Vindication, p.1

Vindication, page 1



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  Also by H. Terrell Griffin

  Matt Royal Mysteries

  Mortal Dilemma

  Chasing Justice


  Fatal Decree

  Collateral Damage

  Bitter Legacy

  Wyatt’s Revenge

  Blood Island

  Murder Key

  Longboat Blues

  Ethan Fitzgerald Novels

  The Assassin’s Game


  Thrillers:100 Must-Reads (contributing essayist)




  Copyright © 2018 H. Terrell Griffin

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  ISBN 978-1-60809-276-5

  Published in the United States of America by Oceanview Publishing

  Longboat Key, Florida

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1



  Always and until the end of time


  MY FRIEND PEGGY Kendall has been involved in my books from the beginning. The year was 2003, the place, a little bar called Tiny’s that squatted in the corner of the parking lot of a small shopping center on the north end of Longboat Key, Florida. I had decided that my wife, Jean, was right, and it was time for me to tie myself to a chair and write the book I’d been talking about since she’d first become my sweetheart way back in my college days.

  With a lot of trepidation, I announced to my friends in the bar one night that I was going to write a mystery novel. That drew much laughter, but it quickly dissolved into a semi-sober discussion that primarily involved the naming of the characters. Peggy and her husband, Dave, were part of that group. Most of the regular characters who have populated the ensuing eleven Matt Royal mysteries are based on people who were in the bar that night, and I might add, many subsequent nights.

  Peggy and Jean formed what I think of as the dynamic duo who listen to my ramblings, add intelligent thought, read my scribbles as they exit the computer, edit my words, encourage me with love and laughter and sharp-edged comments, and generally treat me as they once did their teenaged sons. I couldn’t do this without them. They have been an invaluable asset to me during the writing of each of the Matt Royal novels.

  After Peggy’s husband, Dave, died in 2009, she moved to The Villages. It was she who came up with the idea of placing this story in her new hometown, that pleasant community of retirees in North Central Florida. Peggy, along with her neighbors Patty and Bob Geoghegan, shared their time and knowledge of the area with Jean and me during the month we lived in The Villages when I was just beginning the writing of this book.

  Tim Harding, a real estate agent without peer, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of The Villages with me and was always ready to take my calls to answer any questions as they arose. If there are mistakes in this book regarding The Villages, they are mine, not Tim’s. He knows his community.

  Then, there is my Starbucks cabal, my good buddies Lloyd Deming, Mark Bailey, and David Gilbert. They also listen to me and give me advice on plots and often ground me so that I don’t get off on tangents that won’t work. Envision, if you will, four old guys in the corner of a coffee shop, milling about, scissors in hand, trying to work out how to best kill someone with a pair of left-handed scissors. It was vivid enough that I decided to change the murder weapon in this book to a pistol.

  David has served the Miss Florida Pageant as a board member for decades and it was his idea that started me on the plot of this novel. He shared his vast knowledge and resources of pageant life as it is now and as it was forty years ago. He saves everything and stores most of it, I think, in his car. Again, if there are mistakes in my writing about the pageant, they are mine, not David’s.

  The eleven baristas of the Maitland Starbucks, where I do much of my writing, always take care of us. They are unfailingly polite to all their customers in what has become a friendly small-town gathering place. They represent the best of our young people, many of them working diligently on college degrees as they concoct every coffee drink known to modern man and some that are unknowable. With their permission, I have used each of their names as characters in this book.

  Finally, big thanks go to my readers, my family, and the men and women of Oceanview Publishing, particularly Bob and Pat Gussin, Lee Randall, and Emily Baar. None of this would be possible without you.


  THE WOMAN’S BODY lay facedown on the concrete dance floor of Paddock Square. The bullet had punched a small hole in her blouse and burrowed deep into her back. The thin garment was stained by the trickle of blood that had seeped out in the brief moment that had elapsed between the bullet’s entry and the instant of her death. A young man was bent over the woman, his fingers probing in vain for a pulse in her neck.

  Except for the body and the man, the square was empty. Soon, the solitude would give way to the joggers, walkers, and cyclists; retirees getting their exercise in hopes of extending the lives they enjoyed in this unique place. A few hours later, the stores and restaurants that defined the square would open for business.

  The March sun was beginning its quotidian climb into the Florida sky, its rays reaching silently for the roofs of the buildings that composed the eastern boundary of the town square known as Brownwood. The air was clean and a little chilled and carried the strident calls of unhappy crows that had settled on the roof of a nearby structure.

  The young man stood, his face drawn by the sadness that penetrated to his bones. He had once been a soldier and had seen more death than most people see in a lifetime. Most of the dead were young, and this woman wasn’t old. Early sixties maybe, perhaps younger. A waste. Each body was one more straw on the proverbial camel’s back, and someday the final straw would find its way into his psyche. Then what? He shook off the feeling of dread and used his cell phone to call 911.



  FILTERED SEARCHLIGHT BEAMS painted the building in soft pastels as they roamed across its face. Other beacons were pointed at the sky, their light dissipating high in the darkness of a summer evening. The Doric columns that lined the front and sides of the classical revival building added a touch of dignity to the evening’s events.

  Men dressed in suits and ties and women in long dresses were streaming through the front doors. The discordant sounds of an orchestra tuning up slipped from the building and created a pleasant din as they conflated with the murmur of conversation among those waiting on the sidewalk. Saturday evening at the City Auditorium in Macon, Georgia, the night of the final round in the annual Miss Georgia Pageant. A sense of excitement and anticipation permeated the air and infused the guests with a sense of well-being.

  Backstage, fifty young women from all over Georgia were preparing for the big night, the night the winner would be chosen. It had been a grueling few days that started on Monday when they began the process of interviewing privately with the judges. The contestants would receive scores from one to ten in each of the events, and the women knew the interview would count for 25 percent of the total score for the week. It was important that each
made a good impression, and they dressed and conducted themselves in a manner that would hopefully propel them toward the finals. Every little bit counted.

  Tuesday had been the talent contest that counted for 50 percent of the scoring for the pageant. It was by far the most important event of the week. Miss Berrien County, Sarah Kyle, had won that competition hands down. She had sung Gilda’s aria from Rigoletto and nailed it. One judge was heard to mumble that even Giuseppe Verdi would have given her a standing ovation.

  There was no surprise when Sarah was announced as the winner of the talent competition. Because that one event counted for 50 percent of the total points, the money was on Sarah to win the whole thing and be crowned Miss Georgia.

  Sarah’s mother had died when she was twelve, and she and her two older brothers had been raised by her dad, a man who farmed a small acreage near the Berrien County seat of Nashville, deep in South Georgia, some fifty miles north of the Florida state line. There was not much spare money, and as the boys graduated from high school, they went to work on the larger farms that dotted the area.

  Sarah had shown a talent for singing as a young girl and would often sing solos at the small church the family attended. One day, when Sarah was in her early teens, the organist from the church stopped by the family’s small farmhouse to speak with Sarah’s father. This gentle man taught music at nearby Valdosta State College and donated his services as organist to the church. He’d watched Sarah grow into a young teenager and recognized a raw talent that he thought could be coached into greatness with the right voice teacher.

  The organist had a colleague in the music department at Valdosta State who taught voice, and he offered to arrange a meeting, an audition really, for Sarah. If the teacher accepted her, there would be a cost for the lessons, not much, but an amount that would stretch the budget of Sarah’s father. Over the years that followed, her dad had given up any luxuries he might have enjoyed in order to provide Sarah with money for the voice lessons. When she passed her sixteenth birthday, she found part-time work as a waitress in a café across the street from the courthouse in Nashville and helped her dad pay for the lessons.

  Sarah began to toy with the idea that she wanted to go to college. Nobody in her family had ever done that or even contemplated it, but she wanted something better than the future she saw for herself. If she stayed in South Georgia, her destiny was pretty much limited to marrying a farmer or factory worker and spending the rest of her life within a few miles of her birthplace.

  Money was the problem. College was expensive and even with a part-time job Sarah didn’t see how she could afford it. Then her voice coach told her about the Miss Georgia Pageant and the scholarship money the winner would receive and the personal appearance fees she could earn during her reign as Miss Georgia. It would be enough to pay her college expenses for a year or two and she would have a shot at the Miss America title and enough scholarship money to finish a degree.

  The coach assured Sarah that she had come so far with her music, she would have a good chance of becoming Miss Georgia, since half the points needed to win were based on the talent competition. The coach was certain that no other young woman in Georgia had the vocal range and control that Sarah did.

  First, Sarah had to win a local contest, so she entered the Miss Berrien County Pageant sponsored by the local Jaycees. Given that hers was a talent not ever seen before in South Georgia and the fact that she had grown into an eighteen-year-old beauty, she walked away with the title.

  Her next stop was Macon and the Miss Georgia contest. One of the Jaycees, a local lawyer and banker named Bill Perry, offered to pay the wardrobe and other incidental expenses that Sarah would incur in Macon. Her hotel room and meals would be paid by the pageant.

  Bill Perry paid for Sarah to go to Bradenton, Florida, to sit for David Bartley, a well-known photographer specializing in pageant headshots. Sarah would need a number of those for the official Miss Georgia program book and maybe for the press, especially if she won.

  It was important that Sarah have a St. John knit suit for the interview process, preferably royal blue, and a white Ada Duckett swimsuit. Nobody ever accused these young women of being original, but everyone was afraid to deviate from the norm set by the powers that be, whoever they were.

  Female chaperones chosen from a roster kept by the pageant staff were assigned to small groups of contestants. On the day of her arrival in Macon, Sarah was introduced to her group’s chaperone and her hotel roommate, a young woman named Polly Norris, who reigned as Miss Atlanta Northside. At twenty-two, Polly was four years older than Sarah and was participating in her second Miss Georgia Pageant. The year before, she had not placed in the final ten, but had gained some valuable experience in both the competitions and the politics that played out just under the surface of the pageant

  Polly told Sarah that she was from a wealthy family who lived in Buckhead, a very upscale neighborhood in Atlanta. She’d gone to the best private schools and had graduated from Agnes Scott College a month before the pageant. Sarah was taken with Polly’s sophistication and impressed that her parents had given her a tour of Europe the summer before as a consolation prize for not winning Miss Georgia in her first try.

  As the final competition got under way, all fifty of the women, dressed in their evening gowns, were on the stage. They came one by one to the microphone at center stage and introduced themselves. They all knew that the top ten had already been chosen and would be announced in a few minutes. Each was holding out hope that she would be among the select group. Nerves were stretched thin, but each one knew the process. She’d do her best, smile, and show some personality at the microphone. And if she didn’t win, she’d congratulate the fortunate ten and go back to her real life, carrying with her a memory of a glorious week in a gracious city on the edge of the Georgia Piedmont.

  As the contestants left the microphone, they returned to the back of the stage and formed a semicircle. The mistress of ceremonies, a local television personality who hosted an afternoon show devoted to women’s issues, walked onto the stage, told a couple of corny jokes, congratulated all the participants, and announced the ten semifinalists, each of whom stepped forward amid applause from the audience and the other contestants. The curtain closed and the audience took an intermission while the semifinalists, which included both Sarah Kyle and Polly Norris, left to change into swimsuits for the next competition, which would be followed by another talent show.

  This year, Polly’s talent had been baton twirling, and no one thought she had placed very high in that part of the competition. She had been announced as the winner of the swimsuit contest, and most of the girls thought Polly must have done very well in the interviews in order to make the semifinals. After all, the swimsuit only counted for 10 percent of the overall score. The other events, evening gown on Wednesday and Monday’s interview, together counted for 40 percent of the overall score. The winners of those events weren’t announced, but if Polly had done well in the interview and been awarded the full 25 percent and had won the evening gown event for 15 percent, added to her swimsuit win, she would have 50 percent of the score, equal to the 50 percent that Sarah had won in the talent contest. Of course, this calculation didn’t take into account that points would have been awarded to several contestants in each event, even though they didn’t win. And some of the others might have won either or both of the evening gown and interview events. That must have been the case in order for the eight who were not announced as winners of the other two events to end up as semifinalists. It was impossible to figure, even for the math major from Georgia Tech who was one of the semifinalists. Just too many unknowns.

  Now, the contestants would appear in the swimsuit competition, followed by a repeat of the talent they’d performed on Tuesday night, and concluding with the evening gown event. The top five would then be selected and out of that small group, the new Miss Georgia would finally emerge. Even in face of the math that led some to believe that this was now a conte
st between Sarah Kyle and Polly Norris, each of the semifinalists still had hope of making the final five. If they survived, they would be interviewed again, this time in front of the entire audience, and then each judge would score the contestants on the events, and the winner would be announced.

  Sarah Kyle did not make the final five. Polly Norris, the twirler, did. Sarah smiled and hugged each of the remaining five and walked off the stage. She went to the dressing room where many of the original fifty contestants were changing into their street clothes and getting ready to board the bus back to the hotel. Some were in tears.

  Several of the women came over to commiserate with Sarah. “I can’t believe you didn’t at least make the finals,” Miss Ware County said. “You won the talent event, for God’s sake. How can they not put you in the top five?”

  Sarah shook her head. “I guess I got my hopes up too high. Maybe I didn’t do as well with the aria tonight. We’ll never know, but I’ve had the experience of my life.”

  “You can try again next year,” Miss Savannah said.

  “No. I’m done,” Sarah said. “I needed the scholarship money for college. I didn’t get it, so I won’t be going to college. I guess I’ll see about full-time work at the diner in Nashville.”

  “Who do you think will win?” asked Miss University of Georgia.

  “We’ll know in a few minutes,” another woman said. “I’m betting on Miss Carrollton. I heard she was runner-up in the talent event.”

  “Polly Norris,” Miss Atlanta said.

  “Not a chance,” Miss Augusta said. “I don’t know how she even won the swimsuit event. She’s kind of chunky, if you ask me.”

  Sarah laughed. “Come on, ladies. We have to be good losers. If Polly wins, it’ll be because the judges thought she was the best person to represent our state in the Miss America pageant.”

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