A controversial highway project turns deadly, sending small-town attorney Luke Maxwell into the eye of the storm.
On course for a July release, A TOWN DIVIDED is the next novel in the Mountain Mystery Series. As with the others in the series, this suspense-filled novel stands on its own. All Mountain Mysteries are set in North Carolina with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop. Male and female protagonists work side by side, determined to find the killer(s). Each novel features page-turning suspense, fast-moving chapters, frequent plot twists, and characters you’ll not forget.
– Chapter 1 –
THE STREETS OF RIDGEVIEW had rolled up hours before Luke Maxwell began gathering papers from his desk and stuffing them into a folder. Heading home at a late hour wasn’t unusual for the 38-year-old attorney. It was work that occupied Luke’s time. Since taking over for his late father at Perkins & Maxwell Law Group, he had little time for much else.
Luke stepped out of the office and onto the sidewalk that ran the length of the four-block-long Main Street. With the exception of a couple of taverns, the businesses along both sides of the street had posted CLOSED signs in their windows.
At the far end of downtown, the county courthouse faced up Main Street, seeming to keep a watchful eye over the mountain community. Floodlights reflecting off the two-story white columns made the historic brick structure appear twice its actual size.
Luke pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and locked the double doors of the century-old brick building. Taking a final glance toward Ray’s Sub’n Pub, he looked for friends with whom to share a nightcap. Four cars and two pickups were dispersed along the curb in front of the tavern, but Luke didn’t recognize any of them.
He pivoted in the opposite direction and walked toward the parking lot. As Luke approached the dimly lit lot, the brighter lights of Main Street cast his lengthy shadow before him. In the distance, streetlights at each intersection gradually faded, disappearing where the town met rolling countryside.
A cool autumn breeze caught Luke off guard as he stepped from the protection of the building. He quickly set his briefcase on the sidewalk and buttoned his dark wool coat.
At the far side of the parking lot was the vintage 1960 Mercedes belonging to his senior law partner, Glen Perkins. Other than Luke’s blue sedan, Glen’s car was the only vehicle remaining in the acre-sized lot.
The presence of the Mercedes caused Luke to pause, his eyes nervously scanning the area. Kari Watkins, the office paralegal, and Glen had left work hours earlier, with Kari departing before Glen. Luke certainly didn’t expect to see either of their vehicles.
Luke walked to his car and put his briefcase into the back seat before cautiously approaching Glen’s sedan. He cupped his hands around his eyes as he pressed his forehead to the passenger window. Even on cool days, Glen typically removed his sport coat and placed it carefully in the back seat with his briefcase, but the front and back seats were empty.
If ever there was a creature of habit, it was Glen. Leaving his car in the parking lot at that hour was far from typical, and the odds of Glen walking downtown for a drink were nil.
Luke took his cellphone from his pocket and pulled up Glen’s number. He pressed CALL, tapping his foot on the pavement as he waited. A moment later the muffled sound of a chirping phone came from the driver’s side of the car. Luke hurried toward the noise.
Glen Perkins was facedown on the dark asphalt, his long, narrow body half hidden beneath the Mercedes. Luke’s heart leapt to his throat as he knelt beside the silver-haired man.
Assuming his 70-year-old partner had suffered a heart attack, Luke grabbed Glen’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back, preparing to administer CPR. He then pulled Glen’s jacket to the side and reached to begin aid.
“Shit!” Luke called, jerking his head back.
Glen’s starched white shirt was soaked in blood. Two crimson circles bloomed on his chest. His face was a ghostly grey, and the blood on his chest felt cool and sticky.
Luke reached to his partner’s neck, searching for a pulse. He found none. Jumping to his feet, he scanned the area. Darkness and silence surrounded him. The sound of leaves rattling across the lot in the fall breeze was all that could be heard.
After dialing 9-1-1, Luke bent low to look across the surface of the lot, desperately searching for anything to explain what had happened. In the dim light, he saw nothing.
He stood as someone came on the line.
“Ridgeview County emergency services. What’s your emergency?”
“This is Luke Maxwell. I’m in the parking lot in the one hundred block of Main Street in Ridgeview. My law partner’s been shot.”
“What’s his condition?”
“He’s dead. Get the sheriff out here. Now!”
“Are you safe?”
“I believe so. Just hurry!”
AS LUKE WAITED, his eyes darted up and down adjacent streets. He’d always felt safe in his hometown, but at that moment, he was afraid. Whoever killed Glen might also target him.
Staring down at Glen’s lifeless body, the names of disgruntled clients filed through his head, but no one leapt to the front of the list. He couldn’t imagine any of them being capable of murder.
Glen had dedicated his life to representing people who had nowhere to turn, those lacking the resources to prove their innocence or to fight for what was rightfully theirs. He was considered a pillar of the community.
Luke thought of Glen’s wife, Phyllis. She and Glen had been married 40 years. They’d been friends of Luke’s parents even longer. Glen had been more like Luke’s uncle than his law partner.
The news of Glen’s violent death would send Phyllis to her knees, but Luke had to be the one to tell her. It would be the toughest thing he’d ever done. She’d have questions that he couldn’t answer—the same questions he had.
IT TOOK LESS than five minutes for Ridgeview County sheriff’s deputies to arrive. Two gold and black cruisers raced up Main Street with strobing blue lights ricocheting off storefront windows. The vehicles screeched to a stop ten yards from the black Mercedes. Luke stood at the rear of the car in the glare of the cruisers’ headlights, his coat buttoned tightly and his short, sandy hair standing in the breeze.
Deputy Frank Michaels leapt from the first car with his pistol drawn, aiming it at no one in particular.
In full khaki uniform, the stocky, 40-year-old sported a high-and-tight military haircut and a no-nonsense personality to match. The senior deputy had grown up in the mountain town just like Luke. They shared a dislike for each other that had not mellowed over the years.
“It’s me, Michaels,” Luke called to the beefy-armed deputy. “You can holster your weapon.”
The deputy ignored Luke’s advice and directed the other two lawmen to secure the perimeter of the lot.
“Check along that hedge and behind the law office,” Michaels barked, pointing his flashlight across the parking lot.
The deputies scurried into the darkness under their saucer hats like high-strung beagles on the scent of a rabbit. Michaels approached Luke, still standing at the trunk of the Mercedes. The deputy directed his flashlight at Glen’s body beside the car as he moved closer.
“It’s Glen Perkins,” Luke said.
“Is this how you found him?” Michaels asked.
“He was facedown. I rolled him over to administer CPR. That was before I realized he’d been shot.”
“Did you see anyone in the area before or after you found his body?”
“Not a soul. I was in my office until fifteen minutes ago. Glen left about two hours before I did. I was surprised to see his car in the lot. I’d assumed he was already home.”
“Did you hear shots or see a car?”
“No shots, but vehicles come and go up this street all day and night,” Luke replied. “I noticed nothing out of the ordinary.”
The other two deputies returned. Deputy Rodgers, a stump of a man, leaned forward with hands on his knees.
“The perimeter is clear. No vehicles, nothing suspicious,” Rodgers announced between gulps of air.
Michaels gloved up and knelt next to the body. He pulled a wallet from Perkins’ coat pocket, flipping it open to find bills and credit cards still inside. The other pockets in Glen’s jacket and slacks were empty. Shining the flashlight under the car, Michaels found a ring of keys. He took a pen from his pocket and snared the ring. Standing, he dangled the keys at Luke.
“Whoever it was must’ve ambushed him before Glen unlocked his car. Maybe they hid behind those shrubs over there,” Michaels said, pointing to a three-foot-high hedge along the perimeter of the lot.
“His briefcase is missing!” Luke blurted. “I’m sure he had it with him when he left the office.”
“Did he carry anything of value in it?” Michaels asked.
“Not that I know of. I expect it contained documents for cases he was working on and a thirty-eight Smith and Wesson he carried for protection,” Luke replied.
“A lot of good that gun did him,” Michaels said, looking down at the body. “Was he concerned about his safety?”
“We occasionally send bad people to prison,” Luke replied. “Some have bad friends.”
Michaels shook his head. “There must’ve been something inside that briefcase someone wanted.”
“Or it was just some crackpot high on meth, and Glen was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Luke replied.
“Rodgers, you and Flint tape off the area and wait for the coroner and SBI forensic team to arrive,” Michaels ordered. “I’ll escort Mr. Maxwell to the sheriff’s office to take his statement.”
“I need to let Phyllis know what happened. She has to be wondering where Glen is,” Luke said.
“Sure. Ride with me. We’ll stop by her house, but we can’t stay long. I need to record your statement while the events are fresh.”
“I don’t think having a cruiser pull to the front of her home is a good idea,” Luke said, his steely eyes focused on Michaels. “It’ll spook her and the neighbors. I’ll let her know what happened and then meet you at your office as soon as I can.”
“We need to get her statement, too,” Michaels persisted.
“Give her some time,” Luke implored. “And I suggest you keep an eye on her home tonight.”
HANGING A SHINGLE in his hometown hadn’t been Luke Maxwell’s plan. The sandy-haired, blue-eyed former high school linebacker clerked for Justice Eli Mathers on North Carolina’s Supreme Court after getting his JD from Duke. Dozens of qualified graduates sought the position, but a top-of-the-class ranking and his letters of recommendation landed Luke the clerkship. It didn’t hurt that his father had been Justice Mathers’ roommate at Clemson.
After two years serving at the feet of Justice Mathers, Luke had begun to make his mark in a large Raleigh law firm. The next step of his plan was to head into politics. At six feet tall, with a chiseled jaw and forceful stare, he seemed to be a natural.
Luke’s plans took a turn when Luke Maxwell, Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack. Glen Perkins was in his late 60s at the time and preparing for retirement. Glen convinced Luke that Ridgeview needed the small law office to represent citizens of the rural community. Without Luke, the working-class residents would have nowhere to turn for legal services. That was three years ago. Luke had since taken on most of the caseload for the firm.
The only other employee in the office was Kari Watkins, whose presence provided justification for calling the firm a law group. The no-nonsense brunette had been the secretary, paralegal and moral support for the firm for more than fifteen years. Her youthful vigor, attractive appearance, and dry sense of humor made the office a tolerable place to work.
LUKE PULLED HIS BLUE SEDAN to the curb in front of the Perkins residence. Slightly elevated and set back from the street, the two-story, stone home was impressive by Ridgeview standards. Still, it was nothing compared to where Glen Perkins could have resided had he taken his career to a larger city.
A decade-old dented Chevy Impala was parked in the driveway beneath a light pole. Clear plastic covered a broken side window, held in place with duct tape. Luke recognized the car as belonging to Glen’s son Aaron, who’d been planning to come back for a visit. According to Glen, Aaron once again needed “a little help to get back on his feet.” The 36-year-old ne’er-do-well lived in west Charlotte and always seemed to be between jobs.
Aaron was a couple of years behind Luke at Ridgeview High School. They had little in common other than being single and the sons of law partners. As students, they rarely interacted except at the occasional Perkins/Maxwell social gathering, where Aaron kept to himself, looking like a fish out of water.
Luke had last seen Phyllis Perkins two weeks ago when she and Glen invited him to dinner. As he trod up the sidewalk toward the porch, that dinner seemed so long ago.
Luke rehearsed his words inside his head as he reached for the doorbell.
There’s no easy way to tell you this…
Phyllis, I’m terribly sorry…
Nothing seemed right.
Heavy footsteps came from inside before the door swung open. Aaron Perkins appeared dressed in faded jeans, a blue dress shirt, and worn Topsiders sans socks. What hair he had remaining was short and spiked. A three-day stubble sprouted unevenly across his pudgy face.
“Well. If it ain’t Mad Max,” Aaron smirked.
The nickname was earned by Luke’s aggressive tackling on the high school football field. It had been years since he’d heard it.
“Hi, Aaron. Surprised to see you.”
“If you’re looking for Dad, he’s not here.”
“I have some news for you and your mother,” Luke replied solemnly. “Is she available?”
Aaron’s smirk evaporated.
“She’s in the den,” he said, taking a step back. “What’s this all about?”
“It’s best if I tell you both together.”
Luke followed Aaron down the hallway before turning right through French doors and into the richly appointed study. Lilac air freshener filled the air, futilely attempting to mask years of Glen’s pipe smoke which had permeated the walls and carpet. With embroidered drapes, dark Persian rugs and bulky, ornate furniture, the room always reminded Luke of his grandmother’s parlor.
Mrs. Perkins was seated in a wingback chair with her cellphone resting on her lap. She immediately rose to her feet as Luke entered.
“Where’s Glen? I’ve been calling him all evening.”
With fear in her eyes, her frail arms quivered like a nervous Chihuahua. The southern charm and composure normally displayed by the diminutive woman was gone.
“Please sit down, Phyllis. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Oh my God! Is it Glen?” she cried as her legs began to buckle. Luke grabbed her shoulders and guided her back onto the chair.
“For Christ’s sake, Maxwell, spit it out! Where’s Dad?” Aaron shouted.
“I found Glen about thirty minutes ago. He’d been shot and was lying by his car in the parking lot. There was nothing I could do,” Luke replied softly.
Phyllis clasped her hands to her chest. “He’s dead?”
The slender white-haired woman coiled into a ball and began sobbing into her hands.
“No! Not Glen,” she cried.
Aaron froze, staring at Luke, his eyes the size of saucers. His mouth formed words, but nothing came out. He turned and stepped to his grief-stricken mother. Kneeling, he tenderly placed his head beside hers, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
Luke shuffled back. At that moment, there was nothing more he could do or say. He’d buried his parents within the past three years, and while he could appreciate the pain of losing a family member, the shock of Glen’s death was different. He’d been murdered.
Phyllis pulled back from her son’s embrace and Aaron stood. Still weeping, her eyes rotated up toward Luke.
“Who would do this? Did anyone see what happened?”
“I didn’t see a thing, nor do I have any clue what happened,” Luke replied. “The sheriff’s office is still searching the area for evidence. Deputy Michaels is waiting for me to answer some questions.”
“It was probably one of those deadbeat husbands Dad was prosecuting,” Aaron groaned. “For the life of me, I don’t know why he takes on those two-bit divorce cases. They’re all a bunch of white-trash losers.”
The irony of Aaron using deadbeat and loser to describe someone else wasn’t lost on Luke, but it wasn’t the time to comment. He turned his attention to Phyllis.
“I should get down to the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I asked Deputy Michaels to wait until tomorrow to meet with you. I also recommended he have someone keep an eye on your home tonight.”
“You think we’re in danger?” Phyllis asked.
“I doubt it. But until we know more, it’s best to stay cautious.”
Aaron thinned his lips with a look of resolve. “I dare whoever did this to try and break in here tonight,” he grumbled. “My hunting rifle will be waiting for him.”
Luke ignored Aaron’s bravado and turned back to Phyllis.
“I’m sorry to deliver this awful news and then leave. Call my cell for anything you need. Anything. I can be here in a few minutes.”
“We’ll be okay,” Aaron said, placing his hand on his mother’s shoulder.
“Thanks, Luke,” Phyllis added. “We’ll talk tomorrow. I think I need some time alone right now.”
– 1.3 –
LUKE WAS PULLING into the parking lot across from the sheriff’s office when it hit him.
Kari! I forgot to tell her!
Traumatized after finding Glen, he’d focused on Phyllis, and had completely forgotten about Kari. He whipped his car around and headed back in the direction he’d just come.
KARI LIVED ALONE in a small, cottage-style house at the edge of town where the road turned from asphalt into chipped rock. Her ex-husband left Ridgeview eighteen months earlier with a waitress ten years his junior. Kari’s divorce was finalized the previous summer with an uncontested settlement. Her ex took the couple’s meager savings, and Kari kept the house, along with its $150,000 mortgage.
Luke’s relationship with Kari had evolved over the years. They were in the same high school graduating class, but they didn’t run in the same circles back then. Not until Kari completed her degree at Appalachian State and started working for his father did Luke get to know her. While still in Raleigh, Luke enjoyed discussing his job and politics with her on his frequent visits.
Kari used to kid Luke about being single. “What’s wrong? You think you’re too good to get married?” she’d ask.
Half joking, he’d respond with, “Where could I possibly find anyone like you?”
Their playful banter subsided after Luke took over for his father, and it ceased altogether after Kari’s divorce.
IT WAS APPROACHING 11:00 p.m. when Luke turned into Kari’s driveway. A light pole at the base of the sidewalk cast a dull hue over the yard. Inside, the house was dark.
As he approached the front door, a light came on inside and a face peeked around the picture window curtains. Luke heard the door locks click and then Kari appeared at the doorway, her dark hair loose to her shoulders.
Cinching her robe tightly, she asked, “What on earth are you doing out at this hour? I’d just gone to bed to read.”
“I’m sorry, but this is urgent. Can we talk inside?”
“Sure,” she said, stepping back. “What is it? You’re scaring me.”
Luke led her toward the living room sofa. “Come here and sit down.”
“Just tell me,” she said, sitting next to him. “It’s obviously bad news.”
Luke took a deep breath.
“Glen was shot tonight. I found him in the parking lot on my way home.”
“He’s dead?” she shrieked.
“Who did it? Have they found anyone?”
“No one was in the area by the time I got there. He’d been shot twice.”
Staring at Luke, her bottom lip began to quiver and tears pooled in her eyes. She reached for Luke, buried her face into his shoulder, and began to sob.
“This just isn’t right,” Kari said, lifting her head. “Phyllis and Glen don’t deserve this.”
She covered her face with her hands and continued weeping. Luke stood to retrieve tissues from the hall bath.
After wiping her eyes, Kari crossed her arms to control her shaking. It took several minutes before she calmed down.
“How’s Phyllis?” she asked.
“She’s with her son. She’s clearly shaken, but I think she’ll be alright tonight. I’ll check on her in the morning. I need to go see Sheriff Harper now.”
“Do you want company?” Kari asked, taking a deep breath.
“Thanks, but no. I just need to provide a statement about what I saw tonight.”
Luke reached out and held Kari’s hand.
“Are you going to be okay? I could swing back here after I’m through downtown.”
“I’ll be alright,” she said.
“I hate to ask this, but clients are going to hear what’s happened. I’ll be a few minutes late getting in tomorrow. Could you hold down the fort until I get there?”
“Sure. I’ll see you in the morning.”
SHERIFF JOHN HARPER had rushed to his office after hearing of Glen Perkins’ murder. The lean, 50-year-old lawman with salt-and-pepper hair was waiting at his desk in civilian clothes when Luke entered. Normally upbeat, friendly, and in control, Harper appeared stressed.
Deputy Michaels stood, leaning on the corner of the sheriff’s desk. He gave Luke a cold stare as he entered.
“It’s been nearly an hour. What took you so long?” Michaels asked.
“I told you that Phyllis needed to hear about this from me. It wasn’t easy to get away. I also went to see Kari.”
“How’s Phyllis holding up?” Harper asked, backing off Michaels with a frown.
“She’s distraught, but she’s a lot tougher than she looks,” Luke replied. “I’ve known her and Glen my whole life.”
Luke stepped closer and slumped into a chair facing the sheriff’s desk. Michaels remained standing.
“They are such good folks,” Harper said. “Glen’s death is a loss for the entire town, but especially for his family and you. How’re you doing?”
“I haven’t stopped to think about it. I’ll worry about what to do later.”
“Michaels tells me you didn’t hear or see anything prior to finding Glen’s body.”
“That’s right,” Luke replied. “Glen left the office a couple hours before I did—around six-thirty. It was already dark. My office window faces Main Street, so I have no view of the parking lot.”
“Did either you or Glen have any reason to suspect his life was in danger?” Harper asked.
“No,” Luke replied. “But we are attorneys, and it’s not hard to make a few enemies along the way.”
“Any of them with violent histories or capable of doing this?”
“We’ve defended women against abusive partners, but no cases involving gun violence. Glen had a concealed carry permit, so he must’ve had some concerns.”
“What about you?” Michaels asked sharply. “You own a gun?”
“I have a nine-millimeter Sig in my office desk,” Luke replied with a puzzled look. “It stays in the office. It was my father’s.”
“Is it still there?”
“I assume so,” Luke frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“Just checking all the boxes,” Michaels replied. “We’ll need to inspect it.”
Luke sat erect and turned to Harper. “Is Barney Fife accusing me of shooting my own law partner?”
“Of course not. It’s just a formality,” the sheriff replied calmly. “As an attorney, you know we’d be negligent if we didn’t investigate everyone with connections to Glen.”
“The killer is usually someone who knows the victim,” Michaels added, staring down at Luke.
“Really? And just how many murder cases have you handled?” Luke mocked, knowing the answer.
Michaels’ face tensed.
“Alright, I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same side here,” Harper said, holding up his hands. “Let’s get back to what we know.”
Michaels crossed his arms as he leaned on the corner of Harper’s desk, eyes still locked on Luke.
“Had Glen mentioned any clients, acquaintances, or anyone else he believed was a threat to him?” Harper asked.
“Like I said, most of our cases involve someone who faces financial loss or even jail time if we prevail, but I can’t point my finger at anyone who’s threatened Glen.”
“Surely, you have a gut feeling regarding who might have done this,” Michaels said.
“No. I actually don’t,” Luke replied firmly.
“What’s the highest profile case Glen was handling? Which case presented a motive for someone to kill him?” Harper asked.
Luke frowned and shook his head. “The highest profile case is clearly the Ridgeview County Landowners versus North Carolina Department of Transportation. It’s been in the news for weeks. But I don’t know if it presents a motive for murder.”
“Glen was opposing the highway project. Aren’t there a few folks who stand to make a ton of money if the project goes through?” Harper asked.
“Sure. I imagine so. Cost estimates for the expansion run as high as a hundred million,” Luke replied.
“What about Rand Williams?” Michaels interrupted. “He’s got plenty to gain from the highway project.”
“Rand’s seventy-eight years old,” Luke said, rolling his eyes.
“Still, his retirement village has struggled for years. This new highway may be just the ticket to pump some life into it,” Michaels argued.
Luke frowned and shook his head. “You’re stretching to think Rand Williams is a killer.”
“You can’t deny that he has a motive. And you won’t find a more crotchety son of a bitch in the county,” Michaels said.
“I’m not sure Rand views our two-man law firm as a threat to his retirement community,” Luke replied. “And I doubt he even owns a gun.”
“Could you give us a list of Glen’s current cases?” Sheriff Harper asked. “And just a brief summary of what’s at stake.”
“Sure, I can provide information for cases that have been filed and the names have been made public. But I want to be clear I’m not pointing the finger at anyone–not without more evidence anyway.”
“Right now, we’re just looking for those with a possible motive. Leave it to us to find evidence,” Harper replied.
A rap came on the sheriff’s office door.
“Come on in,” Harper called.
A young uniformed deputy pushed the door open and entered.
“I wanted to let you know we found shell casings on the other side of the hedge near Perkins’ car. It looks like whoever did this ambushed him.”
“What about a weapon?” Michaels asked.
“Nothing yet. We’re still looking. The casings were from a nine-millimeter handgun,” the young deputy replied.
“Good work. Keep searching