"Hunting Hour," by Margaret Mizushima

A 2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Mystery

At the beginning of Hunting Hour, Deputy Mattie Cobb is in a dark place. Haunted by repressed memories from her childhood, she’s sleep deprived and emotionally and physically spent.

An emergency text from the sheriff’s department interrupts Mattie’s Skype session with her therapist, calling her back into work so that she and her K-9 partner Robo can search for a missing teenage girl.

In this excerpt from the end of chapter one, Mattie is talking to the missing girl’s mother, Juanita, while Robo waits in their vehicle:

“Do you have a picture of Candace with you?”

Juanita opened the front door on the passenger side and pulled out a handbag. She rifled through its contents and extracted a wallet, which she opened, then searched through the plastic sleeves holding photos. “Here’s one, but it’s old,” she said, handing it to Mattie.

It must have been taken several years ago. Candace looked maybe seven or eight years old. “How old is she now?”

“Thirteen. I think this was her third-grade picture.”

Mattie stored the image in her memory—curly brown hair, the same brown eyes of her father and narrow features of her mother, although not as extreme. Very cute. The girl reminded her of Sophie Walker.

She used her cell phone to take a snapshot of the photo and passed the picture back to Juanita. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“Hunting Hour,” by Margaret Mizushima.

After retrieving a bag from her SUV, Mattie placed the hoodie inside and zipped it shut. She could feel Robo’s eyes drilling into her and figured he knew exactly what was going on. She told Juanita to rejoin the others and then returned to him. He began to jump around inside his compartment, making the car bounce, his energy level shooting through the roof.

Wishing she’d had time to give him the evening exercise she knew he so desperately needed, Mattie opened up the back hatch, and Robo rushed the door. “Wait,” she told him using a stern voice. “Sit.”

Robo eased into a hovering sit, watching her eagerly while she took out his equipment. She exchanged his leather collar for the working one made of blue nylon and put on the tracking harness they used when searching for people. He charged toward the door again.

“Wait!” She felt responsible for setting up this energy bomb inside her partner. “Settle down. You need to listen.”

She poured a splash of water into his collapsible bowl to moisten his mucus membranes and enhance his scenting ability. Despite his distraction, he lapped a few times.

After strapping on her utility belt, she placed the bagged sweatshirt into one of its pockets and clipped a short leash onto Robo’s collar. “Okay, you can unload.”

Robo leapt down and circled at her feet, barely able to contain his excitement. Avoiding getting entangled in the leash, Mattie told him to heel and led him to a tree. “Take a break.”

She stayed with routine, although Robo barely lifted his leg before beginning to circle again. Frustrated by her dog’s lack of focus, she commanded him to heel and led him westward on the sidewalk.

Fatigue made her body feel sluggish and heavy, but she tried to stride out and project the role of leader. Although Robo pushed the boundary between heel position and surging out front, he seemed to make an effort to do as he was told. Mattie headed to a place about fifty feet from the school, in a direction she assumed Candace would take to go home. She planned to quarter that area to see if Robo could pick up a scent trail.

Once there, Mattie told Robo to sit while she exchanged the short leash for a longer one, clipping it onto his harness. Typically she would let him search off leash, but today it didn’t seem like a good idea.

She opened the bag that held the scent article and let him poke his head inside. He gave it a thorough sniffing before she took it away. “Search.”

Robo put his nose to the ground, sniffed a couple times, then raised his head to trot toward the west. Mattie let the leash play out about ten feet, keeping it slack to give Robo the freedom to go where his nose might take him. Instead, he trotted up to a tree on the edge of the schoolyard, lifted his leg, and marked the tree as his territory.

Astonished, Mattie tugged the leash tight in a harsh correction. He’d never reacted to a search command like that before. Taking amoment to redirect his attention, she lowered the scent article for him again, but he didn’t seem interested. Mattie gave him another search command.

He milled around the bushes and trees, sniffing and pawing, and then moved to another clump of foliage. Mattie checked each time to see what was holding his attention, but he didn’t stay long enough in an area to indicate he was finding anything. He seemed to be flitting from one interesting scent to another and not focusing on his job. Testing her authority.

Growing impatient, Mattie snatched the leash in both hands and yanked Robo’s collar, pulling him back beside her at heel position. “Robo, sit. You know better. Listen to me!”

Brody sauntered over to join them, thumbs hooked at the top of his utility belt. “What’s up, Cobb?”

Mattie gave him an exasperated look. “He’s not finding anything. This is asking too much, trying to find one scent trail in a schoolyard.”

Brody nodded as he studied her. “Looks like he’s not even trying.”

The truth in his observation did nothing to dampen her temper. “Give us some time,” she snapped.

“Take all the time you want,” he said, lengthening his words in the oh-so-patient tone he sometimes used. “But let me make an observation.”

Mattie met his gaze, narrowing her eyes at him. He was treading on her territory.

“You’re not working together like you usually do. He’s got all the energy, and you’ve got nothin’.”

She struggled to control her temper. Brody might actually be onto something. Her exhaustion and Robo’s lack of exercise were a bad mix.

“Start over,” Brody said. “Chat him up like you usually do. Get yourself excited too.”

“Is that all?”

Brody shrugged one shoulder. “Just sayin’.”

“We’ll try again.” She turned away before glancing back and nodding toward the people who were gathering at the front of the school. “Can you do something about this crowd?”

“I’ll take care of it.” Brody strode back toward the school.

“Heel,” she told Robo and began jogging toward the vehicle. While headed in that direction, she decided to swing wide and jog around the perimeter of the schoolyard to give her dog the exercise he craved. Robo trotted at her side, his mouth opening in a happy grin.

I should have done this in the first place.

Mattie completed two laps around the block, went back to her SUV, and offered Robo some water. He drank it eagerly. Then she began the patter that revved up his prey drive.

“You wanna go to work now, Robo? Do ya?” She continued to use a high-pitched voice as she led him toward the southwest corner of the property, avoiding the west side, where he’d failed to work previously. He pranced beside her in heel position and waved his tail, his eyes fixed on her as if awaiting instruction; he appeared much more like himself—intent and on the job.

Brody had dispersed the crowd, although a few people lingered around the school boundary, as if hoping to watch the show. Mattie decided to ignore them. Once she’d reached the point where she wanted to start, she asked Robo to sniff the scent article. This time he gave it his full attention and went right to work, quartering the area she directed, nose to the ground, and moving his head back and forth as he searched. She unsnapped his leash and trusted him to do his job, hurrying behind to keep up, occasionally directing him to sweep around the school perimeter in a large circle.

When they reached the east side, Robo hesitated at the sidewalk, giving it a thorough sniffing. Then he trotted away from the school, keeping his nose to the ground. Surprised, Mattie followed.

She glanced behind to see Brody following at a distance, alone. Before she turned her attention back to Robo, she heard Brody shout at a group of boys to stay put, and she knew he’d keep the bystanders in line so that she and her dog could focus on the track.

Robo led her eastward for several blocks and then across the street, heading for the high school. He kept his nose down and didn’t hesitate; Mattie felt certain Candace had come this way instead of going west toward her home. Robo continued along the sidewalk toward Timber Creek High and then turned onto school property.

He skirted the edge of the school, moving along the rough stone-and-metal siding of the walls toward the side doorway. His ears pricked forward, and he paused to sniff the sidewalk, circling the area outside the door, nose down. Mattie imagined the trail he’d been on mingling with all those scents left by other kids, and she feared he’d lose the track.

But Robo kept searching, and he stayed with it until he moved off again toward the far corner of the building. From there, he picked up speed, heading up a well-trodden pathway that led to the hill at the backside of the building, which students had dubbed Smoker’s Hill even before her own tenure.

The steep incline challenged Mattie’s tired muscles. She’d walked this trail countless times as a teen—and yes, once she’d been one of the teenage smokers the hill was named for—but it had been years since she’d been back here. Even so, nothing had changed. Same elevation rising at a diagonal toward the top, same vegetation made up of dry grasses, rabbit brush, sharp yucca and cactus, everything just beginning to green. Same boulders and outcroppings dotting the hillside, providing plenty of places to hide.

Ambush. Something she thought of every time she followed Robo into this type of terrain. She scanned the hillside, telling herself she was silly to worry.

This is the hill behind the school, right here in town, for Pete’s sake. Still, she kept a watchful eye on the boulders as she climbed.

Would she find Candace up here, casually sharing a cigarette or a joint with a friend? Surely a kid with asthma would know better than to smoke.

Robo continued up the trail, his ears darting forward and back. About halfway to the top, he breached a rise that led into a depression surrounded by scattered boulders and rocks of all sizes. Afterfollowing him down into the bowl, she scanned the area, realizing no one could see her from the bottom of the hill. Isolated.

There were changes on the ground, torn sod and footprints, as if there’d been a scuffle. They spoke to her.

Something’s wrong.

The hair on her neck rose about the same time it did on Robo’s. Something bad had happened here; Robo could feel it, and so could she. She glanced behind her to see if Brody was near, but the rise blocked her view.

She hurried to keep up with Robo, who was trotting off-trail now and heading around a rocky outcropping farther up the hillside. He disappeared behind it, and Mattie ran to keep him in sight. Sprinting uphill, she rounded the rocky area and found him sitting beside a clump of rabbit brush, staring at her.

“What is it? What did you find?”

She spotted something under the brush. Denim . . . jeans. The setting sun provided dim light. Shadows gradually took shape. Jean-clad legs.

Mattie squatted beside Robo, gently pushing the brush aside so she could see what lay beneath. She heard and felt Brody come up beside her, but she couldn’t divert her gaze to look at him.

The girl lay on her back, hands folded on her chest, eyes closed. Only the broken fingernails, blue-tinted lips, and red abrasions on her face belied her peaceful repose. Curly brown hair—no doubt it was Candace. Dead.

Mattie sucked in a breath and slipped an arm around Robo, hugging him close while her eyes rose to meet Brody’s shocked expression.

“Shit, Cobb,” he muttered. “What the hell’s going on in this town?”

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Interview: Author Margaret Mizushima.