Hard Row


By Margaret Maron

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When another body is found, these newlyweds will discover dark truths that threaten to permanently alter the serenity of their rural surroundings and their new life together.

As Judge Deborah Knott presides over a case involving a barroom brawl, it becomes clear that deep resentments over race, class, and illegal immigration are simmering just below the surface in the countryside. An early spring sun has begun to shine like a blessing on the fertile fields of North Carolina, but along with the seeds sprouting in the thawing soil, violence is growing as well. Mutilated body parts have appeared along the back roads of Colleton County, and the search for the victim's identity and for that of his killer will lead Deborah and her new husband, Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant, into the desperate realm of undocumented farm workers exploited for cheap labor.

In the meantime, Deborah and Dwight continue to adjust to married life and to having Dwight's eight-year-old son, Cal, live with them full time.


Deborah Knott novels:














Sigrid Harald novels:















Special thanks to Jay Stephenson, my friend and neighbor, for sharing his practical knowledge and farming expertise; to Margaret Ruley for insights into stepmothering; and to my cousin Judy Johnson for giving me tuberoses. As always, I am indebted to District Court Judges Shelly S. Holt and Rebecca W. Blackmore, of the 5th Judicial District Court (New Hanover and Pender Counties, North Carolina), and Special Superior Court Judge John Smith, who keep a watching brief on Deborah's grasp of the law.


If a man goes at his work with his fists he is not so successful as if he goes at it with his head.

—Profitable Farming in the Southern States, 1890



A cold February morning and the first thing on my calendar was the State of North Carolina versus James Braswell and Hector Macedo.

Misdemeanor assault inflicting serious bodily injury.

I vaguely remembered doing first appearances on them both two or three weeks earlier although I would have heard only enough facts to set an appropriate bond and appoint attorneys if they couldn't afford their own. According to the papers now before me, Braswell was a lineman for the local power company and could not only afford an attorney, but had also made bail immediately. His co-defendant, here on a legal visa, had needed an appointed lawyer and he had sat in the Colleton County jail for eleven days till someone went his bail. Each was charged with assaulting the other, and while it might have been better to try them separately, Doug Woodall's office had decided to join the two cases and prosecute them together since the charges rose out of the same brawl. Despite a broken bottle, our DA had not gone for the more serious charge of felony assault because keeping them both misdemeanors would save his office time and the county money, something he was more conscious of now that he'd decided to run for governor.

Neither attorney had objected even though it meant they had to put themselves between the two men scowling at each other from opposite ends of the defendants' table.

Braswell's left hand and wrist had been bandaged last month. Today, a scabby red line ran diagonally across the back of his hand and continued down along the outer edge of his wrist till it disappeared under the cuff of his jacket. The stitches had been removed, but the puncture marks on either side were still visible. I'm no doctor, but it looked as if the jagged glass had barely missed the veins on the underside of Braswell's wrist.

The cut over Macedo's right eye was mostly hidden by his thick dark eyebrow.

I listened as Julie Walsh finished reading the charges. Doug's newest ADA was a recent graduate of Campbell University's law school over in Buies Creek. Small-boned, with light brown hair and blue-green eyes, she dressed like the perfectly conservative product of a conservative school except that a delicate tracery of tattooed flowers circled one thin white wrist and was almost unnoticeable beneath the leather band of her watch. Rumor said there was a Japanese symbol for trust at the nape of her neck but because she favored turtleneck sweaters and wore her long hair down, I couldn't swear to that.

"How do you plead?" I asked the defendants.

"Not guilty," said Braswell.

"Guilty with extenuating circumstances," said Macedo through his attorney.

While Walsh laid out the State's case, I thought about the club where the incident took place.

El Toro Negro. The name brought back a rush of mental images. I had been there twice myself. Last spring, back when I still thought of Sheriff Bo Poole's chief deputy as a sort of twelfth brother and a handy escort if both of us were at loose ends, a couple of court translators had invited me to a Cinco de Mayo fiesta at the club. My latest romance had gone sour the month before so I'd asked Dwight if he wanted to join us.

"Yeah, wouldn't hurt for me to take a look at that place," he'd said. "Maybe keep you out of trouble while I'm at it."

Knowing that he likes to dance just as much as I do, I didn't rise to the bait.

The club was so jammed that the party had spilled out into the cordoned-off parking lot. It felt as if every Hispanic in Colleton County had turned out. I hadn't realized till then just how many there were—all those mostly ignored people who had filtered in around the fringes of our lives. Normally, they wear faded shirts and mud-stained jeans while working long hours in our fields or on construction jobs. That night they sported big white cowboy hats with silver conchos and shiny belt buckles. The women who stake our tomatoes or pick up our sweet potatoes alongside their men in the fields or who wear the drab uniforms of fast-food chains as they wipe down tables or take our orders? They came in colorful swirling skirts and white scoop-neck blouses bright with embroidery.

We danced to the infectious music, drank Mexican beer from longnecked bottles, danced some more, then stuffed ourselves at the fast-food taquerías that lined the parking lot. I bought piñatas for an upcoming family birthday party, and Dwight bought a hammered silver belt buckle for his young son.

It was such a festive, fun evening that he and I went back again after we were engaged. The club was crowded and the music was okay, but it felt like ten men for every woman and when they began to hit on me, I had to get Dwight out of there before he arrested somebody.

So I could picture the club's interior as Walsh called her first witness to the stand.

"¿Habla inglés?" she asked.

Despite his prompt Sí, Macedo's attorney asked that I allow a translator because his own client's English was shaky.

I agreed and Elena Smith took a seat directly behind Macedo, where she kept up a low-pitched, steady obligato to all that was said.

"State your name and address."

The middle-aged witness twisted a billed cap in his callused hands as he gave his name and an address on the outskirts of Cotton Grove. His nails were as ragged and stained as his jeans. In English that was adequate, if heavily accented, he described how he'd entered the restroom immediately after Hector Macedo.

"Then that man"—here he pointed at Braswell—"he push me away and grab him—"

"Mr. Macedo?" the ADA prompted.

". And he hit him and hit him. Many times."

"Did Mr. Macedo hit him back?"

"He try to get away, but that one too big. Too strong."

"Then what happened?"

"Hector, he break a bottle and cut that one. Then he let go and there is much blood. Then the bouncers come. And la policía."

"No further questions, Your Honor," said the ADA.

Braswell's attorney declined to cross-examine the witness, but Macedo's had him flesh out the narrative so as to make it clear to me that the smaller man had acted in self-defense when Braswell left him with no other options.

A second witness took the stand and his account echoed the first. When Walsh started to call a third witness, Braswell's attorney stood up. "We're willing to stipulate as to the sequence of events, Your Honor," whereupon the State rested.

Macedo, a subcontractor for a drywall service, went first for the defense. Speaking through the interpreter, he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. According to his testimony, he had been minding his own business when Braswell attacked him for no good reason. He did not even know who Braswell was until after they were both arrested.

Under questioning by Braswell's lawyer, he admitted that he was at the club that night with one Karen Braswell. Yes, that would be the other defendant's ex-wife although he had not known it at the time. Besides, it wasn't a real date. She worked with his sister at the Bojangles in Dobbs and the two women had made up a casual foursome with himself and a friend. He'd had no clue that she had a husband who was still in the picture till the man began choking and pounding him. Macedo's attorney called the sister, who sat in the first row behind her brother and strained to hear the translator, but Braswell's attorney objected and I sustained.

"Defense rests."

"Call your first witness," I told Braswell's attorney.

"No witnesses, Your Honor."

"Mr. Braswell," I said as his attorney nudged him to stand. "I find you guilty as charged."

"Your Honor," said his attorney, "I would ask you to take into consideration my client's natural distress at seeing his wife out with another man while he was still trying to save their marriage."

"I thought they were divorced," I said.

"In his mind they're still married, Your Honor."

"Ms. Walsh?"

"Your Honor, I think it's relevant that you should know Mr. Braswell was under a restraining order not to contact Mrs. Braswell or go near her."

"Is this true?" I asked the man, who was now standing with his attorney.

He gave a noncommittal shrug and there was a faint sneer on his lips.

"Was a warrant issued for this violation?"

"Yes, Your Honor, but he made bail. He's due in court next week. Judge Parker."

"What was the bail?"

"Five thousand."

I could have increased the bail, but it was moot. He wasn't going to have an opportunity to hassle his ex before Luther Parker saw him next week. Not if I had anything to say about it.

"Ten days active time," I told Braswell. "Bailiff, you will take the prisoner in custody."

"Now, wait just a damn minute here!" he cried; but before he could resist, the bailiff and a uniformed officer had him in a strong-arm grip and marched him out the door that would lead to the jail.

Macedo stood beside his attorney and his face was impassive as he waited for me to pass judgment. I found him guilty of misdemeanor assault and because he'd already sat in jail for eleven days, I reduced his sentence to time served and no fine, just court costs.

He showed no emotion as the translator repeated my remarks in Spanish, but his sister's smile was radiant. "Gracias," she whispered to me as they headed out to the back hall to pay the clerk.

"De nada," I told her.

"State versus Rasheed King," said Julie Walsh, calling her next case. "Misdemeanor assault with a vehicle."

A pugnacious young black man came to stand next to his lawyer at the defendant's table.

"How do you plead?"

"Hey, his truck bumped me first, Judge."

"Sorry, Your Honor," said his attorney.

"You'll get a chance to tell your story, Mr. King," I said, "but for our records, are you pleading guilty or not guilty?"

"Not guilty, ma'am."

It was going to be one of those days.


It should be borne in mind that "home" is not merely a place of shelter from the storms and cold of winter and the heat of summer—a place in which to sleep securely at night and labor by day. It is a place where the children receive their first and most lasting impressions, those that go far in molding and forming the character of the man and woman in after life.

—Profitable Farming in the Southern States, 1890

The year had turned and days were supposed to be getting longer. Nevertheless, it was full dark before I got home.

When things are normal, Dwight's work day begins an hour earlier than mine and ends an hour sooner, which means he often starts supper. I half expected to see him at the stove and to smell food. Instead, the kitchen was empty and the stove bare of any pots or pans as I let myself in through the garage door. The television was on mute in the living room though and Cal looked up from some school papers spread across the coffee table. A brown-eyed towhead, he's tall for his age and as awkward as a young colt. In his haste to neaten up, several sheets of papers slid to the floor. His dog Bandit, a smooth-haired terrier with a brown eye mask, sidestepped the papers and trotted over to greet me.

Cal wore a red sweatshirt emblazoned with a big white 12 and he gave me a guilty smile as he gathered up his third-grade homework and tried to make a single tidy pile. A Friday night, he was already on his homework, yet he was worried about messing up the living room?

I'm no neat freak and a little clutter doesn't bother me. Dwight either. But Cal was still walking on eggs with us, almost as if he was afraid that if he stepped an inch out of line, someone would yell at him.

Neither Dwight nor I are much for yelling, but when you're eight years old and your whole world turns upside down overnight, I guess it makes you cautious.

Six months ago he was living with his mother up in Virginia and I had been footloose and fancy free. I lived alone and came and went as I chose, accountable to no one except the state of North Carolina, which did expect me to show up in court on a regular basis. Then in blurred succession came an October engagement, followed by a Christmas wedding, followed by the murder of Dwight's first wife before the ink was completely dry on our marriage certificate. Now my no-strings life suddenly included two guys and a dog with their own individual needs and obligations.

As soon as I saw Cal's shirt though, I remembered why I was on my own for supper tonight, and a quick glance at the calendar hanging on the refrigerator confirmed it. Pencilled there in today's square was HURRICANES—7 PM.

Dwight came down the hall from our bedroom, zipping his heavy jacket and carrying Cal's hockey stick under his arm.

"Oh, hey!" A smile warmed his brown eyes. "I was afraid we'd have to leave before you got home. You 'bout ready, buddy?"

Cal nodded. "Just have to get my jacket and a Sharpie. I'm gonna try to get Rod Brind'Amour's autograph tonight."

As he picked up his books and scurried off to his room, Dwight hooked me with the hockey stick and drew me close. I've kissed my share of men in my time, but his slow kisses are blue-ribbon-best-in-show. "Wish you were coming with us," he said, nuzzling my neck.

"No, you don't," I assured him. "I promised to honor and love. There was nothing in the vows about hockey."

"You sure you read the fine print?"

"That's the first thing an attorney does read, my friend."

I adore ACC basketball, I pull for the Atlanta Braves, and I can follow a football game without asking too many dumb questions, but ice hockey leaves me cold in more ways than one. When you grow up in the south on a dirt road, you don't even learn to roller skate. Yes, we have ponds and yes, they do occasionally freeze over, but the ice is seldom thick enough to trust and the closest I ever got to live ice-skating was once when the Ice Capades came to Raleigh and Mother and Aunt Zell took me and some of the younger boys to see them. We all agreed the circus was a better show. My preadolescent brothers preferred hot trapeze artists to cool ice goddesses and I kept waiting for the elephants.

But Cal had played street hockey on skates up in Shaysville and had become hooked on the Canes when he spent Christmas with us and watched four televised games.


In one week.

He and Dwight didn't miss a single one. I'd wanted to bond (not to mention snuggle in next to my new husband), so I joined them on the extra-long leather couch Dwight had brought over from his bachelor apartment. I honestly tried to follow along, but the terminology was indecipherable and I never knew where the puck was nor why someone had been sent to the penalty box or why they would abruptly stop play for no discernible reason to have a jump ball.

That made Cal laugh. "Not jump ball," he had told me kindly. "It's a face-off."

Two grown men fighting for possession of a small round object, right? Same thing in my book.

But now that Cal was living with us permanently, it had become their thing. I went off and puttered happily by myself when they were watching a game, and I had scored a couple of decent seats for the last half of the season with the help of Karen Prince, a former client who now worked in the Hurricanes ticket office.

"The drive back and forth to Raleigh will give you and Cal a chance to be alone together and talk. Kids open up in a car," I told Dwight when he questioned why I hadn't badgered Karen for three seats.

I really did think they needed the time and space to help Cal cope with all the changes in his young life, but it wasn't unadulterated altruism. Put myself where I couldn't read a book or catch up on paperwork? Get real.

Dwight laughed and gave me another quick kiss as Cal came back ready to go.

"Have fun," I said and when the door had closed behind them, I happily contemplated the evening's sybaritic possibilities.

"So what do you think, Bandit?" I asked the dog. "Popcorn and a chick flick video, or a long soak in the tub followed by a manicure?"

Or I could bake a cake to take for Sunday dinner at Minnie and Seth's house. Seth is five brothers up from me, the one I've always felt closest to, and his wife has acted as my political advisor from the day I first decided to run for a seat on the district court bench.

I unzipped my high heel boots and had just kicked one off when the door opened again. Dwight had the phone pressed to his ear and there was a glum look on Cal's face.

"Tell Denning and Richards I'll meet them there in ten minutes." Dwight flipped the phone shut. "Sorry, Cal, but I have to go. It's my job."

He headed for our bedroom where he keeps his handgun locked up when he's off duty and I followed.

"What's happened?" I asked as he holstered the gun on his belt.

"They've found two legs in a ditch near Bethel Baptist," he said grimly.

Bethel Baptist Church is on a back road about halfway between our house and Dobbs, Colleton's county seat. My mind fought with the grisly image of severed limbs. "Human legs?"

"White male's all I know for now."

And it was clear that he didn't want to say any more. Not with Cal standing disconsolately in the doorway.

Dwight sighed and laid the hockey tickets on the dresser. "I really am sorry, son."

"It's okay," Cal said gamely. "Brind'Amour might not even be playing tonight."

"Don't wait supper," Dwight told me as he started back down the hall. "This could take a while."

"That's all right," I said. "And if you get home first, you don't have to wait up for us."

That stopped them both in their tracks and Cal looked at me in sudden hope as he saw the tickets in my hand.

I smiled back at him. "Well, I've got a driver's license, too, you know. And I know how to get to the RBC Center. You just have to promise not to get embarrassed if I yell 'High sticking!' at the wrong time, okay?"


Home court for NC State's basketball team and home ice for the Carolina Hurricanes, the RBC Center is named for the Royal Bank of Canada—part of the global economy we keep hearing about. It's less than ten years old and sits on eighty acres that used to be farms and woodlands, just west of Raleigh and easily accessible by I-40. It was supposed to cost $66 million and seat 23,000. It wound up costing $158 million and seats only 20,000. Was there ever a public project that didn't cost at least twice as much as originally estimated?

When Dwight and Seth and I were figuring how much it'd cost to add on a new master bedroom, we actually overestimated by a thousand. Either we're smarter than those professional consultants who get paid big money out of the state's budget or else those consultants maybe fudge the figures so that legislators won't panic and refuse to fund a project until it's too late to back out.

Even though I'm a Carolina fan, I don't begrudge the Wolfpack their new arena. I just wish it could've been named for something a little less commercial than a Canadian bank.

On the drive in, Cal tried to bring me up to speed on the rules and logic of the game and I really did try to concentrate, but it was so much gobbledygook.

When we got to the entrance, orange-colored plastic cones divided the various lanes and he knew which lane would get us to the parking lot closest to our seats. Inside, we bought pizza and soft drinks, then found our seats in the club section, which was sort of like first balcony in a regular theater. Up above us, the retired jerseys of various NCSU basketball players hung from the rafters. Down below us, red-garbed hockey players warmed up on the gleaming white ice.

Don't ask me who the Hurricanes played that night. I don't have a clue. But a couple of minutes into play, the Canes scored the first goal and the whole building went crazy. Cal and every other kid in the place jumped to their feet and waved their hockey sticks. Men high-fived, women hugged and screamed, horns blared, and the near-capacity crowd roared maniacal cheers of triumph, while flashing colored lights chased themselves around the rim of our section in eye-dazzling brilliance.



Shall we ask, Am I my brother's keeper? Or say in the language of a former cabinet officer, "Gentlemen, this is not my funeral."

—Profitable Farming in the Southern States, 1890



Even before he turned onto Ward Dairy Road, Dwight could see flashing lights in the distance. When he got there, state troopers were directing homeward-bound commuter traffic through a single lane around the scene, so he turned on his own flashers behind the grille of his truck, slowed to a crawl as he approached, and flipped down the sun visor to show the card that identified him as an officer of the Colleton County Sheriff's Department. Activity seemed to be centered directly in front of Bethel Baptist, between the entrance and exit driveways that circled the churchyard. He started to power down his window, but the troopers recognized him and immediately shunted him into the first drive. He parked and pulled on the new wool gloves Deborah had given him for Christmas, grabbed his flashlight, and walked over toward the others.

Most of the county roads had wide shoulders and this one was no exception. Even with the yellow tape that delineated the crime scene, there would have been enough room for two cars to pass had there not been so many official vehicles gathered around like a flock of buzzards there for the kill, as his father-in-law would say.

Trooper Ollie Harrold gave him an informal two finger salute. "Over here, Major Bryant," he said, illuminating a path for Dwight with his torch.

Yellow tape had been looped across a shallow ditch and was secured to the low illuminated church sign a few feet away. Inside the tape's perimeter, the focus of all their attention, two brawny legs lay side by side—male, to judge by their muscular hairiness. Even in the fitful play of flashlights, Dwight could see that they were a ghastly white, drained of all blood. He aimed his own flash at the upper thighs. The bones that protruded were mangled and splintered as if hacked from the victim's torso with an axe or heavy cleaver. No clean-sawn cut. No apparent blood on the wintry brown grass beneath them either, which indicated that the butchery had taken place elsewhere.

The pasty-faced man who had reported them was a thoroughly shaken local who worked at a nearby auto repair shop and who now stood shivering in a thin jacket that did not offer much protection against the sharp February wind.

"I was riding home," he said, "when I saw 'em a-laying there in the ditch. Almost fell in the ditch myself a-looking so hard 'cause I couldn't believe what I was a-seeing. I went straight home and called y'all, then came back here to wait."

Dwight glanced at the rusty beat-up bicycle propped against one of the patrol cars behind them. "Bit chilly to be riding a bike."

"Yeah, well . . ." The words trailed off in a shamefaced shrug.

"Lost your license?"

"Used to be, you had to blow a ten to have 'em take it." The man sounded aggrieved. "I only blew a eight-five, but the judge still took it. I'm due to get it back next month."

"There's no light on your bike," Dwight said, looking from the bicycle to the grisly limbs in the shallow ditch.

"I know, but I got reflecting tape on the pedals and fenders and on my jacket, too. See?" He turned around to show them. "Didn't need my own light to see that, though. People don't dim their high beams for bicycles."

"You ride past here on your way to work?"

The man nodded. "And 'fore you ask, no, they won't here this morning. I'm certain sure I'd've seen 'em."

The officer assigned to patrol this area was already on the scene and others of Dwight's people started to arrive. Detective Mayleen Richards was first, followed by Jamison and Denning on the crime scene van. As they set up floodlights so that Percy Denning could photograph the remains from all angles, Richards took down the witness's name and address and the few pertinent facts he could tell them, then Dwight thanked him for his help and told him he was free to go.

"I can get someone to run you home."

"Naw, that's all right. Like I say, I just live around the curve yonder." He seemed reluctant to leave.

An EMT truck was called to transport the legs over to Chapel Hill to see what the ME could tell them from a medical viewpoint.

"We already checked with the county hospitals," Detective Jack Jamison reported. "No double amputees so far. McLamb's calling Raleigh, Smithfield, Fuquay, and Fayetteville."

"We have any missing persons at the moment?" Dwight asked.

"Just that old man with Alzheimer's that walked away from that nursing home down in Black Creek around Christmas. His daughter's still on the phone to us almost every day."

Despite an intensive search with a helicopter and dogs, the old man had never been found.

"I hear the family's suing the place for a half a million dollars," said Mayleen Richards.

"A half-million dollars for an eighty-year-old man?" Jamison was incredulous.

"Well, a nursing home in Dobbs wound up paying fifty thousand for the woman they lost and she was in her nineties. And think if it was your granddaddy," said Richards, a touch of cynicism in her voice. "Wouldn't it take a half-million to wipe out your pain and mental anguish?"


On Sale
Aug 22, 2007
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 MargaretMaron.com.

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