For those of you who are followers of my Charlie Draper series the latest book, Big Sky Dead will be available in paperback and Kindle in the next couple of days at Amazon.com. Click here. Number 3 in the series, the following is an excerpt of the first chapter of Big Sky Dead, a suspense thriller that takes Draper on a wild ride of drug trafficking, human trafficking and murder for hire in rural Montana.
The man on the floor was dead; very dead, if there was such a condition. Dead was dead; nothing he could do about it. Sheriff Roscoe Hornsby’s twenty-year-long law enforcement career exposed him to a cornucopia of recently deceased individuals of all ages and sexes. It told him a medical degree and a flock of health professionals would not get this one up. Three large caliber wounds to the upper chest made that fact clear as spring fed water; a bit of overkill though, Hornsby thought, wasted ammunition for sure and suggesting a elevated level of anger on the part of the shooter.
“Is he dead, Ross?” The voice came from the front door and belonged to Randall Ruskin, owner of the house and several other rentals in town. “I told you something wasn’t right.”
“Randy, stay the hell outside like I told you,” Hornsby said, stepping through the debris-covered floor while drawing his weapon. He had been Sheriff twelve years and he had drawn his Glock not more than a dozen times. There had never been a need outside of sapping a belligerent drunk. Of those, he had plenty; cowboys, itinerant farm hands, and sheepherders all with a craving for the bottle during those rare winter times when there was little else to do. Sore-headed, hung-over, and sheepish, Hornsby crowded them into his single twelve by twelve drunk tank/jail cell and let them sleep. On a busy Saturday night and a full tank, he handcuffed the overflow to the oak railing across the front of the office and let them snore on the hardwood floor.
The man’s body lay sprawled on his back, arms outstretched in a slowly expanding pool of dark blood in the middle of a furniture-void living room. The holes in his chest marred a much-washed red Carhartt t-shirt worn over faded tan Dickies. The Sheriff guessed the man’s age at about forty to forty-five with light brown thinning hair and streaks of pre-mature gray; a stranger though, not a local. No hint of recognition rose in Hornsby’s mind to block the vision of hours of paperwork.
The room was far from empty; it contained the makings of a sophisticated chemistry lab and dozens of plastic-wrapped and mailing tape secured packages. Hornsby guessed cocaine, which he knew cooked crack or sold as an inhalable powder. Hornsby had seen a lot of coke and knew this pile represented over a million dollars in potential revenue; definitely enough to kill for. A nearby table sat covered with a variety of chemicals, most of which had potential to lift the roof off the house if miss-used. He recognized the ingredients for cooking meth. In Chicago, they were as plentiful as household cooking oil. In Montana, anhydrous ammonia, used everywhere as a soil enhancement during farming, also provided a plentiful ingredient for meth manufacturing.
The house itself showed unremarkable, plain construction, ranch-style, three-bedroom rambler with the third bedroom the size of a large walk-in closet. Several years beyond needing a complete remodel, the dated structure classified as either a low-rent income producer or a bargain-priced fixer-upper. Hornsby cleared the rest of the house following his Model 23 Glock .40 through each room. The two larger bedrooms contained expensive grow lights and a sophisticated watering system nurturing a robust crop of multi-aged marijuana. Behind the grow tables the sheetrock walls were water-stained and speckled with dark spots of black and green mold. Careful not to touch anything, Hornsby surveyed each room with a cop’s eye without finding anything of interest. Back in the living room, Hornsby searched the man’s pockets for identification and found zip. Unlike current television programs, he lacked a fully staffed forensics lab. Anything that was not obvious would require the Tri-county Medical Examiner’s office touch, a minimum of two hours away.
Sheriff Hornsby, an Undersheriff and three deputies, represented the law enforcement presence in one of Montana’s larger counties area wise, but with the least amount of population. The nearest city of any size sat sixty miles east in another county. Antelope County sat in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with the eastern half in the Great Plains and the western half dominated by the Crazy’s, a heavily forested, steep-sided mountain range scraping tall into the state’s famous Big Sky. Covering over five thousand square miles, the county could count a scattered population of twelve hundred, a quarter of which were over sixty-five. Primary income came from large ranches where cattle and sheep outnumbered the fiercely conservative inhabitants ten to one. In years past the crime rate hovered near zero, but recent statistics mirrored most big population centers.
Hornsby surveyed the front room again and it reminded him of his long career as a Los Angeles police detective. Only the surrounding prairie and lack of water felt different. The home sat a half mile south of town on a wind-swept, ten-acre plot of scattered prairie grass, sagebrush, and barking prairie dogs. Over recent years, the renters had been mostly transient workers, single cowhands and an occasional older retired couple. The rent barely covered the upkeep but Ruskin advertised it as valuable income property while looking for a cash-flush stranger seeking a bargain. So far, none had appeared. Hornsby stepped onto the porch, closed the door, sealed it with crime scene tape, and prodded Ruskin down the stairs onto the driveway.
“I need to get in there. It’s my place,” Ruskin complained.
“No you don’t, Randy, it’s a goddamn crime scene. Nobody goes in there until the ME gets here from Lewistown.”
A black Lincoln, raising clouds of prairie dust skidded to a stop in of front of the driveway. The car had tinted windows causing the Sheriff to draw again and put both hands on his county-issue Glock while he stepped behind his patrol car. He held the gun at his side waiting. When the Lincoln’s door opened, he lifted it up and pointed it at the car. A black Lincoln and a dead body behind him in the house, demanded caution and he growled, “Randy, step behind me, Goddamn it. Do it now.” When Ruskin did not move, he shouted, “Now!” Ruskin moved.
The man in the Lincoln stepped out following raised hands, slow, as if he knew the Sheriff would shoot if he made a wrong move. “Sheriff Hornsby?” the man said, “your office said you’d be out here somewhere.”
“And who the hell are you?” Hornsby said, his Glock not wavering and still pointed at the stranger’s chest.
“Appreciate it if you’d lower that cannon, Sheriff, I’m on your side. My name’s Draper, Charlie Draper. I believe you were told I was coming.”
“Got some ID, Mister? You’d better, because I’ve never heard of you. If you don’t I might be inclined to shoot your ass right here and now. So, reach for it nice and slow and if you get anywhere close to that piece under your left shoulder I will kill you where you stand.”
The stranger stared at first and Hornsby tensed, ready to shoot. The man had hard eyes, dark, displaying no fear and appeared to be analyzing the situation. He stood tall; Hornsby guessed well over six feet, enough weight to make him difficult to handle when it came to a street fight and a sense about him that hinted at a good deal of hand-to-hand combat training. He had on faded jeans, black cowboy boots, and a dark blue sport coat that hung loose from wide shoulders. His face deeply tanned, the beginnings of age lines at his eyes indicated he would never see forty again. Hornsby decided he was not going to take any chances; a single false move and he would shoot. Any mess he would clean up afterward.
“Sheriff, I’d really hate it if you shot me, so let me tell you I am armed; I’m Federal and here to help you. I’m going to pull back my coat and show you my gun. I will pull out my ID with two fingers of my left hand and lay it on the roof of your car where you can reach it. Okay with you?”
“Okay, but do it slowly. Just so you know, you won’t be the first asshole I’ve shot; and I won’t hesitate to shoot you,” Hornsby said.
“I believe you, Sheriff. I was told you were a no nonsense son-of-a-bitch.”
Hornsby watched close as the stranger pulled back his sport coat and exposed a leather shoulder rig with a quick-draw holster holding a black handled Glock. He could not be sure but guessed a .40 or .45 caliber. He looked like someone who would carry a serious weapon. With two fingers, the man picked a leather ID case out of his shirt pocket and laid it carefully on the roof of the Sheriff’s car.
Hornsby reached for the case without taking his eyes off the stranger, opened it and glanced at it. It looked legit, with a federal seal, identifying a Charles Draper as a federal NSA agent (retired).
“Says here you are retired,” Hornsby said.
“I still do occasional contract work,” Draper said.
“So, what’s so goddamn important in my little county that it brings a fancy federal spook clear out here in the boonies?”
“We have an undercover DEA agent that has been here a couple of months and hasn’t reported in when he should have. My job is to find him and extract him.”
“You got someone I can call to confirm what you say? This is rural Montana; we’re particular about feds snooping around without letting us know what’s up.” Hornsby’s Glock had not moved off the center of Draper’s chest. With dead body only yards away, his cop’s instinct would not allow him to lapse into carelessness.
“They were supposed to notify you that I was coming, but it appears somebody dropped the ball,” Draper said, “so who would you believe if they called you in the next few minutes?”
“Here’s my problem, friend; I’ve got you armed to the teeth, a dead body behind me in a house full of drug manufacturing equipment and no backup within thirty miles, so I’m not sure I’d believe the freaking Governor, if he called, which I doubt he would. So this is how this is going to go down; I’m going to come around the car with my .40 Glock pointed at your chest and I’m going to ask you nice and polite to put your hands behind your neck so I can handcuff you. You make even a twitch the wrong way and I will shoot you dead. Then we’ll see if your story checks out and if…”
Hornsby felt a searing pain though his chest in the instant before everything went dark. He did not feel the gun drop out of his hand nor the impact of the ground as it smacked him in the face. Randall Ruskin who stood silent behind the Sheriff during the conversation with the stranger, screamed when a second shot rang the prairie air and dropped him to the ground in the instant following the Sheriff’s collapse.
To find out more about Big Sky Dead and other books by this author click here.