BY: LEE MIMS

Boo Overton is known as an oddball, a real loner in the town of Smithfield, North Carolina. They say she obsesses over germs, never uses makeup, and thinks an old John Deere cap is enough to tame her unruly curls. The locals hardly ever saw her in town until her husband was killed in a work accident and overnight she became a young widow in need of an income.

She boldly decides to risk the little capital she has left to turn his farm into a grass-fed beef operation—never mind that she doesn’t know beans about cattle. Her plan to hire a well-known Argentinian horse trainer to handle the cow horses she has yet to buy takes a dark turn when he’s found dead at the prosperous Lost Acres Farm.

Undeterred, she forges on, finding an unexpected friend in Detective Felix Truly, an Iraq veteran with demons of his own. He’s moved back to his hometown to investigate a string of murders that may be related to gangs, and a strange tattoo. He warns Boo to stay out of amateur sleuthing, but Boo is stubbornly determined to right wrongs and get over her fears. Their paths keep crossing as each uncovers the separate, often grisly components of what will become the Carolina Connection.

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Carolina Connection by Lee Mims, Boo Overton is starting over after her husband’s death. She is selling the family quarry and using the money to raise grass-fed beef. She plans to hire a neighboring horse trainer who is looking for a change, but before she can interview him for the job, he turns up dead. Detective Felix Truly warns Boo not try amateur sleuthing, but she ignores his advice, determined to solve the murder. But what Boo uncovers is a lot more than she expected—or is prepared for.

Combining excellent character development with an intriguing mystery and plenty of unexpected twists and turns makes this one you won’t want to put down.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Carolina Connection by Lee Mims is the story of Boo Overton. A recent widow, Boo is forced to find a way to make a living now that her husband is gone. She sells his quarry business and uses the money to raise grass-fed beef, even though she knows nothing about raising cattle. When she hears about an Argentina horse trainer that is looking to leave his current employer, Boo jumps at the chance to hire him to train her new cattle horses and heads for Lost Acres Farm to talk with him. But when she arrives, she finds his body, unleashing a chain of events that has her fighting for her very life.

Mims has a unique voice that is both charming and refreshing. Her character development is superb, her mystery suspenseful and intriguing, and her plot full of surprises, making The Carolina Connection one I found very hard to put down.

PROLOGUE

Having unearthed himself after a seventeen-year nap, a cicada scaled the trunk of an ancient pine and, along with a horde of his brethren, began the timeless ritual of attracting a mate. For Joelle Blackly, stooping in the vastness of a nearby pick-your-own strawberry field, the pulsing buzz of their song was a comforting reminder that some things never changed.

Her four young children, picking in the rows beside her, fended off a squadron of relentless mayflies. The slapping sounds of their little hands upon sweaty flesh served as percussion for the bug symphony. Reaching across her pregnant belly to pluck a juicy berry from amidst the sandy leaves, Joelle called to her brood, “Hurry along now, we want to be done before it gets too hot.”

“It’s already too hot,” Sissy, her youngest, whined. “I want to go home!”

Joelle straightened, massaging her aching back. “I got an idea,” she said brightly. “Why don’t we have us a picking contest? Starting right now, the first young’un to make it to the other end of the field with the most berries gets to ride home front-seat shotgun!” The sullen stares of her progeny told her she needed to up the ante. “Okay, okay,” she relented, “the winner gets five whole dollars!”

As though possessed by the devil, the children fell to their task, the mayflies and heat all but forgotten. Joelle smiled and resumed picking.

From time to time, she glanced up to mark their progress. Sissy was in the lead; eleven-year old Wilton, her oldest, was next; and her feisty twins, Horace and Morris, brought up the rear. The sun rose higher and the freshness of the morning was just beginning to fade when an earsplitting scream shattered the tranquil scene. Shading her eyes with both hands, Joelle scanned the field. Then she saw Sissy.

Her little face was a rictus of horror as she belted out one piercing shriek after another. The siblings, leaping the plants like gazelles, rushed to their sister and, upon reaching her, began to wail, too. Clutching her bucket in one hand and cradling her cumbersome belly with the other, Joelle scrambled over the rows to them and found the cause of the commotion.

The mutilated body of a man lay stretched out before her.

She dropped her bucket and covered her ears with her hands. “Stop screaming!” she demanded. “Wilton, get the babies to the car, right now!”

Despite having endured her share of hog killings, not to mention gutting a deer or ten, keeping a tight rein on her composure wasn’t easy. Joelle’s hands trembled violently as she pulled her phone from the pocket of her maternity shorts to call emergency services. Knowing she’d be asked questions, she reluctantly surveyed the horror at her feet again, prompting her to wonder whether the two bullet holes in the poor man’s forehead or his missing hands were the reason his face seemed frozen in agony.

“Momma!” Wilton’s cries from far down field stopped her conjecture. “Sissy’s done fainted!” Joelle dropped her phone back in her pocket and hurried to her children. She’d call 911 when she got to the car. One thing was sure—a few more minutes weren’t going to make any difference to the man in the berry patch.

CHAPTER 1

Blistering summer heat radiated down on Boo’s head as she hustled along the sidewalk in Smithfield, North Carolina. It was barely nine o’clock and already the humidity was suffocating. She plucked open the neck of her T-shirt and blew a cooling breeze over her moderate breasts, giving thanks for tiny mercies: small breasts meant no under-boob sweat and no need for a bra. No sweat meant no bacterial growth and no bra meant her underwear always matched since she didn’t like wearing panties either. Just one of your quirky little traits, dear, her mom always said.

Damping down her aggravation and dodging shoppers, she darted across the intersection of Market and Second, barely missing being squished by a Carolina Packers hot dog delivery truck. Hopping the curb as the driver gave her an angry honk, she trained her eyes on the entrance of the Johnston County courthouse. As luck would have it, a large grumpy-looking woman in flip-flops was about to open one of the heavy glass doors. Boo ran to catch up then slipped through on her heels.

The woman glared menacingly as Boo slipped by, holding her arms out to show the deputy at the metal detector that she had no purse. He waved her through, and she sped across the marble foyer to the stairs, which she took two at a time, being careful not to touch the handrail, another of her quirky traits. Dust motes swirled and glinted occasionally in the bright light of the second-floor catwalk that spanned the distance between the courthouse and the jail. A momentary concern, regarding exotic strains of air-borne viruses rose in her mind, but she pushed it aside and concentrated on the task at hand.

“Hey, Hubert,” she said to the khaki-clad deputy behind the bullet-proof glass of the jail’s check-in area. “Know where Billy Powell is?”

“Down the hall in the break room,” he mumbled around the powdered donut hole he’d just stuffed into his mouth and pointed the way. Nodding, she hurried on even as he called after her. “Hey, Boo, you might want to wait, sheriff’s talking to him right now.”

Completely ignoring his advice, she marched to the end of the hall and laid her palm on the door bearing the designation “Break Room.” Then, imagining all the germs no doubt multiplying at an exponential rate, she quickly pushed the door open and scrubbed her hand on her jeans.

Her inability to say no to an old friend had screwed her plans for this Thursday morning all to hell. Thursday being important because farmers from the surrounding counties were in town for the feeder calf auction at the stockyards. She was determined to get this chore over with quickly since right now she needed to be at the local service station where the farmers hung out before the sale, bumping their gums about everything under the sun, including who might be looking for work.

The smell of cigarettes and greasy snack foods assaulted her senses as she entered the room. “Hey, Boo,” Sheriff Isaac Gibbs, the friend she was doing a favor for, rose from his chair. He was using the nickname she’d been given at birth, an acronym for Bunnah Olympia O’Donnell. She’d always hoped to shed the name if she ever married.

Then she managed to pick a husband with the surname Overton. Go figure. She’d often wondered if fate had intervened in having a name like Boo since in truth there were a few things that scared her—primarily anything she couldn’t see, like germs.

“How’s it going, Boo?” Isaac said in his deep lazy drawl.

The guy sounded just like Barry White, but fortunately for him, looked quite different. He was a handsome man, tall, coffee-colored, and ripped as a rabbit. She knew him because he’d been a good friend of her late husband’s and because he’d been such a star on the high school football team which made him a legend in town. These days, however, she seldom saw him.

“Can’t complain,” she said politely, turning to her old friend, Billy Powell, smoking a Marlboro beside a partially open window at the end of the room. He took a deep drag from his cigarette then stuck it into an empty Coke can. He was a year older than she and plain and stubborn as the oak chair he sat in. Because he’d repeated a grade, he’d been quite a bit taller and stronger than the other boys in their class. For this reason and maybe because she had a bad temper and had never grown any taller than five-two—a bad combination—he’d felt the need to appoint himself as her protector. He rose to join them.

“Hey, Billy, can you give us just a sec?” Isaac said. He pushed the door back open and held it for Boo, indicating he wanted a private word with her in the hallway. “Thanks for coming down on such short notice. Tell you the truth, I don’t know what I’m going to do with Billy. I can’t keep cutting him slack like this. I’ve got an election coming up this fall. Rumors of favoritism get around, you know.”

“I can understand that,” Boo said, squinting at her watch in the dim light of the hall. “What I don’t understand is why you called me. Yes, Billy’s an old friend, but he’s a friend of yours, too. Hell, everybody loves Billy. But couldn’t you call someone else to take him home? I’m kind of busy this morning.”

“Well, I could’ve, but that’s what I’m trying to tell you. I picked you because I have a theory—” Isaac paused.

“You going to tell me?” she asked impatiently.

“I am, but before I do, I want you to promise you’ll wait until I finish. I know how…practical you are.” Isaac waited until Boo nodded her approval. “Okay then, I’ll cut right to it. I think Billy’s the way he is because he blames himself for that accident, you know, all those years ago. The one that killed that little kid—”

“Curtis, the kid’s name was Curtis,” Boo said, cutting him off. “And that was close to two decades ago. What kind of psychobabble is this?”

“Aw, now see, I knew you’d interrupt—”

“Whatever,” she said, “Go ahead, it’s just stupid, that’s all. I mean, what would an accident that happened in the past have to do with why he can’t hold a job today and why he gets drunk and falls into fighting at the drop of a hat? And even if it did, I don’t see what I could do about it. You think I can just wave a magic wand and make him stop?”

“No, but since you were there that day, too, and you’ve been able to move on, if you talked to him maybe he’d see that he could, too. He just needs to apply a little discipline in his life.”

“You’re right about one thing, Isaac,” Boo said. “I am practical. I see things for what they are, so believe me when I tell you that Billy drinks, fights and walks off jobs all the time ’cause that’s just the way he is. All of us who were there that day moved on, including him. Speaking of which—”

“Okay, okay,” Isaac said, looking like a puppy who’d just gotten his nose smacked with a newspaper.

Boo softened her tone a bit, and said, “There are some forces in nature that can’t be changed, Isaac, and Billy is one of them. You shouldn’t worry about him.”

“You’re probably right,” he said. “I’m only trying to help because one of these days, he’s going to go too far, and I’ll have to lock him up.”

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” she said.

“There’s one other thing.”

“Of course there is.”

“Is it true that you’re selling Mark’s company?”

“Oh good grief,” she huffed. “Not you, too. Everyone’s got something to say about me selling the business. Mark was the quarry man, not me. I can’t continue to run a quarry with no reserves. Don’t you understand? That business has been in Mark’s family for generations, over a hundred and fifty years, actually, and now the rock is all gone. That means the business is gone, too, just like Mark! I can’t work miracles!”

The shocked look on Isaac’s face stopped Boo. She shut up and stared at the floor. Maybe she had overreacted a tad, but dammit, she had tried. Ever since Mark died she’d done all she could to keep the business afloat.

What folks didn’t know was that even if Mark hadn’t been killed when one of the massive trucks that haul the boulders from the quarry floor to the jaw crusher had accidently backed over him, he’d have had to close the quarry. In the time since his death, a little over a year, she’d hired numerous geologists to find other reserves on adjoining properties, but there weren’t any. She even sent the geologists all over the county looking for suitable rock, and though they’d found a boatload, it was never on property that had owners interested in selling. She was at the end of the road now—not only were the rock reserves gone, capital reserves were all but gone too. She had to sell while there were still enough funds left to live on plus set up a new business. After all, a public job was out of the question. She’d found out the hard way that her demeanor wasn’t suited to the only position she was qualified for, teaching.

With her bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, she’d easily gotten a job at her old high school, but it hadn’t been at all like her mom said it would be. She’d said that her voice would be her salvation: “It’s low and authoritative. With such a wonderful god-given tool you can command respect.”

Not! Turned out to be the opposite—her low voice made her the butt of jokes. Worse, her diminutive size and mousy countenance made her appear vulnerable, a perfect target for the most brazen bullies in the school.

After only three months she’d been so infuriated by their efforts to taunt and humiliate her that she’d ended her career by kicking one particularly obnoxious kid in the shins. Fortunately, Mark had come into her life not long after that, and although he was considerably older, he’d been perfect for her. They’d married and from then on, she led a spoiled, charmed life. But that was then, this was now. She turned her attention back to Isaac.

“I had no idea it was that bad,” Isaac said, his smooth brow furrowed with concern. “What are you going to do?”

Boo stared at him. Now was as good a time as any to let the cat out of the bag. Besides, everyone would know soon enough. “I’m going to turn our farm joining the Slippery Creek quarry into a money making proposition. There’s a growing market in grass-fed, dry-aged gourmet beef, and I’m sure I can be successful at it. The farm is perfect for this type of operation. At three hundred acres, it’s big enough for a couple hundred head. Plus, there are plenty of established coastal Bermuda pastures. I can cut some of it for hay, which will save tons of money during the winter, and as you know, Isaac, Mark and I spent many hours on the farm. I’m pretty experienced with cows and horses and—”

“As a lark,” he sputtered, “not as a business! Boo, I can’t believe this. Mark was my friend, my mentor, and one of my biggest supporters, and you being his widow, well, I feel compelled to watch over you. So, please understand where I’m coming from when I question this decision because you’re going to lose your shirt! Also, I’d think it would take quite a bit of jack to move from a hobby farm to a viable operation. You and Mark have what…an old toothless stallion, a couple of mares and two cows?”

“Whatever,” she snapped again. It was her standard comeback when she needed time to think up a proper defense. “For your information, we have three cows and I’m selling the big house in town, too, already got a buyer, and I’m going to move into the old farmhouse out there.” Tamping down her anger, she pushed by him, then turned back and said, “You know the worst thing about being a widow? Folks treating you like one, like you’re some kind of brainless person who’s never done anything for herself. It’s why I never tell new people I meet, I am one. Now, I’ve had enough of this conversation and your negativity. I’ll be taking Billy home now.”

As she shouldered the break room door open again and motioned to Billy, he stood and hitched his jeans over his scrawny hips. “I don’t know why in the god’s name Isaac had to call you to pick me up,” he snipped.

For the second time in as many seconds Boo’s temper meter pegged into the red zone. “Could it be because the deputies who picked you up last night had to leave your truck where it was because you wouldn’t give them the keys and they didn’t want to make matters worse by trying to take them from you?”

“I’d like to see those two fat puddin’ heads take my keys!”

Boo held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear about it, and by the way, it’s been a good little while since I saw you last, you know. A good opening line for you might have included something along the lines of how wonderful it is to see me and maybe even a thanks for helping me out ’cause driving into town this morning to get your narrow ass out of jail didn’t screw up my plans one bit, no siree, Bob!”

Billy snapped his John Deere cap on his head. “I see you’re just as mouthy as you used to be, and just for the record, I wasn’t in jail.”

“Only because of the one thing standing between you and about fifteen assault and drunk and disorderly charges—Isaac.”

Billy’s eyes narrowed as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, squinted into the opening, ran a finger into it to be sure, then crumpled it and said, “Where’d you hear that crap? Never mind. Isaac’s just as mouthy as you are.”

“Doesn’t matter where I heard it. What matters is what the fuck’s wrong with you, Billy? What are you doing?”

He rolled the sleeves of his paper-thin T-shirt over steel-belted deltoids and said, “Ain’t nothing wrong with me, and I take back what I said before. Your mouth is way worse than it used to be, and to answer your question, I’m trying to get home then go find my truck—”

“It’s at the Little Brown Jug.”

“Fine! Then drop me there ’cause I’ve got to get my jeans from the cleaners. Got a job interview tomorrow.”

Boo failed miserably at trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. “Really?” she said. “Where?”

“None of your damn business,” Billy said as he pushed past her and out the door. “And you don’t have to sound so shocked. For your information, I do have marketable skills.”

Pausing briefly, she watched him stride down the hall and through a doorway leading to the sheriff’s office. Times had certainly changed since the days when he’d been her hero and protector. She put her lips together to call after him, wondering if agreeing to give him a ride home meant she’d drive him, or could it possibly mean she’d call him a cab?

The door closed behind him, leaving her in the empty hallway, knowing she should just go home, forget how close they’d once been, how she’d looked up to him. After all, who needed this aggravation? Then, just like in the old days, she followed him.

“What now?” she said when she caught up to him outside the sheriff’s door. “I’m in kind of a hurry here.”

As Billy knocked and entered the office, he said, “Isaac’s got my stuff…since I wasn’t actually in jail.”

“Guess you’re looking for this,” the sheriff said, handing him his watch and a manila envelope. “I just realized since we didn’t actually book you…this time…I kept your things. Sorry, I forgot to send them down.”

Billy shook his valuables from the envelope and popped his watch over his wrist. As he jammed the rest of his possessions into his pockets, Isaac’s door opened again and another old high school acquaintance entered.

“Hey, Boo,” Grover Harrelson said from behind the three-drawer file chest he dollied into the room.

“What’s up, Grover?” she said.

“Same old, same old,” he replied, then turned to Isaac. “Where you want this, sir?”

“Right here behind my desk where the old one was.”

Despite the air conditioning in Isaac’s office being set on polar-bear-cave, rivulets of sweat ran from Grover’s receding hairline down his chubby cheeks as he struggled to make the turn behind Isaac’s desk. “Durn heavy for an empty cabinet,” he puffed, easing the new olive-green metal filer against the wall. “Stinks, too,” he added.

“Yeah it does,” Billy chimed in. “Smells like something from a fire sale.”

As the guys stared at the shiny new cabinet like it may have come from Mars, Boo was thinking of ways to move things along without adding to her reputation of being, among other descriptions she’d heard over the years: a bit of a recluse, sort of a queer duck, a skittish little creature. But then, without a moment’s warning, Billy shoved her aside.

“Something ain’t right,” he said, whipping around the desk, knocking over two of the three tall stacks of files perched on the corner. Isaac scooted his chair back just in time to avoid being bowled over as Billy reached for the drawer pull. Slowly and carefully he pulled the top drawer open a crack and peeped in. Immediately he closed it and, just as carefully, slid the middle drawer out. The cabinet all but fell over from the weight of its contents. “Shit!” Billy breathed, slipping the drawer from the cabinet and sitting it on the desk. “Y’all get out! This here’s a bomb!”

Boo’s mouth went dry and her knees began to buckle. Running was out of the question—she was paralyzed.

Isaac and Grover, realizing her predicament, grabbed her by the armpits and dragged her backward to the door as Billy ripped open what looked like a clear plastic dry-cleaner’s bag.

Chaos reigned at the door and she realized the reason her head was beating a tattoo against it was because her two saviors were engaged in an unintentional Keystone Cops routine as they struggled to open it.

“I got it! I got it!” both men shouted, grabbing at the knob. It probably would have been funny to watch if she weren’t sure that at any second they’d all be leaving the planet, a molecule at a time.

Someone in the outer office must have heard the ruckus because the door jerked open suddenly, causing all three of them to jam in the frame. Then Boo heard Billy shout, “It’s okay! I’ve disarmed it!” Isaac let go of her arm and wrenched himself backward, causing Grover to lose his hold on her. She hit the floor like last week’s laundry.

Embarrassed, she sat up and saw Billy dunk the fuse into a cup of coffee just as the third stack of Isaac’s file folders lost its fight with gravity and tumbled to the floor. Papers shot into the air and fluttered softly onto the floor.

“God dammit!” Isaac roared at Billy. “You could’ve been killed!”

“Maybe, but not today,” Billy said and tossed the fuse on the desk. Then, glancing down into the contents of the file drawer, he looked back at Isaac and added, “I was you? I’d call the FBI or the ATF or whoever’s in charge of bombs, ’cause the person who did this, they might not’ve been the smartest clam in the mud, but I believe they meant business.”

Grover, gaping in curiosity, picked up the fuse from the desk, pulled its length through his fingers, and said slowly, “Yeah, and whoever lit it can’t be too far away—”

Bedlam broke out again as Isaac bellowed orders and deputies and staff ran every which way to carry them out. Meanwhile, Boo, wiggling through the tide of people flowing in and out of the office, finally made it into the hall where she stepped aside out of everyone’s way and laid her face against the cool frosted glass that made up the top half of a door. She didn’t even care about the germs.

© 2019 b y Lee Mims