THE TRAIL OF DECEPTION CHAPTER ONE

PRE-ORDER • AVAILABLE APRIL 4TH

CHAPTER ONE

As Rachel sat in the parlor with Sheriff Hinley and the others, she couldn’t help but feel like she had done all of this before. Another death on the Fox Nettle property and another crime scene investigation.

Poor Jeb. If only he hadn’t come back to Fox Nettle, he might still be alive to make someone else’s day miserable. But he wouldn’t stay away, like that stray dog Rachel had compared him to.

“Okay,” Sheriff Hinley said to Lucas. “Where did you say you went last night?”

“We went into town,” Lucas replied. “Rachel and I had dinner and went for a drive around Briarwood.”

“We just wanted to get out of the house,” she said.

“And you said that Jeb Murphy was gone when you left?” The sheriff was making notes on a small tablet. “He was gone in his truck?”

“Yes,” Lucas said. Rachel had told the sheriff all this just minutes ago, but she had blurted it out in a panic. “I had given him money so he would go away. But sure enough, when we came back, he was here. I guess he went into town and spent some of the money I gave him. I should have known it wouldn’t get rid of him. But he’s been rather difficult since his arrival. I had to try something to get him to move on.”

“How was he difficult?” asked the sheriff. “Was he just being the same old Jeb?”

Rachel shrugged. “I never met the man before his most recent visit, so I can’t say if he was being his usual self. I can tell you this. The other night, he saw me up after everyone else was asleep and took it upon himself to confront me.” She didn’t know exactly how to explain it where it made a whole lot of sense, but nothing Jeb ever did seemed to make much sense.

Hinley’s eyes narrowed, and his lips pressed together. “Confronted you about what?”

“We’re really not sure. He claimed that I was up to something. So, he came into the house and tackled me.”

The sheriff looked up from his tablet. “That sounds more violent than a simple confrontation. Why didn’t you call me out? I would have locked him up until he cooled off. You wouldn’t have had to deal with him at all.”

Rachel shook her head. “It would just cause more trouble. There’s already so much going on. Besides, Henry took care of him, and I didn’t want him trying to get Henry in trouble.”

Sheriff Hinley put his pencil behind his ear. “Henry, huh? Did things get physical?”

“Yeah,” Rachel said. “Jeb attacked me. Henry was mad enough to spit nails.”

“I bet. Henry’s protective.” The sheriff let out a long breath. “Was he mad enough to get physical again last night?”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “Henry only defended me. He’s not a killer. He wouldn’t hurt a fly unless provoked.”

Hinley nodded. “Provoked by something like Jeb attacking you?”

“Sheriff, you can’t believe that, can you?” Lucas asked.

“Of course not,” said Sheriff Hinley. “It just doesn’t look good that I’m only hearing about it now. Like you said, there’s a lot going on at Fox Nettle these days. Anything suspicious or out of the ordinary, you need to give me a heads-up. The bodies are stacking up, and I have half a mind to declare this whole property a crime scene and shut it down.”

“Sheriff, no,” Rachel said. “People live here. I don’t care for the house guests, but this is my home. I would very much like to stay here and make sure Mr. Murphy’s last requests are carried out.”

“And it’s not her fault this is happening,” Lucas said, sitting forward.

Sheriff Hinley held his palms up. “I’m not saying it is. All I’m asking is that you keep me informed about anything unusual, like getting attacked in the middle of the night.”

Rachel nodded. “You have my word.”

“Going back, you said you gave him money?” the sheriff asked Lucas.

“Yes, against Rachel’s good advice, I did. I gave him two hundred dollars to leave and not come back. He was okay with the first half of that arrangement.”

“I told him he shouldn’t have done it,” said Rachel. “Mr. Murphy had a kind and charitable heart, but he always said that some people were like stray animals. You don’t feed them unless you want to adopt them.”

“He was right about that,” Hinley said. “Jeb was definitely a stray animal.”

“What do you think happened?” asked Lucas.

“Well, someone slit his throat. They must have been in his truck when it happened. So, that means it was probably someone he knew or trusted.”

Rachel considered it for a second, then frowned. “Or he could have been stinking drunk and they slipped in while he was passed out.”

“Yes, there are signs that he was drinking.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Did you two see him or just the truck?”

“Come to think of it,” said Rachel. “I only saw the truck. I didn’t see him. I guess I just assumed he was in it. I mean, he had been since the attack. We wouldn’t let him back in the house.”

Lucas seemed unsure. “I saw that he was inside the truck but only sitting there. He didn’t wave or gesture to us, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Sheriff Hinley nodded. “So, he could have been dead when you arrived home?”

Rachel’s eyes widened and she shivered. Had someone killed him when he came back? She found it difficult to believe that anyone in the house could have done it, but if not one of them, who? And besides, she wasn’t going to put anything past Liam. “You mean he was killed while we were away?”

Sheriff Hinley nodded. “The coroner feels he had been dead for some time. It’s possible.”

“That’s crazy.” Rachel couldn’t believe this was happening again. There would have to be a whole new investigation into Jeb’s murder. His death had to be connected to the other two murders. Had the killer left a clue behind this time? Would the new investigation put them closer to finding who killed Mr. Murphy or just muddy the water more?

Before she could ask him, Sheriff Hinley had a question of his own. “Did you ever get those cameras installed?”

They had discussed doing that when she stopped by the office.

Rachel felt as if the days had all run together since Mr. Murphy’s murder. “No, I haven’t. So much has been going on that I haven’t even looked for any.”

“I would go online and find some,” said Sheriff Hinley. “They make them affordable enough these days. You shouldn’t have any trouble installing them. And considering the danger, you might want to make that a priority.”

“Thank you,” said Lucas. “We’ll do that.”

Rachel needed to look into it. Maybe they’d find a set up that would handle their needs that she could afford.

“Sounds good.” Sheriff Hinley offered a sympathetic look. “Hopefully, nothing happens again, but if it does, maybe you’ll be able to find out who is doing it.”

Ava stepped into the room with a wadded tissue to her nose. “This can’t keep happening, Sheriff. I won’t have any family left before too long.”

“Do you know who would have wanted your cousin Jeb dead?”

Ava sighed. “I would imagine there’s a line of people,” she said. “He always did have a knack for rubbing folks the wrong way. But I just can’t believe this has happened right here on our own front lawn.” She wiped her nose and sobbed. “This is a nightmare.”

“Maybe we’ve had this murderer’s motives all wrong,” Rachel said. “Jeb wasn’t set to inherit any money, will or not.”

Lucas nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a good point. Is it possible someone didn’t like that he was trying to extort two hundred thousand dollars from the heir to Fox Nettle?”

“Which is you, is it not?” said Sheriff Hinley. “Did you have a problem with it?”

“Jeb’s claims didn’t bother me,” said Lucas, shaking his head. “But maybe someone else? Like whoever killed my uncle?”

“Maybe,” the sheriff said.

“Well, I had nothing to do with it,” said Ava. “I figured he’d get tired and move on to the next scheme like he always did. You shoo him off the porch, and he finds another door to beg at.”

“Where was your daughter tonight?” asked the sheriff.

Ava’s eyes narrowed. “Surely you don’t think that my daughter had anything to do with this. Slitting a throat is not her style, first of all. I think if she killed anyone, she’d do it in the least physical way possible.”

“Have you given it much thought?” the sheriff asked Ava.

“I don’t sit around thinking of such awful things, I can assure you. And my daughter did not do this. You should ask Liam and that girl he’s got shacking up with him.”

“She is the one who found him,” said Rachel. “She noticed him in the truck dead.”

“I’ll talk to them,” said the sheriff. “Was there anything else going on here that I should know about? Any other attacks or disruptions?”

“Did you tell them about Jeb attacking you, Rachel?” asked Ava.

“Yes,” she said, giving the woman a sideward look. “I told him all about it.”

“Well, I think that was certainly odd,” said Ava. “He claimed that he just walked right on in the house. But all of the doors were supposed to have been locked. I haven’t felt safe at night since, knowing anyone can just walk right in at any time.”

“Is that true?” asked Sheriff Hinley. “Did he break in?”

Rachel shrugged. “He said the back door was unlocked, but I didn’t buy it. I locked the house up that night myself. I know I didn’t leave anything open. I was wondering if he had a way to pick a lock. Or maybe he had a key somehow?”

“We’ll check his belongings for something and let you know. But he has been known to break into buildings before. He’s an old pro at it.”

Rachel sighed and closed her eyes. “I’ve just been trying to get through all of this. It’s not easy when it keeps happening. I feel like people are dropping right and left.”

“Just do your best to stay safe,” said Sheriff Hinley. “You all need to organize a lookout or something. Take measures in the home to ensure you’re safe while you’re sleeping.”

“You want us to take turns as lookouts?” asked Rachel.

“If you insist on staying here, yes,” said Sheriff Hinley. “It’s better than becoming the next victim.”

“You think the killer will strike again?” asked Lucas, who looked concerned.

“At this point, we must assume it’s not over. It’s best to be ready for anything. Oh, and speaking of, I know you have a lot going on, so you’re probably unaware of the storm that’s coming.”

“Storm? Is it going to be a bad one?” Rachel asked. The weather could get wild in Briarwood. Streets would flood after the smallest amount of rainfall.

Thankfully, Fox Nettle was on a hill, so she didn’t have to worry about the house flooding, but the access in and out might not be passable if it got bad.

Sheriff Hinley gave her a serious look. “It’s going to be the kind of storm you hunker down for. I just wanted to let you know in case you need me, and I can’t get out here right away.”

Rachel didn’t like the idea of being trapped with a potential killer. “I’ll have Henry secure the animals.”

“Make sure things are tied down, too. The wind is supposed to be crazy.”

“Thanks for the warning.” She had been so busy that she hadn’t even thought about the weather. “Do you think the killer might just stay away during the storm?”

“It’s possible, assuming they aren’t already staying here.” Hinley gave her a look of concern.

“Perhaps it would be best if everyone left Fox Nettle,” said Lucas. “Since the storm is supposed to be so bad. It would be one way to ensure Rachel and the others’ safety.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Ava. “And no one can make me.”

“And I can’t leave,” said Rachel. “Absolutely not. But it would have been best if you had made the others leave a long time ago.” She wished the sheriff had put his foot down, but she understood he didn’t have the authority to do so.

“All I’m saying is give them the chance to leave on their own,” said Sheriff Hinley. “At least for the storm.”

Lucas nodded. “I don’t think it would hurt to mention it. I mean, maybe Liam and his girlfriend would want to go?”

Rachel sighed. She had a feeling none of these stubborn mules would listen to reason, even if their lives were on the line.

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