A deadly secret is buried in the Colorado high country--and murder is only the beginning in the seventh gripping installment of Margaret Mizushima's Timber Creek K-9 mysteries.
He was suspect number one--the man who tried to kill Deputy Mattie Cobb and may have killed her father thirty years earlier. But when Mattie and cold case detective Jim Hauck reach the Colorado state prison where they will finally get to interview him, he's found dead in his cell. There's only one clue: a map leading to Timber Creek and rugged Redstone Ridge.
Though she usually works with veterinarian Cole Walker, Mattie's K-9 partner Robo has just sired a litter of pups, who require special, time-consuming care at Cole's clinic. Left to explore the map's clue without him, Mattie and Robo journey into the burned forest surrounding Redstone Ridge. But before they can finish their search they're called to help investigate the death of a young woman found in a campground filled with elk hunters. Identification of the deceased points to her having recently given birth, but the infant is nowhere to be found.
As a deadly storm descends upon the mountains, covering everything with a layer of ice and snow, Mattie and her team search for the missing newborn. The storm batters the area, taking its toll on the team and forcing the sheriff to call in reinforcements. When new evidence surfaces, they decide that finding the woman's killer will lead them to her baby, making them even more desperate to solve the case.
Then Cole goes missing, stranded alone in the high country with a person that Mattie now suspects is the mastermind behind several murders, including her father's. She and Robo take to the trail to find Cole--but the killer has a cold-blooded plan that threatens them all.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Print pages: 288
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Friday, early October
Today Deputy Mattie Cobb could interrogate the man who had once tried to kill her. She parked her K-9 unit outside the prison gates as she scanned cars that had already arrived. She leaned forward, fingers hovering over the key in the ignition, her stomach churning with a mixture of dread, anticipation, and yeah … some sort of deep satisfaction that she was about to meet face-to-face with the man who’d once tried to burn her alive.
And he would be left behind bars after her interrogation, while she would be free to walk away.
With hours left to go before regular visitation, there were very few vehicles for her to sort through. She was looking for Jim Hauck, a cold-case detective from San Diego who was investigating the shooting death of Douglas Wray, Mattie’s biological father. Her dad had been killed almost thirty years ago, and the case had never been solved. The circumstances around his death were complicated, most of the facts still hidden, and Mattie was determined to uncover the truth.
All the cars were empty. Hauck had said they should enter the prison together, so she assumed she’d arrived before him. She switched off the ignition and settled back in her seat as she glanced into the rearview mirror. Her German shepherd partner, Robo, heaved himself up from his cushion where he’d been sleeping and dropped his shoulders into a long stretch. His pink tongue curled and his sharp teeth glistened as he yawned until his throat squeaked.
“Did you have a good nap?”
He came forward to stand on the other side of the heavy-gauge steel mesh that separated his compartment from the front part of the Ford Explorer that had been converted into their K-9 unit. His tail hung at half-mast, no wag at all to it, and he looked sleepy. It had taken hours to drive to this Colorado state prison from Timber Creek, most of it during the darkness before sunrise.
He plopped his rump down into a sit while she opened the gate at the front of his cage to stroke the soft black fur between his ears. With a predominantly black coat and dark-tan markings, Robo weighed in at around one hundred pounds. This high-energy male shepherd was her constant companion, not only her partner but also her best friend. They’d been paired together over a year now, and they represented the only K-9 unit in Timber Creek County, a large chunk of land in Colorado that boasted a much higher number of mountainous acres than residents.
Talking to Robo always settled her nerves, so she explained to him what was going to happen next. He tilted his head and listened, pinning his ears back when she got to the part about how he was going to wait here. While she talked, she tested to make sure the rear compartment air-conditioning system was operating correctly and set at the right temperature. Even though it was seven o’clock on an October morning, she didn’t want to take a chance on heat building up inside the car in case she was delayed inside the building.
She eyed the prison. An eight-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire surrounded the brick-and-concrete walls that housed about 750 inmates, one of whom was John Cobb, the man who’d tried to end her life several months ago and who’d succeeded in killing her brother.
It was no coincidence that she shared a last name with this criminal. John and his deceased brother, Harold Cobb, had abducted Mattie, her brother, and her mother when Mattie was only two years old. Until recently, she’d thought that Harold Cobb, who’d tormented and abused them, was her father. The best thing that had resulted from the night that his brother, John, had tried to kill her was that she’d discovered these two scumbags were not related to her at all.
Since then, at the insistence of her boyfriend, Cole Walker—Timber Creek’s only veterinarian and Robo’s doctor—Mattie had reunited with her blood relatives through a DNA database. She’d learned of her real father’s death, which had occurred the same night she was kidnapped, and she believed that John and Harold Cobb were responsible—either they’d killed her father themselves or they’d belonged to the gang who had. Today, she and Detective Hauck would be able to confront John with the evidence they had against him, scarce as it was.
Her hope that she could perform well in the interrogation and help Hauck elicit vital information from Cobb had kept her awake last night and set her nerves on edge this morning. Since the authorities, Hauck included, believed her deceased father had been a dirty cop, she feared his case had been placed at lowest priority.
Mattie had information—the source of which she couldn’t reveal—that her father had been threatened and coerced into working with Cobb and his gang of gunrunners and drug smugglers. Even if she could get Cobb to confess to only that much, it would change the overall picture of the case and help clear her father’s name.
A plain black sedan glided past and parked up front close to the gate in a spot reserved for prison personnel. Mattie spotted the white shock of hair that made Detective Jim Hauck easy to recognize. After the driver’s side door of the sedan opened, he unfolded his tall, lean frame and exited the vehicle. He wore a navy suit with a light-blue shirt and tie. His eyes went directly to Mattie’s Explorer, telling her he had seen her. He lifted his hand in greeting.
Her heart rate picked up as she returned his wave. Telling Robo, “I’ll be back soon,” she left her SUV and clicked the key fob to lock it. Robo sat at the window and watched her as she turned to walk away.
She’d been waiting to interview Cobb for months. Detective Hauck had connected with her soon after she’d learned he was working her father’s case. But despite promising that he would follow the lead Mattie had given him, he’d become embroiled in another one of his cold cases that had broken wide open and consumed his time until he’d wrapped it up.
Though the fact that Hauck had solved his case spoke well of him, the delay had chafed Mattie. But now the day had arrived when it was a go.
As she strode toward the detective, Mattie felt her features settling into her cop face. But Hauck smiled a greeting when she approached, so she allowed herself a thin smile in return.
She extended her hand, and they exchanged a quick but firm grip that stood for a handshake. “Glad to see you, Detective. Did you have a good flight?”
The crow’s-feet around his slate-colored eyes deepened as he smiled. “I did. It was uneventful, which is always good.”
Hauck’s voice was deep and rich with a quality that Mattie had found soothing when she’d first talked to him on the phone a few months ago. When they met in person soon after, she’d found him to be approachable and interested in her story. He’d been the one to suggest that they interrogate John Cobb together.
Mattie saw no reason to continue the chitchat. “How do you want to work this?”
Hauck’s face sobered. “How do you feel this morning? Are you nervous?”
Under the circumstances, it was a legitimate question. Mattie paused, guessing that her response would be important and would figure into how they proceeded. “I’m excited to get a chance to meet with John Cobb face-to-face. Maybe a little nervous, but that will settle as soon as we start.”
“I appreciate your candor.” Hauck turned toward the sidewalk, and together they began walking to the gate. “I want to start out talking to him alone, and we’ll bring you in later. You’ll be able to observe behind the mirror.”
“All right, but I do want my time with him.”
“I understand. When you come into the room, it’s important that he sees we’re united. That you’re a part of this investigation too.”
“I’ll make it clear to him that I’m investigating the shooting death of border guard Douglas Wray out in California, and I’ll glean what I can before we introduce you. It should come as a surprise to him that we know Wray was your father.”
“Introduce me as Wray,” Mattie said, wishing the paperwork she’d initiated to change her name had been finalized. “He knows me as Deputy Cobb.”
“All right. What does your ID say?”
“It still says Cobb.”
“Okay, we’ll reserve the use of Wray for inside the interrogation room to avoid confusion among the prison guards.”
Hauck paused outside the gate and turned to face her. “Does the thought of being in the same room with him frighten you?”
This time Mattie didn’t hesitate. “Not at all.”
Hauck studied her face. “Good. I don’t want him to think he’s intimidating to either of us.”
“He won’t get that from me.”
Hauck nodded, turned, and strode up to the guard. “Detective James Hauck and Deputy Mattie Cobb here to see one of the prisoners,” he said as he took his badge and identification from the inside pocket of his suit coat.
The guard, a burly guy with a dark beard and a mop of unruly hair, scanned the ID. “Did you bring your service weapon with you, sir?”
“You’ll have to check that in at the front office.”
Mattie could see a slight bulge under Hauck’s coat where his weapon remained concealed, while she wore her full khaki uniform and carried her Glock openly on her duty belt. She showed her own ID, nodded when warned she would also need to check her service weapon, and then followed Hauck through the gate.
Hauck waited for her before turning to walk down the sidewalk toward the brick building. “Must think this is our first rodeo in a state penitentiary,” he murmured as she fell in beside him.
Mattie nodded, though truthfully, this was her first time to visit this prison, not to mention interview a prisoner. Harold Cobb, the man Mattie had once believed to be her father, had died here ages ago, but she’d never been inside the building herself.
When Mattie was six years old, she’d called the police one night when Harold had beaten her mother senseless and threatened to kill her. After being incarcerated in this very prison, Harold had been shanked and killed by another prisoner. Mattie had learned about the incident later but when she was still young enough to feel responsible. Thank goodness those days were past and she no longer felt a need to bear that burden.
Anything bad that happened to the Cobb brothers, they’d brought on themselves.
Hauck held open the door and stood back to allow her to enter first. As she stepped inside the lobby, she scanned the austere room, furnished only with industrial-looking aluminum chairs, their seats covered with plastic upholstery, and stray end tables scattered here and there. A female attendant dressed in uniform sat behind a Plexiglas screen with a metal vent in it for conversation and a cut at the base for exchanging ID. Mattie deferred to Hauck, stepping aside so that he could approach the woman.
A blonde with dark roots, she narrowed eyes heavily outlined in black and raised one darkly penciled eyebrow. “Yes?” she said in a tone that indicated she couldn’t be less pleased to have to bother with them.
“Good morning.” Hauck remained pleasant and flashed his ID. “Detective Hauck and Deputy Cobb here to interview prisoner John Cobb.”
“Just a sec,” she said, raising her index finger. She tapped a few keys and searched her computer screen before leaving her chair and disappearing behind a door on the far side of her area.
Hauck looked at Mattie, quirking one brow upward. “Just a sec,” he murmured.
Mattie liked his subtle sense of humor. They stood in place and waited until the attendant returned. The woman remained silent as she took her seat, while a door opening farther down the wall drew Mattie’s attention.
A woman dressed in a dark-gray pantsuit with a silver blouse leaned through the doorway and beckoned for them to come. Mattie followed Hauck toward her.
“I’m assistant warden,” the woman said, offering a handshake. “Shanice Donahue.”
Mattie returned the warden’s firm grip while studying her. Donahue stood a couple inches taller than Mattie’s five foot four. Long-legged and short-waisted, she appeared sturdily built, and her handshake suggested a self-contained strength. Her dark-brown skin was smooth and unwrinkled and her hair jet black, giving her an ageless quality, but the sharpness of her brown eyes indicated she wouldn’t miss much that was happening in her environment.
“Come inside and I’ll check you in,” she said, holding the door open. “We were expecting you.”
“Good,” Hauck said. “It’s nice to meet you, and we appreciate your cooperation.”
Mattie crossed the threshold into a space filled with lockers secured with built-in digital locks. A couple benches were anchored to the floor, and an open shower occupied one corner along with a toilet and sink. The room reminded her of a dressing room in a gym, except with less privacy.
“Check your weapons here,” Donahue said, giving them each a code to a locker. “Then I’ll escort you to the interrogation room and have the guards in John Cobb’s pod bring him down.”
“What kind of a prisoner is he?” Hauck withdrew a Glock from a shoulder holster beneath his jacket. “Is he any trouble?”
“He’s compliant.” Donahue kept her gaze unwavering and her expression neutral. Her demeanor spoke of professionalism, through and through. “Sticks with a small group of older men in gen pop, doesn’t mix much. Stays out of trouble as much as he can.”
“He’s in his sixties?” Hauck asked.
“In good health?”
“For the most part. No chronic conditions.”
Mattie placed her service weapon and Taser inside the locker and then shut the door and tapped in the code. “Is he involved in drug use or dealing here inside?”
Donahue’s gaze shifted to Mattie, and if she was offended by the assumption that there might be drug infiltration inside the prison, she didn’t show it—the problem was common enough. “None that we know of.”
Donahue handed them both a visitor ID, which they each clipped to their collar in plain sight, then escorted them through another door to exit the room. They entered a hallway that ended in a locked door, where Donahue pressed a button and they all waited for master control to identify them through a camera built into the wall.
With a series of clicks and a hum of machinery, the gate opened by rolling sideways, revealing a narrow space with a second locked door designed to prevent anyone from slipping through either way. The first door clanged shut behind Mattie, and while they waited for the second door to open, she felt a tingle of dread as her ongoing problem with claustrophobia threatened to kick in. She focused on keeping her breath slow and even.
They continued to follow Donahue down another corridor past a series of closed metal doors, stopping at one on the end. She keyed in a code on the outside lock and opened the door, stepping aside so they could enter. The room was even starker than the interrogation rooms at the Timber Creek sheriff’s station. A metal table that had a steel ring bolted to the top sat against one wall, anchored to the floor. Chairs were also bolted into position so that the prisoner was seated in full view of the interrogator at all times. Recessed camera lenses were positioned high on the walls, and apparently nothing inside the room could be used as a weapon.
Donahue gestured to a two-way mirror. “There’s an observation room with recording equipment behind that wall. The door into it is down the hall. I’ll stay in there and handle the equipment for you.”
“We appreciate your time,” Hauck said. “Deputy Cobb will start out in the observation room with you. I’d also like to observe John Cobb before I enter the room.”
Donahue nodded. “Both of you come with me, then, and we’ll get set up. The guards should arrive with Cobb any minute.”
Mattie and Hauck followed Donahue out into the hallway, waited while she unlocked the neighboring door, and then shuffled inside the small, narrow room. Light filtered into the darkened space through the two-way mirror from the adjoining room, revealing chairs lined up against a shelf under the window and audio and recording equipment near the far wall.
Claustrophobia tightened Mattie’s chest. She tried to inhale without calling attention to herself. Not this. Not now.
Donahue was showing them how the equipment worked, and Mattie tried to focus on the demonstration instead of the walls that were closing in on her. “Detective, if you want, I can give you an earbud receiver so we can speak to you.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
While the two were occupied with rigging him up, Mattie snatched a few moments to use her yoga breathing to center herself in as discreet a way as she could. Inhale through the nose, slow exhale through the mouth.
Harsh, repetitive blasts erupted from an alarm in the hallway, and she almost jumped out of her skin.
Donahue’s head came up and her eyes narrowed as she listened. Then she darted toward the doorway, brushing past Mattie in the narrow space. “Stay in here,” she ordered as she left. She closed the door behind her.
A faint click from the doorknob echoed through the room like a gunshot. Adrenaline made Mattie’s heart pound. She tried the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. “She locked us in,” she said, her voice tight with tension.
“Here, let me see.” Hauck pushed past her, nudging her hand aside.
Mattie moved back a step and bumped into the wall. Trapped.
“Well, damn,” Hauck muttered as he rattled the knob. “The whole prison must be on lockdown.”
Cole Walker snatched toast from the toaster, stacked it on a plate, and hustled it over to the table, where his daughter Sophie was already seated. Getting the kids ready for school each morning before he hurried off to work was like lining up horses at the gate before a race—everyone wanted to run off in a different direction, and sometimes someone balked at going anywhere.
He plopped the plate of toast down on the table and started swiping butter onto each piece—except for Angie’s. She would want hers dry. At sixteen, his teen had developed a lot of rules about food. Blond and willowy, Angela looked a lot like her mother, while nine-year-old Sophie, who was built short and solid, seemed to take after him.
Sophie liked her toast the way he did—slathered with golden goodness. He handed her one of the warm slices topped with melting butter. “Thanks,” she murmured as she reached for the jelly jar in the center of the table.
Their Bernese mountain dog, Belle, finished eating her kibble and came to the table to lie down beside Sophie where the pickin’s were good. Bruno, their Doberman pinscher, had already positioned himself in his spot between Sophie’s and Cole’s chairs, where he watched Cole’s every move, his beautifully sculpted ears pricked.
“What do you have planned at school today?” Cole asked, bumping the jar closer to Sophie.
She tipped her freckled face up to meet his gaze with brown eyes flecked with amber. Her dark curls were tamed somewhat by a recent encounter with her hairbrush, slicked back and still damp with water and tied with a red scarf, her signature color. “We’re working on a science experiment. Today we have to weigh and measure all the plants.”
As she spread jelly on her toast, she chattered about doling out different measurements of fertilizer, water, and artificial sunlight to an assortment of potted bean plants. Cole knew science was one of her favorite subjects and she was just getting warmed up. Sophie could talk the wire off a fence post if you let her.
Mrs. Gibbs, their resident housekeeper, was at the stove fixing eggs. “We’ve got fifteen minutes till bus time, young lassies,” she called out, her Irish lilt music to Cole’s ears.
Angie rushed into the room with their five-month-old Siamese kitten, Hilde, slung over the crook of her arm. Hilde’s periwinkle eyes—almost the same color as Angie’s—blinked within her dark-brown mask. The kitten appeared completely relaxed and happy being toted around. Lord knows, she’s barely set her paws on the floor since we brought her home.
The fawn-colored kitten immediately drew Sophie’s attention, stopping her monologue midsentence. “Do you want me to get her special morning breakfast?”
“No, I’ll do it.” Setting the kitten on the floor, Angie bustled over to the refrigerator to retrieve a partial can of soft cat food. Cole allowed Hilde soft food once a day—which the kids called “special morning breakfast”—while a bowlful of crunchy bits sat beside her water dish for her to graze on at all times. Angie spooned a serving of food into a clean bowl and headed toward the utility room with it, the kitten scampering in front of her. To keep the dogs away from Hilde’s food, they’d set up a feeding station on the utility room countertop with a step stool positioned beside it for the cat to climb up on. This many pets in the house made things complicated, but Cole loved being surrounded by animals and he appreciated the responsibilities their care taught his kids.
“Don’t forget to scoop the litter,” he said, catching the grateful smile that Mrs. Gibbs tossed him as she spooned scrambled eggs into a bowl.
“I won’t.” Angie disappeared inside the adjoining room. When Cole and Angie had brought the kitten home, the typically amenable housekeeper had made it clear that litter box chores did not fall within her purview.
Mrs. Gibbs carried the bowl of eggs to the table, putting a spoonful on Sophie’s plate before setting the rest on the table.
His phone jingled in his pocket. Caller ID told him it was a call forwarded from his office, and he answered it as he went to the refrigerator to retrieve the orange juice. “Timber Creek Veterinary Clinic.”
“Dr. Walker, this is Ruth Vaughn.” The speaker’s words were clipped and tense.
Cole didn’t need his client to say anything more. “Is it Sassy?”
A hush fell over the room as Mrs. Gibbs and Sophie stopped their chatter to stare at him. Angie, her brow creased with concern, came from the utility room to listen.
Aware that his family was hanging on to his every word, Cole tuned in to what Ruth was saying.
“I’m sorry to call before office hours.”
“That’s okay, Ruth. Is there a problem?”
“Sassy started labor around midnight, and so far we’ve had no puppies. She’s panting a lot, and well … she acts like she’s in a great deal of pain.”
Alarm nipped at Cole, but he worked at projecting calmness. “The length of labor isn’t too unusual for her first litter, but I think I’d better take a look at her.”
Ruth released an audible sigh of relief. “I was hoping you would. I’m afraid for Sassy. We love her so much, and we can’t afford to lose these puppies.”
Cole knew that Ruth depended on the income these pups would bring. A superb example of the German shepherd breed standard, Sassy had achieved an excellent rating for hip soundness from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an organization that provided radiographic examination and counseling for canine hip dysplasia. Her pups would bring top dollar.
More importantly, these puppies had been sired by Robo, who’d also earned an excellent rating, and they were his first litter as well. Some of these pups would probably have bright futures in the working dog industry as well as in the show arena, but they would bring a gift of joy to Cole’s family and Mattie as they grew into sturdy little replicas of Sassy and Robo.
“Bring Sassy into the clinic so we can do an ultrasound,” Cole said. “Come in now, and I’ll meet you there.”
“Hannah wants to come. I hope that’s all right."
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