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A TOWN IN FEAR

Planned for year-end release, A TOWN IN FEAR is a stand-on-its-own sequel to A TOWN DIVIDED, the latest book in the Mountain Mystery Series.

Luke Maxwell takes on a new evil invading Ridgeview, North Carolina. During the construction of the controversial Route 22 highway, a male body is uncovered near Jill’s Cafe. It’s determined the man was murdered and his body has been there for years. Jill was one of Luke’s clients fighting the highway expansion. She’s accused of the murder and finds herself needing Luke’s legal support once again, sending Luke on a hunt for the real killer.

Please read a draft of the first chapter below. While you wait for A TOWN IN FEAR, check out my other Mountain Mysteries by clicking HERE

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A TOWN IN FEAR

– Day 1 –

Wednesday, Mid-September

THE DIESEL ENGINE of the massive bulldozer roared, belching dark exhaust skyward. With its blade lowered level to the ground, the dozer plowed forward, pushing a mountain of red earth from its path.    

It had been nearly two years since fraud and corruption halted the expansion of Route 22. Those accused of bribery, collusion, and misappropriation of Department of Transportation (DOT) funds had been tried, convicted, and sentenced.

State Senator Mitch Robbins, the political power behind the highway expansion, now resided in Raleigh Central Prison.  He was appealing the 30-year sentence received for his role in the murders of attorney Glen Perkins and Ed Christie, a Ridgeview County tree farmer. Both men had been leading the fight against the highway project at the time of their deaths.

The heated debate surrounding the $100 million highway project had dissipated but hadn’t disappeared.  There were those in the mountain community of Ridgeview, North Carolina excited the highway project was finally underway, while others still feared the four-lane highway would bring big city problems and big-box retailers, destroying the historic downtown businesses and disrupting the town’s slow-paced lifestyle.

Landowners taking legal action against the condemnation of their property had been appeased by increased offers from the DOT and by minor rerouting of the new highway, reducing the amount of property seized.

Located less than 30 yards from the crumbling serpentine road, Jill’s Café was not one of the properties to be saved by route alterations. A convoy of construction equipment reached the business that had been in Jill’s family for three generations. 

Slightly larger than a double-wide mobile home, the roadside café represented no more than a speed bump to the Caterpillar D11 bulldozer.  The 100-ton hunk of diesel-powered machinery pushed the building to the ground like an NFL fullback cutting through a schoolyard. 

Once demolished by the dozer, it took less than a dozen bites from a front-end loader to lift the twisted remains of the diner onto a line of waiting dump trucks.  Three generations of family history were erased in the time it took to consume Jill’s hungry man’s breakfast plate.     

The bulldozer continued to level land near where the café had stood, taking out trees, road signs, storage sheds, and the three-room cabin where Jill had lived the past fifteen years. A large oak that stood guard to the rear of the property presented the first challenge to the D11 dozer. 

The operator perched atop the mountainous machine, wearing a snug tee-shirt, aviator sunglasses, and silver helmet, lined up its eight-foot-high blade against the base of the gnarly tree. He revved the CAT C32 diesel engine, transferring more than 600 horsepower to the treads of the dozer.

The D11 lurched forward, pressing against the century-old tree. The tree cracked and moaned, but didn’t give way. The operator backed off and approached the stubborn tree at a different angle. After a couple more confrontations with the bulldozer, the tree lost its battle to live, toppling to the earth with a thud heard miles away.

A box about three feet square had been unearthed near the tree’s massive root ball. The operator backed the dozer away and idled the engine.  Placing two fingers to his lips, he blew a shrill whistle, raising the attention of a survey crew working nearby. Pointing to the base of the tree, the dozer operator waved a surveyor to come inspect what had been uncovered. 

Shovel in hand, a stocky man in jeans, khaki work shirt rolled to his elbows, and orange vest stepped toward what appeared to be a metal box the size of a footlocker. The box remained entangled in a web of roots.

The surveyor stepped forward for a better look. He took off his silver hard hat and wiped his brow with a handkerchief from his pocket as he studied the object. He then began to scrape away dirt and roots with his shovel.  The shovel bounced off the side of the sturdy box with loud metal-to-metal clanks.

“What is it?” the operator called down.

“Can’t tell, but whatever it is, it’s solid,” he called back.

The barrel-chested surveyor bent down and continued to clear away dirt with his gloved hands.  A short time later, he uncovered a metal handle and what appeared to be a large keyed padlock securing the door. Standing, he looked up at the dozer operator with a puzzled face.

“I can’t see any writing, but I think it’s some kind of safe,” he yelled over the idling engine.

“This D11 will crush whatever it is,” the operator called back. “See if you can get a backhoe over here to clear it from my path.”

The surveyor flashed an okay sign and strode back toward his crew to report what he’d found. 

Fifteen minutes later a flatbed truck and a tractor equipped with a frontloading bucket and backhoe pulled next to the unearthed safe. The tractor driver lowered the front bucket and side stabilizers before stepping from behind the wheel and taking the controls of the backhoe at the rear. 

He stretched the arching arm of the backhoe toward the metal box and slowly slipped the teeth of the large bucket underneath.  He then lifted the heavy container from the ground, swung the arm toward the waiting truck, and carefully lowered the safe onto the bed.  The truck settled under the weight of the box.

The orange-vested surveyor hopped atop the flatbed as a tall, lanky man wearing a Braves ballcap stepped from the truck cab to get a closer look at his new payload.  The two men continued to scrape away the dirt caked on the sides of the box.

“This is definitely a safe or maybe even a bank vault,” the surveyor said, twisting and pulling at the handle and the badly corroded padlock. “But why the hell is it buried way out here?”

“Let’s cut it open. Maybe there’s something inside that answers that question,” the truck driver replied.

“We need to talk to someone at DOT headquarters before we go cracking this safe,” the surveyor warned. “I’m not even sure who owns it now.”

“The landowner sold out. This safe is property of the North Carolina DOT now,” the truck driver argued, lacking any knowledge of what he was saying. “I could get it torched open in no time back at the service depot.”

The stocky surveyor stood, shaking his head.

“I need to get back to work.  You can do whatever you want with it, but make sure you report what you find to your supervisor.”

“Yeah. Sure,” the driver smirked.

The surveyor pulled his cell phone from his front pocket and casually snapped a picture of the rusted safe and then one of the truck driver.

“Don’t trust me?” the driver asked, crossing his arms.

“I do now,” the surveyor replied before sticking his phone back into his pocket and climbing down from the truck bed.

***

A SANDY-HAIRED MAN dressed in worn jeans and dark tee-shirt sat in a silver RAM 4×4 pickup parked on a side road just off of Route 22.  From his elevated position a half mile away, the construction near Jill’s Café was clearly visible.

With camouflaged binoculars pressed to his deep-set steel-blue eyes, he peered toward the construction activity through the open driver’s side window. Recognizing what had been loaded onto the bed of the truck, he lowered the field glasses and scowled.

“Shit,” he grumbled as he pulled a red bandana from his pocket and rubbed the sweat from his tanned neck.

Beer cans, crumpled pretzel bags, and candy wrappers littered the floor of the pickup. The narrow-faced man with an ungroomed five-day beard had camped the past three mornings on the side road, waiting for highway construction crews to reach the café.

He lifted the binoculars to his face a final time and watched the DOT flatbed truck pull away. He tossed the field glasses to the passenger seat. Frustration showed in his eyes as he rubbed his hand over his sandpaper beard.

Chasing the truck wasn’t an option.  The construction equipment and mounds of earth presented sizeable obstacles.

What could I do even if I caught up to the truck? he wondered.

His plan had not been well-thought, but he learned what he needed to know.  The safe had been found.

He started the engine of his pickup, and slowly pulled onto the highway.  He then followed a detour around the construction before heading back to the roadside motel where was staying just outside of Winston-Salem, thirty miles from Ridgeview.

***

THE FLATBED TRUCK pulled into a DOT roadside service area three miles from where the box had been unearthed. Mechanics and engineers busily reparied trucks and earthmoving equipment beneath a 20-foot high metal canopy that covered an area the size of a large gas station. 

The driver stepped down from the truck cab and scanned the area, looking for a familiar face.

“Hey, Scottie,” he called to a short, stocky man with a dark welding visor tilted back atop his head.

Scottie turned toward the driver and set down his tools.

“Hey, Frank. What the hell brings you in here?” he asked, stepping toward the tall, lanky driver.

“This safe was uncovered up the road.  It was buried behind a diner that was leveled earlier this morning,” Frank said, pointing to the three-foot-square box.

“Interesting, but why bring it here?”

“I was hoping you could help me cut the lock to see what’s inside.”

“I don’t know.  We’re swamped today,” Scottie said, motioning with his arm toward the activity.  

“It’s almost lunch time,” Frank said, undeterred. “How about you pull that acetylene torch over here, and after you crack this safe open, lunch will be on me.”

Scottie frowned and checked his watch.

“Italian beef and fries?” he asked.

“Sure. And I’ll throw in a Coke.”

Frank followed Scottie and helped him pull the large cutting torch from Scottie’s work area to beside the truck.  Still wearing the heavy visor, protective vest, and gloves, Scottie climbed onto the truck bed.  Frank grabbed a spare visor from a work bench before joining him.

Scottie gripped the corroded lock on the safe to assess its strength.

“It’s a heavy tungsten,” he said, “but I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

After lowering his visor, he turned on the gas and struck a starter at the tip of the torch.  A hissing blaze leapt from the end. Using the control knobs on the handle, Scottie adjusted the yellowish fire to narrow blue flame.

White molten sparks sprayed into the air like a Roman candle as Scottie aimed the cutting torch at the lock. It took less than a minute to complete the task. The burning red padlock fell to the bed of the truck. Scottie kicked it a safe distance away.

Frank stepped forward and reached his gloved hand to the handle of the safe.  He strained to twist it open, but years of rust and corrosion held it fast.

“I’ll get a mallet,” Frank said, crawling down from the truck.

He returned a moment later with a five-pound iron hammer.

“Stand back,” he warned.

The six-foot tall, angular truck driver struck the safe’s handle with a full swing, but it didn’t budge.  Again, he reared back and lowered the hammer. He could feel the handle give ever so slightly. The third impact from the mallet finally broke it loose. The metal pinions holding the iron door shut spang open. 

With the safe on its back and its door facing skyward, Frank pulled on the handle with all his strength. His sinewy muscles bulged from his long forearms. The corroded hinges kept the door from swinging open.  He was only able to crack the seal slightly.

“You have a crowbar?” Frank asked.

Scottie slipped off the heavy visor and his gloves and went to a nearby work ench.  He returned with a 5-foot-long iron bar.

Frank inserted the tip of the bar into the crack in the door and pressed down, using all his 180 pounds of weight.

Scottie leaned to get a close look as Frank forced the door open, but he quickly reared backwards as the stench from inside the safe reached his nostrils.   

“Holy shit!” the stocky mechanic shouted.

Frank dropped the iron bar to the truck bed and stood erect. He stared into the open safe, unable to utter a word.

A body was stuffed into the three-foot-square space. The skeletal remains were bent into a fetal position with the skull pressed between the knees, and the arms folded across the ribcage.   

Only the man’s boots and belt provided any indication of the body’s sex. All soft tissue had long-since decayed. What clothes remained were thin and frayed, draping over the remains like a transparent shroud.

The two men stood silently, staring at each other for several seconds.  Without speaking, Frank reached into his pocket, pulled out his cellphone, and dialed 9-1-1.

1.1

LUKE MAXWELL WAS WRAPPING UP another long day in his one-man law office situated in a century-old brick building at the base of Ridgeview’s Main Street.  The former high school linebacker and Duke Law grad took over for his deceased father several years earlier at Perkins & Maxwell Law Group, joining Glen Perkins.

Perkins, Luke’s senior partner, was murdered nearly two years ago over his role representing the Ridgeview County landowners in their battle with the DOT. Powerful people responsible for Glen’s murder didn’t like him standing in the way of the Route 22 expansion.

The name on the front of the law office still read Perkins & Maxwell Law Group, but Luke, a 40-year-old, sandy-haired, square-jawed attorney, now handled all the cases. Kari Watkins, a long-time friend and paralegal with the firm, was the only other employee.

***

“LUKE, I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Jill Stevenson, the owner of Jill’s Café, was frantic as she placed a call to her friend and attorney.  Dressed in faded jeans and snug blue tee-shirt, the fit and normally feisty 41-year-old paced the kitchen of her new apartment, nervously pulling at her straight blonde hair with one hand while holding her cellphone in the other.

Moments earlier, Jill received a distressing phone call from Deputy Frank Michaels. He and the Ridgeview County coroner had taken possession of the safe discovered on Jill’s former property. In a judgmental tone, Michaels demanded that Jill come to the sheriff’s office for questioning.

“You’ll never believe what’s happened,” Jill continued. “Deputy Michaels said they found a body buried behind my café.  He’s asking me what I know about it and wants me to come to the sheriff’s office pronto.  They can’t put me jail for this, can they?”

“Whoa. Slow down,” Luke said. “Who found what and when?”

“This morning, during the demolition of my café, a large safe were uncovered at the base of the oak that stood to the rear of the building,” Jill continued.

“Was there any identification on the safe?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know. Michaels didn’t say.”

“You said a body was found.  Who discovered it, and who contacted the sheriff’s office?”

“I didn’t get names, but construction workers at the site uncovered and cut open the safe. A decayed corpse was found inside.”

“Any idea how long the safe had been there?” Luke asked.

“How the hell would I know?” Jill shouted, losing what little composure she had remaining. “I don’t know anything about this!”

“Where’s the safe and body now?”

“Michaels said the safe is on a DOT truck.  They are locked in a garage beside the sheriff’s office.  That crazy cop wants me to view what was found and let him know if I recognize anything.”

“Did Michaels say anything else?”

“Only that he needed to talk to me ASAP and I should plan on spending the rest of the evening answering questions.”

Jill inhaled deeply before slowly releasing her breath. The longtime business owner, who’d fought the DOT seizure of her café for months, was on the brink of breaking down. 

“You gotta help me!” she called out.

“Try to stay calm,” Luke said. “I’ll meet you at the sheriff’s office.”

“Just because this body was found on my property doesn’t make me guilty. They can’t arrest me for something I know nothing about, can they?”

“Of course not,” Luke assured.  “The questioning is standard procedure.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.  I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

***

TWO YEARS AGO, LUKE MAXWELL represented Jill Stevenson and several other Ridgeview landowners in their fight against the DOT’s eminent domain condemnations of their properties, taking over these cases after Glen Perkins was murdered.

In the end, Jill gave up her legal battle, accepting the DOT’s offer of $300,000 for her café and land.  Luke couldn’t help wondering if the safe and its contents had some connection to the highway project.

Luke had begun clearing his desk when Kari Watkins stepped to his open office door.  As was usual for the end of a long day, the strong-minded, green-eyed paralegal had removed her shoes and piled her thick, dark hair atop her head with a large clip.  

“What was that all about?” she asked.

“Just when I thought the dust had settled on this highway project, I get this bizarre call from Jill Stevenson.”

“What’s up with Jill? I saw her yesterday, and she was excited about opening her new Main Street diner this weekend.”

“You might want to take a seat,” he said.

Kari’s face fell, reacting to Luke’s serious tone.

“Jill’s okay, isn’t she?” Kari asked as she settled into a worn leather office chair near Luke’s desk.

“Construction workers out on Route 22 uncovered a locked safe buried on Jill’s property this morning. A man’s decayed body was inside.”

Kari’s hands clenched as her head snapped erect.

“What the hell’s going on around here?” she asked. “I can’t believe Jill has anything to do with this.”

“She denied knowing anything and seemed to be shaken. Michaels told her to come in for questioning.”

“If she doesn’t know anything, why call her in?” Kari asked.

“You know Michaels. He wants to appear in charge.”

“ln charge? Yeah. Right,” Kari mocked.

“I better get over there before the overzealous deputy shackles Jill to the interview table,” Luke said, rising from his desk. “Why don’t you close up, and I’ll see you in the morning?”

***

LUKE HAD DRIVEN the four blocks from his law office at one end of Main Street to the Ridgeview County Courthouse at the other end hundreds of times. He rarely remembered the short drive. His mind was usually focused on a client’s case and what awaited him inside the courtroom. This drive was no different. 

He pulled around the historic two-story brick structure, with its two white columns supporting the front portico, to the sheriff’s office situated behind the courthouse.

Jill was seated in the lobby of the sheriff’s office with her arms crossed. She looked up with weary eyes when Luke entered.  She was still dressed in faded jeans but had exchanged her blue tee-shirt for a white blouse. The slim, blue-eyed blonde did not fit the profile of a prospective felon.

“Have you spoken with anyone yet?” Luke asked.

“I told Deputy Michaels I preferred to wait until you arrived. He’s inside with Sheriff Harper.”

Deputy Michaels stepped out of Harper’s office.

“I thought I heard your voice,” he said to Luke. “I’m surprised that someone claiming to know nothing about this body has already requested an attorney.”

Luke gave Michaels an icy stare.

“Your unfounded implication of guilt is clear reason why I’m here,” Luke said calmly. “Where would you like to conduct the questioning?”

Michaels frowned.

“The sheriff wants to hear this.  Come into his office,” Michaels ordered.

Luke and Jill followed the beefy-armed deputy into Sheriff Harper’s office.  Wearing a crisply pressed khaki uniform, the paunchy 50-year-old sheriff with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair rose from behind his desk to greet Luke and Jill.

Unlike his deputy, Harper’s face was welcoming as he extended his arm toward the side chairs.

“Please have a seat.  Hopefully, this won’t take long,” he said.

Nervous and confused, Jill glanced at Michaels whose condemning frown remained fixed to his face.

“Deputy Michaels has filled me in on what was discovered, as well as what he and the coroner have learned thus far,” Harper began. “But I’d like to hear what, if anything, you can tell us about how this vault and body came to be buried behind your business.”

“I already told Deputy Michaels I have no idea how the safe got buried there.  I’ve nothing else to say.”

Jill looked to Luke seeking reassurance.  He nodded.

“Ms. Stevenson, that safe is a couple hundred pounds. It would have taken several hours to bury it that deeply, maybe even requiring construction equipment,” Michaels blurted. “I find it hard to believe someone could sneak behind your café and bury the safe without the owner of the establishment being aware.”

“Well, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jill replied, her voice cracking.

“Have you or the coroner established any time frame as to when the safe might have been buried?” Luke asked. “Has the condition of the corpse or anything else inside the safe provided any information?”

“The SBI forensic team out of Greensboro just arrived minutes ago.  They are analyzing the safe and its contents,” Michaels replied. “They’ll also be investigating the location where the safe was buried, but it’s unlikely anything useful will be found there.  The crime scene has been pretty much wiped out.”

“So, the answer to my question is no.  You haven’t established any timeframe,” Luke said.

“No. Not yet,” Michaels replied, his arrogant tone diminished.

“So, as far as you know, this safe could’ve been rusting in the ground for more than fifty years,” Luke summarized as if already defending a criminal case.

“Luke, there’s no cause to be so defensive,” Harper said. “We just want to understand what Ms. Stevenson might know.  She isn’t being charged with any crime.”

“She’s told you twice that she knows nothing about this.  I would think your focus would be on establishing a cause of death and a time frame instead of harassing a respected citizen of this community.”

“Ms. Stevenson, are you sure you don’t recall any unusual activity at the base of that tree? Did you ever notice the earth being disturbed for any reason?” Harper asked.

“No. I’ve never seen anything unusual,” she replied.

“I think you’ve bothered Ms. Stevenson enough for one day,” Luke said, leaning forward with a steely-eyed frown.

“I apologize for any inconvenience caused by asking you to come in. It was not our intent to harass you in any way,” Harper said. “We’ll get back to you when and if it becomes necessary.”

Luke calmly turned to Michaels.

“Please contact me in advance if any follow-up is needed with my client,” Luke said.

The deputy’s neck was a warm red as he pressed his lips together tightly.

“If we find out the safe was buried during your client’s ownership of the café, you can count on a call,” Michaels said.

Luke stood and escorted Jill back to the lobby.

“I don’t expect we’ll hear anything soon,” Luke said. “But if I do, I’ll call you immediately.  In the meantime, I wouldn’t worry about this.”

“That safe had to be buried after the café was built,” Jill said, her voice still tense. “The business was started well before I was born. Do you think my dad could be involved?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Luke said. “Let the SBI forensics team do its work.  I’m sure there’s an explanation for what’s happened, and it’s likely one that doesn’t involve you or your family.”