Table of Contents
Praise for the Raine Stockton Dog Mysteries
“Rich with depictions of North Carolina’s beautiful Smoky Mountains, Ball’s latest is a cozy with a hint of romance. Raine Stockton is a delightful protagonist, a very human, down-to-earth character. As she quickly becomes immersed in a well-crafted mystery, she’s forced to choose between the only two men she’s ever loved— a sheriff and a fugitive.” —
“There can’t be too many golden retrievers in mystery fiction for my taste.” —Deadly Pleasures
“[A] twisty tale, a riveting finale, and a golden retriever to die for.” —Carolyn Hart
“[Smoky Mountain Tracks
] has everything—wonderful characters, surprising twists, great dialogue. Donna Ball knows dogs . . . the Smoky Mountains . . . [and] how to write a page-turner. I loved it.” —Beverly Connor
“[A] story of suspense with humor and tenderness.”
“[Ball] turns her considerable talent to mystery writing and provides an exciting, original, and suspense-laden whodunit. . . . A simply fabulous mystery starring a likable, dedicated heroine. . . .” —Midwest Book Review
Other books in the
Raine Stockton Dog Mystery Series
Smoky Mountain Tracks
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, August 2007
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Copyright © Donna Ball, 2007
All rights reserved
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eISBN : 978-1-4406-1961-8
This book is dedicated to the pups of Canine Companions for Independence, heroes in the making, and to their puppy raisers, heroes already.
And to my own Destiny, Glitter and Rhythm, and all of the Dixie Dancing Dogs, who bring so much joy to so many every year. May you dance forever!
By the time I was called in, the body had been inside the cabin for at least four days, maybe more. If this had been July instead of October, the odor would have alerted every scavenger in the woods, and probably a few neighbors, long before now. The cool Smoky Mountain nights and moderate daytime temperatures had probably slowed down the decay a good bit. Still, by the looks on the faces of Hanover County’s finest when I drove up, what I was about to encounter was not for the faint of heart— or the weak of stomach.
And I’m not even a cop. I’m a dog trainer. Things like this are not exactly in my job description.
The wooded clearing was aglow with late afternoon sunlight. It set the tops of the surrounding trees on fire with bright red and yellow flames and bounced off the hoods and racing blue strip lights of all four Hanover County Sheriff’s Department cars, which were edged at every possible angle into the narrow space. The minute I opened the car door I heard the hoarse, frantic, exhausted barking that came from inside the house, and my heart twisted in my chest. I draped a slip-loop leash around my neck and got out of the car.
I singled out the round, middle-aged man standing at the center of a knot of cops and hurried over to him. My uncle Roe had been sheriff of Hanover County for close to thirty years, and today his face showed it. “Hey, Raine,” he said, and the cluster of uniforms around him parted. The expressions on the faces of the other officers fell somewhere between relief and regret. They knew, I guess, that when I finished my job, they would have to do theirs. And it would be a very, very unpleasant one.
“Thanks for getting here so quick,” Uncle Roe said. He nodded toward the house. “We need to get in there and secure the scene, but we can’t get by the dog. Thought you might have a snare or something.”
“Shame to shoot him,” volunteered Deke, who was not my favorite deputy on the force. “What this county really needs is an animal control officer.”
I glared at him. “There’s no need to be talking about shooting anything. I can handle this.” For reassurance, I shoved my fingers into my jeans pocket and wrapped them around my own weapon—a sandwich bag filled with hot dogs and cheese.
The hoarse, pathetic barking went on and on in the background, muffled by the thick cabin walls and closed windows. How long had he been in there, without food or water, desperately trying to call for help while the person who was responsible for his care lay lifeless and in plain view? The character of the barking sounded hopeless,mindless, a desperate instinct without purpose. It broke my heart.
Uncle Roe started walking with me toward the house, his head down and his fists shoved into the lightweight sheriff’s department windbreaker he wore. He moved slowly, in no hurry to reach what lay at the end of the short path.
Guarding the door of the cabin, as though there were anything to be guarded, were two of my favorite members of the force—my almost-ex-husband, Buck, and his female partner, Wyn. Even from a distance I could see that Wyn had the stoic, white-around-the-lips look of a woman who was trying very hard not to be sick, and Buck didn’t look much better.
“It looks like suicide,” Uncle Roe said. “Gunshot wound between the eyes. A woman; don’t have an ID yet. We broke out the back window to get a look inside and make sure the victim was, um, dead.” In this part of the country, even supposedly hardened law enforcement officers had the decency to give a respectful pause before consigning a soul to the ever after with the word. He went on, “But the dog is in the front room, between us and the victim, and we can’t get in without going past him.”
We had reached the front stoop, and Wyn said grimly, “Guess who was the only one small enough to wiggle through the window?”
I grimaced for her. “Was it bad?”
She said simply, “Don’t go back there.”
Buck gave me a look that was half challenge, half reproof. “Didn’t you bring gloves, or some kind of pole?
Listen to that, Raine. That dog is half crazy. Who knows how long he’s been locked up in there, or what he was like before this happened!”
I said firmly, “A pole would only scare him into attack mode. I’ll be fine.” But I did feel a little foolish for not bringing heavy gloves. Even the best-mannered dog can’t be blamed for snapping at a hand when he’s terrified. And this dog did not sound as though manners were high on his list of priorities right now.
Uncle Roe said, “Actually it was the dog that alerted the neighbors. A couple who’re staying in that cabin across the lake take their morning and evening walks past here every day. After hearing the dog barking like that for four days straight, and trying several times to get someone to come to the door, they called us on an animal neglect complaint.”
I swallowed hard. “The dog . . . hasn’t been locked in the same room with the body all that time, has it?”
“No,” Wyn assured me quickly. “The bedroom door is closed. The dog couldn’t get to her.”
I released a breath. “Okay, then,” I murmured. But I made no move to advance.
Buck said, “We jimmied the lock with a crowbar. But every time we tried to open the door, the dog would charge it.”
“He’s not charging now,” I observed, mostly to myself, and that worried me a little. Ordinarily a dog will rush to the door when a stranger approaches, either to greet or to warn away. From the sound of the barking, I could tell that the dog was somewhere in the center of the room, which meant he was far past the warning stage and would be able to get plenty of speed and power behind the attack when he did decide to charge.