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Read by Margaret Maron
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Who would kill a woman on her deathbed? Was it an act of mercy, or murder? As Deborah and her husband, Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Bryant, investigate they cross paths with an unlikely set of suspects: Rachel’s longtime minister; her neighbor, the respected local doctor; the friendly single father who often sought her advice; and perhaps the most puzzling party of all, the Designated Daughters, a support group for caregivers that Rachel’s own daughter belongs to.
Soon Deborah and Dwight realize that the key to solving this case is hidden in Rachel’s mysterious final words. Her mixed-up memories harbored a dark secret-a secret that someone close to them is determined to bury forever.
My continuing gratitude to the three who have been my go-to sources almost from the very beginning: District Court Judges Shelly S. Holt and Rebecca W. Blackmore and John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Court (NCAOC). District Court Judge Shelley Desvousges has become their local backup. Thanks also to Patricia Sprinkle, Joan Hess, Larry Doran, Katy Munger, and especially Sarah Farris Smith for sharing their stories.
What shall we say of lawyers?
Wednesday morning, and we were nearing the end of jury selection for a civil case when the rear door of my courtroom opened and several people entered. In the quietness of the courtroom, as they took seats in an empty bench to the left of the jury pool, I heard a faint squeaking sound, but I couldn’t determine its source. The latecomers ranged in age from late teens to a wizened old man in a wheelchair. I recognized only one of the group—Marillyn Mulholland, who owns a printing company here in town. She had printed up my business cards back when I was still in private practice and, although semiretired now, she had personally overseen our wedding invitations when Dwight and I were married Christmas before last.
Taking the seat beside her was an unfamiliar young woman. She was slender and wore trendy turquoise-blue leggings, an off-the-shoulder purple jersey, and matching purple hair.
Then I did a double take. Young woman? Like hell! Her slender figure and push-up bra may have fooled me momentarily, but the face beneath the purple hair would have looked at least twenty years older than mine except that I knew for a fact she’d had a second face-lift last year. The purple hair was new, though, and must be a wig, because her own hair had never come back in properly after the chemo.
My cousin. The sixty-two-year-old daughter of my daddy’s sister Rachel.
Now what had brought her to my courtroom this morning? At first I wondered if she’d come to personally tell me that Aunt Rachel had finally died, but she studiously avoided my eyes and seemed caught up in the jury examination being conducted by the two attorneys at the front of the room. I turned my attention back to counsel for the plaintiff, who asked that I excuse the next prospective juror because she had just said she knew the sister of the defendant.
I nodded and we moved on. This was our second day of voir dire, a tedious, time-consuming process. Some people are eager to serve, usually for the wrong reasons, but most would rather not spend the time listening to legal jousting when they had planned to spend the week doing other, more interesting things.
“Your Honor, I have a hair appointment for this afternoon,” a blonde woman said.
“Color?” I asked, noticing a thin line of dark roots at the hairline of her forehead.
“Just shampoo and cut,” she said brightly.
I denied her request. Color appointments aren’t all that easy to get, but there was no reason she couldn’t reschedule a simple cut.
I had already excused several from the pool because they had personal connections with some of the participants and I was again reminding them about their need to keep an open mind, fairness, etcetera, etcetera, when I noticed that an older man in the second row of the jury box seemed to be having trouble hearing me. He leaned forward intently, turning what was probably his good ear toward me and frowning in concentration.
I glanced down at the diagram I’d filled in of the current occupants. “Mr. Ogburn?” I said, speaking more loudly and clearly than usual. “Is there a problem with your hearing?”
“Yes, ma’am, Your Honor. I don’t do so good without my hearing aid.” He held up a small flesh-colored device.
“Is your battery dead?”
“No, ma’am, but there was a sign outside that said to turn off all electronic devices.”
I tried not to laugh. “That doesn’t apply to hearing aids,” I told him; and when he had put it back in his ear, I let the two attorneys have their turn. Thankfully, the last two jurors were acceptable to both sides.
Today’s case was a civil action: Bruce Connolly versus Dotty Connolly Morefield, a middle-aged brother suing his middle-aged sister over their late mother’s possessions. The woman had died without a will, so the clerk of the court had appointed Mrs. Morefield the administratrix for the estate. Well before her death, the mother had given Mrs. Morefield her power of attorney and that was good enough for our clerk. After receiving her account of all the assets, he had split everything equally between Mr. Connolly and his three sisters, “everything” being her bank account and whatever possessions were in her house at the time of death.
Mr. Connolly’s suit alleged that the sisters had removed certain valuable items from the house before the mother’s death and he claimed he was owed money for conversions of those possessions.
A sour-faced man with receding gray hair and glasses that he kept taking on and off to polish, he asserted that Mrs. Morefield, a motherly looking woman with soft white hair, had not listed all the assets.
His attorney quickly established that Mrs. Morefield had been the mother’s main caregiver. She had sold the family home as the mother wished and used the money to rent a smaller house near the three sisters.
Mr. Connolly, who lived out in the mountains four hours away, had agreed to the arrangement.
“My wife and I would’ve been glad to have Mother come live with us,” he testified in a pious tone as he polished his glasses for the fourth or fifth time, “but her church and all her friends were here and she said two women didn’t need to be sharing a kitchen. Dotty’ll say that moving Mother was mostly on her, but the whole family helped. I drove all the way over here in my truck and almost threw my back out getting her stuff moved. Mother only lived there two years before she passed, so there should have been a lot more cash.”
He had a copy of the check from the sale of the house, and copies of rent receipts were also entered as evidence.
When I looked up from those documents, I saw that my cousin Sally was leaving the courtroom, her telephone to her ear, and I realized I’d missed my chance to tell my bailiff I wanted to speak to her.
Too late. I gave a mental shrug as Connolly’s attorney said, “No further questions, Your Honor.”
By now it was almost twelve, but before I could adjourn for lunch, Mr. Connolly, still in the witness-box, said, “It’s not just the money, Your Honor. It’s her silverware and her Hummel figurines. She spent a fortune on those things and Dotty never listed them. I just want my fair share.”
Fair is such a slippery term, and my definition of fair seldom satisfies both sides.
As in the case of berries on the trees and the fruits of the earth, there must be that which in its season of full ripeness is ready to wither and fall.
The old woman lay motionless against the pillows that supported her head and upper body and helped her breathe more easily. The ventilator had been removed two days earlier, as had the IV that had kept her hydrated and nourished. Neither food nor water had passed her lips in the seven days since her last stroke. Nor had she spoken in all that time.
Nevertheless, the gray-haired aide hired by the woman’s family to supplement the nursing staff here kept up a running stream of cheerful chatter as she sponged that frail body and smoothed on sweet-smelling lotion. She swabbed her patient’s mouth with a wet gauze pad, checked the pad beneath those withered hips—still clean and dry, poor thing—and gently dressed her in a fresh nightgown that was now two sizes too large.
“We’re gonna have to get you a new gown, Miss Rachel. This one’s real pretty with all the lace around the neck, but it keeps on slipping down, don’t it?”
Not that Miss Rachel had much to be modest about anymore, the aide thought to herself, pitying the flaccid breasts that had nursed two children in their prime and now lay flatter than an empty purse on that emaciated chest.
Like her children, like her siblings, like her parents before her, Rachel Morton had been tall and big-boned, a country woman who had worked in the fields alongside her husband, who had cooked and cleaned and kept her vegetable garden as free of weeds as her house was free of dust. Until her husband died and the farm acreage was sold, she had worked at their roadside vegetable stand long past any real financial need, dispensing friendly conversation, country wisdom, and girlhood anecdotes along with her tomatoes, corn, butter beans, or whatever else was in season.
Customers who pulled up to the open-sided shelter, intending to grab a cucumber or melon and be on their busy way, often wound up staying much longer. Insatiably interested in people, Rachel remembered the smallest details and would inquire about children and grandchildren by name, ask if someone’s rheumatism was better now that warm weather was here, and want to know how that luncheon turned out that another customer was planning when she stopped by last week for a half-dozen identical tomatoes to serve as chicken salad cups. Lonely retirees would sit down in one of her slat-backed chairs to talk of bygone days when they were active and needed; and young stay-at-home moms, hungry for adult conversation, would watch their barefooted toddlers build hoppy-toad houses in the warm dirt. She was a natural storyteller and could turn even the most prosaic event into an amusing story.
“Rachel could talk the ears off a mule,” her husband used to say with a fond smile.
Her white hair was still as thick as in her youth, and the aide brushed the soft curls into place murmuring, “Sure wish I had your pretty hair, Miss Rachel.”
The old woman lay quiet and unresponsive and no emotion touched that finely wrinkled face. When the aide first came to help care for her, those eyelids had occasionally fluttered open and those lips had curled in a smile.
According to her doctor, she was in no pain and the end was expected soon. Indeed, death had been expected as soon as they took her off all the machines and brought her over here to the hospice wing of the hospital, but that hadn’t happened yet and her vital signs were as steady as ever.
Her midmorning ministrations completed, the aide sat down in the recliner next to the window, uncapped the cup of coffee one of the staff had brought her, and reached for the worn King James Bible that had been the old woman’s comfort when she moved into her daughter’s home after the first bad stroke. She had tried to accommodate herself to the modern version, but it was the old familiar phrases that spoke to her heart most deeply. Before the last stroke, she had wanted someone to read it aloud and the aide enjoyed it as well. Psalms and Proverbs were the old woman’s favorites, and the aide turned to the page she had left off at the evening before, because it was said that people could hear and understand, even when in a vegetative state.
“He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets…An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed.”
The aide paused to take a sip of the hot, fragrant coffee and glanced over at her patient. The old woman’s eyes were open wide and her clear blue eyes bored into the aide’s.
“…secrets,” she whispered. “…not an inheritance…was a debt he never paid…But it was blessed, wasn’t it? All those babies saved?”
The aide was so startled that coffee splashed across the Bible’s thin pages.
“I didn’t tell Jacob. You know I didn’t, Jed…you have to tell him…you need to stop or tell him yourself.”
Those first words came out thin and raspy but her voice strengthened with each new syllable.
The aide mopped up the worst of the spilled coffee and laid aside the Bible, then went to bend over that newly animated face. “Miss Rachel? Miss Rachel, honey?”
The old woman paused as if listening, then smiled up into eyes only she could see. “Did you see the way Ransom looked at me in church? You reckon he likes me?”
The aide patted her cheek and said, “I’m sure he does, honey.”
“Well, it’s about time you answered me! Where’d Jacob get to? The cow’s got out again and I can’t find her and it’s almost two hours past milking time. Kezzie’s gonna skin y’all alive if he comes home and sees y’all didn’t mend the fence. Mammy said…”
Moving over to the window with her cell phone, the aide touched one of the numbers on her call list and waited until someone finally answered. “Sally? This is Lois. You know how you and Jay-Jay were grieving that you’d never hear your mama’s sweet voice again? Both of y’all need to get back over here right away, honey. She’s talking a blue streak.”
When you have no basis, abuse the plaintiff.
So who died?” I asked Portland Brewer when she joined me for a late lunch at Bright Leaf Restaurant, a block from the Colleton County courthouse.
Her uncle Ash is married to my Aunt Zell and we’ve been best friends ever since we got kicked out of the junior girls’ Sunday school class for reducing prissy little Caroline Atherton to tears two Sundays in a row. Black does nothing for her olive skin or dark curly hair or even for her figure now that she’s back to her pre-pregnancy shape, so the only reason she has a good black suit is because she still believes red isn’t suitable for funerals.
“Laurel McElveen’s niece,” she said, and when she saw my blank look, she elucidated. “You know…the woman that came to live with her after the accident?”
Mrs. McElveen is one of Portland’s blue-chip clients and a mover and shaker here in Dobbs. The widow of a wealthy cardiologist, she sits on several boards, including the library and the hospital. Two or three years ago, she was crippled in a car crash. I heard about the accident at the time, of course, but I’d never met the companion and her name wasn’t familiar.
“Heart attack, apparently. Same thing that killed her mother. Mrs. McElveen blames herself for not realizing Evelyn might’ve had a weak heart, too. In a weird way, though, it seems to have put the starch back in her.”
“She used to be so opinionated and decisive before the accident, and no rubber stamp for any of the board members she worked with.”
“I’ve heard Barbara on the subject,” I said dryly. My brother Zach’s wife is Colleton County’s library director. “Mrs. McElveen browbeat the county commissioners into keeping the libraries funded.”
“Don’t I know it? For a while there, I was afraid she was going to make me take the whole board to court, but ever since Christmas, it was like she was drifting into a fog or something. She stopped going to board meetings, stopped her therapy, just didn’t seem to care about anything.”
“Maybe. She worked really hard to get the use of her legs back, but she still can’t walk more than a few steps, so maybe she did get depressed. But she called me last week and when I saw her right after the funeral today, it’s as if she’s decided to rejoin the living. All piss and vinegar again. Wants to rewrite her will now that her niece has died. You having wine?”
She’d been totally conscientious about alcohol while carrying and then nursing the baby, but she’d missed her occasional glass of wine with our lunches.
I shook my head. “You go ahead, though. I have to be back in court this afternoon.”
The waitress had already brought me a glass of iced tea, and when she came back with Portland’s wine, she asked if we wanted to split the shrimp salad, our usual choice when we eat here. Bright Leaf serves the same gigantic portions that made it popular back when farmers came to town on Saturdays after a week of heavy manual labor in the tobacco fields that used to surround Dobbs; and while I have a healthy appetite, I do try to keep it reined in.
Now that we’re both working mothers, we don’t hang out together as much as we used to, so there was a lot of news to catch up on. Her baby, Carolyn Deborah, was seventeen months old now and talking like an iPod left on autoplay, while my stepson—no, not my stepson, I happily reminded myself, not since the adoption went through last month—my son. Cal turned ten last month and would be playing Little League baseball again this summer.
Three years ago, neither Portland nor I had seen this coming.
She and Avery had been married for fourteen years and had almost given up hope of ever having children, while Dwight wasn’t even on my radar except as a longtime family friend who furnished a handy shoulder to cry on whenever my love life turned sour. Then suddenly we were married. A month later, his ex-wife was murdered and his son Cal came to live with us. Happily, we’ve all managed to adjust and now it’s hard for Portland to remember what her life was like before Carolyn. Same for me. I can’t begin to imagine mine without Dwight and Cal in it.
“Did I tell you that we’re finally building the pond shed?” I asked as I speared the last grape tomato on my plate. “Seth and Haywood are going to help Dwight pour the slab this weekend.”
Portland laughed. “When are you going to show him the pig?”
My brother Will runs an auction house and he’d given me a good deal on a large pink metal sign that was pig-shaped, measured about five feet long by three feet tall, and spelled out BAR-B-CUE & SPARE RIBS in bright pink neon. The metal was rusty and dented, and the pink tubing on the back side was too broken to be repaired, but my brother Herman, Haywood’s twin, is an electrician, as are his daughter and son. Together they’ve done a great job of getting the front side working so that when it’s switched on, the feet look as if they’re running. Cal giggles every time he sees it. When the shed is built and the front sides screened in, that pig should look great on the back wall.
I’m crazy about neon, the lit tubes and bright colors rev me up, but Dwight thinks the signs I’ve collected are white-trash tacky. I still have hopes of converting him, but I need to choose the right moment. “I’m going to let Cal give it to him for Father’s Day.”
“Sneaky,” said Portland. “Be sure you let Avery and me know when you plan to unveil it. We want to see Dwight’s face.”
We moved on to courthouse gossip. There was a rumor going round that one of the magistrates was sleeping with her husband’s business partner and that her husband might be embezzling from the firm, so was it true passion or a safety play on the wife’s part? Stay tuned, folks.
As we walked back to the courthouse together, the sun burned down from a cloudless blue sky and made us grateful for the fully-leafed crepe myrtles and acanthus trees that shaded the sidewalks. Middle of May and almost every tree had a ring of colorful petunias, impatiens, or coleus around its base, and bright red geraniums bloomed in the concrete urns on either side of the courthouse door.
I don’t hear too many jury cases, but when I do, I give a slightly longer than usual lunch break so that people don’t have to bolt their food, which was why Portland and I could take our time.
“All rise,” said the bailiff as I entered the nearly empty courtroom. Except for a couple of gray-haired courtroom buffs who attend jury trials as a form of cheap entertainment, the other eight or ten seemed to be partisans of the combatants, and that included the group that had come in with my cousin earlier.
I took my place behind my nameplate, a gift from Barbara McCrory, a Wisconsin friend who made it to the bench before me. My name is on the front, but the back reads: REMEMBER: THIS IS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.
“Oyez, oyez, oyez,” the bailiff intoned. “This court is now back in session, the Honorable Deborah Knott present and presiding.”
With Mr. Connolly back on the stand, Joyce Mitchell, the attorney hired by Connolly’s sister, was ready to cross-examine. Joyce is a quiet, soft-spoken woman who looks at least fifteen years younger than I know her to be.
She adjusted her glasses, tucked a strand of dark hair behind one ear, and smiled pleasantly. “Mr. Connolly, were you aware that your mother sold her house at the bottom of the market?”
“I know she got a lot less than the house was worth, but her rent wasn’t all that much either.”
“You also know that she needed round-the-clock nursing care the last three months of her life?”
Mr. Connolly gave an indignant snort. “And that was a waste of good money when she had three daughters living here who could’ve taken turns sitting by her bed.”
“And you, too, of course?” Joyce asked with sympathetic interest.
“Objection,” his attorney said. “What bearing does this have on my client’s claim?”
“It goes to show why there was considerably less money than he expected, Your Honor,” Joyce said.
“Overruled,” I agreed. “Continue.”
“Anyhow, I live four hours away.” He removed his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. “All of them are just minutes.”
Joyce glanced at the jury box and I followed her eyes. A woman sitting in the front row had pressed her lips into a tight line.
Moving on, Joyce said, “I gather your mother was quite a collector, Mr. Connolly? Had a lot of valuable possessions?”
“She sure did. And I want to know what happened to them, because when my wife and I went to help clean out her house after the funeral, it’d been picked clean.”
“You’re sure she had a good eye for things of value?”
“Absolutely.” He slid his glasses back on and gave a firm jerk of his head to emphasize his point.
“Like those figurines for instance?”
He shrugged. “They might not’ve been to my taste, but I’ve looked on eBay and they’re asking eight or ten times what she would’ve paid for them.”
“Asking or getting? I daresay your attorney here could ask a thousand dollars an hour to represent you, but would you pay it?”
Smiles and laughter from the spectators.
Joyce allowed a dubious frown to cross her pretty face. “But maybe her furniture wasn’t as valuable?”
“Oh, yes, it was!” he said quickly. “Some of it—”
He suddenly realized where Joyce was headed and tried to backtrack. “I mean, some of it was good, but most of it was just ordinary furniture store stuff.”
“When you drove over in your pickup truck to help move your mother into a smaller house, did you take any of her furniture home with you?”
“Well, I might’ve taken— I mean, Mother might’ve given me some things she didn’t have room for.”
Joyce pulled a list from her files. “Did those things include a Chippendale piecrust table, a mahogany sleigh bed, an 1830 blanket chest, a Queen Anne chair, and a Hepplewhite mirror?”
A juror seated in the second row leaned forward to listen with bright-eyed interest. There was something familiar about her.
Mr. Connolly glared at Joyce. “Mother wanted me to have them.”
The juror raised a skeptical eyebrow and I realized that she was a picker for my brother Will’s auction house. I glanced at the seating chart. Jody Munger. I might not know what a Hepplewhite mirror was, but I bet Jody Munger did.
“Even though those six pieces are worth many times what the figurines would actually bring?” Joyce asked.
Mr. Connolly finally had the good sense to hush and let his attorney speak for him.
“Objection. Is there any proof that she owned those pieces or what they’re worth?”
Joyce held out copies of the document from which she had been reading, one for him and one for the court. “Your Honor, I’d like to enter as evidence this appraisal from her insurance company.”
I nodded and she reeled off values for the benefit of the jury, then turned back to Mr. Connolly. “At that same time, did you also take a twelve-gauge shotgun that had been appraised at around a thousand dollars?”
He could not let that go unchallenged. “That shotgun belonged to my daddy’s daddy and I’m the only Connolly male. Mother knew they wanted it to come to me.”
- In MWA Grand Master Maron's outstanding 19th mystery featuring judge Deborah Knott of North Carolina's Colleton County (after 2012's The Buzzard Table), Deborah's elderly aunt, Rachel Morton, lies near death in a hospice. Rachel attracts a crowd of friends and relatives as she talks of "babies, fires, and unpaid debts, of someone who beat his wife and of cowbirds and vegetables and broken jars." A distraction allows a killer enough time to slip into Rachel's room and smother her with a pillow, thus ending her ramblings, which apparently concealed deadly secrets. Unraveling those secrets-some 60 years old-is a slow, difficult process with lots of suspects among friends and family. Maron achieves a delicate balance as she explores differences between mistakes, sins, and crimes, and shows that justice is not always arrived at by conventional means. Humor (e.g., Deborah outfoxes an unscrupulous auctioneer) and social issues (e.g., the difficult role of caregivers to the elderly) add to the warmth of a large family with all its foibles, squabbles, and quirks.—Publishers Weekly
- "Smartly written"—The New York Times on The Buzzard Table
- "As always, Maron skillfully layers an absorbing plot with the doings of Deborah's large extended family and the domestic details of their semirural lifestyle. In addition, the contrast between Deborah, who is warm and caring, and Sigrid, who is reserved and cerebral, gives Maron's tale added depth."—Booklist on The Buzzard Table
- "Maron...adroitly melds ugly American (open) government secrets with classic whodunit intrigue and stirs the pot by itemizing domestic travails that will touch readers' hearts."—Kirkus Reviews on The Buzzard Table
- "There's nobody better."—Chicago Tribune
- "Every Margaret Maron is a celebration of something remarkable."—New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Aug 12, 2014
- Hachette Audio