Tidewater Murder

Tidewater Murder

C. Hope Clark

April 2013 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-257-6

In the deep waters off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina, corpses are turning up faster than dolphins chasing a shrimp boat...

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When federal agricultural investigator Carolina Slade’s best friend is suspected of embezzlement and fraud in a sordid case involving drugs and migrant slavery, Slade must question her own long-held loyalties. She’s desperate to believe in Savannah Conroy's innocence despite every scrap of evidence pointing to her friend’s guilt.

After a tomato farmer dies in a shrimp boat explosion, Slade’s colleague, Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo, manages to force Slade off the case, citing conflict of interest. Refusing to quit even if it means violating agency orders, Slade fights to save her friend’s career. Soon, Slade’s the target of escalating threats meant to frighten her off the case.

But threats might be the least of Slade’s worries. She’s also juggling a co-worker’s sudden romantic interest, voodoo, and her teenage daughter’s determination to solve mysteries like her mother. Slade struggles to keep her life, and the lives of those around her, safe and sane when, once again, digging up dirt on the ag business threatens to put her six feet under.




"Terrific. Smart, knowing, clever...and completely original. A taut, high-tension page-turner--in a unique and fascinating setting. An absolute winner!" -- Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity winning author




Chapter 1

SAVANNAH CONROY was one of the sharpest rural loan managers the Department of Agriculture had: she slung attitude like paint on a canvas, wore sweaters like a Hollywood starlet, and managed an office like Steve Jobs. They’d built the Beaufort, South Carolina, office around her to harness that charisma, and then added two more counties to keep her busy.

Sitting in my soon-to-be-ex-apartment, I glared at the new permanent marker stain on my carpet as this Beaufort wonder now shrieked in my ear. My breakfast, a bowl of instant grits with no butter, sat like a rock in my gut. My empty twenty-two-foot rental truck sat outside my apartment, awaiting boxes I’d been packing for a week. Thunder rumbled. It started to rain.

Days didn’t come any more thrilling than this.

I pulled the phone further from my ear. "Savvy,” I said. "Chill. What’s wrong with you?”

"Monroe’s ransacking my files, Slade. He won’t answer my questions when I ask what he’s snooping for.” She exhaled hard. "He’s not listening to me.”

"Dammit,” I grumbled, sitting on the floor and dabbing at the marker stain with a paper towel. "Maybe you need to ask nice.”

"Bite me,” she replied.

The sky roiled with angry, gunmetal gray clouds. Trees arched. Wind whistled as it whipped around the building, warning me that Mother Nature ruled my moving day.

After our decade-old friendship, casual banter came easy between Savvy and me. We shared a camaraderie that never failed us, but when Savvy lost her cool, it was watch out world. "Aren’t you being a tad bitchier than normal?” I asked. "What’s Monroe there for anyway?”

"He says a routine audit.”

"Okay, so it’s an audit. You sail through those things. Plus, you drew Monroe, the nicest guy in the bunch.”

"With the sharpest eye,” she said. "That has to mean something.”

I quit worrying about the carpet stain and stood, hand on a hip. "Hey, are you all right?”

"No. Want me to show more bitchyto convince you things aren’t right?”

Monroe Prevatte was a loan director operating from an office down the hall from mine. He was one of headquarters’ gurus when it came to audits, and another dear friend. I’d been on leave for my move, or I would’ve known about his mission.

"I hate tight-lipped people,” Savvy said. "Hell, they audited me only six months ago.”

This wasn’t the Savvy I knew. Between loan season, my recent promotion, and the subsequent move to Columbia, we’d lost touch of late. Thanks to a calamity at my last duty station in Charleston, I’d demonstrated an ability to solve problems, to include nailing my boss, his boss, and a few scattered players in between. Thus, the promotion to headquarters. My frequent calls to Savvy had petered out over that time. Still, all it took was a regional meeting and we fell back in sync. Savvy, tall with her close-cropped curls and Cherokee cheekbones, and me, in my J.C. Penney coordinates. We’d reconnoitre at the nearest bar after some meeting let out to solve the world’s dilemmas. And we thought we were damn good at it.

"Savvy, just be patient, and he’ll be gone by Friday, when he’ll brief you on all he found... or didn’t find. You’re over-thinking this. Might be a stupid hotline call, and you know those things are usually frivolous. Let him do his job and get out of your hair.”

"He’s a butt—”

"I’m hanging up now,” I said.

"This sucks,” she fumed.

"Goodbye.” I disconnected. She’d settle down and call me later in a better mood, or I’d make a mental note to call her back after Monroe left and remind her how sour she’d been over nothing.

Lightning flashed a bright ghostly hue across the kitchen. My shoulders hunched up around my neck, and I instinctively covered my head. Thunder crackled, building a snap at a time until a sonic boom shook the windows. The lights flickered, then went out, leaving me in gray shadows.

My cell rang again. Heart still pounding, I scowled, expecting to hear more craziness from Savvy. "Is this the Wicked Witch of Beaufort?”

"Ms. Slade? This is Margaret Bellingham from St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. There’s been an incident involving Zack.”

Thunder rumbled again. The line spit static. "Hello? Hello?” My pulse raced as I switched the cell phone to my other ear. "Can you hear me? What kind of incident?”

"He’s fine, Ms. Slade. He’s just bruised, but he beat up our Jesus pretty good.”

I stood, no longer interested in boxes and a carpet stain. "Excuse me?”

It was the last week in July, the hottest and wettest time of the year in South Carolina. I’d enrolled my preteen, ready-to-be-twenty daughter and seven-year-old son in Vacation Bible School while I packed for our move from a temporary apartment to our newly built house.

The church administrator sighed, which I read as a sign I was too heathen to understand what she was talking about. Sure, I didn’t attend services regularly. Okay, never. "So what happened?” I asked.

"During a skit,” she continued. "Zack argued with the lead boy playing Jesus. Before we could reach them, they’d exchanged punches. We’re sending both boys home. Zack will be in the front office waiting for you. May I tell him you’ll be coming soon to pick him up?”

Wonderful. Bible school was supposed to simplify this move, not complicate it. Maybe God didn’t like babysitting. Or maybe He was telling me to deal with my son, who’d not been the most model child for several months now. I knew that Zack had festered inside for months about all the changes that had taken place in his life, but he still refused to open up to me.

I hung up and shuffled through my keys. After locking the apartment, I ran to my car, got in, backed out of my parking space, and drove southeast on Lake Drive. Then I took a left on St. Andrews Road, heading toward the church.

As I pulled in front of the church office, fat drops of rain splatted on the pavement, warning of more to come. The wind almost growled as it wrapped around the vehicle. As I reached for the door handle, the rain fell as if someone stuck a knife in a gorged cloud and let it rip.

With the engine off, the windows began to fog, but I wasn’t about to venture out yet. Anxiously, I waited for an opportune moment. Across the annex that contained the church offices and classrooms, anxious faces peered out of windows, watching the coming storm. Ten minutes later, the noise decreased to a drone, most of the faces gone. I reached to the backseat floor for my umbrella. Darn it. Ivy had taken it with her.

I snagged my purse, opened the door, and ran, splashing in inch-deep water that was still trying to run off and dissipate into the grass. Snatching open one of the double doors, I rushed inside. As I huffed and attempted to wipe rain out of my face with wet hands, a sixtyish lady with a gray pageboy haircut and powder-blue elastic pants exited the first door to my right. She handed me paper towels.

"Ms. Slade, right?” she asked.

"Yes, thanks,” I said, soaking the towels in two swipes across my face and neck. "Are you Ms. Bellingham?”

She nodded and waved toward the door. "Your young man is right in here.”

Zack sat at the far end of a floral sofa, probably designed more for visiting deacons than prophet beaters. I started to sit, and Ms. Bellingham sucked in a breath, most likely worried I’d ruin the sofa. So I stooped over, speaking only for Zack’s ears. "Care to talk about it?”

His gaze darted toward the other woman, then returned. "Can I just go home?”

I stood and wiggled my fingers, telling Zack to stand and follow.

"Thanks for calling me,” I told Ms. Bellingham. Then I remembered tomorrow was the last full day of Bible school, with only a half day on Friday. "Is he supposed to come back in the morning? Or is he—”

"Expelled?” she added with raised brows. "We don’t do that here. But if he doesn’t want to be here, we perfectly understand. I mean, we are concerned about him and only care about his best interest.”

"We’ll discuss it tonight and be in touch,” I said, not sure of the problem, much less a solution.

Zack came with me peaceably, his stoic expression reflected in the passenger window. Red welts decorated his left cheek and ran down his neck. "Jesus” had a mean temper and a scrappy way of showing it. My daughter was already scheduled to come home with a neighbor, thank goodness, giving me time alone with my son.

"What’s the deal, kid?” I asked as we left the parking lot, clueless how to bridge the chasm between us.

"Brandon’s an idiot,” he said, scrunching his body tight.

"Idiot enough to deserve your fist?”

"Oh yeah, easy.”

Okay, wrong question. "Who hit first, Zack?”

He mumbled.

"Didn’t hear you.”

"I did. He called me a bastard.”

"Whoa,” I said. "Why would he call you that?”

"He said it was because I didn’t have a dad.”

I hoped the other kid sported a shiner as big as a baseball. "Sweetie, that’s not the definition of bastard.”

"Told you he’s an idiot.”

"Your daddy’s death doesn’t make you... Maybe Brandon isn’t the brightest young man, but that doesn’t mean you start swinging. When you get mad, he wins.”

His facial expression softened. "I need a cool dad.”

"Yes, you do,” I said, unsure what else to say, aching for him, my instinct still advising me to keep secret about how ugly his father had been to us all. Knowledge of his father's deed would only upset Zack worse.

"Mr. Wayne’s a secret agent. He’d be a good dad, don’t you think?”

I coughed at the name of my semi-boyfriend in Atlanta and checked the clock for a reason to change the subject. "We’ve got to get back to packing, kid,” I said, anxious to refocus. With the contractor’s blessing and a virgin set of keys in my purse, I yearned to settle into my home with its view of Lake Murray and its peaceful environment. My children needed a fresh sense of home after the death of their father. It was a luxury afforded me by his life insurance policy.

I snorted to myself. Life insurance. Zack missed his father, but what he didn’t know was dear old dad had nearly killed me in Charleston, to collect my life insurance. A fateful twist of events cost him his life at the hands of one of my farmers. I shivered at the memory that still crept in at night—since I’d held the shotgun that killed the farmer.

A gust almost blew my Taurus off the road. I quit daydreaming and gripped the steering wheel, telling Zack to make sure his seatbelt fit snug. Pine limbs were strewn across the road. Traffic lights swayed and bobbed overhead on tenuous cables. My front tires hit a puddle, and the car slid a few feet before righting itself. By the time I reached the turn to our apartment complex, my shoulders, arms, and hands ached. Finally, the rain stopped.

I relaxed until I saw a Jet Ski perched atop my rental truck.

"Cool,” Zack exclaimed, as he jumped out of the car and headed toward the chaos filling our apartment complex.

The apartment manager wandered around in a wet T-shirt and jeans, stepping around glass, tree limbs, and trash. Before he disappeared to another block of buildings, I cornered him.

"What—What happened? Everything was fine when I left...”

"A goddamn tornado touched down,” he said. He lifted a limb off a parked motorcycle. "I’ll be two weeks cleaning this place up.”

I shouted at Zack to come take my keys and go inside. "Anyone hurt?” I asked the manager, instinctively glancing at my apartment, grateful to see the windows intact. It seemed as though every person in the complex stood outside, analyzing damage, checking on neighbors.

"No, thank God,” he said, turning to leave. "Gotta go, though. Still have to inspect six more buildings.”

My phone rang. This time I checked caller ID and recognized Savvy’s number. I put it to voice mail and waved at my banged-up moving truck. "Surely this buys me another couple of days.”

"Only two,” the manager said, holding up fingers as he trotted off. "Got a tenant waiting.”

I lifted a branch, tossing it on a pile. Pine sap stuck to my hands, and I caught myself before wiping them on my favorite jeans. The air was thick with the heady Christmas scent; green needles sprinkled every surface. A huge bough too heavy for me to lift lay in my parking space, and I sensed a weird serendipity. Zack belting Jesus possibly saved my car.

A crowd had gathered around my rental truck, pointing, laughing at the watercraft on top.

"At least it wasn’t a pontoon boat,” I said, which solicited another round of guffaws.

As I reached for my cell and pondered whether to call my insurance agent, the rental truck company, or Savvy, my Clemson ringtone rang. A University of South Carolina fan heard the rival tune and hollered, "Go Gamecocks!” Most of my neighbors were born about the time I took driver’s ed.

I walked away from the neighbors’ looping chatter about what happened and what could have happened to answer the call.

"Hey, Slade. It’s Monroe. You sitting down?”

I rubbed my face, flinching as I felt the pine sap stick to my cheek. "Just tell me what’s up, Monroe. I don’t have the patience for a dramatic lead-in. I take it this is about Savvy?” The silence made me wonder if I’d dropped the call. "Monroe?”

"What did she tell you?”

His tone made me raise a hand to my throat. "Just that you were being secretive. Why?”

"Listen, I’m calling you officially, okay?”

"Okay.” I sat on the wet curb, not worried about the water soaking through to my underwear. "Go ahead.”

"I looked at the file of a client named Heyward and found falsified documents.”

"Look harder, Monroe. That’s Savvy’s county.” A young couple came over to get in their car. I stood and moved. "Better make sure before you jump to any conclusions. She’d peel the skin off your bones if you stir up stink that isn’t there. I might even help her.” I’d experienced bureaucracy coming after me in the past. It was not enjoyable.

He cleared his throat, making me think of the summer cold beginning to tickle the back of mine. "Can you be open-minded about this?” he asked with mild frustration.

I blew out slowly. "Sorry. Of course I can. Go ahead.”

"Signatures in the file don’t match. Someone other than me might call it fraud. If y’all weren’t such good friends, I’d have called the boss first.” He paused. "Tell me I did right calling you, Slade.”

I slumped onto my car bumper. Savannah Conroy was a first-class smart-ass, but she was honest. She practically dared people to find problems with her work.

"You did right,” I said, leaning my back against the radiator grill. I rummaged through my purse for a notepad and flipped past my pending grocery list. Not finding a pen, I realized that I didn’t need to record this information. The thought of my best friend under scrutiny for a financial crime already bored a permanent hole in my brain.

I glanced up, my instinct telling me to pinpoint Zack. Unable to find him, I stepped into the parking lot, scouting the area.

"She’s also nervous,” Monroe said. "She’s—”

"Just a minute.” Holding my hand over the phone, I shouted, "Zack! I told you to come get my keys and go inside. Where are you?”

"I’m not doing anything, Momma.” My son was balancing on a pile of debris, teetering left and right on a branch.

"Inside, Zack!”

He ran over, and I threw him the keys. I returned my attention to Monroe. "Sorry, go on.”

"Like I said,” he continued, "she’s anxious, uncooperative, almost nasty. There’s serious problems in this file, and probably money missing.” He relayed point by point what he’d found.

I stopped cold when he used the words fraudand $300,000. This couldn’t be true. Savannah and I had been the first two female managers in the state, a formidable team. I knew this woman better than a sister.

"You still there?” he asked.

"Yeah. I’ll meet you down there at Hardee’s on Boundary Street at nine thirty a.m. Let me handle the boss.”

"I called you first, didn’t I?”

Bless his heart. He did do that, but I still suspected an error. "I really appreciate this, Monroe.”

"Yeah, well you owe me dinner.”

I hung up and dialed the office, my household move no longer the most urgent matter at hand.

"Thought you were on leave, Ms. Slade.” Barely twenty, Whitney was the headquarters clerk who handled my messages and calendar. Her biggest flaw was making me feel old. Biologically, I could be her mother, in a Loretta Lynn kind of way.

"Something’s come up. Put me on active duty for tomorrow and Friday. I just got called to the field.”

"I’m sorry, but there isn’t a government car available tomorrow,” she said. "And Ms. Dubose is out until late this afternoon. Want me to take a message?”

Good question. The car deal was fine. I preferred driving my own anyway. Fewer eyes on who I was and what I was doing. How to word the message was the problem. No point asking for permission and risking a refusal.

"That’s all right, Whitney. I’ll call back.”

The original plan was to pack for the move in peace, enjoy family, and find time to christen my new back porch with a cold beer, all of which seemed trivial now after God, Mother Nature, and Monroe had intervened.

My brain refused to wrap around the concept that Savvy fell into murky waters. How often had the two of us scoffed at others who’d found themselves transferred, demoted, even fired over self-serving, stupid decisions?

I moved inside. My phone stuck warm and sweaty in my hand, practically grafted to my skin from the day’s activity, sticky as my wet hair. Zack watched warily from my recliner between moves on his electronic game as I paced the length of the apartment, walking up and down the fifteen-foot hall on matted, cheap carpet sucked lifeless by shampooers. I paused to smile at Zack, worried about him and Savvy both.

I’d have postponed and argued that my personal life came first, but this was Savannah. She’d indoctrinated me as a young hire, teaching me how to be a woman banker amidst the testosterone-driven boys of agriculture. She’d put my shattered pieces back together after an attempted rape. She jumped when I needed her and taught me to laugh when I wanted to cry. I had to go. But, my boss, State Director Dubose, might envision this as investigating my best friend behind her back, a view not too far from the truth.

The Office of the Inspector General served as the federal agents for most agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. Our OIG, ever read to jump in at Dubose's request, considered my job as Special Projects Representative a milk-toast version of a real agent, often times not taking me seriously. Six weeks’ training and a badge stated I possessed the authority to snoop only until the stink turned pungently criminal. Folks like me solved the minor cases and ran interference for political bosses, advising them when to request the gun-totin’ agents for the more critical crap... or how to dodge that crap when it hit the fan. My best friend was about to test my ability to make that judgment call.



Chapter 2

AS EXPECTED, when I called Daddy, he agreed Zack needed a man’s influence after hearing about the Bible school boxing exhibition. I’d learned the absence of even a bad father left a hole in a boy’s life. Add Zack’s behavior to my twelve-year-old daughter’s hormonal spikes, and no way in hell would I leave him and Ivy overnight with someone I didn’t know as well as my underwear drawer. Beaufort beckoned ASAP. That meant only the firm, guiding hand of a grandparent for a babysitter would do, even if he had to drive 120 miles to get here.

By nightfall, Daddy walked in the door like he’d cruised over from the next block. I loved that man. I fed him and the kids fried chicken from the mom-and-pop restaurant a mile up the road and butterbeans and cornbread from my own kitchen to put a homemade spin on it.

Bellies full, Daddy took Zack outside for guy talk. Ivy disappeared into her room to pack boxes. I stood at the window and watched Daddy and Zack until they rounded the corner toward the pool, out of my sight. A deep sigh escaped me. Seeing that sweet baby boy acting so contrary to everyone in his path tugged at my heart.

I turned away from the window and retreated to the bathroom to take advantage of the moment... to call Savvy.

Her voice dragged as if she’d worked a fourteen-hour day. "Hey, girl. What’s up?”

My smile waned in the mirror’s reflection. "Not much. How’re you doing? Feeling better? You worried me today.”

She responded like I’d opened floodgates. Her words tripped then ran, splashing feelings at me. "I’m so glad you called. Monroe’s acting stranger than when we talked earlier, and he won’t tell me why. He’s super tense. Will you talk to him and see what he’s up to? I can’t deal with his paranoia.”

She sounded like a wreck. She sounded like someone in fear of someone else finding the truth.

I wiped at soap spots on the faucet. "How about I come down there? I’ll talk to him then. Want to catch lunch while I’m in town?”

She paused. "He called you, didn’t he?”

I gazed into the mirror, fighting not to let my friend hear concern. "Hey, we can talk when I get there around ten.”

"Fine, but I’m wringing his goddamn neck for not being frank with me.” Her rancor rang firm enough, but faded into a tired breath she probably thought I didn’t hear. My friend didn’t do fade.

"Wait until I get there,” I said. "You might change your mind about ol’ Monroe.” I ached at the distance and time we’d allowed to lapse. "He could’ve easily called Dubose.”

"The Director? What the hell’s going on, Slade?”

Crap. I was making it worse. "I’m sure this is nothing, hon.”

"Nothing, my ass. Two of headquarters’ managers in my office at the same time? Like that doesn’t scream shitwith a capital S.”

Fifteen years ago, Savannah Conroy had sashayed across a conference room full of government hacks and thrown an arm around me, a loan assistant fresh out of college. I’d withdrawn, but she’d used one hand to tether me and the other to direct a grizzled, middle-aged man to give up the seat beside her. Throughout the staff meeting, some eyes had rolled when she asked questions, while others ogled the 38 Ds under her pastel silk blouse.

After the meeting, she hooked her arm through mine and led me to the Sandlapper Bar. We were the only two women in the state on Agriculture’s managerial payroll. A beach band in Hawaiian shirts crooned too loud into a cheap sound system, and I leaned across the Formica table to hear her.

"Carolina, right?” she yelled.

I admired her carriage and saucy outfit. A woman so sure of herself. "I go by Slade,” I hollered. "Just Slade.”

"Cool.” Under the pink neon glare of bar lights, she shoved a margarita in my hand. "Listen to me, Slade. Farmers don’t often appreciate bankers with bras.” She licked salt off her glass. "So some days you just don’t wear one. Makes everybody happy.”

I recall laughing so hard I’d sloshed margarita on the table, staining my favorite skirt.

THE NEXT morning, as my tires ate up interstate highway a hundred miles outside Columbia, my thoughts retraced the day I’d met Savvy. I sped past a real estate billboard that read "Invest in Value” and smiled. She’d schooled me how to deal with the public, restructure a loan, bail out a client on the brink of bankruptcy, and how to mess with a man’s mind when he attempted to mess with mine. Many a time she’d stabbed at me, often with a toothpick remnant from a happy hour hors d’oeuvre, to emphasize a point she thought I didn’t understand. A birthday didn’t pass without a card and a gift from her. Sometimes we called when the other was picking up the phone.

Much of my success I owed to her. Now, behind the wheel of my year-old Taurus, I headed to investigate a girlfriend who’d be terribly hurt if I didn’t handle this personally—but devastated if I opened a case.

I lifted my foot off the gas again, lowering my speed from the four-point, two-hundred-dollar-ticket range. Traffic ran steady on I-26, which split South Carolina in half, but once I turned south on 95, cars zoomed past. On this freeway, Yankees and Canadians drove their kiddies to Florida, and drug dealers hauled their product north to south and back again.

Thinking of kiddies, I almost dialed Daddy to remind him one more time about Zack’s presentation tomorrow. I didn’t care if my son and Jesus couldn’t see eye to eye; Zack didn’t need to let the whole cast down. Hopefully, Beaufort was a false alarm, and I’d be home tonight. I didn’t want to be the stereotypical parent who couldn’t make her kid’s play.

Again, I eased my foot off the gas. To my left, a deep green sprawl of soybeans on the Kendrick farm undulated, the silver undersides of the leaves waving in the hot summer breeze. Savvy kept that farmer afloat, and he swore by her. A dozen other farms dotted my route, whose owners embraced her like their own. She was the Beaufort County Manager, and I pledged to a passing field of cotton to keep it that way.

The miles flew by like the years of our friendship. Before I knew it, I’d reached the exit to Point South, which would take me through Garden’s Corner to Beaufort.

My phone rang.

"Hi, what’re you up to?” I answered, marveling at his timing.

"Just checking on you,” Wayne said. "How’s the packing going?”

"Boring, slow. Horrible weather.”

"Yeah,” he said. "Saw something about tornadoes on the weather report.”

Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo and I had dated about once a month since the death of my ex. A long-distance relationship between his home in Atlanta and mine in Columbia. The kids, however, had met him and fallen in love. He worked for Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, the same outfit that issued my badge. He was the guy who swooped in when cases were over my head. I hadn’t had to use him yet in my new role.

Now was not the time to share news of Savvy, not until I knew what I was up against. One, Wayne would take issue with my involvement. Two, he might feel obligated to participate.

"Still got packing to do?” he asked.


A year ago, when I naively functioned in a small world, making loans, oblivious to other ways of man, I’d have told you that operating by the rules, i.e., telling the truth, was the only way to go. When all those rules almost cost Wayne his job and me my life, I quickly learned to adapt... in a good way.

"You sticking around the apartment all day?” he asked.

"Probably. Daddy’s coming to help.”

He paused. "Sure you’re not driving to Beaufort?”

"Damn,” I whispered. "Yes, I just turned off I-95. Where are you?”

He chuckled. "Standing in your apartment parking lot, wondering why you loaded a Jet Ski on top of your moving truck. Just had coffee with your dad.”

Of course he did.

I grinned into the phone. "You’re something else.”

"I try to be. You’re pretty far-fetched yourself.”

Outside of the kids, Wayne was the light of my life. Our dates weren’t frequent, but they’d rekindled a fierce attraction we’d denied in our Charleston introduction. His professional duties started where mine stopped. We often disagreed on where that line appeared in the shifting sand of our relationship, but outside that small rub, we got along well. Damn well. I’d envisioned him in my king-sized bed more nights than not. It just hadn’t happened, thanks to certain young eyes. Wayne cared deeply, a beautiful yet scary thought to me, a girl unsure she was ready for a full-time man so soon.

The lawman took his job as seriously as I took mine, which I highly respected. But he would have a problem with my current mission. Conflict of interest almost got both of us canned in the past, so he’d be overly sensitive to that potential in my dealings with Savvy.

"So why are you in Columbia?” I asked, hoping to center attention on him.

"Nice try,” he said. "Actually I’m here to help you move. Guess the surprise is on me, huh?”

I didn’t know how to answer.

"So what’s in Beaufort?” he asked.

"A farmer,” I said, taking the right at Garden’s Corner.

"Tell me about your farmer. Maybe I can help.”

"Nothing you need to worry about.”

"Who says I’m worried?” he asked. "Were you worried I’d be worried?”

"What does that mean?”

"It means you’ve never gone to your girlfriend’s office before on official business. At least not to my knowledge.”

I slowed behind a truck hauling building supplies. "That’s because she’s so good at her job.” The truck slowed to turn, and I mashed the gas and passed it. "Just let me do my job, lawman. I’ll call you if I need you.” Hardee’s was about four miles ahead.

"Ever hear of conflict of interest?” he asked.

"Ever hear of mind your own business?”

"Okay,” he said, dragging the syllables. "You’re worried. I get that. But you’re still kind of green at this, remember.”

"I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing a temple. I wasn’t handling this well. "It’s the move... and Zack.”

"And your best friend,” he added.

He gave me the opportunity to address the case again, but I didn’t.

"Call me when you leave there, so we can coordinate getting you packed up. Just watch yourself, CI,” he said, using the Cooperating Individual nickname from our past. "We both know what I’m talking about. Be careful.”

He hung up. I waited at a light, the Hardee’s where I was supposed to meet Monroe only two blocks away. Unfortunately, the lawman had made a valid point. Only months into my job, and here I faced a situation in which I should clearly recuse myself.

But this was Savvy.

Right at nine thirty a.m., I parked in the near-empty Hardee’s lot next to a government-issue, light-blue Taurus matching my personally owned twin of white.

Bacon and coffee odors assaulted me as I opened the glass door. I returned a smile to two grinning senior gents, probably at their daily morning ritual, as I walked past to a back corner booth where Monroe Prevatte waited, coffee in hand. If he led with an apology for dragging me down here for nothing, I’d hug his neck.

He stood as I approached. A perpetual bachelor in his mid-forties, Monroe carried a trim runner’s physique and stood a respectable five foot ten in his tasseled, burgundy loafers—taller if you counted the thick, prematurely white hair that craved a woman’s fingers. His khakis held a fresh crease, his baby-blue dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Growing up in the rural town of Aynor with a church upbringing had taught him conventional manners with a country air. He smiled in greeting, but the lines around his mouth indicated he still meant business.

"So, what’ve you found?” I asked. "I promised Savvy I’d meet her at ten.”

Puzzlement stole his boyish grin. "The state director doesn’t have a problem with you checking out your buddy?”

"She doesn’t know.”

He handed me my steaming cup and shook his head. "Aw, Slade, that’s not real smart.”

"Until I know it’s not an administrative oversight, I’m not calling in the Inspector General, which is what would happen, and you know it.” I pointed my coffee stirrer at him. "Savvy doesn’t need that kind of mark on her personnel record.”

"And... ?”

A fry cook scurried by, and we stopped talking. I rapped the table softly with a fingernail in bad need of a buff. "I can do more good without someone breathing down my neck.”

"Or make it go away?” he said, eyeing me over his cup as he took another sip.

Monroe and I were professional buddies, like Savvy and me, only without the tampon talk. We understood each other, and when we held a doubt, we gave the other the benefit of it. He held doors open for me and escorted me to my car after work. We shared frustrations at staff meetings when directors circled wagons around one pissant change or another. Our peers couldn’t understand how such a friendship existed without the after-hour benefits of a bed.

I shook my head. "I won’t stray, but I won’t let her get burned unnecessarily, either. I learned in Charleston not to jump too soon in asking for the upper echelon to get involved.”

He bowed his head. "I’ll settle for that. Just don’t get sucked into anything.”

Luckily both of us ranked high enough on the bureaucratic food chain to slide by with such last minute junkets, and headquarters considered us management enough to decide when to draw in the big boss. I teetered on a razorblade with this one.

Monroe laid out some papers. "The farmer in question is Daniel Franklin Heyward. Age fifty,” he said. "Been farming for twenty years. Sold real estate before that, but he cut his teeth on his daddy’s farm. Has a college degree in business.”

I reached for the sweetener, shook two yellow packets, and ripped them open. "Not many dirt farmers with degrees. What else?”

"Heyward came to us two years ago—”

"For a disaster loan after the last big drought.” I stirred and tapped the plastic straw against the cup. "Like a zillion other people.”

Monroe nodded. "His signatures don’t match on documents, though. They aren’t all his, assuming any of them are. He paid on time the first year, but he hasn’t paid a dime in the second.”

The signatures alone meant fraud. The parties involved could be the farmer, any secondary players from his world, or one or more of our agency’s employees—including Savvy. I considered how much personal chat to allow her before asking the hard questions. Her temper matched her feisty, kaleidoscopic personality, and she’d turn it on full blast.

Monroe lowered his head to look up into my eyes. "So what’re you gonna do, Ms. Investigator?”

"Does Heyward have a wife? Partner? Co-farmer?” I asked.

He laughed. "Co-farmer? You might call him that. Purdue Heyward. A cousin. He didn’t sign the loan, though.”

I frowned.

"Yeah, I know.”

Our farmer operated alongside a partner with no legal connections to the enterprise. We normally placed a lien on the farm and obligated all partners, making them financially accountable for situations just like this. Too many red flags. "Let’s go,” I said, grabbing my purse. "Wait... give me a half hour. I don’t want us coming in together like we’re double-teaming her.”

"Be careful,” he said. "Miss Savannah’s kind of mouthy these days.”

"I can handle her. Still, no leak to Ms. Dubose without checking with me first. I’ll take the heat if the boss boils over.” I wanted the information spoon-fed to our state director. Too much too quick, and she’d yank me home.

"You know me better than to ask,” he said. "Go on. See you in thirty minutes.” Monroe always covered my back.

I slammed my car door and cranked the engine. Damn, Savvy. You’d have skinned me for being this loose when I was making loans. What the hell is up with you?




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