Hampshire, England, 2006: I should’ve known not to visit Nigel Steadman; trouble followed him closer than his shadow. But I’d finally made it all the way to Dublin, and it seemed a shame not to hop across the Irish Sea to see my old friend. Besides, he’d always said for me to come stay with him in London.

It wasn’t till I called from Dublin that I learned he’d moved to the New Forest in the south of England. Goodbye London before I ever met you—and hello heartache. That’s where Nigel roped me into doing some undercover work checking out the Ownbey gang he was trying to trick into telling the truth. But as you can imagine, things didn’t go the way we’d planned. Gunslingers, kidnappers, and thieves highjacked my vacation and turned it into a nightmare.

So here I am in a makeshift jail, and it feels like I’ll never see Fiona and the boys again. And if those bad guys have their way, I won’t. Even when my best friend Della Kincaid flies over to help, she can’t do much. I’m in so deep, she doesn’t know where to look for me. It’s time to pray. ~Abit Bradshaw

You'll love this suspenseful mystery because who hasn’t tried to do the right thing—only to have it all go all wrong?

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Deep in the Forest is the fifth book—and a standalone novel—in the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series by award-winning author Lynda McDaniel. If you like atmospheric settings, fascinating characters, and suspenseful investigations, you'll love this series.

Find out why critics and readers are praising Lynda McDaniel's unique voice in suspenseful mystery writing when you read the excerpt below.

EXCERPT FROM DEEP IN THE FOREST

PART ONE: ACROSS THE POND

PROLOGUE: ABIT

JUNE 14, 2006

"Am I dead?” I whispered in the cold, dark emptiness surrounding me.

Nothing but black strangeness. Not like sleeping. More like being somewhere beyond my ken. When I opened my eyes, not even a crack of light where a window should be.

But if I were dead, surely this wasn’t eternity. It was nothing like the glory Mama’s church promised if I were good. Not at all like the heaven their unholy hollering cried out about. And I’m shivering from the cold, so it can’t be the other place they shouted about even more than heaven (and told me every chance they got that was where I was going).

My hand began to feel round, and it landed on a cold, metal frame. I started to laugh—not the kind you do at birthday parties for young’uns or the funny things dogs do. A wicked laugh, me imagining heaven or hell like a giant dormitory with all us dead people laid out on long rows of hard, metal beds. Forever.

I shook my head to clear it of such nonsense. It felt like drugs talking. Then a fuzzy memory drifted past, reminding me how late into the evening—yesterday? days ago?—someone gave me a drink and musta slipped something in it. I tried to hold onto that recollection, but it skittered away, outta reach. Then another one followed, of me talking with people I barely knew. And who meant me harm. Some kind of gang Nigel Steadman hooked me up with. I should’ve known better. Trouble followed that man closer than his shadow.

I still couldn’t see anything, but I could smell it. The air in the room hung heavy, dank and musty, like old fruit cellars back home. The ones filled with spiders. I swear I could feel one crawling on me. When I reached to scratch at it, something clanged. My heart beat so hard I could feel its pound outside my chest. Then I heard the clang again and knew it was just me, stretching on that good-for-nothing bed.

Gradual-like, my eyes were getting used to the dark. I looked round and could see I was in a finished room, the walls spread out gray and smudged, especially round a shadowy corner cluttered with odds and ends abandoned from long-ago lives.

As I pulled the covers up, I could just make out the sound of someone breathing deeply. I couldn’t tell where that was coming from—this room or somewhere nearby? I didn’t want to wake it, afraid what that might unleash.

I had no idea how I got there, just that I had been in England, away from my home and my family. My head ached real bad, and I needed to take a leak even worse. But I laid there quiet-like, afraid for my life.

If I still had one.


CHAPTER 1: ABIT

JUNE 5, 2006
Nine days earlier, Atlanta Airport

I panicked as our two boys rushed ahead down sprawling corridors, looking for all the world as though they were running away, hurtling toward a future without me. It was ordained they would surely do that someday, but please not yet I thought when I could no longer see them. Not till I caught up did my fears ease.

Dressed in their Sunday best and pulling the suitcases behind them, they looked like miniature adults, a couple of pint-size salesmen on a business trip. That cracked me up.

I wanted to call out to my wife, Fiona, to look at the boys and enjoy the sight, but she was well ahead of us. There was a fire in that gal, eager to get back to Ireland. Years ago she’d chosen to move to America, but I knew there’d always be a strong pull toward home. That home. The magic kind where, thanks to almost four thousand mile and more than a decade, memories hovered lightly, stripped of difficulty or pain. And of course I understood she was eager to be with her family. Who could blame her? It’d been over a year since she hugged her father or sister.

Conor and Vern had gotten ahead of me again, but this time I didn’t fret. As I took them in, I felt a powerful pull in my chest. Vern, who’d turned eight year old not long ago, came to live with us after a tragedy that consumed our lives the previous summer. He and our son, Conor, had become like brothers, all but in blood. We were still waiting on the local clerks to do whatever to make it official. They could take forever as far as we were concerned. He was ours, no matter how they saw it, to love and care for every bit as much as our own boy. Truth be known, even Conor had been a gift, of sorts. A mistake that made life perfect.

Those young’uns marched down that long corridor toward somewhere they couldn’t yet imagine with a confidence I never had when I was their age. I was too busy getting pulled outta school, feeling like a no count. My daddy, Vester Bradshaw, had given me the nickname that had plagued my early life—Abit, as in “a bit slow.” I’d never moved on from that name; it was just what everyone had always called me. Time and self-acceptance had tamed the taint—along with me finally grasping the notion that what Daddy thought of me wasn’t gospel. With the help of people who saw something more in me than small-minded parents and residents of Laurel Falls, I finally found my rightful place in the world. Our farm in the mountains near Laurel Falls and my woodworking turned out to be just right for me. Along with Fiona and the boys and our precious dog, Mollie. And our bluegrass band, the Rollin’ Ramblers.

As we walked toward security, I passed a couple holding each other and crying. Next to them, two people were hugging and laughing. I’d seen this at Union Station in Washington, D.C. when I was up visiting my friend Della Kincaid, and now here at the Atlanta airport. It struck me as curious how great happiness and sorrow can stand side by side like that. Sorrowful goodbyes and happy homecomings. And is often the case, give it a few weeks and the tables will turn the other way for those very same folk. I reckon that’s not all that different from everyday life. Something bad is always happening, but wait a while and something good eventually comes along.

Onboard the big airplane, the boys got all set up in their seats and given their legs weren’t even a coupla feet long (compared to mine that never seemed to stop), they looked comfortable. They both put their little tables up and down about ten times. Then the flight attendant asked them to keep them upright till we were in the air. Vern had a stack of photos of Mollie he’d brought along with a few clothes pegs so he could put them up wherever he was. He already had two stuck to the little pocket on the seat in front of him.

Conor got kinda upset when a woman across the aisle snuck her tiny dog outta its carrier under the seat. “Why couldn’t we bring Mollie like she did?” he whined. I tried to make a joke of it, asking Conor if he could see squeezing fifty-pound Mollie under a seat, her big old fuzzy head sticking out wondering where in the world she was. Conor wouldn’t laugh, but Vern chuckled a little. I was about to tell some Mollie stories we all loved when the plane started moving backwards, outta the gate and onto the tarmac.

I’d never been on a plane. Thirty-six year old, and this was a first. I had no idea what to expect. For some stupid reason I’d figured we’d just lift into the heavens, almost like floating. I never expected the raw power that felt both manmade and God-given as we hurtled down the runway, so furious I gripped the armrests and pressed my head against the doily behind my head. I didn’t believe in praying to Jesus for little things, like Vern winning his soccer game or the weather turning fine for our family picnic. But this felt bigger than any of that, so I asked Jesus to get us to Dublin safely. I held Conor’s hand so tight he whispered, “Daddy,” and I eased up. I didn’t even know I was doing that. I felt like a fool, but then he squeezed back.


CHAPTER 2: ABIT

JUNE 10, 2006
Five days later, somewhere on the Irish Sea

The ferry churned its way across the Irish Sea, the wind whipping the waters into a frothy stew. A queasiness overcame me so strong I had to head outside for fresh air. When I eased onto the ship’s bow, a thick mist wrapped round me like a cold, damp blanket. I braced myself against the railing and watched the fog dance before my eyes, parting from time to time to reveal the shore up ahead, lying in wait.

Everything round me had taken on eerie, wraithlike shapes, only adding to how unreal this trip felt. I’d left my family behind in Dublin to visit England on my own. Hard to believe, given how tucked away I lived in the North Carolina mountains, but here I was now, thousands of miles from home, crossing a sea so roiled I was surprised my breakfast was still with me.

I felt grand.

As I stood there, legs parted and bent for balance, a picture flashed through my mind: the painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” hanging in our elementary school back home, something we passed every day so many year ago. Now here I was, standing on the bow, looking across cold, choppy waters just like that great man had oncet done. I laughed at the idea I had anything in common with General Washington.

Looking back, maybe that wasn’t as crazy as I’d first thought. While I didn’t know it at the time, I was headed into a long battle of my own.


CHAPTER 3: ABIT

When the ferry pulled in at Liverpool, I couldn’t get off fast enough. Not as much because I’d finally made it to Blighty, but the solid footing eased my discomfort from the choppy crossing. Now I needed to find the Lime Street train station and get myself down to a place called Salisbury.

Before I left Dublin, we’d done some sightseeing. Me and the boys loved getting to go to Clifden, where Fiona grew up near the sea. Funny how I had never been to the Atlantic back in America, but in Ireland I got to see it from the other side. When we returned to Dublin, we hung out with Fiona’s sister, Elodie, and her father, Quinn O’Donnell. I’d only met him at our wedding almost ten year ago, when he was shitfaced most of the time. After a health scare last year, he’d quit drinking—well, for the most part. I’d come up on him taking a nip in the back garden, though I doubted he saw me. Or cared if he had.

Fiona and the boys had made all kinds of plans—she had a big extended family—for while I was away visiting a member of my family, Nigel Steadman. Mine was a found family; folks like Nigel, Alex Covington, and Della Kincaid felt more like kin than any of the Bradshaws.

I was just fifteen year old when Della moved next door to us in Laurel Falls. She’d lived in D.C. her whole life and was some kinda hot shot crime reporter there. But she wanted to get away from all the violence she’d had to write about and bought Coburn’s General Store, the store Daddy used to own and let run down to nothing. After a while, though, she started missing some things about D.C.—like museums and cafés and her ex-husband and now-boyfriend, Alex Covington. (Seems they couldn’t live with each other—or without.) She’d take the train up for visits, and sometimes I’d tag along.

That’s when Della introduced me to Nigel. She’d met him back in the day when he was forging and she was writing. He helped her with background on some mobster story she was working on, and they stayed friends. Eventually, though, “Steady Hand” Steadman got caught and went to work for the Feds, and … Oh, never mind all that; it’s a complicated family history. (Aren’t they all?)

Nigel was born and reared in England, but he’d lived in America almost as long. He’d had to flee the U.S. the year before when he got himself mixed up with some no counts in North Carolina. I’d always had a soft spot for him, even though he was usually getting into some kind of trouble that more than oncet he’d dragged me and Della into.

We’d talked about how someday I’d look him up in the old country, though I’d only half believed it myself. But here I was doing it. The plan was for me to visit him in London and see the sights, like he’d promised so many times. But when I called from Dublin, I heard one of those weird sounds followed by a message that it was out of service. I dug round in the notebook I carried with me and found a different number to try. The old goat hadn’t mentioned anything about moving when he’d given me that number, but that was just like him. And I hadn’t thought to ask—I’d just reckoned he’d gotten a new phone. Or a burner, knowing him. It was when I called from Dublin that he told me he’d moved from London to somewhere called the New Forest. I felt my spirits sink. Goodbye London, before I ever met you.

During that call, he stammered and sputtered stuff about how it was too far for me to travel and such. Which was rubbish considering I’d come more than four thousand mile already. Man, that hurt. Coming all that way and not getting to see Nigel—or London—seemed wrong.

“It’s not that I don’t want to see you, boyo, but it’s just that I’m dealing with a spot of bother.”

“So what’s new … other than the forest?” I waited for him to say something, so long that I finally had to ask, “Nigel? You still there?”

“Hold on, hold on. Mother of mercy, I’m slipping in me old age. You’ll be perfect. See you in Blighty on Monday!” He told me he’d pick me up at the Salisbury station and hung up.

I hadn’t a clue what he meant by me being perfect, but I had a feeling it wasn’t good.


CHAPTER 4: ABIT

Even oncet I was off the ferry, my legs still felt wobbly, and my head spun from all the commotion going on round me. People talking different and hurrying here and there, signs in a bunch of languages, and a general feeling of being somewhere, well, foreign. I made my way to one of the few remaining payphones, looking grand in its little red booth. I had a cell phone Fiona got for me, but in Dublin it didn’t work most of the time. Lucky for me Della had given me some pence left over from a long-ago trip to England. She hadn’t been able to come back, but she’d held onto the hope—and the coins. I dropped them into the slot. By about the tenth ring, I started to panic. Then I heard a brusque, “Steadman.”

“Nigel? It’s me, Abit. In Liverpool.” Last week when we’d talked, he’d hung up before I felt clear about our arrangements, so I wanted to check in before heading to Salisbury. I didn’t trust him not to have moved again!

“Ah, hello, hello, hello, Abit. You called just in the nick.”

My stomach knotted. “What does that mean?”

“Not to worry, Abit. Just a figure of speech.”

“I’ve been studying the map and train schedules. According to this brochure, I should be in Salisbury by two o’clock.”

“I’ll pick you up in front of the station. I’ll be driving a black taxi. And don’t forget to look both ways before crossing. I’d hate for you to come all this way only to get flattened by a left-driving lorry.”

I’d already been pulled back to the curb a time or two in Ireland, so I knew what he was talking about. But then something hit me. “Hey, Nigel, I thought you didn’t drive.”

“Oh, again, just a figure of speech. We’ll see you soon, boyo. Bye-ee.” He hung up before I could ask anything more.

The train from Liverpool to Salisbury pulled in right on time, and I hopped aboard. I loved trains. The Southern Crescent from Charlotte up to D.C. carries some of my best memories from when I was a teenager, but I found the British Railway cars even nicer. I especially liked the tea lady selling, among other things, scones and tea. I ordered two of each. She looked round for the second person, then gave me a funny look. Probably thought I was a greedy American, but I was well over my seasickness. I slathered on butter and raspberry jam and gobbled them down, as by then we were fast approaching Salisbury.

I made my way to the front of the station where a lashing rain greeted me. The wind blew cold down my neck and gave me a shiver. In June! By now back home, guys were wearing short-sleeved shirts and girls were slipping round in those fine sundresses they favored this time of year. Fortunately I'd packed a light coat.

I looked up just as Nigel stuck his head out the window of a black taxicab and shouted: “Hop in, Abit—and look both ways!”

When I visited Della in D.C., I always felt like a king riding in a cab. I even got brave enough to hail them. I’d never had something so powerful do my bidding, with just a flick of the hand. But this one was even better, looking like one of those old cars in 1940s movies. Big, boxy, and black from head to toe, including the leather upholstery.

It’d been close to a year since I’d seen Nigel, but we had a typical English reunion: solid handshakes and a brief nod to mark our reunion. I wanted to throw my arms round him, but I knew better. (Little did I know by the end of my visit, I’d want to clutch my hands round his neck. Tight.)

I tossed my grip in the backseat and hopped in the front. Nigel pulled round other cars waiting for passengers and took off. While he drove, I studied him some. He looked good. Last time I’d seen him he’d let himself go: mussed hair, stubbly face, flannel shirt and jeans from the dry goods store in town. He’d returned to his sartorial splendor, as Della called it, in a custom-tailored suit and that Fred Astaire look with his silvery hair. And of course he was wearing a silk tie, something I hadn’t worn since Mama’s funeral a few year ago.

As he drove, we talked some about our lives and our families. But mostly I lost myself in the beauty of Salisbury as we passed the cathedral and crossed the River Avon. Even I’d heard of that river. (Nigel later told me that wasn’t Shakespeare’s Avon but one of nine River Avons. Kinda confusing, if you asked me. Seemed Avon is Welsh for river, but even so, I couldn’t figure why anyone would want to name a river River River.) As we headed farther into the country, Nigel barreling along narrow roads, my heart stopped. “Wait a minute, Nigel. This is way more than a figure of speech. You told me and Della you never learned to drive.”

“Well, not officially, I suppose, but what’s so hard about keeping the wheel steady and your foot on the accelerator?” He laughed, threw the car into fourth, and plowed ahead. He glanced over, and I knew without the help of a mirror what my face looked like. “Not far now, laddie boy. Not far now,” he sang out, as though that would calm my nerves.

What did take my mind offa his driving was the countryside, which had turned all crazy quilt, patches of green divided by hedgerows and dry stone walls, a lot nicer than miles and miles of the barbed wire fencing we had back home.

The weather rode along like a third passenger. At times it was a moody traveler, demanding our attention with heavy bouts of rain, only to become sunny, leaving everything scrubbed clean till it almost sparkled.

Nigel finally pulled into the parking area at an old hotel, the Bridgewater Arms, and I let out my breath. (I hadn’t realized I’d been holding it.) What a fine building—stucco walls up to its thatched roof, surrounded all round with baskets of flowers. I wondered if other people on their first trip to England felt like they’d waked up in a fairytale.

I figured we were just stopping for a beer and a bite to eat, but Nigel grabbed my grip and headed through the front door. What a sight inside. Panel after panel of warm wood and upholstered furniture and a crackling fire taking the chill off the day. Nigel walked to the reception desk and spoke in a low tone to the clerk, then turned to me. “We’re putting you up here, Abit. The owner’s an old friend of mine. Owes me a favor. Gave me a big discount, and the club will pick up the rest. I just don’t have enough room at my place.”

I was relieved to hear that, given I hadn’t counted on paying for a room this fancy, if at all. But I knew it came at a price. I hated to think what it would cost me in other ways. I didn’t want to ask him about that in front of the staff, so I just said a genuine thanks. I was too weary then to think about consequences, though I did wonder what the club was.

While they fixed up my room, we stopped off at the beer garden. Right away I noticed that dogs were welcome—not the way they do back home where they act like dogs carried the plague. I thought of Mollie as I patted the fur of a sleepy retriever below the table next to ours.

“Let’s have a pint, Abit. Just like we did back in D.C. at the Churchill Arms. Different arms, different country, but we can toast your being this side of the pond.”

“My treat, for picking me up and all,” I said. He waved me off and went to the bar. When he came back, he was carrying two brimming pints—one looked too pale to be beer, but he placed the amber-colored one in front of me. A waiter soon followed with the menu. I ordered chicken and mushroom pie with gravy, vegetables, and little potatoes. Nigel said he’d already eaten.

“Here’s to a good visit, Abit.” We clinked glasses. “My friends are all anxious to meet you.”

“Why would they be anxious to meet me?”

“Oh, now, don’t start that self-effacing crap again. I thought you were over all that.”

“And I thought you were over all your crap.”

He laughed, then tried for a face that said he didn’t know what I was talking about. “Whatever do you mean?”

Maybe I was being rough on him. Maybe not. “Oh, nothing, Nigel. Just sounds like you might have something up your sleeve.”

He choked a little on his drink and turned serious-like. “Well, actually, Abit me boy, I do.”

.