Palmetto Poison

Palmetto Poison

C. Hope Clark

February 2014 $15.95
ISBN: 9781611944051

Book 3 in the Carolina Slade mystery series

 
Our PriceUS$15.95
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Are peanuts capable of murder? Carolina Slade will bust this shell game.
Big money, big politics, crime, greed, and big farming—Slade, an agriculture department investigator in the steamy state of South Carolina, once again finds herself planted in a dangerous mystery.

Her assignment? Find out if there's a sinister connection between the drug-dealing arrest of wealthy peanut farmer Lamar Wheeler and the gruesome death of Lamar's teenage son in a car wreck. Especially since the dead teen is Governor Dick Wheeler's nephew.

Of course, the governor's people practically skywrite STAY AWAY FROM THE FIRST FAMILY over the Palmetto state's capitol dome in Columbia, which doesn't make Slade's job easier. Couldn't she simply back off from what appears to be a tragic and ugly—but private—family matter?

Not with hot-tempered DEA agent Pamela Largo on the case. Ex-wife to Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo, Slade's romantic interest, Pamela's hell-bent on using Lamar Wheeler's situation to re-open a cold case involving an Atlanta drug lord and Wayne's long-lost sister, Kay.

Soon Slade's shoveling shooflies uphill against Pamela's obsessions, the drug lord's vendettas, the Governor's secrets, and the bizarre realization that those secrets involve peanuts.


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Excerpt

Chapter 1

I THREW MYSELF in front of the speaker behind the microphone.

Margaret Dubose stumbled and fell across the stage, a plastic cup barely missing her head. The missile exploded against the fire station's back wall, its contents of yellow liquid spraying across my feet and legs.

A male voice shouted from the spectators, "You don't give a damn about us, and you know it."

The crowd hushed. Scowls formed on a hundred faces I didn't know and couldn't predict. Mumbling grew and traveled in a wave until it filled the room.

The mayor who'd introduced us helped Dubose to her feet, then stood impotent. As the guest, Dubose waited for someone else to settle down the room. This event would unravel quickly if someone didn't take charge. The microphone stood five feet away.

My J.C. Penney loafers squished as I took a step. Grumbling ripened into loud chatter as the audience grew emboldened. I gripped the mic. "If you've got a grievance with Agriculture, now is not the time nor place to air it."

Liquid, lemonade from the smell of it, puddled under my toes as I stood on the temporary plywood stage decorated with potted petunias. The packed double-bay of the firehouse stood with doors open to accommodate the overflow of bodies. Summer heat in all its ninety percent humidity smothered us, even with the air-conditioning running full blast.

A dark-headed teenager in a sun-bleached Atlanta Braves hat pumped his fist in the air. "You're Carolina Slade, the skunk-striped bitch who arrests farmers."

The audience exchanged looks and gasps. I may have gasped, too.

The white streak through my dark auburn hair defined me clearly as the bitch. "As I said, Ms. Dubose and I are here to represent the Department of Agriculture to celebrate this new facility after the horrible fire last year," I said. "Let's not ruin that."

"Do you know who my uncle is?" The young man pushed his way toward the front of the crowd and pointed at Dubose. "She sure as hell does."

"Shut up, boy," said a gray-haired man. He grasped the teen's elbow and escorted him outside, the kid snatching his arm loose as they reached the door.

I never expected to play bodyguard to my boss, especially not in this tiny crossroad town. Director Margaret Dubose and I were visiting the rural community of Pelion, South Carolina on a United States Department of Agriculture goodwill mission to inaugurate the town's new firehouse. Our agency financed or granted funds for a myriad of projects in rural areas, not just farming. The annual Pelion Peanut Fair seemed the optimum setting for this dedication.

Decked out in designer jeans, white blouse, and a diamond on each hand, Dubose stood to the side of the podium, arms crossed. Her attention flitted from the kid to me. She raised a brow in silent communication, a language I knew well. She returned to the mic as I lifted the camera from around my neck and handed it to Monroe Prevatte, the third member of our USDA entourage. Dubose needed to finish her business without distraction, to assuage the situation with her well-honed manner, which I'd pretty much proven I lacked.

Instead, I would analyze the threat factor. What idiotic thought processes drove a kid to such a demonstration at a simple ceremony? I would spill more than lemonade on him if his lame brained stunt also ruined my Nikon. People stared as I repeated excuse me through the crowd and made my way toward the door that the teen had just exited. As I left, I heard Dubose's charm redirect their attention in her suave political manner.

Outside, three men in their late fifties physically held the young man against the brick wall, giving him the devil. The six-foot teen stood two inches above his tallest interrogator, but grudgingly acquiesced to the joint scolding with a scowl on his flushed, pock-marked face.

One of the men turned toward me. "My apologies, ma'am."

I laid a hand on his suntanned arm in acknowledgment and then faced the kid. My daughter would turn thirteen this month. Time to test myself on how to deal with a feisty teenager. "What's your name?"

"CJ Wheeler," he said through clenched teeth. The men freed him, and he jerked his shirt back into place.

The only Wheeler I knew of was the governor, but the name was common. "Okay, CJ. My name's Carolina Slade. But you already know that." I pinched the legs of my khakis. "Seems you ruined my pants and a pair of shoes. Do you think you're calm enough to explain what has you so upset?"

He leaned forward, the muscles in his forearms bulging as his fists tightened again. "The feds almost locked up my daddy yesterday, and I hear they still intend to send him to jail. He's done a million things for Lexington County. Farming's his life." Tears welled. "He don't deserve this." He jabbed at finger at me. "I know what you're up to. It's the government trying to make us dependent." He wiped his face. "It's bullshit, that's what it is."

Whoa, Nellie. This child carried a load on his shoulders. My agitation drained away at the sight of tears. I held up my hands. "CJ, I honestly know nothing about your daddy. What's his name, and what is he accused of?"

The stoutest man spoke up. His belly bulged underneath a festival T-shirt sporting a gold peanut character wearing a straw hat. "Two federal agents arrested Lamar on Thursday for dealing in illegal prescriptions from the VA. He was released on bail late that evening, Ms. Slade. Scared this boy to death."

I thrust out my hand for a proper introduction.

He gripped it like a vise. "Name's Tucker Shealy. I own a few hundred acres near here."

I nodded, seeking an ally. "You affiliated with that marvelous barbecue place in Batesburg-Leesville?" The two small towns had grown together over time and become one municipality. Everyone within a fifty-mile radius knew of Shealy's Thursday specials, vinegar or mustard based barbecue worth skipping out on your grandmother's cooking.

"A second cousin," he replied fast as a bullet, as if he'd answered the question a dozen times too many. He hitched up his jeans, though I didn't see how he'd get the belt up any higher without herniating something. "You ain't heard about Lamar's arrest?"

"Unless the crime's agriculture-related, we wouldn't be involved," I said, accustomed to giving explanations about all feds not knowing each other's business. "The government's made up of many different departments."

CJ gave me a skeptical look. "Don't you read the papers?"

If only he knew how many unread newspapers sat on my kitchen bar, still in their plastic wrap. "Not lately," I said, tired of everyone thinking we knew the plight of every farmer in the state.

The older man waved toward the crowd milling around rides and exhibits on the other side of the street. "Hell, we almost didn't have the peanuts for this festival because they hauled him off. He donates 'em each year." Shealy tilted his head toward the fire station. "He also donated to the rebuilding of this place. Lock him up, and you handicap this town. Hell, you'll upset the entire state, if you get what I mean."

No, I didn't get what he meant, but I feigned an understanding nod, as if he spoke the gospel.

The edge returned to CJ's voice. "They imported you from the Lowcountry to arrest farmers. I heard about you."

Great. So I was the Elliot Ness of Agriculture now after only eight months as the special projects representative. "CJ," I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know your dad."

"Hmmph," he grumbled.

Barely thirty days ago, I'd solved a crime in Beaufort involving tomato farmers. The case left a knife scar along my rib cage, a bullet graze across my neck, and nightmares of floating in a dark ocean. I didn't intend to make such extreme cases a habit. I also saw no need to make this current dilemma mine.

Dubose informed me more than a few times that I needed focus and less mayhem, a clearer understanding of the limits of my responsibility. I'd strayed a little far outside my purview in Beaufort, and my boss possessed a long memory with keen clarity. Now I behaved like a trooper, in lock step with Dubose's needs and orders.

Time to bid these folks good day and return to my responsibilities.

As I thanked CJ's keepers, applause erupted inside, and someone released a few whoop-whoops from the fire engine horn. I stepped back to the doorway to see Dubose nodding, having completed her speech. Dang, I missed how well she did.

Dubose accepted handshakes from grateful residents. She glided through the crowd, leaving smiles and a trace of her charisma on each person like a true politician. She could equally slice through an adversary. I maintained a healthy, arm's-length respect for the lady.

Unbeknownst to the average taxpayer, the federal head of Agriculture in each state was a political appointee, serving at the leisure of the president, just like the United States attorney in each judicial district. The job dated back to an era when agrarian economies meant clout. These days, most of Washington was so screwed up with healthcare, economic wildfires, and partisan backbiting, it usually forgot we existed.

Monroe touched my elbow. In his mid-forties, my co-worker stood tall enough for me to look up to from my five foot seven height. Lanky, with a runner's body, he wore a yellow polo shirt that accented his tan and thick, wavy white hair. He was practically married to the job with no amorous thoughts—except for me. A few weeks ago he'd pledged that interest. I told him to get over himself since I already dated Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo. Monroe said he'd wait. We hadn't spoken about it since.

Monroe nodded toward Dubose. "Let's retrieve her and go." He leaned toward me and sniffed, then busted out in a laugh. "Dang if you don't smell sweet."

"Yeah, I'm into eau-de-lemon and sugar these days." Dubose remained knee-deep in hospitality, laughing softly as she buttered the rural gentlemen. "She's still fraternizing, but I'm definitely with you on the idea. Give her a minute."

"That young guy still riled?"

Off from the crowd, Shealy continued to console a pouting CJ. My heart ached for the boy. He itched to place blame on somebody for his father's issue, and I happened to be his best target at the moment. Pants could be washed. A child embarrassed about his father wasn't as easy to clean up. I wondered if my daughter would ever go to bat for me that hard.

Dubose strolled over in Prada sunglasses. Her floppy straw hat flaunted a thin, pastel scarf that trailed a foot down her back, covering short-cropped salt and pepper hair. She stood out like a new Cadillac at a tractor pull. I repressed a grin, enjoying the fact she didn't care.

"Anything I need to worry about, Slade?" she asked, listing her chin toward CJ. "What did that distraught young man say?"

"Kid was mad about his daddy, something unrelated to us," I said. "He sure seems to know you, though, ma'am."

"Yes, he does," she said.

I waited for follow up.

She didn't give it. "Let's go see the fair," she said. "I haven't been to one in ages."

Cavorting around a summer fair in this heat, avoiding disgruntled kids or others like CJ, was not my favorite Saturday pastime.

Children's squeals crescendoed, fell, then swelled again. The noises on top of the aroma of diesel exhaust told me carnival rides slung, spun, and flipped youngsters nearby. Dubose shifted her woven cotton purse on her shoulder and headed toward the commotion with Monroe and me in tow.

"I didn't hear. What was with that kid?" Monroe asked, shoving a protective arm in front of me as a truckload of teens rolled by.

"He thought we helped in his daddy's arrest. Lamar Wheeler."

Monroe bent closer. "Did you say Lamar Wheeler?"

"Am I supposed to shiver or something?"

"Highly regarded around here," he said. "Most of his acreage is in peanuts."

"I figured that."

Dubose probably knew the man. I, however, wasn't yet acclimated to the midlands and identified the movers and shakers as I went along, or as Dubose taught me.

I caught sight of CJ as he stormed between two booths selling fried candy bars and boiled peanuts, Mr. Shealy on his heels, scolding. Apparently CJ still had a full head of steam. A woman followed them. And had I spotted a badge on her belt?

"That kid can't cool off," I said to Monroe, who snapped candid pictures of Dubose for the agency's newsletter.

"That kid's daddy is chair of the Lexington County Agriculture Committee," he said, "and takes trips to South America on bird hunts with his brother."

The temperature continued to rise with the heat index, but the Pelionites came out in droves, most of them with a sweating drink in one hand and a greasy paper plate of carnival food in the other. I watched Dubose study handmade purses at a booth ten feet away.

"Don't freak out at what I'm about to tell you," Monroe said.

"Okay," I said, scanning the crowd.

"Wheeler's brother is the governor."

"The governor?" I blurted. "Are you kidding me?"

He frowned. "You're as subtle as a drunk in church, you know it?"

Monroe bought us each a cool soft drink. I sipped as I ran Governor Wheeler's pedigree through my head, pausing to swat away a small bee attracted to my sticky clothes.

The media favored Wheeler, a homegrown-son who'd won the election based on agricultural roots. He'd earned an MBA from the University of South Carolina and success as a business broker in Atlanta. I knew only the family faces who posed with him for the news.

I turned to see Dubose chatting with an eighty-something, five-foot-nothing lady also wearing a straw hat, leaning on a matching bamboo cane. CJ ran up to them, said something, then turned on his heel, the old woman shaking her head. She said something to Dubose as both watched the kid march off.

A divine smell diverted my attention. A local civic organization had boiled a hundred bushels of nuts for the celebration. I imagined popping open a shell, sucking on the briny pods to draw out the overcooked, tender contents before dropping the sodden hulls on the ground. I could eat my weight in the state's official snack. But I had no time to snack.

We caught up to Dubose, whose temples shone with perspiration in spite of the wide-brimmed hat. To my left, someone mentioned the fire station. Two middle-aged women in a church booth wore simple cotton shifts, hair collected on top of their heads with pins like my grandmother used.

The heftier lady in blue said, "That group gave money to the building. Ain't right."

The red-headed woman shrugged, her peach floral dress falling well below her knees. "Maybe so, but we got a new firehouse. That's a blessing."

"But it's sinful money, just sinful."

"There's one of 'em now," said the redhead, nodding in our direction, but I couldn't tell which person in the crowd she meant.

"Something's brewing," I said to Dubose, tapping her shoulder. "Let's leave."

Glancing over my shoulder as we hustled to the exit, the tall church lady instead scolded a balding gentleman dressed in shorts and sandals. A prim short woman in plaid slacks joined him. At her insistence, they disappeared into the crowd.

Monroe jogged over to me. "Moods are a might testy around here. Lamar's issue might have everyone a tad grumpy."

"I've had enough Americana," I said. "Let's find the car. It's hot, and my underwear's sticking to me."

"Like a second skin," Dubose said, tugging at her cotton shell. "At least you took one for the team, Slade. Mine is pure sweat."

I chuckled, liking my boss even more.

Monroe leaned over and whispered, "You think that's funny, remind me to tell you what set off the church ladies. You'll love it."

"Tell me."

"In the car," he said. "You laugh too loud."

We wandered around the IGA parking lot searching for our government issued Explorer. Having arrived before the lot filled, the vehicle hid in a maze of cars, tractors, and super-suspension, four-wheel-drive trucks parked all which-a-ways.

"Damn fool boy," yelled a man. "Somebody call his daddy."

"Get back here, son," hollered another.

An impassioned crowd gathered at the entrance, at the edge of the parking lot.

I turned in time to glimpse CJ chewing up asphalt in his Jeep, driving way too fast for these crowded streets. He hung a hard left on Main and squealed out of town leaving a hundred miles worth of rubber on the road.

Dubose continued watching, concerned. I nudged her to keep moving.

"Peanuts for sale," shouted a man.

A peanut seller walked up, a box hung around his neck like a 1930s cinema girl. His tan slacks rode high, an inch above his Keds. He carried the awkward bearing of an adolescent, but the slight graying hair of someone in his late forties. "Roasted peanuts," he said in a husky voice contrary to his garb.

Roasted at a boiled peanut festival? Leave it to some kitchen entrepreneur to capitalize on an event.

"No thanks," Monroe said, walking on.

"The car's over there," waved Dubose.

Monroe jogged to beat her to the Explorer since he had the keys.

A petite blonde close to my age darted into me and bounced off. The muscle tone in her arms and legs showed serious time in a gym and belonged to the woman who'd been following CJ.

"Well, excuse me," she said, barely making eye contact. She rifled through her keys. "Damn redneck."

"Kinda the prerequisite for being out here, Daisy Mae," I said, not letting her slap a label on me and everyone else out here having a good time. Nobody rolled over me like that. Maybe a little bit of redneck did run through my veins.

She spun at my remark, and the keys flew out of her hand, landing at my feet. I scooped them up. "Lose something?"

Her hand snatched them out of mine, the key fob scratching my middle finger. I so wanted to show the cut to her in proper fashion, but Mom taught me different.

Voices sounded to my right, raised and angry. Over this woman's shoulder, I noted Mr. Shealy speaking with animation on his cell phone. The old matron with the hat stood three feet away from him, staring maliciously. A few others spoke in hushed tones.

"Leave that boy alone," shouted one of the women in our direction. "He hasn't done anything."

"Neither has his daddy!" screamed a man.

For a moment I thought they fussed at me, but I hadn't done anything to CJ. Then I realized their animosity focused on my new caustic lady friend standing nearby.

I moved to put distance between us and bumped the side of a hot car. I jumped back.

"Get off my fuckin' car," Ms. Rambo said.

"Give it a rest," I replied. "This is a small country festival, not the Bronx."

Three seconds felt like minutes as our gazes locked.

She blinked first. "I don't have time for you." She beeped open the silver Malibu and scrambled into the driver's seat. I molded against a neighboring truck to keep out of her path. She spit gravel and left in the same direction as CJ.

Her car may have had standard Georgia plates, but the woman agent's denim vest didn't hide the federal badge on her belt. She had pissed off half the Pelion population.

"Slade!" hollered Dubose.

I trotted toward the Explorer, one eye held on all those fussy people.

A federal agent at this event intrigued me. I assumed she needed to speak to CJ about his father, but who was she?

Whatever she wanted the kid for, my gut told me I was on his side.

Chapter 2MONROE EASED our SUV through the meandering crowd of Pelionites to finally reach the town limits. He drove the two-lane Edmund Highway toward Interstate 26. Dubose relaxed in the front seat beside him, browsing messages on her Blackberry. We weren't breaking any speed records, but I suspected we'd be home by four.

 

As the tires hummed on asphalt, I sat behind Monroe and replayed the amazing assortment of people I'd run into during my Saturday workday, enough variety to fill a yearbook.

I marveled at the petulant agent who'd collided with me. Rude—a woman with issues. Why she was there, however, was more my train of thought. She definitely had her sights on the farmer's kid, CJ.

What type of agent was she? I knew feds spent more time chasing shadows and shuffling paper than drawing down on culprits, unlike their TV counterparts, but this one was in the field with mission in her eyes.

In my position, I solved administrative situations that teetered on the criminal line, but when cases turned ugly, I called in the Office of Inspector General for a real gun-totin' cop sporting a gold shield—a USDA senior special agent.

Agent Wayne Largo and I'd been an item for a number of months, short enough to still surprise each other in bed.

I'd never met his ex-wife Pamela, but knew she was a DEA agent. Toned, tanned, tiny, and tough, according to Wayne. The more I thought about it, the more the woman in the parking lot fit her description. Sort of made me like her less.

"Slade," Monroe said.

My eyelids fluttered, my deep thinking having carried me into a sneaky catnap. "Um . . . what?"

He contemplated me in the rearview mirror. "You haven't asked me what I learned at the festival."

I sat up. "So what twisted the churchwoman's panties in a wad?"

"What does Pelion make you think of?" Monroe asked.

"Peanuts maybe?"

Dubose released a dignified snicker, hinting at an obvious connection that escaped me.

Monroe's eyes twinkled in the mirror. "Pelion has a nudist place outside of town on the edge of the Clay River. Their logo was on that guy's polo shirt."

"Eww, a nudist colony," I said, as visions of the assorted sizes and girths of Pelion Peanut Party attendees flashed through my mind sans overalls and jeans. "The church ladies mentioned kids. Maybe they had a problem with naked little'uns buffing around with naked big'uns."

"It's a way of life for some," Dubose said. "And it's a nudist resort, not a colony."

I couldn't grasp the concept. Now, if I was the only female in a sea of sweaty bodybuilders with long dark hair and blue eyes . . .

As we passed rural homes, farms, rusted trailers, and a couple of Confederate flags, I pondered the type who'd enjoy a nudist facility. Au naturel didn't seem at all natural. The good Lord gave us fig leaves for a reason.

Monroe passed my camera over the backseat. "Scan though the pictures I took while you were outside with the boy."

I accepted the Nikon, then flipped it over, analyzing it.

"No lemonade on it," he said, easing up on the gas as a rusty, late-model Ford pickup slowed to turn. "See if there're any good pictures for this month's report to the national office."

I punched the menu button. "The straw hat looks good, ma'am," I said to Dubose. "Who was that old lady wearing one like it?"

"Mrs. Lucille Haggerty," she said. "She's been to all thirty of these festivals."

I smiled. Dubose remembered names like they were ingredients to a prizewinning recipe.

Fast forwarding through shots of rides, shows, and booths, I found a couple nice ones of the boss at the podium shaking hands in the crowd. Monroe snapped a bunch of pics and had a good eye for it. Then I found mine, more tastefully posed, of course. There was a picture of the fire station marquee, a ribbon on it for the grand opening, and one of Dubose greeting the mayor. Shame I'd missed the flying cup. That would've been one for the scrapbook. The next photo showed my teenage daughter lying topless on the neighbor's patio.

"What the hell?"

Pictures flashed across the tiny screen in my scrutinizing frenzy. One showed an innocent view of two young teen girls sunbathing on chaise lounges, at a distance, with nothing valuable showing. The next showed my neighbor's child, Starr, rubbing lotion on my daughter Ivy's back. Both of them topless. More bare shoulders and backs, just short of my daughter's teeny, thirteen-year-old breasts. Starr's, however, stood out in all their fourteen-year-old glory.

"Slade?" Dubose said, turning. "Anything I need to worry about? Delete what you need to."

My face burned in spite of the air conditioning. "No, ma'am. Appears my son took some pictures I wasn't aware of."

"He's how old now . . . eight?"

I grimaced. "Yes."

"Such a fun age," she said, pocketing her Blackberry. "Enjoy them while they're young."

I'd enjoy him intensely as soon as I got home. So intense that his chances of living to see nine were slim to none.

Dubose's hand slapped the dashboard. "Monroe, slow down."

The car dipped forward as Monroe braked. I fumbled to keep the camera in my hands. The seatbelt bit into my shoulder, knocking wind out of my lungs.

Blue lights of a highway patrol car strobed about fifty yards ahead. A Jeep had left the road. From the tracks gouged in the grassy hill, it had reached the crest and then rolled back to the road's edge, flipping over once or twice. I unlatched my seatbelt and scooted forward. The irritating agent from the parking lot was on her knees attempting to reach the driver.

"Dear Jesus," Dubose said, "it's CJ's Jeep."

"What?" My hand rose to my chest. I'd spoken with the kid only two hours ago.

Dubose's face was skewed in pain. Obviously, she was very familiar with this boy. Her gaze remained cemented to the accident then her hand snatched at the door handle.

"Hold on." Monroe ran the front window down as he eased alongside the trooper. "Can we help?"

The patrolman waved us on in a casual motion. "Poor kid's beyond help, sir. Best you drive on." Two cars stopped on the road's edge, passersby jumping out to help, or at least see what happened.

Monroe pushed the gas. Highway stretched between us and the accident. Dubose strained to watch out the back window, panic in her eyes.

"Ma'am, are you okay?" I asked.

Tears welled. She turned toward the side window. It was time to keep my mouth shut.

DUBOSE ACTED composed by the time we reached the office parking garage. Monroe dropped her off at her car, but she abruptly turned before we could drive off.

"We need to talk, Slade," she said, then tried to walk away.

I got out of the car and approached her, sensing a private matter. "Are we involved in the Lamar Wheeler matter?"

"I don't know yet." She glanced at Monroe. "Not here." I swear her eyes almost teared again. "This will be a mess now."

Then she gave me her back and got in her car.

She left, and Monroe drove me up to my new F-150. I caught myself scanning for my old car. When I moved to the country, I'd traded in my Taurus that too much resembled a federal G-car and purchased a vehicle with more size and personality.

"How well does she know these people?" Monroe asked, nodding back toward where we'd left Dubose.

I grabbed my purse and stepped out. "I believe that kid is the governor's nephew. He said Dubose knew him. You saw her reaction at the overturned Jeep." The thought gave me a shiver.

"Monday ought to be interesting," he said. "Interested in dinner?"

I heaved a sigh, showing him how much his comment bothered me. "Like I said before—"

He grinned.

I waved him away. "Get out of here, you idiot."

"Open invitation," he shouted, driving off.

His humor alleviated some of the wet-blanket feel to the day, but my smile slid off as I thought about CJ and what his death had triggered in Dubose. It would have been different if I'd heard about the accident from my recliner via the news, but I saw the wreck. He was high school age. Damn.

I drove toward Catfish Lane, depressed over the accident and disappointed and annoyed at my kids, debating which mood to employ when I reached home. At least my children lived and breathed, thank God. Their father had died last October, in a situation he'd intended to be my demise. Ivy and Zack knew only that their father died thinking of them. They'd proven quite resilient and weathered the shock amazingly well, aside from a couple of attitude issues earlier on with Zack. We relocated to Columbia from South Carolina's Lowcountry for my promotion and to start over. Our newly constructed home sat on three acres on the banks of Lake Murray—heaven on earth.

This time, however, my children had screwed up.

With my thoughts in a grumpy, jumbled mess, I dropped my purse and keys on the kitchen counter with a meaningful clunk. "Zack? Where are you?"

Ivy bebopped in, ear buds hanging around her neck, Madge the cat in her arms. "He's in the bathroom. What's he done now?"

Her sassiness, while innocent enough, rubbed at my raw emotions today. I pointed at her. "You'll do instead. Sit." I touched my ears then ran a finger like a knife across my neck. "Turn it off."

Her wary eyes followed me as I came around the end of the sofa and settled in a recliner across the coffee table from her, camera in hand. The cat took off. Ivy's tiny yellow shorts and white-eyelet cotton top accented her tan—a tan I knew came without lines.

I pulled up the most embarrassing of the six pictures and handed the Nikon to her. "Explain."

Ivy clicked through the pictures. Her head jerked up as she stared at me and then thrust out the camera. "Who took these?" She fell on the sofa, hand across her face in Scarlett O'Hara style. "This is a disaster!"

"Not quite the words I had in mind, young lady." I grabbed the Nikon and waited for her Oscar-winning performance to play out.

She sprang up. "What's Starr going to say? She'll never have me over again." After intense seconds of theatrical exclamations, she paused, her sighs escalating.

Here it comes, I thought. The grand finale. Yep. Tears slid down her face.

Emotion tugged at my maternal genes. However, common sense told me to stand fast and serve up the lesson. Another side of me wanted to lock her in her room until she was thirty.

I'd lose my mind if she wound up like CJ.

The toilet flushed. Zack walked into the den. "Hey, Momma. What's for dinner?"

"Your butt on a platter," I said. "Sit."

Wide-eyed, Zack plopped on the opposite end of the sofa from his sister. He shrugged at her. She glared back, making him scowl and stick out his tongue.

"I'm going to get you in your sleep," Ivy said between gritted teeth.

The doorbell rang.

I walked to the entryway. "Neither of you move."

"What'd I do?" Zack hollered.

"You'll find out soon enough." I opened the door.

Allegra Jo dropped a fat suitcase and held out her hands. "Hey, Big Sister. Mom said for you to put me up for a couple weeks."

I swallowed my surprise and the urge to line her up with Zack and Ivy on the couch for a tongue-lashing. "She did, huh?" I hadn't seen my only sibling in six months, and here she was as if aliens had dropped her on my doorstep. I didn't even know she knew where I lived.

"Yeah," Ally said, glancing around. "I finally filed the papers to dump Craig. Been at Mom's for the last two weeks. He wants the divorce, but he has so many questions about how to divide the stuff and calls all the time. I mean, seriously, how does one split up a bedroom group? There's a reason it's called a set." She lugged the bag inside, talking like a telegraph key. "Cool place, Sis. Can I get a tour?"

I shut the door to keep from air-conditioning the front yard and studied my sister. The neon smile, the coy tilt of one shoulder as she spoke, and the whiff of strawberry were all there. No evidence of a crisis. Of course not. She was Typhoid Mary when it came to crises. Nerves prickled under my skin as I held back criticizing her manners . . . and Mom's.

"Phones quit working in Ridgeville?" I asked.

I may have even rolled my eyes, but she kept babbling as she waved impishly at the kids, as if I hadn't said a word. "Mom said Craig's calls were driving her nuts, so I had to come here," she said, turning back to me. "You know how she likes her life neat and tidy."

I peeked outside and saw her old Honda in the driveway. Didn't she understand I liked my life neat and tidy, too? "Craig won't be calling here night and day, will he?" I asked.

She shook her head and pushed curls out of her face, natural ones I fought a curling iron to imitate. "Thank God we didn't have kids."

I loved my sister, but we lived on entirely different planets, our orbits only crossing on holidays. Heck, we didn't even share the same sun. "Ally, it would have been nice if you or Mom had called."

Angry threats and one solid, connected slap erupted from the kids in the living room followed by an "Ow!" and "Mom, he said he put my pictures on the Internet!"

Ally ignored me and rushed toward Ivy and Zack, her dark brown eyes dancing at seeing them. "Hey, kids!" She pulled back. "Whoa, what's with the tears, Ivy-belle?" She spun around. "Did I interrupt something?"

"You think?" I lugged her suitcase into the room. "You can sit down, too. I'll deal with you once I've finished with them."

Ally planted herself between the kids, a hand on Ivy's shoulder.

"It's a free country," Zack said. "I didn't do anything wrong. Who says I even took the pictures?"

I held out the camera. "So I took them?"

He frowned at the ridiculous question. "No."

"Did Ally take them?" I asked.

"How could she do that?" he said.

Raising a brow, I cocked my head. "So tell me who else took the pictures, son?"

Ivy's tears continued to pour down her face. "He's ruined my life!"

"Let's talk about you, Miss Princess," I said, shifting toward her. "Who twisted your arm to bare your teenage buds for anyone on the cove with binoculars?" I held up the camera. "Or one of these?"

At the mention of teenage buds, Ivy held hands over her chest. Zack snickered until I gave him a look that transmitted a threat he recognized without much interpretation.

"Are these pictures online, young man? I'll find them if they are."

"No, ma'am," he said, sinking into the sofa. "I just said that to make her mad."

"You wait," Ivy grumbled.

I narrowed eyes at my daughter. "He was wrong, but you set yourself up, little girl. You were just as wrong as he was.

After a bit more back and forth, with some creative scolding from me thrown in, everyone's emotional energy ebbed to where logic finally took charge.

"I'm immensely embarrassed," Ivy mumbled. "Embarrassed to death."

No, you're not anything to death, I thought. You're not wrapped around a steering wheel in a ditch. I held up the camera. "Deleting them is easy . . . this time." I erased each one, confirming them gone in front of my daughter so she'd sleep easier.

"There's nothing wrong with the human body," Ally said. "Some people believe—"

Seriously? "Not now, Ally," I said. "Kids, to your rooms. I'll call you when dinner's on the table."

The kids scattered, and I fixated on Ally. Memories of our childhood flooded back as she painted on her innocent look. I recalled the night she'd slid out of her second-story bedroom window and broke into the country club pool to skinny-dip with four friends. At age sixteen, she called me to pick her up from a party. My car's upholstery stank of pot for days after.

My sister rolled with any situation. She stood by me through most parental fights in our teens. Nonjudgmental by nature, however, she fell into mistakes and dragged others into her vortex. Bad came with the good. I'm sure that Mom, in her most genteel Southern manner, had expelled my sister after a bellyful of the hoopla that came with Allegra Jo Slade-Smith.

"I'm hungry," she finally said.

After snorting a chuckle, I stood and dragged her to the kitchen.

As we slapped mayo on turkey and lettuce, Ally informed me she was dropping the Smith, returning to her colorful maiden self, and sending Craig back to the Pee Dee swamp from where he was spawned—the home of NASCAR, cotton, and Springer Spaniel bird dogs. Poor Craig, our family's comic relief during the holidays, had been in over his head since he'd said, "I do."

After dinner, as Ally dragged her suitcase toward the guestroom, stuffed with enough clothes for a European tour, I all but lunged for my cell phone, craving a dose of Wayne. All I got was voicemail. His weekend work must suck, too.

After sandwiches on the back porch, the kids evaporated like fresh rain off a sun-baked tarmac. When I asked Ally how she was holding up with her divorce, her chatterbox throttled up and took off. As evening fell and she prattled on, I fixed us bourbon and Coke. I nodded once in a while, but worried more about what it was like at the Wheeler farm tonight, and how it would impact my Monday morning in Dubose's office. I smelled a case coming on, with politics in the middle of it.

BY EIGHT O'CLOCK Monday, I waited patiently at the conference table in Dubose's dark-paneled, deep red carpeted office while she swapped papers about on her desk. As expected, the news hounds were abuzz, and at least two national networks had referenced the Wheeler family's recent pile of misfortunes. We expected more coverage today.

But in this muffled office, removed from the hubbub of a state headquarters, we sat in silence a few moments, a faint waft of Dubose's cologne in the air.

"I knew about Wheeler's arrest," Dubose said, matter-of-factly.

I sat up straight. "I figured you did."

She leaned back, played with the links of her bracelet, and stared at the wall for a moment.

Dubose had inherited the state director's position last year. The first female to hold the post. A noble accomplishment in a state full of good old Southern boys, especially in agriculture. Not that I didn't adore Carolina males. They liked to wear the pants, and women loved being feminine. But a woman who balanced wiles, wit, and wisdom was hard as granite and seductive as hell, making her a remarkable force of nature. I placed Dubose in that category.

"Lamar Wheeler's not a man who sells or uses drugs," she said, breaking her silence. "He's devastated about CJ."

Chances were Dubose had remained silent about the Wheelers' dilemma for days, if not a week or more. Dubose and Dick Wheeler were two politicos who traveled the same circles, honoring the wishes of a common party. Governor Wheeler solicited Dubose's DC Beltway resources. When Dubose implemented some new federal program within the state, the Governor offered his arm for her to take. Standard issue politics.

But this was about Lamar Wheeler, the farmer, and the problem was drugs, not anything agricultural. We had a farmer in trouble with a law enforcement agency of the federal government, which took the situation out of everyone's grasp. Federal drug agents didn't cater to governors or agricultural directors. In my opinion, it was time to tend to other tasks, but etiquette was etiquette.

"When's the funeral?" I asked.

"Tomorrow. I'd appreciate it if you'd accompany me."

My gut sank. My last funeral had been for my best friend's ex—blown away by a drug dealer. The funeral before that was my ex—blown away by a farmer's shotgun. Nobody knows how to act at the damn services, and I never knew what to say.

Young people's funerals were the worst. All that energy shut down and locked in a box. Could I have said something different to CJ and altered events? "Yes, ma'am. Be happy to go with you."

From her high-backed chair, from behind immaculate tight curls that never seemed to grow out of their cut, she stared toward but not directly at me. "I owe Dick Wheeler. Lamar, too, of course."

I heard vulnerability.

"Not in this situation," I said, worried about the depth of her involvement. "It's proper to make an appearance tomorrow, but you don't want to get wrapped up in Lamar's drug charge. I understand you care because of CJ—"

She stiffened. "An appearance. Really, Slade?" Her smile stretched thin. "How's your workload?"

Uh oh. I had nothing urgent on my desk, and she knew it.

She twirled a fountain pen in manicured fingers. "I made an appointment for you."

"Guess I should meet Lamar Wheeler," I conceded and laid my own pen down in surrender. "I should ask how he intends to run the farm if he goes to prison and get a feel for its financial standing, though I imagine the Governor . . ."

The pen stopped spinning. Her eyes narrowed. "I said I don't think he did it."

I hushed. Her loyalties to this family apparently stood hard and fast. "Yes, ma'am."

The pen moved again. "At one this afternoon, Governor Dick Wheeler's taking a long lunch . . . with you."

The Governor? Hot panic ran through me. "Why?"

"Because I asked you." She scrunched her nose slightly. "You'll do fine." She rose, gestured for me to rise, and escorted me to the door. "If I don't see you this afternoon, meet me here at noon tomorrow. The service is at one."

She shut her door, and I stood in the lobby, feeling like a decoy for something I did not understand. 

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