Newberry Sin

Newberry Sin

C. Hope Clark

April 2018 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-877-6

Book 4 of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series

 
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EPIC Award Winning Series

"Author C. Hope Clark brings to life . . . endearing and strong-minded characters that linger in your mind long after the last page is turned.” —New York Times bestselling author Karen White

Beneath an idyllic veneer of Southern country charm, the town of Newberry hides secrets that may have led to murder.

When a local landowner’s body, with pants down, is found near Tarleton’s Tea Table Rock—a notorious rendezvous spot, federal investigator Carolina Slade senses a chance to get back into the field again. Just as she discovers what might be a nasty pattern of fraud and blackmail, her petty boss reassigns her fledgling case to her close friend and least qualified person in their office.

Forced to coach an investigation from the sidelines, Slade struggles with the twin demons of professional jealousy and unplanned pregnancy. Something is rotten in Newberry. Her personal life is spiraling out of control. She can’t protect her co-worker. And Wayne Largo complicates everything when the feds step in after it becomes clear that Slade is right.

One wrong move and Slade may lose everything. Yet it’s practically out of her hands . . . unless she finds a way to take this case back without getting killed.

Author C. Hope Clark, an award-winning writer of two mystery series (Carolina Slade and the Edisto Island mysteries), founded FundsforWriters.com, which Writer's Digest has recognized in its annual 101 Best Web Sites for Writers for almost two decades. Hope is married to a 30-year veteran of federal law enforcement, a Senior Special Agent, now a private investigator. They live in South Carolina, on the banks of Lake Murray. Hope is ever hard at work on the next novel, and you can visit her at chopeclark.com.


Reviews

"Author C. Hope Clark brings to life... endearing and strong-minded char­acters that linger in your mind long after the last page is turned”

New York Times bestselling author Karen White

"Edisto Jinx has all the elements current mystery/thriller readers love”

Killer Nashville Magazine

"Award winning writer C. Hope Clark delivers another one-two punch of intrigue with Edisto Stranger, the fourth book in her popular Edisto Island Mystery series... Clark really knows how to hook her readers with a fantastic story and characters that jump off the page with abandon. Un-put-downable from the get-go, this is a mystery that will certainly not disappoint those who are already fans of the author as well as those that are reading her for the very first time. Once again, I overshot my bedtime by a mile several nights running but, as always, reading Clark’s latest was worth every missed wink of sleep.”

All Booked Up Reviews





Excerpt

Chapter 1

HARDEN HARRIS pointed to a wooden chair in the tiny, dark paneled lobby of WKDK radio. "Park it right there, Ms. Slade.”

The two ladies with him paused at the delivery, as did I, their gazes uncertain. Mine, however, wanted to laser Harden into micro-flecks of ash. Red-faced, I couldn’t let the remark slide, even if he was my boss. "Pardon me?”

Harden had disrespected me for close to six months now, and some­thing had to change. I wasn’t his clerk. I was a special projects repre­sentative, a unique title delegated to troubleshooting... a job I did pretty damn well when allowed off my leash.

Harden and I were supposed to represent USDA on the morning radio show in a goodwill appearance of the state director, and me—his supposed right-hand lieutenant. We were to be a united front of federal assistance and gratitude to the taxpayer and the agrarian community.

"Don’t need you in this interview,” he said, then smiling, he preceded the guest-of-honor, who happened to be one of our own, and the DJ host into the next room. Etiquette dictated he should let them walk through first, but etiquette never stopped the man before. Idiot.

The women’s over-the-shoulder looks pitied me.

I assumed my seat, which at least gave me the best view of the three and their show via a window in the wall.

A ditty played with a group singing WKDK 1240-AM, then the raucous yet radio-perfect voice of the older woman took over. "Lottie Bledsoe here with two quick public service announcements, y’all. A set of keys with a Disney keychain was found in the Walmart parking lot. Go to customer service to identify them. And the Baldwin farm in Silverstreet reports two of their llamas escaped the pen, so watch your driving in that area.” Then another version of the station jingle intro­duced The Coffee Hour by Lottie.

Introductions were made. The middle-aged lady DJ threw out a one-liner, and Harden leaned into the microphone and laughed like the son-of-a-bitch was on a late-night talk show. Then he grinned all saccharin at the guest of honor. I almost threw up a little in my mouth.

The three gathered around the radio station’s table of mics. Harden had given the younger woman’s tightly covered ass a thorough once-over, however, before she slid into her chair. No matter what he thought, no way in hell that sweet little thing should give Harden a second glance. The toned, tanned thirty-two-year-old guest sat across from him, feigning interest, her 34D cleavage riveting his attention on what looked like a man’s class ring on a chain dangling between her breasts. She didn’t dress much differently than I did in my mix and match separates, but her shape would flatter overalls.

Still angry at Harden, my stomach flipped and wouldn’t settle, rocking with a queasiness I didn’t need. Damn that man. He’d worn my patience thin long ago. Deep breaths, Slade. Deep breaths.

Ugh, not working. The burning built in my gut. I quickly scanned the room for barf options, chagrinned, mystified, and insulted that I’d let this man irritate me so. A trash can in the corner, and hopefully a rest­room down the tiny hall to my left. But after a down-to-my-navel inhale, the problem seemed to ease.

To get to Newberry, South Carolina, I had ridden the thirty miles up back roads in my own truck so as not to be confined with Harden’s body odor and cigar stench. Even so, those smells were having an effect. Another breath... whew... better.

Cigar scent always stank when I was pregnant with my son— Oh dear sweet, sweet Jesus. The WKDK advertising calendar on the wall to the right of the window grabbed my attention. I ticked off days, calculating, my heart slipping with each overdue number. No damn way.

Please let it be stress. Please, please, please... think of something else. Harden... dwell on him. Envision him being all kinds of stupid on the air.

Harden had yanked me out of investigations and assigned me pica­yune tasks out of spite. Spite and the fact that a couple of his old friends still occupied jail cells from a real estate scam I’d unearthed almost three years ago. Their transgressions were the most egregious of the old scam, but the friends would be out soon. Too soon. Since that case, and since rising to state director, Harden had riddled my days with minutiae or assigned me one duty then reassigned me to three more. Sometimes without even telling me, which led to continual chastisement for jobs I didn’t even realize I was supposed to do.

I slid the chair a couple inches left for a better view of the show. A graying radio guy I hadn’t met yet sat behind the big picture window of the interview studio. I stiffened when Harden caught my movement, as if I were a child waiting outside the principal’s office and needed to be monitored.

Surely my stomach issues were boss-driven.

In my work, or rather the work I did before Harden’s leash, I walked a fine line between examining issues for my politically-appointed boss and calling in the real badges when things got too dicey for a non-LEO like myself. I usually erred on the right side of that fine line. When I ultimately needed that badge, I called Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo. That hadn’t been for some time now... not that we didn’t see each other otherwise. As in a lot of seeing each other.

A baby would thrill that cowboy down to his boots....

Stop. Think of Harden.

When my previous boss died, they put this twit in her place, showing me how little gray matter it took to work in federal wonderland in Washington D.C. The Beltway feds weren’t famous for their genius.

"Now, Mr. Harris,” Lottie continued. "Talk to me. What made you travel all the way to WKDK and speak to our audience about Cricket Carson?” Miss Lottie dropped Harden a wink. "Other than she’s one of Agriculture’s prettiest employees?” Radio guy laughed to himself from his sound-proof room.

Bless her heart, the woman was rocking this show. I liked her. Her gray-blonde shoulder-length hair curled under in a style that said she slept on those pink foam rollers. Fluffier than the average person, about sixty in age, with a pre-Civil War lineage per her bio on the radio’s website, Lottie Bledsoe had sense enough to sit between the two people and pretend one wasn’t an ogre and the other a siren. All of them seated in a room made cozy like someone’s half century-old living room, except for the wires and mics.

"Miss Carson’s remarkably effective in her job,” Harden replied. "While Newberry isn’t the largest county, it’s agriculturally critical. She keeps farmers thriving.” The imbecile grinned big again, like facial expressions mattered on radio. "We are thrilled she works for us.”

If he were so thrilled, how come I’d never heard much about her before? There were only a couple hundred USDA types in the state, and if she were half as good as she looked, I couldn’t see this one being all that Jane Doe common. I’d have to ask Monroe about her.

"And Cricket,” Lottie said, turning to her other guest. "Most of us saw you grow up here, are familiar with your momma, and remember your daddy Grady and his dairy. Is he the reason you do what you do? You’re a pretty little thing and not exactly who city folk would expect to see getting her boots dirty in the fields.”

The young woman straightened, shoulders back in beauty-pageant fashion. I wanted to sneer but couldn’t help but find her cute. Then I felt catty. Who said a county manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture couldn’t pull off adorable? Good for her, frankly. Harden wouldn’t even be here if she’d been a forty-year-old beanpole of a man in wrinkled khakis.

"I love my county, Ms. Bledsoe,” Cricket said in a charming drawl that made you want to eat her up. She lifted the ring from around her neck. "I still wear Daddy’s 4-H ring to ground me with purpose. Daddy farmed here his whole life and his daddy before him, and the Newberry community embraced Momma and her business endeavors. How could I not come back here after school and help make us stronger?” She dropped the ring, laying her fingers on her chest. Harden’s brows raised. "These people need a voice,” she continued. "And if I can be that voice, I’m happy to oblige.”

Harden’s tone dropped in an attempt at masculinity. "And USDA appreciates you. Farming is a tough job, but at the heart of it all, you’ll see a vibrant community contributing to the future of our nation’s health and food security... and Cricket Carson is symbolic of that contribution and renewal of our rural community.”

Verbatim straight off our website. Clumsily, Harden reached into a bag he’d set on the floor. "And in honor of that appreciation, and the remarkable job you’ve done for Newberry, we’d like to present to you this plaque from the agency.”

"Oh my, oh my,” Cricket said, all breathy and appropriately stun­ned.

"Fantastic,” Lottie said, staring up at the big plate glass window between her and the radio guy enthroned amongst wires, buttons, and technology. "Now let’s take a caller.” Hesitating a moment, radio guy then pointed at Lottie.

"Listener, you’re on The Coffee Hour,” she said. "What comment do you have for our USDA guests this morning?”

A female voice blasted back in response. "I want to ask how you think you can possibly throw accolades at that bitch when we all know—”

My mouth fell open. Radio guy cut her off, mouthed sorry, and fingered an okay signal through the glass.

Wonder what that was about?

"Oh, not sure what happened there, but we seem to have lost our caller,” Lottie said, so slick. "While we try to get her back, let’s take the next phone call.”

Yeah, I bet radio guy would screen his calls harder now.

A woman spoke of her family’s experiences with agriculture. A man asked about an upcoming financial program to see if he qualified. Routine stuff.

Suddenly, radio guy sat frozen, listening to something over his headset. A bit of color left his cheeks. After a few words, he looked back up, pointed to the clock, and made a wrap up movement to Lottie through the window.

Lottie smiled. "Well, we’re grateful you chose WKDK to present this recognition to Cricket Carson. What a wonderful honor for one of our own.” She launched into a rote announcement about the station, its sponsors, and the next guest for the show. The engineer then segued into "Brandy,” an ‘80s song I only knew from my mother’s first-gen­eration iPod, rarely dusted and propped on a Bose speaker back home in Ridgeville.

Interview over, they all stood, but Lottie exited quickly, rounded the corner to the control room, and opened the door. "What’s up, Jimmie?”

Harden had Miss Cricket cornered at the moment, so I sidled closer to Lottie.

"Hoyt Abrams was found dead at Tarleton’s Tea Table,” Jimmie said.

Lottie recoiled a step. "Hoyt? What the heck was he doing out there? How did he die?”

I eased even closer as Jimmie said, "They think heart attack, but that’s pretty unofficial.”

Oh yeah, so much more interesting than Harden and Cricket.

"But...” and Lottie paused, stymied.

Jimmie shrugged. "Found him lying there all dressed up like he was headed to a meeting.”

"On a weekday when he ought to be in the fields?” She was right. It was planting season. Lottie’s mind seemed to be working through something.

She must’ve been familiar with the guy, poor thing. While I found it odd a farmer dying in a tea house, maybe he was meeting his wife for a date. Actually, kind of sweet.

Jimmie attempted discreet. "Are you—”

"Damn straight I am,” Lottie replied.

I had an idea about her plans. And was Hoyt one of ours? While Agriculture touched most farmers, not all participated in our programs. However, if one owed us money and he kicked the bucket, we needed to know. Harden would never let me check. He’d revel in blocking me from the first halfway interesting opportunity that had come along in a while.

Not that he had to find out.

"Time to go, Slade.”

I jumped at his order, growling under my breath at the devil catching me by surprise. "We came in two cars, so don’t let me hold you up,” I said, itching to hang around and talk to the lady DJ. This was the closest semblance to an investigation I’d had in ages.

"Follow me back to the office,” Harden said. He hitched up his pants over a middle that taxed the belt, wedging into his crotch. "I have some tasks for you.”

I watched Lottie still talking to Jimmie. "I’m taking an early lunch and going by my house on the way. Family stuff,” I said.

Cricket slid into the conversation. "It’s past eleven, Mr. Harris. Why don’t you take your award-winning county manager out to lunch? Give Ms. Slade a break. I want to ask you about the new farm bill and how it’ll affect my farmers. Where would you like to eat?”

Good heavens and bless her heart. What didn’t this girl do well?

I turned to Lottie. "What’s that upscale place near the square?”

"Figaro’s,” she said.

"Yea, Figaro’s.” I smiled at Cricket. "I think the state director ought to spring for something decent.”

Cricket winked at me.

Owe you one, honey. Take him all afternoon, if you like. Just take him away from me.

The girl took Harden’s arm. "Ever had crème brûlée? To die for there!”

From his blank look, I was pretty certain he didn’t have a clue what crème brûlée was. Everyone shared thanks and nice-to-meet-yous then the pair exited, her chatting up a storm, him awkward at such a fine young thing on his arm. I held back until the door closed, then exhaled the nervous breath I’d stifled too long.

The radio guy released one of his own and returned to his chamber with the oldie’s ballad about to run its course, the public in need of his satin-coated announcements. Lottie, however, cocked a look at me. "Bet I could dig up a story about you two,” she said.

"Bad plot, trust me,” I said. "Who’s the dead farmer? My condol­ences if you knew him.”

Lottie crossed pudgy arms and stared down her nose comically. "You’re Carolina Slade, right?”

"Right.”

"You were supposed to be the Magnum PI of farm business in this state. So what put you in the doghouse? Whose dick did you step on?” Then she nodded to the door. "His? Not seeing much of a challenge there.”

God, I loved this woman. Favorite aunt kind of material... that you could drink moonshine with in china cups while laughing about the rest of the family.

I scurried over to glance out the skinny window next to the front door. There was no parking lot because WKDK sat beside a tiny, rarely traveled hardscrabble road. Everyone just parked along the edge, mashing the weeds. "They’re gone.” I spun around. "Where’s the murder?”

Her eyes widened then so did her grin. "You wanna come with me to Tarleton’s Tea Table?”

"How far is it?” I asked. And how distant was it from Figaro’s? The town of Newberry counted ten thousand people tops, and if the tea house was near the restaurant, I didn’t want to risk being seen by Harden who’d expect to find me back at the office by the time he got there. I’d come a pig whisker’s width of being shipped out to the McCormick County office not that long ago, but the governor had dropped enough hints to quash the order. My kids didn’t need me driving ninety minutes each way to work.

Lottie darted into the interview room and returned with her purse, her speed belying her built-for-comfort size. "I’ll drive. Come on.”

She shifted the stick transmission into gear almost before my passenger door of her tiny Prius closed. Gravel skittered under her tires, our elbows knocking when the car headed north off Smith and onto College Street, now lined with rose buds ready to pop in another couple weeks.

April brought sun intense enough for sunglasses but not the heat. Azaleas still retained their pinks and purples around the outskirts of the cemetery across the street, and dogwoods exploded in white.

Figaro’s was south, toward the center of town and in the opposite direction from where we headed. I relaxed with relief.

"Good interview,” I said, making nice... and wishing she’d been more of the late model caddy gal I’d envisioned. Wishing for almost any make of car bigger than this.

She cut loose an explosive guffaw, deafening as the sound reverber­ated off the low ceiling. I held back the urge to cover my ears. "Air time, honey,” she said, her laughter continuing to peal like thunder. "Cricket appreciates its value. And Cricket’s a drawing card. I’m not sure whatever it is she did to merit that award, but put pants on anything and it’s hers.”

She slowed to catch the change of red light to green without stop­ping, then the car picked up speed as buildings and homes of the small town thinned the farther we went. I’d ridden on tractors with more horsepower than this. But despite the vehicular challenges, I wasn’t letting go of her comment. "So, what’s Cricket about? That caller wasn’t too fond of her.”

"Hah, there’s the investigator I’ve heard of. Half the women in this town have been wanting to talk to somebody like you.”

Gossip. I loved it. Beat the hell out of whatever Harden had planned for me this afternoon. "So why didn’t any of you Newberry talkative types just pick up the phone?”

I’d been to the town before... twice. Once to see a Christmas play with the kids at the Opera House, and another time to eat at Figaro’s with Wayne, since we sort of, kinda hid our relationship from the average person around Columbia proper. We worked together often enough for someone with a bone to pick to fuss about conflict of interest, and with Harden Harris in charge, we tiptoed more cautiously than ever to avoid creating our own USDA gossip. The USDA Inspector General’s office could transfer him just as easily as Harden could ship me.

Then I remembered my manners. "Are you related to the dead man?” I doubted it, because she seemed too full of excitement. "And why are we breaking all the speed laws to get there if he’s dead?”

She wheeled around a slow late-model truck, shifting gears. "I’m the newsmaker in this county, honey, and definitely not as well-loved as Miss Priss we interviewed this morning.” The rural population thinned as we traveled, with a house every quarter mile now, most with American flags unfurled on porch or post. More azaleas dotted front yards, shouting with the color they’d put on for nature’s recent and perennial celebration of Easter.

Who put a tea house all the way out here? Maybe we were headed to a neighboring town.

Lottie went faster as if to make her point. "Speed to the news is everything. Radio, magazine, newspaper, and every meeting and club in the area rely on me for the news,” Lottie said. "When I show up, people snap to attention. They can tell me the truth and spill the facts, or I’ll find another means and tell it my way. They understand that.” She pointed at me and swerved a little. "Oh, sorry. For example, I’m still working on an expose on the singer James Brown’s estate. I’m telling the story nobody wants to hear on that one. But, my husband’s family owns three stores around here, and his legal practice dabbles in most everything. Of course Cricket’s mother runs a good deal of this town with all she owns. Don’t believe that poor-pitiful-me story about Momma Carson, either. That woman blossomed after her husband died.”

My smile broke out. "I want to be you when I grow up.”

She tapped her stubby fingers on the steering wheel. "You are who you want to be.”

"So, the farmer?”

"I have my suspicions.”

"Which are?”

"Let’s get there and see. Only one more mile.”

Her hybrid, economy, energy-saving bug of a car hit eighty.

"Eager, huh?” I asked, clandestinely slipping a hand over the door handle since this car would crush like a cardboard box if it slid off the road and rolled into any of the ditches. She had a death grip on the steering wheel. I was glad. "This ismy speed,” she said. "Life is terribly short to take it too seriously or live it too conservatively.”

"We talking politics?” I asked.

Her scowl glared almost cartoonish. "I vote the person, honey. Nobody labels me without permission. I just squeeze all I can out of the minutes the good Lord gave me and call it efficient.”

She bore left then found a dirt road that appeared little more than a fat path, already blocked with emergency vehicles... an ambulance and three county patrol cars. No blue lights.

After sliding the vehicle behind a cruiser, she jumped out, her breaths heaving an ample bosom. "We gotta walk a little ways.”

The trees weren’t dense and brush wasn’t high. The major portion of the forest floor lay packed from enough traffic to keep it clear. No buildings, except for some small houses several football fields away.

Marching, she waved her arm and hollered, "Royce? I see your car back here. Where the heck are you?”

"Damn it, Lottie, do you have a scanner or what?” boomed a voice a few dozen yards in.

We trotted under a handmade wooden sign that read Tarleton’s Tea Table. This was the tea house? Where the heck was the house?

"I already heard it’s Hoyt,” she hollered. "Heart attack? He had his sixty-fifth birthday not two weeks ago. Thought he had more substance than that.”

Dang this woman could walk fast.

A fiftyish gent in a black, short-sleeved uniform appeared from behind some trees and held his arms wide. "Can’t come in here, Lottie, and you know it.” Another deputy strung yellow crime-scene tape. Judging by the plain clothes and case in his hand, the coroner walked up.

Which meant the body hadn’t been moved yet. Which meant Lottie was quite connected for someone to locate her at the radio station quickly enough that she got here before the coroner. Wish I had connections like that.

"Heart attack or not?” Lottie asked Deputy Royce.

"Can’t say.”

"Maybe not?”

"Lottie, please. Show some decency. He’s still warm, and his wife hasn’t been informed, so we don’t need your interference.”

She rocked her head. "My concern is for his wife, Royce, and you understand why.”

Royce slowly shook his head. "Hoyt wasn’t a bad fella.”

"No, but he wasn’t too solid a husband, was he?”

While my new friend, the unofficial town crier, peppered Deputy Royce with questions, I studied the site. Why would anyone come back here?

Amidst the pines, an outcropping of three large rocks rose eye level and higher, smooth from years of touch. One stood particularly flat on top as though designed to sit on.

I strode up to the deputy, attempting to get a word in edgewise between the two. When Lottie took a breath, I slipped in my question. "Where’s the farmer’s vehicle?”

They both hushed. He wasn’t surprised. She suddenly realized my point. Without a vehicle, he’d likely met someone elsewhere then come out here... the other person had probably taken off, most likely when Hoyt decided to meet his Maker instead of doing whatever it was they’d planned to do.

"Was he all gussied up?” she asked. At the station, Jimmie’d talked about the body found as if dressed for an occasion. "Or was he maybe missing some of his clothes?”

My, what led her to say that? Apparently, Lottie was already latched ahold of something I wanted to learn more about.

"You know I can’t give you details about the body,” he replied.

Either meant he was out of place. I took note.

Lottie clicked her tongue. "It was a matter of time,” she said. "Just a matter of time.” She tugged my sleeve. "Glad you were here today, Miss Investigator. I’ve been meaning to call you about this.”

About what? I wasn’t sure this was Agriculture’s jurisdiction, but with Hoyt being a farmer, I’d go with it as long as I could. Or at least until Harden heard about it.

"Trust me,” she said. "Hoyt wouldn’t have died except for you federal agriculture people. It’s your problem through and through.” She smacked my shoulder. "Welcome to Newberry, child.”

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