Laurel Falls, N.C. 2005: Our small town is in an uproar—there’s a serial killer on the loose in the mountains of North Carolina. At first we thought it was just one tragedy, but by the third murder, the FBI finally got involved. Trouble is, I know they’re looking in all the wrong places.

I have a keen sense of what’s really going on, but of course the FBI won’t take me serious. I’ll keep at it—too much is at stake not to. I’m working with Wallis Harding, a well-known musicologist, and we’ve got a theory we’ll keep at till they can’t ignore us. Bluegrass music may sound like something to practice and perform, but we know it’s the key to finding the killer. And keeping our families safe.

Usually Della Kincaid, my longtime friend, helps me out when I get into something like this. But she’s too busy with troubles of her own. A former crime reporter in Washington, D.C., she’s investigating some kinda fraud case that a whistleblower laid in her lap. She can't let a good story pass, but the deeper she goes, the darker it gets.

Turns out we both have information that could help the FBI, if they’ll just listen to us … before the culprits strike again. ~Abit Bradshaw

You'll love this suspenseful mystery because who doesn’t long to find justice in this crazy world?
If you love Louise Penny, Richard Osman, and Fern Michaels, you're sure to enjoy the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series.

Get it now—for the rich natural setting, colorful characters, and suspenseful investigations.



He was gaining on me, but I couldn’t run any faster. The sun had dipped below the mountains, casting dark shadows across my path. As I made my way through the dense forest, I struggled to push bramble and brush outta my way, which only made it easier for him to catch up.

The birds must’ve been singing, but I couldn’t hear a one. Not the hum of insects or the song of frogs. It’d rained the night before, enough to awaken their music, but I didn’t catch a single note. Just the beat of blood pounding against my eardrums as I ran for my life.

I knew who was behind me, and I knew he meant me harm. With each breath I thought about my wife, Fiona; our young’un, Conor; and our dog, Mollie, precious like no othern. Thinking of them helped keep me going.

I had no idea where I was headed, just racing through the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky. Years ago, I’d come this way when Fiona and I’d first met. I felt a wave of sadness wash over me that such a happy place now had a taint to it. Or worse. I might die here. Then again, maybe that was exactly the kinda place you wanted when you were facing the end.

Crazy thoughts like that kept pecking at me, like turkey buzzards on carrion.

I grew up in woods like these, though I never spent much time in them. As a boy in Laurel Falls over in North Carolina, I mostly sat round feeling sorry for myself, watching TV, or hanging out in my chair, the one I leaned against the front of Coburn’s General Store.

I shook my head, trying to chase away such thoughts. This was no time to worry over my past. I needed to pray I’d have a future.

I caught a break when I rounded a curve and saw the path branch up ahead, one fork sloping downhill in a way that let me slip outta sight before he could see which way I’d taken. Footprints already marked the soft, damp ground, so mine wouldn’t stand out.

Just after the turn, the path grew thicker with brush. But that was fine by me. Instead of picking up my pace (a notion my legs were screaming against), I could slow down and hide. I crawled in a rhododendron thicket and tried to quiet my breath. Hard to do while struggling for air, but my only hope was to disappear in the tangle of branches and leaves. A sickly sweet smell from the rhododendron leaves made me queasy, or was that just fear messing with my stomach? I took a deep breath and held it. And listened.

Earlier, back at the barn, I’d done a good job of sneaking up on him. I’d heard a woman scream and ran toward her, careful-like so he wouldn’t see me. I had no doubt she was about to become his next victim.

As I snuck alongside the barn, I looked through a knot hole and saw he held a small woman in a chokehold, a gun to her head. And I could hear her crying and offering him money. But by then I knew he wasn’t after any material reward.

I inched toward the barn door and peered round the opening. He turned toward me. I heard the gun go off, and I ran. My legs ached, my chest cried for mercy, but neither were life threatening—not like the man chasing me. The man the FBI and I were after.

Yeah, you heard me right. Me and the FBI. Abit Bradshaw helping the FBI find a vicious killer of mountain folks. I prayed he didn’t add me to his list first.


“I sure wish they’d hurry up and catch that murderer.”

I’d been studying a sad story in the Mountain Weekly about a murder when Fiona snuck up behind me and started talking while she read over my shoulder. I flashed back to a time a man on the Metro train in D.C. caught me reading thataway when I was up visiting my friend Della Kincaid. He started shaking his newspaper in my face, shouting at me to cut it out. Of course I’d never do that to Fiona.

“Honey, don’t worry about it,” I said. “He’s not round here. This took place over in Randolph County.”

“Well, that’s still awfully close for some nutter to be wandering round. Who knows where he’s hiding out now that he’s on the run after drowning that poor woman? Everyone working the night shift at the hospital is on edge.”

I tried to console her, but she wasn’t having it. I was glad she and her fellow nurses were being careful, but back then I never thought that sort of thing would come into our lives.

That evening we headed out to one of our music gigs. Our bluegrass band, the Rollin’ Ramblers, had a growing following, which meant we were traveling farther to larger towns and bigger audiences. The band had changed a lot lately; Fiona and I were the only original members left. She still played fiddle and sang vocals, and I sang backup, but I no longer played ole Bessie, my bass fiddle. I’d grown partial to the mandolin Fiona’d given me, the one that’d been passed down through her family in Ireland. I sold Bessie to Rhonda Ross, who replaced me just fine. We’d also added Owen Kent on guitar and Marshall White on banjo. Somehow, even with all those changes, we had the same sound, maybe better.

Fiona, Conor, and Mollie, and I barely fit in her Ford wagon, but we made it. The rest of the members all piled into Owen’s van, which was big enough to carry Bessie and the other instruments. We all used to travel in what used to be the Rollin’ Store bus we’d converted, but it’d gotten too old to repair. And to be honest, we realized we didn’t really need a bus. Back then, we were playing at being bluegrass rock stars.

As we rode along, I noticed Fiona wasn’t saying much, just looking out her window. Then it hit me. We were heading east, toward a venue not all that far from what’s now called Randleman, where the recent murder had taken place. That was still a good forty mile southeast of where we were playing, but I knew how her mind worked.

She’d never talk about it with Conor in the backseat, but he was messing round with Mollie, so I took a chance. I put my hand on hers and asked real quiet-like so he couldn’t hear, “Are you still worrying about the murder?”

At first Fiona acted like she hadn’t heard me, but then she gave a little nod. I told her all the same things I’d said earlier, about him not coming near us.

“Oh, Rabbit, let’s not talk about it now.”

Rabbit. That’s what she called me when she was feeling softer toward me. Back on the first day I saw her, I was so dumbstruck when she asked my name, I said, “Er, Abit.” It wasn’t just because of her pretty red hair and green eyes. I was fumbling for the right name to tell her: either my nickname Abit or my real name Vester Junior. I hated Daddy’s name, and I’d gotten used to being called Abit, even though it wasn’t a nice name, either. I came by it when Daddy told everyone, “He’s a bit slow,” and over time that shortened to Abit. That made him feel better, letting the world know he knew he had a retard (his word). Turned out a lot of my slowness had to do with how people treated me—and how I saw myself.

But I had to hand it to that gal. Oncet we got set up on stage, Fiona didn’t bring her worries with her. She played her fiddle and sang with all her heart. And Conor? He may have been only 8 year old, but he brought the house down sawing on his pint-sized fiddle when we played “New River Train.” Mollie worked the crowd, too, getting more petting than we could give her in a week.

We got home round eleven, and I put Conor to bed. That evening, the little fella was all keyed up, so I read him a story. It still blew my mind, the idea of me reading to anyone, even a young’un. I’d had a time of it in school, lagging so far behind that Daddy yanked me out when I was only 12. When I turned 16, I got a second chance at The Hicks—the Hickson School of American Studies—thanks to Alex Covington, Della’s ex-husband and now-boyfriend, or whatever the right word was at their age. That was where I’d learned mountain music and woodworking, two things that saved my life.

When I finished the story, I set the book down on his nightstand. Conor’s eyes were closed, and I tried not to disturb him. I reached to turn out his cowboy-on-a-horse lamp, the one I’d found last year when I was cleaning out Mama’s old house.

“Daddy,” Conor said, giving me a start, “tell me a story.”

“I just did, son.”

“No, tell me one. About when you were my age.”

A bad feeling washed over me, close to being sick to my stomach. My boy didn’t need to hear any of those tales. I’d never told him one; I just let him think his grandparents were as fine as a little boy needed to believe. But now I regretted being so careful. Maybe I’d cut off too much of my life, working so hard to make his different. Surely there was something I could share.

He was looking at me funny when Annie Totherow popped into my head. I was older than Conor when I first met her, but that wouldn’t matter. I started wondering what’d happened to her—it’d been years since I’d thought of Annie—and I hoped things had turned out good for her.


“Okay, okay,” I said, chuckling, “here goes.”

I wove a tale of happiness on the playground and having fun at Annie’s family home when I went to buy honey, which her daddy was famous for throughout the county and beyond. I cleaned up my childhood good enough for a Hallmark card. It wasn’t a lie—those really were good times. Conor just didn’t need to know what went on in between. By the time I was running outta ideas, I looked over and his eyes were shut tight. He even had a little smile on his face.

I stopped by our bedroom to kiss Fiona goodnight before heading to my woodshop in the barn. I needed to finish a coupla dining-table orders (something I always seemed to put off, for some reason), but I also needed some thinking time. I’d put up a good front to Fiona about the murder, not wanting her to know it’d unsettled me too. I knew bad people lived amongst us or could just slip in tomorrow. Della and I’d worked on some nasty crimes done by people I’d thought were real nice. Those were the kind that threw you. Scoundrels and con artists putting on a show of being loving parents, social workers, shopkeepers—then doing the meanest things right in your own hometown.

It was long after one o’clock before I’d smoothed out enough rough wood and raw feelings to think about getting some sleep.


My day started deceptively like every other—coffee, shower, breakfast before heading down the steps to my store, Coburn’s General Store.

I’d gotten a reputation for complaining about the store, but really, that was no more than the usual grumblings about any workaday job. I was actually quite fond of the old place (established 1910, or so the sign over the door said).

When I’d bought it in 1984 from Abit Bradshaw’s father, the store and apartment above it were in shambles. All these years later, I still marveled at the transformation. Everything I’d ever learned, crafted, or enjoyed doing showed up somewhere in the renovated spaces. I had the kitchen I’d always wanted with a window framing an ocean of mountain peaks stretching toward the distant horizon. The sunsets still dazzled me.

And I still got a kick out of ordering new items for the store shelves. Some sold well, others were losers, but even the worst-case scenario wasn’t bad—I got to eat my mistakes, literally. Over the years, I’d had to find new suppliers when they quit, gave up, or moved on. Even a year later, customers still complained about missing the preserves and pickles from my old friend Cleva Hall.

At 88, Cleva was long retired from being a school principal and recently retired from the hard work of putting food by. “Why would I go to all that trouble anymore?” she’d asked the last time I tried to order jams and piccalilli, her mood uncharacteristically dark that day. But for the most part, she was the happy, true friend I’d valued for more than twenty years. She’d moved to Boone to live with her favorite niece. We made a point of having lunch together a couple of times a month, and I enjoyed getting over to the “big city” of Boone.

I closed my apartment door and headed downstairs, trying not to spill my coffee. As I reached the bottom step, I saw something in my Jeep that wasn’t there the evening before. Through the windshield I could see a man asleep in the backseat. We didn’t lock up much in Laurel Falls. Oh sure, I secured the store every evening, but cars and homes seemed safe enough without the encumbrance of keys.

It was way too early for a confrontation of any kind. I figured whoever it was would wake up and leave of his own accord once the sun turned the Jeep into a sauna. When I turned toward the front door, though, something caught my eye. An apricot-colored waistcoat, which at that moment began rising to a sitting position.

“Hello, hello, hello,” said Nigel Steadman, rubbing his eyes like a toddler. “I didn’t want to disturb you when I got in so late last night. You know how those trains and buses to Timbuktu are.”

“Yes, I do know all about that. What I don’t know is why you were on one. And wait a minute. There aren’t any buses to Laurel Falls that time of night.”

“I did have to resort to a bit of hitchhiking,” Nigel said, faking a chuckle. He looked forlorn as he brushed imaginary lint off his shirt in a vain effort to neaten his appearance.

“Well, I’m glad you got here safely, but why were you sleeping in my car? You should have come up and stretched out on the couch. You know I leave the door unlocked—and you’re always welcome.”

Nigel and I went way back to my crime reporter days in D.C. A British subject, he came to America to ply his trade—forgery, something he was extremely good at. I’d interviewed him when I was working on a story involving the shady dealings of other criminals, and he provided valuable, hard-to-find background. I earned kudos for that series, and I’d been grateful to Nigel ever since. In the process, something clicked between us, and we’d stayed in touch.

“I’m sure you’re right, my dear, but I didn’t want to be a bother.” As he extricated himself from the Jeep, he tugged on his waistcoat and tried to press the wrinkles out of his suit. He ran his fingers through his silvery hair, but he still looked bedraggled.

“Never mind all that,” I said as I grabbed him into a hug. “Good to see you, for whatever reason.”

When he broke the embrace, we both stood there, self-consciously at a loss for words. I was still in shock. I’d never seen Nigel quite so nonplussed—and unkempt. He had the beginnings of a beard, and he’d lost his usual sartorial splendor somewhere en route. “Now I know how you got here, but that doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

Before I finished that thought, I knew. Nigel, who’d turned over a new leaf when the feds offered him the choice of jail or working for the Treasury Department, had turned that leaf over again.

And he knew I knew. He looked anywhere but at me—at his dusty wingtips, the missing button on his waistcoat, even the mailbox out front of the store. Eventually I cleared my throat and plowed ahead. “Come on, Nigel, I don’t think it was my winning personality that made you hop on a train to Laurel Falls.”

As his hands scoured his stubbly face, he looked so unsettled, I changed my tack. “Hold on. Let’s go upstairs and get you some breakfast and a shower. When you’re ready, come down to the store, and we’ll talk.” He nodded and started for the steps. “Wait a minute. Where’s your suitcase?”

“Er, I didn’t have time to pack.”