Margaret Mizushima is the author of the internationally published and critically acclaimed Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, including “Burning Ridge,” named a Best Book of 2018 by “Kings River Life.”
She lives in Colorado on a small ranch with her veterinarian husband where they raised two daughters and a multitude of animals. She can be found on Facebook @AuthorMargaretMizushima, on Twitter @margmizu, on Instagram at margmizu and on her website at www.margaretmizushima.com.
The following is an excerpt from her novel “Burning Ridge.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Mystery.
When local veterinarian Cole Walker and his two daughters are enjoying a trail ride up on Redstone Ridge, a beautiful place in the Colorado mountain wilderness, their dog Bruno returns from a run in the forest, bringing them a charred boot containing human remains. Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9 partner Robo are charged with trying to find the rest of the body.
Mattie opened her pack, removed Robo’s collapsible bowl, and filled it with water from her own drinking supply. He’d drunk freely from streams on the way up, but she wanted him to moisten his mucus membranes now to enhance his scenting ability. Besides, it was a valuable part of their routine.
After he lapped at the liquid, she took off his collar and put on his tracking harness, his signal that it was time to search. Robo assumed his all-business face, adopting a serious attitude for the first time on this outing instead of acting like he was along for a picnic.
“Robo, heel.” Taking the ice chest with her, she led him a short distance from the rest of the group and began to tousle his fur and pat his sides. She used the high-pitched chatter meant to rev up his prey drive. “Robo, are you ready to work? Are you? Let’s find something.”
He waved his tail and looked into her eyes, telling her he was ready to go.
Mattie bent to open the container about two inches, holding the lid firmly so that Robo couldn’t push his nose all the way in. “Here Robo. Scent this.”
The odor of rotting flesh wafted out, attracting Robo like a fly to a carcass. He poked his nose into the open crack as far as Mattie would allow. Then she gently closed the lid, forcing him to withdraw.
She secured the lid on the ice chest and straightened. Raising her hand above her head, she said Robo’s name to draw his attention. After he lifted his eyes to her face, she flung her arm out in a gesture toward the meadow, at the same time telling him, “Search.”
Robo dashed into the meadow with its red flowers. She swallowed the tension that had tightened her throat and jogged after him, Deputy Brody following behind.
The grass was slick from the rain, and the ground beneath it uneven and muddy. Very soon, she realized she wouldn’t be able to keep up with Robo on this type of terrain. Placing her feet carefully on tufts of grass rather than sinking into the sometimes swampy muck in between, she did her best to keep up with her swift-footed dog. She’d take a rocky hillside over this any day.
With his larger feet and heavier build, Brody struggled even more than she did. They fell into a strung-out line as they crossed the meadow, Robo out front and Brody bringing up the rear. Robo quartered the area back and forth while his humans stayed on a straight line down the middle. Mattie kept her eyes on her footing, glancing up frequently to see if Robo had hit upon something.
Most of the time Robo held his head up, nose in the air, telling her that he was air-scenting rather than following a ground-track. Occasionally he put his nose down to sniff, boosting her heart rate as she wondered if he’d found a corpse or other remains, but then he would raise his head and dash forward, continuing in a general trajectory toward the forest at the meadow’s far edge.
He reached the tree line when Mattie was about halfway across. She didn’t want him to disappear within the woods before she got there, so she called to him. “Robo, wait!”
He paused at the forest’s edge, watching her pick her way forward.
“Good boy,” she said as she neared. Then, not wanting to slow his momentum more than necessary, she once again sent him on. “Go ahead. Search.”
Robo entered the forest with her not far behind. She could still see him as he slipped through the sparse pine, but lost sight of him where the evergreens grew dense. When the footing became less soggy, she pushed herself into a sprint.
Sunlight dimmed as the forest closed around her. Mattie pressed forward, searching for Robo as her eyes adjusted to less light. She spotted him about thirty yards ahead following a faint trail, his nose in the air. She raced after him, using the firmer footing to catch up.
A Steller’s jay, its blue feathers iridescent in the filtered sunlight, flashed ahead and then landed high in a pine to scold her, its chirrup echoing in the stillness.
Too still? When they’d reached the meadow, they’d ridden out of the sounds of the forest—the murmuring twitter of birds and jabber of squirrels. Were the animals and birds aware of forbidden human activity back in here? Did they avoid this area?
Her feet thumping on the trail, Mattie closed the distance from Robo to about twenty feet. Her proximity did nothing to slow his pace—in fact, he held his head high and broke into a lope, his gaze straight ahead, his attitude purposeful.
The trail rose up and dipped back down, winding around boulders, currant bushes, and mountain juniper. She heard Brody’s footsteps at her back and saw that Robo remained intent on what lay ahead. They rounded a curve where a stream rushed beside the trail, and Robo veered to cross it. He apparently thought nothing of splashing through the clear water. Mattie slowed to pick her way on stones where she could, but when her foot slipped, cold water filled her boot.
She hoped Robo knew what he was doing and wasn’t leading them on a wild-goose chase. She pounded after him, one foot squishy inside her wet sock.
Robo breached a short rise and shot into a small clearing that contained a circle of rocks surrounding a campfire. The brook burbled behind her while he paused to sniff the blackened ash inside the fire ring. The pit was soggy and wet, no warm coals left to indicate a recent fire.
He sat and looked at her, his signal that he’d found something. And in this case, it appeared to be something outside of the environmental norm—one of Robo’s basic search skills, well practiced and highly accurate.
Her hopes fell. Had he been chasing the odor of ashes instead of decomp? Although disappointed, she followed him into the clearing, bent over and patted his side, telling him what a good boy he was. She needed to reinforce what he’d been trained to do, not be discouraged over his failure to perform a brand-new task.
Looking up into Mattie’s eyes and waving his tail, Robo accepted his praise and then stood and faced the forest, ears pricked. “What else has he got?” Brody said, arriving at the campsite behind her. Both of them had worked around Robo enough to know what his posture meant. Full alert. He’d hit on the scent she’d given him earlier.
“Let’s see,” Mattie murmured. And then, in an excited voice meant to encourage him, she said to Robo, “Go ahead, buddy. Search!”
Robo launched himself away from the stone-lined fire ring and dashed into the woods beyond the campsite. Mattie stayed close on his heels and Brody kept a short distance behind. He always covered her back, and she’d come to count on him.
She followed her dog through the trees for another fifty yards, the odor thickening as she traveled. The air grew heavy with the stink of rotting flesh. Robo picked up speed, dashing down into a hollow and then slowing. He pinned his ears, slinking up to a mound of dirt and debris.
Mattie raced to catch up. By the time she reached him, Robo had sat down and was waiting for her. His mouth opened in a pant, and he wore a smug expression as though quite satisfied with himself.
She squatted beside him and hugged him close, giving him lots of praise and pats for doing such a remarkable job. Since the stench was so bad, she wondered if this had been his destination all along, and he’d shown her the fire ring just for kicks.
“Here’s the big prize,” she said to Brody.
A shallow grave that had been ravaged by predators lay before them, putting on a partial display of its contents. Mattie’s stomach clenched as she took in the sight. The upper body of a burned corpse had been exposed, its arms bent like those of a boxer, its wrists flexed, its fingers curled into blackened claws. Roasted flesh had been harvested from the bone by the animals that had dug into the gravesite, and the face had been uncovered enough that Mattie could see the disfigured lower half—its jaw thrust open by its charred, protruding tongue.
In all her years of law enforcement, it was the worst thing Mattie had ever seen. She controlled her need to retch and scanned the lower half of the grave.
One leg was exposed, foot and boot missing. She forced herself to think analytically. Could Bruno have done this damage when he’d found the body? No, this couldn’t have been his handiwork. A pack of coyotes or foxes must have dug up the grave, one of them had dragged away the boot, and Bruno had merely found it.
Charred pieces of wood were scattered about and there’d been enough digging to see that the body had been buried inside another fire pit—this one huge.
“A burning pit,” Brody said, scanning the area around them. “For getting rid of a body. Plenty of wood for fuel, but not enough heat to do the job.”
Mattie struggled to remain as detached as Brody. Who was this poor man? At least she thought it was a man. What kind of a horrible death had he faced? Who was his family, and had they reported him missing? “Why bury him way up here?”
Brody shrugged. “Slim chance of being interrupted. Besides, he was probably killed up here.”
She forced her eyes away from the desecrated corpse. “We need to preserve this scene the best we can. This one’s going to get complicated.”
Brody straightened, thrusting his thumbs under his utility belt. “That’s for damn sure.”