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Authors: Sandra Parshall

Poisoned Ground

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Poisoned
Ground

A Rachel Goddard Mystery

Sandra Parshall

www.SandraParshall.com

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright

Copyright © 2014 by Sandra Parshall

First E-book Edition 2014

ISBN: 9781615954742 ebook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

Poisoned Pen Press
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Scottsdale, AZ 85251

www.poisonedpenpress.com

[email protected]

Contents

Dedication

For Jerry

Acknowledgments

As always, I owe my thanks to many people who made the writing and publication of this book possible:

My husband, Jerry Parshall, and my friends Carol Baier and Cathrine Dubie for reading and critiquing the manuscript;

My editor, Barbara Peters, for her perspective and guidance;

Jessica Tribble, Nan Beams, Suzan Baroni, and the rest of the crew at Poisoned Pen Press;

My friends in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, who freely share their expertise in many professional fields and on a staggering range of topics;

And, most of all, my readers, whose notes of appreciation and encouragement make me believe the effort is worthwhile.

Chapter One

Rachel Goddard drove up to Joanna McKendrick’s brick farmhouse to make a routine veterinary call and discovered her friend standing on the porch, pointing a shotgun at a man in a business suit.

What on earth?
Rachel pulled her Range Rover to a stop on the narrow farm lane and jumped out. A wicked cold wind whipped her auburn hair across her eyes and she had to hold it back with both hands to take a closer look at the surreal scene before her.

The man at the end of Joanna’s shotgun barrel was unmistakable, with his beaky nose and rooster comb of reddish brown hair: Robert McClure, president of Mason County’s oldest and largest bank. Holding up one hand as if to fend off an attack and clutching a briefcase with the other, he backed toward the steps.

Rachel couldn’t catch most of the words pouring out of Joanna, but her fury came through loud and clear.

“Joanna,” Rachel called. “What’s going on?”

“Stay out of this,” Joanna yelled back.

Under a glowering November sky, the wind rattled bare tree branches and sent a few dead leaves tumbling down the driveway. Rachel glanced up the road to a cluster of small houses where the farm employees lived, and beyond to the horse paddocks and the rolling hills. Where was everybody? Hadn’t anybody else noticed what was happening here?

When Rachel swung her gaze back to the porch, Joanna had advanced on McClure, forcing him to the edge of the steps. Another few inches and he would tumble backward.

Rachel jogged across the lawn to the bottom of the steps. From behind the glass storm door, Joanna’s two dogs barked to get Rachel’s attention. Nan, a golden retriever, wagged her tail, and the mutt Riley stood up against the glass, scratching and whining for release. Rachel had come over this afternoon to vaccinate the dogs and the barn cats, but it might be a while before she fetched her medical case from her vehicle.

His right hand still raised, McClure half-turned toward Rachel. “I’m glad to see you, Dr. Goddard.” He sounded calm. In his pinstriped suit and tie he might have been greeting her at his office under normal conditions, not at a horse farm while its owner held a gun on him. But his tall, bony body looked rigid with tension and he held his briefcase in a white-knuckled grip.

“Joanna,” Rachel repeated, “what’s going on?”

“Honey, you know I love you like a daughter, but I have to ask you to please shut up and butt out. And if Robert knows what’s good for him, he’ll get off my property and he won’t come back.”

A fit and still youthful woman in late middle age, Joanna normally tackled problems with an unflustered, practical attitude. Rachel had never seen her like this, her cheeks flaming, strawberry blond hair tangled by the wind, hands trembling so violently that the gun barrel jerked up and down. She kept a finger on the trigger.

“But—” Rachel waved a hand, indicating both Joanna and McClure. “This is…bizarre.”

“I just want him to
leave.
” Joanna feinted with the shotgun.

McClure took a quick step back into empty air. Arms flailing, fighting for balance, he dropped his briefcase and lurched backward down the steps.

Rachel jumped onto the bottom step and caught his arm to break his fall. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” McClure’s face flushed crimson. He pulled his arm from Rachel’s grasp, straightened his suit jacket, and snatched his briefcase from the steps. “I came here to offer Joanna the deal of a lifetime, and I expected a civilized response. I got a gun in my face instead.”

“Civilized?” Joanna cried. “After what you said to me? You
threatened
me.”

McClure snorted. “Oh, Joanna, don’t be so melodramatic.”

“Threatened you how?” Rachel climbed the steps to stand beside Joanna.

“I did not threaten her,” McClure said. “I simply pointed out—”

“He told me I’d be sorry if everybody else sells their land to Packard and I’m the only holdout. The whole county will blame me if Packard backs out. He said
they’ll come after me, they’ll make me pay one way or another. If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what is.”

McClure shook his head, making his cockscomb of hair bounce. “You’re misconstruing—”

“Those statements are pretty hard to misconstrue,” Rachel said. “Who are you talking about, anyway? Who’s agreed to sell?”

“Nobody,” Joanna cut in, before McClure had a chance to answer.

McClure’s lips twitched in a faint, condescending smile that made Rachel want to kick him in the shin. “Actually, we’ve already reached agreements with Jake Hollinger and Tavia Richardson. I’ve been authorized as Packard’s agent to offer very generous payments, and they couldn’t turn down a windfall like this. I think the Jones sisters and the Kellys will come around—”

“Lincoln and Marie Kelly will never sell their farm,” Joanna protested. “If Packard wants to build one of their fancy resorts in Mason County, they can do it on somebody else’s land. I don’t want their money. I want to be left alone to raise my horses and run my business.”

“You know the whole county is depending on this development to create a lot of new jobs.” A pained expression creased his brow. “Each sale is dependent on
every
sale going through. If you hold out, the project won’t go forward.”

“Fine,” Joanna snapped. “That’s exactly what I want.”

McClure extended a hand palm-up as if entreating her to come to her senses. “As I told you, a lot of people will be very angry if you block this project.”

“And I told you not to threaten me.”

“I’m not—”

“Why do they have to have Joanna’s farm?” Rachel asked.

McClure hesitated and seemed to debate with himself before answering. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I want to be honest. They’ve determined that this is the only suitable place in the county for what they propose. We’re standing on the spot where they want to build the lodge. They want to offer horseback riding, so it’s an advantage to buy a property already equipped to keep horses. Joanna, you’re in a position to make a very lucrative deal, if you—”

“Are you saying they’ve already designed it?” Joanna demanded.

“Without knowing whether they can get the property they need?” Rachel added.

“That’s the way these things are done.”

These things.
As if McClure, a small-town banker in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, had a wealth of experience with high-end development. Rachel almost laughed. “How could an architect draw up a plan without knowing what the land is like? Oh, wait a minute. They did know. They’ve been out here, haven’t they? Without Joanna’s permission. Or did they fly over?”

McClure, clearly losing patience with Rachel’s interference, threw an irritated look her way. He directed his words at Joanna. “Does it really matter? Nobody trespassed, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Joanna had her gun up all the way again. “I’ve never seen such arrogance in my life. You tell them to take their damned design and stuff it. Now I want you to get—”

The crack of a gunshot in the distance cut her off. The three of them swiveled their heads west, toward the sound.

Rachel felt suspended, waiting for something more.

“It’s just a hunter,” McClure suggested with an indifferent shrug. “They’ve been out in the woods all week looking for wild turkeys for Thanksgiving.”

A second shot rang out. Rachel’s heart broke into a gallop, the way it always did when she heard a gun fired.

Joanna lowered her weapon. “That came from the Kelly farm.”

“Maybe they’re trying to bag a turkey, too,” McClure suggested. “Or thinning out the rabbits.”

Rachel shook her head. “They wouldn’t shoot animals.”

“Robert,” Joanna said, “I don’t see how you could work with Lincoln at the bank all those years and still not know a damn thing about him and Marie. They keep pet rabbits in the house, for God’s sake, and Marie puts out food for the wild animals. They don’t even own a gun. And they don’t allow anybody to hunt on their land.”

A third shot made them all flinch.

“I don’t like this.” Rachel pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket. “If something’s wrong over there, we can’t stand here wasting time.”

She punched the speed-dial number to call her husband, Sheriff Tom Bridger.

Chapter Two

“But it could be bad, couldn’t it, Sheriff?” Brandon Connolly, the young sandy haired deputy riding with Tom Bridger, yanked on his seat belt to loosen it across his chest. After a few minutes of quiet, he’d picked up the conversation where they’d dropped it. “I mean, gunshots on private property.”

“It’ll probably turn out to be nothing.” With more than a decade in law enforcement behind him, Tom sometimes had to remind himself what it was like to be as young and eager as Brandon. “You getting bored? Hoping for a little excitement?”

“Well, Sheriff, it sure seems like a long time since we had much to do.”

Tom kept the pressure on the accelerator, holding the cruiser’s speed at fifteen miles above the limit. The two-lane road wound past fallow cornfields where crows scavenged, and skirted hills carpeted with fallen leaves—deceptively peaceful scenes in a rural Virginia county that had known its share of violence.

“It’ll suit me fine if this is just somebody trespassing and shooting at squirrels or wild turkeys on the Kelly property.” Silently, Tom challenged his own statement. If the Kellys had a trespasser, why hadn’t they called it in themselves? And why weren’t they answering their telephone?

“But, Sheriff—”

“You know, you don’t have to call me Sheriff every time you speak to me.”

Brandon laughed. “Hey, I like the sound of it,
Sheriff
. You getting elected was the best thing that’s happened to Mason County in years. Too bad we don’t have a newspaper anymore. I can see the headline.” He framed the imaginary words between his hands. ‘Bridger Wins in a Landslide.’”

“That wasn’t hard to do with no opposition.” Tom spoke absently, his mind fixed on the Kellys. “None to speak of anyway.”

“Yeah, I almost felt sorry for the guy. I don’t think anybody voted for him except his relatives, and probably not all of them did. Must’ve been downright embarrassing.”

“He’ll survive. He makes more money selling cars than he would in this job.”

The Kelly place came into view up ahead on the left.

Their dog, a collie mix, paced in the driveway, looking like she was about to jump out of her skin. Tom’s grip tightened on the steering wheel.

Brandon sat forward, peering at the dog. “Uh oh. Something’s wrong, all right.”

Tom swung the car in a U-turn and braked beside the silver mailbox with KELLY spelled out on its side in black stick-on letters. Opening the car door, he told Brandon, “Wait here.”

The shaggy brown and white dog ran toward Tom. He held out a hand. He’d encountered her before, at Joanna’s place. What was her name? Bonnie? “Hey, Bonnie. What’s up, girl?”

She halted before she reached him. Backing up, she barked once, a high-pitched yelp. She ran a few feet up the driveway, turned and barked again.

Tom got into the cruiser, turned onto the driveway and followed the dog at a crawl. “You know the drill,” he told Brandon.
Keep your hand on your gun. Go in slow and stay alert.

The farmhouse, a two-story box covered with faded brown siding, sat a hundred feet off the road. The only vehicles in the driveway were Marie Kelly’s blue Chevy sedan and Lincoln’s mud-splattered pickup. The patchy lawn between the house and road had been raked clean of leaves shed by the two oaks that framed the house. Along the front of the porch, coneflower seed heads bobbed under the weight of foraging goldfinches. Nothing looked out of the ordinary—except the dog, now pacing in the grass where the driveway ended and barking as if begging the men to follow her to the backyard.

After killing the engine, Tom sat behind the wheel for a moment, scanning the house and the area around it. The dog’s barking escalated to a nonstop plea that made his skin prickle and his breath come a little faster. Disturbed by the racket, the goldfinch flock rose in a flutter of yellow and green and disappeared into a nearby spruce.

“I’ll try the front door first,” Tom said. “Just in case. You keep an eye out.”

Brandon waited by the cruiser, one hand on the butt of his holstered pistol, while Tom knocked on the door.

He got no response.

“Lincoln? Marie? Anybody home?”

Again, nothing. The dog barked, spun in a circle, edged toward the backyard.

When Tom and Brandon started for the rear of the house, the dog broke into a run ahead of them. A cluster of hens, some white and some red, were pecking at the ground in the side yard but scurried out of the way as the dog streaked past.

As Tom rounded the side of the house, he spotted the couple. Lincoln, a rangy man in his sixties, lay in the yard with his arms flung outward, his eyes staring at the sky. A wet red stain soaked the front of his flannel jacket. Marie sprawled facedown on the back steps, head toward the ground and the toes of her shoes still touching the porch, as if she’d been standing there and pitched forward when she was shot. The exit wound had blown a ragged hole in her green sweater, and the wool had wicked enough blood from the opening to cover her back.

“Jesus Christ,” Tom said. “Keep the dog out of the way.”

While the dog whined and yipped and strained against Brandon’s hold on her collar, Tom pressed two fingertips to Lincoln’s temple. The man’s skin still felt warm, but Tom didn’t find a pulse. He repeated the fruitless exercise with Marie, brushing her hair back from her face. Like Tom himself, Marie was Melungeon, a mix of several races, with olive skin and thick black hair that had been beautiful before it turned gray.

Straightening, Tom blew out a breath and stood for a moment thinking of his late mother, letting memories of her and Marie Kelly crowd into his mind. The two friends had spent long hours together, spinning wool from the Bridger farm’s sheep, coloring it with vegetable dyes Marie had concocted, winding it into skeins. Tom had known Lincoln and Marie all his life.

He shook off the memories and told Brandon, “Call it in. We need Dr. Lauter, and Dennis with his camera, and four more deputies.”

“What am I gonna do about her?” Brandon nodded at the dog.

“I’ll take charge of her, I guess. I’ll see if I can find a tie-out or a leash.”

Brandon patted the dog’s head as Tom took hold of her collar.

While Brandon headed back to the car, Tom swept his gaze over the yard and surrounding fields, alert for movement, anything that shouldn’t be there. The Kellys had about twenty acres where they maintained a small apple orchard and grew corn, tomatoes, and other kitchen crops to sell at the local farmers’ market. They also had a miniature greenhouse for growing vegetables in winter and a big chicken coop for egg-layers. The coop, where the hens were shut up at night to protect them from foxes, sat next to the greenhouse about a hundred yards back from the residence. A couple dozen chickens pecked and scratched the ground in front of the coop and drank from a low, wide trough.

On a flagstone patio beside the back steps where Marie Kelly lay, a table and chairs were already covered with a tarp for the winter. Other than the two dead bodies, Tom spotted nothing unusual in the yard, nothing disturbed or out of place. But he caught a whiff of an acrid odor—something burning. Following the smell, he noticed that the back door of the house stood open, with only the storm door guarding the entrance.

Letting go of the dog’s collar, Tom moved around Marie’s body and mounted the steps. Through the screen door he saw a burner on the electric range glowing red hot beneath a saucepan. A plume of dark smoke rose from the pan.

Tom yanked open the door and crossed to the range in five strides. He grabbed a pot holder from the counter and slid the saucepan away from the heat with one hand as he switched off the burner with the other.

The liquid in the pan had evaporated, and heat had welded chunks of vegetables to the bottom. Assembled on the counter next to the stove were a loaf of homemade bread, a head of leaf lettuce, and two knives. Marie must have been starting preparations for an early dinner when the killer showed up. Did she hear shots from the yard, run out to help her husband, and get hit before she could reach him? Was she murdered only because she could identify the attacker, or had the killer come here intending to shoot both the Kellys?

And why? Why in God’s name would anybody kill these people?

Tom set the pan in the sink and found a plate in a cupboard to cover the top and contain the smoke and odor.

He yanked a dog leash off a hook by the back door, but before he took it outside he glanced around for signs of a disturbance that would point to a robbery. The kitchen had an old-fashioned, homey look, a perfectly preserved artifact of the mid-twentieth century. The only thing that caught Tom’s attention was a file folder open on the table, exposing a printed document. In the center of the document, a butcher knife stood straight up, its tip penetrating the paper and the red gingham oilcloth, and anchored in the wooden tabletop.

Tom stepped over to examine the document. The first page bore the logo of Packard Resorts, stylized type bordered by graphics of a bikini-clad woman on water skis and a man skiing down a snow-covered slope. Skimming the boilerplate language that laid out Packard’s plans for an elaborate rural resort in Mason County, he found a clause stating that all offers were contingent on the company obtaining every plot of land necessary for completion of the project.

Without disturbing the knife, Tom used the tip of one gloved finger to lift the first sheet. On the second page, he found the amount of Packard’s offer for the Kellys’ land. He gave a low whistle. Almost two million for twenty acres of pasture, apple trees, and cornfields. The company must badly want the land to offer this kind of money.

He caught a movement from the corner of his eye and jerked away from the table, a hand going to his pistol. The intruder, a black-and-white rabbit, bigger and plumper than any wild rabbit he’d ever seen, hopped past Tom as if indifferent to his presence. It made its way to a feeding station in a corner of the kitchen and settled into crunching green pellets heaped in a bowl. A second rabbit, pure white, hopped into the room, freezing for a second when it saw Tom. Then it took a wide detour around him on its way to the food.

Great. He had to do something about these rabbits as well as the dog and a yard full of chickens. As long as they had food and water, the chickens could stay where they were until the Kellys’ son and daughter decided what to do with them. But the rabbits and dog couldn’t be left here.

In the yard, the dog began to howl, a mournful, bewildered cry.

“Sheriff?” Brandon called. “You inside?”

Stepping over to the screened door, Tom said, “I’m going to do a walk-through, then I’ll be out.” He tossed the dog leash to Brandon, who caught it before it could land on Marie Kelly’s back.

Nothing appeared amiss in any of the downstairs rooms. Every piece of furniture and every rug looked old, not shabby so much as well-used. Upstairs, Tom found all three bedrooms neat and undisturbed. The son’s and daughter’s rooms looked as if they were still occupied by teenagers, with Redskins pennants and posters of motorcycles on Ronan Kelly’s walls, and framed photos of landscapes and wildlife decorating Sheila’s. Like her father, Sheila was, or had been when she was younger, an amateur photographer. The brother and sister were in their thirties now, living elsewhere.

Before this day ended, Tom would have to call them and tell them over the phone that their parents were both dead.

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