Authors: Susan Wittig Albert
China Bayles Mysteries by Susan Wittig Albert
THYME OF DEATH
LOVE LIES BLEEDING
A DILLY OF A DEATH
DEAD MAN'S BONES
DEATH COME QUICKLY
AN UNTHYMELY DEATH
CHINA BAYLES' BOOK OF DAYS
Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Mysteries by Susan Wittig Albert
THE TALE OF HILL TOP FARM
THE TALE OF HOLLY HOW
THE TALE OF CUCKOO BROW WOOD
THE TALE OF HAWTHORN HOUSE
THE TALE OF BRIAR BANK
THE TALE OF APPLEBECK ORCHARD
THE TALE OF OAT CAKE CRAG
THE TALE OF CASTLE COTTAGE
Darling Dahlias Mysteries by Susan Wittig Albert
THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE CUCUMBER TREE
THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES
THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE CONFEDERATE ROSE
THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE TEXAS STAR
THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE SILVER DOLLAR BUSH
With her husband, Bill Albert, writing as Robin Paige
DEATH AT BISHOP'S KEEP
DEATH AT GALLOWS GREEN
DEATH AT DAISY'S FOLLY
DEATH AT DEVIL'S BRIDGE
DEATH AT ROTTINGDEAN
DEATH AT WHITECHAPEL
DEATH AT EPSOM DOWNS
DEATH AT DARTMOOR
DEATH AT GLAMIS CASTLE
DEATH IN HYDE PARK
DEATH AT BLENHEIM PALACE
DEATH ON THE LIZARD
Other books by Susan Wittig Albert
WRITING FROM LIFE
WORK OF HER OWN
A WILDER ROSE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Susan Wittig Albert.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19452-6
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Albert, Susan Wittig.
Bittersweet / by Susan Wittig Albert.âFirst edition.
pages ; cm
ISBN 978-0-425-25562-9 (hardback)
Cover illustration copyright Â© by Joe Burleson.
Cover design by Judith Murello.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.
The blue and white Cessna 172 dropped out of the gray November sky. The pilot banked sharply, slowing to eighty knots, then turned on the carburetor heat and powered back to 1500 rpm. When he made the field, he extended another ten degrees of flaps, dropped his airspeed to seventy, and corrected for the crosswind that blew off the cliff to the west. He powered back, leveled off, and touched down at the end of the grassy north-south strip. The landing was bumpy but no rougher than usual. He regularly mowed the private strip tucked into the Bee Creek valley at the foot of Sycamore Mountain and knew where to avoid the worst of the hummocks and dips. He powered down, braked lightly, and taxied the short distance to the Quonset hut that served as an airplane hangar. Glad to be back in Texas, he climbed out and was greeted by the man who had just come out of the barn.
“Where the hell you been?” the man demanded angrily. “I been expecting you for hours.” He shook his head. “Ever' time you go up in that antique bolt-bucket, you could come home in a body bag.”
“Hey,” the pilot said. “She may be an antique, but she's still in the air. And I don't notice her condition keeping you from taking her up whenever you feel like it.” It was true. Both of them flew the plane, although its
certification had lapsed long ago. The pilot paused to flick a light to his cigarette. “Stopped off outside of Lubbock to say hi to a little girl I know there. Took longer than I thought. Sorry,” he added. “Shoulda called.” He grinned, remembering. “Guess I had something else on my mind.”
The two men were brothers, but there was no family resemblance. In his late thirties, the pilot was sandy-haired, short, and barrel-chested, broad and heavy across the shoulders. His younger brother was thin and dark, with a disfiguring knife scar that ran across his narrow cheek and under his ear, earned in a barroom fight in Corpus Christi a few years before. Both wore cowboy hats and jacketsâthe pilot denim, his brother a green army field jacketâjeans, and scuffed cowboy boots.
“Lubbock,” his brother grunted. “I just might have to shoot you.” Both men laughed. They pushed the plane into the hangar and went swiftly through the usual postflight items. They were both good fliers, both good mechanics. Had to be, since they didn't have the money to pay somebody else to keep the plane flying.
“You heard from the truck?” the pilot asked as they closed the big doors. “Jack loaded up and got off before dawn. I told him to phone you with updates.” Jack was their partner. He worked on another ranch, but he'd taken a few days off to do the job.
“Phoned twice. Last time he'd got as far as Lampasas, coming down 281. Should be pulling inâ” He looked at his watch, “Give him another hour, maybe. That trailer work out okay?”
“It loads better than the old one and rides smoother, but six white-tails are still more than I like to handle. Those animals panic real easy.” The pilot paused, considering. “This was a real good batch, though. Big, solid bucks, hundred seventy pounds each, maybe fifty percent bigger than the wild bucks on the range around here.”
Size was the thing, of course. If you were trying to establish a game ranch, the native deer made pretty sorry breeding stock. Bucks averaged around eighty-five, ninety pounds on good range, and with the drought, most range was only fair to poor. So you either laid out big dollars to rent stud bucks from the breeders or bought their semen at seven, eight thousand dollars a pop.
But he and his brother didn't have that kind of money. Their dad would rise up out of his grave and come gunning for them if he knew they had mortgaged the family land to high fence most of it. When they got enough money together, they could finish the job and apply for their deer breeder permit. Which was why they were bringing in the Oklahoma animals. And that was taking a big risk, since Texas had passed a law a few years ago making it a felony to haul deer in from other states. Scared of “wasting disease,” they claimed, although everybody knew it was just the big white-tail breeders protecting their business from out-of-state competition. The feds had gotten in on the act, too, and passed a law against illegally transporting deer.
But first they had to catch you. The pilot figured the chances of that were pretty slim, all things considered. He knew of a team up in North Texas that had been running a similar black market operation for the past five years, bringing in deer from up north, from Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin. They were still in business, making money hand over fist. All he and his brother needed were a couple of good trips to stock the ranch, and then they'd have their herd and could make it legal.
“Antlers?” his brother asked.
“Jack's bringing them.” The antlers were always removed for transport, to keep the animals from injuring themselves or one another. “Impressive racks, obviously superior genetics.” That was the buzzword,
what everybody was talking about these days. Superior genetics, meaning genes for monster racks that hunters would pay big money for.
“I figure we can keep the best buck,” the pilot added, “and find breeders who'll pay six thousand apiece for the rest, easy. Seven or eight, maybe more, once they see those racks.” There were breeders out there who had more money than sense and were perfectly willingâeager, evenâto buy black-market animals. And there was almost no risk. They knew they could simply launder those deer into the herds already on their hunting compounds, where they'd bring tens of thousands of dollars.
His brother nodded. “About time for a beer, wouldn't you say? You can tell me all about that little girl in Lubbock.”
“I'll drink to that,” the pilot replied, and the two headed up the hill toward the ranch house, their boots kicking up dry dust. It had rained in the valley over the weekend, but not up here on the mountain. That was the way in this drought. Hit-and-miss, mostly miss.
The tin-roofed clapboard house was weathered to a dull, nondescript gray. It had served as the family ranch house for four generations now, going back to the days when the only way to get to the Bar Bee was to ride your horse or drive your wagon from the main road up the limestone bed of the shallow Frio River to the spot where the ranch road headed off up Bee Creek. When the river was in flood, you stayed where you were until it was down again. Now, it was paved from the highway near Concan almost all the way up to the Bar Bee, and some of the old ranches were now gated communities with riverfront parks and underground electricity. The pilot hated the thought, but there was no denying it. Pretty quick, they were going to run out of country.
The two men went in through the back door. Inside, the house
reflected its occupancy by a pair of bachelors, neither of whom bothered to make beds or wash dishes on a regular schedule. The kitchen table still held the remains of the previous day's meals, and the sink was piled with dirty pots and pans. The main feature in the living room was a gigantic HDTV, with a pair of brown La-Z-Boys parked in front of it, a table between them topped with an overflowing ashtray and a couple of empty beer bottles.
They took Lone Star longnecks out of the fridge, then went to sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch, propping their boots on the rail. From this vantage point, they could look out over the nearly two thousand acres of the old ranch, hillsides densely wooded with mesquite, cedar, and oak, the creek bottom with sycamore, pecan, and cypress, and enough open grazing to support a couple of hundred cows. Their dad and granddad had been cattle ranchers, so the whole place was low fencedâhigh fenced now to confine the deer herd they were intent on building. This was the southern rim of the Edwards Plateau and good land, all of it, prime habitat for wild turkey, dove, feral hogs, and white-tailed deer. When they were boys, the brothers had hunted every inch of it. There was no other place on earth that either of them would ever want to be, and when their dad was dying, they'd promised him that they would keep the land.
But cattle ranching was a losing proposition these days. Beef was bringing a good price, but the years-long drought had reduced the amount of hay they could raise to feed their cows, so they'd had to sell off most of the calves. The pilot had even thought of selling the plane, but he knew they wouldn't get what it was worth to them. He and his brother had talked the subject up one end and down the other and had come to
the conclusion that they either had to sell the land to a developer or turn it into a trophy-hunting ranch, like the one Jack worked for. Which was what they were doing. Give them another two years and enough black-market deer to pay for the rest of the fencing, and they'd be in business.
“So what's the stock count now, with this batch coming in?” the pilot asked.
“Eleven from out of state, plus those four fawns Jack brought over. We sold off five of the Oklahoma bucks already.”
The pilot frowned. Jack, who was experienced at working with white-tails, was buying into their project on shares, with breeder fawns and other stuff: supplies, tools, equipment.
“Those fawns,” he said, “they're a problem. Once the Oklahoma white-tails are inside our fence, they could be native to the place and legal, far as anybody can tell. But I don't care how big a rack their daddy carries, those fawns were a mistake.”
“Yeah. Those ear tattoos. Since it's the genetics we're after, we won't need the animals themselves, once we've got their offspring. We can get rid of them. And when Jack brings the next batch come spring, they better be unmarked. No more tattooed ears.”
“I'll go for that,” the pilot said, and tipped his bottle. “You told him, I reckon.”
“Yes, but he's got another problem, too. His wife is pissed off about what he's doing.” The brother's voice had a jagged edge. “I told him he'd better keep her in line, or else.” His laugh was raspy. “Women. They got their uses, but they're never happy, no matter what. It's always something with them. Always something.”
Or else what, the pilot wondered uneasily, trying not to remember the details of that bad scene in Corpus that had ended with his brother
spending five years in jail for manslaughter, plus probation. He eyed the Cooper's hawk circling over the meadow that sloped down to the creek below and watched as it arched into a steep, stooping dive, pulling up sharply with a struggling shape in its brutal claws. Or else what?
With a shiver, he stopped remembering Corpus and thought instead about Jack's wife, who was a tempting dish. “Always something,” he agreed mildly.
His brother pulled out a can of Red Man and poked a wad of tobacco into his cheek. “You got it. Well, there's more. The day you and Jack left for Oklahoma, I had to get the vet out here. Not our regular, but the old guy. The one Dad used to go fishing with.”
“Oh yeah. Him and Dad was real close. Which cow?”
“The red heifer. She twinned.”
“It go okay?” The pilot thought it probably had, even though it was a first birth. They had grown up with cows and knew how to deal with most situations. Must have been a tough one for his brother to call in a vet.
“Nope. The bull calf diedâthe vet's damn fault, although he wouldn't own up to it.” He narrowed his eyes. “And there's worse. While he was here, I think he got a look at those fawns.”
The pilot sat up straight, feeling a twist of uneasiness. “A good look?”
His brother shrugged. “That old man is shrewd, and he knows our place from way back.” There was that jagged edge again. “He likely knows we ain't got a permit.”
The pilot didn't say anything for a moment. Then, casual and soothing, he said, “Well, I don't reckon he'll say anything. Not his business.”
The brother picked up a rusty can and spit a stream of tobacco juice into it. “I been thinking of having a little talk with him.”
The pilot didn't answer for a moment. Then, carefully, trying to be cool, he said, “I don't think you should do that. Maybe he didn'tâ”
“Leave it to me, bro. I'll take care of it.”
“Okay,” the pilot said reluctantly. “Well, okay.”
The hawk was back in the air, circling for another kill. He thought again of Corpus Christi.