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Authors: Margaret Maron

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Death's Half Acre

BOOK: Death's Half Acre
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2008 by Margaret Maron

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Grand Central Publishing

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at
www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com
.

First eBook Edition: August 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-53788-9

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Deborah Knott novels:

HARD ROW

WINTER’S CHILD

RITUALS OF THE SEASON

HIGH COUNTRY FALL

SLOW DOLLAR

UNCOMMON CLAY

STORM TRACK

HOME FIRES

KILLER MARKET

UP JUMPS THE DEVIL

SHOOTING AT LOONS

SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT

BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER

Sigrid Harald novels:

FUGITIVE COLORS

PAST IMPERFECT

CORPUS CHRISTMAS

BABY DOLL GAMES

THE RIGHT JACK

DEATH IN BLUE FOLDERS

DEATH OF A BUTTERFLY

ONE COFFEE WITH

Non-series:

LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER

BLOODY KIN

SUITABLE FOR HANGING

SHOVELING SMOKE

For Rebecca Blackmore, Shelly Holt, and John Smith with deep appreciation for their time, their wisdom, and their endless generosity

E
ASTER MORNING

I
nside the windowless Church of Jesus Christ Eternal, the Easter Sunday sermon is drawing to a close. Although Mr. McKinney has been known to preach for two hours or more when thoroughly aroused, services usually end around noon. Thinking that she hears a winding-down tone in his voice, the teenage pianist quietly turns the pages of her hymnal to the closing hymn the preacher selected at the last minute. An odd choice for Easter, she thinks. Not that it is hers to question, but the other hymns celebrated the resurrection while this one harkens back to the cross and is less familiar to her than some.

The thorns in my path are not sharper / than composed His crown for me;

The cup that I drink not more bitter / than He drank in Gethsemane.

She has to squint to see the shaped notes because the fluorescent tubes overhead are flickering and buzzing again. She has been told these are cheaper than regular light fixtures, but the flickers hurt her eyes.

Not for the first time, she wonders why they couldn’t have windows here in the sanctuary. Surely God’s natural light would be so much better? But Dad says Mr. McKinney vetoed colored glass as too costly, and clear glass would rob them of their privacy.

“I don’t think we’re likely to have peeping Toms,” one of the deacons said when they were first shown the blueprints for their newly founded church, but Mr. McKinney reminded them of the Biblical injunction to pray in secret, “And thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”

“Besides,” said another, “without windows, it’ll be cheaper to build and more economical to heat and cool.”

All of this her father reported with approval. When their old church split down the middle because the more worldly members wanted to spend the Lord’s money on new carpets and pew cushions, Mr. McKinney announced his intentions of building a plain church out of his own money, a church where God would be worshipped in deeds and sacrifice, not with creature comforts and ornamentation. Her dad’s favorite saying is “Look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves,” and he likes it that Mr. McKinney feels the same way.

Her mom is less impressed. She has heard that Mrs. McKinney comes from money and that it is actually her inheritance that built the church even though Mr. McKinney has never said so.

From her seat at the piano, the girl can look out over the congregation while appearing to pay strict attention to the sermon. Last Sunday the pews were filled with dark colors and heavier fabrics. Today the girls and women wear colorful spring dresses and she feels pretty in her own sky-blue dress.

And there is Mrs. McKinney, seated on the front pew, looking almost pretty herself in a neat navy blue suit. The suit itself is old, but her high-necked white blouse is edged in crisp white lace and looks new. Her long brown hair is brushed straight back from her face and held at the nape of her neck with a matching navy blue ribbon. No lipstick, of course. Mr. McKinney does not approve of makeup, though several of the women shrug their shoulders at that and her own parents let her wear lipstick as long as she stays with pastel shades.

Idly, she wonders what it would be like to marry a preacher and always know the right thing to do. Probably nothing like marriage to the tall handsome boy who makes her feel confused and stupid whenever she goes into the barbecue house where he waits tables in the evenings. Not that she is allowed to date yet and not that her parents would let her date one of the Knott boys anyhow. They want someone safe and reliable and average for her.

Mr. McKinney is average—average height and average weight, although he is beginning to get a little potbelly and the shadow of a double chin. He has more hair than a lot of men his age and he is not particularly handsome, but his deep-set blue eyes seem to look from his soul straight into hers and his voice has the range of an organ. That voice can reduce a sinner to tears, it can stir the righteous to anger over society’s moral lapses, it can soothe and comfort the afflicted.

As if reading her thoughts, the preacher’s voice changes and she realizes that he is not winding down after all. Instead, his voice introduces a new subject and he goes from talking about Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection to the Easter lilies massed around the pulpit, which he compares to the colorful new clothes that bloom on the women today.

The lilies are here to celebrate the rebirth of Christ, he tells them. Pure, white, and chaste. Then, in a voice that holds more sorrow than accusation, he asks the women to examine their hearts. Do they wear their new spring clothes to honor Christ or is it from sinful pride? A desire to put themselves forward?

“Remember the words of Paul.” After taking a sip of water, Mr. McKinney turns the pages of the large Bible in front of him and begins to read from Timothy II, “ ‘Let women adorn themselves in modest apparel with Godly fear.’ ”

All around the sanctuary, the feminine eyes that had been fixed on the preacher begin to drop. Even the pianist feels a pang of guilt because yes, when she looked at herself in the mirror this morning and was pleased by her reflection, there had been no praise for Jesus in her heart, only sinful pride at her trim waist and the way the dress fit smoothly over her small breasts. Stricken, she looks at her mother, seated near the back in a new pale green suit-dress. She has not lowered her eyes, but continues to look back at the preacher without shame and with nothing but attentive interest on her face.

“ ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjugation,’ sayeth Paul. Silence not only of the tongue, but of the body as well, not calling attention to one’s dress. ‘For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, was in transgression.’ Dear sisters and daughters in Christ, I cannot look into your hearts today and know the transgressions there. Only you and your Lord can say if you dressed with pride or to honor the risen Lord Jesus. I can only repeat the words of Joshua: ‘As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.’ ”

He pauses to take another sip of water. “Paul says, ‘If a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?’ My own wife knows my thoughts on this matter and dresses appropriately. Proverbs 31. ‘Who can find a virtuous woman? Her price is far above rubies.’ ”

Several eyes turn toward Mrs. McKinney, whose head is bowed now, her face red with embarrassment at being praised and made the center of their attention.

“As a child obeys its father, so does a virtuous wife obey her husband. Whatsoever I ask of her, she will do, whether or not she sees the wisdom of it. Why I could spit in this glass of water and ask her to drink it and she would obey.”

Then, to the teenage pianist’s horror, the preacher spits into the water and holds the glass out to his wife. “Come, Marian.”

From her seat on the piano bench, the girl sees Mrs. McKinney’s eyes widen. There is a stricken look on her plain face and she shakes her head in bewilderment as if she cannot understand his words.

“Marian?”

Tears well up in the woman’s eyes when she realizes that he is serious. “Please, husband, no,” she whispers. “Don’t make me do this.”

Implacably, he continues to hold out the glass. “A husband does not
make
his wife do anything,” he says. “He lets his wishes be known and she submits graciously of her own free will as God has commanded.”

The congregation sits in utter silence, holding its breath.

Slowly, Marian McKinney comes to her feet. Tears stream down her cheeks and her face crumples with the effort not to break into sobs. Each step to the altar seems an effort of will. At last, she takes the glass and raises it to her lips, and the girl sees her gag. Then, with eyes clenched tightly shut, she forces herself to drink.

As she stumbles back to her place on the front pew, Mr. McKinney beams. “This is my beloved wife in whom I am well pleased. Let us pray.”

His words roll out over the congregation and in their name, he thanks the Lord for the gift of blood that cleanses whiter than snow and for the promise of eternal life to those who love Him and honor Him and keep His commandments.

When everyone stands for the singing of the final hymn, the pianist suddenly realizes that her mother is no longer in the church.

CHAPTER 1

. . . this is life, and there is no theory for it . . .

—Fiddledeedee,
by Shelby Stephenson

N
INE DAYS LATER

T
uesday morning’s light mist lay over the field of young tobacco. It softened the air and turned the tall pines beyond into gray shadows of themselves. The recently turned earth gave off an honest aroma that was sweet to the old man who stood motionless to take it all in. Another year, another spring. Here in late April, the plants were only knee-high with no hint of the pink blossoms to come, their leaves still small and crisp and deep green. Everything fresh and young.

Everything but me
, the old man told himself.

One of two dogs beside him nudged his hand with a muzzle that had, in the past year, become almost as white as his master’s hair. The man looked down with a rueful smile. “Yeah and you, too, poor ol’ Blue.”

He scratched the dog’s soft-as-velvet ears, then the three of them ambled slowly on down the lane that circled the perimeter of this field. Cool early mornings used to mean the beginning of another day of hard sweaty work—fields to plow, animals to tend, the hundred and one backbreaking chores that make up a farmer’s daily life.

Back at the house, Sue and Essie would be fixing breakfast, rousting the boys out of bed, asking the older ones to fill the woodbox and feed the chickens, sending the younger ones off to school . . .

BOOK: Death's Half Acre
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