Hidden Scars: A Sam Blackman Mystery #6

Hidden Scars: A Sam Blackman Mystery #6

When Asheville, NC, private eyes Sam Blackman and Nakayla Robertson are asked by an eighty-year-old client to investigate the suspicious death of her brother, they warn her there is little ...

About The Author

Mark de Castrique

Mark de Castrique grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina where many of his novels are set. He’s ...

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Chapter One

 

My partner, Nakayla Robertson, had taken a long weekend in Charleston with the women in her book club for the annual retreat they called “Reading Between the Wines.” The mid-March rates kept the hotel price down, but the abundance of restaurants and shops guaranteed the money they saved was still spent in the antebellum city.

Left alone in Asheville to run the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency, I’d goofed off Friday through Monday, not even bothering to come to the office. With Nakayla’s return merely hours away, I’d decided I’d better make an appearance, and so I’d worked for almost an hour, sorting through unsolicited catalogues, shuffling a few papers, and forwarding e-mails to prove Sam Blackman was on the job.

Satisfied that all was under control, I made the executive decision to call it a day. I’d grab an early lunch at Lexington Avenue Brewery, swing by Asheville Wine Market for one of their recommended specials, and then wait for Nakayla at her West Asheville bungalow. I hoped her absence, leaving me alone for four and a half days, would lead to a romantic, home-cooked dinner. And I’d stop at my apartment to pick up some clean clothes in hopes that dinner would be followed by the invitation for an overnight reunion. She could even pillow talk the nuances of her book club discussions—a surefire sedative.

As I opened the hallway door, the office phone rang. I was tempted to bolt for the elevator and let voicemail catch whatever charity or robocall wanted money. But, the message would leave a time stamp that could undercut my “slaving-at-the-office” story.

I hurried to my desk and snatched the receiver from the cradle. “Blackman and Robertson, Sam Blackman speaking.”

“Sam, is that you?”

The voice cracked and warbled. I recognized it immediately. “Yes, Captain.”

“Good. I thought you were one of those damn machines. Sometimes I start talking thinking a real person answered.”

“It’s me in the flesh.”

“Well, I’ve got a case for you, if you’re not too busy.”

Other than my plans for lunch and then dinner with Nakayla, the rest of my life was wide open.

“I could probably squeeze in a new case, especially for you.”

“Actually, it’s for a friend. Violet Baker.”

“I don’t think I know her.”

“One of the new residents. Only eighty. If I were ten years younger, I’d make a move on her.”

Captain was just short of ninety-five, and I’m sure if he wanted to make a move on young Violet, his age wouldn’t stop him.

“What’s her case?”

“I don’t know the details. I thought it better if you and Nakayla talk to her in person.”

“Nakayla’s out of town, but we’d be happy to meet with her.”

“Good. I told her we could count on you. Come for a late lunch. You can brief Nakayla when she gets back.”

I glanced at my watch. Eleven-fifteen. “You mean like two o’clock?”

“We were thinking twelve-thirty. The crowd will be thinning by then. And today’s make-your-own-sundae-on-Tuesday. Half the damn residents are already lined up at the dining room door.”

The vision of a burger and pint of porter morphed into a congealed salad and sweet tea.

“Okay, Captain. I’ll see you outside the dining room at twelve-thirty.”

“Thanks, Sam. I’m sure just talking to you will be a comfort for Violet.”

“And you have no idea why she wants to hire a detective?”

A few seconds of silence greeted my question.

Then Captain said, “Didn’t I tell you? She thinks her brother’s been murdered.”

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

“Welcome to Golden Oaks Retirement Center. How can I help you?” The woman’s voice emanated from a silver speaker on the side of an unmanned guardhouse where a crossbar blocked the road ahead.

“I’m here to see Ron Kline. He’s expecting me.”

“Very good, sir. Your name, please?”

“Sam Blackman.”

“Hi, Sam. It’s Joanne. I thought I recognized your voice. I’m covering while Clara’s at lunch. Anything exciting going on?”

I’d met Joanne, one of the elderly ladies who was a member of Captain’s CIA, Corridor Intelligence Agency, that he’d organized to patrol the halls and keep an eye on the retirement community’s well-being. I also remembered Joanne had an eye for Captain, and was one of his harem of admirers. Telling Joanne that I was coming for lunch with him and Violet Baker, the new “young” girl, wouldn’t be a smart move.

“He and I are just catching up.”

“Well, come on, then.”

The bar lifted and I began the twisting, convoluted climb to the retirement community atop a ridge. Ron Kline, aka Captain, was the acknowledged leader of its residents. Our paths had crossed several years earlier when Nakayla and I were drawn together by the murder of her sister. Captain had been involved in several of our cases, and I felt guilty that at least six months had passed since I’d seen him. As Captain was fond of saying, “At my age, you don’t renew your magazine subscriptions and you don’t buy green bananas.”

Captain had been career Army, and although he’d risen to the rank of Colonel, he preferred to be known as Captain, the commission he’d held in World War Two, when he claimed he and his men performed their finest service to their country and to each other.

As his generation passed into history, some of his band-of-brothers camaraderie had been transferred to me. Captain and I shared a kinship forged by combat, although our wars were separated by more than sixty years. Mutual respect quickly grew into friendship.

He stood outside the open double doors to the dining hall, wearing a red flannel shirt buttoned to the neck and khaki pants with a belt that was hitched higher than his elbows. As I expected, a fawning cluster of elderly ladies encircled him. In a community where the gender ratio of female to male was ten to one, a man could usually enjoy the companionship of the opposite sex if he had one important trait—a pulse. Captain not only had a pulse, but also a charming smile, a quick wit, and the refined manners of a bygone era that could induce a woman to swoon—and possibly break a hip.

Captain caught sight of me when I was about thirty feet away. He stepped clear of the women, squared his shoulders, and snapped a crisp salute. I stopped and returned our ritual greeting.

“Sorry, ladies,” he announced. “Duty calls.”

His dramatic tone generated a chorus of girlish giggles. One woman with a round plump face and wry smile waggled a finger at me. “I know you. You’re Sam Blackman. Don’t tie Captain up too long. He’s got a pinochle game at three.”

“Don’t worry, Bernice,” Captain said. “Sam just needs a little advice on one of his cases. We’ll be through in plenty of time.”

“I’m sure you’ll solve it for him.”

I could have sworn she actually batted her eyes.

Captain grabbed my upper arm and ushered me into the dining hall. I felt him shift a little weight onto me and realized his step wasn’t as spry as it had been.

“Where’s Violet Baker?” I asked.

“I reserved one of the smaller dining rooms we have for private occasions. She’s already there.”

Captain steered me through the maze of tables. Everyone either nodded or waved as he passed. We went behind a short partition that formed a narrow hall. Two doors on the opposite wall had brass plaques denoting the Laurel Room and the Rhododendron Room. Captain pushed open the one to the Laurel Room.

In the center was a rectangular table that could have seated ten. Three places were set at the far end with what looked like plates of chicken salad and glasses of iced tea. A woman sitting on the left side rose as we entered.

Her steel-gray hair was cut short in the way favored by many businesswomen who want to look stylish and yet mature. It was not the cut the ladies in Captain’s harem would get in the onsite beauty parlor.

Her wardrobe was smart but casual—a cream blouse and navy skirt. Her only jewelry was a small gold cross dangling from a chain around her neck. She was tanned and fit, and I could tell she’d been a beautiful woman in her younger days. Hell, she was still beautiful. Captain might make his move after all.

“Sam,” Captain said, “this is Violet Baker. Violet, Sam Blackman.”

I offered my hand across the table. Her grip was dry and firm.

“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Blackman.”

“Sam, please.”

Captain pulled out the chair at the head of the table. “Why don’t we sit down? I took the liberty of ordering salad for all of us. Sam, you want something else, speak up.”

“This looks fine.”

Captain and I paused while Violet Baker re-took her seat. Then I sat, spread my napkin across my lap, and took a sip of tea before speaking.

“Captain says you’re new to Golden Oaks.”

She nodded. “I moved in three weeks ago. I’ve one of the cottages.”

Golden Oaks offered both apartment living and stand-alone cottages for those not ready to give up a more traditional home environment. I knew the cottages were more expensive, which meant Violet was a woman of means.

“Did you have a house in Asheville?” I asked.

“No. I sold my home in Albany, New York. But I grew up here. Actually over in Black Mountain.”

“So, you still have family in the area,” I said, anxious to showcase my deductive reasoning.

“No, it’s just me. We left Black Mountain when I was eleven.” She shrugged. “Call it being sentimental. An urge to return to the place of my youth.” She gave a wistful smile. “Or too many years of too much snow.”

“How do you think I can help you?”

“I don’t know if you can.” She picked up her fork and held it poised over her chicken salad. “Tell me your story first and then I’ll tell you mine.”

So, while she and the Captain nibbled at lunch, I gave a condensed version of my life. How I’d grown up in Kernersville in the Piedmont section of North Carolina, rebelled against my father’s wishes and joined the Army straight out of high school. How I’d risen to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer responsible for criminal investigations and that one of them pitted me against a gang of Army smugglers in Iraq who staged a rocket grenade attack that killed two of my men and cost me my left leg.

I told how I wound up in rehab in the VA hospital in Asheville and became involved in a murder investigation that introduced me to my partner, Nakayla Robertson, as well as Captain. “So, I’ve adopted Asheville as my home and Captain as my grandpa.”

They both laughed.

“Fair enough,” Captain said. “I hereby bequeath you all my debts.”

“And this murder,” Violet Baker said, “Captain told me it happened nearly a hundred years ago.”

“I was actually investigating the murder of two people. Nakayla’s sister and her great-great grandfather. His happened in 1919.”

The woman studied me carefully as if coming to some decision. She set down her fork. “All right. Now you eat and I’ll talk.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I felt like my mom had just told me to finish my vegetables.

“Since the mid-eighteen hundreds, my family had farms in the Asheville area. My father cultivated over a hundred acres in Fairview. My maiden name was Weaver and I had a sister four years older and a brother twelve years older.

“My sister died when I was five. Polio. One of the last outbreaks to hit western North Carolina. I don’t remember her that well, but I do remember how devastating her death was to my family. My big brother, Paul, cried like a baby. He was seventeen and I think that shocked me as much as anything.

“As soon as he turned eighteen, he enlisted in the Army. This was in January of 1943. I don’t know a whole lot about what he did in the war, Sam. You and Captain have a better understanding of how troop movements are kept secret. We did get the occasional letter saying he was alive and well.”

“Do you know if he was in Europe or the Pacific?” I asked.

“Europe. Paul was honorably discharged in 1946. He told my parents he’d been in Patton’s Third Army and was a liaison with the 761st Tank Battalion. That was an all-colored unit.” She shook her head. “Sorry. I know that’s not politically correct. I just grew up in an era when that was the polite way to address black people.”

I shot a glance at Captain, wondering if he’d told Violet Baker that Nakayla was African American.

“That was tough duty,” Captain said. “The 761st was in combat over six months.”

“Paul didn’t talk to me about the war. I was only nine when he returned, but I knew he was upset.”

“Post traumatic stress?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. That wouldn’t cause you to fight with other vets, would it?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist.”

“Well, he did get in a fight at the American Legion post in Asheville. Then he and my father had a shouting match because Paul said colored soldiers had as much right to be a member of the post as he did. They were arguing so loudly that it woke me up.”

“Your brother was right,” Captain said. “It was shameful the way we treated our black veterans. That author Stephen Ambrose has a quote I like—‘The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated Army.’ And the South after the war had no interest in sharing democracy with everyone who fought to defend it.”

“Did your brother continue pressing for integration?” I asked.

“If he did, his actions were sheltered from me. Paul moved out of the house and used his G.I. Bill to start college in the fall.”

“Where?”

“Black Mountain.”

“Montreat?” It was the only college I knew in the little town.

“No. Black Mountain College. It’s not there anymore. It closed in the nineteen-fifties. I guess today we’d call it free-form. Artsy.”

I’d heard of the school but only as some museum in Asheville. I’d never been in it. “Was your brother in the arts?”

“He wanted to be an architect. Apparently, he thought the college would give him a good foundation. And the teachers were well connected to New York and Chicago. A portal to the top echelons right in his own backyard.”

“Did it work out?”

Violet Baker’s blue eyes moistened. “Paul never finished. Some men came to the farm one afternoon in the fall of 1948. I’d just come home from school. They walked with my father out to the barn. About twenty minutes later, my father came in and told me I should go do my homework in my room. I’d just started reading when my mother cried out. The men had told my father that Paul had died in a hiking accident. He’d fallen into a ravine.”

“You think it wasn’t an accident?”

Violet Baker didn’t answer. Instead she reached down by her chair and lifted her handbag. It was large enough to carry a week of field rations for a platoon.

She pulled out an old book. The black leather was cracked and the gilded text on the cover was barely legible. Holy Bible. I wondered if she was about to read scripture to us.

“This was my father’s,” she said. “He died thirty years ago and I put it on my bookshelf. I wasn’t a big church-goer and I never opened it. I kept it for sentimental value. But when I was packing to move south, I spent a few minutes flipping through it.”

She set the Bible to the left of her plate and opened it about halfway through. A yellowed piece of paper lay folded between the pages. She handed it across the table.

I examined it carefully. The document was a coroner’s report to the Buncombe County inquest, dated November 3, 1948. The deceased, Paul Clarence Weaver, age twenty-three, had died on Sunday, October 17, 1948.

I studied the coroner’s comments. They weren’t the detailed analysis of a medical examiner’s report. The coroner called the death accidental, the result of a nearly one-hundred-foot fall from an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway. No autopsy was performed but the coroner noted that the funeral director in charge of the burial described bruising across the torso and thighs while the head and arms were relatively undamaged. From the undertaker’s point of view, it meant the family could have an open casket without the necessity for extensive cosmetic restoration. He also mentioned a puncture wound, apparently made by a stick that penetrated the trachea. Bark fragments were in the wound, but it was not the cause of death. General trauma from the fall was his conclusion. The corner’s findings were accepted by the inquest jury.

“You’d never seen this before?” I asked.

“No. And we left the farm before Christmas. My father sold it to some other family members so they could put in the spring crops.”

“Why?”

“My father told me it was for a new job and more money. My mother was crying a lot. She stopped going to church and they kept me out of school from Thanksgiving till we moved.”

“Where did you go?”

“Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.”

“Where?”

“A town outside Pittsburgh. My father’s cousin had a job in the steel mill. He got one for Dad and we moved in with them till we got our own place. None of us ever went back to Black Mountain.”

“Until now,” I said.

“Yes. I met my husband when we were students at the University of Pittsburgh. He went on to get a law degree and practiced in his hometown of Albany, New York. Then I went for my CPA license. Mort and I never had any children.”

“What about the relatives who bought your farm?”

She shrugged. “When letters go unanswered for over seventy years, even when my father wrote that my mother had died, and no one so much as sent a card…” Her voice choked and she looked away.

Captain and I sat quietly.

She took a staggered breath. “Well, then I no longer consider them family.” She twisted her tea glass on the table and stared at the melting ice cubes a moment. “Do you believe in fate, Sam?”

“I believe in pivotal events, ones whose consequences can’t be seen at the time. But I don’t believe things are predetermined. They are the result of choices, sometimes choices I’ve made, sometimes the choices of others beyond my control.”

She nodded. “I believed that too. Up until about six months ago. My husband died and I had no family. More importantly, I had a tremendous sense of unfinished business. As I said, I’d been an accountant and worked my whole life making sure that books balanced. Well, there was a gap in my ledger.”

“Knowing what happened to your brother,” I said.

“Exactly. Once I felt that pull, I realized I had to act upon it. And then I found that coroner’s report when I easily could have packed the Bible without opening it. I came here and rented a cottage. I met Captain, and I learned about you from his harem.” A smile broke through the serious cast of her face.

I glanced at Captain. The tough old veteran was blushing.

“So, here I cross paths with a man who has worked with a private detective. I ask him about you and then did my own research on your successes. Very impressive.”

I didn’t say anything, but I suspected Captain was not the only one blushing.

She took back the coroner’s report. “I thought since this existed there might be other documents regarding my brother’s death. I’d thought about hiring a local lawyer, but I’m not sure I want to be quite so official, at least not at first.”

“Why do you think your brother’s death wasn’t an accident?”

“He was raised in these hills. He could have hiked those trails in the dark or even blindfolded.”

“And the men who came to tell your father. Do you remember if they were police or sheriff’s deputies?”

“I don’t know who they were, Sam. They came in a black car and wore black suits. They looked like the Bible salesmen who sometimes went door-to-door back then.”

They could have been plainclothes detectives, I thought. But the sudden upheaval of Violet Baker’s family suggested something else was at play.

“I know it’s not a pleasant alternative, Violet, but do you think your brother could have taken his own life?”

She took a deep breath. “I’ve thought about that a lot. I don’t think so. He loved the college. He took me there one day when we had a school holiday. Why would he throw himself and his dreams off a bluff? It makes no sense.”

I didn’t have an answer. Suicide is rarely a rational decision.

“If it had something to do with the college, do you know if any of his classmates are still in the area?”

“Probably not. Most of them were from out-of-state, and many have probably died.” She reached into her handbag again. “But I believe fate is driving me forward.” She pulled out a section of the Asheville Citizen-Times and slid it across the table. “This is what spurred me to have Captain call you this morning.”

The headline of the newspaper article read, Black Mountain College to “Re-Open.” I noted the quotation marks around Re-Open and skimmed enough of the story to learn a movie was shooting, using the location of the former college as its setting. The producers were working with the Black Mountain College Museum and also welcomed information any local residents could provide regarding life at the school.

“They’re recreating the college, Sam,” Violet said. “They’re going back sixty or seventy years, and maybe, just maybe, in their quest for historical accuracy, the truth about my brother lies waiting to be discovered. But I need your help.”

Captain had sat listening to our exchange without comment. His fork clanged as he dropped it on his plate. “So, what’s to think about, Sam? Take the lady’s case.”

I had to laugh. “Violet, I guess I’ve been given my marching orders.”

Reviews of

Hidden Scars: A Sam Blackman Mystery #6

“De Castrique’s sixth delivers a vivid gallery of suspects, lively dialogue, and an attractive pair of sleuths.”

Kirkus Reviews

“…superior sixth mystery…De Castrique combines an examination of the South’s troubled racial history with a smart probe of current political-financial shenanigans.”

Publishers Weekly

“With its strong sense of place, depiction of racial tension that still lingers in the new South, and appealing sleuths, de Castrique’s well-plotted mystery is a winner.”

Library Journal

“…intriguing historical mystery…”

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