Cover - Behind Every Door - Cynthia A. Grahan

When another murder rocks Cherokee Crossing, Hick Blackburn learns that secrets lurk behind every door and are hidden in every heart. Some lead to disappointment. Some lead to murder.

When a school secretary is found murdered alongside a ditch outside of Cherokee Crossing, Arkansas, none of the usual scenarios seem to fit. Hick Blackburn, a sheriff more interested in finding justice than keeping peace, is compelled to construct the last months of her life to unearth what may have led to her death. With the citizens of Cherokee Crossing increasingly suspicious of the boys who found her body, Hick must battle the town’s narrow-mindedness and quickly find those responsible.

As the investigation unfolds, it is clear that everyone has something to hide, including Hick’s own family and friends. As age-old lies come to light, Hick must face the truth that people aren’t always what they seem. And to find  the killer, he will learn that having secrets isn’t a crime. But that some secrets can lead to murder.

Praise for Cynthia Graham and her first Hick Blackburn novel, Beneath Still Waters:

“Beneath Still Waters is Southern lit at its finest and most poignant.”

- Historical Novel Society, an editor’s choice selection

Beneath Still Waters immediately gripped me The writing itself is beautiful and appears effortless. It feels like the authentic post-war South in every way. Lines like, ‘Now, Tobe kept company with ghosts and entertained them with whiskey’ felt genuine and poignant. Graham’s descriptions are vivid and poetic, and there’s a nice balance of exposition and dialogue. I strongly recommend this book to lovers of mystery, historical fiction, or any great, character-driven fiction. Cynthia A. Graham has certainly proven herself with this debut novel.”

- K.D. Kort, Goodreads reviewer

“Lovingly told [and] packed with genuine characters, the story beautifully evokes the small town mentality, church going, family ties, and old fashioned values.”

- George, NetGalley reviewer

Key Words: mystery, crime and suspense, southern literature, deep south, literary, post-traumatic stress disorder, post-World War II

Author Bio:

Cynthia A. Graham was born in St. Louis, Missouri. As a child she spent every weekend and vacation in the cotton belt of Missouri where she grew to love the mystery and beauty of the stark, Delta Plain. Cynthia graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Missouri – St. Louis with a B.A. in English. She has won several awards for her short stories and has been published in a number of anthologies. Behind Every Door is the sequel to her first novel, Beneath Still Waters, also featuring Sheriff Hick Blackburn.

 Enjoy this excerpt!

Chapter One

“Slow down,” Adam complained as the squad car bottomed out again sending shockwaves through his spine and splattering the windshield with mud.

Hunched over the steering wheel, Hick flipped on the windshield wipers and squinted into the distance. “I can’t. This one is personal.”

Sheriff Andrew Jackson “Hick” Blackburn and Deputy Adam Kinion, Hick’s brother-in-law, were headed west along Number Nine Ditch. The vegetation on the left was soggy and sparse, the yellow grass bent and crippled by too much water. On the right, tiny cotton plants struggled to emerge from beneath a field of gritty mud and pools of standing water. The dirt road used by the Army Corps of Engineers was routinely maintained, but the late spring rains had given it a beating and the squad car jolted heavily, tires spinning in washed out ruts.

“There they are,” Adam said, pointing at a teenager who waved at them from the top of the levee. Hick pulled in beside a rusted, ancient pickup, slammed the car in park, and jumped out.

At the top of the levee, the air was like a living thing, wrapping hot, suffocating arms around them, squeezing lungs and making it hard to breath. Everything smelled of mud and standing water and blood and death. Below them stood another teen and nearby, half-submerged in the ditch was the body. One arm clung crazily to the lower limb of a young tree so that the head and right shoulder remained above the water line. A foot in either direction would have landed the corpse in the ditch where it would have likely been carried on to the river, never to be found.

“Hey Sheriff,” Eben Delaney said, holding out his hand. Hick shook it and noted the scanty bucket of fish that would most likely be the Delaney’s mid-day meal. Tenant farmers who lived in a tar-paper shack between Cherokee Crossing and Pocahontas, Arkansas, the boys had been the sole source of income for their family since their father had died in prison thirteen years earlier. At this time of year, before cotton chopping and picking began, Hick knew money was scarce.

The drainage ditch was nearly full, and Hick didn’t have far to go to get to the body. His feet slid as he scrambled down the bank, and the small hope he’d allowed to linger quickly vanished. Gladys Kestrel, the high school secretary, was dead. He didn’t need Jake Prescott’s assessment. The swollen, gaping wound on the side of her head covered in thick congealed blood and gnats testified to the cause of death. He removed his hat and ran his sleeve across his eyes, wiping away the stinging sweat. He gagged and covered his nose with his handkerchief as he surveyed the rise above her.

Adam moved a branch of the small tree and knelt beside Hick. He turned to Eben. “What happened, boys?”

Jed Delaney, Eben’s younger brother, clambered through the muddy grass. “Don’t you put this on us.”

“Hush, Jed,” Eben said, but Jed went on. “We didn’t do no wrong, so don’t you put this on us.”

“Just tell us what happened,” Hick ordered.

“Don’t say nothin’,” Jed warned.

“You crazy, you know that?” Eben told his brother. Turning to Hick he said, “Me and Jed come out afore sunrise to catch a mess of fish for the young’uns at home. We done been to number six ditch but they stopped biting so we come down here. We was walking the levee when we spied some dogs at something. We thought maybe it might be a deer and good eating so we run up to ’em and chased ’em off. That’s when we found her. I seen her in town before and knowed who she was right off.”

Involuntarily, Hick shuddered. He remembered Gladys at her desk outside his father’s door at the school. More than the high school principal’s secretary, she was Hick’s advocate whenever he found himself in trouble. She never failed to give him an encouraging smile before he went into the office. He remembered her appearance, always neat, always fastidious and glanced down at the figure before him. “How long ago did you find her?” he asked Eben.

“Judging by the sun, I reckon about nine o’clock.”

Glancing at his watch, Hick noted it was a little past ten. The sound of a vehicle struggling through the slick, sandy mud caught his attention and he looked up to see Doc Prescott’s car bumping along the rutted road.

“Then what did you do?” Hick continued, turning his attention back to Eben.

“Jed wanted to run off, but I knowed you to be a fair man and told him we didn’t have nothing to fear. I left him here to keep the dogs away and drove off to the gas station and told ’em to call you. Then I come back here fast as I could.”

“Did you touch anything?”

“No, Sheriff. Soon as we seen it was a woman we knowed better than to mess with her.”

“When you were walking the ditch did you notice any cars or any people out here?”

“No,” Eben answered. “There weren’t a soul in sight.”

Jake Prescott’s car stopped beside the squad car and the doctor climbed out and paused, lighting a cigar and eyeing the levee disdainfully.

Hick made his way down the levee to where the doctor stood. “We’ll set up the tent and bring her over here if you like,” he said.

Jake shook his head. “I want to see where she is and what she looks like.” He chewed his cigar and looked at Hick. “It’s definitely Gladys?”

“It’s her.”

“What would she be doing out here? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hick helped the doctor up the levee, in spite of the older man’s assertion he needed no assistance. It was a small rise, not more than six feet, but the slippery, wet grass made climbing difficult. “Morning Eben, morning Jed,” the doctor said by way of greeting and Hick suspected as an excuse to pause and catch his breath after the climb. “Your mama any better this morning?”

“She’s in right good spirits today, sir,” Eben replied. “Her rheumatiz is still painin’ her, but her heart ain’t thumpin’ in her chest no more. We thank you for askin’.”

“Good, good,” Jake answered, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his brow. “You tell her I’ll be out in a day or two to visit.”

“Yes, sir,” Eben answered him. “I expect she’ll look forward to it.”

As Adam set to work putting up a tent down by where the cars were parked, Jake reluctantly accepted Hick’s help and the two picked their way down the slippery slope to Gladys’ body. The doctor knelt in the mud and brushed away the buzzing flies. He turned Gladys over and shook his head in dismay. The dogs had chewed off much of her lower lip, but other than that the gash on the back of her head was the only mortal wound visible.

Hick pointed back at the levee. “I figure she rolled down the levee, there where the grass is smashed flat.”

The doctor glanced up and then turned back to the body. “She was killed before last night’s rain. Most of the blood’s washed away, but there’s enough left to attract the dogs.”

“Water table’s so high, there’s no way to get tire prints. The road’s a muddy mess,” Hick added, silently cursing the sandy, delta dirt.

“But why in the hell would anyone kill Gladys?” Jake said, getting to his feet with a grunt. “She’s the most harmless person in town.” The moisture from the mud and grass had begun to seep between the seams of their shoes and the cold, gritty sand saturated their socks. Brushing away the loud flies, Jake said, “Let’s get her out of here.”

Eben helped Hick with the distasteful task of carrying the body over the top of the levee while Jake followed at a slower, more careful pace. The body was on the examining table by the time he reached the tent.

Hick winced at the damage done to Gladys’ face by the dogs. She had always been a neat dresser; her plain, old-fashioned clothes suited her. He had known her his entire life and had never once seen her without lipstick or glasses. To see her like this seemed an outrage.

Jake palpated her head and parted her matted hair to get a better look, “Her skull’s not fractured.” Taking his cigar he pointed to her right temple. “There’s bruising here. The blow was hard enough to cause her brain to slam up against the other side of her head. She died instantly.”

“But not hard enough to crack her skull?” Adam asked from the doorway. “What about that bruise on her cheek? Was there a struggle?”

“There’s no visible evidence of a struggle,” Jake replied. “This bruise is lividity. The blood pooled there after she snagged on the tree.”

“It seems like if she’d put up a fight there’d be some evidence,” Hick said. “Her clothes aren’t torn, no other visible blows …”

Jake took a drag on his cigar and let the smoke curl out of the corner of his mouth. “I’ll check under her nails at autopsy but you’re right, there are no visible defensive wounds. No bruising on her arms or hands. No injuries but her head and what the damned dogs did.”

Adam’s eyes scanned the expansive, isolated cotton field surrounding them. “How the hell did she get out here?”

Hick shrugged. “She was either dumped here or killed here. If she was killed here, she had to have trusted her killer or been coerced.”

“Coerced?” asked Jake.

“Generally, you’ll go with someone if they’ve got a gun to your head,” Hick answered.

“But why kill a poor, defenseless, school secretary?” Adam said. “And look at her, still fully clothed. She’s not rich, so couldn’t have been about money. The usual scenarios don’t seem to fit.”

Hick looked into Gladys’ face. In the moments before her death, did she know what was about to happen? Who would hurt such a harmless person? Who brought her to this place? He searched her eyes for answers but they were dilated and sightless. Sighing, he closed them forever. She would take the hard-won knowledge with her.

“Beg pardon, Sheriff,” Eben’s voice called.

Hick walked out into the sunshine and spied a dark sedan heading toward them. Calling back to Adam, he said, “Murphy’s here. Try to keep him ignorant for as long as possible.”

Adam exited the tent and walked alongside the levee to intercept the troublesome newspaper reporter.

Jake joined Hick in the sunshine and shook his head. “Wayne Murphy is a pain in the ass. How’s he here so soon?”

“If Eben went to Wally’s station to use the phone, you can bet Wally didn’t waste no time tellin’ everyone he ran into that a body’d been found. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy pays some of these folks for tips.”

Eben cleared his throat. “Do you reckon Jed and me can go on? Mama worries when we don’t get home time for dinner.”

“You can go,” Hick told him. “If I have any more questions, I know where to find you.” Pausing he added, “Don’t say anything to Wayne Murphy about what you found.”

“Yes, sir,” Eben answered. Jed gave Hick one last distrustful glance as the two young men climbed into their truck. The starter rattled hesitantly and the engine fired, mis-fired, and then back-fired finally sputtering to life. The truck clattered away and Hick watched them pass Wayne Murphy’s sedan without a pause.

“I’ll finish the autopsy in the office,” Jake told Hick as they reentered the tent. “I’ll do my damndest to find anything to help you find her killer, but I’m pretty sure we’ve found the cause of death.”

A flood of memories washed over Hick as Jake covered Gladys’ face with the sheet. Gladys at her desk every morning before any student or teacher set foot in the school house. Gladys locking the door of the school behind them as Hick and his father made their way down the front steps on cool autumn evenings. She had been the secretary at Cherokee Crossing High School for thirty years, longer than Hick had been alive. She was kind, benevolent, and trusted by every person in town. To Hick she was family. He looked Jake in the eye, his rage demonstrated in his cool, calculated speech. “We are going to get this son of a bitch,” he said slowly. “By god, we’re going to get him.”