Exclusive Excerpt: Lion’s Head Revisited: A Dan Sharp Mystery by Jeffrey Round

PROLOGUE

GEORGIAN BAY

PROMONTORY

Excerpt:

She knew she was going to die. The feeling persisted, like something pushing out from inside her until it took on a kind of force. The climb had been a mad, nerve-wracking scramble, up from the campground over moss-covered rock and low-lying brush to the top of the escarpment. She’d fought panic all the way. It was only on reaching the top that she paused for breath, her sides heaving.

The drizzle had finally stopped. On any other day, this would have been a dazzling view. The town of Lion’s Head lay in the distance across the bay. A ghostly finger of light slipped through the clouds and slid over the water. Far below, seagulls wheeled over treetops and the broken boulders lying scattered along the shoreline like pieces of an unfinished puzzle. If she fell, she’d be smashed to bits.

“Ashley!”

The breeze gusted the word away. She checked her cellphone. No signal yet. The logging road was still another twenty minutes up ahead. They should have stayed together.

The promontory gave way to bare rock. A white blaze on a twisted cedar showed where the trail picked up again before disappearing in the woods on the far side. She followed where it led down. Stray branches whipped her cheeks, stones cut her fingers as she grabbed them, passing from handhold to handhold to steady herself, all the while fighting panic.

A sharp turn near the bottom confused her. The blazes seemed to switch back on themselves. Had she come the wrong way? Here the rocks were treacherous, greasy with moss and damp. She was nearly at the bottom when her foot gave way. Instinctively, she reached out and caught a branch. It held for a heart-stopping moment then slid through her grasp as she fought to right herself.

Too late.

Her back slammed hard, knocking the wind out of her. For a second she lay there, too stunned to move. She tried to cry out, but her lungs refused to draw breath. An ache clutched her chest. Where it had first been cold and numbing, now it was an excruciating burn, a hot knife jabbed between her muscles. Panic overwhelmed her as she gasped for the breath that failed to come. She struggled to rise, but an invisible hand held her firmly down.

Forest stretched in all directions, a dim twilight world. By nightfall the blazes would vanish entirely then the fear would set in for real. She had to get to the car.

She pictured the blue-and-yellow child’s tent, a tiny bubble set beside the larger khaki-coloured one. Jeremy’s favourite bear — a one-eyed, fur-shedding monstrosity that he clung to through thick and thin — had lain just inside the entrance when they woke. She’d cried to see it.

“Ashley!”

Her voice sounded barely above a whisper. A gnarled root protruded from the dirt. She wrapped her fingers around it, gripping until her knuckles turned pink-white. As a child she’d visited a farm and watched a chick break out of an egg, first one small feathered wing then the other, everything in the world focused on that struggle. Just so, she raised herself now, gripping and pulling, the ache so intense she thought she might black out.

Then, somehow, she was sitting upright. A small miracle. For the moment, it was all she could do. Slowly releasing her grip, she slid to the bottom of the incline and squatted, trying to get her lungs to breathe. Just breathe. Ten minutes went by. At last, when the pain had retreated a little, she fought to get to her feet then headed haltingly for the parking lot.

Five minutes in she had to stop again. The effort was making her light-headed. She leaned against a smooth-skinned tree and lowered herself to the ground, legs stretched out in front. Her chest pounded. She was having a heart attack. She was going to die up here alone. They would find her like this, broken, wretched. Somehow the thought calmed her. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go. The head had always been a sanctuary, a place of peace and respite.

But, no — there was Jeremy to think of. Where the hell was Ashley? Anger shot through her. Get it together, you stupid bitch! If nothing else, she would simply lie here, fighting mosquitoes and black flies till Ashley rallied help. Unless there were marauding bears. Then she wouldn’t stand a chance. The best she could hope for was that they would smell her pain and give her a wide berth. Wolves might not be so cautious. They’d heard them howling the past two nights, coming closer and circling the tents, hating the fire and the smell of people.

She struggled to stand then —

When she came to, her nostrils caught an acrid scent. Wood smoke. It took her a moment to remember where she was. She’d fallen and blacked out. The ache was far worse now, every breath a knife thrust. Gently, she pulled on her collar and looked down. A purple stain spread across her chest under her left breast. A fresh wave of panic backed up in her throat, making her retch. She’d broken a rib … punctured a lung … that was why she couldn’t breathe. The premonition had been real. She was going to die.

A dragonfly buzzed overhead. Its wings shimmered, green and purple iridescence, as sunlight broke through the leaves, lifting the gloom. She sniffed at the air. Unless the woods were on fire, in which case she was clearly doomed, then someone had to be nearby.

She pushed against the tree until she stood upright, her head woozy. The pain wasn’t getting any better. She needed to hurry. The smoke came from up ahead. She simply followed it. Within minutes she reached a wire fence and limped alongside it for a while, but the bush grew thicker again.

She retreated and headed back until she discovered the open field. She pushed down on the wire and hauled herself over one leg at a time, collapsing in a heap on the other side. She fought to stand again then staggered toward the smell.

The farmhouse looked like something out of a fairy tale. Smoke issued from a chimney. The day was warm, so it wasn’t for heat. Someone was cooking. She dragged herself forward, bent over, gasping with each step. An old, grey wagon wheel had been planted in a bed of yellow nasturtiums. A wide porch seemed to invite visitors, despite the secluded surroundings.

“Help!” she cried, her voice faint.

She headed for the house, one arm clutching her chest, the other striving to keep her balance as she stumbled along. Somewhere a dog yelped.

“Please! Is anybody there?”

A door opened. A grizzled man in jeans and red-checkered shirt peered out. He had a long, white beard like a biblical prophet. His expression was stern, as though he disapproved of her. Whether that was because she was trespassing or for the sorry state she was in, she couldn’t tell.

“I’m lost,” she called out, as though it might not be apparent.

She couldn’t make out his reply. He flapped his hands in the direction of the fence, as though telling her to leave. Like hell am I leaving, she thought. Not that she could have even if she’d wanted to.

Sweat fell from her brow and clouded her eyesight. Something rustled in the bushes off to the right. The man disappeared back inside the house. A moment later he returned bearing what looked like a tea towel, waving it furiously. He came toward her with a jarring motion, as though he had to make an effort to swing his hips to get his legs to work, first right then left, like rusty hinges long out of use. He was ominous, a figure in a dream. She opened her mouth to cry out, to say she needed help, but the words wouldn’t come. Sparkles formed at the edge of her vision, waves of tiny lights followed by black clouds. As she fell forward, she wondered if she was about to find herself in far more trouble than she was already in.

Learn more about Jeffrey Round

A former television producer and fashion model, Jeffrey Round is the author of 15 published books, including the Lambda-winning Dan Sharp mystery series. He is also an award-winning filmmaker, poet and musician. His first two books were listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. He lives in Toronto.

Exclusive Excerpt: The Lavender House Murder (Virginia Kelly Mystery Book 2) by Nikki Baker

Excerpt:

I had spent the better part of the morning sitting at a beat-up wooden table in the conference room of the Provincetown Police Station, wishing I were someplace else while various policemen came and went. Anyplace else would have been fine. Back with my ex-girlfriend, Emily, watching the Cubs lose again while the wind off the lake made dust devils out of the trash in the gutters. Back with my ex-lover Susan (the bone of contention over whom Emily had walked out on me almost a year ago), rolling around under the recessed lighting set in Susan’s fourteen-foot vaulted ceilings. The craziness of my relationships wasn’t looking so bad when compared objectively with the alternatives.

What I knew for sure was this: if I hadn’t let Naomi talk me into a Provincetown vacation, someone else would be sitting here with the cops. Someone else would be feeling vaguely unsettled in her own existence and I would be reading about it in the Chicago gay rags as if it were an earthquake in India or a little flood in the Philippines. I could turn the page and go on to the next heart-wrenching, sick-making headline. And if it all got too awful to think about I could turn the page again and read the phone-sex advertisements or the personal ads for more commonplace horrors.

But Naomi Wolf had a knack for calling trouble, then stepping aside; the situation fairly stank of her dubious kind of kismet or rather, my own in knowing her. When the meteor struck, it was my kind of luck to be standing in the way. So, on the occasion of my first visit to the Provincetown police station, I was there to report a corpse.

I had first noticed it while I was running down Commercial Street. The leg was a flaw in the sweep of my vision, a blemish at its corner, the way you might catch the belly of a fish floating white side up in a lake where you are planning to swim, the way you let your eye take you down the chalky stomach to the quiet gills and the sightless, staring eye. Your own eyes can betray your sense of well-being by calling you quickly and against your will to the faults in a smooth clean surface when a minute ago everything seemed just fine. This was the way I had come upon the remains of Joan. Looking harder as I came up close and squinting my eyes as if I were waiting for a spot on the floor to move. Then bending towards the gravel, bracing my hands on my thighs the way I’d bent to catch my breath when Joan and I had jogged together the day before, I was retching sick. I had thought of Joan often since we’d met – but not like this and I stood away from her so that I didn’t step in the blood.

Joan had been shot chest-high at the distance of a friendly handshake, then again in the head while the gun sat flush against the side of her face. Like the special effects from a B-grade movie, black gunpowder tattoos were splattered in deco-like accidental paint against the pallor of her skin. Her stare had the frozen surprise of car headlights left on too long and her tank top rode halfway up her chest, above a stomach as flat and white as winter. Her blood had settled in the backs of her arms and legs. Leached out of her veins when she died, it stained her skin like one last sunburn. On her left hand was a bona fide tan line where she’d worn her diamond ring.

Her hair was clotted with blood gone brown in the sun. There was a pool of it around her head and she was black with flies. They had danced on her face in the shade of half-built Cape Cod vacation homes, the last frail gasp of Boston’s Xerox miracle. Her lips were parted slightly against the gravel. And even in death Joan had managed to look as if she were planning a kiss.

Sheriff Edward Harmon scratched his leg discreetly and we looked at each other across the table. It seemed that while Joan Di Maio had enjoyed the company of many women, on the occasion of her murder the police could find no one in particular to call.

The sheriff ran his hands through his hair from his forehead to the nape of his neck. The hair was thinning and grey, slicked down with something I hadn’t thought they sold anymore. He asked me again what I had been doing when I found Joan as if the question was new.

Since 8:30 that morning, Wednesday, the police had been asking me the same questions over and over again. Even they seemed to be getting tired of the answers, so they took turns. The old ones would leave and new ones would take their shift. But the questions didn’t change much. What had I been doing when I found Joan? What had I been doing before I found Joan? Why was I doing it? How did I know her?

The first question they asked, of course, was where, but that had been eclipsed by the others after I took them to the construction site. We rode in a squad car, I in the back, two policemen in the front and at least one other car behind us. I didn’t mind that this was the biggest news in the last decade for these small town cops, but I didn’t like it that I felt more like a convict behind the wire cage than a helpful, upstanding citizen. Next they wanted to know my name and where I was staying and where I lived and what I did for a living there. If they wanted to know whether I’d been breastfed as a baby, they stopped just short of asking. And behind every inquiry was the sneaking suspicion that I had done something wrong. I won’t say the cops weren’t pleasant enough, but it didn’t feel like they were ready to give me any awards for cooperation.

They had asked their questions in various tones of insinuation, as suspicious as stray dogs, from the time I’d come into the station to announce that I’d found a body. And I was starting to get the idea that I was in a lot of trouble or could be without much additional effort.

Blurb:

By night – the bars, the music, the sexual energy. By day – the beaches, the bay … basking in the sun and the scent of suntan lotion. And everywhere the women of Provincetown.
Among these women in the sun is Virginia Kelly, a woman of color, on vacation from the mostly white world of finance. Ginny has come to P-town with friend Naomi, and without lover Emily. They stay at Lavender House, a hotel for lesbians run by Sam, a woman with whom Naomi has had some dramatic history. Other inhabitants include Anya, who works for the inn; Joan, a writer and sometime guest; loud Barb and her quiet partner. And in P-town, Ginny is drawn to another woman. Then … murder shatters the vacation bliss. For among the people brushing up against Ginny and Naomi for these few sensual days is a ruthless killer. And a victim whose death will change the lives of Ginny and Naomi.

First published to acclaim in 1992, and nominated for Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, this new edition features a 2020 foreword by Ann Aptaker (Criminal Gold).
“It is a refreshing change to see real-life lesbians with real-life terrors and real-life anger on the pages of a novel …” — Washington Blade
“Baker has produced a winning character in Ginny Kelly … Read it by the fire one cold autumn night, then smugly recommend Nikki Baker to your friends.” — Deneuve
“It has adventure, romance, and some of the best internal dialogue anywhere.” — Meagan Casey

Re-published by ReQueered Tales

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