THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS is now available in paperback
A clever and fast-paced murder mystery full of wit, suspense, and fly fishing.
When a fishing guide reels in the body of a young man on the Madison, the Holy Grail of Montana trout rivers, Sheriff Martha Ettinger suspects foul play. It’s not just the stick jammed into the man’s eye that draws her attention; it’s the Royal Wulff trout fly stuck in his bloated lower lip. Following her instincts, Ettinger soon finds herself crossing paths with Montana newcomer Sean Stranahan.
Fly fisher, painter, and has-been private detective, Stranahan left a failed marriage and lackluster career to drive to Montana, where he lives in an art studio decorated with fly-tying feathers and mouse droppings. With more luck catching fish than clients, Stranahan is completely captivated when Southern siren Velvet Lafayette walks into his life, intent on hiring his services to find her missing brother. The clues lead Stranahan and Ettinger back to Montana’s Big Business: fly fishing. Where there’s money, there’s bound to be crime.
The fishing guide known as Rainbow Sam found the body. Or rather, it was the client casting from the bow of Sam’s driftboat, working a fly called a Girdle Bug in front of a logjam that parted the current of the Madison River. When the float indicator pulled under the surface, Sam winced, figuring a snag. The client, whose largest trout to date had been the size of a breakfast sausage, reared back as if to stick a tarpon.
The body submerged under the driftwood shook free of its tether, bobbed to the surface and floated, face down, the hook buried in the crotch of the waders.
The client’s reel screamed. The bloated corpse took line, steadily, implacably, in the manner of a large carp. Leaning hard on the oars, Sam closed the gap between his boat and the body. Calmly, in a voice that had coaxed a thousand neophyte anglers, he instructed his client to drop the long-handled net over the dead man’s head. The catch so enmeshed, he angled his Clackacraft downstream at the pace of the current, fanning the oars gently toward a bay at the bank.
“We got him!” the client beamed.
Sam thought, “Holy shit.” But he made a mental note to convert all his monofilament leader material to Orvis Superstrong in the future, just the same. The eight pound tippet had held like a stout steel cable.
“I’ll tell you what, Buddy,” Sam muttered, as he stepped out of the driftboat and gingerly lifted the meshes of the net over a hank of flowing hair. “You may not be God’s gift to trout fishin’, but you just got yourself a whopper of a story.”
Sam worked the hook from the waders, then rolled the body face-up. For the next few moments neither man spoke. The client, his florid face suddenly ashen, leaned over the gunwale and threw up, starting with the tin of kippered herring he’d had for a snack after Sam’s bankside lunch. He was a big eater and it took a half dozen heaves to get it all up.
Rainbow Sam just stared. It wasn’t only the ruptured left eye socket, from which a splinter of stick protruded like a skeletal finger, that riveted his attention. It was the lower lip, grotesquely swollen and purple as a plum. He bent down for a closer look. In the center of the lip was a trout fly. It was a Royal Wulff, a hair wing dry fly pattern about the size of an evening moth. Tied on a #12 hook, Sam decided. The barb was buried in the flesh; from the hook’s down-turned eye dangled a strand of monofilament leader material.
“Ah shit,” Sam said, having recovered from the shock of the mutilation. “I think I know this kid. Goddammit anyhow.”
For the angler was a very young man, little more than a teenager, Sam thought. He had floated past where the angler was wade fishing only a few weeks before, on a stretch of river not far upstream. He remembered the occasion because the fisherman wasn’t cut from the same khaki and Gortex cloth that stamped most Madison River pilgrims. Sam disapproved of anglers who dressed like pages out of catalogues. They projected a GQ quality that might serve one in good social stead at an upscale fishing lodge, but emphasized particulars to which trout paid no attention.
By contrast, this man’s waders were stained and patched and he fished without a vest, let alone one sporting the obligatory ten pockets. “How are you doing, Mr. Sam?” the young man had called out that morning as Sam glided by. And Sam, momentarily taken aback before realizing that the angler had read his name from the logo stenciled on the bow, had tipped his cap in reply. It was a grace note in the day, considering that wade fishermen and boat anglers competed for the same water. Tensions could become strained on a popular river like the Madison.
“Now why the fuck did this have to happen to a nice kid like that?” the fishing guide muttered to himself.
He waded ashore, sucking the back of a tooth.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to call the sheriff. Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.” Sam’s client, having clambered out of the boat, was sunk to his knees in the shallows, a string of drool hanging from his stubbled chin. A few feet away, a school of tiny fish flashed under the yellow wash of vomit. The man nodded dumbly.
Rainbow Sam climbed the steep riverbank. For just a second he took in his surroundings, the river reflecting lavender evening clouds and the deeper purples of the mountains, its current running between banks of wild roses. It was part of what attracted anglers from around the world to the Madison—the setting and the water quality, a champagne of intoxicating clarity that poured in one effervescent riffle from Quake Lake to the small fishing town of Ennis. And then, too, there were the trout, with their ruby stripes and polished flanks, as hard as metal and as perfect as God ever made.
Well, Sam thought, this poor bastard has caught his last one.
He noted the nearest residences, a log mansion sporting panoramic riverfront windows and, just upstream, a chinked-up homestead cabin with a rusted half-ton in the drive. He spat, automatically registering the twenty-first century Montana paradox—Big Sky native cheek to jowl with summer gentry—whose house being the eyesore depending upon your point of view. Well, one ought to have a phone, anyway. He cinched the belt around his waders and began to walk.
—from The Royal Wulff Murders