Read High Country Fall Online

Authors: Margaret Maron

Tags: #FIC022000

High Country Fall

BOOK: High Country Fall
7.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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 © 2004 by Margaret Maron

All rights reserved.

Mysterious Press

Warner Books

Hachette Book Group, USA

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

First eBook Edition: August 2004

ISBN: 978-0-446-50739-4


Author’s Note

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

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Deborah Knott novels:











Sigrid Harald novels:













In memory of Sara Ann Freed (1945-2003) who graced so many lives.


I am a flatlander, born and bred, so there is no way I could have sent Deborah Knott to the mountains of North Carolina without the generous help of many people. I am particularly grateful to Harriette Buchanan, P. M. Sharpe, Celeste and Johnny Blankenship, and especially Kaye Barley, who not only brought key news-paper articles to my attention, but also gave me a grand tour of her part of Appalachia and answered a hundred e-mail questions.

Special thanks also to Davidson Neville, who very patiently explained the intricacies of business-related insurance policies.

Without the watchful eyes of District Court Judges Rebecca W. Blackmore, Shelly S. Holt, and John W. Smith of the 5th Judicial District Court (New Hanover and Pender Counties, North Carolina), Judge Deborah Knott would probably commit reversible errors every time she held court. I am forever in their debt.

Lafayette County is an amalgam of several regional counties, and Cedar Gap is a completely fictional town there. Any resemblance to a particular town or county is strictly coincidental. (I know I’ve said the same about Colleton County, but this time it’s true!)

Margaret Maron
Johnston County, NC

The Great Smokies are the largest single mountain range in eastern North America. Even so, they are but a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes up the Southern Blue Ridge Province.

So, if you live in the Smokies region, you can wake up every single morning and say to yourself: “Well now, here I am in the general area of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range on the western front of the Southern Blue Ridge Province, a part of the Blue Ridge Province, one of the four provinces in the Southern Appalachians, a part of the Appalachian Mountains, which are probably named after a Florida Indian tribe.”

George Ellison
Smoky Mountain News
Waynesville, NC
14 February 2003


Fog was so thick in the lower elevations that Dr. Carlyle Ledwig had his windshield wipers on the slowest setting to swish away the fat droplets that formed on the glass and obscured the road ahead. With visibility almost down to zero, he crept along at thirty-five miles an hour, though he often hit sixty on these straight stretches in nicer weather.

From beside him, Norman Osborne chuckled. “All you need’s an orange on your license plate and they’ll think you’re from Florida.”

Ledwig grinned “I
from Florida. Remember?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Well, from New York then.” The big man sat back in the passenger seat of Ledwig’s SUV as if he were lounging in his leather executive’s chair down in Howards Ford and looked over at his friend. Ledwig’s hair wasn’t nearly as gray as his, but neither of them was young anymore. “Driving in fog’s like a foretaste of senility, isn’t it?”

“How do you mean?”

“Can’t see behind you, can’t see ahead.”

“Not the worst way to be.”

Osborne gave a sour laugh. “You ever wonder what your old age is going to be like?”

“If I got my dad’s genes, I’ll be playing eighteen holes of golf twice a week at eighty-five, the way he still does. If I got my mom’s, I’m due for my first stroke any minute now.”

“Not before we get home, okay?” said Osborne. “I don’t want to wind up one of those car wrecks off the side of this mountain, where they don’t find us for eight or ten years.”

He was silent for a moment, as if contemplating what such a death would mean to his wife. Then he shrugged. “Ah, what the hell? Dead’s dead, isn’t it?”

“Maybe. But we’ve both got a whole lot of living left to do.”

At that instant, Ledwig drove out of the fog and into sunshine. Above, the sky was a cloud-dappled blue. The road flattened slightly and curved west. To the right, the shoulder dropped off into white nothingness; ahead, tall trees lined the street, and the first hints of autumn colors were beginning to spread their sheltering glory above the immaculate houses on the front edge of Cedar Gap. A huge maple caught the light so that every other leaf seemed veined in gold, but beyond that, a two-hundred-year-old oak was still completely green. It was a scene right off one of the postcards sold in the souvenir shops along Main Street.

“God, I love this town!” said Ledwig.

“It gets prettier every year,” Osborne agreed.

“Worth every battle we had to fight,” Ledwig said complacently, remembering all the hours both of them had devoted over the years to getting a planning board in place. They’d had to twist a few arms and make a few enemies to convince local businesses to agree to some rules and restrictions for the greater good of Cedar Gap, but this was their reward: a prosperous and picturesque town whose beauty drew thousands of visitors from early spring to late fall, a mountain jewel whose desirability extended to enclaves of expensive vacation homes in the surrounding hills and hollows.

In gardens behind the low stone walls, summer’s zinnias had begun to fade while fall’s blue asters and clear yellow chrysanthemums headed for their bright peak. The houses became larger and closer together. Small green wooden signs neatly lettered in gold announced that here was an antique store, there was an upholstery shop selling designer fabrics, and over there, three Victorian bed-and-breakfasts in a row. So discreet were the signs, one could almost forget that these were now commercial establishments, no longer private homes.

Ledwig rounded the curve where Main Street formally began and his complacent smile darkened into a scowl as it always did the moment he saw that dilapidated log building on the right with its raucous red-and-white decorations that would clash horribly with fall’s oranges and browns when leaf season began. The shabby cedar siding, the rusting drink signs, the broken paving of the parking strip out front—everything about the place irritated him beyond all reason.

“Want to stop?” asked Osborne. “Make one more try?”

“That’s what you said last week,” said Ledwig, but already he was slowing and looking for somewhere to park.

The Trading Post was a blatant eyesore that sold fast food and tacky souvenirs. Like a slovenly old moonshiner who sits around in his dirty overalls and dribbles chewing tobacco on his yuppie daughter’s white carpet, the place was an embarrassment to the little town’s carefully cultivated image of taste and beauty, yet there was seldom an empty parking space around it. As if to mock him, a red Mercedes pulled out from the curb. Ledwig slammed on the brakes and immediately put on his turn signal to claim the spot. It took a little hauling and backing, but he eventually wedged his SUV into the tight slot.

“Remind me what our last offer was,” Osborne said as they stepped aside for a knot of tourists munching on hot dogs.

“A million-three,” said Ledwig.

“You game for a million-four?”

“Hell, we’re neither of us getting any younger. Try a million-five and let’s lean on him, tell him what we did to Sam Tysinger.”

For a moment, Osborne’s mind blanked, then he grinned. He’d always had an infectious smile and several of the tourists smiled back.

They found the elderly proprietor at the back of the store shelving plastic souvenir moonshiner jugs filled with honey from local bees. He wore a red plaid flannel shirt, bib overalls, and clodhopper shoes, in a deliberate parody of a flatlander’s conception of a mountain hillbilly. As they tendered their newest offer, he continued to shelve the honey with unconcealed impatience until Ledwig made a less than subtle reference to the planning board.

“You threatening me?” he snarled then.

“Not threatening, Simon,” said Dr. Ledwig. “Just pointing out that the town commissioners are not going to let this situation go on forever.”

“I was grandfathered in,” Simon Proffitt said, swatting the air as if shooing pesky dogflies. “I’ve got the right setbacks. I ain’t encroaching on nobody’s property. Hell, I even took down ol’ Cherokee Charlie and he were a historical landmark, so you two can go screw each other ’cause you ain’t screwing me over another inch.”

“Think about it, Simon,” said Ledwig in his most persuasive voice. “You’re pushing eighty, you have no children. What’re you hanging on like this for? You don’t have to work this hard. You could take the money, go trout fishing every day, sit on the porch with your banjo, enjoy life.”

enjoying life.” He turned to them with an evil grin. “Twisting you’uns’s tails gives me more pure pleasure than your million dollars.”

“Enjoy it while you can,” said Osborne, dark menace in his tone.

“I surely do intend to.” The old man opened his office door, reached inside, and pulled out a double- barreled shotgun. “Wouldn’t advise either of you’uns to come back here again. Ol’ Jessie here’s got something the matter with one of her triggers.”

The gun fell from his gnarled hands. It hit the floor and one of the barrels exploded, sending birdshot skittering across the floorboards into his office. One pellet ricocheted back out into the store and pinged off Ledwig’s shoe.

“Jesus, Simon!” he yelled.

Excited babble broke out at the front of the store, but the voice of a crotchety woman clerk cut across the exclamations. “Dammit all, Simon! You drop that thing one more time and I’m gonna wrap it around your neck ’fore you kill somebody.”

“Ain’t nothing but birdshot,” Proffitt called down to her. “Ever pick birdshot out of a man’s shin, Doc?”

But he was speaking to their backs.

“You’re just lucky it landed like it did,” his clerk scolded, coming with broom and dustpan. “You could’ve hurt somebody.”

Simon Proffitt just grinned. Luck had nothing to do with the way he’d dropped the gun. He took the broom the old woman shoved at him. Worth sweeping a little birdshot out of his office if it finally made them two think twice about pestering him to sell again.

Sunny waited for him on the large shaded porch with the makings of his favorite drink near the lounge chairs. Her eyes questioned him as he came up the steps and paused to give Ledwig a parting salute before turning back to her.

“Well?” she asked.

They had been married for more than twenty-five years, so Norman Osborne did not need to speak. She read the answer in his face.

“Oh, God!” she whispered, fear tightening around her heart.

“It’s gonna be okay, darlin’,” he promised, opening his arms to her. He held her close and breathed in the sweet fragrance of her hair. “It’s gonna be okay. I’ll call Bobby and Joyce tomorrow. Tell ’em I’m ready to deal.”

“What about Carlyle? Will he—?”

“Ol’ Carlyle doesn’t have to know a thing. Who’s gonna tell him? Not me. Not you. The Ashes’ll keep quiet till it’s a done deal, and after that—?” He shrugged. “After that it won’t much matter, will it? And if anybody ever asks, you didn’t know a thing. You got that?”

She nodded, trying to hold back the terror she felt, but tears streaked down her cheeks. “I only wish . . .”

Again he put his arms around her. “I know, darlin’. Me, too. But from here on, we suck it up and play all the cards we still got, okay?”

BOOK: High Country Fall
7.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Wayward Son by Heath Stallcup
Dead in the Water by Woolland, Brian
Your Wish Is His Command by Fennell, Judi
The Darkest Embrace by Hart, Megan
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
A Bad Boy for Christmas by Kelly Hunter
Paper Cranes by Nicole Hite
Influenza: Viral Virulence by Ohliger, Steven