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Meanwhile, Deborah's husband, Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant, is in Virginia with his son, tying up loose ends left by the death of his first wife.
When another judge is found murdered at the conference, it soon becomes evident that Deborah may be the killer's next target. Her relaxing trip to the seaside soon transforms into a harrowing experience, and she must summon all of her strength and investigative expertise to track down the culprit before she becomes the next victim.
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 © 2009 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.
Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England: Volumes I–IV by Sir William Blackstone, originally published 1765–1769 (The Avalon Project, Yale Law School).
Roman Civilization: Volume II by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold © 1955 Columbia University Press
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats, 1893.
Grand Central Publishing
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First eBook Edition: August 2009
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Deborah Knott novels:
DEATH'S HALF ACRE
RITUALS OF THE SEASON
HIGH COUNTRY FALL
UP JUMPS THE DEVIL
SHOOTING AT LOONS
Sigrid Harald novels:
BABY DOLL GAMES
THE RIGHT JACK
DEATH IN BLUE FOLDERS
DEATH OF A BUTTERFLY
ONE COFFEE WITH
LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER
SUITABLE FOR HANGING
My thanks to all the members of the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges, who over the years have let me sit in on their conferences, shared their stories of humor and heartbreak, and answered my endless questions. I could not have written these books without their generous help.
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law.… If the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband's concurrence.
—Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780)
I should never have suggested perfume. If I'd stuck to something plain vanilla like a lacy bed jacket or some pretty note cards or even a box of assorted chocolates, it would have been fine. But no. I had to stop at a cosmetics counter in Crabtree Mall for a tube of my favorite moisturizer and say to Cal, "What about that?"
"That" was a small white porcelain bottle shaped like a single perfect gardenia.
My stepson shrugged and said, "Okay," plainly bored with this shopping trip. He and Dwight were going to drive up to Virginia the next morning. Dwight hoped to finish cleaning out the house Cal had inherited from his mother and to put it on the market, before driving on up to Charlottesville to teach a couple of sessions at a law-enforcement training seminar. Although Cal would be staying with a friend while Dwight was gone, he would certainly be seeing his grandmother during the visit. Yet he was no more enthusiastic about buying her a gift than he had been for the new jeans and shirts and sneakers he so desperately needed.
Cal turned nine last month and he's going to be as tall as his dad. A recent growth spurt now puts him almost shoulder-high to me, which means that he's outgrown almost every article of clothing he owns except for socks and the oversized Carolina Hurricanes T-shirt he was wearing—a shirt I have to wash by hand so as not to fade the team signatures on the right shoulder.
"Is that a gardenia scent?" I asked the clerk behind the counter.
"Sure is!" she chirped, and spritzed the back of my hand with a sample bottle.
"What do you think?" I asked Cal, holding my hand under his nose.
He took one sniff and went pale beneath his freckles. His brown eyes filled with sudden tears and he slapped my hand away, then bolted from the store and out into the mall.
Belatedly I remembered that smells can be even more evocative than music and I realized that I had thoughtlessly brought back all the grief and terror he had felt when Jonna died. He hadn't reacted at all to the first few blooms of the season that I had cut for our dining table last week, had even given them a cursory sniff, their sweet aroma diffused by cooking odors. But here on my hand? In concentrated strength just when the return to Virginia had to be on his mind?
Six months of healing ripped away in a moment by the exaggerated smell of gardenias that must surely evoke the circumstances surrounding his mother's death.
I took some of the clerk's wipes and scrubbed the back of my hand till it was almost raw and every trace of the gardenia perfume was gone, then I grabbed our shopping bags and hurried out into the mall to find Cal.
I was halfway down the long space and beginning to panic before I finally spotted his red Hurricanes shirt. He was scrunched down beneath an overgrown ficus plant outside a video store. His back was against the wall, his shoulders slumped, and his face was buried in his arms, atop his drawn-up knees.
I so wanted to go put my arms around him and say how sorry I was, but he usually reacts awkwardly to my hugs and kisses or else shies away completely, and this wasn't the time to try again. Not when I was the reason he had fallen apart. There was a bench several feet away, so I parked the shopping bags and sat down to wait for the worst of his misery to pass.
A mall guard paused to look inquiringly at him and I caught her eye.
"It's okay," I murmured softly.
She grinned. "Can't have the video game he wants, huh?"
I smiled back as normally as I could and she moved on. If only Cal's hurt could be eased by something as simple as an electronic game.
Eventually, he raised his head and looked around. He did not immediately see me among all the people passing back and forth and his eyes darted apprehensively from one face to another until they met mine. Was that resentment or resignation on his face?
Whichever, there was nothing I could do about it, no matter how much my heart ached for him, no matter how much he missed his mother. He was stuck with me—had been stuck with me ever since Jonna was murdered back in January and he came to live with Dwight and me, less than a month after our Christmas wedding.
I held out the bag with his new sneakers and he dutifully got up and walked over to help.
"That's enough shopping for one day," I said briskly. "Let's go home."
As soon as we were in the car, he stuck the buds of his iPod in his ears and stared out the window without speaking.
What wasn't normal was the way he unplugged one ear after we had been driving a few minutes and looked over at me.
"Do I have to go to Shaysville? Can't I stay with Aunt Kate while y'all are gone?"
Kate is married to Dwight's brother Rob, and she keeps Cal during the week while Dwight and I are working. Unfortunately, Kate and Rob and their three children were flying up to New York the next day to spend some time in the city. Kate still owns the Manhattan apartment she shared with her late first husband and the tenant was happy to have her and her crew to come dog-sit while he went off to Paris for a week.
When I reminded Cal of this, he went to Plan B. "Then can I go with you?"
Another time and I might have been thrilled that he would choose me instead of Dwight, but this?
"What's going on, honey?" I asked gently. "Don't you want to see your grandmother and your old friends?"
He sank lower in his seat and didn't answer.
"Your dad's going to need your help with the house, Cal."
"No, he won't. He's got Uncle Will, so why does he need me? I won't be in the way at your meeting, Deborah. Honest. I can stay in the pool or watch television or something."
"Is this because of your Aunt Pam?" I asked.
He turned back to the window and stared out at the setting sun without answering.
Jonna's sister is bipolar and his last experience with her had been a terrifying ordeal. No wonder he was apprehensive about the possibility of a repeat.
With my left hand on the steering wheel, I reached over and touched his shoulder. "You absolutely do not have to worry about her, honey. She's still in the hospital and won't be coming out anytime soon. I promise."
I gave him a couple of miles to process my assurance, then added, "Jimmy Radcliff's going to be really disappointed if you stay home."
Jimmy's dad, Paul, is the chief of police up in Shaysville. He and Dwight are old Army buddies and Paul had promised to take Cal and Jimmy camping on the New River while Dwight attended his conference.
Some of the tension went out of Cal's small frame. "Okay," he said with a nod.
"Pam's a big part of it," I told Dwight when we lay in bed that night, "but I think he may be dreading the house itself. It's going to make him remember Jonna and what his life was like before she died, so cut him a little slack if he gives you a hard time, okay?"
He stopped nuzzling my ear long enough to murmur, "Okay," then turned his attention back to where his hands were and what they were doing and after that, I have to admit that I did, too.
"I'm gonna miss you," he said later when we lay face-to-face in the darkness with our legs entwined.
"Me, too, you," I said, kissing his chest.
"This is your first judges' conference since we got together."
Dwight and my brothers were inseparable as kids and I've known him since I was a baby. After he and Jonna split and he came back to Colleton County to become Sheriff Bo Poole's second in command, we would hang out together whenever we were at loose ends and not seeing anyone. I used to cry on his shoulder about relationships that went nowhere and he would unburden his guilt about missing Cal's childhood and whether or not he should take Jonna back to court to amend the custody arrangements. He was smart enough not to give details about his romantic entanglements but I always talked way too much about mine, some of which did indeed begin with the summer conferences at the beach or end with the fall conferences up in the mountains.
"Remember that you're a married lady now," he growled. "Or should I ask Judge Parker to keep an eye on you for me?"
Luther Parker was the first black judge elected in our district and he takes a semi-paternal interest in me.
"You can ask," I said, "but he's in bed every night by nine o'clock."
"Just see that you are, too," he said. "Alone."
I laughed. His tone was light, but I heard the tiniest touch of apprehension in his voice.
Nice to know your husband doesn't take you for granted, right?
Will called the next morning to confirm the time and place to meet with Dwight. He's three brothers up from me and makes his living as an estate appraiser and an auctioneer. Even though he's never had any formal training for either, he's pretty savvy and seems to know instinctively the value of a piece of furniture or a porcelain figurine. Occasionally he messes up on the worth of a chest or a family portrait, "But hell," he says, "that's what keeps the fancy-pants dealers coming to my auctions. They think I'm so ignorant that they're going to get something good for pennies on the dollar. Once in a while they might do, but most times they wind up buying what I'm selling for more than they meant to spend. It all evens out."
After Jonna's death up there in Virginia, he offered to go through the house with Dwight and to help move everything of sentimental or monetary value back down here so that we could get a better sense of what might be important to Cal someday and what could be disposed of now. This was the first chance they'd had to go up and even now it was only because of that training seminar up in Charlottesville.
Dwight planned to help Will load the truck, list the house with a real estate agent, go to the seminar on Monday and Tuesday, then pick Cal up on his way home on Wednesday, the day before I was due to get back.
Cal understood that the house and most of the furniture had to go, and he was enough a child of the age to be interested in how much money might wind up in his college fund when everything was sold. At least that's what we hoped.
"Peanut butter or chicken salad?" I asked him now as I opened a loaf of whole-wheat bread to pack a lunch for them.
He frowned at the carrots and apples I'd pulled from the refrigerator. "Dad and I always stop at McDonald's," he said, referring to the times he and Dwight had driven back and forth to Shaysville whenever it was Dwight's weekend to have him.
"This is better for you guys," I said lightly, mindful of my new nutritional responsibilities to a growing boy.
Dwight entered the kitchen, freshly shaved, and carrying his duffel bag. "Ready to hit the road, buddy?"
He set the bag by the back door and went over to pour himself a final cup of coffee.
Cal immediately took advantage of his turned back and said, "Can we stop for lunch in Greensboro, Dad? Like we always do?"
"Sure thing," Dwight said, completely oblivious to what was going on here. "Uncle Will's never said no to a cheeseburger."
"Fine," I said and shoved the stuff back into the refrigerator. I did not slam the refrigerator door and I did not stomp out of the room.
"Something wrong?" asked Dwight, who had followed me into our bedroom.
"Not a thing," I snapped. "I love being overruled in front of Cal."
"I told Cal I was packing y'all a healthy lunch and then you came in and said you'd stop for greasy cheeseburgers and french fries."
"I did? Sorry, shug. You should have said something."
"Right. And make myself the evil no-fun stepmother again? Thanks but no thanks." I headed for our bathroom to take a shower.
"Oh, come on, Deb'rah. What's the big deal? An occasional cheeseburger's not going to kill him."
I paused in the doorway and made a show of looking at the clock. "You'd better go if you're going to meet Will."
I ignored his outstretched hand and slammed the door between us, half-hoping he'd follow, but before I had fully shucked off my robe and gown, his truck roared past the window.
And no, dammit, I was not crying.
But man was formed for society; and, as is demonstrated by writers on this subject, is neither capable of living alone, nor indeed has the courage to do it.
—Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780)
I stood in the shower, water sluicing down my body, and lathered shampoo into my hair. I was so furious with Dwight, it's a wonder the water didn't sizzle as soon as it touched my skin.
Hadn't we agreed to present a united front? For six months I had bent over backwards, trying to make up to his son for the mother he'd lost, trying to be consistent and fair and walk the line between understanding his loss and giving order and security to his life, and this was the thanks I got? Why did Dwight automatically assume I was in the wrong when I knew damn well I wasn't? Everybody says that junk food and poor eating habits make for obese kids. Did he want Cal to grow up fat and unhealthy? And just as importantly, was Dwight going to let Cal do an end run around me every time I made a ruling that he didn't like?
I sighed, finished rinsing the shampoo from my hair, and turned off the water to towel myself dry. I had one stepson.
My mother had acquired eight when she married Daddy. How on earth did she wind up winning their love while asserting her authority?
"She didn't," the preacher who lives in the back of my head reminded me. "Not right away anyhow."
I sighed again. It had taken her years with some of the older boys, but they had all come around in the end. I just wasn't sure I had her stamina and patience.
Well, the hell with it. If Dwight wanted to go storming off like that, I wasn't going to sit around here feeling sorry for myself.
Today was only Saturday, but there was nothing to keep me home. Although the summer conference of district court judges would not officially start until Monday, I was on the Education Committee and we planned to get together Sunday evening to begin brainstorming for the fall conference program. But hey! It was June, the hotel was right on Wrightsville Beach, and I had a new red maillot that didn't look too shabby on me. I called the hotel, and when they told me I could check in that afternoon, that's all I needed to hear.
I printed out the files I would need, then quickly packed and whistled for Bandit.
Daddy had volunteered to keep Cal's dog while we were away, so I drove through the back lanes of the farm to the homeplace with Bandit on the seat beside me. Paws on the dashboard, he peered through the windshield as if he knew he was in for a great weekend.
Daddy was sitting on the top step of the wide and shady front porch when I got there. The porch catches every bit of breeze but the air was dead still today and felt as if it'd already reached the predicted high of ninety when I opened the door of my air-conditioned car. Daddy scorns air-conditioning and our muggy heat seldom bothers him.
As always, his keen blue eyes were shaded by the straw panama that he wears from the first warm days of spring till the first cool days of autumn. His blue shirt was faded and his chinos were frayed at the ankle, part of the I-ain't-nothin'-but-a-pore-ol'-dirt-farmer look that he adopted during his bootlegging days and has never seen the need to change, no matter how many nice shirts and pants his daughters-in-law and I give him. (Maidie, his longtime housekeeper, just rolls her eyes and puts everything through the washer a time or two with bleach before he'll wear something new without nagging.) His long legs stretched down till his worn brogans rested on the lowest step.
Ladybelle, a dignified seven-year-old redbone coonhound, lay on the dirt near his feet, and Bandit was all over her in bouncy excitement the minute I let him out of the car.
Daddy stood up and shook his head at so much canine energy on such a hot day. "He don't seem to've calmed down much since he come, has he?"
"That's the terrier in him," I said. "He's getting better at home. You sure he's not going to be too much trouble? Andrew said he'd pen him in with his beagles if you don't want to be bothered with another house dog."
"Naw, he won't be no bother. He is housebroke, ain't he?"
"He wouldn't be a house dog if he wasn't."
"Well, then, he'll be just fine. Ladybelle'll let him know if he gets out of line with her."
"Thanks, Daddy," I said, standing on tiptoe to kiss his wrinkled cheek. "Dwight and Cal should be back Wednesday and they'll be over to pick him up then. I'll get home on Thursday. Maidie has our phone numbers if anything comes up."
Daddy's aversion to telephones was formed back when long-distance phone calls cost real money, and no matter how cheap they are these days, he's never going to change.
"Ain't nothing gonna come up worth a phone call," he told me firmly.
Minutes later I was meandering through a maze of back-country roads that would take me over to I-40. Despite all the new developments that had obliterated so many of the county's small farms, there were still fields of tobacco along the way. Here in the middle of June, few of the tops were showing any pink tuberoses yet. I passed a four- or five-acre stand of corn where a red tractor was giving the plants a side-dressing of soda. And there were still parcels of unsold fallow land where tall oaks and maples were in full leaf, where honeysuckle competed with deep green curtains of kudzu that fell in graceful loops from power wires to drape all the weaker trees. Goldenrod, daisies, and bright orange daylilies brightened the ditch banks.
Once I hit I-40, heading southeast, the wide green dividers bloomed with beds of delicate pink poppies and eye-popping red cannas. Grass and trees and bushes were so lush and green that the line about being "knee-deep in June" kept looping through my head. Robert Frost? Eugene Field? I often wish I had paid more attention to poetry in my college lit courses. Someone once described poetry committed to memory as "a jewel in the pocket."
My pockets have holes in them and most of the jewels have fallen out.
I-40 came to an end about ninety miles later where the highway splits. To the right is the town of Wilmington proper with its meandering boardwalk along the Cape Fear River, its many seafood restaurants, the courthouse, and street after street lined with live oaks and antebellum mansions with black-and-gold historical plaques affixed to the front.
The left fork of the highway leads over to Wrightsville Beach, past a dozen or more strip malls, shopping centers, and upscale gated communities until you reach the high-rise hotels and densely packed beach houses that line the wide beaches of sugar-soft sand.
I turned in at the conference hotel and maneuvered past the cars loading and unloading to park near the entrance.
As I pulled my roller bag across the polished marble floor to the reception desk, I heard someone call, "Well, hey there, girl!"
I turned to see Chelsea Ann Pierce, a colleague based in Raleigh, and her sister, Rosemary Emerson, who's married to a Durham judge. Chelsea Ann's a generously built easygoing blonde with an infectious laugh. Rosemary's the older prototype, with darker hair and a cynical sense of humor that cracks us all up.
I get my share of gooey, inspirational God-loves-you-and-so-do-all-the-women-you-know emails from various friends and relatives and those I usually delete without reading, but I never automatically delete the jokes and funny pictures or off-the-wall news items that Rosemary sends. She's never yet duplicated anything that's been circling through the ether for years, and it's always something that makes me laugh out loud and then forward to a PI friend in California with a similarly warped outlook on life.
"Three minds with the same thought?" I asked, even though they were in clam diggers and bright cotton shirts. "Ya'll figure to get a little beach time in first, too?"
Chelsea Ann shook her head. "Nope, we're off to check out the consignment shops." She recently sold the big suburban house that was part of her divorce settlement and bought a condo in Raleigh's Cameron Village. "I need a narrow table for my new entry hall and the Ivy Cottage is supposed to have the best selection of used furniture around. Want to come? We'll wait for you to check in."
I shook my head and gestured toward the nearly deserted beach that lay beyond the clear glass walls. "Y'all go ahead. I haven't been in salt water all season and I'm dying to get out there. I'm free for supper though. Want to meet at Jonah's? Six-thirty?"
My hotel room on the fifth floor came with the standard king-sized bed, a decent-sized desk for my laptop, and a mirrored alcove that surrounded a Jacuzzi big enough for two. French doors opened onto a minuscule balcony that held two of those ubiquitous white plastic club chairs that seem to have taken over the world. It overlooked the beach and pool area, and my view of turquoise water was spectacular.
On SAND SHARKS:
"Maron writes with such a strong sense of place that you can even smell the ocean air on Wrightsville Beach. The plot, populated with enticing characters, moves swiftly; an essential read for Maron fans and mystery lovers."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing