Read Crazy Mountain Kiss Online

Authors: Keith McCafferty

Crazy Mountain Kiss


The Royal Wulff Murders

The Gray Ghost Murders

Dead Man's


Published by the Penguin Publishing Group

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First published by Viking Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by Keith McCafferty

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


McCafferty, Keith.

Crazy mountain kiss : a Sean Stranahan mystery / Keith McCafferty.

pages ; cm


I. Title.

PS3613.C334C73 2015



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, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



Also by Keith McCafferty

Title Page







CHAPTER ONE: Three Degrees of Sean Stranahan

CHAPTER TWO: Love on Four Continents

CHAPTER THREE: Entertainment, Romance, and Live Bait

CHAPTER FOUR: Cinderella

CHAPTER FIVE: The Monster of Montana

CHAPTER SIX: Sleeping with the Devil


CHAPTER EIGHT: Acts of Kindness

CHAPTER NINE: The Woman Who Kicked Out the Stars


CHAPTER TEN: Love in Thin Air


CHAPTER TWELVE: Bumps in the Night


CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Man with the Lobster Hand

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Watch Your Topknot

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: The Crazy Mountain Horsetail Detective


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: The Shelby Southpaw and the Red Death

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: The Second Thing She Did


CHAPTER TWENTY: Hollywood Hero

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: The Star of Pegasus

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: The Birth of a Foal, the Death of an Iguana

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: Seven Crows a Secret

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: The Dog in the Nighttime



CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Dom by Day, Sub by Night

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: If Words Were Silver and Sentences Gold




CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: Montana Double Date





CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: Crazy Mountain Kiss


CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: The Wooly Bugger Waltz

For Gail,

a thousand Crazy Mountain

One crow sorrow

Two crows mirth

Three crows a wedding

Four crows a birth

Five crows silver

Six crows gold

Seven crows a secret, ne'er to be told



Rarely can a writer say this is the moment the seed was sown. Not so,
Crazy Mountain Kiss
. I know exactly where I was when the novel began to take shape in my mind. I was sitting in a booth at Ted's Montana Grill in Bozeman, Montana, with my wife, Gail, and an old colleague from our days as newspaper reporters in California, Steve Swenson, and his wife, Mary. Though Steve was battling cancer, his spirit was undimmed, and I marveled, as I had before, at the skill with which he told a story. One story he told that day is the inspiration for this book, and to Steve I owe a debt of gratitude.

I started writing
Crazy Mountain Kiss
in the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, where I have penned at least a chapter of each of the Sean Stranahan novels. My wife and I spend a couple nights at the Inn to celebrate our wedding anniversary every May, and my tradition is to wander down the long hall into the lobby at three or four in the morning, when the cathedral-like inn is wood dark and deserted. I can lift my eyes to the platform four stories up, and imagine the bands that used to play there for dances after the Inn was built in 1904, when tourists were drawn there by horse and wagon. That morning, the desk I sat at on the second floor was illuminated through a stained glass lamp shade, and with a window cracked in the hopes of hearing a wolf, I opened the novel by writing “It was a dark and stormy night,” just to break the ice.

Before rising from the chair I had the scene as well as the weather, and for once it actually was a dark and stormy night on the page, or at least one of brooding sky and portentous nature. So began the
sojourn into the unknown that is the author's peculiar province. For me writing a novel is akin to setting sail, in that you can see only as far as the horizon, after which you are lost at sea until a bird perches on the mast, and you know that you will finally again come within sight of land. That is to say, the beginning is easiest, the end doable, and the open ocean of the middle chapters fraught with shark teeth and other perils. The trick is to resist the temptation to jump, and it is the readers who keep me onboard as much as anyone else. Specifically, I want to thank those of you who have reached out to me through email and letters. Your kind words bolster my spirits during the more perilous hours.

I owe a debt to the law enforcement officers who indulged my questions over the years, starting with my uncle, the late Bob Bailie, who was a game warden in the Appalachian foothills; my cousin Bill McCafferty, who is the police chief of Steubenville, Ohio; former Gallatin County, Montana, sheriff Jim Cashell; Lieutenant Jason Jarrett; search and rescue incident commander Chris Kent; search dog handler Bonnie Whitman Gafney; Chaplin Warren Hiebert; and old friend and former Park County sheriff's deputy Doug Wonder. Any matter of error in their fields of expertise is entirely my own.

Kathryn Court, the president and publisher of Penguin Books, deserves more thanks than I can give, for without Kathryn there would be no novels. I also want to thank my literary agent, Dominick Abel, for the same reason. Penguin editor Scott Cohen keeps me abreast of developments, the incomparable Beena Kamlani brings the book home, and my special thanks to editor Tara Singh, whose insights help me improve and shape the novels. Artist Jim Tierney designs the striking covers. Rick Holmes lends his rich, nuanced voice to the narration for Recorded Books. Copy editors are often overlooked in the process, but Roland Ottewell's light, intelligent touch makes me look better.

Then there are those who make a morning's work less lonely, including Ron Gompertz, the owner of Wild Joe's Coffee Spot, and baristas and regulars Sarah Grigg, Kezia Manlove, Carson Taylor, Jim
Devitt, Bill MacDonald, Brian Best, Patrick Topel, Emily Suemitsu, Sam Val Daele, Marty Sanders, Marta Plante, Matt Olsen, Kat Knisely, Julie Tate, Roger Robichaud, Mollie Eckman, Natalie Van Dusen, Corina Croaker, Denver Bryan, and Clair Langerak.

Last, never least, are my wife Gail, my daughter, Jessie, and my son, Tom, without whom I would surely drown in that deep and wine-dark


s he reached for the bottle of George T. Stagg fifteen-year-old bourbon, Max Gallagher thought wryly of his oft-quoted principle of writing, the first of “Max's maxims,” which he'd once confided to an editor of
American Crime
magazine—“Always write on the level.” When he was working on
A Nose for Trouble,
the first book in his mystery series featuring a sleuth who was a “nose” for a perfume company, writing on the level meant a speedball, the cocaine slamming into his bloodstream seconds before heroin slowed the train to a more manageable speed. By the time he penned
A Nose for Romance,
his fifth novel and only best seller, he'd kicked his habit and was balancing the high provided by prescription Adderall with vodka and maintenance tokes of marijuana. By then his protagonist had gone through changes of his own. Having lost his wife in a car crash, he was bedding a Parisian film star who smelled of Dior J'Adore in a hotel room in Cassis, on the French Riviera. Gallagher was in fact writing a page from his own life, for he had traveled to Provence to research the setting, booked himself into a waterfront hotel, and carried on his own affair, the difference being that the woman between the sheets was not the French lovely of his imagination but his all too real Argentine mistress, who, having just come from a swim, smelled like kelp.

The mistress cost him his second wife and half his money; investing in a winery run by her uncles in Mendoza lost him the rest. His sixth and seventh books hadn't sold, his publisher dropped him when the eighth failed to materialize, and now, halfway through the rewrite
of his comeback attempt,
A Nose for Tea,
which his agent refused to shop until he'd made drastic revisions, he was alone in a Forest Service rental cabin in Montana's Crazy Mountains, chickadees outside a frosted windowpane for company, chewing nicotine gum for the buzz and tamping it down with the whiskey.

“How the mighty have fallen,” he said aloud. He lifted his fingers from the typewriter keys and swished the bourbon in his mouth. At this rate, financially speaking—he permitted himself a smile—his next book would be written on Red Bull and beer. He laughed silently—his sense of humor would be the last of his qualities to desert him—then let out a sigh. Plot had never been his strong suit, and this one was particularly flimsy, revolving around an Indian mountain goat called a ghooral, which was being poached to extinction because its scent glands were valued by perfume mixers. The setting was Darjeeling, hence the title, and it didn't help that, one, there were no ghooral in Darjeeling; two, the scent glands from an actual ghooral would make perfume smell like goat gonads; and, three, with no advance and residuals claimed by his vices, research consisted of scanning maps on Google Earth. Max Gallagher had never been to India. He didn't even like tea.

He drained the glass. Though the cabin was chill with a clammy odor, he hadn't bothered to build a fire after snowshoeing from the trailhead. The exertion had warmed him and he was in too much hurry to flesh out the thoughts of his road trip, which he'd scratched down on the backs of envelopes while driving with his elbows. Now he sat back in the rough wood chair, rubbed his sore fingertips—it had been twenty years since he'd worked on a manual typewriter—and declared himself satisfied by pouring another shot of the George T. Stagg. The clammy scent he'd noted when coming in the door had a moldy taint, earthy and with an unplaceable metallic tang that made his nostrils flare. He'd chosen a nose for his protagonist because his own sense of smell was acute, and the odor bothered him. Though the drive had long since caught up to him, he thought he'd better open the cabin's windows, build a fire in the open fireplace that
faced into the bunkhouse, and air the place out good before going to bed. He threw on a buffalo plaid stag jacket that made him look like a cigarette model—he'd been that model once and it was a look he cultivated—walked outside, and rendered several blocks of firewood into splits.

Breathing heavily in the altitude, he let his eyes wander to the pond below the cabin. The shoreline was rimmed with ice, the windless surface reflecting muted smears of lilac and magenta that made a drama of the evening skyline. It was the beautiful gloom that is April in Montana: the red wine ribbon of the Shields River far below, puzzle pieces of old snow on the mountainsides, subdued skies through which the sun shone only in the gilded edges of the clouds. Gorgeous if you were an artist, but in an unrelenting way that made the native want to bring an elk rifle to his forehead.

Gallagher stacked the wood and carried it inside, where he crumpled up newspaper and built a tepee of the splits. He looked for the chain or lever that worked the damper and, not finding it, lit the fire. In seconds the cabin had filled with smoke. Something had to be clogging the flue. He picked up an iron poker and stuck it up the chimney. It jammed against something solid, and as he withdrew the iron, a piece of red cloth dropped onto the firebox. He lifted it with the fireplace tongs, narrowing his eyes as he held it at arm's length. The look on his face was one of perplexion, his frown deepening as he saw that the cloth was a Santa hat, complete with a tassel and a band of fake white fur.

A pack rat's cache? Part of
bird's nest?
At the clubhouse he co-owned on the Madison River with three other fishermen, there had been problems with birds building nests in the flue, clogging the length of the passage with sticks. Well, he wasn't going to sleep until he found out. He fished a flashlight from his jacket pocket and walked outside.

He looked up at the roof. No chimney cap. Might as well have handed out invitations to every feather in heaven. Against the eaves was a wooden ladder. Snow had thawed and frozen around the feet of
the ladder, and the rungs were solid as a marble staircase as Gallagher ascended to the roof. Edging to the southern exposure where the snow had burnt off the shingles, he climbed on all fours until reaching the chimney. Built of river stones chinked with hundred-year-old mortar, it was the centerpiece of the cabin, much bigger than a modern chimney, with a wide, squarish opening.

As he got to his feet, hugging the chimney to maintain his balance, a great racketing sounded from within. He ducked as a crow burst out of the chimney, so close to his head that he saw the pebble of its eye and felt the air beating from its wings. The bird, an arrow of black, flew low into the gloom, cawing.

Gallagher watched it out of sight. “One crow sorrow,” he said under his breath.

It was the first line of the “Counting Crows” nursery rhyme his Irish grandmother had recited when he was a child. He tried to think of the second line, knowing that he was stalling. Something was bothering him, a conversation, no, an argument, the details lost to the alcoholic haze in which the memory had been made.
Just do it,
he told himself. Shielding his eyes in case there was another bird—
Two crows mirth,
that was the next line—he raised his head and shone the flashlight into the mouth of the chimney. A crosshatch of sticks woven around the broken tip of a graphite fly rod obscured his view. The crow had been building a nest.

Gallagher felt the tension flood out of his body. He let out a long breath. Now it was just work, and he started pulling up the sticks, tossing them onto the roof. He paused with the tip of the rod in his hand. The crow must have flown with it all the way from the river. Gallagher had pocketed the flashlight while dismantling the nest and switched it back on. There were still sticks too far down to reach and he pushed them aside with the rod tip until he could see into the flue. What stared back at him, from about ten feet down where the smoke chamber narrowed, were empty eye sockets that were as dead black as the wings of the crow.

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