BY: D M O’BYRNE
Travel columnist, Ryn Lowell, has been away from Trout Fork, Colorado, for barely a month when a frantic call from Alma sends her hurrying back. One of the Trout Forkers is in jail for the murder of another of the locals. With Jack, her “traveling cat,” secured on her motorcycle, Ryn heads back to her home away from home and the people she has come to care for.
Will Ryn be able to help solve the murder? Can she get her friend out of jail? And what about Detective Garrett Easterbrook? Why isn’t he on the case? Everyone knows something has been bothering him lately, but what can it be? Is there still a spark between him and Ryn? Will it become a flame or peter out?
The Mountaintop Murders is the exciting sequel to Death in Trout Fork.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Mountaintop Murders by D M O’Byrne, travel writer Ryn Lowell is back in Trout Fork, Colorado, trying to solve another murder. This time it’s Sarge who has been killed. A local, Hank, has been arrested for the murder. But Ryn is convinced he is innocent, and she is determined to prove it. However, her editor is not pleased with her for being back in Trout Fork and she could end up without a job. Then there’s the relationship between her and Detective Garrett Easterbrook. He wants a commitment, but she just isn’t sure. And why isn’t he on the murder case, working to free Hank? Ryn knows something is bothering him, but he isn’t willing to talk about it.
Like all of O’Byrne’s books, the character development is excellent. It’s like being with old friends. Combine that with suspense, intrigue, and fast-paced action, and you have a first-class whodunit.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Mountaintop Murders by D. M. O’Byrne is the second book in her Ryn Lowell Colorado Mysteries Series. This time Ryn, our intrepid travel writer, is called back to Trout Fork, Colorado, because Sarge has been murdered while he and Hank were camping. Hank admits to being drunk and passed out, and he has been arrested for the murder. But Ryn doesn’t believe Hank is capable of killing anyone and she wants to clear his name, even though she knows her editor will be most unhappy with her and her mother will freak if they find out she is back in Trout Fork on the scene of another murder. The first thing she notices when she gets to Trout Fork is that Garrett Easterbrook, the detective she fell for the last time she was there, is not on the case. And something is troubling him—something he doesn’t seem to want to talk about. Can Ryn solve the crime, keep her job, and finally decide how she feels about Garrett, or will she end up being another victim?
The Mountaintop Murders is well written and fast paced, with plenty of twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the very end.
“Ryn! Oh, thank God I caught you.” Alma’s voice on the phone trembled, her breath coming fast.
I pushed Jack Kerouac, my orange tabby cat, off my lap onto the bed and sat up. “Alma. What’s wrong?”
“Oh, my God. It’s Sarge. He’s dead. Somebody killed him. Up at his campsite. It’s so awful.”
I pictured the old fisherman they called Sarge eating breakfast at the café, and I remembered Ashley saying she hated waiting on him. “He smells funny,” she’d said, wrinkling her nose.
“That’s terrible. Who would do such a thing to that harmless old man?”
Her breath caught as she choked back a sob. “That’s bad enough,” she wailed, “but what’s worse is that Hank’s been arrested. They think he did it. He’s in jail.”
“No! Hank?” I remembered the night Hank, the proprietor of Trout Fork Liquors, arrived at Alma’s cabin earlier that summer with a bottle of wine and a single red rose. But his hopeful beginning of a romance with Alma was halted by her ex-husband’s reappearance.
I tried to sound calm. “There must be some mistake. Does Garrett know?”
“Yes. We called him as soon as Hank came down from the campsite and told us he woke up and found Sarge dead. Then the cops came up to investigate. That was two days ago, and they came back today and arrested Hank! We’re all just sick about it.” Her voice broke again.
“What was Hank doing at Sarge’s campsite?”
“Oh, they were drinking and playing cards up there. They do that a lot. I mean…they did.”
“Well, what does Hank say happened?”
“He doesn’t remember. Anything. Anything at all! You know how he drinks. He says he woke up and there was Sarge…dead. Oh, my God! Poor Hank. In jail!” She began to weep loudly into the phone.
“Take it easy, Alma. There has to be a reasonable explanation.” Then I thought about the murder of the waitress in Trout Fork earlier that summer. The explanation for that was anything but reasonable.
“Where are you, Ryn? Will you be coming this way again?”
I looked at the Colorado road maps strewn all over the bed in my motel room. “I’m at a dude ranch near Fairplay. I just finished my column, and I’m not sure where I’m going next.”
“Why, that’s not more than an hour from here. Oh, please come back to Trout Fork. At least for a while. To help find out what happened. Garrett says he can’t do much because—”
“It’s not his jurisdiction,” I interrupted with a sigh. “I know the drill.” Although Trout Fork was fifty miles from Denver, crimes committed there were still in Denver’s jurisdiction, and Garrett, the local detective, was prevented from getting involved in Denver’s cases. Officially, at least.
“No. That’s not it,” Alma said. “Sarge’s campsite is just over the county line, so it’s Pineland Park’s jurisdiction. But Garrett says he’s involved with something else right now and can’t look into it. They’ve assigned another detective to the case.”
It seemed odd that Garrett wouldn’t fight to be involved in the investigation of the murder of a Trout Fork resident, and I wondered what he could be doing that he considered more important. “Tell you what. I’ll come back to Trout Fork until I figure out where I’m going next. Maybe I can snoop around a little. Would that help?”
Alma exhaled heavily. “Oh, thank you, dear. Just having you here would be such a blessing. And I know Ashley misses you.”
I didn’t know if there was anything I could really do, but my journalist’s instincts had served me well in the past. At least I could ask a few questions. I felt sure that Hank Edwards was no murderer, and if I could help prove that, it was worth a trip back to Trout Fork. “Okay. As soon as I check out and pack up my stuff, I’ll be on my way. I should be there this afternoon.”
Alma brightened. “I’ll make sure Ashley’s room is ready. Oh, she’ll be delighted. And Sasha! She’ll be so excited to see Jack.”
I smiled at the vision of Jack being groomed by Sasha, Ashley’s black and white tuxedo cat, like a sultan enjoying the ministrations of his favorite concubine. “What about your new waitress? Isn’t she bunking with Ashley?”
Alma giggled. “Zoe? No. Turns out she’s terribly allergic to cats. Her face blew up like a balloon the first night she was here. I’m letting her use one of the cabins in the back. I can’t rent it out anyway. Too close to the burned out area. See you soon, dear. Oh, I’m so relieved.”
I hung up and pulled Jack onto my lap. I stroked his silky fur while he closed his amber eyes and purred. “Well, Jackie, it looks like you’ll be seeing your girlfriend today. Remember Sasha?”
He opened his eyes slightly at the name. Do cats have memories of one another? I was sure they did.
Sitting there in that lonely room, memories of my time in Trout Fork flooded my mind. Foremost among them was Garrett, with his steel blue eyes, unruly black hair, athletic physique, and his love of opera and the Romantic poets, so incongruous for a detective. The days I had spent with him after the fire, living innocently together in his cabin, sitting together in the evenings with Jack purring between us on the sofa, came back to me in sweet, melancholy remembrance. I shook my head. Stop that, I chided myself. Don’t idealize him. You know where that will lead.
I got off the bed and began stuffing my belongings into the battered suitcase, flicking a few dead bugs from its surface with my finger. Riding strapped on the back of my Honda motorcycle these past few weeks had given the suitcase a somewhat shabby appearance, which seemed to fit perfectly with my lifestyle.
I picked up Jack’s basket, and he began pacing back and forth across the bed and meowing. He liked nothing better than flying down the road, strapped in his basket in front of me on the bike. He was a traveling cat, relishing the nomadic lifestyle of his namesake, Jack Kerouac, the poet and travel writer.
Jack looked up at me with a question in his eyes and gave me his usual chirp that sounded like “Brrrt?”
“I should have named you Burt instead of Jack.” I stuffed my laptop into the suitcase and took it out to the Honda and secured it to the back of the bike. Then I went to the office to check out.
Buck, the manager, stood at the desk and greeted me with a huge smile. He knew I was writing about the dude ranch for my travel magazine column, “Out of My Way,” and he had been more than accommodating this week.
He tipped his cowboy hat with old-world courtesy. “Checking out, Miss Lowell? I hope you enjoyed your week with us.” He tapped on the keyboard of the iMac computer on the counter that seemed out of place in the ranch-themed office with its pot-bellied stove and pine log walls covered with horseshoes and a huge bearskin.
“It’s been wonderful. Thanks for everything.”
I gave him the magazine credit card, wondering briefly how my editor, old Cranky Crenshaw as I called him, would feel about me going back to Trout Fork. I had already done a column from there, and he had made it clear it was time to move on. Since then, I had written columns about a golf resort, a winery, and now the dude ranch. He wanted several columns from the Colorado ski resorts, but it was still too early in the season. The snow wouldn’t begin falling for at least two more months.
Buck gave me his most ingratiating grin. “When will we see the column? I hope you said some nice things about us.”
“Very nice. It will be in the October issue. The magazine will send you several complimentary copies.”
I took the receipt and headed for the door.
“Ya’ll come back now, hear?” Buck called after me.
I smiled at his folksy comment and waved. His name is probably Lester, and he’s really an insurance salesman from Chicago, I thought as I closed the door behind me. I shook my head. When did I become so cynical?
I went back to the room, put Jack’s harness on him, and carried him and his basket out to the bike. Strapped into the basket in front of my seat, he sat up eagerly, gazing out the windshield, his tail swishing back and forth. I buckled on my helmet, straddled the bike, and turned the key. The engine purred to life, and I felt the familiar thrill of the open road before me. We pulled slowly out of the parking lot and turned onto the main road that would wind through the mountain pass and take me back to Trout Fork. The rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains loomed in the distance, the tops of some still covered in snow, even now in mid-August.
In less than an hour, I breezed through the town of Pineland Park and turned north onto the county road that led to Trout Fork. As I passed the police station on the outskirts of town, I noticed Garrett’s gray pickup wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Hopefully, he was at Alma’s Café trying to get to the bottom of Sarge’s murder. I was sure he knew as well as I did that Hank couldn’t have done it, although Garrett could be maddeningly slow to reach his conclusions.
As I sped down the winding road, leaning into the curves and watching Jack adjust to the bike’s movement, the joyful sensation of freedom was tempered a bit by feelings of loneliness inherent in doing the kind of work I had chosen. I pushed the feeling away. Travel writers travel, I reminded myself. That’s all there is to it. So suck it up.
Flying along the mountain road, I had the feeling of returning home, even though I had only spent a few weeks in Trout Fork that summer. I smiled at the thought of the quirky Trout Fork residents and how much I looked forward to seeing them again. Not just Alma and Ashley, but Gil Acevedo, the bait shop owner, whose all-American, pro-military, law-and-order stance belied his tender heart. Of course there was zany Madam Gauzie, the elderly owner of the antiques store, whose knowledge of the history of Trout Fork and its residents, combined with her uncanny intuition, made her a valuable resource.
I shook my head at thoughts of Zach, the one they had called Rev, whose bizarre religiosity had led him to murder that waitress and then to take his own life. And poor Hank, tortured by memories of the wife who had deserted him and caused him to lose himself in alcohol. They were an eccentric bunch, but I had come to feel a warmth toward them I had always found lacking in my feelings toward my own family. That one of them was in jail and the rest in turmoil was disturbing, and I hoped there was something I could do.
We sailed into Trout Fork, pulled into the parking lot, and stopped in front of Alma’s Café alongside several cars and motorcycles. I shut off the engine and gazed around at the area, one of those places that seem to be stuck in a time warp. The four stores—the café, Gil’s bait shop, Hank’s liquor store, and Madam Gauzie’s antique store—hadn’t changed a bit. They huddled together under one shingled roof, tourists ambling along the wooden walkway that connected them.
One of the many motorcycle clubs that rode through the area had just pulled into the lot. Several gray-haired men in leather motorcycle pants and jackets were peering through the darkened window into Trout Fork Liquors, closed now that its proprietor sat in a jail cell.
Jack sat up in his basket, his whiskers quivering as he gazed at the familiar surroundings. I dismounted and set my helmet on the seat. Jack was struggling against the straps tying him to the basket, so I unbuckled him and set him on the ground. I connected the leash to his harness, and we strolled toward the café.
I took a deep breath. The scent of pine from the trees on the hillsides surrounding the little hamlet filled the air. The crystal blue Colorado sky with its puffy clouds sailing above the Rocky Mountains never failed to take my breath away. From across the street came the familiar murmur of the Trout Creek as it flowed gently downstream.
Jack and I entered the café to find Ashley and Zoe hurrying with plates of food between the rustic dining room and the patio. The lunch rush was in full swing, and the blond oak tables were crowded with the tourists, hikers, bikers, and fishermen who frequented the area.
Ashley, on her way in from the patio, spotted me and cried, “Ryn!” and rushed to give me a huge hug. Although it had only been a month since I’d last seen her, I could have sworn she grew another two inches. Her glossy chestnut hair was pulled into a pony tail and secured with a flowered band. Her chocolate brown eyes shone with delight. “And here’s Jack!” She bent down to stroke Jack while he rubbed his head on her hand in greeting. She stood and held onto my arm. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” she gushed. “I guess you heard about Hank. Isn’t it the worst? Mom’s been freaking out. That poor old Sarge. I feel bad now for not wanting to wait on him. Did you see Garrett? He’s out on the patio talking to one of the renters.”
I smiled at her breathless teenage effusiveness. “Yes, I heard about Hank. No, I haven’t seen Garrett yet. I just got here.”
She led me toward the patio. “Come sit outside, and I’ll get you some lunch. Have you seen Mom?”
“No. I’m sure she has her hands full in the kitchen. I’ll see her in a while.”
Just then, Alma’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “Orders up, girls!”
A wave of nostalgia washed over me. A month ago, that would have sent me scurrying to the kitchen window to pick up my orders and deliver them to the tables. I picked out a metal mesh table in the shade on the patio. Jack sat up on one of the chairs and began washing his paws. Jack always knew when a meal was coming.
The scent of the purple and fuchsia flowers cascading from planters along the railing mingled with the pine smell from the trees surrounding the stores. The faint murmur of the creek flowing nearby was the only sound until another group of motorcycles pulled into the parking lot. The winding mountain road between Pineland Park and Trout Fork was a favorite destination of bikers from all over, and Trout Fork was often inundated with motorcycle clubs during the summer.
Garrett sat across the patio with his back to me, deep in conversation with a man in a fishing cap and waders. They got up and shook hands, and the fisherman picked up his gear and left the patio. Garrett started to sit down again, but he looked around and his eye caught mine. I felt that familiar rush.
He came to my table, sat next to me, and grasped my hand. “The prodigal returns,” he said with a smile. “Both of them.” He stroked Jack’s head with his other hand.
“Well, you know what they say about the bad penny.” I noticed he made no attempt to release my hand, not that I wanted him to.
His disconcertingly blue eyes gazed into mine. “You’ve heard about Sarge?”
“Yes. Alma asked me to come back for a while, and I’m between assignments, so I thought I might be able to help. Garrett, why aren’t you investigating? I know Alma would feel better with you on the case.”
He ignored my question, still grasping my hand as though afraid I would disappear again. “How have you been, Ryn? The last time we spoke, you were going to visit some wineries on the Western Slope.”
“I’ve been here and there. This past week I’ve been at a dude ranch. I’m not sure where I’m going next.” My constant traveling was a bit of a sore point between us, so I switched subjects. “Is it true they’ve arrested Hank? How can that be? You don’t think he could have done it, do you?”
He sat back, released my hand, and ran his fingers through his thick black hair. “We don’t really know anything much. Only what Hank told us. He said the two of them went to the campsite and got drunk and passed out. He doesn’t remember anything else until he woke up in the morning to find Sarge with his skull crushed. He came down to the café, and Alma called me. The captain assigned another detective to the case.”
He shrugged. “I’ve got something else on my plate. And maybe the captain thinks I’m too close to the people here, ever since that business this summer. Anyway, Detective Sloan is a good man. He and his team looked at the campsite and took Sarge’s body to the coroner’s office in Denver. Then they came back today and arrested Hank. That’s really all I know.”
“That’s terrible. Who would want to kill a harmless old guy like Sarge? Especially Hank?”
“I don’t know, but they must have some evidence, or they wouldn’t have arrested him.”
“Well, I’d like to know what they think they have on him.”
Just then, Alma burst onto the patio, her round red face wreathed in smiles, her bright blue eyes shining. “Ryn dear, Ashley said you were out here.”
I stood and allowed her to wrap me in the motherly hug I had grown to love, the kind I had never received from my own mother. Alma was short and pudgy and full of life.
I kissed the top of her head that barely came to my shoulder.
“Hello, Garrett. Sorry to interrupt.”
Garrett stood. “No problem, Alma. I have to get back anyway. I’ll call you, Ryn.” He smiled at us and walked away. I watched him go, admiring his well-muscled back and shoulders and his slim waist.
Alma gazed after him. “I think he’s been pretty lonely since you left. Maybe that’s what’s been bothering him.”
“How do you know something is bothering him?”
“Just a feeling I get.” She smiled at me. “Anyway, you’re here now. Have some lunch, and then we’ll get you settled in with Ashley again. Oh, I can’t wait to see Sasha’s reaction. She’s been missing Jack since you left.”
“Okay. Just a hamburger and—”
“And an extra plate for Jack. I remember.” She hugged me again. “Welcome home.”
© 2019 by D M O’Byrne