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.
Tucker 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 SUV.
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.
Still 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.
Tucker 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.
Tucker photographed 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.
Tucker looked around the game room while the whine of the defib recharge filled the silence.
Photographs 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 club.”
“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.”
“Why? 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 ambulance.
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.
In 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.
Jemma gave 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.
“Roger, would you like to go first?” At his nod, the two went into the small office next to the dining room.
Tucker 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.
Tucker catalogued 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.”
The 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?”
“Jemma 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.”
Tucker jotted down a few notes, Caymen Islands, bright colors. “How well did you know Scott?”
The 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.”
Tucker looked 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.”
“Tell 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.”
“Was 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.”
“Did 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.
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