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Bill Hopkins - Judge Rosswell Carew 01 - Courting Murder, страница 1

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Bill Hopkins - Judge Rosswell Carew 01 - Courting Murder

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Bill Hopkins - Judge Rosswell Carew 01 - Courting Murder

  Courting Murder by Bill Hopkins

  Copyright © 2012 by Bill Hopkins

  Second Edition Print Version

  ISBN-13: 978-0989345651

  ISBN-10: 0989345653

  Cover art: Photograph, “Kentucky Floods 2010,” courtesy of National Resources Conservation Service—Kentucky, May 2010

  Edited by p. b. smith

  Cover design and interior layout by Ellie Searl, Publishista®

  Disclaimer: Courting Murder is a work of fiction. The characters, events, and dialogue herein are fictional and are not intended to represent, re- fer to, or disparage any known person or entity, living or dead. Certain physical characteristics and other descriptive details in this book may have been embellished for the sake of storytelling.

  First published in 2012 by Southeast Missouri State University Press One University Plaza, MS 2650 Cape Girardeau, MO 63701

  First Edition Print Version ISBN: 9780983050438

  Deadly Writes and the Deadly Writes image and colophon are trademarks of Deadly Writes Publishing, LLC

  Deadly Writes Publishing, LLC

  Marble Hill, MO

  Chapter One

  Monday morning

  Grumpy was too happy a word to describe how Rosswell Carew felt. Despite the early hour, summer heat was already leaching into his pores. He missed his booze. All he wanted was some quiet time alone to feel sorry for himself for being so damned sober, but now he had to pretend to be nice to the nosy, dimwitted park ranger blocking the entrance to his refuge of choice, Foggy Top State Park.

  “Hey, Judge Carew.”

  Rosswell stopped and eased out of his Volkswagen. He’d parked next to the rock gazebo that served as the guard hut to chat with the ranger. Rosswell’s mother bought the car brand-new, right after he was born, and named it Vicky, after her college roommate. He didn’t quite know why he still drove the old car; it just felt comfortable and familiar. Next to the park’s entrance, a farmer harvested a first cutting of hay. The tractor’s chugging and the smell of the freshly cut timothy grass created a bucolic scene. Norman Rockwell could have painted what Rosswell beheld.What a glorious morning it would be if only I didn’t have to talk to this guy.

  The ranger scratched his mustache, as scrawny as Rosswell’s. “You’re up with the chickens.” The round-faced man, stuffed into a tan and green uniform, pointed to the early morning sun. In spite of the heat and humidity, the air hugging the ground lay clear, not hazy. Yet things at a distance appeared wavy, as if stuck in a mirage.

  Pushing his trifocal glasses up onto his sweaty nose, Rosswell shoved his brain into gear. He couldn’t remember the ranger’s name, although he’d met and talked with him before. The ranger was related to someone Rosswell knew, but he couldn’t remember who it was. The judge’s memory was slipping.

  “If the sun’s shining, then it’s time to get up,” Rosswell said. “I don’t waste daylight. I’ve got deadlines for the things I want to do.”

  Earlier in the year, a diagnosis of leukemia had finally convinced Rosswell to cherish his time. The possible death sentence transformed hours into precious coins he planned to spend wisely. If he was going to die, the last part of his life would be the best part. Although he didn’t advertise it, he felt the chemo treatments had affected his brain and sometimes left him weak. Needless to say, his brain was essential, like the hands of an artisan. A judge’s brain could turn to evil or good, the same as a technician’s hands could commit sin or virtue. Rosswell had pledged himself to do good. Among other things, there was little chance he’d spend his last days in jail.

  Although Rosswell had nothing resembling a picnic basket in his car, the ranger asked, “Are you having a breakfast picnic?”

  If only his Ranger Rick uniform had a nametag. Wait. I’ve got it. Harry. That was the guy’s name. Rosswell had remembered it. Sometimes he forgot names, but when a name came back to him, he was always right.

  “Harry, I had breakfast at four o’clock this morning.” The ranger’s last name surfaced in Rosswell’s brain: Hillyard. Harry Hillyard. He’d captured the name from all those brain waves scrabbling around inside his head.

  “Hermie, Judge. My name’s Hermie Hillsman.”

  “Sorry.” Damn. My perfect record of recalling names ruined in an instant.

  “No big deal. You meet a lot of people.” Hermie picked up a clipboard. “It’s hard to remember everyone’s name.”

  “Thanks for understanding,” Rosswell said. “I appreciate it, Hermie.” Hermie scanned the papers on his clipboard, making Rosswell wonder if his name was on some terrorist watch list. He looked up at the judge. “You don’t have court this morning?”

  Rosswell decided Hermie was probably an undercover agent for a citizens’ watchdog group, whose goal was making sure that judges didn’t goof off.

  “I’m starting my two-week vacation today.”

  “I see.”

  Among other things, it was Hermie’s job to track the visitors to the park. Rosswell had heard that the ranger sometimes nursed a bottle more than he watched the traffic. Rosswell noted burst blood vessels tracking across Hermie’s lined face, confirming his love of America’s favorite addiction. Rosswell couldn’t fault him for being a boozehound. Pot calling the kettle black and all that.

  Hermie’s Smokey Bear hat perched askew on his head, and he’d tied his green tie in a lumpy version of a Windsor knot. Rosswell thought that if Hermie opened his bloodshot eyes any wider, he’d bleed to death. The Coke bottle he clutched was covered with Spanish writing. Rosswell recognized the real Coca-Cola, probably bought in the Hispanic food section at Walmart. The Mexican version of the popular soft drink was made with sugar, not corn syrup. Hermie obviously craved a real sugar and caffeine high. A faint odor of alcohol floated from his wide mouth. Maybe the soda was spiked. Rum goes better with sugared Coke.

  Hermie asked, “What brings you here this early?”

  “Mushrooms.” Rosswell expected Hermie to accuse him of being a hippie searching for hallucinogens.

  “Mushrooms?” Hermie repeated, his distaste for them evidenced by his scowl. “What kind of mushrooms?”


  “Yes, of course,” Hermie said, although Rosswell knew he meant, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Rosswell pulled a Missouri Department of Conservation handbook from his back pocket. “I’m fully prepared. I know what I’m searching for.” He waved Safe Mushroom Hunting in front of Hermie’s face. The ranger swayed a bit, trying to follow the book, as Rosswell made sure Hermie could see the cover. The publication illustrated every mush- room growing in the state.

  Hermie said, “You could poison yourself.”

  “I’m not going to eat them.”

  Jawing with a minor bureaucrat at the gate of a state park didn’t improve Rosswell’s mood. This was taking far too long. Being friendly was one thing. Being nosy was another.

  Another puzzled look from Hermie. Then, “Oh, right. You know it’s illegal to pick them in a state park. You wouldn’t break the law now, would you? Being a judge and all.” Hermie moved his hat around, as if screwing it onto his head. “Why are you hunting them?”

  “Let me explain. You’re absolutely right, Hermie, but I’m not going to pick them. I’m going to take photos of them.” Rosswell flourished his Nikon. “I’ve studied all kinds of plants and animals. You do that before you take pictures of them.”

  “You have to study to take pictures?”

  “Right,” Rosswell said. “If you want something done right, then you must draw up
a plan before you attack.”

  “My wife’s a good photographer. She’s teaching our boy to take pictures. He’s twelve next week.”

  “That’s great,” Rosswell said. “The world needs good photographers to record all its beauty.” Since he believed his own words, he spoke them with sincerity.

  “Uh, yeah,” Hermie said. “Don’t do nothing illegal.”

  “I’m pretty sure it’s legal to snap the little critters. That’s what I’m here for.”

  “Critters? Mushrooms ain’t critters.”

  “You’re right again, Hermie. I was using the word ‘critter’ as a generic term for the concept of ‘thing’.”

  “Yeah. I see.” Hermie, who clearly did not see, chewed on this before adjusting his hat again. “You’re not going to take pictures of poisonous mushrooms?”

  A rumble of thunder many miles to the west startled Rosswell. There was no ozone stink from a lightning bolt. The storm was not yet close enough.

  “I agree,” Rosswell said. “I shouldn’t discriminate against poison mushrooms.”

  Hermie grinned. “Be careful up there. It rained nearly three inches last night and it could rain again this morning. The river’s running bank full.” He pointed to the gray clouds now heading toward them, growing darker by the moment. Hermie didn’t miss a thing.

  Brief yet intense thunderstorms often marched through this part of the country during the summer, dumping torrents of water in a short time. The supercell storms sometimes not only produced excessive amounts of water but often whipped up tornadoes. Rosswell could feel the barometric pressure dropping, a sure sign of a storm brewing. Something nasty crawled around inside his head, fixing to stomp his brain. Migraine headaches accompanied by auras were a couple of delightful things he often experienced before major storms.

  Rosswell assured him, “If it rains, I won’t drive through any standing water. I don’t want to get swept downstream.”

  Hermie pointed again to the west where cumulonimbus clouds massed. “Don’t drown.” He straightened his tie. “Turn around.”

  “There’s another saying.”

  “Another saying?”

  He offered Hermie something else to chew on. “There are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”

  There was a peace symbol where the VW logo had once been on the tongue-shaped hood of the Super Beetle Cabriolet. Rosswell touched it for luck, hopped back in, and then drove his convertible, top down, into the park. With a hard right and a drive up a hill, he pulled into Picnic Area 3. He was alone at his favorite picnic site. Attendance at the park had plummeted the last few years. First, the park was located off a gravel road, which intersected with a rarely used and paved county road. Second, water parks, swimming pools, electronic games, cable television, cell phones, the Internet, McDonald’s and whatever, had outranked sitting around in the open staring at trees, eating stale sandwiches, and drinking lukewarm sweet tea.

  The picnic area roosted on a low and isolated hill. It was surrounded by thick woods and bisected by a small stream that ran into a river. Mimosa trees sprouted their spiky pink flowers around the clearing. Rosswell caressed and smelled one of the blooms. The hill beyond the picnic area tapered down into the river, which produced a soothing sound that only running water makes. Rosswell decided he’d take a nap by the river when he took a break from snapping pictures later on. The view afforded him a horizon to horizon panorama of valleys, ridges, creeks, and other hills. It was nowhere as spectacular as the Rocky Mountains or even the Smoky Mountains, but it was home and it was beautiful.

  As Hermie had pointed out, there had been a tremendous thunder- storm last night with plenty of rain. The drenching had freshened up the place. Although it was early in the summer, the heat was already stifling and the humidity was rank. Perfect weather for mushrooms sprouting. The air smelled of vigorous growth. Rosswell was stalking the Chanterelle, a small golden mushroom that lived in the semi- darkness surrounding the park’s stands of decades old white oak trees. He knew Chanterelles were most likely to grow around the bases of such trees.

  When he ambled around a bend and approached a white oak festooned with mistletoe in its upper branches, his super-sensitive nose shifted into overdrive. The odor was familiar, but not pleasant. Definitely not sweet. It was the beginnings of the worst smell in the world, a smell he knew, thanks to Uncle Sam awarding him a free tour of the Middle East. A smell that clung to your clothes, hair, skin, and the insides of your mouth and nostrils long after you’d left its source. Stuff cottage cheese, lettuce, meat, and milk in a garbage can. Let the crud fester in a sunny room in a closed-up house during the hottest days of summer. After a week, pry off the lid and suck in a deep breath. That wouldn’t even be close to what he now smelled. The assault on Rosswell’s olfactory system blossomed into a nuclear bombardment. The migraine ballooned from a minor irritant to a full-blown head banger.

  Rosswell gagged. If he’d brought Vicks VapoRub, it would’ve melted in the heat before he could swab his nostrils to block the odor. As much as it offended his sense of smell, he drew several deep breaths to keep from puking. When that seemed on the verge of failing, he breathed through his mouth.

  Pushing himself towards the nauseating odor grew harder and harder. It commanded all his willpower to move forward. He really wanted to run like a hornet had stung his ass, but he pressed on. Something up ahead had mushroomed into a major stinkfest. All around him lay nothing but what seemed to be normal woodsy stuff, until he heard the buzzing of a million insects. Swiveling towards the sound, he watched a flurry of dark flying things rising and falling, great masses of bugs hovering over mounds of something. The swarm sang of death and decay.

  He inched closer.

  About thirty feet away, two bloated figures lay on the bank of the stream, now running full nearly to overflowing due to the previous night’s rain. Perhaps it was a double drowning. No, people didn’t drown and then crawl up on the bank. Maybe a murder-suicide. Or maybe garden variety natural deaths. No. He doubted that two people had died natural deaths while lying next to each other. There was only one explanation for what he saw. He was looking at two murdered humans.

  He scanned the area again. No one else around.

  Rosswell snatched up his cellphone. Two words: NO SERVICE.

  He galloped back to his car and drove the convertible out of the site, stopping to pull a big log across the road. That should forestall any more accidental discoveries of the grisly scene. People don’t move logs off roads. It involved manual labor.

  Back at the front gate, Hermie said, “Done already, Judge? That was quick.” The faint odor of alcohol had grown stronger.

  Two bars popped up on Rosswell’s phone. “Hermie, don’t let anyone else into the park.” Speed dial rushed the call. A slug or two of Jack Daniel’s sounded good to Rosswell. He pondered for a millisecond about asking Hermie if he had any booze to spare and share. No, that would get the rumor mill pumping full steam. In addition, he’d been sober for five years, three weeks, and two days. Since he hadn’t worn his watch, he wasn’t sure of the number of hours. Rosswell checked the time on his phone. Add fourteen hours and thirty-seven minutes to the time of sobriety.

  On the other end, the phone rang. No answer and no voicemail. It simply kept ringing.

  “How come I can’t let anyone in?” Hermie shined his badge with a shirt cuff. “The park’s open and I have to let people in.” He’d undoubtedly heard rumors about the judge who did and said strange things. Especially after Rosswell had a snootful. “I can’t tell people they’re barred from the park. The taxpayers expect their park to be open.”

  “That’s a court order. No one comes in this park. And you stop and detain anyone who tries to leave. That’s a court order, too.”

  “Court order? Stop and detain?”

  “Something bad’s happened.”

  Rosswell’s call ended. He pressed redial.

  Hermie’s eyes brightened. Apparently, the thought that he might stop and d
etain someone under a court order from a judge put visions of a headline-worthy arrest in his brain. “Stop and detain. I got it. Stop and detain.”

  Rosswell could tell that Hermie liked the sound of the phrase. The ranger straightened his spine, jutted his chin and belly forward, pulled his shoulders back, and dropped his hands to his side. He saluted Rosswell, whose gut rumbled a warning that Hermie couldn’t be trusted to guard a crime scene.

  “Frizz,” Rosswell said when he eventually got an answer, “I’m here with Hermie Hillsman at the front gate out at Foggy Top. There’re two bodies in Picnic Area 3.”

  Hermie belched and stiffened even more, whipping his head left and right to inspect the area around him. The news sobered him. His frown made Rosswell glad the ranger didn’t have a gun, else he may have shot an innocent picnicker on sight if the picnicker didn’t want to be stopped and detained.

  “Bodies?” Sheriff Charles “Frizz” Dodson yelled into the phone at his end of the conversation. “Rosswell, don’t you touch a damned thing. I’ll be right there.”

  Frizz seemed particularly cranky. He hung up before Rosswell could tell him goodbye. That was no way to talk to a judge. And what the hell did he think Rosswell would touch? His cellphone felt hot, as if Frizz’s blast had heated up its innards.

  Hermie said, “There are two bodies up there?”


  “Are they fresh?”

  Rosswell sniffed but at this distance couldn’t smell anything nasty. “Not very.”

  “How long have they been dead?”

  “Hermie,” Rosswell said, ignoring his question, “do you have video surveillance here?” He waved his hand around, pointing to various locations in the gazebo.

  “You mean like a movie camera?”

  The heat made sweat pour down Rosswell’s face and neck. “Yeah, like a movie camera.” His patience evaporated as the sweat increased. The thickening clouds in the sky had no effect on the high temperature, but they made his head hurt. The migraine made Rosswell long for clear blue skies.

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