This is a ten-page sample of Azalea Springs, preceded by the back cover blurb. It is available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Nook, Kindle, and several other retailers.

A small town that has lived in seemingly charmed ignorance for generations finds itself thrown into a modern era of hate and revenge. 
Gary Tatum battles intolerance, racism, and ethnic superiority with humor and sarcasm while Azalea Springs' least favorite son, Rusty Wicker, battles to keep the power that he has won through murder, intimidation, and the local drug trade. 
Russell Vaughn is the big-time, small town lawyer who secretly struggles with his desire for revenge as he represents diverse clientele that reaches far beyond small town North Carolina.
Michael and Grace Fleming are the newcomers who are thrust into a conspiracy that pits Old South ideals against the progress of the New South. The final resolution leaves Azalea Springs shocked. . .and relieved!

 

1

        Rusty Wicker raised the black barrel of the AR-15 assault rifle and peered through the after-market addition scope. He turned each dial with precision, methodically experienced in the arts of the hunt and the kill. Rusty had the knack for putting himself in full-combat mode instantly in any situation. As a kid he had been taught the tactics of pure, militant, guerilla warfare in the backwoods of Central North Carolina, and now in his forties he was a veteran foot soldier in the war for Caucasian equal rights.

He blew a strand of long, greasy, black hair off his face through the corner of his mouth, focusing intently on his target. His cousin Ricky, one year his junior, had taken shelter behind one of the many trees that had fallen when Hurricane Fran blew through in the early fall of ninety-six. Ricky was unarmed and nervously shaking in anticipation of the first burst from the gun. He plugged his ears with his index fingers, focusing on the fresh can of Bud Light nestled between his knees. Shoot already, dammit, he thought, waiting for the unmistakable crack of gunfire.

Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Combs wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead before it trickled into the corner of his eye, taking cover behind a massive oak tree. Combs was cautious, a habit that had developed over fifteen years as a deputy in the small community of Azalea Springs. He rarely encountered trouble beyond refereeing the occasional Friday night brawl between fellow Klansmen at the Wet Whistle, but there were moments when he had to rely on his training and instincts. The chance of a ricochet was high no matter what Rusty Wicker hit, and Combs planned on making it home so he could plan how to spend the latest windfall from his second best customer. The broad trunk of the oak sheltered him well enough.

        One shot, followed by two more in rapid succession, echoed through the woods, finding their mark against the green, wet timber. The chatter of the squirrel that had been chastising the three men for invading its space had turned to silence, and there was nothing but a small red streak left as evidence that the rodent had ever existed. The incendiary rounds left the tree smoldering. Whatever Rusty’s intent for the acquisition of the arsenal, his ultimate goal was to send a powerful message. The next target was far more troublesome, far more substantial.

        “Damn, cuz, that’s a shot right there! Sixty yards I bet.” Ricky Wicker was unmistakably grayer than Rusty, and certainly the simpler man. Rusty Wicker looked at Deputy Combs and smiled. “Hey, let me try! Can I try one time, Rusty?” pleaded Ricky. Too often he came across as a young teenager instead of a grown man, and Rusty had lost patience for such outbursts long ago.

        “Shuddup, Ricky.” He turned his attention back to the deputy. “Brad, how many of these did you say you can get?” he asked, leaves crunching under his steel-toed boots as he walked across the forest floor toward Combs.

        “Four, maybe five.” Accusations of corruption in the sheriff’s department ran rampant and were embodied in Brad Combs. “Depends.” The dark, close-cropped hair and the badge that he wore on his uniform served notice that he was a sworn lawman, but the tattoos and the company he kept confirmed his allegiance to a much more sinister alliance.

        “How about the ammo?”

        “That’s gonna be harder to come by, but it can happen. What the hell do you need tracers for anyway?” Their relationship had become tenuous. Combs ached to be included in the master plan.

        Rusty ignored the question, despite the fact that he itched to unleash generations of hatred and intolerance on the world in the name of equality and revenge.

        “Serial numbers all filed down? Untraceable?” Rusty Wicker inspected the stock of the rifle he was holding. He had to be cautious. In managing a private war, one bad decision could result in fifteen years behind bars. One mistake could mean life without a chance of parole. The potential profit margin, though, was worth the risk.

        “Yep. A grand apiece.”

        Rusty Wicker cocked his head to one side as he looked at the deputy. “A grand, huh?” He looked at his cousin and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Ricky,” he asked, his eyebrows drawn together, “don’t it seem to you that a grand oughta buy more than a gun?”

        Combs was confused and Ricky struggled to keep up. “Whaddya mean?”

        Rhetorical questions don’t demand clarity, so Rusty ignored his cousin and pretended to placate the deputy. “I’ll tell you what, Brad. For a grand apiece I’ll take what you can get, but I also get the lifetime guarantee,” Rusty proclaimed snidely, raising his chin and looking down his nose at the deputy.

        “What, you think this is Sportsman’s Warehouse or some shit like that? A deal like that and I’ll have to run a background check and you’ll have to wait the required number of days for delivery.” Combs laughed at his joke and picked with a fraying toothpick at the gold crowns that outlined his front teeth. Rusty didn’t appreciate the humor.

        He rubbed his unshaven face and remarked, “Well, then we can just consider what I want from you as a trade.” Rusty’s tone was turning cold and Combs’ jovial expression disappeared.

        Combs smirked and chuckled under his breath. “Yeah? What do you have that I want?” Rusty took off his cap and wiped his brow. As he considered Combs’ sarcastic tone he put his hair into a ponytail, exposing the black tattoo of a swastika on his neck at the base of his skull. The “SS” lightning bolt insignia that defined the Nazi reign of terror was on one side of the swastika, opposite the image of a noose that hung loosely from a leg of the swastika.

        Rusty took a step closer and stared deep into Combs’ eyes. The returned gaze from Combs found no soul in the eyes of the elder Wicker.

        “Here’s the deal, Deputy Combs,” whispered Rusty Wicker as he leaned close to Combs’ right ear. “You done screwed me twice in the last two weeks.” Combs’ mouth went dry and his eyes grew large in the fading North Carolina sunshine. He tried to speak but no sound was available. Ricky Wicker appeared behind Deputy Combs with a large oak stick, and buckled his knees with a mighty shot to the back of his legs. Combs groaned, gritting his teeth as he met the ground. The unmistakable snap of his left femur reverberated through his core. Vomit churned in his stomach and the sensations of light and sound began to dull.

        “What the hell are you talking about? I ain’t done nothin’ to you! Get the hell away from me with that stick!” He reached down to his knees as he trembled uncontrollably, hoping to find each appendage where it belonged.

        “Well we sure ain’t even, you thievin’ bastard.” Rusty’s tone was ominous. Combs struggled with consciousness. “You were short eleven hundred, and I want to know what might have possessed you to believe you could get that by me?” Rusty Wicker stood over Combs, waiting for the explanation. The deal was simple. Combs was charged with finding a reliable contact at Azalea Springs High School, offering to pay a percentage of the profits to the mule and then bringing the rest of the money back to the Wickers. Selling drugs to teenagers was simple.

        Combs tried mightily through the haze of pain to roll onto his knees, but his shattered leg was an anchor. He screamed at the sky when the bones grinded together. He finally processed Rusty’s question and mumbled a response. “It ain’t what you think.” His voice was faint and breathy. Syllable by syllable he continued. “I told you the Baker girl and that Womble boy couldn’t get rid of it all in a week. They’re still selling it.”

        “Well, see there, Deputy Combs, that’s a problem,” hissed Rusty. Ricky stood over Combs, twirling the club like a baton and just waiting for Rusty’s signal to end the miserable existence of a dirty cop. Nothing was worse than a cop on the take, because, just as he’d lie to the Klan to save his life, he’d lie to the sheriff to save his job and avoid prison. “I’ve got bills to pay and I’m trying to grow a business here. If I can’t prove that I can do a certain amount of business in this town, well, then the price goes up and some very bad, powerful people get angry with me.” Rusty spat to punctuate his sentence.

        Brad Combs rolled his head to the left, leaves matted to his hair. “It’ll get done. Give me two more days and I’ll have all of it,” he pleaded.

        “Get your sorry ass up,” commanded Rusty, disgusted at the sight of the deputy trying to struggle to his knees with tear-streaked cheeks.

        “My leg’s broke. . .” Combs was floating on a flood of pain and adrenaline, and the sunlight was becoming streaked, the hues less vivid. The trees were gray. “Take the gun,” he pleaded. “Consider it an interest payment.” Ricky backed off as Combs tried to roll onto his side. Again, he screamed when the shattered leg didn’t follow the rest of his body.

        Rusty smiled and nodded his head. “I’ll do that,” he said, and re-gripped the assault rifle in his right hand. “Now, that’s only half of our problem. Explain to me,” Rusty began and pointed two fingers at Combs, “why the hell I’m getting information that the cops are getting more interested in my property and you haven’t found the time to tell me yourself? Huh?” The breeze was picking up as the thunder from a storm swelling up in the west rolled through the woods.

        “I ain’t heard nothing like that, Rusty, I swear,” he groaned, his words slurring together.

        “You sure?” Combs nodded his head slightly. The pain was unbearable. “You’re positive?”

        “Yeah, Rusty. I ain’t heard nothin’. You know I always tell you when I hear anything.”

        “I used to believe that, Brad, but it seems to me that you’re playin’ both sides of the fence lately.”

        “What the hell are you talkin’ about? We’ve always been straight up.” Combs managed to open his eyes and he focused on Ricky’s face, whose expression was pitiful.

        Ricky spoke with a voice that seemed to be deep and in slow motion. Combs struggled to make out the words. “You’re dyin’, man.”

        “I’m talkin’ about I went down in town the other day and some cop I ain’t ever seen before walks right up to me and asked if I could hook him up.”

        Deputy Combs flashed back to reality as the wave of pain subsided. “It wasn’t one of us, Rusty,” Combs whimpered. “You know all of us.”

        “Yeah, no shit. Thanks for the news update,” Rusty shot back sarcastically as he leaned over Combs, spraying spit in his face. “It wasn’t one of you sorry mama’s boys filthy pigs lookin’ for another handout. This was SBI or DEA or somebody else who don’t know better than to try to move in around here.”

        “How do you know he was a cop? It coulda been anybody, Rusty.”

        “This guy had a fake Christian Knights tattoo on his arm, and a suit in a Crown Vic was parked down the street with a camera on his lap. The dude shows up and tells me that Brad Combs said. . .” Rusty’s nose was less than an inch from Combs’. “Looks like you’re tryin’ to move up in the world.” He flew into a rage. “Now you tell me right now who the hell you’ve been talking to or so help me I’ll gut you like the stinkin’ pig you are.” Rusty’s breath reeked of stale bourbon and filter-less Camels. Ricky had seen his cousin this angry once before.

        “Goddammit, Rusty, I ain’t said shit to nobody. You gotta believe me, I ain’t heard nothin’ and I ain’t said nothin’. I’ll bet Sheriff Pratt decided to find somebody else. That’s it.” Another sword of pain found a path to consciousness. Combs decided that defiance was his only option. “If I wanted to ruin this deal,” he growled, “all I gotta do is make one phone call and you spend the rest of your life in prison.”

        “Yeah, Brad, is that all you have to do?” Rusty’s self-restraint suddenly snapped as he raised the rifle and rammed it through Combs front teeth, bending the gold caps backward into his gums. “Looks like you ain’t never gonna get that chance,” he seethed, and emptied the clip into Combs’ skull. As the sharp report of each shot echoed through the forest above the house, Rusty let the corpse slide down the hill until it rested headfirst against a sapling a few feet away.

        Piss ran down Ricky’s leg in the oppressive heat and humidity of the blistering August afternoon as the echoes of gunfire faded. He stared at Combs’ body. The remarkable silence was broken by Ricky’s stuttered question, “Wh- wh- what the hell did you just do?”

        “What I had to do, Ricky. Now go get the backhoe and bury this piece of shit, and make sure you bury his teeth and his fingers somewhere else.” Ricky was paralyzed. He tried to speak, but all that came out of his mouth was a low, guttural whine. Rusty’s tone softened toward his cousin. “Ricky, do as you’re told.” Ricky Wicker cried, and spastic movements overtook his body. He was unable to separate one emotion from another and he was still unable to move his feet. He stared at Combs’ lifeless corpse as Rusty went through the pockets of his victim’s clothing until he found his wallet and his car keys. “Ricky, go clean yourself up and do as you’re told. Everything’s fine. We just got rid of one of our major problems.”

        Ricky started down the hill, through the woods toward the house, tugging at his hair.

        The Wicker property was 150 acres that had been given to them by their great uncle, JD McIver, the town patriarch who had been ruling by fear for most of his nearly ninety years. The politics and power of Azalea Springs were measured that way. Gary Tatum, the town public defender who did simple work on the side, closed the deal under the supervision of the one truly respected lawyer in Azalea Springs, Russell Vaughn. The lay of the land offered a good bit of cover for hunting all kinds of animals, and the fences around the property ensured good neighbors.

        Rusty Wicker made his way down the steep hill toward the house. As he got to the bottom step of the back deck he saw Ricky ever so carefully easing the backhoe out of the barn. Deputy Brad Combs was not the first problem that had been laid to rest on the confines of the Wicker property.

        “Whatinall’s goin’ on back here?” Rusty Wicker jumped, startled out of his comfort of living behind a locked gate. Gary Tatum, Wicker family attorney by default, took great pleasure in a good surprise attack, but it was especially fulfilling to take by surprise his favorite dirt bag, Rusty Wicker.

        “Jesus Christ, Tatum! What the f. . .”

        “What the hell?” interrupted Tatum. “Is that blood all over you?”

        “Yeah, dammit, we just shot a big ol’ buck back up the hill but Ricky missed the sweet spot and I had to slit the poor bastard’s throat.” Rusty looked away to avoid eye contact with the attorney.

        “Of which one? Ricky or the deer?”

        “Funny, asshole.” Rusty lit a cigarette. “Nah, Ricky’s goin’ up the hill to hang up the meat and let it cool.” He paused to take a drag. “So what’s your business?” The late August breeze was kicking up.

        “I’ve got all of those papers for you to sign on Ricky’s conservatorship. I think we’re all done.”

        “Yeah? Good. That’s been a pain in my ass for too long.” He wiped his hands on his jeans and took several large bills out of Combs wallet. “Five hundred, right?”

        “Yep,” replied Tatum as he reached for his fee.

        Rusty took the pen from Tatum. “Right here on the line?”

        “Yep.” Gary Tatum had no desire the stay at the Wicker’s place longer than he had to, so he took the papers and his pen and excused himself. “Congratulations on the kill.”

        “You don’t know the half of it,” Rusty yelled as Tatum rounded the corner of the house toward his car. “Later!”

        Rusty pulled his cell phone from his pocket when Tatum was gone and hit send. “It’s done,” he said with stark finality.

        The voice on the other end responded simply. “Good. Did you get the money?”

        “No,” replied Rusty, “but I know where it is.

        “No traces.” The line went dead.

 

2

        Azalea Springs was becoming too big, but back during the turn of the twentieth century the town boasted a simple existence for most families. Some farmed tobacco and some farmed cotton, while some worked in the mill, and there were ample businesses that turned profits through the sheer lack of competition. One hotel with a restaurant watched over Main Street, the general store sold everything from pecans in barrels to bolts of flowered fabric, and the lone tavern bragged about ice-cold beer. The town had a schoolhouse and a church in the same building, classroom during the week and sanctuary on Sunday. Everybody knew everybody, and it seemed that most of the town was related somehow.

        Two flags, the Confederate and the North Carolina state flag, flew proudly on opposite sides of Ol’ Glory atop town hall. That was a time when more checkers were played than laws were made, and that was roughly the same time that there wasn’t much of a need for law enforcement, except to write a speeding ticket or escort those to jail who had let the mixture of alcohol and testosterone get too rich. Quite a lot had changed over the last ten or so decades. Only two flags still flew, because racial tensions prompted the eventual removal of the Confederate banner. Mayor Ellington figured during his first term that the time was right for progress when South Carolina ruled that the flag should be removed from the dome of their capitol.

        He didn’t do himself any favors among the old guard, and he was even on the receiving end of several threats, but those who had first hand knowledge of Maxton Field and Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t have the backbone and the fire they once had. Oppression was known as segregation back in the days of Jim Crow. After all, the separation of the races was better for everyone. The problem was that “everyone” was a term reserved for the white majority that didn’t view other races as countable, let alone equal. Progress toward equality was made in the mid-1960s when five leaders of United Klans of America were sentenced to terms in prison, but by 1975 the Ku Klux Klan and its brethren had begun to rebuild. The next three decades saw Klan activity dwindle, but there was little doubt that tension and strife were not far below the surface of southern hospitality, especially in the traditionally conservative towns.

        Recent memory recalled Azalea Springs as a small, quiet town far enough south of Raleigh that special effort was necessary to enjoy a fancy restaurant or an evening at the theatre. The lazy residential streets, lined with row after row of oak and pine and azalea, had become thoroughfares over the last few years. Kids could no longer ride their bikes and scooters in the middle of the road because traffic had taken away the asphalt playground.

        The town wasn’t sleepy anymore, not after the advances made in the name of progress. Azalea Springs’ town council had fought for years to replace the closed textile mill and save the dying town, and they succeeded with the addition of the tire plant. Such a large manufacturing operation required hundreds of workers, so skilled and unskilled laborers were hired by the dozen and a management team was imported from company headquarters in Ohio. Local retailers experienced a boon that had not been seen since the first rumors surfaced of the textile plant moving overseas. Local prosperity was short lived due to the invasion of corporate America, though. Mom and pop stores just didn’t have the buying power to compete.

        “Be careful what you wish for,” chided J. Davidson McIver in the heat of battle some years back, “because you just might get it.” McIver’s family had helped settle Azalea Springs several generations before. It was their tobacco and cotton that drove the economic wellbeing of the town for as long as any of the old timers could remember, and they had, for decades, fought through the droughts, the hurricanes, and the economic rollercoaster of fluctuating market values. Now Roger’s Family Diner competed with the fast food joints and the larger chain restaurants just to stay alive. Ellis Hardware and Rolly’s Nursery were up against the big box retailers that were more than willing to come into a small town and establish themselves as a part of the market share. The general store shared a sign that proclaimed, “Everything’s a dollar!”

        “JD, you can’t keep the town living in the forties and fifties. If we don’t do something now, we’ll watch this town die,” pleaded Lucas Ellington, the new young mayor.

        “Mayor,” retorted McIver, “I remember when you were seventeen years old. You got mad at your daddy because you wanted to go down to the Garland’s pond and fish and he needed you to help in the fields. I believe your exact words were, ‘When I get out of school Azalea Springs has seen the last of me.’ You have had a remarkable change of heart since you decided to grace our fine community with your leadership qualities.”

        Ellington knew if he opened his mouth he’d regret not being able to reel in his tongue. McIver had touched a nerve, and picking a fight with the elder statesman of the community in front of the town council was highly inadvisable. Ellington calmly found his civility and confidently offered, “Thank you, Mr. McIver. Age seems to have changed the perceptions of many of us.” Luke Ellington offered a youthful zest to the community, but his maturity allowed him to view reality from the perspective of his fellow citizens. McIver had never needed a title in front of his name to demand respect, and his cynicism toward progress was frightening to the younger majority.

        Quiet front porch conversations often referred to McIver’s ability to frighten children and small animals just by breathing, and small town lore had sewn a quilt of tales. “My daddy says that if you need a deal, alls you gotta do is look under Mr. McIver’s table.” “Yeah, well my grampa told me Mr. McIver’s cane has a knife in it. He’s seen it!”

 

        Out of the mouths of babes. . .