Authors: Margaret Maron
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #North Carolina, #Fiction, #Mystery fiction, #Women Sleuths, #General
Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Maron. (Original publication 1985.) All rights reserved.
All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For Agnes Furst Maron, the standard by which all mothers-in-law should be measured
While North Carolina is—happily—much more than a state of mind, it has no county named for Sir John Colleton, one of King Charles II’s Lords Proprietor. In rectifying that omission, I should like to make it clear that my Colleton County does not portray a real place and any resemblance between its fictional inhabitants and actual persons is purely coincidental.
In 1984, my then-agent came down to see North Carolina for himself. It was probably the first time his feet had been off concrete in twenty years. He stood in my living room and looked out over the scruffy, nondescript landscape of flat sandy fields and scrub pines and said, “You have no sea, no mountains, no raging river, no virgin forests, nothing of interest. Why in God’s name do you want to set a book
I looked out over that same landscape and saw fields that my family had plowed with mules, flowers that the women in my family had planted, trees that had sheltered me since birth, and I could only say, “It’s home. It’s where I began and it’s where I now live again after being away too long.”
He gave an exasperated sigh and said, “Well, go ahead and get it out of your system.”
So I wrote
, it was published in 1985, and I thought North Carolina was out of my system.
But it took a few more years before I found an agent and an editor who thought my nondescript farm land would work just fine as a setting.
I created Colleton County for this book and although Deborah Knott and her big sprawling family do not appear, it may be considered a prequel because it is peopled with characters who keep showing up in later books, including Kate Honeycutt, who was a minor character in
Death in Blue Folders
Sharp-eyed readers may note some inconsistencies with later books, but I hope that won’t interfere with their enjoyment.
The same goes for the societal changes from thirty years ago. Smoking was everywhere accepted. Women smoked when they were pregnant. They enjoyed an occasional glass of wine. Sonograms were not common and the sex of the baby was usually a surprise.
Happily for mystery writers, love and greed are timeless.
[Second week in October]
Jake Honeycutt spent the last morning of his life rambling through the lanes and back fields of his Colleton County farm. If he’d been told it was his last morning, he might have regretted that he couldn’t hold Kate one last time, but he would have been glad that it was ending here in North Carolina, not back in New York. No one told him, of course, so that October morning he drank a final cup of Lacy’s hot black coffee and, since Lacy himself had disappeared somewhere, whistled up the dogs and strode down the sloping hillside with his shotgun across his shoulder to see if he could flush a few mourning doves before taking the 5
flight from RDU back to New York and Kate.
Drifts of bright yellow sneezeweeds edged the vegetable garden which his uncle kept hoed clean even though nothing still grew except tomatoes and okra and a row of coarse leathery collards. Lacy had already disked under the rest of the garden plot and had sown his turnip patch for the winter. Winters here were mild enough to grow lettuce and spinach in a cold frame, but Lacy didn’t hold with such. Collards, turnips, and mustard greens had nourished him for seventy winters and he didn’t see the point of changing now.
Beyond the garden were five wooden tobacco barns looking like a row of cardboard half-gallon milk cartons. Their green tar-paper sheathing had ripped and torn away in places. One of these days, thought Jake, he’d find time to dismantle those barns. The boards could be used for something else. Wasteful to let them just rot down. Dangerous, too, probably since the butane gas burners had never been disconnected. In the old days of mule-drawn drags, rank green tobacco leaves had been brought from the fields and string-tied by the handfuls onto four-foot sticks, about twenty-five bunches to the stick; then hung in the tall barns for heat curing, about eight hundred sticks to the barn. Originally, the furnaces were fired by hardwood cut in the winter, and men who had worked all day in the hot fields priming tobacco slept beside their barns and kept the fires going through the night. After World War II, wood gave way to oil burners with thermostats and later to gas, so that a farmer could sleep in his own bed, although Jake remembered how his father still got up in the middle of the night to check on the barns. A broken stick or a single loose leaf falling on a hot flue could send a barn up in flames and destroy a summer’s profits.
After several days of heat, the green leaves would be cured to a mellow gold, rich and fragrant in aroma.
From the barn, the sticks of cured tobacco were loaded onto a flatbed and hauled to the packhouse where they were piled in headhigh stacks. There, women and children carefully broke the strings and hand-stripped the leaves from the sticks. The soft lemony leaves would be graded by color and size and then bundled for market.
Getting tobacco from plant bed to warehouse used to be a painstaking, labor-intensive process that lasted well into November or December—“a thirteen-month crop,” farmers joked, for plant beds were often readied in December before the crop was completely sold.
Mechanization changed all that. A tobacco harvester could strip the proper number of leaves from each plant and place them in big wire baskets that were hydraulically maneuvered into bulk containers that looked like tin boxcars and were heated by thermostatically controlled gas burners. No more hand-bundling either. Instead, the loose cured leaves were simply sheeted up in large squares of burlap: two hundred pounds at a time, and most of the crop had been auctioned off by mid-September.
All around the countryside, wooden barns like Jake’s were falling into ruin. His own tobacco allotment was leased to a nearby farmer who utilized machines and migrants instead of year-round tenants, so it had been at least ten years since these barns were used.
One of the dogs put his cold nose against Jake’s hand and looked at him reproachfully.
“Okay,” he smiled. “No more daydreaming.”
He skirted the barns and walked on down a sloping field given over to sweet potatoes. Although it was the second week in October, the vines continued green and lush because night temperatures had not yet dipped below the mid-fifties.
Even so, summer fought a rearguard action all around him. Morning glories still raised their blue trumpets skyward and oaks and maples had not yet begun to turn; but Virginia creeper wound like scarlet ribbons through the pines, and green sassafras trees at the edge of the woods were mottled orange and yellow.
The dogs found their favorite path through the trees and Jake followed.
These woods had been timbered by his father thirty years earlier. Fair-sized jack oaks, maples, and yellow pines now shaded the old mule lanes, but they were saplings compared to the huge turpentine pines that Jake remembered from his boyhood. He had not cried when those giants crashed to earth and were hauled away to the sawmill because his father had quietly explained how much money they needed to keep the land together after the expenses of his mother’s last operation and funeral. Nevertheless, Jake never forgot how sunlight used to shaft through those tall straight longleaf pines.
In France once, he and Kate had wandered into an old cathedral early one morning, and something about the way the sun streamed around and through that forest of gray stone columns had made Jake suddenly homesick for the farm.
The original grant from the Lords Proprietor in the late 1600s had conveyed to one Andrew Hunicut several thousand acres of central Carolina bottomland. One hundred and twenty acres of sandy loam and scraggly woods were all that remained, but they had been held by Jake’s line in unbroken succession.
North Carolina—that “vale of humility between two mountains of arrogance”—had been settled inland by dirt farmers and rough artisans, sturdy yeomen who planted and reaped small holdings with the labor of their own families. Relatively few owned slaves and fewer still had amassed the huge fortunes and plantations found in Virginia and South Carolina.
There were no fox hunters riding to hounds in pink jackets here. Colleton County hunters wore billed caps with fertilizer or John Deere logos and rode pickup trucks with dog cages in the back; and they followed their hounds on foot.
At the edge of the woods, a curtain of vines draped across the underbrush and Jake paused for a handful of bronze-colored scuppernongs. The musky sweetness was like no other grape in the world, and after the first frosts they would taste even better, like a full-bodied Madeira.
The farmer who rented from him had harvested the corn the week before, but soybeans were still standing, their pods full of beans. Perfect for doves.
Jake stood a moment savoring the stillness. Far away, he heard a distant tractor. From the woods across the field, a jay screamed in the treetops and a squirrel chirred from somewhere behind him. Other birds twittered and small rustlings arose in the hedgerows.
With a wave of his hand, he sent the two pointers casting through the soybeans. They worked the field efficiently, but after twenty minutes, he’d gotten off only one shot at three doves that streaked from cover too far away for accuracy.
Most of the year, Jake reflected, a mourning dove acted like a slightly retarded avian amateur. Her nest was a handful of sticks flung at a tree branch and her flight was a startled fluttery mess. She and her friends spent their days teetering on utility wires or waddling through grain fields like portly matrons at a shopping mall.
But with the opening gunshot of hunting season, a dove’s flight became a marvel of grace and precision. When you got to see one, that is, because suddenly all the power lines were bare and nothing stirred in the fields except sparrows and starlings.
Jake didn’t mind, and colleagues familiar with his competitive killer instinct on the stock exchange would have been surprised by his complacency; but hunting was only an excuse to walk out alone with the dogs, to fill his lungs with fresh air, his eyes with October greens and golds before heading back to the city’s crowded concrete monotones.
He shifted the shotgun to his other shoulder as he and the dogs stepped back into the woods. Beside the path was a neat pile of brush, trimmings left over from the trees Lacy had culled for winter firewood.
They walked up a slight rise and came into an opening that had once been fenced for hogs. A shadowed figure stood by a holly tree on the other side of the fence.
Jake had thought he was alone in the woods and did not feel much like socializing; but if he didn’t, there would be comments that Lacy Honeycutt’s nephew was getting uppity from living too long in New York. So Jake smiled and called a friendly greeting just like any good old boy who’d never left home.
Recognition turned the smile into a genuine grin.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” he said, passing over his shotgun so he could climb through the barbed wire fence unencumbered. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”
The blast of his shotgun took him squarely in the chest. There was no time to feel fear or betrayal or even simple surprise.
One minute, Jake Honeycutt was pushing apart the strands of fence wire; the next moment, he lay tangled in the barbs, torn open, his bright blood spilling across brown pine needles into the sandy soil beneath.
Gloved hands dropped the shotgun beside his body and soon there was only the raucous scream of blue jays and the puzzled whine of the dogs to break the morning’s new silence.
Kate Honeycutt stepped into the yard and resisted an impulse to slam the kitchen door.
give him the satisfaction,” she thought angrily, passing under bare-branched crepe myrtles which lined the path to the old packhouse.
Lacy had known she was coming, yet Kate had arrived at the farm just after midnight last night, cold and exhausted from the long drive—a drive her obstetrician had disapproved of—to find the farmhouse dark and chill with only a small fire dying in the kitchen stove. (Lacy was still afraid of the new gas range she and Jake had installed and he never used it until the heat of the summer.)
As she dumped her suitcase in the front hall, the old man had appeared at the top of the stairs. “Oh, it’s you,” he’d said, and gone back to bed.
Remembering past arrivals—cheerful fires in every hearth, hot coffee and savory stew bubbling on the old cookstove, sun-dried linens on their bed—Kate had crawled between musty covers last night, wounded by Lacy’s hostility and unbearably homesick for Jake’s lean warmth beside her in the cold bed. “Oh, damn you, Jake Honeycutt!” she cried for the thousandth time in the five months since the accident.
Outside, a dog barked and somewhere across the chilled fields, other dogs answered. Then silence and Kate finally fell asleep.
Daylight had not improved the old farmer’s manners. “You having a baby?” he asked, eyeing her thickened waist when she was silhouetted against the morning sunlight.
“Yes,” she smiled, thinking that even if he hated her, he must unbend at the thought of Jake’s fatherless child. She essayed a mild joke at what the baby was doing to her figure even though she’d barely begun to show. She had been a model when she met Jake and she still moved with a model’s grace, pregnant or not.
But Lacy ignored every conversational gambit until Kate finally gave up and carried her breakfast dishes over to the sink.
“I’m going down to the packhouse,” she told him. “I want to see if it’ll do for a studio.”
That got his attention. His gnarled fingers paused in the lighting of his cigarette.
“Studio,” Kate said firmly. “I’m moving down here permanently, Lacy. I can’t afford the farm and the New York apartment, too.”
“Jake had plenty of money. You gone through it all already?”
“Jake had a good salary,” she corrected. “We both did. But we put most of it in the stock market. If the economy keeps recovering, the stocks should rebound, but right now I’d lose too much if I sold them. I’ll sell the apartment instead. There’s no reason I can’t work here as well as in New York.”
The old man had shrugged then. “Well, it’s your money. The roof’s tight enough, but the floor’s give way in spots. Won’t need to worry none about snakes till next month, though.”
“Neat,” Kate thought ruefully as she skirted the blueberry bushes at the end of the orchard. “In two sentences, he’s let me know he thinks remodeling the packhouse impractical, needled me about snakes”—she shivered involuntarily—“and then dismissed it because he’s sure I won’t last a month here without Jake. Not bad for a farmer who quit school when he was fourteen and never spent a night outside Colleton County.”
She walked along the sandy lane that led to the packhouse at the edge of the tobacco field. The old wood structure, its red paint faded to a mellow rose, was half hidden by tall scraggly bushes whose light sweet fragrance perfumed the air,
a botanist friend in New York had told her. Down here it was called FirstBreath-of-Spring because it bloomed in January, no matter what the temperature. That first day she and Jake had strolled around the farm, these unkempt branches and small white blossoms had been coated with ice. This March day, the bushes hummed with wild bees.
She had met Jake four years ago at one of Philip and Patricia Carmichael’s penthouse parties in New York. “Honey, you’re gonna love my cousin as much as I love yours,” Patricia had promised.
Kate was five-foot-ten and Jake was even taller, a loose-knit, lanky, sandy-haired man with lively hazel eyes and a slow southern drawl. When he spoke of his “little piece of land,” she thought it was just a quaint expression; because for all his talk about drawing strength from the soil, Jake Honeycutt seemed as much a creature of the city as she.
His drawl had belied a tough competitive spirit which drove him up the corporate ladder. He loved the challenges New York and Wall Street threw at him. And yet, after their wedding, during the holidays and long weekends they spent on the farm, Kate began to understand that Jake
tied to the land in some mysterious way.
It wasn’t a particularly beautiful region. Colleton County lay on the dividing line between piedmont and coastal plain, so there were no rugged hills, only gently undulating terrain that was sandy loam and easy to work. Agriculture was still the county’s main industry: tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, and soybeans; and much of the land was personally farmed by its owners. There were few absentee landlords using their farms as tax write-offs, but some of Raleigh’s overflow was spilling into the county. Creeping suburbanism created new housing developments; clusters of mobile homes appeared on tree-rimmed fields once plowed by long-eared mules; and sons and daughters who left home to work in the Research Triangle often returned to build a house at the edge of the family farm, preferring to commute twenty-five or thirty miles rather than live in town.
Kate, a native of New York’s congested, boxed-in streets, was amused to hear those returnees complain about Raleigh, a beautiful city of open vistas, oaks, and azaleas.
“Raleigh’s getting too big,” they said. “You couldn’t pay me to live all crowded up like that.”
Nevertheless, she too found herself coming under the land’s spell. Walking with Jake through quiet fields and unpaved wooded lanes, she began to notice subtle differences in leaves and twigs, to discover beetles more colorful than ladybugs, weeds more interesting than cultivated roses. Jake bought her books to identify all the insects, butterflies, and wildflowers with which she was filling her sketchbooks; and back in the city, her agent, Gina Melnick, began to sell the new fabric designs as fast as Kate could produce them.
Once when Kate and Jake were at dinner, an enameled television celebrity passed their table wearing a dress fashioned from fabric Kate had designed. Amusing to contrast the chic New York restaurant with the mossy creek bank where those clumps of brilliant red bee balm grew, yet Kate hadn’t felt superior to the actress who wore a dress splashed with flowers she’d never seen growing wild because Kate thought she was just as dependent on concrete, neon, and doormen as the actress.
Jake had been her common denominator between city and country, and after that dumb, stupid, senseless accident—
didn’t I come down with him?” she flogged herself again. “Morning sickness, the push to finish the repeats I’d promised Gina, that head cold—such trivial excuses!”
And what if she
been here, part of her coolly asked. Even if she’d been out in the woods with him last October, she couldn’t have prevented it.
Jake’s nonchalance with loaded guns was the only thing they really quarreled about.
“It’s your damn machismo!” she would snap.
“Like hell it is! I’ve been hunting since I was five,” he would answer indignantly. “And I didn’t get through eighteen months in Nam without knowing how to handle a loaded gun. You think a squirrel’s going to sit on its haunches and wait for me to load both barrels every time?”
When Rob Bryant called that Sunday afternoon, Kate’s first reaction, before the numbness set in, had been sheer exasperation. She was so angry, she had wanted to beat her fists against Jake’s hard chest and scream, “You stupid idiot! You thick-skulled
I told you so. Oh God, I
If only he hadn’t been so pigheaded. If only she’d nagged him harder, blown her cool.
Kate clasped her hands to keep them from shaking.
“Hey, now, no more of that,” she warned herself sternly. “That’s what started Gina hinting for you to try her analyst. You shake like that in front of Lacy and he’ll cart you off to Dix Hill in a strait jacket.”
Jake’s uncle thought she was the reason Jake didn’t come home to live. Lacy had kept the farm going when Jake’s father died while Jake was in high school. Lacy hadn’t hung on to his own inheritance, but he had been a good steward for Jake’s and he resented her intrusion into their cozy masculine enclave.
“What do I have to do?” Kate had asked Jake. “Why does he treat me like Little Missy from de big house?”
“He’s always been scared of beautiful women,” Jake had grinned. “Don’t worry, Katydid, he’ll come around.”
“Have a baby,” Philip had advised smugly.
Philip Carmichael was Kate’s cousin from the wealthy branch of the family and a New Yorker, too, but he and Patricia had produced Mary Pat and suddenly he seemed less an outsider.
Even Lacy had warmed to Philip. Especially since he and Patricia had restored Gilead, the antebellum mansion which had belonged to Patricia’s family and which had been falling into ruin near the Honeycutt farm. Lacy thought Jake would have done the same if Kate hadn’t kept him in New York.
“As if Jake had Philip’s wealth and didn’t have to work for a living!” Kate thought indignantly.
Well, she’d worry about Lacy later, she decided. Until the baby came—the baby they’d planned for, but had only begun to suspect when Jake died—until then, she would concentrate solely on the present.
No ice on the First-Breath-of-Spring today. The air was sweet with its fragrance. It was the eighth of March and one of those glorious springlike days which still took Kate by surprise even after four years.
Only yesterday, in New York, she’d had to wait for a garage attendant to shovel the sidewalk before he could get her car out, and the Jersey Turnpike had been treacherous with icy patches. Here in North Carolina, though, it was a day for light sweaters and walking through newly turned fields. Fluffy clouds drifted across clear blue skies and the voice of the tractor was loud in the land.
“I was right,” she thought, suddenly relaxing. “Despite all the memories, Gina’s forebodings, or Lacy’s hostility, I was right to come here.”
She held her hands up to the sunlight and was pleased by their steadiness.
The packhouse door stood half ajar and she pulled it open.
The old barnlike building sat on a slight slope. Its large upper room, the striproom, had high exposed rafters. It was spacious and felt dry and airy, even though light entered from only one small window and the open door behind her. The walls and floor were unpainted boards milled from trees Jake’s grandfather had cut. Some of the planks were more than fifteen inches wide and still held the mellow aroma of cured tobacco.
This was where those yellow-gold leaves had been stripped from the sticks on which they had been cured, then carefully sorted by size and color and hand-tied into small bundles before being carried to a warehouse over at Dobbs, the county seat, and auctioned to the highest bidder.
A trapdoor at the far side of the striproom led down to the ordering pit, a sort of half-basement with solid brick walls and dirt floor built into the side of the slope. There, another larger door led directly outside so that tobacco could be packed temporarily into the pit immediately from the curing barn if the leaves were too brittle to handle without shattering. In the cool darkness, moisture from the earth had made the dry leaves pliable again.
With the passing of mules, large families, and year-round tenant help, raising tobacco had become unprofitable without a heavy investment in mechanical equipment. Lacy couldn’t manage alone so Jake had leased all his crop allotments to a nearby farmer, who trucked the tobacco from the Honeycutt fields to his own modern barns. Curing and readying for market had become a simpler, mechanized process.
The packhouse no longer served tobacco, but Lacy still used the pit to age his apple cider.
Well, she certainly wouldn’t interfere with that, Kate thought. The ordering pit had always struck her as a perfect snake hole and Lacy was welcome to its damp cobwebby depths.
She stood in the center of the large room, measuring its potential as a studio. Lacy had exaggerated about the floor. True, there seemed to be a rotten spot under the window where rain had seeped in around the casing and one corner of the trapdoor had broken, leaving a hole about the size of an outspread hand, but otherwise the old planks seemed quite sound.
The one window was on the north wall.
“Rip it out and replace the whole wall with glass,” Kate thought. “I can set up my drawing table there. Clear out all this rubbish and line that wall with shelves. Maybe a sink over here? Running water lines from the house ought not to be too expensive. Replace that light bulb dangling from the ceiling with fluorescent fixtures . . . wonder if there’s a socket for a coffee maker?”
Her blue-green eyes followed the wiring from the light bulb across the ceiling rafters and down the wall to where it disappeared in a dark corner behind a pile of tobacco sticks jumbled onto a bundle of burlap sacks. She tugged at the burlap and several small furry forms skittered across the floor to hide beneath another pile of rubbish.
“Oh, dear Lord! Not rats, too?”
Kate armed herself with a sturdy, four-foot-long tobacco stick. Spiders usually died every fall and snakes at least hibernated from October till April, but rats were a vermin for all seasons. She gingerly poked the burlap.
A big gray Maltese rose and stretched among the burlap folds. The three kittens she’d been nursing when Kate spooked them came scrambling back upon hearing the mother cat’s reassuring purr.
“Why, Fluff!” Kate laughed. “You’re a mother.”
The big farm cat yawned complacently and lifted her head for Kate to stroke her. The kittens were almost exact replicas: the same smoky gray with elegant white bibs and neat white paws. Adorable.