Sharon Woods Hopkins
Cover design by Ellie Searl, Publishista®
From an original painting by Sharon Woods Hopkins
Patricia B. Smith, Editor
KILLERFIND Copyright © 2012 Sharon Woods Hopkins. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or mechanical. Photocopying, recording or otherwise reproducing any portion of this work without the prior written permission of the author is prohibited except for brief quotations used in a review.
Ebook ISBN: 9781452413075
This is a work of fiction, and a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to actual persons is purely coincidental. Persons, events and places mentioned in this novel are used in a fictional manner.
Deadly Writes and the Deadly Writes image and colophon are trademarks of Deadly Writes Publishing, LLC
Deadly Writes Publishing, LLC
Marble Hill, MO
I have so many people to thank!
At the top of my list is my wonderful husband and best friend, Bill, who is always there for me. I couldn’t do this without his love and support.
Thanks to my wonderful readers who showed such love and enthusiasm for Rhetta McCarter. A great big thank you to my early manuscript readers: Paula Mayfield, Ruthie Burkman and Lyndie Kempfer. Your input helped me so much!
To Malcom Griffith and Mylene Allard, who kindly loaned me their names to use for two unusual characters in the story.
Thanks to my friend Charlie Hutchings, the Bollinger County Coroner, who patiently answered all my questions, and didn’t report me for asking about dead bodies in barns.
Thanks, Chief Paul White Eagle, for allowing me to enjoy your peaceful farm and to paint your picturesque barn.
Thanks to my chief mechanic and business partner, my wonderful son Jeff Snowden, and to my delightful daughter in law, Wendy and my very tall and terrific grandson, Dylan. Love you guys!
A giant THANK YOU to Sue Ann Jaffarian, Deborah Sharp and Joanna Campbell Slan, who took time out of their busy writing schedules to read KILLERFIND.
To my mother, Agnes Vienneau Woods (1920-1973) who raised me with Agatha Christie mysteries. Thank you, Mom for buying me books.
I miss you.
To my father, John (Harry) Woods (1915-1984) who taught me to read before I started school. He also taught me to read upside down and backwards. Actually, Dad, I never made a cent from that.
Barn: noun, a large outbuilding on a farm used to store grain or shelter livestock
Find: noun, a discovery
Barnfind: noun, “In the auto realm, it is the near mythical, all original, parked-for decades and all but forgotten, much prized and potentially very valuable, collector car.” Malcom Griffith
KILLERFIND: noun, a barnfind turned deadly
Rhetta McCarter swiveled her office chair and stared at the “before” picture of a bedraggled-looking 1981 Z28 that occupied the left side of a double frame on her desktop. The blank right side waited for the “after” picture. Her grasp on the phone tightened.
She stood, her voice rising. “Did I hear you right? You found a wallet belonging to Malcom Griffith in the frame of my Z28?”
James Woodhouse “Woody” Zelinski, one of her employees, stopped on his way to the copier. “Malcom Griffith disappeared fifteen years ago,” he said, stopping at her desk, making no effort to hide his eavesdropping.
Rhetta glowered at him, and went on speaking to Ricky. “How can that be? That car was in that barn for twenty-five years.”
Rhetta, the branch manager of Missouri Community Bank Mortgage and Insurance, paced the small square of carpeting in the cube that was her office. She waited for some kind of reasonable explanation from her best friend and mechanic, Ricky Lane of Fast Lane Muscle Cars. Ricky, short for Victoria, was working her magic on a 1981 Camaro Z28, a replacement for Cami, Rhetta’s beloved ’79 Camaro that was destroyed in a fire several months earlier.
When LuEllen, office secretary-cum-receptionist informed her that Ricky was on the line, Rhetta assumed Ricky was going to catch her up on the car’s progress, and ask for a payment for parts. Rhetta had already pulled out her checkbook and clutched her pen, ready to write. At last estimate, Ricky thought it would take about three more weeks to complete the restoration.
“Not really,” Ricky said.
“Thank goodness. That’s not funny. You had me going there for a minute.” Rhetta let out a sigh of relief. If it had been true, it could mean at least a six months’ delay if the police had to impound her car.
“It was more behind a front inner fender well.”
“Crap.” Rhetta ran her hands through her mass of spiky brown hair, tinged in blonde this week. She glanced at the calendar to see when six months would be. At that rate, she doubted if she would even have the car for next summer. She groaned.
Ricky continued, “When I loosened the fender well, it fell out, along with an old pair of sunglasses, and a wrench.”
“Tell me about it.” Rhetta said, snapping her checkbook shut, and sticking the end of the pen in her mouth, chewing rapidly.
“The sunglasses were pretty old and beat up. One arm was bent. The wrench is good, though.”
“Ricky, I don’t care about the sunglasses or the wrench.” Rhetta threw the pen down on the desk, snatched a tissue, and wiped her mouth, hoping that no ink had streaked her face.
“Right. Naturally, I looked at the wallet, too.” Ricky chuckled. “How else would I know who it belonged to? Malcom Griffith’s driver’s license picture stared at me as soon as I flipped it open. I glanced through it, and discovered quite a bit of money and some credit cards, too.”
“Great. Now that you’ve fondled the thing, you’ve probably messed up any DNA or fingerprints.”
“No, I didn’t. For your information, I was wearing vinyl gloves, like I always do when I use rust dissolver. As soon as I saw whose wallet it was, I called you.”
“Did you call the police and report it?” Rhetta backed into her chair and sat heavily. The defective hydraulic lifter caused the chair to sink all the way to the lowest point and she nearly grazed her chin on the desk top.
Ricky hesitated. “No, I called you first.”
Rhetta reached down, grabbed the chair handle and tugged. The chair popped upward. “I know you have a reason, so tell me when I get there. I’m coming right over.” Rhetta disconnected, pushed the chair back and snatched her purse off her desk.
“I’m coming with you,” Woody said. He beat his boss to the door.
* * *
Woody folded his tall frame into the front seat of Rhetta’s silver Trailblazer. Being nearly a foot taller than Rhetta required that he slide the seat all the way back before he could fit. He barely had the door shut before Rhetta slammed into reverse and backed out of the parking slot. She spun the SUV around and headed south on Kingshighway, bound for Ricky’s shop in Gordonville, about ten minutes away from their office in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when the traffic was light or when she exceeded the speed limit. The trip today might take longer, since traffic was crawling along William Street.
Rhetta usually drove her SUV only in the winter, or when grocery shopping. She’d preferred enjoying the exhilaration of driving Cami during spring, fall and summer. Southeast Missouri rarely had winter weather, and that was only for a couple of months after Christmas. Since Cami was gone, she was making the effort to convince herself she was looking forward to Cami’s replacement. Knowing there was still plenty of nice weather left to enjoy it had kept her spirits buoyed. When the car was destroyed, Rhetta was devastated. Eventually, between her husband, Randolph, and her friend Ricky’s enthusiasm for the replacement, she was slowly coming round. She hadn’t, however, come up with a name for the Z28 yet. She named all their vehicles, as well as their farm and even the garage. She christened the Trailblazer Streak, short for Silver Streak. Although it didn’t streak anywhere. It was no speed machine, like Cami, but it was practical. She longed for her old Camaro.
“Can you believe the bad luck? Ricky finds Malcom Griffith’s wallet in the Z28.Wonder how long that will hold up the restoration? Crap. The cops will probably impound the car.” She tapped impatiently on the steering wheel as they stopped for a red light. Woody further maneuvered the seat to his comfort. Or, at least to where his knees weren’t up around his chin.
“Wasn’t Malcom Griffith that high-rolling real estate developer who disappeared without a trace?” Woody asked. Once the seat was in place, he finished snapping the seatbelt buckle, and wriggled to get comfortable.
“Sure was. His wife appeared on television several times in the first few weeks after his disappearance, pleading for whoever had him to return him. You know how it is, the media interest soon died down.” Rhetta swerved to avoid a bicyclist pedaling furiously alongside her. “Rumor had it that Griffith made off to a foreign country with his money and then-current extra marital affair, an exotic pole dancer, who coincidentally vanished about the same time. In fact, Randolph was the judge who declared him dead several years later. His wife never remarried.”
She wove through traffic lined up to turn into the shopping mall where Jenn, Woody’s wife worked, then sped along Route K and through Gordonville. She breezed past the fire station where a constable car usually parked. She glanced at her speedometer, slowing reflexively when she saw the needle pointing at fifty. On the highway on either side of town, the speed limit was fifty miles per hour, but in town, the posted speed limit was twenty-five. Luckily, no constable occupied the decades-old cruiser today. When the old white sedan parked there, constable or no, it served as a great speed deterrent. Except for Rhetta.
Past the edge of town, Rhetta turned left onto the county road leading to Fast Lane. Streak stirred up billowy grey dust as they rolled along the chat-covered road. Although the limestone-derived gravel made a firm road base, the dust covered all the foliage and everything else that grew along the sides of the road, from weeds to trees. A good rain would wash it off. Without the rain, growth would shrivel and die from being smothered. Everything, that is, except kudzu, which was nearly impossible to kill.
“Did you call Randolph and tell him what’s going on?” Woody asked, glancing sideways at her.
Rhetta peered over her reading glasses at Woody. He’d been at her side since she got the phone call, so he knew full well she hadn’t called her husband. Woody stared straight ahead. Did she detect a smile tweaking the corner of his mouth? Hard to tell under the grey whiskers that made him appear older than forty-two. Two tours as a Marine contributed to the grey. Hard to know about any grey in the hair on his head since Woody kept his head shaved smooth. In fact, it was hard to tell if Woody even had any hair on his head.
“I will. I want to see it first before he makes us call the police,” Rhetta said. Woody’s right eyebrow shot up. He had a way of making her feel like his younger, capricious sister, even though she had a full year on him. Fourteen months, to be exact.
Her husband, a retired judge, would insist she call the cops. He was anal about law and order details like that. “Besides, he’s probably in his studio, painting. He went there straight after our run this morning.” Rhetta rose early to run almost daily, in an effort to discourage any middle-aged relocation of body mass. Randolph joined her most mornings. On the days when she craved extra sleep, she thought about throwing in the towel and letting Nature take its course. Then she’d look in the mirror and go running again.
“His cell phone doesn’t work in the studio?” Woody studied the gravel road ahead of them.
“You know as well as I do, he’d probably call the cops right away. They’d beat me to Ricky’s and I wouldn’t get a chance to inspect the wallet.”
“You shouldn’t be inspecting it anyway. Leave that to the cops.”
“Is that why you came along, to make sure I call the cops?”
“Heck, no. I came along because I’m as nosy as you are.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Rhetta emerged from a maelstrom of dust and swung a left into Fast Lane’s paved driveway. Ricky’s shop was located in a converted wooden barn that sat about fifty feet from an old farmhouse that Ricky had inherited and painstakingly restored. She’d installed a green, metal-roofed breezeway that connected the house and shop; the breezeway matched both for one continuous roof.
Ricky stood in the open roll-up doorway to the shop and waved them in. Her long red hair was pulled back into a ponytail that dangled through the back of a ball cap emblazoned with her garage logo. She was outfitted in full mechanic garb—a pair of pale green mechanic’s coveralls that camouflaged her petite frame. When she worked at her day job as a real estate agent, she looked so different that most folks who knew her as a Realtor never recognized her alter ego. Her true passion was restoring muscle cars, and she’d recently told Rhetta that she would soon be doing that full time and putting her real estate license on inactive.
Ricky was an inch taller than Rhetta’s five feet two. Due to Rhetta’s passion for wearing high-heeled sandals or shoes, Rhetta always appeared taller than Ricky. Rhetta dressed up every day—the fashionista to Ricky’s garage-ista.
“Let’s see what you have, girlfriend,” Rhetta said as she followed Ricky through the shop, carefully dodging the assorted parts and tools spread out near her car, and stopping in front of the workbench. She glanced at her buff-colored sandals to see if she’d attracted any grease along the way. Not a spot, thank goodness! She really should’ve changed into the tennis shoes she carried in the back of her vehicle.
A worn leather tri-fold wallet lay atop a clean paper towel on the workbench. Next to it sat a forlorn-looking pair of sunglasses, one metal arm badly distorted. A narrow wrench, which appeared to be stained with dried grease or oil, lay on a separate towel alongside the first two items.
“So, tell me, how did all this just happen to fall out of my Camaro?” Rhetta cocked her thumb toward the car.
“Come here, I’ll show you,” Ricky said, leading Rhetta around to the front of what remained of it. The hood was off, the engine was out and both doors sat propped against the wall. The nose, which included the bumper, or front clip, as Ricky called it, was also missing. The body was an empty metal hulk, stripped bare of the old interior. The new custom upholstered seats sat covered by a tarp under the workbench. Ricky had started sanding the body, readying it for painting.
Woody trailed after them, peering over the two women’s shoulders into the Camaro’s empty engine compartment. It awaited the LS1 Corvette powerhouse that was still on a truck inbound from Ohio. The inside fender covering the passenger side front wheel was still in place.
“This fender well is still on, so I can show you how that might have happened,” Ricky said and pointed to the bulbous-shaped inside fender. “See how it’s rounded on top?” She slid her hand over the crest. “These cars are notorious for suckering a mechanic into setting a tool there, just for a second. It slides down, and nine times out of ten, if the tool is narrow enough, it falls through this slot.” She pointed to an opening that measured about one inch by three inches, midway down the fender well. “Whatever slid down wound up staying inside on an inner ledge, with nowhere to go. There are weep holes in that ledge bottom, but they’re only large enough to let water out. Tools stayed trapped. Almost every second generation Camaro mechanic has experienced finding a tool or something in there when they remove the inner fender wells.” Ricky pulled out a tissue from a box nearby and wiped perspiration off her forehead. “I bet no one has ever made a find like this before, though.” She tossed the tissue into the waste can.
Rhetta leaned over and studied the area. “Why did Chevrolet design these like this in the first place?”
Ricky smiled. “Mechanics have been asking that same question for forty years.”
Rhetta returned to the workbench and stared at the old leather wallet. Time had dried out the leather, sending spiderlike cracks across the surface.
Woody examined the fender well a little longer before joining her at the workbench.
“You know we have to call the police. Why didn’t you when you found this?” Rhetta said, waving a hand over the misbegotten booty.
Ricky sighed, then plopped onto a chrome and black mechanic stool sporting a Summit Racing logo across the back. “I guess I wanted you to tell me it would be okay to just ignore this.”
“I hate the thought of putting Jeremy through anything to do with Griffith again. His dad was Griffith’s former partner, Willard Spears. When Mr. Spears died last year, he’d never completely shaken off a blanket of doubt surrounding Griffith’s disappearance, even though he was the primary victim.”
“I really don’t know much about all of that. I’ve only gotten to know Jeremy since you started dating him.” Rhetta didn’t want to add that she wasn’t real fond of Ricky’s new man. He struck her as conceited, and his know-it-all attitude rubbed her as painfully as though she’d used a cheese grater for a skin treatment. She decided now wasn’t the time to bring that up. She had preferred Ricky’s interest in Billy Dan Kercheval, an old friend of Randolph’s, who was the former General Manager of the maintenance division of Inland Electric Co‑Operative.
“Their joint business account for G & S Development had been drained of over a million dollars,” Ricky went on, pulling Rhetta away from her negative contemplations of Jeremy Spears and thoughts of Billy Dan and Ricky together. “Half of that belonged to Willard. He was left broke when Griffith disappeared. Jeremy and his mother, along with Mrs. Griffith, firmly believe that Malcom stole the money and left with his girlfriend.”
Killerfind by Sharon Woods Hopkins / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on17 votes