"The dark humor, a small community in a regional mystery, and a strong supporting cast of believable characters will appeal to Margaret Maron's readers." Library Journal STARRED review
Towns like Gainesboro, North Carolina, may be small but go big on local traditions. When funeral director and part-time deputy sheriff Barry Clayton and his childhood nemesis, Archie Donovan, Jr., unite to create a fundraising float in Gainesboro's annual Apple Festival Parade, what could go wrong? With Archie involvedanything!
First, the Grand Marshal, NC Secretary of Agriculture Graham James, is attacked by a gunman and Barry's Uncle Wayne is critically wounded in the melee. The assailant is killed. Then, when the body of a convenience store owner is discovered less than an hour later with the gunman's food stamp card in his wallet, the case escalates. Two men dead. What is the connection?
Barry and Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins swiftly learn their small town offers no protection against big-time crime. The body count rises as the scope of their homicide investigation crosses into the realm of the U.S. Marshals and their secretive Witness Protection Program. To penetrate its walls, Barry and Tommy Lee resort to a most unlikely ally: Archie. Is the insurance agent, generally a victim of his own hare-brained schemes, capable of breaking the case, or will Archie find a way to become another of its casualties?
The trio's secret undertaking into a convoluted conspiracy becomes a fight for survival in a world filled with betrayals where it's impossible to know which people to trust.
About the Author
Mark de Castrique grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina where many of his novels are set. He's a veteran of the television and film production industry, has served as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte teaching The American Mystery, and he's a frequent speaker and workshop leader. He and his wife, Linda, live in Charlotte, North Carolina. www.markdecastrique.com
Read an Excerpt
"I want you to put me in jail." Archie Donovan, Junior, sported a wide smile as he made the request.
I stared at him in disbelief. "What?"
The two of us sat in the back booth of the Cardinal Café where Archie had urgently summoned me for a mid-morning cup of coffee. He'd walked from his insurance office and I'd strolled the few blocks from our funeral home, wondering with each step, what harebrained scheme he would propose. It looked like I wasn't going to be disappointed.
"Yes, Barry. You're a deputy sheriff."
"Well, it's still official when you're on-duty."
"I'm not now."
Archie shook his head. "I don't want you to arrest me now. It will be at the parade."
I slid farther back in the booth, glancing around to see if anyone was overhearing our ridiculous conversation.
"Archie, you want to give me more background before I say no?"
Archie and I had known each other since grade school and in those years we'd been as compatible as oil and water. In junior high, Archie had dubbed me "Buryin' Barry" because my family lived in Gainesboro's one and only funeral home. The name had stuck through high school, and even today a former classmate might rib me in public. In short, Archie could push all my buttons without even trying. Now that we were both in our mid-thirties, I'd come to realize he wasn't mean, he was just tone deaf to the impact of what he said. That never stopped him from talking.
He leaned across the table. "Now, you support the Boys Club and Girls Club of Gainesboro, right?"
"Yes." I recognized his strategy of getting me to start saying yes before the poisoned-pill question was sprung.
"And you agree that they help mold young lives so the kids don't wind up in your jail?"
"Of course. Just get to the point."
"I want to raise money to help them. Through the Jaycees float in the Apple Festival Parade."
"By being arrested?"
Archie's eyes gleamed. "By being bailed out. Everyone thinks it's a great idea."
I restrained myself from asking who everyone might be.
Archie took a sip of coffee and then pushed the cup aside. "All right. Let me start over. I'm chairman of the Jaycees charity committee that's responsible for raising money. You know, like the annual haunted house."
"Bad example," I said. One year, at Archie's insistence, I'd lent the Jaycees a casket for the Halloween fundraiser, only to have a man murdered in it.
He shrugged. "Well, then not like it. Everything will be out in the open. The float will feature kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs and I'll be on it, standing in a mock jail, wearing one of those old-timey striped prison suits. The lettering on the float will say 'Free Archie and help our kids.'" He spread his hands as if the beauty of his proposal was now self-evident.
"I get it. People raise your bail for charity. How much?"
"Ten thousand dollars."
I whistled softly. "I don't know, Archie. That's a lot of money. How long can you stay on the float?"
"Just for the parade. Then I'll go to your jail. I'll post pictures on Facebook. I bet Melissa Bigham and the Vista will want to follow my progress. Every morning the paper could run an update." His eyes brightened even more. "Maybe list donors and corporate sponsors. How much will the funeral home kick in? It's great publicity."
I signaled time-out. "None of this is my call. You can do what you want with your float, but the jail's another matter. Tommy Lee has say over that, not me."
"But the sheriff listens to you. And he's always doing outreach programs. It's a win-win, a no-brainer."
Both expressions grated on my ears. "Win-win" reduced everything to a game, and "no-brainer" meant some decision was being made by someone without a brain. I took the easiest exit I could find.
"All right. I'll ask Tommy Lee, but no promises." I made a show of looking at my watch. "Sorry. I've got to go. Appointment at eleven."
Archie's smile vanished. "Someone die?"
The smile returned. "Good. I was afraid it was one of my policyholders. When they die, they stop paying their premiums."
I wondered how much money could be raised to keep Archie in jail.
* * *
As I neared the funeral home, I spotted a silver Mercedes parked in one of the handicapped spaces near the ramp to the front door. My eleven o'clock appointment had arrived early. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem because my partner, Fletcher Shaw, would have covered for me. But young Fletcher had taken the week after July Fourth for a vacation in the Bahamas with his girlfriend. He'd confided that he hoped to bring her back as his fiancée.
I quickened my stride and looped around the lot to come in through the back porch of the old antebellum home. Mom stood at a counter in the kitchen, wearing an apron over one of her Sunday dresses, arranging an assortment of cookies on a china plate. A tray with service for coffee was on the kitchen table.
"There you are," Mom said breathlessly. "Mrs. Sinclair showed up thirty minutes early. I was still in my housecoat."
My mother lived upstairs, where she and my father had raised me, their only child. After Dad died, I tried to convince Mom to move to a retirement community but she would hear nothing of it.
She set the cookies on the table with the coffee. "Fortunately, Wayne was still here and took her into the parlor."
Her brother, my Uncle Wayne, had moved upstairs a few months ago after selling his home in the county. If anything offered the possibility of encouraging Mom to join a retirement community, it was being under the same roof as Uncle Wayne. Although they loved each other dearly, they clashed over everything from politics to which blossoms made the best funeral arrangements. Mom was short, round, and cheery. Wayne was tall, slim, and skeptical. He was mid-seventies; she mid-sixties and forever the little sister. The only thing they shared in common was a headful of curly, cotton-white hair. And the belief that I was the smartest son/nephew in the world.
"Is he still with her?"
Mom rolled her eyes. "If he hasn't run her off." She lifted the coffee tray. "Bring the cookies and we'll see."
I followed her out of the kitchen and down the hall to the parlor. Before we were halfway there, I could hear Uncle Wayne speaking at the decibel level common to those who are hard of hearing.
"It's a crime, I tell you. I just don't want you shocked when you hear how much."
I tensed. Uncle Wayne must have jumped to providing cost information, something that was supposed to be left to Fletcher or me. My uncle quoted prices from memory — from 1975. And he apologized for them. I wondered how much damage I'd have to undo and whether Mom's homemade cookies would make our guest more amenable to whatever adjustments would be necessary.
"Barry's here," Mom called, as she crossed the threshold. "And I brought coffee." She set the tray on the table in front of our guest who sat on the sofa. Uncle Wayne was in a wingback chair angled across from her.
Mrs. Sinclair looked grateful for the interruption. She wore a gray skirt and a white blouse with a small rounded collar. The top two buttons were unfastened to reveal a pearl pendant hanging from a delicate gold chain. She started to rise, but I shifted the cookies to my left hand and offered my right.
"Please don't get up, Mrs. Sinclair."
"Janet, please." She stood anyway.
Her grip was firm.
"And thank you for the coffee. Black will be fine."
I set the cookies on the table and stepped back so Mom could pour.
"We were just getting started," Uncle Wayne said. "I was telling her how outrageous it is what the newspapers charge for an obituary. I mean when someone leaves this Earth, that's a news event. The family shouldn't be expected to pay for it any more than a sports team should pay to post the score of a game."
Janet Sinclair looked bewildered by the comparison, and I worried if she envisioned her loved one sandwiched between a stock car race and the local shuffleboard tournament.
"Wayne, can you help me in the kitchen a moment?" My mother wrapped her demand in the veneer of a question, but even Wayne understood he had no other option.
"Certainly, Connie." He stood and gave a slight bow to our guest. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Barry will take good care of you."
I remained standing until they left and then took the chair my uncle had vacated. Janet Sinclair took a sip of coffee and I took the chance to examine her more closely.
She appeared to be in her mid to late forties. Her pale skin had a hint of blush on her cheeks. Her black hair was cut short and a stark contrast to bright blue eyes. Those eyes were free of crow's-feet. If she'd had cosmetic surgery, it was excellent. The only discernible indications of age were lines along her neck where the skin wasn't as tight.
Unlike so many bereaved who came to our funeral home, Janet Sinclair gave no sign she'd been crying — no running mascara, no tissues clenched in tight fists. All she'd said when she'd spoken with my mother earlier was could we meet at eleven. Her early arrival suggested an urgency that hadn't come through her initial request.
"I'm sorry to show up a half hour before our appointment," she said. "I was to meet our insurance agent, but he'd evidently been called out of the office."
Archie, I thought. He'd been so excited about his parade appearance that he'd skipped out on a client.
"That's all right. Any questions about what my uncle might have told you?"
She smiled. "No. He was waiting for you. He was lamenting the cost of obituaries because I asked if you handled them."
I made a mental note to tell my mother that Uncle Wayne hadn't strayed off the reservation after all.
"Yes, we can coordinate that for you. Has there been a death? I'm sorry but I don't know the circumstances of your visit."
"I guess you could call this fact-finding. I'd like to make preliminary arrangements for my husband and me."
I eyed her more closely. She looked healthy. Perhaps her husband was gravely ill and she wanted to make suitable plans for both of them.
"Why don't you describe what you and your husband think you would like? Then I'll know what suggestions might be appropriate."
She nodded. "Is our conversation privileged?"
"Like with a lawyer or a priest."
In my years in the funeral business, no one had ever asked me that question. My father had told me he had met a few terminally ill husbands who wanted to keep their conditions from their wives as long as possible, but Dad told them he'd never lie if asked directly.
"There's not legal protection," I said, "but we do adhere to a strict level of confidentiality. If for some reason I had to appear in court under oath, I would have to reveal the substance of our conversation."
She pursed her lips, not happy with my answer.
"That will be the same for any licensed funeral director," I added. "But we don't gossip. As long as you're not requesting anything illegal."
She arched an eyebrow. "Illegal? Like what?"
"Well, like a burial on land not approved for cemetery use. One man loved to hike and wanted to be interred at an overlook in Pisgah Forest. Sprinkling ashes is one thing but a grave and headstone is something else."
"Nothing like that," Janet Sinclair said. "But we will be going back north to a cemetery outside of Paterson, New Jersey."
"If you'll give me the name of a local funeral home you'd like to use, we'll be happy to coordinate."
Her emphatic tone surprised me.
"Well, we can step out of the picture and you can deal directly with the Paterson funeral home for transportation."
"No, just you. I can give you the name of the cemetery so that you can contact them directly."
I sat quietly for a moment, trying to figure out why she'd avoid a local funeral home in New Jersey. And why she wanted this conversation to be privileged.
She sensed my reluctance. "My husband, Robert, wants us to be buried with his parents, but there's a family rift. We own our plots outright so there's no legal issue." She gave a humorless laugh. "His siblings never visit the graves, so they may never even know we're there."
"Okay. I understand." I told her that, but I'd never known a family feud to be so vehement that it extended beyond death.
"Wonderful, Mr. Clayton. It will be a comfort to my husband."
"How's his health?" I asked. "Was your visit today prompted by a medical condition?"
"No." She hesitated, weighing a decision whether to say more. "I was reviewing our life insurance and that just got me thinking. If you would go ahead and give me an estimate, I'd appreciate it. I'll give you the address of the cemetery, but please don't contact them yet. Put in what you think will cover everything. For both of us."
"But I don't know what they'll charge for opening a grave."
She tapped her foot nervously on the carpet. "Then make a general inquiry. Tell them you have clients thinking about burials there, but that you're going to be handling everything. When the time comes, either my husband or I will give you full instructions." She paused as her voice choked. "Or if both of us were to die in a car or plane crash, our attorney will send the information."
She relaxed. "And then would half up front be sufficient?" I smiled. "That's not necessary. We don't encourage prepayment plans. I recommend you set the money aside in your own account. Let's hope it will be there a long time."
Her eyes teared. "I wouldn't count on it, Mr. Clayton."CHAPTER 2
The Paterson cemetery bore the bucolic name of Forest Glen. My knowledge of New Jersey conjured up "Turnpike Glen" as probably being more appropriate. I found the number online and called. The phone rang and rang. I was surprised that no answering machine picked up, especially if the office staff was at lunch. After what must have been twenty rings, I lowered the receiver toward the cradle. A voice sounded just in time for me to snatch the phone to my ear.
"Hello? Hello?" a woman repeated.
"Yes. This is Barry Clayton with Clayton and Clayton Funeral Directors in Gainesboro, North Carolina."
"Give me your number. I'll call you back this afternoon. Things are crazy at the moment."
Having no other choice, I did as she asked. Business in New Jersey must be good. Cemeteries weren't known for crazy times.
I drew up an estimate of our charges including transportation, an overnight in the city, and embalming. Cremation would have eliminated all these costs but Mrs. Sinclair had said neither she nor her husband wanted that option. I would have expected that response to come from our local mountain people who weren't big on turning their loved ones into ashes, but, as Northerners, the Sinclairs could have preferred the growing trend for cremation.
When I'd estimated a cost for every item except for Forest Glen's charges, I closed the computer file and turned my attention to my first problem of the morning — Archie.
Although his plan for raising funds for the Boys and Girls Clubs was admirable, Archie had a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. His exploits were well known to Tommy Lee, and I felt confident the sheriff would nip this jail-bail escapade in the bud. I dialed his direct line.
"Sheriff Wadkins' office."
I recognized the voice of Marge Colbert, Tommy Lee's administrative assistant.
"It's Barry. Is the High Sheriff of Laurel County in?"
"Early lunch. I expect him back in about twenty minutes. Can I give him a message?"
A message describing Archie's idea wasn't one I wanted floating around the department.
"Twenty minutes, you say? I'll come in if his calendar is clear."
"It's a slow day in paradise," Marge said. "But I thought you were off-duty this week?"
"It's a slow day here at the gateway to paradise. See you in a few. You know you can't get along without me."
Marge laughed and hung up.
I grabbed a quick lunch with Mom and Uncle Wayne at the kitchen table. My favorite. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'd probably had ten thousand so far.
"So, did you get Mrs. Sinclair straightened out?" Uncle Wayne asked.
"More or less. They want to be buried back in New Jersey, but they want us to handle everything up to the cemetery there."
My uncle set down his glass of milk and cocked his head. "No local funeral home?"
"No. Maybe she thinks we'll be cheaper even with traveling to New Jersey."
"Could be. God only knows how much them big city funeral homes charge. A thousand dollars for saying, 'Sorry for your loss.'"
I laughed. "Maybe. I've got a call into the cemetery. So, if someone phones with a New Jersey accent, get the charge for opening and closing a grave."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Secret Undertaking"
Copyright © 2018 Mark de Castrique.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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