Conflict of Interest



conflict-of-interest-thumbnailSavannah is delighted to be back in her hometown of Sweetwater, surrounded by family and friends, even if it’s only temporarily. The house in Nashville is in the process of being repaired after the fire. Baby Caroline is alive and well and getting bigger every day. And Rafe is all recovered, and is working for Tamara Grimaldi and the Columbia PD, at least for the time being. That probably won’t last, but for now, Savannah’s content.

There are flies in the ointment, however. Savannah’s best friend from high school is back in town, and seems to be setting her cap for Savannah’s brother Dix. Savannah has been rooting for Dix and Tamara Grimaldi to get together, and this new development doesn’t make her happy. Sure, she loves Charlotte… but Charlotte already has a husband, and shouldn’t need another one. She especially shouldn’t need Dix, not when Savannah wants Grimaldi to have him.

And then there’s the case Rafe is working on. Katie Graves was a teenager when she disappeared fifteen years ago. Now she’s back—or at least her remains are. And the evidence in what looks like a case of homicide points squarely to one of Savannah’s nearest and dearest. With another Martin on the hot-seat, and Rafe and Grimaldi duty-bound to serve the law, it’s up to Savannah to keep her family safe and out of prison.


”Do you remember Katie Graves?” my husband asked.

It took a second, maybe more than one, before I placed the name in my memory. Then I nodded. “Of course.”

We were sitting side by side at the island in Mother’s kitchen in the Martin Mansion in Sweetwater, having dinner.

And I’m calling it my mother’s kitchen, even though technically, it was my kitchen now. At least for the time being. Mother had vacated the premises over the weekend, to live in sin with Sheriff Satterfield, and had left Rafe and me—and baby Carrie—in sole possession.

We were eating at the island because the dining room table can seat sixteen and I hadn’t felt like dealing with the antique splendor of it for just the two of us, and besides, the kitchen island was much closer to the stove and the food, and that made everything easier.

Rafe quirked a brow in my direction. “A bit of thinking for an ‘of course,’ wasn’t it?”

I couldn’t very well deny that. “I haven’t thought about her in years. And I didn’t really know her. I don’t think I ever met her. But I remember what happened.”

Rafe nodded and took another bite of chicken.

He’s three years older than me, and must have been in high school in Columbia at the time Katie Graves disappeared. I’d still been in middle school in Sweetwater. But he had probably known Katie. Or at least known her better than I did.

He nodded when I asked. “She was a year ahead of me, and didn’t pay me no mind, but I knew who she was. Saw her in the hallways and the cafeteria.”

“Pretty girl?”

“Pretty enough,” Rafe said, “though that don’t always matter.”

No, it doesn’t. Sixteen-year-old girls disappear sometimes even when they aren’t pretty.

That’s what had happened to Katie. She’d set out for school one morning, and never made it there. Her parents sounded the alarm when she didn’t come home in the evening, but by then she’d been gone close to twelve hours, and she either had enough of a head start to be halfway to Canada, or whoever took her did.

Nobody knew what had happened, or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. There was speculation about Katie running away from home, and speculation about her being abducted. For a few weeks, every parent in Maury County kept a tight rein on their children. As time passed, and no body appeared, people started leaning more toward Katie taking off on her own, and everyone relaxed again. Life went back to normal. For everyone but Katie’s friends and family, I guess.

“What about her?” I asked.

Rafe took another deliberate bite, and chewed and swallowed, before he answered. “The sheriff called. They found bones up in the hills near the Devil’s Backbone.”

The Devil’s Backbone in a ridge of hills in the western part of Maury County. As for the rest of the statement… “They?”

He glanced at me. “You know they’ve been going over the Skinners’ property since the murders.”

The Skinner family—Art and Linda, their son AJ and their daughter Cilla, Cilla’s boyfriend, along with Darrell and Robbie, Art’s brothers—had all been murdered in their beds one night last fall. Rafe had been sent down to Maury County on Sheriff Satterfield’s request, on loan from the TBI, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, to help out. Like Katie Graves, the Skinner boys had also gone to Columbia High, and Rafe had known them, or at least known of them. Like Katie, they’d all been older than me, so I hadn’t.

At any rate, the Skinners had been involved in a fair few unsavory endeavors at the time of their deaths. Pearl, the gray pitbull terrier mix who had lifted her head from her pillow over in the corner of Mother’s kitchen, and who was thumping her tail now at the mention of bones, was a casualty of the dog fighting operation they’d been running. We’d rescued her from being chained underneath Robbie Skinner’s trailer back in October.

In wandering around the Skinners’ adjoining properties, which took up a lot of space in the foothills leading up to the Devil’s Backbone, we’d also run across a large scale marijuana growing operation, with several greenhouses. There had been agents from all sorts of alphabet agencies crawling all over the hills in Middle Tennessee over the past few months.

“Someone found bones on the Skinners’ property?”

“One of the ATF guys ran across’em back in November,” Rafe said. “Not a complete skeleton. Just the skull and a few bones.”

I put down my fork. “What happened to the rest?”

He shrugged. “Animals, maybe. It’s wild up there.”

It was. Most of the land that belonged to the Skinners was just woods. And yes, there are animals. No bears or anything like that, but raccoons and coyotes and various birds of prey, who might pick at a corpse and carry some of one away.

I steered my mind firmly away from the Skinners’ dogs, and from Pearl. Much better not to go there. Not that she can help being what she is. But I’d be happier if I didn’t think about it. “If this happened in November, why are we only hearing about it now?”

“The sheriff heard about it then,” Rafe said. “He went up and gathered what they could find of the remains and sent them to the lab. It’s the lab that’s been dragging their feet getting back with the results.”

Labs are notorious for that. It isn’t the tests themselves that take a long time, it’s waiting for the lab to find the time to do the test.

And we were halfway through January now. If the bones had been discovered in November, there’d been Thanksgiving and then the whole Christmas season to get through, with holiday closings, annual Christmas parties, and the like. Not to mention the increased crime that usually happens around the holidays, that would have taken precedence over a few old bones. No, it was no wonder the sheriff hadn’t heard anything before now.

“And it’s Katie?” I asked.

“Seems so,” Rafe answered.

I picked up my fork again. “Which of the Skinners’ land was she found on? Has she been up there all this time? Ever since she disappeared?”

“I dunno yet,” Rafe told me. “The sheriff just called Tammy this afternoon.”

Tammy is Tamara Grimaldi, formerly of the Metropolitan Nashville police department, homicide division, and since the first of the year, chief of the Columbia PD in Maury County. Since two days ago, she’s also Rafe’s boss, at least for the time being.

It’s a long story. And one that probably doesn’t matter right now.

“About the bones?”

He nodded. “Katie disappeared from Columbia, so the sheriff wants somebody from the PD  involved.”

“And you’re the obvious choice.”

“I was part of the Skinner investigation,” Rafe said, “and I went to school with Katie.”

And the sheriff respected him. For a long time, a very long time, that hadn’t been the case. For years upon years, my mother’s boyfriend suspected Rafe of involvement in anything that happened in and around Maury County. And admittedly, he’d had some cause, since Rafe hadn’t been the best behaved teenager. But it was nice that the sheriff finally saw him as a colleague, and not a suspect.

“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “did they talk to you back when Katie disappeared?”

He arched a brow. Just one. And didn’t say a word.

“Sorry. But the sheriff used to think you had a hand in everything that went wrong around here. I was just curious whether he’d talked to you about Katie back then.”

“No,” Rafe said. “It was Columbia’s case. Can’t remember who was in charge of the Columbia PD sixteen years ago. But nobody talked to me about nothing.”

After a second’s pause he added, “The school did an assembly. The principal talked about it, and said if anybody knew something, to go tell the cops.”

“But of course you didn’t.”

He shook his head. “Wouldn’t have, even if I did know something. Not like I was gonna go volunteer information. Then they’d think I had something to do with it for sure.”

Sadly, they probably would have.

“But like I said,” Rafe added, and turned back to his dinner, “I didn’t know Katie.”

“No problem. I was just curious.” I rearranged some of the broccoli on my plate with the tines of my fork. “Is it certain it’s her?”

“The sheriff seems to think so. He called Tammy and told her he was gonna reopen a cold case from her jurisdiction because the body had turned up on the Devil’s Backbone. And could she spare someone to help out, since there’d be overlap between her jurisdiction and his.”

“And he asked for you.”

“I figure there’s a reason for that,” Rafe said calmly, “and it ain’t because I went to school with Katie.”

No, it wasn’t likely to be. Part of the reason Rafe was here—part of the reason Grimaldi was here—was that Sheriff Satterfield had wanted someone in charge of the Columbia Police Department who could figure out whatever the hell—pardon my French—had been going on there.

The reason there was a vacancy at all, was that the previous chief had been corrupt. He’d been removed back in November, in conjunction with the Skinner investigation. But when the head is rotten, there’s quite likely to be some rot elsewhere too, and the sheriff wanted to root it out. He’d offered the job to Rafe first. My husband had turned it down flat, without realizing what the sheriff was really after. Then the sheriff had approached Grimaldi, and she’d accepted. He’d probably been more open with her. And she had prevailed on Rafe to help. So now they were both here—and I was, too—and in addition to keeping the peace, and solving any crimes that came their way, between the two of them and the sheriff, they had to figure out whether anyone else in Chief Carter’s old command, and Grimaldi’s new one, was corrupt and had to go.

And that was most likely the reason the sheriff had asked to work with Rafe. Under cover of the Katie Graves investigation, they could discuss and confer and sniff out other things, as well.

“I start tomorrow morning,” Rafe added. “Jarvis is pissed.”

Detective Paul Jarvis was one of Rafe’s new colleagues in the Columbia PD. And while we had no particular reason to think he was corrupt, or at least no more reason to suspect him than anyone else, I don’t care for him. “Why?”

“High profile case,” Rafe said, “lots of interest. He likes the attention.”

“Is that your opinion of him after working together for two days?”

“It’s my opinion after seeing him throw a tantrum ’cause Tammy didn’t loan him to the sheriff’s department instead of me today. He slammed outta there at the end of the day like a five-year-old taking his toys and going home. Damn near ran me down in the parking lot.”

“You’re kidding.”

He shook his head. “If he coulda gotten away with it, I think he’d’a done it. I’m guessing he was Chief Carter’s pet investigator, and he figured it’d be the same with Tammy.”

“And instead, you’re the pet investigator.” I smiled.

He gave me a look. “There ain’t no pet investigator. The sheriff asked for me. You know why.”

I did know why. “Why do you think Jarvis was Carter’s pet investigator? Is Jarvis corrupt, too? Or is he stupid, so Carter assigned him cases he didn’t want solved, because he knew Jarvis couldn’t solve them?”

“He solved cases,” Rafe said. “Tammy’s going over’em, to make sure they got solved the right way, but he don’t seem stupid.”

Corrupt, then.

Or maybe he was neither corrupt nor stupid. Maybe Carter kept him busy with as many investigations as he could load Jarvis up with, because he knew Jarvis was both smart and driven, and if he kept him busy with other things, maybe Jarvis wouldn’t notice what Carter was up to.

Rafe nodded. “Could be. Either way, I’m on this one, and Jarvis ain’t.”

“Too bad for Jarvis,” I said.

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