Detective Tucker had always
heard that if you were going to sin, figure out who to tell or join the Catholic Church, even here in the Bible belt. Past
sins denied were to the psyche like a web woven in the night poised to smack you in the face on that narrow trail.
headed back to his partner in the idling county vehicle. Tiny warning hairs on the back of his neck quivered, signaling danger.
Thunder roiled loud and long, echoing a gut feel that something criminal was about to happen.
He looked back over his shoulder. Lightning crackled overhead then
focused full force on a tree not a hundred feet behind him. Tucker stuck his fingers in his ears when the resulting boom reverberated
in the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway underpass.
Acrid smoke from a newly blacked streak
down the length of a large poplar snag filled his nose but no fire broke out. He bolted down the highway berm as the lightning-struck
dead tree, not a hundred feet away, crashed down as if directed straight at him. Close call, he thought, as the jolt of adrenalin
passed through him.
At least the rain held off, a relief after twenty-eight straight days
of downpours in these North Carolina mountains. The official three-year drought was over. The unusually hot eighty degrees
made the place feel dank and damp as a rain forest. Graves, his partner, answered a call and motioned Tucker to the county
Tucker punched the voice mail button on his cell phone while jogging the last few yards to
the county vehicle.
“I swear I’m not involved,” Jemma’s message
said. Tucker buckled his seat belt as Detective Graves drove the patrol car. He put Jemma’s message on speaker phone.
“Someone keeled over in the game room at Blue Falls Ranch. I called 911 to get the ambulance. Come quickly. A nurse
attending our photography club meeting is doing compressions. I’ll get the defibrillator. Something’s not right.”
Her voice relayed an undercurrent of excitement Tucker had learned meant her CSI wannabe tendencies had kicked in. “He’s
my age, in his 30s, healthy, friendly. We think it’s poison. Gotta go. I’ve moved everyone but the nurse out into
the dining room.”
Jemma Chase had called his cell phone and left that message while he’d
nearly been zapped by lightning. He concentrated to stop the grin that his partner said came on his face every time he heard
her voice. Graves confirmed that dispatch directed them to proceed to the scene. The investigation of vandals painting the
underpass could wait. Wish they’d grow up and find a real life, he thought as Detective Graves drove the steep winding
Elk Creek Road down the mountain to Triplett Valley. The road dropped a thousand feet in three miles to the lowest point in
Watauga County, around seventeen hundred feet in elevation. Another murder, suspicious death, according to Jemma. She’d
had enough experience in that area to know. Tucker gripped the overhead handle to stabilize himself while Graves took the
last three curves a little too fast. Luckily, no other vehicles approached on the narrow sixteen foot wide asphalt road.
no rain but lots of thunder and lightning when they drove on to the Blue Falls Ranch property, under the rustic sign supported
by hand-hewn posts imbedded on either side of the gravel road. A couple of horses dashed madly toward the barn, tails high,
within the white rail fence in the pasture on the right. A pond with benches and trees glistened between the corral and circular
drive. The ranch road followed a fast flowing creek for the first quarter mile then veered to the right. A wide circular drive
led to the two-storied log lodge, reminiscent of the national park lodges out west. Five rustic duplex cabins sat back from
the winding creek. Tucker glimpsed Jemma’s own cabin on the far side of the creek, off by itself.
and Graves split up and quickly photographed all the vehicles parked outside the lodge, including the jumble of cars, with
portable red lights attached to the roofs, belonging to first responders. Never knew which evidence was key in a suspected
homicide. If it proved to be a natural death, all that was lost was some time and effort.
the dozen steps up to the main lodge then ran up them and into the lodge, heading to the game room. He nodded to Jemma’s
parents, the ranch owners, standing outside the dining room. Tucker’s own heart thumped when the first responders applied
the defibrillator shock to the man on the floor, someone he’d known for a long time. The upper body jumped inches off
the floor with the jolt. He could have sworn he saw Scott’s haint hover above his body then float away. Too much coffee.
Too many ghost stories told around the wood stove when he was a kid.
around the game room while the whine of the defib recharge filled the silence.
and papers littered three tables near the body. At Tucker’s glance, the first responder shook his head, confirming what
Tucker already knew. The second jolt hadn’t restarted the heart. Too young to die. Scott Barker had gone to school with
Tucker’s younger cousin. He’d have to call Scott’s parents once he was officially pronounced by the Medical
Examiner at the hospital. The ex-wife should be told, too, he thought as he photographed the body. Years of experience had
made the task familiar but not easier. He could hand off that job to someone else but he’d been friends with Scott.
The photos might reveal information about who and why someone wanted Scott dead.
Then he joined
Graves in the dining room. Smart of Jemma to clear the scene of unnecessary people. Jemma stood apart from the two quiet groups
clustered over by the coffee pot. A nod in her direction was all he allowed himself. Couldn’t think about their last
night together, had to focus. He’d sort out the “conflict of interest” argument with the Chief later. Jemma
did have a knack for being around the only unnatural deaths in Watauga County lately. At least this time she’d called
911 immediately and then called him. She’d better leave the investigating to him. He was in charge. Tucker walked over
to his partner, Graves. “You take the six in the group to the left. And Jemma. I’ll take the other group.”
A rotund man with a military stance offered his hand. “How Is Scott? I’m Harold, president of this photography
“We would like to talk to each of you separately.” Tucker shook the hand then
diverted everyone’s attention. “Please have a seat and refrain from talking.”
What’s happened? Is he dead?” Harold persisted.
“He’s not responding.
This is routine. We’ll get to you as soon as we can. You, too.” He nodded at Jemma. The ambulance arrived, the
paramedics consulted with the first responders then loaded the body onto the stretcher and carried it down the steps to the
Tucker pulled aside the lead paramedic. “Be sure to have the
M. E. take both cut and pulled hair samples and nail clippings. He’ll have to send his poison testing results to Chapel
Hill.” Tucker frowned. “I’ll leave the choice of which poisons to request since I’m not sure.”
The paramedic wrote in a notebook and left.
Graves wrote down the names of those who responded
to the call. The first responders left at the same time since they had not been on site at the time of the possible crime.
Jemma’s parents returned to work for the same reason.
Tucker called to update the
Chief, request forensic and patrol assistance and have an officer meet the ambulance at the hospital to establish a chain
of custody and collect the clothes and personal effects for possible trace evidence. The county force was small and underfunded
for the area they had to cover, but they’d learned to work with what was available. Sending evidence to the state lab
would take weeks, maybe months for results. Scott’s family shouldn’t have to wait that long. If the autopsy showed
poison, or failed to show an obvious natural cause of death, Tucker’s investigative skills would be tested.
the dining room members of the photography group grumbled but shuffled to separate tables. Tucker pulled out a sheet of paper
from his pad and handed it to the closest person. “We appreciate your help and will get you out of here as soon as possible.
Where was everyone sitting?” He drew the three tables and the chairs as they were currently arranged in the game room.
The drawing was passed to a few people who filled in the blanks, others crossed off some of those and filled in different
names, then the diagram was returned to Tucker.
Tucker returned to the game room. An incomplete
jigsaw puzzle covered a table in one corner. Hundreds of books filled bookcases; DVDs littered shelves. An old fooseball game,
a pool table and a ping pong table dominated the far end of the room. A large TV was behind the sheet used as a make-shift
screen for the PowerPoint presentation. How many ranch guests had used this room over the years? He took numerous photographs,
knowing they wouldn’t get much forensic evidence from the well-used room. He concentrated on the three tables used by
the group then sealed the room behind him to preserve it for their forensic guy.
Tucker permission to use the ranch office to talk with witnesses. Graves used the front porch. Jemma must have alerted her
aunt Alma because no one entered the dining hall from the kitchen. Alma was probably worried about delaying supper for the
guests. He’d do his best to clear everything except the game room before the six o’clock supper time.
would you like to go first?” At his nod, the two went into the small office next to the dining room.
shook the judge’s hand. He was Tucker’s height, a little over six feet, mid-fifties, sixty pounds overweight,
and had gray hair at the roots indicating he was overdue for a dye job. Under that good ole boy exterior ran a man whose job
had become too routine.
“How are plans for the re-election going?” Tucker asked
as he and the judge settled into two chairs set at an angle to each other near a well-used wooden desk. Tucker dropped a writing
pad on the corner of the desk.
“Fair. It’s a little early yet. The wife’s more excited
about it than I am. She loves the dressing up and parties part of the election year. We’ll have to invite you to the
next one.” The judge leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head.
the body language as puffing himself up, faking comfort and nothing to hide. “I went to one of your pig pickins last
election. You had Elvis sing for us.”
“We’ll probably book Clinton again this
year. He’s right fine entertainment.” The judge’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. He probably evaluated
Tucker as closely as Tucker did him.
“Tell me something about this photography club.”
judge dropped his hands to his stomach and interlocked his fingers. “It’s been around for about five years. I’ve
been a member for two. We usually meet at the Watauga County Library but some other group had signed up for the meeting room
in this time slot.”
“How did it end up being held here?”
Chase volunteered the place. She joined a few months ago.”
Tucker nodded slowly. To
another investigator, such a scenario could have her setting up for a kill by taking advantage of a setting she knew well.
Tucker knew she’d never do anything to harm her family’s guest ranch. “You never know about people’s
hobbies. How’d you get interested in taking pictures?”
“The wife and I took
a vacation to the Caymen Islands. When we got back, I realized I’d photographed every sunrise and sunset. Love those
brilliant colors. I saw an announcement about the meeting in the paper and decided to keep taking pictures.”
jotted down a few notes, Caymen Islands, bright colors. “How well did you know Scott?”
judge sat up in the chair, pulled in his legs and rested an arm on the desk. “I wondered how long it would take you
to get around to that. He must be dead, and not from natural causes.”
down at his notepad then looked back at the judge. Silence many times worked well to get someone to talk. The Chief would
want to know every word spoken here.
“I been knowing him for years. His daddy and
I were friends at Appalachian State. We’ve been to a lot of the same events since he’s the newspaper reporter-photographer.”
me what happened in there.”
“We generally have a business meeting, take
a short break, then have a presentation by one of us or a guest speaker. A half hour into the presentation, Scott threw up
and started convulsing. Almost hit me with his spewing and I was two chairs down from him.”
there anything else different about this meeting?” Sometimes he got more from casual conversation than hard questioning.
People saw things without realizing it.
“Not that I noticed. At the break, some of
us gathered around Scott to see his Best in Show trophy from a Grandfather Mountain photography contest.”
The judge nodded. “Those
of us sitting near him. Jemma went to the kitchen earlier to bring out the coffee urn right before the break. I remember because
I almost dozed off during the business part of the meeting. The smell of coffee tugged me awake.”
you enter the contest?”
“Not this year.” A flicker of disgust crossed the judge’s
face. “My wife forgot to put the application in the mail. By the time I checked on it, the deadline had passed. She’s
a great woman but sometimes gets too busy with her volunteer work. I’ll send in the application myself next year.”
The judge put his hands on his knees and sat up straight.
Tucker took the hint, figuring
he’d ask more questions once he had more information. “Would you mind coming to the sheriff’s department
tomorrow to sign a statement?”
“Sure. It’ll give me a chance to visit
the chief. I’ll check my calendar and let you know what time.”
him out and watched him gather his things and leave before motioning to Tammy Portsmith, next on the list, to follow him to
the office. Her handshake was strong; she was small, maybe five-two, athletic walk, forties and not afraid to show her toned
upper arms, trim, probably efficient.
“What started you in photography?” he
asked as she turned the chair to face him directly before she sat.
eyes brightened. “Let me show you some of my latest.” She reached into her large bag and brought out a slim photo
album. She pointed to a black saddlebred.
Thanks to Jemma’s influence, Tucker
thought he recognized the breed. What he’d learned about horses long ago at his family’s farm had faded until
Jemma came into his life.
“She’s the one I ride most weekends. She’s boarding
at the stables in Blowing Rock.”
“Is this a photo of you?” He looked closely
but couldn’t tell. The rider wore a helmet and had her back to the camera.
A friend took this with my camera. Unfortunately, she waited too long but it shows the ring. I took First in that event. I’ve
been competing at the Blowing Rock Horse Show every year since I moved here four years ago. I’ve won the last two years
and plan to do so again this week.”
Add competitive to her list of attributes. “Congratulations.
You must be a good rider.”
She hesitated, then smiled. Was that from modesty or something else?
Tucker pointed to a bag on the floor. “That’s a bit big to be lugging around.”
disappeared. “It doubles as an emergency kit, a nurse’s occupational hazard. Working in a doctor’s office
I see all kinds of injuries. I have eye wash in addition to a first aid kit. I like to be prepared.” She put away the
photo album, zipped closed the bag, and held her hands on her lap.
“What happened in there?”
Tucker nodded his head toward the game room.
“Scott won an award and we congratulated
him. After the coffee break, he had convulsions.”
He paused but she didn’t elaborate.
“Exactly what did you do before he fell off the chair.”
Tammy licked her lips and
frowned. “I tried to save him. Everyone will tell you that.” Her hands remained clasped on her lap.
nodded and waited for her to tell the “before” rather than the “after.”
see. I sat a few seats over from him. At break, I stood and stepped over and admired the eight by ten framed photo of a young
fawn he held up. I patted him on the shoulder and told him it was a beautiful photo.”
down notes, then looked at her. “Did you enter the same contest?”
most of us did. But I didn’t win anything. I was happy that one of us won.” She kept eye contact with Tucker.
with horses but not photography? “What did you do next?”
“I went to the bathroom,
came out and picked up some coffee and one of those Carolina Delight bars Jemma brought out. She invited us all to come by
the ranch any meal time and taste some of her aunt’s good cooking. The meeting started again, Aaron began his talk on
photographing ghosts. After a while, Leslie yelled ‘help’. Scott vomited then went into convolutions. We put him
on the floor. He stopped breathing. I checked for pulse and yelled for someone to call 911. I set up the defib Jemma brought
and help arrived quickly. I got out of their way.” She remained still and composed.
sounded as expected, like a nurse’s report of facts. “Mind if I see what’s in your bag?”
face froze momentarily. “I certainly do. No telling what contaminants you have on your hands. What a strange question.”
The knuckles of her fists turned white.
“The first place trophy is missing.”
Tucker looked pointedly at the bag. Slow and easy, he reminded himself. Some things can’t be rushed.
didn’t take it. It’s probably on the floor somewhere in the game room.”
No, but he’d
make a point of checking the restrooms. “I’ll need for you to come to the sheriff’s center and sign a statement.”
At her nod, he asked her to send in the next person. He jotted down notes, slid the page behind the others and noted the time
on a clean sheet of paper. Thunder boomed overhead, and Tucker heard the splash of rain on the roof as the next person came
in and shut the door behind him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure. Call me Aaron.
Isn’t this exciting? And disturbing, of course. I expect Scott will be haunting this place soon.” He adjusted
the chair a couple of inches to an angle, sat and hung his manbag over the back of the chair. “Now, how can I help you?”
didn’t offer to shake hands, was of medium build, Tucker’s height, shaggy brown hair, slight lisp, moved a bit
like a girl and was in his mid-thirties. He picked up a paper clip from the desk and threaded it through his long, manicured
fingers. His gaze was direct, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
me what happened in there.” Aaron reminded Tucker of one of his cousins, always well dressed and the girls loved him.
They didn’t seem to mind that he preferred to date other guys.
“Let’s see. The
usual group attended, even with the long drive down that dreadful road. Did you notice that everyone is slovenly dressed,
with the exception of me and you, of course? City ways are still with me even after two years.” He dropped the paper
clip and tugged at the collar of his shirt.
“Where are you from?” Couldn’t
quite place the accent.
“Atlanta. And you?” Aaron dropped his hands to his thighs
and rubbed them.
Was he flirting? “I’m from here. What do you do for a living?”
acquainted questions? How quaint.”
Taunting a detective wasn’t a good
move, Tucker thought.
“I’m a dental hygienist. My dear mother’s idea and
it has worked out fine for me. Have you always wanted to be a detective?” Aaron’s hands were never still. They
danced with his words.
Tucker tapped his pen on the note pad. “I’ll ask the questions.”
forgive me. I’m a better listener than talker. I sat right next to Scott. At break I heard catty Tammy say, ‘You’d
better enjoy the spotlight now because I’ll win next year.’ As if her photography even approaches the quality
of Scott’s. Her composition is mundane, her knowledge of lighting is – sorry, I’m off track.”
me what you did.” Give him something to go on.
“I told him why I thought his photo
won, then moved aside to hear other comments. I think people like an audience when being praised, don’t you?”
His question was earnest.
shook his hand and slapped Scott on the back and almost knocked him down.” Aaron’s lisp thickened momentarily.
“Old army guys have to do the manly thing, don’t you know? We both stood there while Summer congratulated him
and then I left and went for desert. The delight of oatmeal, chocolate and peanut butter in one bite. You have to try one
before you leave. Are you married?”
“No,” Tucker answered automatically,
distracted by the change of topic. “Are you?”
“Lord no. I only asked
because I plan to get a copy of the recipe and was going to give you a copy. You don’t look like the type who likes
to cook, but you can’t go by looks.”
“Sometimes they are strong indicators.”
don’t tell all. After the break, I started my program. I guess the rest of it won’t happen today. It can’t
go to waste, I’ll contact Harold right now and reschedule. Anything else?” He reached behind him for his manbag,
prepared to leave.
“I’ll need you to sign a written statement. Leave your
He took a card from a pocket in the bag. “Here’s my business
card. Call me any time, about any thing.” Aaron laughed at his own come-on and left.
stopped about the time a square-shouldered man entered the office. The man had a take-charge handshake, was in his seventies,
shorter than average, balding.
“What do you want me to do?” Harold asked in a loud voice
while dropping into the chair.
Mentally Tucker added “hard of hearing”
to his description.
took pictures as soon as Scott started having convulsions, even caught him throwing up. Would have videoed it but my digital
memory was low so I took a series of stills. Shot the whole room, even you when you walked in the door. I’ll send them
to you.” Harold took off his cap emblazoned with the logo from a Viet Nam unit and set it on the desk.
Jemma has her laptop, could we load them onto it now?”
“Glad to be of help.”
Harold handed over his camera.
Tucker left the room, motioned to Jemma and said in a low voice, “Do
you have your laptop with you?”
“It’s in the kitchen.”
these photos, will you?”
“Sure, Gator, anything for you.”
Tucker loved that she was as tall as he and watched her long legs walk away too long before turning back to
the man in the office. He’d become accustomed to the nickname, short for “investigator,” she’d given
him. Those were the same words she’d said the other night at his place.