Tar Heel Murder Mystery

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mdoodle and murdock have been at it again: weaving a thick plot of suspense in our first Carolina Conversations novel. This is a Tar Heel murder mystery and we now have two chapters to our book. Feel free to offer comments and suggestions as we move toward a third phase of the story.

mdoodle and murdock
(with apologies to the Southport Police Department)

Chapter One

With the Cape Fear River sparkling just beyond the front yard, and the peaceful, friendly atmosphere of a small town, Southport - and more importantly - Lois Jane’s Bed and Breakfast was our favorite weekend getaway....well it was before we found the dead body floating in our bathtub.

Now I have seen my share of dead bodies. I’m a nurse in a busy metropolitan Emergency Room and I’m also a music volunteer with Hospice, so I often sing to dying patients and go back and sing at their funerals. But that kind of death isn’t scary. A body in a bathtub—well that’s a different story. And when Southport’s answer to Barney Fife turned the face down body over so we could see who he was, well, let’s just say it became very personal, too.

My eyes widened as I stared at my boss. When I had asked for time off, he was not happy. What a workaholic he was. He just couldn’t understand it when people needed a break from work, especially from the blood and gore of the ER. But little did I know that he would also be taking time away from work. Was it my imagination, or did he try to stop me on my way out, saying he had something important to tell me? I just couldn’t remember clearly.

And now he was dead. Who could possibly be his enemy? True, he could be a tyrant of a boss, but he had been well respected in his role as physician in charge of the ER for the past 10 years. He had lived in the city since leaving medical school, but Southport was his home.

Our Barney Fife must have seen my reaction for immediately, he reached to his side for some handcuffs. I guess he didn’t believe in asking questions first. My husband was just as appalled at the identity of the floater, so Barney hooked both of us on one set of handcuffs. So much for our romantic getaway.

I was certainly not happy, but my husband was livid. “How dare you take us into custody?” he railed at the already nervous police officer. “You haven’t asked us a single question!”

I tried to calm him down and to reassure him that, since we were innocent, we had nothing to worry about. Why is that usually the time that you’d better start worrying more than you’ve ever done in your life?

Okay, maybe I should have mentioned it before now, and it really didn’t help matters that my husband was clueless about the fact that the man in the tub – not only was he my boss, but he was my first husband, Dr. Thomas Earl Hatchett. It doesn’t matter that we were married for only three weeks because when the fact that he was my ex came to light, all you know what broke loose!

My previous marriage was a joke. I was swept off my feet as a young nurse over twenty years ago. Reality set in, and we ended the marriage, mutually.

We had a neutral relationship at work. I knew of no one who disliked him, well, too much, and no one knew we had been married. Of course, my husband of ten years was annoyed that I never mentioned this prior relationship, and who could blame him – especially under these circumstances. To me, however, it was water under the bridge – well, make that water in the bathtub.

”I can’t believe this!” my husband yelled. His booming voice brought me back to the present. I didn’t know what to say. The officer was eyeing me. To him, I was ready to be executed. He promptly released the handcuffs from my husband and cuffed my other hand. I thought, “this is the time to worry,” not because I had done anything wrong but because my romantic weekend had just turned into the fight of the century and I was being accused of murder. Being carted off to the jailhouse was a piece of cake compared to the words I could just hear my husband preparing to say.

Instead, I heard the first actual words Officer Barry Phife (I’m not making that up!) had spoken, as he said, “Nancy Raynor, you have the right to remain silent…….” I’m not the silent type, but I knew when it was time to keep it zipped.

I could see the wheels turning in my husband Michael’s head. He didn’t know what to think or what to say. Officer Phife might as well have read him his rights too, because he was not saying a word at all. I’ll have to admit that was worse than hearing him yell at me.

While all of this was going on, the local forensic folks showed up. One started to ask me to identify the body. Yes, I recognized the bloated face, but how fun was it going to be to tell the locals, in front of my husband, that I was certain it was Thomas because of the scar on his derriere from an accident many years ago.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was our honeymoon, skiing in Aspen. I wasn’t much of a skier, but Thomas was an expert, at least in his own mind. His collision with another skier and the unfortunate encounter with the man’s ski pole, landed him in the ER for 18 stitches. Now a reminder of that evening was a scar that would identify him at his death.

“How can this be happening?” I thought to myself. Everything about the situation is so bizarre. “I just hope and pray for justice in this system. They have to realize they have the wrong person, they just have to. Where’s Matlock when you really need him?”

I had never been in trouble before. Not a speeding ticket or a parking ticket to my name, yet here I was in Southport, North Carolina, one of the most peaceful places on earth, and I was being accused of murder. The only consolation in that horrible day came that evening when Officer Phife let Michael bring me a delicious supper of the Pharmacy’s famous crab cakes.

Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep during my first night in the slammer. I tossed and turned and wondered why Officer Phife had bothered to read me my rights since no one had tried to question me since my unfortunate incarceration. Meanwhile, whoever had really killed Thomas was probably long gone, taking their motive with them.

That left me, stuck in a cell, without a clue as to what to do next. Man, I was in a fix!


Maybe now is a good time to tell you a little bit more about myself. What I am hoping is that you will get to know me, perhaps even like me, and start believing in my innocence because, really, I didn’t do it!

You know that I’m an ER nurse and a hospice volunteer. I guess you don’t know and that I have been married to Michael for seven years, and in all that time, I have never lied to him. Well, I guess there is that one whopper of a lie of omission, but since I was married only three weeks, and since I really couldn’t stand the man after that, I hadn’t really considered it a lie. Thankfully Michael loves me very much and he is an extremely forgiving man. We don’t have any children because we’re just too old now for the responsibility and the wear and tear little ones can cause their parents.

We have been coming to Southport at least once a year ever since we got married. We love to come on the Friday after Thanksgiving to stay for the weekend. Sometimes we come for the Easter weekend and occasionally, we come down for a spur-of-the-moment weekend. That’s what this weekend was, so if someone was setting me up for murder, they were almost one step ahead of me. But that’s enough background for now. I know you want me to get back to the story.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Well, that’s what I was told. My eyes were too bleary from lack of sleep to even see my hand in front of my face. I had a knot in my stomach wondering what the new day would bring. No solutions had come to me in all of my tossing and turning all night.

And then, a miracle happened. The Southport Chief of Police, Maximilian Drumm, Max for short, came in, unlocked my cell and told me I was free to go. Not only that, he apologized profusely for the lockup. “That Officer Phife is an idiot,” I heard him murmur under his breath.

“This was all an unfortunate misunderstanding,” he told me as he led me out of the jail and into the waiting arms of my husband.  Chief Drumm told us that Officer Phife was new on the job, had watched way too many episodes of “Law and Order” and just plain didn’t know what he was doing. “He wanted to be a hero, catching a murderer within hours of the murder,” the Chief explained.  But then his genial tone turned somewhat ominous as he said, “All that said, missy, I wouldn’t leave town if I was you,” and with that he tipped his hat and walked back into the jail. I’d been freed, but was I really free?

They had not yet served breakfast at the jail when I was let go, and I had missed the usual breakfast time at the B&B, but I was sure the good folks at Lois Jane’s would fix me something to eat. They did and by the time I got some eggs, grits, French toast and coffee under my belt, I was feeling a hundred percent better. Well, better until I remembered that I was still a likely suspect in a murder. But hey, at least I was out of jail. Out of jail and ready to do some investigating. Officer Phife wasn’t the only one who had watched “Law and Order,” not to mention all of the Nancy Drew books I had read as a young girl. I was ready to hit the streets and look for clues.

Michael was not thrilled with the idea of trying to find out who the murderer was. He thought that was best left up to the police. Now I’m no Einstein, but please, I have to have a little bit more on the ball than Phife and Drumm. Besides, how much trouble could I get into just snooping around town? The lesson here: try not to ever ask such a stupid question. It could get you killed!

Michael suggested that before we got too involved in our sleuthing, we should just go down for a stroll along the river, just to clear our heads and make us feel better. There was a pleasant breeze and the walk was invigorating. There weren’t too many tourists around, since it wasn’t really vacation season. Most everyone we saw appeared to be a local.

“That’s it,” I said, probably way too loudly, since everyone within a square mile turned to stare. “What?” Michael asked.  “It’s the off season so there aren’t too many strangers in town,” I told him. “So?” was his not too bright reply.

Patiently I explained, “We need to go somewhere that regulars frequent but that also attracts people from out of town. Maybe we can find someone who remembers seeing Dr. Hatchett. And maybe if they remember him, they might remember whether someone was with him.”

Michael began to perk up and he seemed to be taking ownership of my idea. “How about restaurants?” he suggested. It sounded like a good idea to me since our walk had lasted well over two hours and I was ready for lunch. The obvious first choice for gathering information was The Trolley Stop, just up from the river with the best hotdogs on the planet.

The woman working behind the counter always recognizes us from previous visits and this time was no exception. “Hon, I heard about you spendin’ the night in jail,” she said when we walked in. “What was Chief Drumm thinkin’ arresting you like that?”

I explained to her that it was the over-zealous junior officer who had arrested me, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to her. “We’re just lucky that Southport is a peaceful town,” she continued, “because I just don’t think Chief Drumm would recognize a crook even if he came up and introduced himself.”

The knot in my stomach tightened as I heard her voice her lack of confidence in the chief of police. Michael helped me shake off my fear as he asked her if she had seen Dr. Hatchett the day before.

“You know, there was a man in here just as the lunch crowd was thinnin’ out,” she said. “Of course I don’t know what this doctor fella looked like, but it could have been him. He seemed kind of arrogant, like some doctors and lawyers act.”

“Was there anyone with him?” I asked, hoping that she would say yes and the mystery would be on its way to being solved.

She disappointed me when she said that he was by himself. But then she remembered something.  “He ate his hotdog right up there at that counter,” she explained. “When he finished, it was closing time. I went to the front to put up the ‘closed’ sign and saw him out on the sidewalk talking to someone.”

“Was it a man or a woman,” I pressed. “Did you recognize the person?”
“Slow down, honey,” said Michael. “Give her a chance to answer.”

“It was a woman. Someone I’ve never seen before,” she told us. “And they weren’t so much talking as they were yellin’ at each other. Wow, this was a great clue. We finally had a break in the case. Okay, a break in the case is great. But now what do we do?

Michael could see my reaction and he knew to just back off and let me do my thing. He had seen me like this before. My wheels were turning. Who could this mystery woman be?

We cancelled our hotdog order and dashed out the door. I imagine the Trolley Stop waitress was wondering what in the world was going on. I stopped on the sidewalk out front to scour for clues. I hate to imagine what Michael was thinking as I got down on my hands and knees and started to look for a shoe print, a receipt – just something that would clear me for good. I search for about 30 minutes while the locals began to gather and stare. Michael just stood there, looking like he was trying to be invisible.

But then, there it was, wedged in a bush, glittering in the sunlight. It was an earring. Not your basic everyday earring, either. It appeared to be gold and was in the most interesting shape – almost like an insignia.

I was so excited, I was dancing a jig. Michael, however, was not impressed. In his reasonable manner he pointed out, “there are so many folks around, locals and visitors. That earring could be from anyone.”

But I just knew it was a clue.

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