About the Author

David A. Poulsen

DAVID A. POULSEN has been a rodeo competitor and rodeo clown, rock singer, high school football coach, stage and film actor, and college English instructor. His most recent books include Numbers, Last Sam's Cage, and the four titles in the Lawrence High School Yearbook series. Poulsen raises quarter horses and Texas longhorn cattle on a ranch in the foothills west of Claresholm, Alberta, where he is the coordinator of Project READ, the community’s literacy program.

Books by this Author
And Then the Sky Exploded
Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

It was hot in the church. Hot and sticky. Uncomfortable. And I was wishing I were somewhere else.
I guess I shouldn’t call it a church. It was a funeral home. The building looked sort of like a church from the outside but inside there were no church services — just funerals.
I’d always figured funerals were all about sad — with mourners looking sad, and the minister looking sad, and the people who worked in the funeral home, all in dark suits and serious, sad faces.
And, of course, there’s the deceased. Which is why everyone is sad. Someone has died — the deceased. I had already learned to say “the deceased” than to use any phrase that has the word dead in it. People don’t like that, especially the mourners. At this funeral I was one of the mourners.
It was my first funeral. I’d managed to get all the way to fourteen years old, well, almost fourteen, without having to watch someone I knew be buried. But that all came to an end on October 16, 2015. My great-grandfather had died five days before — October 11 — same day as my sister Carly’s birthday. She was fifteen — one year and twenty-two days older than me.
But since my great-grandpa had died that morning we didn’t do much birthday celebrating, which Carly was totally bummed about. I was okay with the no-celebration part because it meant one less day of the year that I had to pretend to like my sister. The other ones were Christmas and Thanksgiving. Christmas makes sense I guess — you’re supposed to be nice to everybody on Christmas Day.
But I could never figure out Thanksgiving. Mom says it’s the day we’re supposed to be thankful for all of our blessings. And I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just that I don’t consider Carly a blessing. Actually, the best time of the year was the one when my sister’s birthday and Thanksgiving were the same day. Cut one exactly one third of the “be-nice-to-Sis” days.
That was back when we lived in Canada, where Thanksgiving is a lot earlier than here in America.
I was hoping that this year we’d just blow off Carly’s birthday altogether, but no luck. I mean even Carly could sort of understand that it wasn’t really appropriate to have a party with cake and candles and girls taking selfies on the day Great-Grandpa Will died. But Mom promised Carly that we’d celebrate her birthday a couple of weeks later.
We called him GG Will which is a lot simpler than Great-Grandpa Will, especially if you had to say it a whole bunch of times in a row.
William Deaver — that was his real name. He was my mom’s grandpa. He had been a scientist and a professor and was the smartest person I’d ever met. He was also the coolest ninety-six-year-old guy in the world. How many guys on their ninety-third birthday are out there playing street hockey with their great-grandkids? Of course, he mostly played goal and we all maybe took it a little easy when we were shooting at his net. But he was out there laughing and having fun and even yelling at everybody on his team. He made a couple of pretty good saves too.
I was remembering that day playing street hockey and some other stuff about GG Will while I was sitting there in the funeral place. Since I didn’t have any actual experience with funerals, I didn’t really know how to act. Lots of people around me were crying. I didn’t cry. Not because I wasn’t sad, I was. Like I said, I really liked GG Will and I knew I was going to miss his jokes and his grilled-cheese sandwiches, which were unbelievable. He cooked them in tinfoil with an iron. Seriously.
And he could explain stuff that was totally complicated, but when he was done explaining, you understood it. I guess that was connected to how smart he was. Although I’ve known some pretty smart people who explain something and they finish and look at you like you get it now, right? And the whole thing is still a mystery. So I’ll miss that about my GG Will. And his goaltending, I’d miss that, too.
Mostly I tried not to move around a lot. I figured fidgeting and turning around to look at the people behind me would have my sister tapping my mom on the arm and pointing at me: Look at Christian, Mom. Can you make him stop acting like a child? Or something like that. And then Mom would tell Dad and there’d be the lecture when we got home and I hated the lecture almost as much as I hated zucchini.
So I tried to look around without moving anything other than my head and eyes. I was sitting next to the window but when I tried to look out, the light was hitting the glass kind of funny and mostly what I saw was me … looking back at me.
Looking at myself is not one of my favourite pastimes. I know kids are supposed to be all about themselves and I guess I’m like that sometimes, but I just don’t like looking at myself. In the morning, I try to get the face-washing, the teeth-brushing, and the hair-combing done with as little time as possible spent looking into the mirror.
But there I was in the reflection in the window of the funeral home. All five-foot-seven (170 cm) one hundred and twenty-two pounds of me, the same brown hair and brown eyes that had been me for thirteen years and eleven-plus months. So how would I describe my looks? Well, the word handsome wouldn’t be part of the description but I don’t think ugly would either. Somewhere in between, I guess.
It wasn’t a friendly face looking back at me from that window glass. I looked like I did most of the time — sort of pissed off at the world. Which I wasn’t, not really, but some kids have happier looks on their faces, not that they’re grinning or even smiling all the time, they just look like they’re okay with the way life is going.
That’s not Christian Larkin. Even though my life is fine (if you don’t count Carly), my brain doesn’t seem to be able to convince my face of that. I try. Seriously, some mornings I tell myself okay, today I’m all about happy and I walk around smiling the whole time, but at the end of the day I feel like an idiot and my cheek muscles hurt. So I don’t do that every often. It’s easier to just be the guy the window glass said I was.
GG Will was inside a casket that was sitting right at the front of the centre aisle of the funeral home. We were in the right-hand rows, also at the front. Which meant we were right next to the casket. That’s where the family sits at most funerals, which is one of the things I learned that day.
There were a couple of songs — hymns I guess — and the minister talked about Jesus, the shepherd, and how every sheep in the flock mattered to the shepherd. There was more but I didn’t get all of it.
Up to then I hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on. I’d been watching this banner flutter high up on the wall at the front of the building, right over where the minister was standing. The banner had symbols on it and I’d been trying to figure out what the symbols meant and also why the banner was fluttering. I mean it’s not like there was a wind inside the funeral home.
I’d also been thinking about the smell, which was sort of strange, too. Actually a few smells together. Kind of a smell mix. There was the smell of coffee, which made sense since we’d all been in this waiting room until it was time to go into the main part of the building where the funeral was and there had been coffee in that room. And there was the smell of soap and hair stuff and new clothes — like everybody had tried to be really clean and smelling okay — I figured that made sense, too. What didn’t make sense was the other smell. It was popcorn. Who brings popcorn to a funeral? The answer is nobody so where did the smell come from? It’s not like there was a theatre next door. Actually there was a paint store on one side and a parking lot on the other. Neither of those is famous for popcorn.
So that was it — coffee and soap and popcorn. And there were a couple of other smells I didn’t recognize right off.

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Dead Air

Dead Air

A Cullen and Cobb Mystery
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Excerpt

Prologue
June 1999

The shadows were deepening as darkness rolled over and around the dense, still forest. The poplars and spruce stood silent and unmoving, the moonlight peeking through clouds, but only now and then.
Black emerged from the meeting with his inner circle — the three people he trusted. One final meeting to tie up the last loose ends and make certain everything was in readiness for the departure. There could be no mistakes — not now when they’d come this far and been so successful. In every way.
Black liked the darkness. It was why he had chosen the name. They’d all chosen colours, all four members of the organizing committee — it had been his suggestion, based on his favourite movie, Reservoir Dogs. And for him, Mr. Black was the perfect choice — black, the colour of coal, of outer space, of night … of death.
The rest — the attendees (he disliked the term “delegates”) were numbers. Numbers, like colours — anonymous.
The week couldn’t have gone better. He was absolutely certain of that. A magical time in a magical place. Not one complaint. As tough physically, mentally, and psychologically as this camp had been, the most demanding he’d ever been a part of, every single delegate was going away from here happy, energized, and full of hope for a brighter future than ever before.
That was something else he’d insisted on. It was a camp — not a boot camp. Black felt the latter term had a negative ring. The left painted boot camps as intense, hate-inspired brainwashing sessions. But they weren’t that, not at all. This camp had been carefully designed to prepare attendees to fight long and hard, crush all opposition, and do whatever it took to win. You could only effect change by being in power. And camps like this one equipped delegates to help bring about the victory that had to happen.
As the noise from the final night’s celebration filtered through the trees, he moved away from his companions to reflect, to smile, and to plan. And to do what had to be done.
The time for reflection felt good. He thought back on all the months of planning — of arranging for this place, just a few miles from Buffalo, Wyoming, with all its Old West history and only several hundred yards from the site of the Wagon Box Fight, an important part of that history. The logistics had been flawless — from the food and drink, the supplies the instructors and guest speakers needed, everything right down to the porta-potties, every detail, including the intense secrecy that was the most important detail of all. And the most amazing part was knowing that a few hours after the camp was packed up and gone, there would be virtually no evidence to show that it had even taken place. Or, most importantly, who had been there.
The presenters had been even better than Black had dared hope for — inspirational and zealous without coming off so extreme as to be characterized merely as crackpots. That was important given the number of new recruits at this gathering. And it was important, too, because that was something else the left had done and continued to do — focus its attention and its attacks on the few who were unable to contain their admitted intolerance and their over-the-top fervour. One of the Fox News commentators — Carlisle, the guy from Wichita, Kansas, who spoke on Thursday night — had said it perfectly. “The public will buy anything that is packaged and presented well — they’ll buy nothing that’s packaged and presented badly. We have to be better salesmen than the other side.”
And Black knew Carlisle was right. Now the stage was set. There would never, could never be another Clinton. The second president in history to be impeached was still in place. Acquitted by a liberal-dominated court. But the slut president wouldn’t be there much longer; in less than two years he’d be gone. His replacement was ready and waiting. And best of all, Black knew that after this week, after this camp — his camp — conservative commentators and right-wing future candidates and incumbents were more prepared to go into battle than they’d ever been.
Tomorrow they’d leave, go back to their homes and home bases, ready to take the fight to the next level. Black felt his gut tighten as the excitement of knowing what these six days had been and what had been accomplished took hold of him. He managed a rare smile.
Black’s walk had taken him to the back of the camp, directly behind the RVs and tents that dotted the large clearing designated Bivouac C. His walk had been deliberate, designed to bring him to this area. One last detail to be taken care of. And he was the one who had to do it. He knew that.
He almost laughed at the gall of the infiltrator. And the stupidity. The fool actually believed he could come in here, spy on them, steal their secrets, and walk away unscathed. And what then? Print them in some poorly crafted story the left-wing media would fall over themselves to present? How arrogant and stupid journalists could be.
This one was arrogant, stupid, and wrong. Wrong to think he could pull it off. And just as wrong to agree to meet Black privately — there’s something I want to share with you. And the fool had bought it, further evidence of his idiocy.
Black stopped just behind a low canopy of brush and larger pines. He slipped the backpack off and onto the ground in front of him, reached in and took out first the night goggles, then the knife. Everything he needed.
He pushed the backpack under the brush. He’d retrieve it in the morning as they were preparing to leave. All of them. Except for the one who would not be leaving. He would remain here — forever.
Black began moving slowly and silently through the deep, dark woods — to the place they had agreed to meet. And for the second time in as many minutes, Black was smiling.

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Last Song Sung

Last Song Sung

A Cullen and Cobb Mystery
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Excerpt

There was something Holmesian about it.
Cobb and I were sitting in his office, drinking Keurig Starbucks, me looking out the window at 1st Street West below us and watching a beautiful twenty-something blonde cross the street and head toward Cobb’s building.
My memory told me that was how several Holmes stories began — except, of course, it was Holmes’s apartment on Baker Street that he and Watson were in and Holmes was either playing the violin or reading the newspaper. Cobb had spent the last hour invoicing clients and telling me in general terms the nature of their cases. To my knowledge, Cobb did not play the violin.
There was, however, a bit of a similarity between Watson and me. Although Holmes’s companion was a doctor and I had spent most of my adult life as a crime writer, first for the Calgary Herald and then as a freelancer for the last several years, the fact was that, like Watson, I was something of a chronicler of the cases Cobb and I had worked on together. I was, at that time, working on a couple of articles I hoped to shop to magazines — articles that recounted the details of our recent investigation into the violent deaths of a number of right-wing media luminaries. That was the reason my computer sat at the ready on a small table in one corner of Cobb’s second-floor space on the corner of 12th Avenue and 1st Street West in the Beltline, an elder statesman among Calgary neighbourhoods.
“You’re about to have company,” I said, not looking away from the street or the young woman, who had clearly favoured denim when she had made the day’s fashion decisions. I was confident of the correctness of my assertion because at the moment, Cobb was the lone tenant of the building, all the others having been temporarily evacuated while renovations were taking place. I’d asked him how it was that a private detective was not inconvenienced with having to vacate his office when other firms with more office space and several actual employees had been. Cobb had smiled as he told me that, as soon as the building manager had mentioned Cobb would have to leave the building for a couple of weeks, Cobb made as if to begin the packing process, pulled several firearms from his closet, and set them on his desk. The manager, apparently not certain whether the weapons were part of the move or had been taken from the closet for some other purpose, decided that Cobb’s office looked “okay as it is” and backed out the door with considerable dispatch.
“Male or female?” Cobb asked, without looking up from his own computer.
“Decidedly female,” I told him.
“And you know she’s coming here because …?”
“Because (a) there’s bugger all else on this side of the street, (b) she keeps looking up here as she gets closer, and (c) she’s now entering the front door of the building.”
“Ah … that last one’s a dead giveaway.”
He closed up his computer in an apparent attempt to look more detective-like for the new arrival and had just completed that task when the knock came at the door. I turned from the window, crossed the office, my slippery city shoes (as Ian Tyson called them) drumming on the aged hardwood, and opened the door. My closer look at the young woman confirmed what I had been fairly certain of from my window view of her. Though the September wind had done her mid-back-length blond hair no favours, she was striking. Young — twenty-ish, I guessed — and … striking.
“Is this the office of Michael Cobb, private detective?” she said in a voice that was breathy but firm. My first impression of her was that she was no-nonsense.
“It is,” I said, and stepped back to allow her to move into the office.
She stepped inside, and Cobb stood up to greet her. There was a momentary look of confusion on the young woman’s face as she looked from me to Cobb and back at me.
I gestured in Cobb’s direction to allay further confusion.
“I’m Mike Cobb,” he said, “and this is my associate, Adam Cullen. Please have a seat.” Cobb indicated a brown leather chair that, until I’d stretched my legs by moving to the window, had been my spot. I took a new position on a hard-backed, hard-seated, cloth-covered thing that offered a comfort level equal to that of a church pew.
When she was settled into her chair, Cobb looked at the young woman. “What is it you think I can help you with, Ms. …?”
“Brill. Monica Brill.”
“Would you care for a cup of coffee, Ms. Brill?”
She shook her head, sat forward in the chair, and looked at Cobb with eyes that confirmed my earlier assessment. She was all business. “I’m interested in hiring a private detective, but I need someone who does more than spy on wayward spouses in divorce cases.” She wasn’t smiling.
Cobb was. “I won’t lie, Ms. Brill, I did a few of those back in the day, but haven’t for a long time. I’m an ex-cop, worked robbery for a few years, homicide for a few more.”
She nodded, then looked over at me, eyebrows lifted. “That’s what my research indicated. Your partner does the divorce work now?” “Neither of us does, actually,” Cobb said, as she turned back to him. “Mr. Cullen is, as I mentioned, my associate. We occasionally work together. Mr. Cullen is particularly good at conducting research. I tend to be more at ease … in the field.”
“Will you be working together on this case?”
“That depends on the nature of the investigation you want me to carry out. Maybe you should tell me how I can help you.” She nodded, pursed her lips, and said, “Maybe I’ll take that coffee, after all.”
“On it,” I said, heading for the Keurig machine. Adam Cullen, researcher and gofer. “How do you take your coffee?”
She smiled. “One sugar, please. No milk.” She turned again back to Cobb. “I’d like you to find my grandmother.”
“Your grandmother is missing?”
“She is. That is, she has been for some time.”
“How long has your grandmother been gone?” Cobb asked.
“Fifty-one years.”
“Make that two coffees,” Cobb said to me.
There was silence in the room for a few minutes, but for the gurgling of the coffee machine. I glanced over my shoulder at the two of them. Cobb was studying the young woman, a quizzical, slightly surprised, but not thunderstruck look on his face. I had never seen Mike Cobb look thunderstruck.
Finally, he spoke. “And are you certain your grandmother is still alive?”

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None So Deadly

None So Deadly

A Cullen and Cobb Mystery
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Chapter One

Marlon Kennedy had been dead for almost ten weeks.

Christmas had come and gone; cold, dark January had given way to the longer, more optimistic February days, and evenings that began after six o’clock. There had been more snow than the almanac had forecast, though its prediction of a milder, kinder February appeared, at least so far, to be accurate.

Cobb and I were sitting in the Sunterra Market at 12th Avenue and 1st Street East, just a few blocks from Cobb’s office.

With Theory of a Deadman’s “Santa Monica” rolling through the speakers, Cobb was working the prime rib lunch special while I had settled for soup and a sandwich, my appetite dampened somewhat by the topic of conversation. We were talking about Marlon Kennedy. Except, of course, that wasn’t his real name.

Kendall Mark had been a Calgary Police Service detective at the time eleven-year-old Faith Unruh was murdered while walking home from school in 1991. Cobb had been on the force at that time, as well, but he was only two years into his career and not yet working homicide. It was in that department that he would spend much of his career before leaving the police service to become a private investigator. I had worked with Cobb on a few cases, including the search for the arsonist who set fire to my home and killed my wife, who was in the house at the time. Almost a decade later, we found that person.

Cobb told me the details of the Faith Unruh murder after my girlfriend’s daughter and her best friend had stunned us with their knowledge of the horror that had taken place fifteen years before either of them had been born.

Faith Unruh had celebrated her eleventh birthday the day before she died. She was walking home from school with a friend on a pleasant June day. The two lived just a block from one another and had parted company at the friend’s house, leaving Faith to travel the remaining block of her walk alone.

She never arrived home. Her killer somehow lured her into the backyard of a house two doors down and across the street from where she lived, strangled her in broad daylight and left her next to a garage with a piece of plywood over her. She was found several hours later, naked but not having been sexually assaulted.

Cobb told me that everyone in homicide had thought this would be a quick solve — that they’d have the guy within a day or two. The investigators figured it had to be someone who knew Faith, or at least knew her route home, and was also aware that she’d be alone for that final block. There was, of course, the possibility that it had happened by chance — that a predator had happened upon a near-perfect victim and had acted on impulse. Cobb said most investigators had ruled out that scenario, believing that the perfect storm of luck and opportunity was improbable. And that view was compounded by the belief that Faith would not have gone into the backyard of a neighbouring house with someone she didn’t know.

There was a fair amount of blood near the body that wasn’t Faith’s, so the police figured they’d have physical evidence, as well. There were also indications that the girl had fought for her life, which meant she had likely screamed. But as the investigation continued, it became clear that if Faith had screamed, no one heard her. As unlikely as it seemed, apparently no one had seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. The investigating team talked to everyone in the neighbourhood, even appealed on radio and TV for anyone who might have been driving by to come forward — several people had responded, most of whom must have been very near when the murder took place. But there were simply no concrete leads — no actual witnesses, no fingerprints or DNA match, and no apparent motive for the killing — unless it had been a sex crime, and the killer got spooked and f led before completing what he had started.

The original investigating team was two veteran guys who Cobb said had worked their tails off. One was named Lennie Hansel. He was only three years from retirement at the time. The Faith Unruh case apparently haunted the man to the point that he was dead less than a year after receiving his gold watch.

His partner at the time was Tony Gaspari, although cop logic or humour dictated that all of Hansel’s partners over the years were given the nickname Gretel.

Like his partner, this Gretel had become obsessed with the case, and the obsession eventually cost him his family and finally his mental health. Tony Gaspari ended up in a home, unable to look after himself or communicate beyond guttural sounds.

And there was a third cop. It wasn’t his case but he had got caught up in it. Spent all of his non-work hours on it … for years. He became more and more immersed in the case and finally just disappeared.

That man was Kendall Mark. He resurfaced years later and it turned out he had changed both his name — to Marlon Kennedy — and his appearance — from Caucasian to black. He had spent the last several years living on the Unruhs’ street, operating a sophisticated surveillance system that watched both the former Unruh family home and the one across the road, where Faith’s body had been found. He was convinced that one day the killer would show up again at one of the locations associated with the murder, and when that happened, Mark, a.k.a. Kennedy, would spring his trap.

I’d met him under circumstances I hoped never to face again. Because I had become fascinated by the case myself, I had driven and walked the area around both houses, unaware that I was being watched … unaware, that is, until the night Kennedy jumped me in the alley behind my own apartment and came very close to administering his own justice on me before I was able, barely, to persuade him that I wasn’t Faith Unruh’s killer.

And now Kennedy was dead.

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