Crime Family, A Buck Taylor Novel

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Crime Family, A Buck Taylor Novel (Mystery & Cozy Mystery, Screenplay Award 2023)
Crime Family, A Buck Taylor Novel (Mystery & Cozy Mystery, Book Award 2023)
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A dead brand inspector and dozens of dead cattle. Is it natural or something far worse? CBI agent Buck Taylor and his team must find the truth before more people die. Standing in their way is a local family that has been running a criminal enterprise for decades and has everyone in the valley afraid
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

Brian Cole slid his six-foot-four-inch frame onto the barstool and slapped Tucker Clark on the arm.

“Hey, bro, what’s eatin’ you?” he asked.

Brian was stocky, with short hair and a thin mustache. Today he wore jeans and a faded red T-shirt. His voice was deep and raspy.

Lacy Marks sat a tall, frosted glass of beer in front of him and nodded as she made her way down the bar. Cole followed her as she went, noting the tight jeans she was wearing. He thought about that night behind the gym, senior year, when he had tapped that ass. His cheeks got red, and he turned back to Tucker Clark.

“You look like someone killed your dog. What’s going on?”

Tucker Clark took a sip from his glass and looked at his old friend. Tucker was a shade over six feet tall and was lean and fit. His muscular build didn’t come from a gym, but from years of hard work on the ranch. He had a bald head, no facial hair and penetrating dark eyes. The kind that could intimidate the hell out of you. They had graduated high school twenty years ago and had been friends since first grade. Where Tucker Clark had stayed in the county and went to work for his dad, Brian Cole had gone off to the Colorado School of Mines, and when he was finished, he graduated with a PhD in biochemical engineering.

They had lost touch for several years while Brian Cole worked somewhere back east, doing something he couldn’t talk about. But they reconnected a couple of years back when Brian Cole showed up at the Longhorn Lounge and told his friend he was back in town. Tucker Clark was glad, and he had learned a long time ago not to ask what his friend was doing, so he just accepted him back in and restarted their friendship. They could be found most nights sitting on the same two barstools.

“Fuck, man,” said Tucker Clark. “My old man is busting my ass.”

“That’s not new,” said Brian Cole. “Your old man or your grandpa have been doing that since we were kids. I remember your old man getting pissed because we got caught stealing candy from the grocery store. We were six or seven. He tanned both our hides. Not because we stole, but because we stole something stupid like candy. He had old man Teller, the owner, shaking in his boots when he suggested to Teller that he not call the sheriff. Man, those were some fun times we had.” He slapped Tucker Clark on the arm, and his friend just looked at him. He never cracked a smile.

“This is more serious than that,” said Tucker Clark. “He’s blowing a gasket this time.”

“So, what’s got him all twisted up now?”

Tucker Clark looked at his friend. “Nah. Let’s drink. There’s nothing you can do to help, anyway.”

They sipped their beers for a while, and Brian Cole ordered another round. Mostly so he could watch Lacy Marks walk away again after she set the beers on the bar.

Brian Cole spun on his barstool and looked around. The Longhorn was crowded, but it was Friday night, and there wasn’t much to do in Fairplay, Colorado, on a Friday night. So, he spun back around and faced his friend.

“Come on, man. How long have we been friends? There isn’t anything we can’t solve together, so fill me in, and maybe I can help.”

Tucker Clark took a long drink from his glass, set the glass on the bar, and leaned in closer to his friend.

“I was supposed to get Gunther Halverson to agree to sell us something for a low price that Dad and Gramps would turn right around and resell and make a fortune on, but I can’t get the old goat to give in. And we’re running out of time. So, we have to settle this thing by the end of next week, or we could stand to lose millions.”

“What the hell could old Halverson have that would be worth millions? He lives in a shithole house and has been driving that same old truck since the nineteen fifties.”

“I can’t get into the details, but what he has, you can’t see. Just believe me when I say this is a big deal, and all I’ve done is fuck it up.”

“Why doesn’t your old man just threaten him? That works on everyone else in the county.”

Tucker Clark smiled. “I tried that. The old man just laughed in my face.” He leaned closer. “I set his barn on fire. I even threatened his old lady if she didn’t help. She laughed in my face too.”

Brian Cole thought for a minute. “I assume that whatever this is, Halverson needs to be alive to make the deal, right?”

Tucker Clark nodded. He wasn’t shocked by the unspoken suggestion.

“So, you need some leverage, right?”

Tucker Clark nodded again and took a sip from his beer. “What are you thinking?”

Brian Cole was quiet for a minute. “How many cows is the old guy running on his place this year?”

Tucker Clark looked at him, not comprehending. “I don’t know,” he slurred. “Maybe a hundred head. Why?”

“What would happen to him if he lost a significant portion of his herd? Would it bankrupt him?”

“I don’t know. I guess. Are you suggesting we rustle his cows? Where the hell would we hide them? You’re crazy, man.”

“Not rustle them,” said Brian Cole. “What would happen if all his cows suddenly died from a mysterious disease or chemical? Something that couldn’t be easily detected. He’d need money fast to cover his loss. Then your old man could clean up.”

Tucker looked bewildered. “Where the fuck are we supposed to get some disease? You’re just funning me, right?”

Brian Cole laughed and then lowered his head so no one could hear. “You let me worry about the product. You think about where we could do it without getting caught.” He sipped his beer and stared at Tucker Clark.

Tucker finished his beer and waved to Lacy Marks to bring two more; he leaned closer to Brian Cole. “Are you serious?”

Brian Cole smiled. “I’ve been working on something that might do the trick, but it will take both of us.”

“How much risk are we talking about? Can whatever you’ve got up your sleeve hurt Halverson or us?”

“Nah. It’s harmless to people, just animals, especially cows and horses.”

“And it can’t be detected?”

“Nope. You have to know what you are looking for. The routine tests that a vet would run would never detect this. It’s clean, and it’s fast acting. Once we spray it over the cows, they’ll be dead in minutes, and then you can negotiate with Halverson and get him to cooperate. He’ll be devastated, emotionally and financially.”

“What do we need to do?” asked Tucker Clark.

“You don’t have to do anything except show up and find the cattle. You leave the rest to me.”

Tucker Clark looked serious. “What’s in it for you?”

His friend smiled. “Not a thing. I’ve been working with this stuff for a long time in the lab, and this will give me a chance to see if it works in a real-world application.”

“But what if it doesn’t work?”

Brian Cole sipped his beer and set the glass on the counter. “Nothing happens. The only two people who know about this are you and me. You have to swear not to tell anyone, ever. If it doesn’t work, it should still make the cows too sick to sell for food. Either way, you win, and you get your old man off your back. So, are you in or what?”

Tucker Clark took a big gulp from his beer glass and looked at Brian over the top of the glass. “You think you can pull this off?”

Brian looked serious when he responded. “Have I ever lied to you in all the time we’ve known each other? I’m telling you right now, I can make this happen if you want me to, but you must be totally committed—no wishy-washy bullshit. You say no, right now, and we’ll never talk about it again, but you say yes, and we are in this all the way. No matter what happens.”

“Okay. I’m in. Halverson has his herd up on the mountain in the good grass. No one ever goes near that range, so we should be able to do it without anyone noticing.”

Brian Cole reached out his hand, and they shook. “Let’s meet at your place tomorrow at dusk. It’s better to spray this stuff after dark when the wind is quiet. Remember. Tell no one.”

They finished their beers, ordered two more and Tucker Clark headed over to the pool table. Brian Cole smiled and looked at the mirror behind the bar. “That was almost too easy,” he said to himself. He laughed and headed for the pool table.

Chapter Two

Dan Pearson stood up and moved from his desk chair to the Park County, Colorado, map on the wall. He was a fireplug of a man, five foot seven, and he weighed about one hundred and ninety pounds, with curly dark brown hair and a brown handlebar mustache. At fifty-five years old, he was in great shape, which helped him climb around the mountains in Park County.

Dan Pearson was a man on a mission and felt that this was the year he would find what he was looking for. Of course, he had believed that same thing every year for the last ten years. Dan Pearson was a treasure hunter; at least, that’s what he did in his spare time when he wasn’t helping his wife around the little ranch just north of Como or working at his day job.

Dan’s wife stepped into the small, cluttered office and set a large coffee cup on Dan’s desk. She stepped over to the map, and Dan pointed to a small forest service road on the east side of Tarryall Creek.

His wife smiled. “Do you think that’s where it is?” she asked.

“I know I’ve been wrong about the last six or seven places, but I have a good feeling about this one, Barb.”

Barb Pearson was a heavyset woman with grayish-blond hair and a warm disposition. She had tolerated Dan’s treasure-hunting obsession since he first got involved with the quest, but this past year, she had put her foot down. They had agreed that Dan could search for his treasure all day on Saturday, but Sunday was the day they would spend together, either driving to the city to visit their grandchildren or spending time together on the ranch. She had mixed feelings about the treasure hunt. For Dan’s sake, she hoped it would end with some small success, but she also secretly hoped he would grow tired of the continuous disappointment and quit. So far, it hadn’t worked out either way.

She stood next to him and half listened to what he was telling her about some new information he had discovered on the internet and that several of his friends from the treasure-hunting websites had agreed with his assertions.

Dan picked up the cup of coffee off his desk and took a big gulp. “I should be back sometime after dark,” he said.

“Make sure you take your rain gear. They’re calling for storms this afternoon. I don’t want you coming home looking like a drowned rat. Be careful.”

She kissed him on the cheek and walked out of the office. Dan smiled as she walked away. Barb was a good woman, and he owed it to her to find the treasure so she could live in grand style instead of just making do, paycheck to paycheck.

He left his laptop on the desk, folded a smaller map and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He slung his backpack over his right shoulder, drank the remaining coffee and carried the cup into the kitchen, where he placed it in the sink. He looked at the counter next to the door, and there was his small Yeti cooler. Barb had packed him a nice, hearty lunch and a snack for later. He loved that woman beyond belief and was amazed at how much she was willing to put up with.

He picked up the cooler, opened the door and entered the garage. He had loaded everything he needed in his truck the night before. He had checked to ensure his metal detector was charged, and that he had his toolbox and a couple of shovels. The last thing he checked before he started the truck and backed out of the garage was the Glock semiautomatic pistol he always kept in the glove box. Satisfied he had everything he needed, he pulled out of the garage and headed south just as the morning sun crested the hills to the east.

Dan Pearson drove north on Highway 285, then turned south onto Packer Lane, which merged into Tarryall Road, just west of Michigan Creek. He followed Tarryall Road south until he came to County Road 140, which took him east until he ran out of road. He found the old two-track fire road, turned between two old fence posts, and continued east. His destination was North Tarryall Peak.

Four miles up the almost nonexistent road, he noticed a large herd of cows grazing on what looked like new grass in a large field. He had to stop for a minute as several cows moved across the road in front of his truck. This was open range, and cows walking on the road was not an uncommon sight. He wondered who was running cattle this far off the beaten path and made a mental note to return on Monday and check the brands.

Dan Pearson worked for the Colorado Department of Agriculture as a brand inspector, a job he had been doing since graduating from Colorado State University. The Brand Inspection Division had been around since before Colorado was a state. It was formed by members of the cattle industry in 1865, became a state agency in 1903, and joined the Department of Agriculture in the 1970s.

Dan Pearson and the sixty-seven other men and women who made up the division protected and monitored the livestock industry in 104,000 square miles of Colorado. Dan’s area included Park County and the five counties surrounding it. He worked alone, which was how he liked it, and could spend as many as 250 days a year away from home. Dan was on his tenth new truck since joining the agency twenty-five years ago.

With the cows safely off the road, Dan continued until there was nothing left to drive on and parked his truck. He exited the cab, stretched and took a long-overdue piss in the trees. He grabbed his backpack, his GPS, a shovel and a metal detector and headed deeper into the woods, climbing uphill until his GPS alerted him that he had arrived.

Dan set down his gear, took a break to eat the roast beef and cheddar cheese sandwich and washed it down with a bottle of water. Fed and rested, he started searching for an opening in the mountain wall that he knew was there. The opening had to be there. All his research said it should be there. He tried several promising spots but could not find what he was looking for. Even his metal detector drew a blank, and as the sun began to set behind the mountains on the other side of the valley, Dan sat down, finished his bottle of water and, saddened by his lack of discovery, decided it was time to head down the mountain. He knew he had stayed too long past dark and was concerned about driving down the trail this late, but he had promised Barb he would be home.

After loading his gear back in his truck and taking one last look , he turned his truck around and began the long slog home. He was coming up on the field where he had seen the cattle when he noticed a black pickup truck blocking the road. He slowed to a stop and looked around. Not seeing anyone, he took his pistol out of the glove box, grabbed his big Maglite from the holder next to his seat and slid out of the truck, softly closing the door.

He knew something was wrong right away. There were no sounds. He should have heard the cattle making noise as they moved about the field, but he heard nothing. He stepped to the edge of the road and shined his light across the field. Every cow his light landed on was lying down. This was not good, he thought to himself. Keeping his pistol at his side, he jumped across a small ditch and stepped into the field.

He approached the first cow and noticed it wasn’t breathing. As he made his way through the field, he saw more dead cows. From what he could see, he figured there were a couple of dozen dead cows in the field and nothing visible to indicate how they died. He couldn’t understand how this was possible. When he passed the field earlier in the day, the cows all appeared healthy. What the hell could have happened in a couple of hours?

He turned to walk back to his truck, and the bright beam of a flashlight hit him right in the eyes. He was temporarily blinded and brought his hands up to cover his eyes. His eyes may not have seen the sight in front of him, but his brain had recorded it, and he thought the person standing in front of him was wearing a space suit. Too late, he realized it wasn’t a space suit but a rubber hazmat suit, and too late, he realized this person was pointing a pistol at him.

He started to raise his pistol when he heard the first shot and felt a piercing pain in his lower abdomen. He staggered backward and fell to his knees. He tried to see through the blinding light and caught a glimpse of the person raising the black pistol. His brain registered the pain as another bullet entered his skull, and then the blinding light went away, and there was nothing but darkness.