” Nadine looked like she wanted him to drop the subject already, but she played along. “How so?”

“I overheard a couple out-of-towners talking about the Lazy S at the Dew Drop last night.”

Nadine dropped her gaze when he mentioned the pub.

Huh. She wasn’t even going to offer an excuse for blowing him off. “These guys met with the Stillman family that afternoon—yesterday afternoon—trying to convince them to sell off a fifty-acre parcel of land along the river. Apparently the sons were all for it, but Lacy vetoed the deal.”

Nadine straightened, her gaze a little keener than it had been before. “What do they want the land for?”

“A big operation out of California wants to invest in a luxury resort. They’d promote skiing in the winter and fly fishing in the summer.”

“How much land do the Stillman’s own?”

“About eighty thousand acres.”

Nadine whistled. “Who the hell owns that much land? They’d hardly miss fifty acres.”

“You wouldn’t think. But it would be a matter of principle with Lacy. Land is everything to old time ranchers like her. Besides the decision to sell a bit of land could be a slippery slope, making it easier to divest a few more acres the next time an offer presented itself.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting her sons somehow managed to give her a heart attack so they could do this deal?”

Was he? Zak didn’t know the answer himself. But… “When the richest woman in the county dies a day after she blocked her family from making a cool million or two…don’t you think questions should be asked?”

Nadine regarded him for a long moment, then slowly shook her head. “Sheriff Ford will never okay opening an investigation.”

Just last month the boss had practically crushed Nadine for taking too much initiative. She was learning to keep her place.

“No, he won’t open an investigation.” Especially since Eugene and Clayton were generous supporters to his campaign and election time was around the corner.

If Zak wanted to clear his conscience where Lacy Stillman’s death was concerned, he was going to have to find the answers himself.

* * *

Justin Pittman glanced in his rear-view mirror. Geneva, his four-year-old adopted daughter was in her booster seat, idly playing with a Rubik Cube his father had given her at their last Sunday dinner.

“Dad are we going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year?”

“We’ll have a turkey dinner with Grandpa. Is that what you mean?”

“And pumpkin pie? And trimmings?”

“Would you like that?”

“I think so. I’ve never had pumpkin pie. But I like trimmings. Can they be pink? Can we put them all over the dining room?”

Justin laughed. Thank God for this little girl in his life. Not many things could have made him laugh after the news he’d just been given.

“You can do all the trimming you want honey.”

“We never did Thanksgiving with mommy and Paul.”

Almost two weeks had passed since Willow left them. Geneva had been sad, but it seemed every day she became more smiley and chatty. His father had been right. Children were amazingly resilient.

“Grandpa and I always do Thanksgiving.” Most often they were invited out by friends for the holiday. Last year they’d spent it with the Mastersons who always put on a big spread for the entire Christmas tree farm staff. This year, Justin wanted to do the cooking, in his own home. It was time to build Pittman traditions for Geneva.

Though God only knew how long he’d be around to maintain them.

On the drive to Missoula this morning he’d been worried, but at least he’d had hope.

Then it had been his turn to step into the doctor’s office. A kindly nurse offered to keep an eye on Geneva, who had a bag of toys and a snack to keep her occupied.

As soon as Justin saw the oncologist’s compressed lips, his hope had been stripped away. Listening to the results of his test, and the treatment options left to him, had felt like facing a judge who’d capriciously ruled against him. The doctor’s words came at him through a fog of disbelief, dismay, distress. He’d wanted to contest the ruling, to explain it wasn’t fair, he had a daughter who needed him.

Instead he’d listened politely.

The doctor, sensing Justin was in shock, repeated key points in a slow, calm voice.

And eventually they had sunk in.

There was a real chance, a more than fifty percent chance, that by the time next Thanksgiving rolled around Justin wouldn’t be here anymore.

A bunch of things had to go right to prevent that from happening.

A stem cell donor had to be found. The transplant had to be successful. He had to be spared any of the life-threatening complications that claimed a scary percent of patients with his form of Lymphoma.

Justin wanted to live for his own sake. Badly. Even more he needed to live for Geneva’s. Abused by her father, abandoned by her mother, he was all she had now. And while she had a tight bond with his father, it wasn’t fair to expect a busy doctor nearing retirement to become the guardian of a little girl.

“Daddy do you want to marry Debbie-Ann?”

“What?” Geneva ought to be a baseball player, she was great at throwing curves. What had made her think of her day care worker?

“Ashley doesn’t have a daddy. My mommy is gone. If you and Ashley’s mom got married then we could be a real family.”

“Well.” Since he couldn’t think of a response, he countered, “Is that something you would like?”

“It was Ashley’s idea. She said we could be sisters.”

He hoped the idea hadn’t been planted by Debbie-Ann. He didn’t need those sorts of complications in his life. Especially now.

“Sometimes having a good friend is almost as good as having a sister. And I can’t marry anyone—I’m still married to your mom.”

“Oh.” Geneva puckered her lips as she digested all that.

His phone rang then, a call from his father. The car’s Bluetooth picked it up. “Hi Dad. Geneva and I are on our way back from a shopping trip to Missoula.” This was true, as they had stopped at the mall after his doctor’s appointment.

His Dad said hello to Geneva, then his tone deepened and lowered. “I wanted to let you know Lacy Stillman passed on last night. Eugene found her in her bed this morning.”

“Oh no.” It was odd how upsetting the news felt. Lacy had been ninety-one, her death ought to have been expected, but she was one of the most life-loving women he knew. Only a few weeks ago she’d driven through town in search of homes from an unexpected batch of puppies, which was how he had come to adopt Dora. “Was it a heart attack?”

“I’m just about to do my examination, but I expect so. The family is making arrangements for a funeral on Wednesday.”

Just two days from now. “That’s fast.”

“I guess they didn’t

End of Excerpt

Find out more about the Bitter Root Mysteries →

Bitter Truth is available in the following formats:

Bitter Truth
February 15, 2018
Tule
Mystery