Death's Half Acre


By Margaret Maron

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Margaret Maron—winner of the most prestigious awards in mystery fiction—returns with another novel featuring her critically acclaimed sleuth Deborah Knott.

Unchecked urbanization has begun to eclipse the North Carolina countryside. As farms give way to shoddy mansions, farmers struggle to slow the rampant growth. In the shadows, corrupt county commissioners use their political leverage to make profitable deals with new developers. A murder will pull Judge Deborah Knott and Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant into the middle of this bitter dispute and force them to confront some dark realities.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2008 by Margaret Maron

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Grand Central Publishing

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

First eBook Edition: August 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-53788-9

Deborah Knott novels:














Sigrid Harald novels:














For Rebecca Blackmore, Shelly Holt, and John Smith with deep appreciation for their time, their wisdom, and their endless generosity


Inside the windowless Church of Jesus Christ Eternal, the Easter Sunday sermon is drawing to a close. Although Mr. McKinney has been known to preach for two hours or more when thoroughly aroused, services usually end around noon. Thinking that she hears a winding-down tone in his voice, the teenage pianist quietly turns the pages of her hymnal to the closing hymn the preacher selected at the last minute. An odd choice for Easter, she thinks. Not that it is hers to question, but the other hymns celebrated the resurrection while this one harkens back to the cross and is less familiar to her than some.

The thorns in my path are not sharper / than composed His crown for me;

The cup that I drink not more bitter / than He drank in Gethsemane.

She has to squint to see the shaped notes because the fluorescent tubes overhead are flickering and buzzing again. She has been told these are cheaper than regular light fixtures, but the flickers hurt her eyes.

Not for the first time, she wonders why they couldn't have windows here in the sanctuary. Surely God's natural light would be so much better? But Dad says Mr. McKinney vetoed colored glass as too costly, and clear glass would rob them of their privacy.

"I don't think we're likely to have peeping Toms," one of the deacons said when they were first shown the blueprints for their newly founded church, but Mr. McKinney reminded them of the Biblical injunction to pray in secret, "And thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."

"Besides," said another, "without windows, it'll be cheaper to build and more economical to heat and cool."

All of this her father reported with approval. When their old church split down the middle because the more worldly members wanted to spend the Lord's money on new carpets and pew cushions, Mr. McKinney announced his intentions of building a plain church out of his own money, a church where God would be worshipped in deeds and sacrifice, not with creature comforts and ornamentation. Her dad's favorite saying is "Look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves," and he likes it that Mr. McKinney feels the same way.

Her mom is less impressed. She has heard that Mrs. McKinney comes from money and that it is actually her inheritance that built the church even though Mr. McKinney has never said so.

From her seat at the piano, the girl can look out over the congregation while appearing to pay strict attention to the sermon. Last Sunday the pews were filled with dark colors and heavier fabrics. Today the girls and women wear colorful spring dresses and she feels pretty in her own sky-blue dress.

And there is Mrs. McKinney, seated on the front pew, looking almost pretty herself in a neat navy blue suit. The suit itself is old, but her high-necked white blouse is edged in crisp white lace and looks new. Her long brown hair is brushed straight back from her face and held at the nape of her neck with a matching navy blue ribbon. No lipstick, of course. Mr. McKinney does not approve of makeup, though several of the women shrug their shoulders at that and her own parents let her wear lipstick as long as she stays with pastel shades.

Idly, she wonders what it would be like to marry a preacher and always know the right thing to do. Probably nothing like marriage to the tall handsome boy who makes her feel confused and stupid whenever she goes into the barbecue house where he waits tables in the evenings. Not that she is allowed to date yet and not that her parents would let her date one of the Knott boys anyhow. They want someone safe and reliable and average for her.

Mr. McKinney is average—average height and average weight, although he is beginning to get a little potbelly and the shadow of a double chin. He has more hair than a lot of men his age and he is not particularly handsome, but his deep-set blue eyes seem to look from his soul straight into hers and his voice has the range of an organ. That voice can reduce a sinner to tears, it can stir the righteous to anger over society's moral lapses, it can soothe and comfort the afflicted.

As if reading her thoughts, the preacher's voice changes and she realizes that he is not winding down after all. Instead, his voice introduces a new subject and he goes from talking about Jesus's sacrifice and resurrection to the Easter lilies massed around the pulpit, which he compares to the colorful new clothes that bloom on the women today.

The lilies are here to celebrate the rebirth of Christ, he tells them. Pure, white, and chaste. Then, in a voice that holds more sorrow than accusation, he asks the women to examine their hearts. Do they wear their new spring clothes to honor Christ or is it from sinful pride? A desire to put themselves forward?

"Remember the words of Paul." After taking a sip of water, Mr. McKinney turns the pages of the large Bible in front of him and begins to read from Timothy II, " 'Let women adorn themselves in modest apparel with Godly fear.' "

All around the sanctuary, the feminine eyes that had been fixed on the preacher begin to drop. Even the pianist feels a pang of guilt because yes, when she looked at herself in the mirror this morning and was pleased by her reflection, there had been no praise for Jesus in her heart, only sinful pride at her trim waist and the way the dress fit smoothly over her small breasts. Stricken, she looks at her mother, seated near the back in a new pale green suit-dress. She has not lowered her eyes, but continues to look back at the preacher without shame and with nothing but attentive interest on her face.

" 'Let the woman learn in silence with all subjugation,' sayeth Paul. Silence not only of the tongue, but of the body as well, not calling attention to one's dress. 'For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, was in transgression.' Dear sisters and daughters in Christ, I cannot look into your hearts today and know the transgressions there. Only you and your Lord can say if you dressed with pride or to honor the risen Lord Jesus. I can only repeat the words of Joshua: 'As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.' "

He pauses to take another sip of water. "Paul says, 'If a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?' My own wife knows my thoughts on this matter and dresses appropriately. Proverbs 31. 'Who can find a virtuous woman? Her price is far above rubies.' "

Several eyes turn toward Mrs. McKinney, whose head is bowed now, her face red with embarrassment at being praised and made the center of their attention.

"As a child obeys its father, so does a virtuous wife obey her husband. Whatsoever I ask of her, she will do, whether or not she sees the wisdom of it. Why I could spit in this glass of water and ask her to drink it and she would obey."

Then, to the teenage pianist's horror, the preacher spits into the water and holds the glass out to his wife. "Come, Marian."

From her seat on the piano bench, the girl sees Mrs. McKinney's eyes widen. There is a stricken look on her plain face and she shakes her head in bewilderment as if she cannot understand his words.


Tears well up in the woman's eyes when she realizes that he is serious. "Please, husband, no," she whispers. "Don't make me do this."

Implacably, he continues to hold out the glass. "A husband does not make his wife do anything," he says. "He lets his wishes be known and she submits graciously of her own free will as God has commanded."

The congregation sits in utter silence, holding its breath.

Slowly, Marian McKinney comes to her feet. Tears stream down her cheeks and her face crumples with the effort not to break into sobs. Each step to the altar seems an effort of will. At last, she takes the glass and raises it to her lips, and the girl sees her gag. Then, with eyes clenched tightly shut, she forces herself to drink.

As she stumbles back to her place on the front pew, Mr. McKinney beams. "This is my beloved wife in whom I am well pleased. Let us pray."

His words roll out over the congregation and in their name, he thanks the Lord for the gift of blood that cleanses whiter than snow and for the promise of eternal life to those who love Him and honor Him and keep His commandments.

When everyone stands for the singing of the final hymn, the pianist suddenly realizes that her mother is no longer in the church.


. . . this is life, and there is no theory for it . . .

—Fiddledeedee, by Shelby Stephenson


Tuesday morning's light mist lay over the field of young tobacco. It softened the air and turned the tall pines beyond into gray shadows of themselves. The recently turned earth gave off an honest aroma that was sweet to the old man who stood motionless to take it all in. Another year, another spring. Here in late April, the plants were only knee-high with no hint of the pink blossoms to come, their leaves still small and crisp and deep green. Everything fresh and young.

Everything but me, the old man told himself.

One of two dogs beside him nudged his hand with a muzzle that had, in the past year, become almost as white as his master's hair. The man looked down with a rueful smile. "Yeah and you, too, poor ol' Blue."

He scratched the dog's soft-as-velvet ears, then the three of them ambled slowly on down the lane that circled the perimeter of this field. Cool early mornings used to mean the beginning of another day of hard sweaty work—fields to plow, animals to tend, the hundred and one backbreaking chores that make up a farmer's daily life.

Back at the house, Sue and Essie would be fixing breakfast, rousting the boys out of bed, asking the older ones to fill the woodbox and feed the chickens, sending the younger ones off to school . . .

The whole farm would buzz with meaningful work and raucous laughter.

He almost never thought about his first wife, but Annie Ruth had always liked mornings best, too. More times than he could count, she would be up before him. She scorned mirrors and plaited her hair by touch alone into a long thick braid as she looked out their window to watch the first light define the trees and fields beyond.

"Time to get moving," she would say briskly if he lay in bed too long to watch her.

Now his house was silent and empty every morning until Maidie came over to make breakfast; and even though he only piddled at working this past year or two, he still felt driven to walk the back lanes each day, to see his fields and woods as fresh and new as the dawn of creation, to make sure that everything was well within the borders of his land. Annie Ruth had usually been too busy to come walking, but Sue used to say, "Now don't you look all the pretty off the morning till I can come, too," and she would often slip away from the demands of the boys and the house to join him out here.

Together they would pause to enjoy the dogwoods that bloomed among the tall pines, to smell the sweet scent of wild crab apples on the ditchbanks or note that the corn could use a little side-dressing of soda to green it up. Away from the house and the boys, they could talk about the larger issues in their life together, the needs of someone in their extended families, or the help they might could give the proud man who was having a hard time of it. They could discuss what to do about Andrew or Frank and whether a good talking-to would be enough to keep those two out of trouble or if it was going to take a trip to the woodshed to get the point across.

Yet they had all turned out well, he thought, as he ran their faces through his mind, taking stock of his sons as he took stock of his land. The Navy had straightened Frank out; and Sue's patience and April's love had straightened Andrew. There were problems with some of the grandchildren, but they would come out right in the end, too. Of this he had no doubt.

A few feet ahead of him, the younger dog suddenly went on alert. He followed the direction of her point and saw a doe emerge from the woods at the far edge of the field. Behind her two young fawns hesitated, half hidden by the grapevines that hung down from the trees. Ladybelle gave an almost inaudible whine and Blue strained to see what had alerted her. Both of them looked back at him, but he gave the hand signal to stay and they obeyed. Nevertheless, the doe had caught his slight movement and she and the fawns melted back into the trees.

As the sun rose behind the pines and began to burn off the mist, he heard the sound of a motor and turned to see a small black truck slowly easing through the sandy ruts. He stood quietly until the truck pulled even with him and the driver cut its engine. The white man behind the wheel appeared to be in his mid-thirties and wore a gray work shirt with the name ENNIS embroidered in red on the breast pocket. His short brown hair had thinned across the crown but he had not yet begun to go gray.

"Sorry to bother you, Mr. Kezzie, but Miz Holt said you were out here and might not mind."

"Not a bit," Kezzie Knott said politely and waited for the man to identify himself.

"You probably don't remember me, but I'm James Ennis, Frances Pritchard's grandson."

The Pritchard land touched some that he owned over in the next township and Kezzie nodded at that familiar name. "You must be one of Mary's boys."

"Yessir." The younger man got out of the truck and extended his hand.

"What can I do for you, son?"

"It's about my grandmother, Mr. Kezzie. She's about to give away more of our land. Grandy might've left it in her name, but you know good as me he wanted her to pass it on down to my mother. It's been in our family over two hundred years and yeah, nobody wants to farm it any more, but it don't seem right for her to let somebody have for free what the whole family's sweated and bled for all these years. She says she's giving it back to the Lord, but it's not the Lord's name that's gonna be on that deed."

Kezzie Knott lit a cigarette from the hard pack that was always in his shirt pocket and leaned against the truck to listen to a story whose outline had become all too familiar in the past few years. Land you could hardly give away thirty years ago was now so dear that the income it brought in barely paid the rising taxes. The details might be different but the results were often the same—old folks talked out of their land for peanuts on the dollar value while some slick developer made a bundle. The only difference here was that the slick operator was a preacher and not a developer.

"She's always talked about you with respect, Mr. Kezzie. I was thinking that maybe if you could speak to her? It's not just for me and mine neither, but you remember Nancy, Mama's only sister?"

Kezzie Knott nodded. Frances Pritchard's older daughter must be close to sixty now and still had the mind of a sweet-natured three-year-old.

"He's promised Granny he'll take care of Nancy till she dies but you know how much a promise is worth."

"No more'n the air it's written on," the old man agreed. "Now I can't make you no promises myself, son, but I'll look into it for you and see what I can do."

If nothing else, he thought, there was someone in the deeds office that he might could get to lose the papers and snarl up the transaction with red tape for a few weeks.

Mid-afternoon and Cameron Bradshaw firmed the dirt around the last of the purple petunias, then sat back on his padded kneeling stool to admire his handiwork.

It might not be the English gardens he remembered from the tours he had taken with his grandparents before they lost their money, nor the showpiece he had tended before he and Candace split up; nevertheless, its beauty pleased him.

"A poor thing, but mine own," he murmured to himself. He pushed himself up off the stool, straightened his protesting joints, and tried again to remember who it was that said, "What every gardener needs is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it."

The sun was not quite over the yardarm, but he decided he would pour himself a drink, locate his Bartlett's, and bring them both out here to the terrace. Nail down that quote once and for all.

He knew from happy experience that one quotation would lead to another, yet what better way to spend an April afternoon than to sit here in his garden and sip good scotch, to turn the pages at random and let his mind wander through the words of history's great thinkers?

He crossed the flagstone terrace and paused to savor again the beauty of purple petunias, red geraniums, and silver-gray dusty miller. More geraniums and petunias trailed from hanging baskets. White Lady Banks roses were beginning to bud amid the purple wisteria blossoms that hung like clusters of grapes from the trellis that shaded his back door, and terra-cotta tubs of shasta daisies, basil, and dill stood on either side of the gate that opened onto a passageway to the street.

To his dismay, he heard the clip-clop of backless sandals hurrying up that same passageway.

He reached for the doorknob and wondered if there was time to get inside and pretend not to be at home.

As he suspected, it was Deanna.

Other men bragged about their children, he thought wearily—how bright they were, how industrious, how motivated to succeed, how thoughtful of their parents.

He had Dee.

Twenty-two years old. Bright? Yes. But motivated? Thoughtful of her parents?


Yet, as he stood motionless under the wisteria vines that grew over the small trellis above his door and watched his daughter fumble with the gate latch, he could not suppress the enduring wonder that he and Candace had produced such beauty.

Today she was dressed in white clam-diggers that sat low on her slender hips, a bright green shirt, gold loop earrings, and gold sandals. He gloomily noted that she had a black duffle bag slung over one shoulder.

Small-boned and deceptively delicate-looking, Dee had the wide deep-set eyes of his family. Their intense green came from her mother, though, as did her long reddish-brown hair. From the genetic pool, she had drawn his thin Bradshaw nose and strong chin. The dimple in her right cheek had skipped a generation and came straight from his late mother-in-law, one of those trashy Seymours from east of Dobbs.

Or so he had been told by white-haired colleagues who sometimes, when in their cups, waxed nostalgic about that dimple and, behind his back, wondered aloud if they had sired his wife.

He himself could not put a face to Candace's mother. Before they lost their money, the Bradshaws had sent their children to private schools, so he had no direct memory of Alice Seymour Wells or her husband, Macon, even though the three of them were native to the county and must have been about the same age.

As the gate finally clicked open, Dee spotted him in the shaded doorway.

"Mom's kicked me out again," she said, her full red lips poked out in a childish pout. She dropped her duffle bag onto the white iron patio table, where her father had planned to spend a peaceful afternoon. "Like it's my fault George puked on her fuckin' couch."

"You let him in the house?" asked Bradshaw, who still winced at the crudities young women so carelessly voiced today. "I thought she told you to quit seeing him."

"And I told her I'll see whoever I damn well please."

"Then she said, 'Not in my house you won't,' right?"

"Been there, done that, haven't you, Dad?"

"When are you going to quit yanking her chain, honey? If you're really going to drop out of college this near graduation, then don't just threaten to get a job. Do it. Stand on your own two feet."

"Like you do? Taking an allowance from her every month?"

His thin lips tightened. "It's not an allowance, Dee. And it comes out of the company, not from your mother."

"A company you started long before you met her."

"A company I still own," he reminded her. "And one that she helped build up to what it is today."

"So what? She couldn't have gotten her foot in half those doors without the Bradshaw name. And then you just gave it all to her and walked away."

It was an old complaint and one he was tired of hearing, especially since it was not strictly true. Yes, he had handed control of the company over to Candace when they separated, but it was with the stipulation that he would receive a certain percentage of the profits in perpetuity.

"I was ready to retire and it's an equitable arrangement." He brushed away a spent blossom that had dropped onto his white hair from the wisteria vine above his head.

"You sure?"

"What do you mean?"

"She could be cooking the books, couldn't she?"

"Not with my accountant going over them twice a year."

"And how do you know she's not screwing him twice a year just to screw you?"

In spite of her language, Cameron Bradshaw was amused to picture nerdy little Roger Flackman in bed with Candace. She would eat him alive. On the other hand, that last check had been smaller than usual. He had put it down to her preoccupation with her new position on the board of commissioners, but what if she and Roger really were—?

"So anyhow," said Dee, interrupting his thoughts as she picked up her duffle bag, "can I crash with you for a few days till Mom gets over being mad about the damn couch?"

"Only if you start looking for a job," he said firmly.

"Believe it or not, I think I've already found one," his daughter said.

Some forty-odd miles away, in Durham, Victor Talbert, VP of Talbert Pharmaceuticals, opened the door of the boardroom not really expecting to see anything except the long polished table and a dozen empty chairs. Instead, he found his father poring over a sheaf of surveyor's maps spread across the table.

"There you are," he said. "I've been looking all over for you. What's that? Plans for the new plant in China?"

"Hardly," his father said.

At fifty-five, Grayson Hooks Talbert wore his years lightly. His dark hair was going classically gray at the temples, his five-eleven frame carried no extra pounds, and his charcoal-gray spring suit fit nicely without calling too much attention to its perfect tailoring.

He started to order his son away from the maps. Victor might be curious, but he would obey. Unlike his older son, who would have looked, sneered, and promptly forgotten, assuming he was sober enough to bring the print into focus in the first place. A grasshopper and an ant. That's what he had for sons. One clever and inventive, but mercurial and dedicated to hedonistic self-destruction. The other a dutiful plodder who ran the New York office. Reliable and utterly trustworthy and totally incapable of the flights of imagination and ambition that had built this company into one of the state's major players and its president into a power broker who had the ear of senators and governors.

Victor Talbert looked at the identifying labels and frowned. "Colleton County?"

His father nodded.

"Our subsidiaries are screaming for a decision about our eastern markets and you keep coming back to this? Why, Dad? I thought you were finished out there. You made your point with that bootlegger when you built Grayson Village. You've got a good manager in place and it's peanuts anyhow. Why keep bothering with it? There's nothing for us out there."

"You think not?" Talbert said. He rolled up the maps, gave his son explicit instructions about the subsidiaries, and said, "You going back to New York tonight?"

Victor nodded. "We have tickets to a play. Unless there's something else you want me to stay for?"

"No, I'll be up next week."

They walked down to his office together and once Victor was gone, Talbert told his assistant to order him a car and driver. "And tell him we'll be spending the night at the Grayson Village Inn."

From the windows of her corner office on the second floor of Adams Advertising, where she was a fully invested partner, Jamie Jacobson could look out across Main Street and see the courthouse square, where pansies blossomed extravagantly in the planters on either side of the wide low steps that led down to the sidewalk.

Another perfect spring day and this was the closest she had come to enjoying it since arriving at the office early that morning. Her own pansies needed attention and she had hoped to take off an hour in midday to enjoy the task. Instead, she had eaten a sandwich at her desk and tried to keep her mind focused on work.

A slender woman with sandy blond hair that had begun to sprout a few gray hairs now that she had passed forty, Jamie glanced at her watch and sighed. Five o'clock already and it would take at least another three hours to finish the presentation needed for a client first thing tomorrow morning.

She would have to skip supper and for a moment she considered skipping tonight's board meeting as well. As one of only two Democrats on Colleton County's board of commissioners, she wondered why she kept bothering. Unfortunately, a vote on the planning board's recommendations for slowing growth was scheduled for tonight and she could not pass up one last attempt to accept it, even though she knew Candace Bradshaw would use every trick in her bottomless bag to vote it down.


    "Those looking for a mellow, down-home mystery will be well rewarded."—Publishers Weekly (starred)
  • "[Margaret Maron] skillfully portrays the growing tension between family farmers and suburbanites....As always Maron weaves in a couple of subplots that keep things interesting and allow her to touch on a range of social issues."—Associated Press
  • "Outstanding....Maron tackles big issues...with insight and pathos....Maron has never written a bad book, and with the 13th in the series, she gives a clear picture of contemporary life in the rural South, tying it up in a neat mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the end. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "HARD ROW is laced with strong and timely political statements about undocumented workers....Readers will be satisfied with the newest entry in this reliable series."—USA TODAY

On Sale
Aug 20, 2008
Page Count
320 pages

Margaret Maron

About the Author

Margaret Maron grew up in the country near Raleigh, North Carolina, but for many years lived in Brooklyn, New York. When she and her artist husband returned to the farm that had been in her family for a hundred years, she began a series based on her own background. The first book, Bootlegger’s Daughter, became a Washington Post bestseller that swept the major mystery awards for its year — winning the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards for Best Novel — and is among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

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

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