Title: Flight or Fight
Author: Dirk Greyson
Release Date: August 5, 2016
Category: Western, Mystery/Suspense
Author: Dirk Greyson
Release Date: August 5, 2016
Category: Western, Mystery/Suspense
Life in the big city wasn’t what Mackenzie "Mack" Redford expected, and now he’s come home to Hartwick County, South Dakota, to serve as sheriff.
Brantley Calderone is looking for a new life. After leaving New York and buying a ranch, he’s settling in and getting used to living at a different pace—until he finds a dead woman on his porch and himself the prime suspect in her murder.
Mack and Brantley quickly realize several things: someone is trying to frame Brantley; he is no longer safe alone on his ranch; and there’s a definite attraction developing between them, one that only increases when Mack offers to let Brantley stay in his home. But as their romance escalates, so does the killer. They’ll have to stay one step ahead and figure out who wants Brantley dead before it’s too late. Only then can they start the life they’re both seeking—together.
MACKENZIE “MACK” Redford was tired.
“Gloria, I’m done at the Stevens’s place,” he said into the car radio as he drove like dust in a cyclone. He slowed when he saw how fast he was going and remembered he needed to set a good example when he wasn’t out on a call.
“How bad was it?” Gloria asked.
“You don’t want to know.” Domestic calls were the worst.
“I think I need to, Sheriff,” Gloria said, and Mack remembered that Elise Stevens was Gloria’s cousin. Hell, in this area of Central South Dakota, everyone was related to most everyone, knew everyone else, and relied on one another. He liked to think of it as small-town living at its best. But Hartwick had its share of problems, and this morning one of them had reared its ugly head.
“You know I can’t on the police band.” He needed to keep as professional as possible, even though he’d wanted to rip Harley Stevens’s head off. “Have there been any other calls?”
“Not at the moment,” Gloria answered. Then the radio went quiet, but his cell phone began to ring, and he knew he’d better answer it or there would be hell to pay. Gloria was a nice enough woman, but mess with her family and she was the biggest mama bear on the planet. “You’re not on the police band now, so tell me what that piece of shit my cousin is married to did this time.”
“He got drunk and knocked Elise around. She has some bruising, but she kept saying it was from falling down the stairs. If she’d press charges, I’d go after Harley with everything I have, but she won’t.”
“Hell…,” Gloria swore. “I thought she would this time after I had a talk with her.”
“She’s more scared of losing him and having nothing than she is of him.” Mack knew fear, and it had rolled off Elise in waves, even as she’d stood right next to her abuser. “It’s a damn shame, because she’s a kind person. Gloria….”
“I know. I’ll wait a day or two and have a talk with her. I have one more button to push, but it’s the nuclear one. Thanks for doing what you can.” Gloria ended the call, and Mack continued toward the small center of town.
Hartwick, South Dakota, wasn’t much: a single traffic light and a block or so of businesses that serviced the town and surrounding area. The town’s lifeblood was whatever the fertile South Dakota soil that surrounded them would produce. Most of the area was cattle country, where hearty crossbreeds were raised. In general it made for a quiet but hard life that led to more than its fair share of alcohol abuse. Firewater, as his grandfather had called it to warn him away and to help connect him to his roots, was almost a plague in his town, and Mack had just witnessed one of the symptoms.
His intention was to make a pass through town and stop at the liquor store to pay them a visit. Not that his professional problems were their fault, exactly, but it was best they knew he was watching whom they sold to.
“Sheriff.” Gloria’s voice came through the radio like sandpaper, and he was happy as hell to be in his car at that moment. She’d be fuming for hours yet. “A call came in on that anonymous hotline the state put in. They called us. It seems there’s some sort of disturbance at the old Richardson place.”
Mack pressed the brake and pulled off the road. “I thought that was empty.” Shit, that could mean someone was trying to use the house as temporary shelter or for God knows what.
“That place is a mess.”
“It looked fine the last time I was by,” Mack said as he turned around and headed back out the way he’d come, making a right turn at the first road and then stepping on the gas.
“I don’t mean a physical mess. It’s an estate mess, or at least it was for a long time.”
“Okay. Thanks. I’m on my way.” He continued driving as fast as he dared. He didn’t want to make a big deal of it yet. He’d received calls through the state hotline before, and they usually turned out to be nothing.
Mack slowed as he approached the ranch. A truck so shiny the sun reflecting off it was nearly blinding stood near the house, and a man was on the porch, huddled over something. Mack pulled up and was instantly on his guard.
The man rose, and Mack pulled his gun, opened the car door, and stood behind it. The man’s shirt was covered in blood and a body lay on his porch. From the look of the body and the amount of blood, it wasn’t going to move on its own ever again. “Step back and keep your hands where I can see them,” Mack called forcefully.
The man was on his knees, and he backed away, putting his hands in the air, pale as a sheet and slightly green around the gills. “I didn’t kill her.”
“Gloria, I need backup at the Richardson ranch, now,” Mack said into the radio.
“Roger, Sheriff,” Gloria said. “Deputy Morris is on his way,” she told him thirty seconds later.
“Two,” Gloria returned. “He says he’s flying.” There were few people Mack had ever met who drove as fast as Zeb Morris. He had a love for speed, and it was coming in handy now.
“Settle down and keep your hands where I can see them.” Mack took in the surroundings. The guy didn’t seem to have a weapon, but that didn’t mean much. Slowly Mack came around the door. “Lay facedown on the porch, hands where I can see them at all times.”
The man complied, and Mack came closer, his heart pounding as he took each step.
“I didn’t hurt her. She was there when I came home,” the man said feebly. “I was trying to help her, and then you showed up.” He was shaking, which was a good thing. A healthy dose of fear might work in Mack’s favor.
Keeping an eye and his gun on the man, who didn’t move a muscle, Mack checked the body for a pulse. He didn’t find one. Shit, blast, and fuck. He made his way to the man and secured his hands behind his back with his handcuffs. “Stand up,” he ordered and helped the man get to his feet. His hand warmed where it touched the man, and he nearly let go at the jolt of interest that shot through him. He had to remind himself that he was not supposed to be attracted to suspects. Mack patted him down, finding a set of keys, a wallet, and nothing else in his pockets. “Okay. What happened?”
“Am I under arrest?” the man asked in a stronger tone.
“That remains to be seen,” he said, turning to the woman, who lay on her side facing the house.
The man turned around. “Until I am, you can remove the cuffs, as you have no right.” He sounded like some Eastern snob and looked the part too, with jeans that were almost indecently tight and boots that no one out here would ever wear, let alone could afford. Like his car, everything about him looked brand-new and costly, right down to the thousand-dollar white Stetson that lay on the ground near the porch steps.
“Fine, but no fast moves, and your hands stay where I can see them.” Mack doubted the man was an immediate threat, so he removed the cuffs and stepped back, keeping a hand on his gun.
Zeb pulled into the drive and screeched to a halt, then raced up the steps and slid to a stop. “Jesus.”
“Call the coroner and get him out here. I need you to ascertain who she is, and touch as little as possible. He’s going to need to see everything exactly the way it is. Once you’ve done that, get the camera and take pictures of everything.”
A fucking murder in his town. That was just awesome. Just what they needed.
“Yes, Sheriff,” Zeb said and raced back to the car.
Mack swore that kid never did anything slower than a run. “Walk,” he called, and Zeb complied. Then to the man, Mack said, “Why don’t we step aside, and you tell me who you are and what happened.” He opened the wallet he’d found and saw a New York driver’s license. “A long way from home, aren’t you, Mr. Calderone?” Mack lifted his eyebrows.
“My name is Brantley Calderone, and this is my home. I officially bought the ranch a week ago and moved in on Monday.” Some of his holier-than-thou attitude had slipped away.
Mack pulled out his pad and pen and began making notes. “Is there anyone else here?” he asked, still on guard.
“No. The house is kept locked, and as you can see, there hasn’t been any activity here in a while.”
“So you’re saying you bought this place?” Mack asked, continuing to look around. He now remembered a rumor that the Richardson place had been sold to someone from back East. Regardless, Mack was suspicious and kept his back to the house so he couldn’t be snuck up on.
Brantley nodded slowly, like he was sizing Mack up. “Yes. I went to town to get some groceries and to look around. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with the land. I intended to talk to a few people to find out what would be best, but no one would give me the time of day.”
Looking the way he did, Mack wasn’t surprised.
“When I came back, I saw someone on my porch. As I got close, I saw blood and tried to help her.” Brantley motioned down his shirt. “That’s how I got this on me.”
“Why didn’t you call 911?” Mack snapped.
Brantley’s eyes widened. “I was about to, and then you showed up and treated me like a criminal. I was only trying to help her.” He slowly rubbed his wrists.
“Sheriff, the coroner is on his way,” Zeb said, then went about taking pictures.
“I don’t even know who she is. All I know is that I came back from a very dissatisfying and unfriendly visit to town to find someone dead on my porch.” Brantley did seem confused and more than a little scared, judging by his dilated pupils. But that could be the result of good acting.
“You have to admit that story is a bit far-fetched,” Mack said. He said no more until another car pulled into the drive and parked next to Zeb’s patrol car.
“What do we have?” Doc Phillips asked as he strode over. “Oh.”
“Exactly. Take your time, Doc. This is a murder investigation.” The last thing he wanted was to be on the six o’clock news in Sioux Falls because his office had botched an investigation, like what had happened a few months earlier in the western part of the state. That was not going to happen on his watch. “Zeb, stay with him,” he said when his deputy came over.
“Sure, Sheriff. I got plenty of pictures.”
“Okay.” Mack used the keys he’d found to unlock the door. He pulled his gun and did a sweep of the house, which was empty, just like Brantley said. It was also spotlessly clean and filled with paintings, a few Western-themed sculptures, and furniture that probably cost more than Mack made in a year. He made some notes in his book and returned to the porch, where he joined Doc Phillips. “How did she die, Ray?” Mack asked.
“A single shot to the chest. Didn’t stand a chance,” Doc Phillips answered and slowly turned her over so Mack could see her.
“Renae Montgomery,” Mack said, and the doctor nodded.
“My real estate agent?” Brantley said.
“I thought you said you didn’t know her?” Mack asked, standing up and approaching Brantley, sure he’d caught him in a lie.
“I don’t, not by sight. I contacted her, and she was acting on my behalf to buy this ranch. We talked by phone, but I never actually met her. We were supposed to meet this evening so I could thank her for everything she’d done to help me.”
This was getting harder and harder to believe by the second. Mack returned to his car and made a call. “Gloria, call the city clerk’s office. I need to know if the Richardson place sold, when, who the buyer was—anything you can find. And if they’re closed, call whoever you have to. I need to know ASAP.”
“Yes, sir,” Gloria said and hung up.
Mack logged into his computer in the car, splitting his attention between the screen and the suspect. He keyed in Brantley’s driver’s license number and requested a background check. He needed to know whom he was dealing with. The computer came back with very little information. There were no outstanding warrants or tickets. That wasn’t surprising, given the fact that, according to his story, Brantley hadn’t been in the state very long. Something wasn’t adding up about all this at all. He wasn’t ready to believe Brantley’s story; something about the whole scene didn’t seem right. Mack got back out of his car and returned to where Doc Phillips was still going over the body.
“I called for a vehicle to transport her to the morgue, but there are a few things I think you need to see. As far as I can tell, she’s been dead about an hour, maybe two. The blood has just started to pool a little. The thing is, I don’t think she was shot at close range. I need to get the bullet out and look at it, but the caliber doesn’t seem right, and there are no powder marks. My initial guess is that she was shot with a rifle.”
Bells went off in Mack’s head. “Thanks. Was she moved at all?”
“Only rolled over, as far as I can tell, and from the blood stains, she fell forward and was probably facedown.”
Mack nodded and got out of the way so Doc Phillips could do his job. “Shit,” he swore under his breath. It would have been so damn simple if this guy—stranger, new in town—had done this. His job would have been easier, but now he was going to have to unravel a puzzle. And the person the town would love to pin it on because he wasn’t one of their own didn’t seem to have done it. Mack was still suspicious of the Easterner, but as much as he’d like this to be an easy case, Mack would have to check out Brantley’s story, as well as run down half a million leads, he was sure. But damn, something wasn’t right.
“Let me get this straight,” he said to Brantley as he approached again. “You bought this ranch without ever meeting your real estate agent? Did you look at the place?” Mack asked as the morgue truck arrived.
“I saw pictures. Renae came out here and took detailed photos of each room and the view from each window. She must have sent me two hundred pictures. Then she walked the perimeter of the property and took pictures there as well. So even though I hadn’t seen the property, I knew the measurements of each room because she also put together a detailed floor plan. Renae went above and beyond for me.” Brantley turned and watched as the morgue personnel lifted Renae’s body off his porch and put it into a body bag. Then they placed the bag on a stretcher and rolled it to the waiting black coroner’s vehicle, which looked a lot like a hearse.
“Why did you buy this particular ranch, Mr. Calderone?”
“I initially saw pictures of it online and contacted Renae once I decided to move out West.”
Mack could tell he wasn’t giving him the whole story, and if he needed it, he would be back for more.
“I’ve looked in a few other places, but nothing felt right until I saw this place. There are trees in back and plenty of yard. The barn is in good shape, and I can get horses if I want. There aren’t any cattle, but I can change that if I decide to. I thought I might want children one day, and there’s a spring and a creek that runs along the ridge. Renae even took pictures of a swimming hole.”
“And you never actually met her?”
“No. Not until I found her on my porch. I tried to help her. But there was nothing I could do. I think she was already dead by the time I got home.” He tilted his head. “Can I ask you something?”
“All right,” Mack said skeptically.
“How did you know to get out here? I’d been home maybe three or four minutes when you showed up, and there hadn’t been a car by the ranch at all.”
Mack had wondered about that as well. “We got a call through the state hotline. Can you tell me where you’d been for the past few hours before you got home?”
“I was at the grocery store in town. The girl with the green hair and black lipstick checked me out. I’m sure she’ll remember me. Oh yeah.” Brantley took off toward his truck, and Mack tensed when he opened the door. “I have the receipt here with me, and it has a time on it.” He returned and shoved the paper into his hand. “You’ll see the corresponding credit card in my wallet, and you know how long it takes to get out here from town. I’m sure the coroner has told you an approximate time of death, so you should have a pretty good idea that I didn’t kill Renae. But obviously someone did.”
Mack checked the receipt and the credit card, then handed the wallet and keys back to Brantley. “Do you have any enemies, Mr. Calderone?”
“Me? Here? I moved here a week ago. I haven’t had the time to make any enemies. All I’ve done is tried to get unpacked and get the house set up. I’ve been into town twice, and so far as I know, I haven’t looked cross-eyed at anyone. Few people have spoken to me, so I have to say no.”
“What about back in New York?” Mack asked.
Brantley’s confidence cracked a little. “I was in a very cutthroat business for a number of years. Fortunes could be made one day and lost the next. Thankfully I made many more fortunes than I lost, and those that didn’t come out so well? Let’s just say they aren’t going to be sending me flowers.”
“So you do have enemies,” Mack pressed.
“Yes. Almost three thousand miles away, and they would be happy that I’m way out here and no longer involved in the business. I retired from financial management and hedge funds when I decided to relocate out here. So any of these enemies would want to keep me out here and far away from the New York financial markets.”
“Call me a country sheriff, but I don’t understand. People who hate you will sometimes go to great lengths to hurt you,” Mack explained. He had seen it more than once in his career.
“That may be, but killing my real estate agent is hardly the way to do it.” Brantley shook his head. “No. The men I count as my enemies would be motivated by making more money than me in my absence. See, I have more than I could ever spend in two lifetimes. But that doesn’t matter. Money isn’t about what you can buy with it. For them, and me up until a while ago, money is simply a way of keeping score. The more you make, the better you are at playing the game, and the less someone else makes.”
“It sounds pointless,” Mack said. Everyone he knew worked hard to try to keep house and home together. A life like that was unfathomable.
“It was, to a degree. That’s why I got out while I was on top.” Brantley smiled slightly as Mack continued making notes.
“If you could give me the names of these enemies, I’d like to try to eliminate them as suspects.”
“Very well.” Brantley rattled off several names. “You aren’t going to get anywhere near them. They work all the time and are surrounded by people at nearly every hour of the day for one reason or another.”
Mack was clearly out of his depth.
“I never got coffee or took care of mundane things like laundry,” Brantley went on. “I had people who did that, including more than one personal assistant. They knew where I was at all times so they could support me and help me remain productive.”
That left Mack with little to go on at the moment. He’d have to start by speaking to Renae’s family and friends to try to find a motive for her murder. But something still niggled at him. “Do you know why Renae was here today?” He turned toward a dark green Toyota Corolla that he’d seen around town many times. “Did you call her?”
“No. I’m surprised she was here as well. I wasn’t expecting her. She may have stopped by to give me something, but I would have expected her to call.” Brantley pulled out his phone. “She didn’t.”
Mack made a note to request telephone records in order to see what calls she had received. “Thank you.” He was running out of questions. He went to Renae’s car, pulled on gloves from his pocket, and then opened the door. It was neat, with a box of files on the backseat and a day planner on the passenger-side floor. He carefully lifted it out and checked her appointments for today. There wasn’t anything noted for the last few hours. “So this wasn’t a planned appointment.” Mack turned to stick his head out of the car door. “Zeb.”
His deputy rushed over. “Sheriff.”
“Have you found her phone?”
“Check on the porch, and be sure to wear gloves. Once you’re done, widen the search if you don’t find it and then check out in the field and see if you can find where the shooter stood.” If it was a rifle shot, then the shooter stood somewhere, and Mack was determined to find where that was.
“Is it all right if I unload my groceries and take them inside?” Brantley asked. “I’d also like to change my shirt, but I’ll bring this one to you if you like.”
“Please,” Mack said. “Don’t disturb anything outside.”
“I won’t.” Brantley stared at the spot on the porch marked by the bloodstain. “This may sound dumb, but will you clean that up, or….”
“We will once we have what we need,” Mack said.
Brantley went to his truck and carried plastic bags inside, going around the area where Renae’s body had been.
Mack carefully checked under the seat, but found nothing helpful. He popped the trunk and looked there as well. Only some For Sale signs and the materials of her job. The car wasn’t much help, but he did bag and tag her day planner for evidence. When he was done, he joined Zeb in the search for the phone, but they came up empty. She certainly would have had one.
“I found where the shooter was,” Zeb called as Mack was about to give up. “It’s about forty yards out in the field.” He led Mack to the spot. “The shooter must have hidden behind that building right over there and then stepped out to take the shot. The trail of crushed grass is pretty clear, although it won’t be tomorrow.”
Mack followed the trail to the end and carefully searched the tall grasses. He’d hoped to find a casing, but there was nothing. The shooter must have taken it with them. He did have Zeb take pictures of the spot, as well as the view back toward the house.
“Are we done here?” Zeb asked.
The coroner had left with the body, and Mack was left with questions and yet more questions.
His phone rang, and Mack pulled it out of his pocket.
“Sheriff, I was able to get that information you asked for from Records. The sale of the Richardson place went through a week ago, and the new owner is a Brantley Calderone. They’re sending over copies of the documents, and I’ll put them on your desk so you can look at them as soon as you get back.”
“Thanks,” Mack said, watching the house for a few seconds. “Zeb, we’re done here for now.” He lifted his hat off his head, waved it a few times to cool off, and then plopped it back.
“All right. I’ll get things packed away.”
“Very good. Send me copies of all the pictures, and I want your impressions of everything from the body, to Calderone, to the ranch.” He had long ago learned that others saw different things than he did, and he wanted to make sure nothing was missed.
“What are you going to do?”
“Run down what I can of Mr. Calderone’s story.” He needed to verify that he was telling the truth. The easiest thing would be to find that Calderone was lying, and then he could close the case. Brantley had answers for everything. Even so, Mack wasn’t ready to accept them. Not yet. The best lies and cover stories were those woven with just enough truth to make them believable.
“I’ll see you back at the station,” Zeb said.
Mack nodded, then walked back toward the house and knocked on the door. It opened to reveal Brantley standing in the same tight jeans and a tank that highlighted the top of a powerful chest.
“I put the shirt in a plastic bag for you.” He handed it to Mack. “I’m sorry about Renae. She was helpful and seemed like a nice person. Did she have a family?”
“Thankfully no. She divorced her husband a few years ago, and they had no children.” Mack was going to have to tell the useless bastard about his ex-wife’s death, though. Not that Harry Montgomery was likely to care about anything other than the bottom of a whiskey bottle. “Please don’t make any plans to leave town. This is an ongoing investigation, and it’s likely that we’ll have additional questions.”
“Am I still a suspect?” Brantley asked, a little surprised.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell him yes. “You’re a person of interest. I’ll leave it at that.” Mack blinked as his gaze centered on Brantley’s trim form and incredible eyes, zeroing in on exactly the kind of interest he’d like to be showing. But Mack pushed that down deep, where it belonged. “I’ll be in touch.” Mack turned and took the shirt back to his car.
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Brantley Calderone left New York while he was still on top of the game. With more money than he'd ever be able to spend, he buys a ranch in a small town in South Dakota. Unfortunately, the town doesn't seem to be too welcoming, especially when the town's Sheriff finds him leaning over the body of a dead woman on his front porch.
Mackenzie "Mack" Redford had thought he'd be a cop in the big city, but it was not all he'd expected, so he came home to Hartwick County, South Dakota, to serve as sheriff. While he loves his hometown, he feels like something's missing. While not officially out, he won't hide who he is or who he sleeps with.
As Mack and Brantley start piecing together the fact that someone is targeting Brantley, they also notice the attraction simmering between them. When it becomes obvious Brantley is no longer safe out on his new ranch, Mack brings Brantley him to his place. The heat between them turns up and they can no longer deny what is between them. As their relationship deepens, the person targeting Brantley steps up their game. Innocent people may get caught in the crossfire and that's something neither man can let happen. Will they be able to figure out who's behind the murder before someone else dies?
I really enjoyed Flight or Fight. If was a well-done whodunnit with a great romance, likable characters and wonderful writing. While this is a fast, easy read, it was definitely engrossing. Once I started, I didn't want to put it down.
I really liked Brantley. He may have been a rich city boy, but there was nothing pompous about him. He really wants to live a slower life, get in touch with the land and maybe be a rancher. He wants to get to know the people in town, but unfortunately, they look at him like the dreaded outsider. However, he doesn't let anything drive him away.
Mack is great, I loved him. While he was the strong small town sheriff, he was very easy to get to know and didn't prejudge Brantley. He doesn't fight his attraction, so there really isn't a lot of actual angst.
I would definitely recommend Flight or Fight!