Murdered in Craven

Murdered in Craven

C. Hope Clark

November 2021 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61026-169-2

Book 1 of The Craven County Mysteries

Our PriceUS$16.95
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Quinn Sterling’s father was murdered, and the Craven County sheriff—her uncle—botched the investigation. Now too many troubling questions remain for Quinn to walk away. Instead, she leaves her career at the FBI to take on her inheritance—a 3,000-acre pecan dynasty in the South Carolina Lowcountry. As the only heir she assumes the reins of the family business—while keeping an eye on her father’s cold case, and her toe in the old game as a private investigator.

With her two childhood friends, one now a caretaker of Sterling Banks, and the other a deputy sheriff, she managed to hold everything together until a blind client and a mentor from her early days pull her into a case that will jeopardize her friends, her farm, and her legacy, not to mention her life when her past meets her present.

C. HOPE CLARK has a fascination with the mystery genre and is au­thor of the Carolina Slade Mystery Series, the Edisto Island Mysteries, and now the Craven County Mysteries, all of which are set in the Lowcountry and her home state of South Carolina. In her previous federal life, she performed admin­is­trative investigations and married the agent she met on a bribery investigation. She enjoys nothing more than editing her books on the back porch with him, overlooking the lake, with bourbons in hand. She can be found either on the banks of Lake Murray or Edisto Beach with one or two dachshunds in her lap. Hope is also editor of the award-winning

C. Hope Clark’s books have been honored as winners of the Epic Award, Silver Falchion Award, and the Daphne du Maurier Award.

Murder on Edisto selected as a Route 1 Read by the South Carolina Cen­ter for the Book!

"Carolina Slade is a smart, fun character....”

—Lynn Simmons, NetGalley Reviewer on Lowcountry Bribe

"Award-winning writer C. Hope Clark delivers another one-two punch of intrigue with Edisto Stranger.... 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.”

—Rachel Gladston, All Booked Up Reviews

"Her beloved protagonist, Callie, continues to delight readers as a strong, savvy, and a wee-bit-snarky police chief.”

—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA Today
bestselling author on Dying on Edisto

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Chapter 1

LATE. SHE NEVER did late.

Quinn slammed her truck door and trotted across the gravel lot, the condition of her work boots forgotten until she reached the entrance and noticed the crap. Brown clumps of it, too, peeking out around the edges of her soles.

Rubbing her feet across pine straw beside the cement landing of the bar, she gave up after scraping off most of it. She ran hands over the red mess of hair she hadn’t had time to tame back at the farm. Taking two clips out that she had shoved into her pocket from the Ford’s cup holder, she blew the hay dust off them and did a second once-over of the parking lot as she laid her hair flat and out of her face.

Parked two widths away from the nearest vehicle, a champagne- colored BMW shouted its presence, as did the mid-to-late-forties man waiting behind the steering wheel. No doubt her client’s driver, because nobody in her county had money to flaunt like that.

She took a breath and put on her interview face.

Once inside, her eyes had to adjust from the blue-sky sun to the dark-paneled interior of Jackson Hole. The bar functioned as a hometown diner midday, when the owner’s infamous cayenne fried chicken aroma filled the air. Ringing an order, Lenore Jackson looked up from her prepping behind the counter and snapped a tiny nod to her right, to the back corner where the kitchen door opened and closed, hiding the last booth. Quinn’s table of choice.

The meet was for eleven thirty. It was ten past that. Quinn usually arrived early to watch her clients come in. One could tell a lot about a person by how they approached a private investigator, usually crossing into a world they had no clue about... were scared to death of... or more rarely, felt they could leverage for their own personal gain.

She’d had one of the latter types in her early days, and it was the only one she ever intended to have. The guy she’d been hired to run down got pummeled by her client over a girl. Left the poor guy looking nothing like his driver’s license picture... permanently.

The current potential client presented as the age noted in Quinn’s research—thirty. Birthday last month. Tinted glasses, slacks, and sharp- as-hell boots. Leather jacket. Blond hair with a cut that appeared just unruly enough to seem natural and probably cost a hundred dollars paid to a fancy stylist. She was nursing a coffee.

A jet-black German shepherd lay at her feet, head up, blending into the dark floor and shadows. Lenore didn’t let animals in her place. Service dog? Guard dog? None of that had come out in the background check.

As Quinn approached, the lady half rose, held out her hand, and smiled. "Hey, Catherine Renault. You must be Quinn Sterling.”

Quinn took the offered hand. A moderate shake, neither inhibited nor assertive. "Yes. Sorry I’m late. Emergency.”

With sufficient dismay, Catherine sat. "Gracious, I hope nothing serious.”

The dog watched. Eighty-five pounds of patience, especially with food pouring out of the kitchen.

Quinn turned her full attention from the dog to the woman. "A scare, but all’s fine. Thanks for the concern.” She chose not to explain the details of a llama’s difficult birth and the reason for the small blood spatter she just noticed on her right jean leg.

Most folks envisioned a PI as only a PI, like on TV. When not on cases, they holed up drinking in a seedy apartment on the sleazy side of town or wore out the same stool in their friend’s bar, commiserating over a dark discretion. Paying penance for the rest of their lives. Living for investigations because they had nothing else to live for. Or every­thing to atone for.

But with twenty-seven hundred acres to her name on the south end of Craven County, Quinn was happy to miss the stereotype by a mile. She was, to quote the bio last reported by a local paper, "a thirty-four- year-old heiress of a working pecan farm dating back to a 1709 British land grant to her ancestors.” In other words, she was the last heir of the oldest family in the oldest county in the state of South Carolina. The Sterling Banks Plantation was bordered by the Edisto River on one side and the Ashepoo River to the southwest.

Definitely not the stereotypical PI.

Not to say she didn’t have a past with assorted regrets.

Quinn began the meet. Breaking bread usually made people relax and show more of their hand. "You want something to eat? I’m sure you caught a whiff of Ms. Lenore’s chicken. My regular is a double side of the okra and a piece of cornbread.” She waved at Lenore who held up a finger that she’d be there in a moment.

"Um, no thanks.” Catherine gripped her cup. "Coffee’s fine.”

Hmm, no more smile. Her problem apparently back to the front of her mind.

Lenore appeared, placed iced tea in front of Quinn then wiped her hands on a deep-red apron. "Okra?”

"See?” Quinn said, tipping her chin at their waitress. "Yes’m. Just one helping.”

"You been working outside?” Lenore asked.

Quinn touched her hair, then her t-shirt, and pulled her denim jacket closer in front to cover any stains. "Why?”

"Just means you need two helpings, is all,” she said. "It’s spring. Guessing you’re dropping babies on Sterling Banks.”

"You talked me into it.”

The client’s interest piqued. "Babies?”

"The family farm.” Quinn hesitated letting folks know she owned a plantation. Like being born into a legacy made her less of an investigator because she wasn’t broke and desperate for money.

Lenore left with her all-knowing grin and hollered hello at two middle- aged guys in work khakis who’d just come in. She motioned them to sit at a table conveniently distant from the booth. Lenore was Quinn’s unofficial personal assistant and had known her from the time she’d skinned her first knee.

Relaxing in hopes of Catherine doing the same, Quinn took out a small notepad already with two pages of scribble. Recorders came later, when a case was in full throttle. Right now, this was about Miss Renault proving herself to the PI as much as the PI proving herself to the client.

"Is your daddy Ronald Renault, stockbroker with an office on Broad Street in Charleston?” The family had multi-generational roots in the Holy City.

A big sigh. "Yes. That’s me.”

Daddy’s address said enough, but Quinn knew of him. He was loaded.

A glass fell, and Catherine turned, light catching the tanzanite necklace that, along with the three rings on her hands, could cost as much as the Beemer outside. Not wise to flaunt such wealth, but then she came with a driver/bodyguard and a beast of a dog.

Since Daddy could afford the biggest, baddest investigative firm in the state, baby girl wanted to keep something on the down low coming to Quinn. And Catherine’d had to ask around to find Quinn, because she didn’t advertise.

The dog had lowered his head. Only his eyes moved, working the room.

"Now,” Quinn said, moving her tea aside. "What’s this all about?”

Catherine’s eyes fell. Some embarrassment, maybe. "My partner is missing.”

Quinn waited. Silence worked wonders with people afraid to talk. They filled in the emptiness with words... and more information than they originally planned to give.

Catherine took little time to spill more. "We entered into this... business arrangement.”

Quinn waited.

"He was to meet potential investors in Savannah.”

Here we go.

"And he’s missing,” she said, strong emphasis on the last word. "I need you to find him. And I know how it sounds,” she threw in.

Quinn tried to make eye contact again. "What do you mean when you say missing?”

Catherine looked up, but Quinn saw no tears. "It means he hasn’t returned my calls for three weeks, and I haven’t seen him in a month. He never came home from Savannah.”

Home. "Are you living together?”

A tiny flinch. "Yes. He moved into my place two months ago. He’s quite intelligent and has an idea for a series of phone apps that’s brilliant. He wanted to speak to Daddy about the concept, but I told him no. My father would steal an idea like that.”

Looked funny for a rich woman to snap fingers.

"Did you have him checked out before you... got involved?” Rich people did that.

"Of course.” She pushed her hair back, and life returned to her voice. "He established two other apps on his own and did well. Just didn’t have the financial backing to take him where he could be.”

Quinn pretended to scribble. "How did you meet him?”

"We ran into each other in Marion Square. Downtown Charleston?”

"I’m familiar,” Quinn said. "You frequently stroll alone like that?”

"I had Nero,” she said, lowering a hand to touch the dog’s head that had risen at the sound of his name. "And my driver, of course. I’m sure you saw him in the car.”

Quinn nodded. "What’s your boyfriend’s name?”

The girl sat back. "I’d rather not say yet. Just call him Mitchell for now.”

Quinn sat back as well. "Why are you here then if not for me to find Mitchell?”

"I’m checking you out.”

"You did that before you came here. I might be somewhat of a recluse, but I’m not a secret. Like you, I can’t hide from my name either.”

"I’m feelingyou out, then.”

"Likewise, Miss Renault. We have to trust each other for this to work.”

Catherine’s hand still lay on the dog, rubbing as if for reassurance.

Quinn closed her notepad and tucked it away. "Sounds like a situation for the police anyway. I don’t take every case, and you don’t trust easily. Doesn’t feel like a fit.”

Lenore surely read the body language, because she tactfully appeared with the okra, piled hot and crispy in a big soup bowl. She reached over Quinn, snared the hot sauce from a caddie, and set it next to the bowl. "Made that new batch just for you, honey.” She turned to the guest. "Now, sure I can’t get you something?”

Catherine shook her head, giving a tight smile in afterthought. Lenore robotically refilled the coffee before leaving, Catherine’s hands backing away suddenly from the cup.

Popping an okra morsel in her mouth, Quinn watched the mental tug-of-war playing out across the table. She ate another morsel. Then another. She’d let this play out until the okra was gone, then she was done. Jule needed her back at the farm.

Quinn wiped her mouth. "You’re avoiding your daddy, aren’t sure of Mitchell, and seem quite reluctant to talk. This guy screwed you over, and you don’t know how to face it. Cut your losses and move on, I say. He take much money?”

"Yes,” she said. "But I’ve already changed my bank accounts, stop­ped the two credit cards, and cut off funds, because I was worried someone had taken advantage of him.”

In love with serious blinders on.

Nope. This was not a case to accept.

"He loves me for who I am,” Catherine said, pleading. "That’s why I’m sure he’s hurt, kidnapped, maybe even dead. He wouldn’t take advantage. That’s not who Mickey is.”

Quinn caught the slip into the familiar. "Sounds like you really trust the guy.”

Her okra was half gone.

Catherine’s chest pressed against the table. "I do. To the core of my being, Ms. Sterling.”

Silence drifted into a sniffle from across the table. Might be real.

Jackson Hole was almost full, lunch at its peak, when a uniform walked in. "Hey, Ty,” echoed across the room from assorted tables.

Sheriff’s deputies wore khakis in Craven County. Too hot to wear black, navy, or dark brown in the muggy South Carolina Lowcountry, with Jacksonboro only forty-five minutes from Edisto Beach by road, twenty by boat on the Edisto River, with decent horsepower. Being April, the department had already shifted to short sleeves.

Quinn nodded at the tall, dark-skinned, broad-shouldered uniform. He tipped his head in return and bellied up to the bar. Unasked, Lenore poured him a Coke and disappeared into the kitchen but not before drawing his head down and kissing her son on the brow. Quinn smiled warmly at what was Lenore’s standard greeting for Tyson Jackson and recalled how the gesture used to humiliate the hell out of him.

Now the humiliation was countywide. Jackson Hole sat a half-mile off the main highway, but close enough for every kind of person to make the drive. Lenore had quite the blended crowd in both occupation, social standing, and racial mix.

Quinn popped another okra in her mouth. Only five bites to go.

"Catherine,” she finally said, aiming to wrap up this meeting. "What’s your gut telling you? Not your heart... your gut. Did Mitchell scam you, or is something really wrong? If you think he’s been hurt, then why? Someone have a grudge with him? With you? I take it there’s been no ransom demand.”

"No, nobody’s called, emailed, nothing.” Catherine seemed to pon­der for a second. "And nobody’s mad at either of us that I’m aware of. I mean... it’s phone apps.”

Money was money, whether phone apps or gold ingots. It turned some people ugly. Quinn studied her for a long second, seeing this chat as anything but transparent. "Would your dad take steps against your choice of beau?”

A lot of head shaking. "No, no, no. Daddy doesn’t even know about Mitchell.”

"Or that’s what he wants you to think.”

More head shaking. "Nope. Don’t believe Daddy’s involved. He has too much going on in his own life.”

All the answers too cut and dried.

"You’ve cut Mitchell totally off?”

"Yes,” she said, appearing to hang on to what Quinn might say next.

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