BY: JOHN W. DANIEL
When a letter arrives at a small North Carolina newspaper from a man claiming a connection between his missing daughter and the recent murder of another young woman, life gets even more complicated for feature writer Abby Burlew, a recovering drug addict who has bipolar disorder. Since no one else at the paper is available for the assignment, the editor reluctantly sends Abby to a remote barrier island to investigate. What seems like an open-and-shut case quickly turns into a tangle of mysterious goings-on, hidden motives, and unlikely suspects. Abby’s problems are compounded when she becomes romantically involved with the island’s chief deputy, despite mounting evidence that he’s a womanizer and a suspect himself. Her sanity—and ultimately her life—are now at risk as she pursues this increasingly stressful and dangerous assignment.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Deadly Assignment by John W. Daniel, Abby Berlew is a feature writer for a small North Carolina newspaper. When the paper’s main investigative reporter gets hired by a larger paper, Abby gets her big break—a chance to investigate the disappearance of two young woman on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Thrilled at this opportunity, she gleefully heads out to the island, only to discover she is in way over her head, a situation complicated when she becomes romantically involved with the local deputy sheriff. But Abby refuses to give up, getting closer to the truth than she realizes and putting her life in danger.
The author has a unique and refreshing voice, a strong plot with plenty of surprises, and realistic and endearing characters. You just can’t help rooting for Abby.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Deadly Assignment by John Daniel is the story of a young woman with bipolar disorder. Our heroine, Abby Berlew is a feature writer for the Scarboro Gazette, a small local newspaper in a rural North Carolina town, but when the paper gets a letter from a man who lives on an island off the coast of North Carolina, and the regular investigative reporter can’t follow up on it, Abby is given the chance of a lifetime. As she heads off to the island to investigate the disappearance of the daughter of the man who wrote the letter, Abby has no idea what she is getting into. She bumbles her way through the interviews of key people and also stumbles into a romantic relationship with the deputy sheriff on the island. Of course the fact that the man is the brother of the main suspect deemed responsible for the disappearance of not one, but two, young women, this complicates Abby’s investigation. Will the deputy help her, or will he steer her in the wrong direction to shield his brother.
I especially liked the fact that Abby was flawed, in that she suffered from bipolar disorder and was constantly second guessing herself, to be sure her decisions were not affect by her disease. I can only imagine how hard that must be. Deadly Assignment is a well written mystery with a very touching human side.
In Lloyd Bostrum’s dream, it was pitch black. His daughter Sheila and her boyfriend were speeding down an icy stretch of highway between Port Austin and Cedar Point, the place of departure for the Nanticoke ferry.
Lloyd was familiar with the road, knew it swung sharply left before crossing Crabtree Creek.
Slow down, he tried to warn them. For God’s sake, slow down. You won’t make that turn.
But the driver hadn’t intended to turn. When the highway bent left, he kept straight, maneuvering his pickup truck down a sandy road that burrowed deep into wild marshland. Suddenly Lloyd realized that Sheila wasn’t sitting next to her boyfriend but was slumped against him. She was dead and the man was transporting her body to the marshes where no one would ever find it.
Just before waking up, Lloyd caught a glimpse of the driver’s face–the same grinning visage he had seen in the Tidewater Tidings, that of Joel Crothers.
“Bastard,” he muttered. “I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.”
The effort caused him to gag, as though he were choking on his own words. His throat was parched and his body felt like it was on fire–his head, his neck, his back. Especially his back.
The room he occupied was windowless and tiny, smaller even than the bedroom of his trailer. Where the hell was he? He noticed a whirring sound, its pitch increasing as he inhaled, decreasing as he exhaled. Something scraped against his face, tubing of some sort stuck to his nostrils. He tried to pull it off but he couldn’t move his arms. He began to panic.
When he finally realized where he was and why he was there, Lloyd screamed. The hoarse sound coming from his throat wasn’t even loud enough to compete with the hum of the oxygen machine in the corner.
Twenty-eight-year-old Abby Burlew wheeled her aging Toyota Corolla into the small parking lot, took up two of the three remaining spaces, half from each, and hurried toward the whitewashed cinderblock building that housed the Scarboro Gazette.
Although the paper’s flextime policy allowed its employees to begin their eight-hour workday between six-thirty and nine, it was now nine-fifteen.
Sid Beckwith, the Gazette’s only investigative reporter, was smoking a cigarette in front of the building when he noticed Abby. He looked at his watch then at her then back at his watch.
“Fuck you, Sid. When I get here is none of your damn business.”
“Geez, Abby. No reason to bite my head off. I was just teasing. I didn’t even say anything.”
She had already opened the Gazette’s front door when his words finally sank in.
Looking sheepish, she stopped and slowly turned around. “Sorry about that, Sid. I’m having one of those days–you know, when everything seems to have turned to shit, including me. I didn’t mean to dump on you. Hope you won’t hold it against me.”
“Apology accepted. Hope the world looks better to you as the day goes along.”
“It won’t. But thanks anyway.”
As she approached her cubicle on the second floor, Abby noticed a yellow post-it note attached to an envelope in her in-basket. Read this and come see me, the message said, and in the almost indecipherable flourish that looked all too familiar, it was signed Charlene.
“Whoopdedo,” Abby muttered, sitting down at her desk. “Must be something really urgent–like bingo night at Antioch Baptist Church or some frigging flea market that just opened up.”
“Maybe she’s finally decided to make you a full-fledged reporter,” replied the heavy-set young woman in the adjacent cubicle.
“Yeah, right. I don’t get it, Becky. What did I ever do to offend that bitch?” Abby shook her head and heaved a sigh. “Besides having an occasional bipolar moment,” she added with a rueful chuckle.
“Hang in there, Ab. Let me know when you find out what ole Attila the Honey is up to.”
After firing up her computer, Abby picked up the envelope, surprised to see that it was addressed to Sid Beckwith. She removed the contents, a two-page letter written in shaky handwriting and signed Lloyd Bostrum and a clipping from a newspaper she had never heard of, the Tidewater Tidings. She glanced through the clipping, an article about a Joel Crothers who grew greenhouse tomatoes on Nanticoke Island. At the top was a picture of the young man proudly standing between two rows of waist-high tomato plants.
She wondered why Sid would give such garbage to Charlene instead of tossing it. Whatever the reason, she decided, it was a new low in trivial assignments.
I’m writing to you because you always side with the underdog, plus you’ve got a reputation for being a kind of dog yourself, a bulldog that keeps on digging until you find what you’re looking for. Sid, I need you to find out what happened to my daughter Sheila who disappeared five years ago. Actually, I already know what happened to her. She was murdered. I even know who did it. At least I’m ninety-nine percent sure. It was Joel Crothers, the scumbag in the article I’m enclosing. He also killed Rhonda Tolbert the East Carolina coed who disappeared last April.
Abby caught her breath. She remembered reading about the Tolbert girl. Her body had been found on a country road near Greenville, and the murder, as far as Abby knew, was still unsolved. Why had Charlene given her this material? Had she read the clipping and not the letter?
Sid, if you check out what the papers said about the Tolbert girl like I did, you’ll find she went to East Carolina University where she was studying to be a teacher and that she did her practice teaching on Nanticoke. What you won’t find out is she spent a lot of time shacked up with Joel Crothers while she was on the island. I know that for a fact. I also know she dumped Joel after she finished practice teaching and went back to East Carolina to finish up her studies. A couple weeks before she would’ve graduated she was murdered!!!! The exact same thing happened between Joel and my daughter, Sid. After Sheila finished high school, she got a job waitressing at Captain Jack’s, a restaurant in Bogue City where Joel was a waiter. She went out with him once or twice and he fell for her like a ton of bricks. Sheila got tired of him real quick, Sid. She told me so herself the last time I saw her. Soon after ditching the bastard, she disappeared. First my daughter then Rhonda Tolbert. Same pattern exactly!
No way could this be meant for me, Abby thought. She considered calling Sid Beckwith but decided to finish reading the letter first.
After figuring out Joel had to be the killer, I took my pistol over to Nanticoke and confronted the son of a bitch. He admitted shacking up with the Tolbert girl but swore up one side and down the other he never touched Sheila. He said they were just friends. The guy talked me out of pulling the trigger, Sid. I’ve done some rotten things in my time, but one thing I can’t do is kill someone without being a hundred percent sure they deserve it. Like I said, I’m ninety-nine percent sure Joel murdered my daughter. I’m hoping you’ll come up with the other one percent and turn the evidence over to somebody that’ll make sure the bastard gets what he deserves. Please do this, Sid–for me and for the two innocent young women he killed.
Bostrum went on to say that after confronting Joel Crothers, he had taken the evidence he’d collected to Sheriff Mountcastle in Bogue City. The sheriff had promised to pursue it, but there was never an arrest, not even an indication that one was being planned.
Mountcastle keeps telling me these things take time, Sid, but obviously he’s just stalling. Joel won’t ever get arrested, at least not by Mountcastle, not after what I found out the other day. Guess who his chief deputy on Nanticoke is. Joel’s older brother, that’s who. Now how the hell can justice get done with a conflict of interest like that!
The letter continued for another half page, Bostrum launching into what a mess he had made of his life.
I’m fifty-three years old and I don’t have a thing to show for it but a run-down trailer and a girlfriend with a face like a bull terrier and the breath to match. I’m sick and tired of trying to squeeze a living out of my half-assed machine shop and I’m too old to get a decent job. Booze and pot don’t do a damn thing for me anymore and I’d rather hang it up than get hooked on meth or coke.
Then came the final paragraph, which gave Abby a jolt. She looked up Sid Beckwith’s extension and dialed it. After identifying herself, she asked why a letter addressed to him from Lloyd Bostrum would end up on her desk with a note from Charlene Greer attached. “What’s going on, Sid? Is this some kind of sick joke?”
“No joke,” he told her. “I gave that letter to Charlene in case she wanted to assign it to somebody else. I’m leaving this rag in a few days, Abby. I was fortunate enough to land a job at the Richmond Times Dispatch.”
“No kidding?” Amazed at Sid’s good fortune and, apparently, her own, Abby congratulated him and wished him good luck. After ending the call, she went over to Becky’s cubicle.
“Would you believe Charlene’s note was attached to an absolutely juicy assignment? It’s about a murder, actually two murders assuming the Bostrum girl is dead, which seems likely. This is way out of my league, Becky. But just in case I get a crack at it, would you run a check on a Lloyd Bostrum for me. His letter is postmarked Saturday afternoon. It was mailed from Bogue City, which must be where he lives–or lived. In the last paragraph, he said he was going to kill himself right after mailing it.”
© 2016 by John W. Daniel