A Valley To Die For

Carrie and Henry come to the Ozarks on separate quests.  What they find is murder!

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Carrie Culpepper McCrite, star of "Something to Die For" mystery series, is an employee of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, so she's familiar with Arkansas' adventure places. And, she can't seem to keep her nose away from humans in distress-or murder.

In A VALLEY TO DIE FOR, newly widowed Carrie McCrite, ignoring warnings from friends and family that "older women don't DO that," has left a sheltered city life and moved to the rural Ozarks. She yearns to prove she's a strong, capable woman. One of Carrie's new neighbors in Arkansas is JoAnne Harrington, an example of female independence and strength.

When a stone quarry threatens to turn Carrie's beautiful valley into heaps of gravel, the two women and their neighbors band together to fight for the valley. Then someone decides that JoAnne must die.

Carrie feels compelled to uncover and destroy the evil now swirling around her. But another new neighbor, retired Kansas City Police Major, Henry King, warns Carrie that she may be the killer's real target.

How strong can Carrie be? How quickly can she identify the murderer? How much danger can she survive?

It's time to seek answers in A VALLEY TO DIE FOR.

 

Introduction


August, four years ago

   The man still looked like he was trying to swallow a sour pickle whole.

   Carrie watched in silence as he jumped in the moving van, jerked it into gear, and began the winding climb toward the county road.

   He hadn't even smiled when she handed him the cashier's check. About all he had done through the long afternoon was carry and sweat and frown. And swear. Actually, swearing was what she'd heard most from the three people in the moving crew--including the woman, who looked like she could lift a refrigerator by herself. The movers swore at the trees, the rocky, uneven ground, the heat, and probably at her too, when she was out of earshot.

   She hadn't gathered enough courage to complain about the swearing. They were, after all, carrying her possessions.

   Now, at last, they were gone. Carrie stood on the concrete pad in front of her garage and watched the cloud of dust on the road thin and settle. Then the grinding thunder of the truck engine faded and, except for insects, birds, and other forest creatures, she was alone.

   She leaned her head back to look into treetops that arched above her new home, a six-room log cabin full of wood smell and, now, full of boxes and partially arranged furniture.

   Carrie put thoughts of house straightening aside for the moment. Rob would be here in the morning to help unpack and put up hooks and pictures and curtains. Other than finding something to eat and making her bed, settling in could wait.

   She began to turn slowly, still looking up into the treetops. She was, she decided, performing a symbolic ritual--turning away from asphalt, traffic, lined-up buildings, and rushing people. She was also turning away from Mrs. Amos Anderson McCrite, city wife. She was now Carrie Culpeper McCrite, independent woman, and Ozarks forest dweller.

   She stood in a green well with walls unbroken by anything but the narrow window of her lane to the road.

   Actually, she couldn't blame the moving people for swearing. The hole in the forest was cut for one small woman and one small house and car, not a moving van. She hadn't thought of moving vans or lumber delivery trucks when she directed the worker who helped her make this clearing. She was only thinking of getting away from the city and living her own life--living in peaceful harmony with the creatures of the forest.

   The forest creatures were fitting enough company for her. Forest creatures didn't have money, and now she didn't either, though Amos had promised that they would eventually retire here in style.

   Well, she was in the Ozarks all right, but she was also alone in the remnants of a world that had shattered when a bullet ended every plan Amos had made for both of them.

   "Cut down in his prime," they'd said, over and over. How stupid--stupid--that sounded, especially when the words dripped with sympathy. Amos had been sixty-five. When was prime? If she, too, was prime, why had everyone but Rob treated her as if when Amos ceased to exist she did too?

   After the awful stuff to do with his death was sorted out, moving to this Ozarks land, the dreaming place she and Amos had bought and held for their future, was all she could afford if she wanted to be independent. And she would do just fine here, no matter what everyone said.

   Everyone but Rob. Her son, at least, felt she was capable of rational action.

   So. It was time to move on, forget... She shook her head violently, but now the picture was back again...Amos, lying just over there on the hillside...and the blood...

   Stop, stop it! That was past, gone! She had prayed, asked for guidance, and she had listened. Well, tried to listen, and this felt right--a fresh start, a new life.

   Next week she'd begin looking for a job in one of the nearby towns. Maybe McDonald's. They hired senior citizens. Social Security and the surprisingly small amount Amos had left her weren't going to stretch very far.

   No matter how he insisted otherwise, Rob didn't have room in his life for her, and he certainly didn't have room in his apartment near the university.

   A teaching assistant. Soon to be a Ph.D. She said it aloud, "Dr. Robert Amos McCrite." But his life was foreign to her now, even more foreign than living alone in a forest.

   Besides, she was independent, her own person. Except, except...she really wasn't sure who that person might be.

   Her family and friends said she should be considering a retirement village or apartment. Women of her age, they said, glancing at each other when they thought she couldn't see them, simply did not go off and live alone in a forest.

   Only Rob had supported her. She wasn't sure he understood, but he'd helped her stand firm against dire forecasts about what might happen to her, off in "that wild, lonely place."

   Rob, at least, knew how un-lonely a forest could be.

   "And," he'd said to Velda and Dusty and Pat and the others, "she's only seven miles from the town of Guilford, and there are neighbors less than a mile away. It isn't a wilderness, after all."

   Now the sun was heading toward treetops in the west. Carrie stood very still as bird calls and cicada droning filled the air with throbbing twirps and hums. Her new world was noisier than the city had been, and she certainly wasn't alone. There was life all around her. So, why did she feel--for the first time since she'd made the decision to move here--so small and frightened? Why did she feel so very much alone?

   She blinked, then said, "Carrie McCrite, you will not cry!"

   Hearing the words startled her even more than it did the pair of wrens hopping nearby, intent on catching a grasshopper.

   The grunt of an engine being downshifted for a turn into her lane wiped out every other concern as she realized strangers were coming to this place, where all people would now be strangers.

   She wasn't ready. She needed more time! Carrie began a quick jog toward her front door, then halted.

   No.

   It was inevitable that strangers would come. She had to face that, so she might as well do it this very minute.

   She lifted her chin and looked up the hill, standing firm as a battered grey truck bounced into view. The truck didn't stop at the bottom of the lane, but turned boldly onto the parking pad. Carrie backed up, stumbled when her heel hit the front step, and sat down with a thump as the truck's right front tire rolled to a halt beside her feet.

   The driver's door opened.

   The first thing Carrie saw was shoe-polish black hair that frizzed every way but straight up. Then dark eyes in a dried apple doll face peered down at her over the truck's hood, and a waxed-paper-wrapped sandwich sailed through the air, landing in her lap.

   She's very tall, thought Carrie, who felt frozen in place, incapable of getting up to greet her guest. It was as if she was standing aside, watching herself, and trying to figure out whether or not to be frightened.

   The woman's words rushed out. "You alone? Thought so, house didn't look like it was being made ready for two, heard the movers leave, hope you like turkey, 'n if you don't, we'll call it funny ham. We can sit here on the step and eat, y'don't have to ask me in yet."

   The stranger was dressed in a faded chambray shirt and jeans tucked into stove-pipe boots. She came around the truck, stepped over Carrie's feet as if they were obstacles she faced every day, and opened the passenger door to take out two bottles of lemonade and a package of cookies.

   The tumble of words began again while she was folding her long legs to sit beside Carrie on the step. "JoAnne Harrington, your nearest neighbor." A finger pointed. "Live that way along the ridge. Got high boots you can put on? After we eat, I'm headed to check on the Jerusalem artichokes by the old fence, thought you might want to come along. We can harvest them together this fall. I'll share, they're on your land anyway."

   The woman's laugh was surprisingly girlish.

   Carrie hadn't the slightest idea what to say, but in a moment she began laughing too.


Chapter I


   "If nothing else works, we'll sit on the dynamite."

   That's what JoAnne had said last Saturday, looking around at the seven of them, her eyes challenging any reluctance...or fear.

   Impossible!

   Carrie had looked around too, checking the expression on each face in Roger and Shirley's living room. She was sure not a single one of them was willing to do such a stupid, dangerous thing, no matter how much they yearned to save the valley.

   They'd all lived long lives, but that didn't mean they were now willing to throw life away, to "put it on the line for a cause," as JoAnne was urging them to do.

   As far as Carrie was concerned, life became more precious with every passing year. It was not older people but the young ones who too often didn't appreciate its value.

   JoAnne hadn't seemed to notice the silence that greeted her pronouncement, but then JoAnne was like that--single-minded, fearless, always a willing fighter for a cause she believed in--and bullheaded as a goat. Uh, no, that must be thickheaded as a goat. (One had to be completely honest, even about one's best friend.)

   Now, sitting safely in her own kitchen a week later, Carrie wondered what set dynamite off. She hadn't asked, mostly because JoAnne seemed to know, and JoAnne would be scornful if Carrie admitted she didn't. Probably you lit a fuse.

   But was that all? What happened if you dropped it or wiggled it or...sat on it?

   There had to be information somewhere. Maybe an encyclopedia...

   Rob probably knew, or could find out on the Internet, but then he'd have to know why his mother was asking such a question, and when he found out, why, of course, he'd have a fit.

   One fit from her son would be an excuse to get out of the whole mess. But wouldn't that make her a traitor to the cause--a cause she really did believe in?

   Carrie pushed aside the coffee mug that said, "MOM for President," and stared out into the awakening forest. She pictured the valley caves with their exotic formations and the layered bluffs, clear creek, wildflowers, and berries, all about to be blasted to oblivion just to make road fill, for goodness sake.

   On the other hand, maybe dynamite wasn't what they used today. Everyone knew now that explosions could be done with some sort of fertilizer.

   If the blasting came, what they used sure wouldn't matter much. The results would be the same. Beauty and peace in their valley would become a monstrous joke.

   Did the quarry people think raw rock piles were beautiful?

   Probably. Smashed rock meant money to them, and, for many people, money equaled beauty. They'd see the valley's limestone bluffs as a pile of money, nothing more.

   She shut her eyes and thought about walking along the quiet valley road in early summer, pausing, as she always did, where wild hydrangea bushes tumbled down the southern bluff to the very edge of the berm left by road graders. She gathered bouquets in her mind, filling her arms with clusters of tiny florets surrounded by popcorn puffs of white blossoms--so beautiful against the dark green leaves.

   Now, in November, the bushes displayed empty seed heads ringed with papery brown blossoms, a left-over beauty she could take freely. She never picked the summer blooms lest she rob quail of food, or humans of viewing pleasure.

   She had put a bouquet of dried wild hydrangea on the coffee table last weekend, a subdued arrangement that suited the fall landscape outside her windows.

   Unlike JoAnne, Carrie had rarely been a protestor. After more than sixty years on earth, she was wise enough to realize that most people who knew her didn't have any idea what protests she might be hiding. Life had always been easier that way; and now, it seemed safer too.

   She thought about courage and wondered if she had it.

   Maybe, just maybe...standing up for what one believed in...?

   But it would still be no more than a gesture--only putting off the inevitable--unless they found a legal way to stop the quarry.

   And, maybe they had found something, or, at least, maybe JoAnne had. She'd sounded different over the phone last night, excited even, and had been about to tell Carrie why when her cat dumped a jar over on the kitchen counter. She'd stopped talking then, said she had to go clean up the cat's mess, and Carrie would have to wait until today and hear about it with all the others. Then JoAnne had giggled. Drat! JoAnne wouldn't care if wondering about what the news was kept her friend awake all night--which it hadn't, since Carrie knew it must be good news from her Thursday meeting with the State Environmental Commission in Little Rock.

   A twinge of pain crossed Carrie's forehead, and an involuntary frown deepened the lines there. JoAnne accomplished so much, she was so very capable! Carrie wished she, too, had good news to report. She didn't. No one at the meeting would look at her with hope and admiration showing in their eyes.

   Down in the hollow, fog was drifting through dark tree trunks, but when the sun lifted above the ridge, the fog would fade, and they'd have a good day for the meeting. She looked up at her blue and white wall clock, then shut her eyes again, thinking she should pray for the valley. Even before words could form, ringing music from Handel's Messiah boomed into her head:

   "Every valley shall be exalted."

   Exalted, yes, but how could they keep it safe?

   Her lower lip pushed out. It wasn't a pout--far from it. She'd begun using the gesture as her own small act of defiance years ago, when her parents insisted that their only child must eat liver. In protest against what she saw then (and, even now) as incomprehensible adult behavior, she'd stuck out her lower lip.

   It did no good. Her parents ignored the gesture. By the time she was in first grade, she'd given up on even that protest and it was eventually forgotten. Now, seated in her blue and white kitchen, Carrie remembered, pushed out the defiant lip, and felt much better.

   When you came right down to it, blowing up the valley was yet another adult action that Carrie Culpeper McCrite found incomprehensible.

   "Can't stop progress," the County Judge had told her only yesterday. "Road department needs stone, needs a quarry nearby. Save tax money. You folks that pay taxes oughta be glad, not doin' complainin' about one valley bein' messed up a bit. That's progress.

   "Now, there, Mrs. um, MacWhite, you go on back home and enjoy your bird watchin'. I'll run the county in a proper manner, do what's best for all you folks."

   He had squeaked forward in his chair and smiled up at her. "Can't stop progress, now, can we?"

   Progress! Well, it depended on how you defined the word. At that moment, Carrie McCrite almost forgot herself. She'd wanted to reach across the desk and shake the man. If only she'd had the courage. Remembering, she smiled at the thought of it and wondered what that big man would have done if a pudgy, five-foot-two, grey-haired female grabbed his fleshy shoulders and shook him 'til his head bobbed.

   He'd see. He was young. He didn't understand anything about tough women. He didn't know JoAnne Harrington or...or...the rest of them.

   That County Judge had something to learn.

   Carrie shoved her chair back with a bang, went to spoon more instant coffee into her mug, poured hot water, then returned to her place at the kitchen table. She leaned forward and stared out the window again, trying to re-capture the feeling of peace and well-being that early morning in Blackberry Hollow brought to her.

   Day came late to the hollow, especially when there was fog. Sun was just now edging down through the trees, but her bird feeders had been busy for some time. Cardinals, indigo buntings, woodpeckers, chickadees--a colorful bunch. The "tink tink" of the cardinals always cheered her.

   Even if the stone quarry came, she'd still have her own twenty-five acres of protected forest. But every time she drove down to the Booths' farm, she'd see not a valley but rock piles, dust, blasting, heavy machinery, and an army of growling trucks.

   Thinking about it, Carrie, who never swore, murmured, "Just like Hell," into her coffee mug.

   A sharp crack from over the hill punctuated the words, and she winced.

   Deer rifle! Close. Too close.

   It was like this every November.

   Crack.

   Sounds were funny in the woods. Maybe it wasn't that close after all.

   Carrie knew hunting thinned out a deer population that could be too plentiful, but during hunting season her woods were a new and dangerous world. Posting didn't always stop those who came into the area with guns; some hunters ignored the markings.

   When she walked through the forest during hunting season, she wore her old orange ski jacket and a hunter's hat and sometimes even sang aloud or carried her portable radio tuned to a music station. But why should she have to be afraid on her own land any time of year?

   Because she knew all too well how far a shot from a deer rifle could carry. One had carried far enough to kill Amos.

   She'd found the bloody remains of a butchered deer in the woods last November and, for a time, that brought back the nightmares.

   Now they were out there again, hidden among the trees, shooting.

   Until that awful November five years ago, the woods had always been a sanctuary for her--a cozy, welcoming place.

   Amos, on the other hand, had loved these rocky, tree-covered hills because they made him feel masculine and strong. He'd never said anything to her, but she'd understood. She'd known exactly why he was planning to move here when he retired from his law practice in Tulsa, and why he agreed so quickly when she urged him to buy this land early so they could visit it on weekends. She'd won him over completely when she mentioned, very casually, that he could cut their firewood here, and, in November, he could hunt.

   If only she hadn't mentioned hunting.

   Amos had almost swaggered that morning as he and his friend, Evan Walters, headed out to harvest deer. The two men had talked about the opening weekend of hunting season for months. They'd built the deer stand in late summer and begun putting out dried corn in the fall.

   Since the weather that weekend was warm for November, Carrie offered to come along and serve a picnic. She didn't mind waiting, sitting in a lawn chair reading or poking about in the woods near the road.

   But, only minutes after they left her, there had been a shot, a cry from Evan. She could still hear that cry.

   Then he had crashed back wildly, faced her, and...

   It all felt like a bad dream now. It was as if, over the last five years, she had become disconnected from the real event, the horrible thing that was "only an accident."

   Now, for her, the horror usually stayed in its own dim shadow, hidden away, and the friendliness of the woods had returned. But Evan couldn't seem to forget that day, even after five years--even after he'd been cleared of any homicidal intent by the courts. Thank goodness she no longer needed to see the man.

   You couldn't change the past, so why didn't he just get on with his life? After all, she had! She'd been on her own for a long time when, at age twenty-nine, she married Amos McCrite. Their marriage had never been more than a friendship, so now, well, being alone was just fine, and she was proving she could cope, no matter what her age. No matter what, period!

   It took her a moment to come back to the present and realize the phone was ringing. She looked at the clock again. Still early. It would be JoAnne.

   Carrie had never decided if JoAnne didn't understand how she valued her early morning quiet time or understood completely and didn't care. One thing for sure, JoAnne herself didn't spend much time being quiet. JoAnne was a lot like Amos.

   But it wasn't JoAnne, not at all. Henry's rumbling voice apologized for disturbing her.

   "Is JoAnne there?" he asked. "She wanted help organizing the notes from her meeting with the Environmental Commission and asked me to come by this morning, but when I got there, she didn't answer the door. The cat came to the window and yowled at me, that's all. Did she forget?"

   Carrie wasn't surprised. JoAnne was always going off on spur-of-the-moment quests. She had simply found something she considered more interesting or important than a meeting with her neighbor, Henry King. Still, it was odd that, given her opinion of all men, she'd invited Henry's help in the first place, instead of asking Carrie to come.

   Not only was Henry male, he'd been a cop. To JoAnne--who had pushed against lines of uniformed men during the war in Vietnam, had marched for civil rights, the ERA, and even chained herself to a log skidder in the Ozark National Forest--being in any kind of law enforcement was about as low as a man could go. Nothing Carrie could say softened JoAnne's opinion about that.

   She wondered if JoAnne had ever faced off against a woman law officer. She must remember to ask.

   Once more Carrie checked the clock. Wherever she was now, JoAnne would be back for the Walden Valley Committee meeting in an hour and a half. After all, having the meeting was her idea in the first place.

   A rumble coming from the phone broke into her thoughts. "Carrie, hello, are you there?"

   "Oh, sorry, Henry, I was thinking about JoAnne. No, she's not here, and I haven't heard from her this morning. I have no idea where she might be. She's usually up and busy quite early. She may have gotten into some new project hours ago and just plain forgot you were coming, or she could be out wandering the valley again, or maybe she's just gone to town for cat food or milk or something."

   She knew she was babbling, but couldn't think what else to say. Evidently it didn't matter, because when Henry spoke again, he changed the subject.

   "Cara, maybe we could go for a walk in the valley after the meeting, just the two of us, then drive into town for lunch?"

   His use of the nickname, as well as his invitation, made her feel strangely warm, and she wondered--as she had more than once before--if Henry wanted a closer friendship. Some types of friendship could intrude on her independence if she let them. She was aware of that, even without JoAnne's constant reminders.

   But Henry was such a comfortable person to be with, and he'd never said or done anything that wasn't suitable. It wasn't a male-female thing at all.

   She said, "Sorry, but I can't. I'm baking caramel rolls, sort of a brunch. Everyone is invited to stay for rolls and coffee after the meeting, and then I need to work on the new brochures for our racks at the tourist center. I've got boxes of them to go over before Monday. Don't worry about JoAnne. I'm sure she'll be back in time. She'll just have to make do without your organizing help."

   His voice was suddenly sharp. "She'd better get back, it's her meeting."

   He paused, then said, more gently, "Will you be through with your work by supper time?"

   She almost laughed at this follow-up, but stopped the laugh and was quiet for a moment. There could be nothing wrong in going to supper together. She would enjoy it, and he always treated her like an intelligent fellow human. How else should she expect him to act, at their age?

   In this case, JoAnne just didn't know what she was talking about. There was no harm in going out with Henry. He wasn't going to make holes in her independence. He probably wanted to discuss plans for the valley protest, that was all.

   So she said, "If that's an invitation, may I call you about 3:30? I'll know by then how my work's going. I would enjoy eating out." She bit off saying "thank you," hearing JoAnne's voice warning her that thanking a man for something you wouldn't thank a woman for was subservient.

   Instead, she finished, "See you at the meeting," put the phone down, and went to sit in her chair again. Henry didn't know JoAnne well enough to understand her odd ways, but Carrie sure understood why he was interested in what the State Environmental Commission in Little Rock had to say on Thursday.

   She frowned as her thoughts went back to the quarry. Though everyone on the committee but Roger and Shirley Booth lived in the hills around Walden Valley, they had all come to feel the entire area--hills, bluffs, the Booths' pastures and carefully tended dairy herd, even Walden Creek itself--belonged to each of them. It had been quiet countryside for so long.

   Too bad none of them had paid attention to the abandoned farm next to Roger and Shirley. Even that was picturesque, with its collapsing barn and the pink brick chimney that stood tall, years after the home it had once warmed burned to the ground. No one had wondered what might happen to that old farm. Now they knew too well. Quarry operators had bought it.

   Well, all right. Her lip went out again. They would win this fight! Surely there were other places less valuable that a quarry could go if, indeed, the county really needed another quarry.

   The blue and white clock reminded her it was time to get ready for the meeting, and she went to set out plates and cups. One of these days she'd better buy some kind of coffee maker. Guests probably thought instant coffee was pretty tacky. Well, they probably thought any ready-prepared food was tacky. Who cared? Hospitality was about feelings, not food.

   She opened the refrigerator, took out three pop-open packages of breakfast rolls, got her cookie sheets, then turned on the oven. Maybe she'd heat some of those cute little frozen sausages too. It was chilly, folks would be hungry.

   As she worked, Carrie began humming a song she'd invented for Rob's bath time when he was a toddler. He'd reminded her of it last summer, saying he still couldn't keep from chanting it to himself in the shower, though its original purpose had been to make a game out of cleaning his ears--as well as under arms and between toes, where he was ticklish.

   "Down in the valleys, under arms and toes.

   Make the valleys clean where the washcloth goes.

   Valleys are (whish and sw-o-o-p) CLEAN!"

   Another rifle shot cracked. It sounded very close, and she flinched, imagining a bullet whistling by her house.

   She wondered if JoAnne had heard the shots, wherever she was. JoAnne didn't like hunters on her land. JoAnne didn't like hunters, period.

   Well, nothing she could do about it now.

   Carrie looked around her kitchen, then nodded to herself. It would be all right. This was her sanctuary, her home. No one would intrude on that.

   She was singing Rob's valley song loudly enough to drown out any whistling bullets when she left the kitchen and went to finish getting dressed for the meeting.

 

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