About the Author
Later, her Deborah Knott novels Up Jumps the Devil, Storm Track, and Three-Day Town each also won the Agatha Award for Best Novel. Margaret is also the author of the Sigrid Harald series of detective novels. In 2008, Maron received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the highest civilian honor the state bestows on its authors. And in 2013, the Mystery Writers of America celebrated Maron's contributions to the mystery genre by naming her a Grand Master -- an honor first bestowed on Agatha Christie. To find out more about her, you can visit MargaretMaron.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Margaret Maron
MYSTERIOUS PRESSCopyright © 2006 Margaret Maron
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe signs of rain, wind, storm, and fair weather we have described so far as was attainable, partly from our own observation, partly from the information of persons of credit.
The call came through to the Colleton County Sheriff's Department just after sunset on a chilly Thursday evening in mid-January. A pickup truck had crashed on a back road near Possum Creek.
From the sound of her voice the caller was an older woman and more than a little upset. "I think he's dead. There's so much blood, and he's not moving."
The dispatcher made soothing noises and promised that help would be there very shortly. "Where are you now, ma'am?"
"Rideout Road, off Old Forty-Eight. I'm not sure of the number."
The dispatcher heard her speak to someone, then a second woman came on the line. "Mrs. Victor Johnson here," she said and gave the house number as a man's excited voice could be heard in the background. "My husband just came back from looking. He says it's J.D. Rouse."
"We'll have someone there in just a few minutes," said the dispatcher and put out calls to the nearest patrol unit and to the rescue service.
Dwight Bryant, chief deputy and head of the department's detective division, was halfway home and had justturned on his headlights when he heard the calls. He mentally shook his head. J.D. Rouse dead from a vehicular accident? Rouse had been picked up for DWI at least once that Dwight knew of, so perhaps it wasn't totally surprising that he'd crashed his truck.
On the other hand, if he'd ever been asked how he thought Rouse might meet his maker, he would have said, "Barroom brawl. Shot by someone's disgruntled husband. Hell, maybe even stabbed with a butcher knife by his own wife the night she finally got tired of him knocking her around-assuming he had a wife. And assuming he'd treat her the same as he seemed to treat anyone weaker than himself."
Rideout Road was less than three miles from home. He switched on the blue lights and siren behind the grille of his truck and floored the gas pedal. It wouldn't be out of his way to swing by, he thought, as homebound traffic moved aside for him. His wife-and it was still a thing of wonder that Deborah had really married him-had a late meeting so she wouldn't be there for a couple of hours yet.
By the time he arrived, it was almost full dark, but the night was lit up by a patrol unit's flashing blue lights. A thick stand of scrub pines lined one side of the road, the other side was an open pasture that adjoined a farmyard. There, too, a thin row of pines and cedars had grown up along the right-of-way. Despite the rapidly dropping temperature, three or four cars had stopped opposite the wreck and several people had gotten out to watch and exclaim, their warm breaths blowing little clouds of steam with every word.
A bundled-up deputy was emerging from his patrol car with his torchlight as Dwight pulled in behind him. Dwight zipped his own jacket and put on gloves before stepping out into the bone-chilling wind.
"Hey, Major. You heard the call, too, huh?"
Together they approached the white Ford pickup that lay nose down across the shallow ditch.
"Straight stretch of road," the younger man mused. He flashed his torch back along the pavement. "No skid marks. You reckon he had a heart attack?"
Sam Dalton was a fairly new recruit and Dwight had not yet taken his measure, but he liked it that Dalton did not jump to immediate conclusions without all the facts.
Siren wailing, a rescue truck crested the rise and its emergency lights flashed through the pickup's front windshield. As the two deputies approached the driver's side of the pickup, Dwight paused.
"What does that look like to you?" he asked, nodding toward the back window. The glass had shattered in a telltale spiderweb pattern that radiated out from a small hole just behind the driver's seat.
"Well, damn!" said Dalton. "He was shot?"
A few moments later, the EMT who drove the rescue truck confirmed that J.D. Rouse was dead and yes, he had indeed been shot through the back of the head.
"No exit wound, so the bullet's still in there," she said.
There was an open six-pack on the seat beside the dead man. It held three cold Bud Lights. A fourth can lay on the floor in a pool of beer and blood. Otherwise the interior of the truck was uncluttered. No fast-food boxes or plastic drink cups, but the open ashtray was full of butts and there were burn marks on the vinyl seats as if hot cigarette coals had fallen on them. A smoker, thought Dwight, and a careless one at that. It went with what he knew of Rouse, who had grown up in the same community: a man who grabbed what he wanted with greedy hands and with no regard for what he might be wrecking.
"Looks like he'd just popped the top on his beer when he got hit," said the med tech.
Rouse had worn a fleece-lined denim jacket, jeans, and heavy work boots when he died. The jacket was unzipped to reveal a blue plaid flannel shirt even though it was a cold night and the passenger-side window was open about four inches.
While Dalton secured the area, Dwight called for the crime scene van and a couple of his detectives, then he walked over to the people standing across the road. "Which one of you reported it?"
"That was us," said the older gray-haired man, whom Dwight immediately recognized.
Victor Johnson was a generation older and had lived on this farm all his life, so he had known Dwight's family long enough to speak familiarly, but tonight's circumstance made him more formal.
"Did you see it happen?" asked Dwight.
"No, sir. It was getting on for dark and my wife had just called me to the table when we heard Miz Harper banging at the door. She was the one actually called y'all. Soon as she said a truck'd run off the road, Catherine showed her the phone and I come out here to see about it."
"Was the motor still running?"
"Yessir. I opened the door and reached in under him to cut it off. Knowed it was J.D. soon as I seen the truck. He lives on the other side of Old Forty-Eight and cuts through here all the time. Young man like that?" He shook his head. "And there's that poor wife of his with two or three little ones. Somebody needs to go tell her."
"We'll do that," said Dwight. "This Mrs. Harper. Which one is she?"
"Oh, she ain't here. She was so shook up, she wanted to go on home. I tried to get her to let me drive her, but she had her dog and her wagon with her and I couldn't talk her into leaving the wagon here."
"Harper?" Dwight asked, trying to place the woman. "Eddie Harper's mother?"
"No, I doubt you'd know her," said Johnson. "She's one of the new people."
"She lives just over the rise there," said Mrs. Johnson, stepping forward. "First little white house on the right when you turn into that Holly Ridge development. They moved here from Virginia about ten or twelve years ago. Daughter's remarried now and lives in Raleigh."
The woman paused and beamed at him. "I heard you got married last month yourself."
"Kezzie Knott's girl."
"Yes, ma'am," he said and waited for the sly grins that usually accompanied his admission that Sheriff Bo Poole's chief deputy had married the daughter of a man who used to run moonshine from Canada to Florida in his long-ago youth.
There was nothing sly in the older woman's smile. "I knew her mother. One of the nicest people God ever put on this earth. I hope y'all are half as happy together as her and Mr. Kezzie were."
"So far, so good," said Dwight, smiling back at her. "So this Mrs. Harper was walking along the shoulder and saw it happen?"
Husband and wife both nodded vigorously. "She's out two or three times a week picking up trash. Said that just about the time he got even with her, she heard a big bang, like the tire blew out or something, and then the pickup slowed down and ran right off the road and into the ditch."
Ten minutes later, Dwight stopped his truck in front of the neat little house at the corner of one of those cheaply built developments that had popped up around the county in the last few years like mildew after a summer rain. No sidewalks and the street was already pockmarked with potholes. The porch light was on and a child's red metal wagon stood near the steps. Its carrying capacity was increased by removable wooden rails and was lined with a large black plastic garbage bag whose sides had been snugged back over the rails. The bag was half full of dirty drink cups, plastic bottles that seemed to have been run over a couple of times, beer cans, scrap paper, yellow Bojangles' boxes, and fast-food bags. A soiled pair of thin leather driving gloves lay on top. When he rang, a dog barked from within, then the door was opened by a wiry gray-haired woman. She wore gray warm-up pants and a blue Fair Isle sweater and Dwight put her age at somewhere on the other side of sixty.
She shushed the small brown dog, waved aside the ID Dwight tried to show her, and held the door open wide. "Come on in out of the cold, Major-Bryant, did you say? Such an awful thing. Mr. Johnson was right, wasn't he? That man really is dead, isn't he?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am. Did you know him?"
Mrs. Harper shook her head. "I've seen the truck lots of times, but I never met the driver. Didn't even know his name till Mr. Johnson said it. Probably wouldn't recognize him if he walked through the door."
The house was small-what real estate agents call a "starter home"-and was almost obsessively neat and orderly. Cozy, but nothing out of place. Magazines were stacked according to size on the coffee table, and a family portrait was precisely centered above the couch. Dwight recognized a much younger Mrs. Harper. The child on her lap was probably the married daughter Mrs. Johnson had mentioned. The older man seated next to her was no doubt her father. He wore an Army uniform, as did the younger man who stood in back, almost like an afterthought. Colonel and captain.
"My dad," said Mrs. Harper, when she saw him looking at the picture. "I was an Army brat who went and married one."
"They're not with you now?"
"No. Bill and I split up about a year after that was painted, and the Colonel died three years ago this month." Pride and love mingled in her voice as she spoke of her father. "He was a wonderful man. Would have been eighty-five if he'd lived."
More family pictures and framed mementos hung in neat rows along a wall that led down a hallway. "Those his medals?" Dwight asked. He had similar ones stowed away somewhere from his own Army days.
Mrs. Harper nodded. "But do come and sit. May I get you something? Coffee? A nice cup of tea?"
Through the archway to the kitchen, Dwight could see a teapot and a single mug on the table. "Hot tea would be great this cold night," he said, taking off his gloves and stuffing them in his jacket pocket.
He trailed along as Mrs. Harper went out to the kitchen stove and turned the burner on under a shiny red kettle. She put a tea bag in a second mug and laid a spoon beside it. The kettle was hot from before and began to whistle almost instantly. "I always find that a good cup of tea helps settle my nerves," she said.
Even so, she was still so rattled that hot water splashed onto the Formica tabletop as she filled his cup. "I'm sorry. It was such a shock. The Colonel used to say-but he was in battle and war is different, isn't it? I never ..."
Dwight took the kettle from her shaking hands and set it back on the stove, then pulled out a chair across the table from her.
"Could you tell me what happened? Cold as it is, I'm a little surprised that you were out walking so late with night coming on. It's not terribly safe."
"I can take care of myself," she said sharply, then immediately softened her sharp words with a smile toward the dog. "She doesn't look fierce, but she's very protective. But you're right. It was later than usual. I always mean to go early but I'm not a morning person and, I don't know, one thing and another, I just seem to piddle around till it's usually four o'clock before Dixie and I set out."
The little dog cocked an ear at hearing its name.
"The Johnsons say you were picking up trash along the roadside?"
Mrs. Harper smiled and nodded. "I adopted Rideout Road two years ago to honor my father. Maybe you saw the sign at the crossroads? Colonel James T. Frampton?"
As part of its anti-littering campaign, North Carolina allows individuals or corporations to "adopt" a road or a two-mile stretch of highway and will put up a sign to that effect if the volunteers agree to clean their stretch at least four times a year.
"My wife's family has the road that cuts through their farms," Dwight said, "but I don't think they're out picking up litter every week. And for sure not when the weather's this cold."
Mrs. Harper shrugged her rounded shoulders. "It's not bad once you get to moving good. I just can't bear to see trash build up on a road dedicated to the Colonel. Besides, it's good exercise for Dixie and me and neither of us is getting any younger, I'm afraid."
This time, the corgi put a paw on her mistress's trousered leg and she smiled down indulgently. "With all the excitement, I forgot all about your treat, didn't I, girl?"
Dwight waited while she took a Milk-Bone from the cut-glass candy dish in the center of the table and gave it to the dog.
"Tell me about this evening," he said.
"There's really not much to tell." She lifted the mug to her pale lips, then set it down again. Despite her obvious distress, though, she was able to convey a good sense of the circumstances. "It's so cold that the wind made my eyes water. I had picked up what little there was on the eastbound side and we were on our way back down the westbound side. It was too early for what you'd call rush hour out here and the road doesn't get all that much traffic anyhow. There's only fourteen houses till you get to this subdivision, and most of the people who live here and work in Raleigh usually take Old Forty-Eight. It's a little more direct, although enough do use Rideout. Maybe because it's still country along here? Used to be an older man who would park out of sight of any houses and have himself a couple of beers before going home and he'd just dump the evidence on the shoulder. When I called him on it, he apologized and started getting out and hiding his empties in the trunk. And another time-oh, but why am I going on like this? You don't want to hear about litterbugs. You want to know about tonight."
Dwight smiled encouragingly, knowing how some people have to take a running start to launch into the horror of what they have witnessed.
"Anyhow, I was fishing a McDonald's bag out of the ditch when I heard the truck coming. About the time it got even with me, I heard a loud bang. Like a backfire or something. And then the truck just rolled on off the road. I thought maybe it'd blown a tire."
She hesitated and looked at him. "I was wrong, though, wasn't I? I hear enough hunters, and the Colonel was in the infantry. It was a gunshot, wasn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Dwight. "I'm afraid so."
Her hand shook as she tried to bring the mug to her lips again.
"Could you tell where the shot came from?" he asked. "Which side of the road?"
"Which side?" She considered for a long moment, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Major Bryant. It happened so fast. The truck. The bang. The crash. All I know is that it came from behind me somewhere, but whether it was from the woods or the Johnson farm, I just can't say."
J.D. Rouse's place of residence was a whole different experience from Mrs. Harper's tidy home.
Three generations ago, this had been a modest farm, but dividing the land among six children, none of whom wanted to farm, had reduced the current generation's holdings to less than two acres. A typical eastern Carolina one-story clapboard farmhouse in bad need of paint stood amid mature oaks and pecan trees at the front of the lot. Dwight seemed to recall that the house was now inhabited by Rouse's widowed mother and older sister. Behind it lay a dilapidated hay barn, and farther down the rutted driveway was a shabby double-wide that had been parked out in what was once a tobacco field. The mobile home was sheltered by a single pine tree that had no doubt planted itself, since his headlights revealed no other trees or shrubs in the yard to indicate an interest in landscaping.
Weather-stained and sun-faded plastic toys littered the yard along with abandoned buckets, and his lights picked up a vacant dog pen and the rusted frame of a child's swing set. The original swings were long gone, replaced with a single tire suspended by a rope. It swayed a little in the icy wind. An old Toyota sedan sat on concrete blocks off to the side, and more blocks served as makeshift steps. When he knocked on the metal door, it rattled in its frame like ice cubes in an empty glass. The place was dark inside and no one responded. He went back to his truck and tapped the horn.
Excerpted from Winter's Child by Margaret Maron Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Maron. Excerpted by permission.
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