Exclusive Excerpt: Boystown 11: Heart’s Desire (Boystown Mysteries) by Marshall Thornton

Excerpt:

I got up early the next morning and drove to Irene’s apartment, which was on Malden right above Gracie Cemetery. It was right on the edge of Uptown. Not a great neighborhood. I parked Harker’s car on the cemetery side of Montrose.
Gracie Cemetery wasn’t one of my favorite places; I’d killed a man there once. I told myself I wasn’t there for a trip down memory lane and, even if I were, that wasn’t a lane I should go down.
When I found Irene’s building, it was a grand old brick apartment house, three stories tall and covering all of the lot from Malden back to the alley. It had originally been six apartments, but I walked up to the front door and saw there were twelve names on the modern intercom. Using the key Irene had given me, I opened the door and stepped into the lobby. Beyond it was the stairwell. As soon as I stepped inside, I noticed there were four doors on the first floor, and presumably the same on the floors above. It looked like the building had been divided at some point.
Irene’s apartment was on the third floor. The railing was on the right, which lately hadn’t been much fun for me since it was my right arm in the sling. Slowly, I climbed the three flights of stairs. It was kind of stupid; I didn’t need to hold onto a railing. I wasn’t decrepit. It’s just one of those things you get used to, resting a hand on the railing as you climbed stairs. It was stabilizing—something most thirty-six-year-olds never had to think about.
On the third floor, I walked over to the door marked A. It was on the right at the front. Slipping the key into the deadbolt, I turned it and didn’t encounter any resistance. Normally, you could feel the bolt moving out of its slot, hear it if you listened. I reached down with my left hand and turned the doorknob. The door opened. It hadn’t been locked. I was sure of it.
I leaned in and said, “Hello?”
When no one replied with a friendly, “I’m burglarizing this apartment, just give me another few minutes,” I stepped inside. I was standing in a decent-sized room that had a sunporch to my left and a narrow room on my right, which was part kitchen, part dining room. I opened a door to what I thought might be a closet and found a cramped bathroom with a shower.
The place was messy, but I couldn’t tell if someone had been in there making a mess or if the mess was Irene’s. Given the shape of the apartment she was staying in at Two Towers, I’d say it was possible the mess was hers. The stale odor of cigarettes hung in the air, making me quiver as I longed to light up and  contribute to the stink.
I stood there a minute and realized something I hadn’t been expecting to realize. My gut said Irene hadn’t seen anything real, that she’d imagined the whole thing. But the door hadn’t been locked. If someone had been in her apartment, that changed things. It could be a coincidence, but I doubted it. And I doubted it more as I looked around.
There were pocket doors between the sunporch and the living room. Irene had put a bed onto the porch and covered the windows with purple velvet drapes. The living room had a big mohair sofa that was probably fifty years old, a wooden rocking chair, a large table with just one chair, a portable record player and a stack of albums. There was no TV that I could see, which left out the possibility that the murder she’d witnessed had been on the Sunday Night Movie. I suppose the TV could have been stolen, but there was no TV Guide, no empty space where a TV might have sat, no antenna, no VCR, no rented movies, no tapes at all actually.
And the longer I stood there the more sense the mess made. It wasn’t the kind of mess made by a person looking for valuables. There were stacks of newspapers on the big table, for instance, but none on the floor. There was a dresser at the foot of the bed with an unopened jewelry box on top of it. The drawers weren’t even open; no one had rifled through them.
Plus, the answering machine was there. If you’re going to steal the TV, why not steal the answering machine? They were easy enough to sell; easier even. They were smaller. Retail was almost a hundred bucks for most answering machines. Street value had to be at least twenty.
The answering machine sat beneath a black desk phone. Both were on top of a spindly wire telephone stand from the fifties that sat next to the rocker. On a lower shelf, beneath the phone and answering machine, sat the Chicago-area phone book.
A red digital five on the front of the answering machine told me how many messages there were. I turned the dial so the messages would play. The first was nothing but a long pause followed by a scratching noise. Weird. The second was from a Dr. Vann’s office telling Irene she had an appointment at one-fifteen the previous Thursday. Then there was another blank message with some scratching, this time the scratching went on longer and got louder. It was disturbing. Creepy even. The caller hung up. Another message began and it was the same thing: a long pause with some breathing, followed by another round of scratching. It was beginning to make my skin crawl.
The final message was from a man:
“Hello dear, it’s your father. It’s time for our Saturday call. I hope you’re out and about having fun, and not angry with me. Call me back.”
I stood there piecing things together. Clementine said the murder had taken place almost a week ago. So not Saturday and possibly not Sunday. I’d have to pin down the exact time later. If the murder happened on Monday night, then the first message came sometime on Tuesday or early Wednesday. The call from the doctor’s office would have been sometime on Wednesday, since a doctor’s office would call to confirm an appointment the day before.
The second and third scratching messages happened between that Wednesday call and Irene’s father calling on Saturday. Possibly one on Thursday and another on Friday. Someone was calling Irene nearly every day leaving disturbing messages. Not even messages, just sounds. I wondered if that someone had been in the apartment. If so, they’d have to have had a key.
I opened the front door again and looked down at the welcome mat sitting on the wall-to-wall carpet in the hallway. Reaching down I flipped it over.
Underneath was a key. Anyone could have gotten into the apartment. All they had to do was get through the front door downstairs and then look in the most obvious place in the world to leave a spare key.
If the person leaving the scratching noises was the same person as the one who’d left the door open, they’d likely gotten in on Friday or Saturday, since that’s when the scratchers seemed to stop. What had they been looking for? And had they found it? I wondered if any of the neighbors had seen who’d been in the apartment.
Going back in, I spent a few more minutes looking around. The only thing I saw was evidence of an interrupted life. A few dishes in the sink, some unopened mail—I assumed there was more of that downstairs in her mailbox—dirty clothes ready to go to the laundry.
Stepping out of the apartment, I shut the door and locked it, pocketing both keys. There was no reason to leave strangers a way into the apartment. It was around eight-thirty on a Sunday morning. I decided to knock on a few doors. I didn’t think people would like it much, but that wasn’t really my problem.
First, I walked down to the door of the apartment that had originally been the rear half of Irene’s apartment. From the way things were configured, I wondered if this door hadn’t once been a service door. The original apartments might have been luxurious enough to merit maid service. The maids might have gone up and down the backstairs, but they could have also slipped in this way without disturbing their masters.
No one came to the door.
Next, I tried the door directly across from Irene’s. As soon as I knocked a dog began barking. I waited, expecting someone to open the door. Instead, I heard a thwack and the dog whimpered a couple of times and then stopped barking. Someone was in there, and they’d just hit their dog with a rolled-up newspaper. At least I hoped it was a newspaper and not something worse. They didn’t come to the door.
There was no answer at the final door on the floor. This time I knew what game I was playing, so I watched the peephole intently. Thirty seconds after I knocked a shadow seemed to pass over it, telling me there was someone on the other side of the door deliberately not opening it.
I went down the stairs but stopped on the landing. This would have been where Irene witnessed the murder before she turned and ran. Well, there was no blood and no signs of blood being cleaned up. At first glance there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the wall. It was wall-papered, had probably been wall-papered several times. The pattern was striped in various colors and thicknesses.
After staring at the wall for a full minute or so, I noticed a spot where the stripes seemed to wobble. The spot was about eye level. I ran my left hand across it. Behind the wallpaper, the plaster was dented. The indentation felt circular, almost like a crater. I ran my good hand up and down the wall but didn’t find anything else. I squatted down as close as I could to the floor. I could have gotten on my hands and knees, but that was challenging since the sling meant I could only partially wear my trench coat. Between the loose coat and the sling, it was hard enough just to squat.
When I did, I immediately smelled urine. Urine that could easily belong to the dog I’d heard upstairs. I stood up and then pushed the toe of my boot around the carpet. I found a squishy spot. It was directly below the crater. The crater in the plaster might have been from a man’s head being slammed against the wall. And the urine, well, that can happen when you die. Your bladder lets go. Everyone knows that.
Blurb:
It’s February 1985. Nick struggles to recover from a gunshot wound, while taking on the case of a woman with a mental illness, who may or may not have witnessed a murder. As he attempts to determine exactly what the woman saw and how much danger she may be in, he juggles the approaching DeCarlo trial, an ill Mrs. Harker, and the sexually precocious Terry. Valentine’s Day with boyfriend Joseph produces some big changes in their relationship. Life is evolving, but there’s no guarantee it’s for the better.
Find out more about Lambda Literary Award Winner, Marshall Thornton:
Author Marshall Thornton

Exclusive Excerpt: A Whisper of Bones: A Jane Lawless Mystery by Ellen Hart

Excerpt:

That night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped into the low thirties.  Jane was glad she’d thought to grab her peacoat before leaving the restaurant.  Early December in Minnesota was generally much colder, with several inches of snow on the ground.  This year, however, the the only thing covering the grass were dry leaves.  Unusual weather for Minnesota.  As she was about to open the door of her Mini, a car pulled up next to her and stopped, its engine idling.

Cordelia Thorn, Jane’s oldest and best friend, opened the passenger’s door window and called, “Leaving kind of early, aren’t we?”

“You checking up on me?”

“Get in.”

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Jane made herself comfortable in the front seat, glad for the warmth of Cordelia’s new black Subaru.

“I still can’t get used to your hair,” said Cordelia.  “Can’t believe that, after all these years, you cut it so short.”

“I needed a change.”

“The Rachael Maddow look”

“No, the Jane Lawless look.” If she’d realized how much attention she’d get because of a simple haircut, she never would have done it.

“I stand corrected,” said Cordelia, looking amused.

Cordelia’s entire life was a costume drama, a period piece, past or future.  At the moment, she was sporting a rose-colored wig.  Wigs were her new thing after finding a basket filled with them in her sister’s rarely-used office at the theater.

“Next,” said Cordelia, throwing the car in park, “we need to work on your old sweaters and jeans.”

“You mean get rid of my clothes?”

“I’m merely suggesting a wee upgrade.  I’m not talking Abercrombie & Fitch or Nordstrom, just something other than Old Navy.”

Glancing over at her giant friend wearing a heavy, bright red faux fir coat, Jane changed the subject, if only marginally.  “Kind of early in the season to bring out the big guns.”

“Without snow, it’s hard to get in the mood for Christmas.  One does what one can.”

“How come you’re not at the theater?”  Along with her younger sister, the Broadway and B-movie star, Octavia Thorn Lester, Cordelia was the owner of the Thorn Lester Playhouse, downtown Minneapolis’s newest antique gem.  She was also the artistic director, the resident mother superior, and, when necessary, brought the force of a five star Marine general to whatever situation might need attention.

“I have to pick up Hattie from a friend’s house.  Neither of them have school tomorrow, so I’m letting Hatts stay out late.  Together, she and Juan are discovering the wonders of Juan’s chemistry set.”

Cordelia’s had been granted legal custody of her ten-year-old niece many years ago.  They’d lived together ever since.  “Lucky Hattie,” said Jane.

Touching the tip of her finger to her darkly rouged lips, Cordelia continued,  “I was at a party last night.  I think I may have drummed up a new client for you.”  She explained about the woman she’d met—Britt something or other—who’d been asking around about local private investigators.  “I wondered if she was gay, but I didn’t get any vibes.”

“So that’s where she got my card,” said Jane.

“You’ve already talked to her?”

“This morning.  You must have done a good sales job.”

“I always do.  But back to my original question.  How come you’re leaving so early?  I thought we might share a quick nosh together.  One of your pub burgers sounds just about perfect.”

“Sorry.  Already eaten.”

“Then join me for a beer.”

“Can’t.  Not tonight.”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, Janey.  One cannot help but wonder why.”

“Don’t start.”

“Look, no beating around the mulberry bush this time.  I’m worried.  That woman somehow conned her way into your home.  You need to look around for the coffin she sleeps in during the day.  If you can’t find it, call me.  I’m there for you, Janey.  If nothing else, we can burn your house down with her in it.”

Jane took a deep breath.  “There are times when I find your penchant for exaggeration funny.  This isn’t one of them.”

“I’m not exaggerating.”

”Julia’s my friend.  End of story.”

“Is it?”

“What else do you need to know?”

“Oh, come on.  Don’t be so coy.”

“You want to know if  I’m sleeping with her.”

“Give the woman a cigar.”

“Look, Cordelia.  I care about her.  I don’t love her, not in any romantic way.  Our relationship ended many years ago.”

“Did you ever wonder if this illness-thingie is just a ploy?”

Now she’d gone too far.  “Why don’t you come over for dinner.  I’ll text you with a couple of dates.  You can see for yourself how sick she is.  But you have to promise to be decent.  Friendly.”

“Leave my sarcasm at the door?” said Cordelia, feigning shock.  She flipped open the glove compartment and removed her stash of bubble gum.  “I’ll think about it.”

Many years ago, Jane and Dr. Julia Martinsen, an oncologist living, at the time, in Bethesda, Maryland, had fallen in love.  They’d been in a committed relationship for a couple of years, though Jane had finally ended it.  Julia had played fast and loose with the truth too many times.  Since then, she and Julia had continued to see each other very occasionally, although they were no longer close.  Last spring, Julia had confided to Jane that she’d been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Her greatest fear was dealing with it—and perhaps the end of her life—alone.  Meaning, without Jane.  While Jane had moved on, Julia hadn’t.

In a moment of weakness—which Cordelia likened to Armageddon—Jane had promised to be there for her.  Even though the love had died long ago, feelings, unlike faucets, couldn’t be turned off neatly and easily.  For a short time in early October, it appeared as if Julia might not have more than a few weeks to live.  Her failing eyesight had made it impossible for her to drive.  That’s when Jane had invited her to move into her house.  By late October, Julia had rallied and her health had stabilized.  And now Jane had a permanent house guest, which Cordelia maintained was Julia’s intention all along.

“I’m the clarion call of reason,” continued Cordelia, unwrapping a stick of gum.  “You need to listen to me.  You may think Julia is water under the bridge, but I’m telling you that unless you burn that bridge to a crisp, she’ll find a way to recross it.”

“I don’t need all the cliches.  The message was received.”

“She’s going to hurt you again, Jane.”

“How?  I already know she lies and that I can’t trust her.  Are you saying she’ll hurt me in some other way?  She has cancer, Cordelia, or something very close to it.  I know she’s not going to live long.”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow.  “Have you ever seen one scintilla of proof that Julia is ill?”

“I have.  I’ve even spoken to a couple of her doctors.”  Jane had no doubt that the tumor growing behind Julia’s optic nerve was real, or that the surgery necessary to remove it was not only a partial cure, but one fraught with danger.  Still, there were things she hadn’t told Cordelia, mostly because she wouldn’t understand.

“Janey, I say these things to you because I love you.”

“I know that.  And I’m grateful.  But don’t worry about me.  I’m fine.  Clear headed, feet on the ground.  Same old Jane you’ve always known and loved.”

“You’re impossible, you know that?  But okay, end of rant.  For now.  Call me when you know more about this Britt person’s investigative issue.  I expect a full report.”

Jane could have taken a few minutes to explain what she’d learned this morning, but she saw no point.  Britt hadn’t hired her.  More than anything, Jane wanted to get home.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said, saluting.  “Full briefing tomorrow at o-600.”

“I have no idea what that means.  Just don’t call before noon.”

[]

Shortly after ten, as she entered the front foyer of her home, Jane was greeted by two eager dogs vying for her attention.  Mouse, a chocolate lab, nosed her hand, his usual earnest self, his tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur.  Gimlet, a small black poodle, jumped up and down and twirled around, so excited she could barely keep her balance.  How could a person not love dogs?  Jane crouched down to give them each a hug and a scratch.  When she straightened up, she noticed logs burning in the living room fireplace.

Coming around the end of the couch, she found Julia sitting on the oriental rug with her back propped against the couch.  Next to her was a teapot and two cups.

“All the comforts of home,” said Jane, sitting down beside her.

Six months ago, Julia had been fit and working hard at a profession she loved.  The medication her doctors had prescribed to deal with the growing tumor had proved to be almost as bad as the disease.  She’d lost a good twenty pounds off an already lean frame, mostly because the meds didn’t mix well with food.

“The fire feels good,” said Jane.  “Chilly out there.”

“I know,” said Julia.  “I just got home myself.”

Julia had hired a personal assistant in mid-October.  Carol Westin was a retired RN who’d spent the last twenty years of her working life as a healthcare educator.  She and Julia had been friends and coworkers, and now Carol not only acted as chauffeur, but reader of reports and general secretary.  Beyond the driving and the reading, she was also helping Julia liaise with lawyers to set up the foundation that would bear Julia’s name, one that would continue the work she cared so much about:  Medical outreach and training in third world countries.  She worked Carol hard, but paid her well.

Gimlet pushed her way in between them, buried her nose under Julia’s leg and closed her eyes.  Mouse settled down next to Jane. “Have you eaten?”

Julia nodded to the teapot.

“That’s not food.  Let me make you something.”

“No. Don’t go.”

“But you need to eat.”

She poured the steaming liquid into each cup and handed one to Jane.  “Not now.”

“Soup.  There’s always room for homemade chicken soup.”

“Maybe later.”

Jane sipped her tea and gazed into the fire.  She didn’t want to think about her current situation too critically, but had to admit that it was nice having someone to come home to—someone who’d made a pot of tea and had built a fire.  “How was your day?”

“Good,” said Julia.  “For whatever reason, that awful low-grade headache evaporated.”  She glanced over at Jane and smiled.  “Now that you’re home, I’m even better.”  She slipped her hand over Jane’s, then leaned in for a kiss.

Instead of pushing her away, as Jane had for years, she let the kiss linger.  Was she playing with fire by sleeping with Julia, as Cordelia feared?  She didn’t think so.  What she’d told Cordelia was accurate.  She had no romantic feelings for Julia any longer.  This was just….what?  Affection, perhaps.  Whatever it was, Jane wasn’t about to end it.  It wasn’t hurting either of them.  If anything, coming together the way they had after Julia had moved in was good for both of them.  It would end one day, and Jane would have to deal with it, but until them, what was the harm?

They sat together quietly, the dogs resting contentedly next to them, and watched the fire.

“Want another cup?” asked Julia.

“No, I’m good.”

“Let’s go upstairs.”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“Not in the least.”

Jane tipped her head toward Julia.  “Why don’t you head up?  I’ll put the dogs out, make sure they have their bedtime treat, and then I’ll join you.”

After Julia was gone, Jane spent a couple more minutes looking into the dying embers, thinking about Julia and how life often took unexpected turns.  She kept repeating the thought, “What’s the harm?”  She’d said it to herself so often lately that it was beginning to feel like a mantra.  As she was about to get up, her cell phone rang.

“This is Jane,” she said after pulling it from her pocket.

“I want to hire you,” came a woman’s voice.

“Britt?”

“I found proof that Timmy did exist.  Can we get together tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Jane.

“What if I meet you at your restaurant around twelve-thirty?  I don’t have anything on my schedule until mid afternoon.”

“Sounds good.  I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.”

“I’m still processing it, but I will say this much—it blows my mind.”

 

A Whisper of Bones – by Ellen Hart

 Blurb:

Fans of Jane Lawless new and old will be fascinated by newly minted Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s latest intricate puzzle in A Whisper of Bones.

Britt Ickles doesn’t remember much from her only visit to her mother’s childhood home when she was a kid, except for playing with her cousin Timmy and the eruption of a sudden family feud. That’s why, when she drops by unannounced after years of silence, she’s shocked when her aunts tell her Timmy never existed, that she must be confusing him with someone else. But Britt can’t shake the feeling that Timmy did exist…and that something horrible has happened to him. Something her aunts want to cover up.

Britt hires Jane Lawless, hoping the private investigator can figure out what really happened to her cousin. When a fire in the family’s garage leads to the discovery of buried bones and one of the aunts dies suddenly and suspiciously, Jane can’t help but be pulled into the case. Do the bones belong to Timmy? Was the aunt’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? What dark secret has this family been hiding for decades? It all depends on Jane Lawless to unravel.

Ellen’ Hart’s Bio:

Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-two crime novels in two

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different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at th

e Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. Entertainment Weekly named her one of the “101 Movers and Shakers in the Gay Entertainment Industry.” For the past sixteen years, Ellen has taught “An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery” through the The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. Her newest Sophie Greenway mystery is No Reservations Required, (Ballantine, June 2005). Fever in the Dark, the newest Jane Lawless mystery, will be released by St. Martin’s/Minotaur in October 2016. Ellen lives in Minneapolis with her partner of 37 years.

Excerpts! Lammy Finalists: Boystown 10: Gifts Given & Night Drop, both by Marshall Thornton

Two Exclusive Excerpts from this year’s double Lammy Finalist (Gay Mystery)  – Lambda Literary Award winner (and multi-nominated), author, Marshall Thornton!

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Exclusive Excerpt #1 – Lambda Finalist – Boystown 10: Gifts Given

Given what I’ve seen, given what I’ve lived, it strikes me that love is a kind of madness. An insanity that poses as a necessity, tricking us into believing we need it as much as breath, as much as life itself. A sensible man would run from it, bar the doors, hide in a cupboard like a child, rifle through the kitchen drawers looking for a weapon to stave it off. A sensible man would have nothing to do with love. I am not a sensible man.

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A week before Christmas, a Tuesday, I asked my friend Brian to go shopping with me. I needed his help picking out a gift for my live-in boyfriend, Joseph Biernacki, which was how we ended up standing in a very long line, empty-handed, waiting to get into Marshall Field’s Walnut Room for lunch. We’d done exactly forty-five minutes of shopping, most of it spent looking at watches even though I knew that was the wrong gift for Joseph. He’d given me a Swatch for our six-month anniversary, so a watch felt wrong, repetitive and unoriginal. Besides, I’d accidentally thrown the Swatch he’d given me away—and I didn’t want to remind him. I was also a little afraid he’d buy me a new one for Christmas.

“You know, lunch is going to take two hours,” I pointed out. “Maybe we should go out to State Street and buy a slice of pizza.” There were greasy little pizza places roughly every two blocks.

“Isn’t this a Chicago tradition, though? A Christmas lunch at Field’s?” Brian asked. He’d grown up downstate. But he was right, lunch at Field’s was a Christmas tradition. Hence the line we were in.

It was something I’d done a dozen times as a child. My mother, like thousands of mothers, had brought my brothers and me each year for shopping and lunch. Unfortunately, whatever fond memories I had of that had been obliterated by the fact that the last time I was in Field’s I’d been shot at.

“It’s not a tradition I need to repeat,” I said.

He read the impatience on my face and said, “Hold on a second,” before walking up to the hostess stand. After a brief conversation he turned and waved at me to join him.

When I got there, the hostess smiled and said, “Right this way.”

As we walked through the atrium, passing the giant, three-story Christmas tree, I whispered into Brian’s ear. “How did you manage this?”

“You’ll see.”

The hostess led us across the wood-paneled dining room—presumably walnut given the name of the place—to a table that sat in the corner in front of two enormous windows looking out at a random collection of Loop office buildings. Sugar Pilson sat alone at a table for four. She was casual but elegant in a cabled cream-colored sweater and a pair of washed-out, high-waisted jeans. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she looked more like the cheerleader she was rumored to have once been than the socialite she actually was. I’d met her years before on a case, but she was now more Brian’s friend than mine. Not that I didn’t like her immensely, it’s just that she and Brian did charity work together for Howard Brown, creating a bond between them I wasn’t part of.

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Obviously, Brian had known Sugar was there, so why had we waited in line at all? Were they planning to pretend we were meeting accidentally?

As soon as the hostess walked away, I said, “This is a setup, isn’t it? What’s going on?”

“Of course it’s a set-up, darling. I need to have a professional conversation with you.”

I took off my trench coat and threw it over the fourth chair beside Sugar’s white fox car coat. Brian slipped his down jacket over the back of his chair.

“Why not just come to my office?” I asked as I sat down.

“I’ve driven by your office. Really Nick, how do you expect to attract clients? Your name isn’t on the door and it looks like the kind of place you’d go for a back alley abortion.”

She wasn’t wrong. My office was hardly appealing.

“Abortion is legal, Sugar, and you’re too young to know anything about back alley abortions.”

“I’m not, but it’s sweet of you to say so.”

“So, what exactly do you need?”

She didn’t answer, though, since a waitress showed up. “Can I get you something from the bar?”

“Yes, please. I’ll have one of those wonderful coffee drinks you make,” Sugar said, then she looked at Brian and me and said, “Perfect for a day like today.”

Outside, it was in the low twenties and threatening to snow. Though in all honesty, I doubted Sugar had experienced much of the weather walking from her front door to the limo and from the limo into Field’s. She’d probably been outside for a whole minute and a half.

“I’ll have the same,” I said.

“Can I have a diet Coke?” Brian asked.

When the waitress walked away, I asked Sugar again, “Why do you need my professional services?”

She took a moment, chewed some of the pink lipstick off her lower lip, and finally said, “I’ve fallen in love.”

“And like most women the first thing you thought about was hiring a private detective?”

“Nick, don’t tease her,” Brian said. “It’s not nice.”

“Sorry. I assume you think this gentleman is after your money.”

“Oh, I know he’s after my money,” Sugar said. “They always are. I need to know more about him so I can decide how much I want to spend on him.”

“That’s an interesting attitude,” I said.

“Well, it’s not like I can flip him over and check the price tag.”

Brian giggled at the image.

“All right. What’s his name?” I asked.

“There’s one more thing.”

“Okay.”

“I have the feeling I’m being watched,” Sugar said. “It’s a feeling I don’t like.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

“Things keep showing up in Gloria’s column. Things that shouldn’t be there.”

Gloria Silver wrote “The Silver Spoon” for the Daily Herald. We had a long, unpleasant association. She was the wife of the late Earl Silver, who originally wrote the column. He was also the lover of my friend (and onetime fuck buddy) Ross. I suppose that made us sexual relatives in a way. An extremely unpleasant thought.

I read her column every day, and Sugar was right, she’d been in the column a lot. Several of the mentions had to do with her drinking habits, the others weren’t much more flattering.

“And do you think your new beau is the source of Gloria’s information?”

“No, she’s written about things he couldn’t know.”

“So you think Gloria’s having you followed?”

“Oh God, that sounds so paranoid when you say it out loud.”

The waitress brought our drinks. I took a spoon and stirred mine up. It was topped with whipped cream. Whipped cream and mustaches don’t go well together in public. I took a sip; it was warm and sweet and very strong.

“You can help her, right Nick?” Brian asked.

I wasn’t exactly ready to commit. “Tell me about the man.”

“He’s an artist. I met him at a gallery about two months ago. He paints orchids and flamingos on gigantic canvases. I bought a flamingo for my dining room. That’s how we got to know each other.”

“It’s a great painting,” Brian said.

“Isn’t it?” Sugar said. “I think it just makes the room.”

“How much was this great painting?”

“Hardly anything.”

“Hardly anything in my world is twenty bucks,” I pointed out. “How much is it in yours?”

“Five thousand.”

“Are you his only client?”

“Goodness no. He sells all the time.”

“He’s very popular,” Brian added.

“How long does it take him to paint a picture?”

“A couple of weeks. It’s hard to tell. He works on more than one at a time.”

“So he makes roughly ten grand a month and you think he might be after your money?”

“Darling, I clip coupons. And I never touch my principal.” She also she lived lavishly and gave generously, meaning that her income was large enough to impress people who made ten grand a month.

“You clip coupons? I hope that’s just an expression. I don’t like to think of you having a lot of bearer bonds lying around the house.” Bearer bonds were not registered to their owner and therefore a very convenient thing to steal. They’d also gone out of fashion and, if I wasn’t mistaken, weren’t being issued anymore.

“Of course it’s an expression,” she said. “And I don’t keep anything valuable around the house.” Except the paintings on her walls, the furs in her closet and, I’d guess, a couple handfuls of diamonds lying about.

“We should get back on topic. We were talking about your painter. Michael France.”

“Oh Nick, you know his name! You’re psychic, aren’t you? That must be so useful in your line of work.”

“I read ‘The Silver Spoon.’ Gloria has been promoting him for a while now. A year? Longer?”

“How can you read that dreadful witch?” We’d both had run-ins with Gloria. It was something we had in common. Gloria hated both of us.

“I read her because I like to know what the witch is up to.” Of course, it was obvious that Sugar read the column every day herself. Then something occurred to me. Michael France was a sort of protégé of Gloria’s, or possibly…

“Sugar? Did you steal Gloria’s boyfriend?”

“I wouldn’t phrase it exactly like that.”

Brian, though, was furiously nodding his head.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Didn’t you tell me that Gloria was in love with some twenty-five-year-old who was robbing her blind?”

“He’s not twenty-five, he’s almost thirty. And apparently Gloria is doing just fine since she bought a condo on Lake Shore and Burton. Two bedrooms, three hundred thousand dollars.”

“A hundred and fifty thousand a bedroom?”

“Well, it is an entire floor. And it has more bathrooms than bedrooms.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know her real-estate agent.”

“I guess the Daily Herald pays better than I thought.”

“It doesn’t. She acts like she comes from money, but I don’t think she does.”

“Did they give her a discount for publicity?”

“A steep discount, I imagine.”

Another waitress came and asked if we wanted to order lunch. There was wait staff everywhere running around and they didn’t seem too concerned with who did what. I ordered the Walnut Room’s famous chicken potpie, Sugar ordered a salad, and Brian ordered meatloaf.

When we were alone again, I said, “I’ll do a standard background check, but I’d also like to meet France—if you don’t think that would be too awkward.”

“There’s a holiday open house at his studio on Thursday. I’ve already invited Brian. Come as his guest. Don’t mention that I’ve hired you.”

“Of course not. Do you plan to tell him, though? At some point?”

“It depends on what you find.”

The conversation drifted to the AIDS test that was supposed to be coming out soon. The test was still being tested, and activists were already raising concerns about confidentiality and whether insurance companies or employers might be able to get hold of your results.

“I was having a conversation with a board member about creating a testing center where people could be tested for free on a strictly confidential basis,” Brian said.

“Does it really matter, though?” I asked. “There’s no cure. So what good is knowing?”

“I’ve heard that before. I think it’s better to know. So that people can take precautions.”

“People are already taking precautions.” Precautions that don’t always work, I did not add.

“Darling, it’s not just about individuals. The test is also important for research and helping doctors learn how to treat their patients.” That was annoyingly true.

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Exclusive Excerpt #2: Night Drop by Marshall Thornton

At times I felt like a ghost. I think I hadn’t had enough time to become myself before I met Jeffer, and then I was part of Noah and Jeffer, Jeffer and Noah. We went to a party once and I overheard someone saying about me, “It’s like he has no personality when Jeffer leaves the room.” It was a cruel thing to say, mostly because it felt true.

That’s what I was thinking about as I drove home in a riot. Strange, I thought. Very strange. But then I remembered it was almost the anniversary of Jeffer’s getting sick; the great unraveling of secrets and lies; the beginning of my floating away from him, ghostlike and empty.

My apartment was less than a mile from Pinx Video. Around the time Jeffers died, I’d moved to a small, one-bedroom apartment on a hill in Silver Lake. Not one of the better hills, a hill well below Sunset. The good part of Silver Lake was north of Sunset surrounding the actual lake, of course. Fanning out from there were some decent blocks, but then, when you crossed Sunset, you came to a hilly area where altitude and income fell into step. The wealthier people lived at the top of the hills, while the poor and desperate lived at the bottom.

Not that my apartment was the kind of place where rich people lived. The dishwater gray building was a small six-unit L wrapped around a shabby, old-growth courtyard. There were thick, shaggy palms, birds of paradise and a dribbling fountain, leaving only enough room for a single metal table and chairs. A cement stairway—painted rusty red—came up from the street and garages to the courtyard, then a wooden stairway led to the second floor. A red-tiled walkway with white railings ran across the entire second floor.

My place was on the second floor at the front giving me a southwest view of the basin. As I was unlocking my door that morning, I glanced out and saw plumes of smoke rising above the city in at least a dozen spots. I suppose most of them had been there when I’d left two hours before, but I hadn’t thought much about them, assuming they were left over from the night before. Now they seemed ominous; a hint of the future rather than a glimpse of the past.

I wasn’t sure if the apartment measured six hundred square feet, if it did it was just that. The living room was small, too small for a full sofa so I had a second-hand love seat that I’d wrapped in a crazy black and purple print I’d gotten at the new IKEA in Burbank. Beside that there wasn’t much other than a black leather chair with a bent-wood frame—also from IKEA, it was called POONG or something unpronounceable along those lines—a veneered armoire from the thirties which held my 13-inch TV/VCR combo, my video collection (or at least part of it), a compact stereo and a stack of CDs I’d gotten from a record club. On the wall over the POONG chair hung a Hockney poster that Jeffer had bought me at the LACMA retrospective in eighty-eight.

There was a faux Danish modern dinette set that I’d put in front of the window next to the dining area off the kitchen. That area was too small for the table, so I’d turned it into an office area by putting my sixties-style metal desk under the corner windows.

The minuscule, U-shaped kitchen had appliances that were brand new when I was in high school and very little counter space, most of which was taken up by my most important appliance, the microwave.

The bedroom had a wall of closets, and a wall of built-in cabinets and drawers, leaving exactly enough room for a queen-sized bed. I had set my bed in front of a do-it-yourself bookcase made of concrete blocks and planks of wood, using it as a kind of headboard. This eliminated the need for nightstands, which there wasn’t room for anyway. I’d painted the entire apartment dove gray and put in bright white miniblinds. I ignored the sculptured brown carpet as best I could.

I put on a Dionne Warwick CD and kicked off my shoes. I went into the bathroom to wash my face. I don’t think it was dirty, but just the idea of a riot made everything seem sooty and thick. I tried not to look at myself. If I had I would not have seen the ghost I felt like but instead a reasonably attractive young man of around twenty-eight. I had brown eyes and unremarkable but symmetrical features. The most noticeable thing about me was my hair. It was massively thick and stubborn. It did whatever it chose and I had little say in the matter. I’d tried every product out there and nothing tamed the beast on my head. At that particular moment it needed cutting, but I could hardly put out a bulletin to stop the riot so I could find a barber.

I tried even harder not to look at the rest of me. If you were being unkind you’d call me delicate, frail, skinny—I couldn’t for the life of me keep weight on—elf-like even. And if you were being kind, well, there were few kind words for a man of my stature.

Dionne was nearly finished loving Paris when the phone rang. I pressed pause on the CD player and picked up the cordless. It was Louis from downstairs.

“Marc is on his way home from the studio. They’re shutting down. Did you close the video store?”

“I did.”

“Good idea. I’m making lunch. Come down.”

I’d barely said yes when he hung up. Louis was partial to short telephone chats and long after-dinner conversations. I didn’t need to change my clothes; I dressed casually at Pinx—though not as casually as my employees. Still, I changed into a pair of khaki shorts, flip-flops, a mock turtleneck and an over-sized jean jacket. I ran a comb through my hair but quickly gave up trying to subdue it. Then went down to the courtyard about ten minutes later.

Louis had a glass of chardonnay already poured for me. The sky was thick with clouds—the marine layer—but that didn’t matter. There was an umbrella stuck into the center of the metal table in the extremely remote chance it rained.

Sitting on the ground next to the table was a high-end boom box tuned to KCRW. They were discussing whether the Federal government might now file charges against the LAPD officers accused of beating King. The guest was fairly certain they would.

“We live in strange times,” Louis said coming out of his apartment. He and Marc lived directly below in an apartment that was identically small. While I had a view, they’d claimed this end of the courtyard for themselves.

Wearing navy shorts, penny loafers, a light blue dress shirt and an apron that said “Finger Lickin’ Good,” Louis was tall, nearly forty and spreading in the middle. His eyes protruded a bit and his smile was wide, giving him the look of a jovial frog. I wasn’t the first to notice it; there was a collection of miniature frogs on his kitchen windowsill. In one hand he held a plate full of uncooked ribs.

“We live in strange times, so you thought you’d barbecue?” I asked.

“It was that or pack up the car and flee.”

He set the ribs on the table and bent over a small hibachi. In a short while, he had the coals lit and sat down with me at the table.

“So. Can you believe the verdict?” he asked.

“It was shocking.”

“I don’t see how they could come to that decision. Between the videotape and Gates himself saying it was…what was the word he used, an aberration?”

I sipped the wine. It was cold, sweet and tart at the same time, and warming as it went down. The glass had sprouted beads of water. I rubbed at them while I listened to the sirens in the distance.

“I don’t remember much about the beating. I wasn’t paying attention,” I admitted.

“Well, it wasn’t an aberration. I’ve seen the LAPD beat people like that before.”

“You have?”

“Absolutely. I mean, there was no video camera handy. And the person was white. But you have to know LAPD makes a habit of this.”

“So, it’s systemic?”

“Again, the video. Look at all those other cops standing around watching, doing nothing. That’s systemic.”

“What about people saying King was on PCP?”

“And it gives you superhuman strength?”

I shrugged. That’s what they said, but I had no idea.

“If that man had superhuman strength they left it out of the video,” Louis said.

Just then, Marc came up the stairs. He was smaller and wider than Louis, and about ten years younger. He wore gray wool slacks, a white shirt and a red tie. In one hand, he carried the jacket that went with the slacks, in the other a scuffed briefcase. His face was round and his lips were what my mother’s generation would have called bee-stung.

Not bothering to go inside, he flopped down in one chair and tossed his things in another, before he pulled out a pack of extra-long menthol cigarettes.

“Oh. My. God. I just drove through hell.” He lit his cigarette and inhaled. “I took Washington to Vermont, my normal route. Huge mistake. I had no idea that South Central was like a block away from there. A block! They started talking about it on the radio. Did you know that it goes all the way up to the 10? I certainly didn’t. And there I was, a block from the 10. And then, almost as soon as I realize that, I glance over and there are these guys trying to break into a liquor store on the other side of the street. I mean, the place had all these security bars and they’re just ripping them down like they’re curtains—Louis, why haven’t you gotten me a glass of wine?”

“Well dear, it seemed rude to walk away while you were talking.”

“Go get me wine. I’ll talk louder.” He inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “So, every few blocks there’s someone trying to break into a business and then…OH MY GOD!” he yelled so Louis could hear him inside. “I get to Washington and Vermont and there are two, not one but TWO GAS STATIONS ON FIRE!”

Louis came out of the apartment with a fresh glass of wine for himself and one for Marc. “You didn’t stop for any red lights, did you?”

“Are you crazy? Not after the things we saw on TV last night.” He took the glass of wine. “Oh thank God.” After a long sip, he continued. “I don’t know what happened. This morning—I mean, I drove the same route at eight-thirty—nothing was happening, nothing was being broken into, and nothing was on fire.”

“I guess rioters like to sleep in,” Louis suggested. “They were up late last night, after all.”

“Did you really run red lights?” I asked.

“Only the one at Washington and Vermont.”

“So, there were no fire engines at that intersection? No police?”

“No, the gas stations were just burning.”

“Well,” said Louis. “We’re glad you made it home safe.”

“Yes, my being dragged from the car and beaten would have ruined your appetite.”

“Well, it would have,” Louis said. “Though not as much as worrying about how I’d get the Infiniti back.” He looked at me and said, “It’s on a lease.”

I enjoyed Marc and Louis and their banter. I felt safe with them for some reason. I wondered what Jeffer would have thought of them. I doubt he’d have liked them. I remember the first time I brought Jeffer up, Marc said, “Good God, what kind of a name is Jeffer?”

“He was Jeff as a child. And then Jeffrey. But he liked Jeffer best.”

“Pretentious,” Marc said.

“Now, now,” Louis interrupted. “Don’t speak ill of the dead. Not when there are living people you can speak ill of.” And then he did just that, taking a few swipes at the president, who I found too bland to be worth insulting, or Pat Robertson or the mayor. It was fine with me, of course, since I preferred to talk about anything but Jeffer.

“Did you close the video store?” Marc asked.

“Of course, he closed the video store,” Louis replied for me. “He’s here isn’t he? He wouldn’t just leave his employees to fend for themselves.”

“Do you think it will be all right?” Marc asked, pointedly ignoring his lover.

“Well, they’re not sure it’s going to get this far,” I said. “I’ve heard most of it is still happening in South Central and Koreatown.”

“Yes, I imagine Koreatown’s getting slammed,” Louis said. “It’s one thing to murder a child. It’s another to get off scot-free.”

“It was involuntary manslaughter,” Marc corrected.

“You say potato I say murder.”

White flakes of ash began falling through the air. One or two at first, then more. The wind picked them up somewhere nearby. A somewhere nearby that was on fire.

“And Koreatown didn’t kill the girl, that cashier did. It’s not the neighborhood’s fault. It’s really the judge’s fault, she’s the one who reduced the sentence. They should go burn her house down and be done with it.”

“And the jury out in Simi Valley. They should get their houses burned down. Come to think of it, they can burn the whole Simi Valley.”

“I blame public transportation,” I said quietly.

“What?” Louis asked, and they both looked at me.

“Public transportation is terrible in L.A. The rioters can’t get to Simi Valley.”

Louis erupted into laughter. He put the ribs onto the hibachi, and when he stood up noticed the white flakes of ash floating in the air.

“Huh. Who says it never snows in Los Angeles.”

Exclusive Excerpt: Lambda Literary Award Winner – Tarnished Gold – Best Lesbian Mystery

Tarnished Gold by Ann Aptaker – Lambda Literary Award Winner – Lesbian Mystery 

AnnAptaker

A Cantor Gold Crime.

Blurb:

New York City, 1950. Cantor Gold, art smuggler and dapper dyke-about-town, hunts for a missing masterpiece she’s risked her life to bring through the port of New York. She must outsmart the Law that wants to jail her; outrun the dockside gangsters who would let her take the fall for murder; and outplay a shady art dealer, his lover, and a beautiful curator who toys with Cantor’s passion. Through it all, Cantor must stay out of the gunsights of a killer who’s knocking off rivals for the missing masterpiece—and stay alive to solve the mystery of her stolen love: Sophie de la Luna y Sol.

Excerpt:

TARNISHED GOLD – by Ann Aptaker

Time: 1950

Place: The office of NYPD Homicide Detective Norm Huber

Setup: Dapper dyke and art smuggler Cantor Gold is being interrogated for murder

 Chapter Seven

Barking dogs. Snapping alligators. Dirty brown clouds fat with storms. I see their shapes in the soot and tobacco stains on the window behind Lieutenant Huber’s desk. Picking out shapes on the glass is all that’s keeping me from going loopy from the drone of Huber’s tedious grilling, or howling like a banshee at the memory of Marcus Stern’s exploding head.

Marcus Stern, Hannah Jacobson: brother and sister whose family has suffered more death and destruction than heaven should allow. And Huber, for all his droning, all his grilling,  doesn’t know the half of it.

All he knows is that Mrs. J and Marcus Stern were murdered in the here and now and that I show up in both killings. Huber’s knocking himself out trying to attach their deaths to me, somehow find some scrap that will give him the satisfaction of sending me to prison, which seems to be every New York cop’s wet dream.

So I’m stuck here in Huber’s office, my face still sticky and stinging, and my coat still reeking with the bloody remnants of Marcus Stern’s skull and brains.

Huber’s had me going around and around about the Stern shooting for the better part of the afternoon, ever since he had me brought back to Manhattan for questioning after the Queens cops wasted about three hours of my time. The Queens boys weren’t happy about handing me over to their more well connected rivals in Skyscraper-ville, but their hurt feelings were nothing compared to how I felt about it. I wasn’t crazy about them taking my gun, either.

My annoyance collapsed into bone crushing tedium by the time Huber pumped me about the Stern shooting for the umpteenth time through that buzzy growl of his, though I’ve given him nothing new with each telling. He’s taking his frustration out on his unlit cigar, chewing the end like a dog working a piece of gristle.

He can gag on that cigar, for all I care. He’ll never hear it from me about the mysterious woman who scared the crap out of Stern at the cemetery. I don’t share anything with cops.

And I’m sick and tired of Huber’s company. It’s time to get the hell out of here.

So I reach for the phone on Huber’s desk.

His hand slams on the receiver. “And whaddya think you’re doing?” he says.

“Taking my rights as a citizen, Lieutenant. I’m entitled to a phone call.”

“You’re entitled to what I say you’re entitled to.” He pulls the phone away from me, parks it close to him.

“Sure, I forgot,” I say. “You’re Daddy Law. Mustn’t disobey Daddy.”

TarnishedGold

He finds that funny; anyway, he’s laughing, sort of, if you can call that toothy rasp of his a laugh. “Daddy Law! Not bad, Gold. But I hope you don’t think it’ll make me like you any better.”

“You’ve got a right not to like me, Lieutenant, but I’ve got a right to use the phone.”

He’s not laughing anymore but he’s still enjoying himself, still playing petty with me. Maybe he can’t make me talk, but he can control my use of the phone.

He finally lights his cigar, takes his time about it, too, letting the match hover at the burning tip. Then he sucks two or three times on the damn thing, the flesh under his day-old stubble on his skinny face creasing like a dirty pillowcase. He finally tosses the match away, saying, “Okay, sure, go ahead, make your damn phone call. Calling your lawyer, I suppose?” He pushes the phone towards me like he’s offering candy.

“I guess you’re just too smart for me, Lieutenant.”

“Don’t get cute, Gold. Y’know, it could be a while ’til your lawyer gets here, and in the meantime you’re still mine.”

I do my best to ignore that stomach turning thought, just take the phone and dial the number. The whirr and click of the rotary almost masks the sloppy pop of Huber’s lips puffing the wet end of his cigar.

It’s not my lawyer I’m dialing, it’s my office. I get Judson on the line, but before I get a chance to say anything past “Hello,” Judson says, “Hey, where you been? Drogan called. He wants you to meet him at Smiley’s Bar. You know the place, across from Pier 18 near the fish market. He said he’ll wait.”

“Yeah, okay. Listen, I need you to spring my car from the police lot in Queens and get the busted window replaced and the interior cleaned up. And tell the repair guy he’ll see an extra fifty to get the job done this afternoon.”

“How the hell did the window get busted?”

“Tell you later. One more thing”—I look straight at Huber, who’s still puffing the cigar behind a cloud of smoke that can’t completely obscure his smug disgust with me—“call my lawyer. Send him to Lieutenant Huber’s office. Now.

”When I hang up, Huber’s grinning around that cigar. Then he talks around it, tobacco juice pooling between his teeth. “Y’know, Gold, for all your big money and flashy style, for all the fancy women in your life—yeah, sure, I know all about that. Sickening, if you ask me—for all that, you’re nothing but a no-good lowlife who keeps lousy company. Death squads seem to follow you around. You visit Hannah Jacobson and she gets cut to ribbons. Her brother Marcus Stern gets into your car, and, bang, he’s blown to Kingdom Come. And how many times do I have to ask you what the hell he was doing in your car anyway? Why wasn’t he with his family after the funeral?”

“You’re wasting your time, Lieutenant. My lawyer’s office isn’t far. He’ll be here pretty soon to spring me, since you have nothing to hold me except your deep dislike of me, my love life, and my tailoring. So why don’t you forget about all that and do something useful, like arrange police protection for Stern’s wife and daughter? Or are you using them as bait? I wouldn’t put it past you.

”You’d think I’d learn by now not to toy with cops, but it’s too much fun and I can never resist an opportunity to stick a pin in their puffed up chests, like calling Huber Daddy Law. But I’ve gone too far this time. I know it because I recognize what’s going on in Huber’s eyes and on his face—darkening, reddening—as he puts his cigar down, stands up so slowly and moves his stick of a body around his desk so calmly that the air around him won’t even ripple. I know what’s coming and there’s nothing I can do about it, because if I raise a hand to a cop in a police station I’ll wind up broken and bleeding on the floor of a holding cell, worked over by every cop in the building, even the traffic boys. So when Huber’s fist slams into the left side of my jaw I’m stung by the pain but not by surprise.
LammySeal-actualsize_2013-e1377558848107

He grabs the armrests on either side of me, pins me to the chair. His flushed face and cigar-stained teeth are a grotesque study in red and yellow. Stick a picture frame around his bony head and he’d pass for an Expressionist portrait of meanness. “You got your nerve, Gold,” he says through a predatory growl. “Everything about you is an insult to what’s good and decent in this country, you hear me? You think you know my job? Well I’m way ahead of you. I posted a patrol at the Stern house while you were on your way here from Queens. I was free to do that, Gold, while you were stuck in a paddy wagon. You get my drift?”

The temptation to rip his lips to shreds and get that smug ugly smile off his face is so strong I figure it might be worth the beating I’d take in the slammer, but I’m distracted—and Huber’s mouth saved from disfigurement—by the musky tang of expensive men’s cologne drifting into the room. Irwin Maximovic, my lawyer, is coming through the door, all three hundred elegantly fat pounds of him.

If you want a lesson in just how confident, quiet and polite pure power can be, all you have to do is listen to the refined patter of Winnie Maximovic. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant Huber. Always a pleasure to see you. I know a policeman’s lot is a busy one, so I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time. May I inquire on what charge you are holding my client?” The smile on Winnie’s fleshy face, like a fold in a satchel, would charm the stars out of the sky, and then he’d step on them.

Huber picks up his cigar again and chomps it between his teeth. “You can skip the theatrics, counselor. Just get lost and take your client with you. She’s stinkin’ up the joint, and so are you, if you want my opinion. The sooner the two of you get out of here the sooner my office can air out.”

Winnie, still smiling, says, “Well then, let’s go, Cantor,” but he immediately changes his mind and says, “Sit down again, Cantor.” He’s seen the bruise on my jaw, my split lip, the smears of Marcus Stern on my face. “Lieutenant? To what do we owe the injuries to my client’s face?”

“Haven’t you heard? She was behind the wheel when the passenger in her car was shot to death. Head blown to bits. Glass and flesh and pieces of the guy’s skull flew everywhere. She must’ve caught some. Isn’t that right, Gold?” It’s not a question. It’s a coded instruction not to make trouble for him. Ordinarily he wouldn’t care; cops slap people around every day and get away with it. But he knows that Winnie Maximovic has more lines into City Hall than the phone company. Huber may not care who digs around in his personal life, a fact he lorded over me last night, but no cop really wants their name dangled like fruit in front of the higher-ups, even if their name is clean. It annoys those higher-ups, makes extra paperwork for them, puts blisters on their fingers, and if that happens, Huber would take it out on me. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but down the line, when the heat’s off him and no one’s looking.

Winnie, dry as toast, says, “Is the lieutenant’s account true, Cantor?”“True enough,” I say. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.” Getting rid of Huber feels as good as having a good shit.

Before Winnie and I leave the building I stop in a restroom to wash up. There’s nothing but cold water, and its chill stings the cuts on my face. Framed by the mirror, I look like a recruiting poster for one of those death squads Huber says follows me around. Last night’s gash to my chin has new company: the patch on my jaw where Huber walloped me is red as raw meat and already turning black and blue; there’s blood on my split lip and crusting remnants of Marcus Stern on my cap and overcoat. I wash the blood off, get rid of as much brain pulp and bone splinters as I can, but violence and death still cling to me like sweat.

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Excerpt: Lambda Literary Award Finalist – Lesbian Mystery – Relatively Rainey by R.E. Bradshaw

Relatively Rainey

By R. E. Bradshaw

(This excerpt is from Part I, PRELUDE TO A NIGHTMARE.)

CHAPTER TWO

6:30 AM, Sunday, December 14, 2014

Residence of Glena Sweet

Madras Lane, Orange County, NC

“The pace of his escalating violence is nearly unprecedented. I’ve not personally dealt with an offender like this,” Rainey said, as she removed latex gloves from her hands, “but I’ve read about them, studied them. This is going to end very badly for a lot more women if he isn’t stopped. He’s just reaching his full potential.”

Detective Sheila Robertson followed Rainey down the front steps of the two-story colonial revival home, after examining another in a series of crime scenes in perfectly manicured suburban neighborhoods.

“She should have been safe here,” Sheila commented aloud what she was thinking.

“No one is safe, not from a predator like this. I would bring the BAU in if it were up to me.”

Sheila, while crossing her arms in a defensive posture, responded, “That call is above either of our pay grades. The BAU is aware of the case and has thus far agreed with everything you’ve said. The task force saw no need to request BAU presence on the case just to reassure you that you are correct in your analysis. We are doing exactly what should be done.”

“And yet, here we are on a Sunday morning, attending to another woman’s broken life. Maybe I’ve missed something. More eyes and ears would be better.”

Sheila dropped her crossed arms and led Rainey a bit further away from the law enforcement personnel swarming the scene and the gathering nosey neighbors. Once a safe distance from prying ears, she began to chastise Rainey for the display of insecurity.

“Self-doubt is not attractive on you, so don’t start wearing a hair shirt yet. I don’t think you’ve missed anything. The departments have all consulted their individual experts. There have been a ton of eyes on this material. They all say the same thing. He’s escalating and we need to catch him, but no one seems to know how to do that.”

RelativelyRaineyCover

Sheila paused to gain control of surfacing emotions. Rainey knew it for what it was. Seeing the depths of human depravity took its toll. The stress of being unable to solve a case could break the most seasoned of investigators, catching them unaware. Rainey was well aware of the pressure they were both under to solve this case. She waited for the deep breath Sheila needed to take hold. Once accomplished, Detective Robertson was ready to go back to work.

“So, our eyes and ears are going to have to be enough at the moment,” she said. “Now, what went on in this house? That woman took one hell of a beating. From the looks of things, she fought hard for her life. Professor Sweet is lucky to be alive.”

“Have you spoken to her?” Rainey asked.

“I stopped by the emergency room, but she’s too injured to interview right now. They have to wire her jaw back together first.”

“Did you see her, or has anyone noted her injuries for you?”

Sheila pulled out her phone and opened the photo file before handing it to Rainey.

“I took a few pictures in the exam room. The sexual assault nurse examiner will be more thorough.”

Rainey used her fingers on the phone screen to manipulate the pictures until she was satisfied she’d seen enough.

“The pictures don’t show it, but the doctor said the sexual assault was violent. She’ll need some reparative surgery for those injuries,” Sheila said in disgust.

Rainey returned the borrowed phone, saying, “He completed his transformation from power reassurance rapist to sadist pretty quickly. The first one, the assault on Mary Tweedy, showed inexperience with a live victim. He surprised her in her sleep and overpowered her almost immediately using only his size and strength. He hit her only once with his fist to quiet her. She stopped resisting. He showed concern for her comfort, tried to initiate personal conversations, and reassured her that she was pretty. He promised not to penetrate her, and he didn’t, although he did please himself in other ways. He was not brutal, but he paralyzed her with fear so severely that she waited to call the police for a half an hour, as he had instructed.”

“The second assault victim, Arianna Wilde—” Sheila began.

Rainey interrupted, “How’s she doing, by the way?”

“She got her stitches out, put the farm up for sale, and bought a ticket to ‘someplace warmer.’ She left her ex-husband’s phone number for contact information and said to call only if we caught the son of a bitch.”

“I can’t much blame her,” Rainey commented. “She had a security system, just like the professor here, and he still got in. How safe could she ever feel in that house? The lingering effects of trauma cling to things and places as well as people. Recovery is different for every victim, if it happens at all.”

Sheila turned her head to look at Rainey, a questioning look on her face, but she only said, “I hope she finds some peace.”

Rainey agreed, “Me, too,” before continuing the analysis. “He blitz-attacked Arianna. Hit her with a flashlight while she slept. That’s immediate application of excessive force. Although his first assault had all the elements of a power reassurance rapist, there were anger indicators—the binding, the picture taking, the degrading posing. Mary Tweedy described his repeated ramping up of her fear only to return to casual conversation about the Halloween decorations in her yard. It’s all about controlling her fear, when she shows it and how much. The anger behaviors indicated evolution to a truer sadistic nature was inevitable.”

“With Arianna,” Sheila began, “he followed the blitz attack with forcefully binding her while she was still dazed. He cut her tee shirt and panties off with a knife. He teased it across her skin and slapped her when she screamed. He had no inflection during the assaults, she said. He calmly told her what to do and when to do it. But then he would speak to her as if they were old friends. That ‘I love what you’ve done with the place’ line was just creepy as hell.”

“That was the sadist assuming his role as the torturer, whether in person or within the victim’s mind. Mary Tweedy will never decorate for Halloween again. Arianna is selling the family home where she always dreamed she’d grow old. It’s taunting with residual effects. He wants them to know he was watching and they never knew.

“He plants the seed of doubt. The one that whispers, ‘You will never be safe again. I will be watching.’ Then he sits back and lets it take root. With or without return visits to his victims, he knows the mental terror he inflicted will stay with them long after he has gone. Again, that’s about control and fear. Remember how Arianna said when she went limp, focused her mind elsewhere, he stopped raping her and put the knife to her throat again. He needed her terrified to complete his fantasy. That’s the sadist, too.”

Sheila paced the ground in front of Rainey, while the crowd of neighbors grew outside the crime scene tape. She stopped to ask a question.

“But, remember, Arianna said when she fought him again, after the attack had been going on for some time, he hit her with the flashlight, knocked her out, and she awoke to him raping her again. She wasn’t showing terror then. What does that tell you?”

“When she just checked out, she was ignoring him. That was unacceptable. An incapacitated victim, that’s a whole other ballgame. Unconscious victims can represent to the offender the complete domination and subjugation, particularly one wrapped in sexual bindings unnecessary to prevent escape. It’s part of his visual fantasy of the perfect victim. This guy is finding his sadist groove.”

“So, what looks like Glena Sweet fighting for her life is him ramping up the violence.”

Rainey nodded her head in agreement. “That’s my assessment. I’d say with her slight stature and what the other two victims have said, he easily could have overpowered her and prevented much of the struggle. Look how this house sits further back in the woods than the others. At the end of the cul-de-sac and with this much spacing between houses, no one would have noticed her screams before he gagged her. That’s another change to his methods with this one. He did not wait for her to go to sleep. He was probably in the house when she came home. For the first time, his victim saw him coming. He took her while the neighbors’ houses were filled with the noise of family activities.”

“That’s what I can’t figure out,” Sheila said, shaking her head. “Why come when she’s still awake? Why change what has been working?”

“He’s hunting the rush. This behavior is more psychologically motivated than practical, making it part of his signature. Standing over them while they slept was thrilling. Seeing her fear when he surprised her in the basement laundry, that was orgasmic to this guy. He enjoyed the fight inside this house. The blood evidence shows he pummeled her repeatedly as he drove her up to the second-floor bedroom. I’m not so sure he meant to leave her alive. Her binding bruises looked the same as the others, but she’s the first with finger marks on her throat. He probably tried manually strangling her and thought she was dead. It takes a long time to strangle someone to death with just your hands, about three minutes.”

LammyFinalist_Small_Web_v3

Sheila interjected, “So, maybe he doesn’t know how to take a pulse. That rules out medical personnel.”

“More than likely he blew his wad and lost his composure. This is just a guess, and I’ll be interested to know what Professor Sweet has to say, but I’d be willing to bet he was assaulting her while attempting to squeeze the life out of her. He was seeking the ultimate act of domination, made even more sexually satisfying because of the death struggle of his victim. His timing was off on his first attempt, but he learned something.”

Rainey looked back at the second story window where Glena Sweet had fought for her life.

“He didn’t kill this one, but he’ll kill the next one, and he’ll do it soon. He’ll bring something else to strangle her with—extra rope, a garrote, something to give him more control and leverage. He’s an emerging sexual sadist serial killer. And we have a front row seat to his edification.”

#

Monday, December 15, 2014

Press Release

Durham County Sheriff’s Office

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division and a Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force involving Wake, Chatham, Durham and Orange Counties are investigating a series of burglaries and sexual assaults, the majority of which have occurred within three miles on either side of a section of Highway 751 running south from I-40 in Durham County to the spillway bridge at Jordan Lake in Chatham County. These attacks appear to be connected to a series of voyeur reports and fetish thefts occurring in this area, as well as burglaries and a sexual assault that occurred in lower Chatham County, near Brickhaven. These crimes span from a burglary on September 2, 2013, to a violent sexual assault on December 13, 2014.

Early in the investigation, the majority of these crimes occurred inside single-family homes while the residents were away. Articles of clothing belonging to the female residents were taken. The suspect then began entering the homes of women living alone, while the women were at home and without their knowledge. On October 24, November 22, and December 13, 2014, the suspect escalated to violent sexual assault. In each of the assault cases, the female victim lived alone. The suspect enters through locked or unlocked doors and windows and has used a device to disrupt wireless security systems in some cases.

The suspect is described as a white male, 35-45 years old, 6’ to 6’3”, well spoken, extremely strong, and physically fit. He may be an avid photographer. He is probably a runner and uses the greenways and running trails in the area for access to the crime scenes.

We are cautioning all single females living alone in the area to take extra measures for their safety. It may be wise to have a male friend or family member stay at the home. Other security measures include replacing outdoor lights with bright lamps and leaving them on. If possible install motion detector activated lighting at the back of property near any wooded areas, vary routines, place a stick in windows to prevent opening or install locks that bolt to the frame, install chain or swing-bar locks on entry doors.

Any female resident living in proximity to these crimes that believes she may have been a victim of a fetish burglary in the last two years is urged to come forward. The suspect has been known to return to scenes of his previous crimes. Persons with any information on these crimes should contact Detective Sheila Robertson, Durham County Sheriff’s Department Criminal Investigations Division.

#

9:00 AM, Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hardware Builder’s Supply

Durham, NC

“Send me everything you have in stock and find more.”

Harold Sparks listened to the warehouse manager’s surprised response and didn’t care how many swing-bar locks and window frame locking bolts he was ordering. It wouldn’t be enough.

“Yes, everything. Send everything on the truck this afternoon. I can’t keep the stuff on the shelves. People are scared.”

Harold looked down the door and window hardware aisle of his store filled with frightened women.

“Hang on. Don’t put the stuff on the truck. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Just have it ready to load.”

A young woman in a State College hoodie stood in the aisle staring up at a wall of door locks while a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Her voice shook as she said into the phone at her ear, “No, Mom. They don’t have any left, either.”

“God, help us,” Harold said, “God, help us all.”

#

4:45 PM, Monday, January 19, 2015

Cookie Kutter Crime Beat Recording Studio

Durham, NC

“Good evening. I’m Cookie Kutter. CKCB. See a crime, come see me.”

A formerly respected news reporter, gone the way of Nancy Grace sensationalism, Cookie Kutter began the recording of her nightly cable crime beat newscast, ready to explain to the masses why she was the only person watching their backs. She shook her judgmental bottle-blonde head from side to side and smirked for the camera before launching into tonight’s rant.

“S. M. H. For those of you not text savvy, that means I’m shaking my head.” She pointed at her head. “See? Shakin’ it. Shakin’ it.”

Her smirk turned into an exaggerated frown.

“Another woman is dead at the hands of the Triangle Terror, and the multi-jurisdictional task force is no closer to catching this guy than they were when he started pulling panties off clotheslines two years ago.”

More head shaking followed.

“A thirty-five-year-old woman was brutally attacked and murdered in her home on Glen Road in Chatham County. The name of the victim has not been released, nor has law enforcement divulged any details, but sources say it is the Triangle Terror’s work. The attack occurred sometime Saturday night or early Sunday morning. This follows only twenty-two days after the shocking murder of twenty-six-year-old Tiegen Davis, less than four miles from the latest crime scene.”

Cookie stared into the camera, as it moved in for a close-up.

“After fourteen fetish burglaries, three rapes, and now two ghastly murders, what are the police doing to catch this guy? All law enforcement can do is tell women living alone to watch out for a thirty-five to forty-five-year-old physically fit white guy, move a man onto our couches, lock the doors, and hope for the best. Is that acceptable, ladies and gentlemen?”

Cookie raised one eyebrow and sneered at the camera. “I think not.”

She dropped her elbow to the desktop and pointed at the camera.

“You, multi-jurisdictional task force, can do better. Why do you depend on former FBI agent Rainey Bell as a consultant, considering her inability to identify her own rapist, letting him close enough to try again? And what about the fact she hired a killer and let her into her own home without realizing it? She’s lucky all she lost were her signature long curly locks.”

The pointing finger came down, but the character assassination of Rainey Bell continued.

“Last February, former agent Bell went to a funeral and ended up kidnapped by a psychopath. Really, is that the best we can do folks, a tragically flawed behavioral analyst? Why not contact the Behavioral Analysis Unit and bring in actual FBI agents? Don’t the women of the Triangle area deserve an official state and federal investigation? This is obviously over the heads of local law enforcement and the apparently clueless has-been analyst with issues.”

The camera pulled back as Cookie stacked and straightened papers on the desk in front of her while giving a sideways glance to her audience. Having given ample time for her disdain to sink in, she slapped the papers on the desk for emphasis and asked, “Are you kidding me?”

Another pause followed, a short one to rearrange her features in an alternative display of condescension and scorn.

“Speaking of Rainey Bell, she is in the crime news today on another matter. The three bodies pulled from the drainage pond near an airport long-term parking lot last month have been identified. DNA was determined to match two teenage boys reported to be runaways and missing since October of 2014. The names have not been released. The two were thought to have taken up homosexual prostitution as a way to survive on the street—which is another show altogether—and were last seen getting into a black sedan with darkly tinted windows. The deaths were determined to be homicides, and there are no suspects.”

Cookie tilted her head to one side, gave the camera lens her best gloating sneer, and chided, “Imagine that.”

She shifted positions, leaning in on her elbows to pull the audience in further.

“Now here’s where the Rainey Bell connection comes in. The third body is that of Dr. John P. Taylor, a local veterinarian missing since July of 2010. He is thought to be the last victim of the Y-Man serial killer, who turned out to be former State Representative JW Wilson. If you’ll remember, Wilson is also the man who kidnapped and raped the then Agent Bell, scarring her for life with a Y-incision on her torso. Wilson was killed by his wife, Katherine Anne Meyers, after he attacked Agent Bell and Ms. Meyers in their love nest on Lake Jordan. Oh yes, Rainey Bell is now raising triplets with and is married to the former Mrs. Wilson, whom we all remember from her drunken attack on moi.”

The batting eyelashes were meant to draw sympathy from her supporters. After the short pause for effect, she moved on.

“The teenagers’ and Dr. Taylor’s deaths do not appear to be related, according to the medical examiner’s reports. Sources tell us the bindings were still attached to the teenagers’ remains, suggesting another type of killer is also on the loose in the triangle, one targeting teenage male prostitutes.”

Cookie formed an impish grin for her fans.

“How long do you think it will be before Rainey Bell is somehow mixed up in these teenagers’ murders? We’ll see. Trouble seems to find Ms. Bell on a regular basis. Maybe she should try gardening and leave the crime fighting to those who don’t end up in the middle of their own investigations?”

Her raised eyebrows were meant to give emphasis and credence to Cookie’s assessment of Rainey Bell’s investigative talents.

“We’ll be back after the break to talk to Dr. Edward Teague, a forensic psychologist and research fellow at State College. He’s going to tell us about sexual paraphilia and why the Triangle Terror is driven by these needs. We’ll be right back with more on the Cookie Kutter Crime Beat Show.”

“And cut,” a voice said from the darkness in the studio. “Okay, Cookie. We’ll have the doc set up with a microphone in two minutes.”

Without an audience to charm, Cookie reverted to her off-camera persona.

“Why don’t I have video of Rainey Bell at one of these crime scenes? Why don’t I have an interview with one of the surviving victims? What the fuck am I paying you little weasels for? And, Dirk, yes you, Dirk, the one with the headset in the booth, the one that’s supposed to edit this shit into something worthy of a number one local cable news show—make sure you run that clip in the background of precious little Katie Meyers punching me in the face.”

She chuckled and shook her head from side to side, as she started editing the questions for her upcoming guest.

Under her breath, but easily heard by others, she chuckled and said, “I’ve gotten more mileage out of that fifteen seconds of video than should be legal. Love it, just love it.”

#

Later that same evening…

Somewhere in the Raleigh-Durham Area

“Thank you, Doctor Teague. I don’t know about you ladies,” Cookie said into the camera lens, “but I think I’m headed to the dollar store for some big ol’ granny panties.”

Dr. Teague’s voice could be heard off-camera, trying to explain, “Well, the style might not be a factor in this offend—”

Cookie’s glare, focused on someone beyond the camera, had the desired effect. The doctor’s microphone was cut, silencing him from stepping on her clever line.

“That’s it for the show, ladies and gentlemen. Stay safe, and remember, CKCB. See a crime, come see me.”

He clicked on “save as” in the file menu, labeled the file, “CKCB, January 19, 2015,” and saved it to his special external hard drive. The files on that particular device represented his best work to date. He safely ejected and disconnected the slender, black drive, returning it to its hiding place inside the false panel of his home office desk.

The secrets it held were the reason he insisted on the heavy piece of furniture his wife disliked. She only agreed to his choice because he was so accommodating on the rest of the decisions made for the new house. He was like that, obliging to his wife’s wishes most of the time. She thought him the perfect husband, as she should, because he invested a lot of effort in fulfilling the image she had of him.

He actually loved her and wanted her to be happy. She was fun and outgoing. Their sex life wasn’t half bad, probably better than most with their longevity. It would be twenty years in May since he walked her down the aisle. He thought her pretty damn perfect, too. Her job took her away for days at a time. She took a sleeping aid that knocked her out cold for hours when she was at home. Bouncing around through time zones wore on her, she said. He remained the perfect long-suffering, lonely husband, home alone while she flew around the world.

It would never cross her mind that he was anything but loyal, and he was—except for one thing. He was now a murderer, a full-on sadistic serial killer. He had spent years repressing his darker thoughts. An occasional dalliance, some panties here, a camisole there, was all he would allow himself. He focused on his work and creating the picture-perfect life with his wife. He ran mile after mile, worked out obsessively, fulfilled his wife’s every sexual fantasy, trying anything to silence the demon in the night. He plunged into his work with vigor, becoming well respected in his field. No one would ever suspect he harbored sadistic sexual desires.

He could control it back then. He could turn it off, lock it back down, but that all changed with the move to Durham. His wife was overjoyed to be back near family. He was offered a coveted position and a chance to make a name for himself among his colleagues. His wife accepted the job offer she’d refused multiple times after he told her she should live the dream, follow her heart, see the world and take it by storm.

Once she was launched on her travels, the demon had no reason to stay hidden. Though he had fooled himself into thinking he had controlled his dark desires, he never did. On his own for days, sometimes weeks, the demon could no longer be silenced. He began to watch them, his girls, initiating the collection of victims and trophies. At first, it was just what he could pinch from clotheslines, gyms, and unattended washers at public laundries.

His fantasies grew violent. The desires overwhelmed him until he no longer tried to quell them. That first time, walking into that basement, finding a treasure trove of one of his girls’ underwear in a pile of laundry, that was the first needle in the vein. Once he crossed that line, entered a home undetected, he was an addict with a growing habit. He was smart enough to know the demon’s hunger for the drug it craved would only increase in frequency and dosage. He was also smart enough to know, if he did not stop, he would go the way of many an addict. Was the crash and burn worth the ride?

He picked up Shayna Carson’s blood spattered thong from his desk. It was the last thing in which he posed her before he tightened the zip tie around her neck. He watched the petechial hemorrhaging appear on her cheeks and in the whites of her terror-stricken eyes.

His wife’s flight wouldn’t land for another hour. He unzipped his jeans and slipped the thong over his already hardening penis. Shayna’s last breath had excited him like no other experience in his admittedly deviant hunt for the ultimate sexual high. He closed his eyes so he could see her again. He didn’t need the pictures he took to relive the time he spent with her. She nearly fulfilled the fantasy to a tee. While he replayed her pleas for her life in his mind, he determined then that the next time he would cut the zip tie off and let the target catch her breath before slipping on a new one. He would repeat this reviving strategy until she did not recover. If he practiced on the next couple of targets, he was sure he could perfect the glorious ending to the fantasy.

He slid Shayna’s thong along the length of his now rock-hard penis. The mental movie of her last hours began to meld with his fantasies.

“Shayna,” he whispered, “you were definitely worth the ride.”

#

11:22 PM, Saturday, January 31, 2015

Falcon Ridge Subdivision, Durham, NC

“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

“He’s going to kill us this time.”

“Who, ma’am? Is someone in your home trying to hurt you?”

The bedroom door splintered, but the dresser and chest of drawers she managed to topple in front of it held fast, for the moment.

“Oh, my god. He’s going to get in here.”

“Who, ma’am? I have your address and a patrol car just down the street coming your way. Tell me who is trying to hurt you.”

“My husband, Aaron Engel. Tell them he’s armed. He’s ex-FBI. He runs a security company. He’s drunk and he will not go down without a fi— Oh, my god,” she screamed as he moved the makeshift barrier a few inches with the superhuman strength of a raging drunk. “He’s crazy. My kids are in here with me.”

“Stay calm. They are almost there. Stay with me. What’s your name?”

“Amy, Amy Engel.”

He hit the door again, roaring her name, “Aaaammmmyyyyy!”

“He’s going to kill me this time. Please don’t let him hurt my kids.”

“How many children, and are they with you?”

“Two, and they are here with me.”

Amy turned to see her two young children wild-eyed and terrified. Too frightened to cry anymore, they made not a sound. The phone nearly slipped from her hand, as blood from the gash above her ear oozed out of her hair. She listened to a supervisor in the background, calling out to the responding patrol car.

“Unit 27, be advised, the suspect male is ex-federal law enforcement, armed, and intoxicated. Proceed with caution. Unit 42, Unit 53, assist Unit 27, domestic assault in progress. Wife and two children in the house. Suspect armed.”

“Where are you in the house, Amy?”

“We’re in the master suite, upstairs, in the bathroom. He’s at the top of the stairs on the landing.”

Crraack! The door splintered again, leaving a gap. He pressed his enraged face into the void. Amy closed the bathroom door and locked it.

“Oh dear God, hurry up,” she whispered into the phone.

“Amy,” he called, his voice flat with anger. “Hang up the goddamn phone and come out here. You think you can take my kids, bitch? You have no idea who you are dealing with.”

“How old are the children, ma’am?”

The operator was back, asking questions of her. She didn’t answer but instead said, “Please, God, don’t make me shoot this man in front of his kids.”

“Are you armed, ma’am?”

“You bet your sweet ass I’m armed,” Amy Engel replied. It was not weapon-holding false bravado, but an accurate assessment of the danger she was in. “I know exactly who I’m dealing with.”

The supervisor was obviously listening. She began calling to the patrol officers immediately. “Unit 27, be advised, the caller is also armed and located in the upstairs master suite bathroom with two children.”

Aaron stopped slamming into the door. Terror permeated the silence with a threat worse than him entering the room. Amy could hear the children whimper, as the fear of the unknown replaced their father’s pointed rage. All the moment lacked was a high-pitched violin note to heighten the tension before the climax of the scene.

“10-4, 27. Suspect in custody.” Suddenly the supervisor’s voice was louder and directed at Amy. “Ma’am, officers are at your front door with your husband. I need you to put the weapon in a safe place away from the children and come out of the bathroom. An officer is waiting in the hall.”

“Oh, thank God. Thank you, thank you,” Amy gushed into the phone.

“You’re welcome, ma’am. Please assist the officer in securing your safety.”

The children cried softly, holding tight to each other. Relief freeing them to express the emotions no child should have to feel. Amy knew this was the last time she’d see her kids cower in fear in their own home.

The operator prodded her once more. “Ma’am, can you let the officer in the room?”

“Oh—yes. Thank you for everything. Bye.”

Amy hung up the phone and opened a cabinet door too high for her eight and seven-year-olds to reach, but she warned them anyway.

“This isn’t staying here, but still, no touching.”

“Ma’am, this is Officer King with the Durham Police Department,” a female voice called out. “Would you mind moving some of that furniture so we can get you out of there? Your husband is in custody.”

Amy pushed the dresser over and out of the way with the added strength of the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Two of its wooden legs broke off, and the contents of drawers cascaded onto the floor. She didn’t care, because as of that moment Amy Engel didn’t live there anymore.

#

He’d been inside the target’s residence less than a minute, long enough to check the dryer by the back door for trophies, when he heard the sirens coming. He ran, leaving the back door open, too afraid he’d be seen if he stopped to close it. They were near. Screeching tires and the blue flashing lights reflected in the treetops drove him further into the darkness. He pushed through the darkness too fast and regrettably forgot about that little drainage ditch near the running trail.

His ankle gave way. He lay crumpled in a heap on the forest floor; sure men with flashlights and guns would be coming soon. He had quite a crime spree under his belt, but it would soon be over. He left enough DNA and behavioral evidence to be tied to multiple felonies, including capital murder. The Triangle Terror induced panic would come to an end, and women could sleep in peace once again. He was destined for the needle, or at best, dying an old man on death row while the public debated the humane way to put him down—an indulgence he found ironic since there was nothing humane about his murder victims’ last moments.

He had noticed the added law enforcement presence in his hunting grounds, part of the prevention measures employed by the task force formed to take down the Triangle Terror. It was an attempt to quell the public’s fears. It only made his game of cat and mouse with the cops more fun to play. Even with the additional patrol units, he had entered homes in search of trophies while the cops circled the neighborhood. His confidence grew with each outing—enough so, that tonight he brought his rape kit and planned to pay a visit to one of his girls. She must have heard him downstairs and called the cops.

He peered through the woods toward the sound of voices and the source of the blue flashing lights. That’s when he started to laugh, not loud, but a low chuckle from his chest. The police were two doors down from his girl’s house. They had not been coming for him. The chuckle ceased when the lost opportunity to take his victim with the cops right outside crossed his mind.

“That would have been mind-blowing,” he whispered.

He pulled himself up slowly, using a tree for balance. He tentatively put weight on his ankle. The pain was almost unbearable, but bear it he must. Although the cops might not have initially been looking for him, it seemed his entrance to his girl’s house had been discovered. Flashlights bobbed in the distance, coming toward the woods. He turned, took a deep breath, and disappeared into the night, hobbled but not defeated, at least not yet.

As he ran, he took the pain, burying it beneath the new fantasy he’d been working on. The planning and prep-work were half the fun. He was ready for the next step and only continued the burglaries to stay his boredom while he waited for the perfect opportunity to put his preparation to good use. Tonight’s planned rape was just foreplay for his ultimate desire. He wanted to spend more time with his next girl. He had a couple of candidates already picked out. He knew the one he wanted, but he’d have to break the golden rule. His girls could never be someone he knew in his other life, the one where he was the loving husband and consummate professional. But when he closed his eyes, forming his ultimate fantasies, it was her face he saw.

She would be his end, he knew, but still he limped through the darkness while the fantasy of her bound at his feet pushed back the pain and kept him moving.

#

8:00 AM, Friday, February 6, 2015

Sarah Harris’s Second Chance House

Battered Women’s Center

Big Woods Road, Chatham County, NC

“What’s your badge number? What’s your name,” the man growled.

“Officer Wendy King, sir. We met before, Mr. Engel, at your home, the night you broke a wine bottle over your wife’s head.”

“Oh, you’re that bitch,” Engel snarled.

Officer King’s patrol car was parked at an angle, blocking the entrance to the women’s center. She had volunteered to bring a witness to court in Durham, one seeking a protective order against none other than Mr. Aaron Engel.  Several security officers stood on the other side of the gate, further preventing the infuriated man access to his wife and children, which was why he was in a screaming rage in the middle of the road.

Buying time for backup from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department because she was out of her jurisdiction, the young officer stood her ground and kept him talking.

“I guess you don’t remember much from that night, do you, Mr. Engel? You were pretty drunk and worked up. I seem to have found you in that state again today, but I don’t smell alcohol. I’m afraid that ‘I was drunk, forgive me’ defense is going to look kind of lame now. It appears you can be a raging ass without substance abuse.”

“Do you have any idea who I am? I’ll crush you. You won’t be able to sleep at night. I can make you disappear without a trace.”

“Threats to an officer. Wow, you really do want to go to prison. You were FBI. How can you not know that you are digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole?”

“I want to talk to my wife. I want my kids out of this lesbo camp, you fucking dyke.”

Officer King smiled. “No, that would be my sister. I’m the straight girl in the family photos, but they treat me just like everyone else. I think that’s very nice of them, celebrating diversity like that.”

“My kids are not going to be subject to this lifestyle.”

“What lifestyle would that be? Are you referring to my sister and her beautiful wife and kids? They love each other, and their children are healthy and happy. I don’t know if I’d call that a lifestyle though. I’d probably just say that’s the way it should be. A home that focuses on love without fear and violence, where no one is worried about what will set Dad off in a rage.”

Aaron Engel took two steps forward, ready to pummel Wendy King. Her hand slipped to her weapon.

It didn’t deter his rage. “I’m going to take that pistol from you and teach you some goddam respect, you smart mouthed bitc—”

The derogatory term he was about to use caught in his cheeks when a large hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“I wouldn’t do that, mister,” a booming bass voice said.

Aaron took one look over his shoulder at the mountain of a man and deflated.

Officer King smiled. “Mr. Engel, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mackie.”

“Hands on the car,” Mackie instructed.

Aaron Engel complied. He was still angry but evidently not in the mood for an ass whippin’.

“Looks like you’re only aggressive toward women, Aaron. That’s the second time I’ve seen your raging bull act come to an abrupt halt when a bigger man stepped in to take the upper-hand,” Officer King taunted.

Miles McKinney, Rainey Bell’s business partner and the guardian angel to those she loved—six feet six inches of solid muscle since his heart attack and newfound love of the gym—handcuffed his prisoner.

“Lil’ sis, the man is in custody. No need to rub his face in it.”

“He’s a jackass and an abusive one at that,” Wendy said, bolstered by youthful arrogance.

“I knew a girl like you once,” Mackie replied while putting the handcuffed man in the backseat of Wendy’s patrol car. “She paid an awful price to gain some humility. You might learn from that experience without it costing you, as well.”

“I just want to talk to my wife,” Aaron called out from inside the car. “If she hadn’t brought her here,” referring to Officer King, “she would have been home by now. She brainwashed her against me. I know they text all the time. I can see her phone activity. I know that bitch right there is unduly influencing Amy. I have to get her out of here.”

“See? I told you he was a prick. Who spies on a spouse like that? Your wife is lucky she is rid of you.”

Aaron made a show of coming out of the car before a large palm hit his forehead, sending him backward onto the car seat. Mackie, who had been dealing with men like Engel much longer than his badge-wearing young friend, leaned down and spoke softly to the fuming man.

“Mr. Engel, you’re going to be arrested. Be good and you’ll probably be out in twenty-four hours. Get a lawyer and listen to him. My best advice is throw yourself on the mercy of the court and get some help. But this behavior here, that’s going to cost you if you keep it up. It’s already cost you your career. Don’t let it cost you everything else.”

Mackie turned to Officer Wendy King with a sage piece of advice, “And you, don’t let your mouth write a check your ass can’t pay for.”

#

11:59 PM, Thursday, February 12, 2015

Colfax Park Drive, Chatham County, NC

He had to stay off his wrenched ankle for a week. He’d been bearing his full weight again for only a few days, but he could wait no longer. His wife was coming back Saturday morning for a Valentine’s visit. She would be home for a week this time. He needed a fix, and he needed it now. With his injury, he couldn’t chance an encounter with one of his girls, but Paige would be off to the school dance Friday night. Her parents would go to their usual date night dinner and a movie. Her room would be free, and he could spend a few hours working off some steam.

He was watching Paige’s house, fantasizing from the bushes of the time he would come to take her away. Until then, he came and went in her world without notice. However, he planned to leave a message this visit. It was time to let Paige know he was coming. He reached under his waistband, about to pleasure himself while he thought of her when he saw the silhouette against the side of the house two doors down. He removed his hand from his penis and began slowly moving toward the intruder in his territory.

Another predator was in his hunting grounds. A tall, well-built, young man peeped into the window of two adolescent sisters. This was unacceptable. These were his streets, his girls. They were not to be used by some young developing pedophile with a hard-on. He thought about calling the police. Wouldn’t that be ironic? But, he’d hate to be caught up in the arrest. His cell phone number would show up on the emergency operator’s screen. How would he explain his presence? It would lead to his name on a report, and linkage was everything. Stay off the radar, he decided.

Instead, he followed the young man back to his home. He read the name on the return address labels neatly stickered to the mail the young man had already put out for morning pickup.

“Ummm, interesting. Good to know.”

He would keep an eye on this peeper from a distance. He’d learn his habits and the houses he hit, and if need be, pin his crimes on this budding sicko. He could drop a few dozen pairs of stolen underwear in this guy’s garage, slip a hard drive with incriminating images in the heater vent, and watch the cops eat him alive before they figured out his DNA didn’t match the evidence. Even then, the prosecution could claim contamination at the lab, throw out the DNA, and convict on the possession of the stolen items and pictures. That would be fun. The future looked bright as he wandered back home through the woods. Yeah, that would be fun.

#

7:15 AM, Saturday, February 14, 2015

Colfax Park Drive, Chatham County, NC

“Holy shit, Sheila. My house is less than three-quarters of a mile from here.” Rainey pointed over her shoulder.

“I know,” Sheila said. “I’m sure it’s disconcerting.”

“Disconcerting? I’ve never been so glad to live in a fortress with redundant security systems in my life.”

Sheila laughed. “I thought you pretty much lived in a state of euphoria over that virtually impenetrable wall you’ve built around your family.”

“It’s the virtually part that keeps me vigilant,” Rainey said in all seriousness.

“So let’s catch this creep.”

“That’s not going to be so easy.”

Sheila looked around the latest victim’s room. Paige Jeanerette was an eighteen-year-old high school senior. Her room reflected her bookish, introverted personality, and she seemed to have dedicated her life and much of her wall space to the Hunger Games.

“What’s he doing, Rainey? Why is he back to fetish crimes? And what the hell is this all about?”

Sheila pointed at Paige’s laptop on the desk in the corner. A word document left open on the screen contained a message to the young woman who occupied this room.

The note read, “I seen you at school in class. I think your pretty. I’m scared to talk to you. I hope you don’t be mad I took the panties. Its cause I like you.”

“He’s just playing with us and terrorizing her. Bad grammar and spelling—he’s trying to mimic a teenager, make her look over her shoulder.”

Sheila slapped the laptop closed with her latex-gloved hand. “I hate this guy. I mean I really, really hate this guy. I want his balls on a plaque in my office.”

“Sorry, but that isn’t going to happen,” Rainey said, looking out the window to the woods behind the house.

“You don’t think we’ll catch him?” Sheila questioned, incredulously.

“We’ll catch him, but you won’t get his balls. When he’s cornered, he’ll come peacefully. He’s too smart to go out in a blaze of glory. No, the guys at the BAU will be talking to him for years to come, albeit from death row.”

“Maybe he’ll hit the wrong woman, someone like you who’ll put a bullet in his ass, save the state some money.”

“You do know I’ve never actually killed anyone. I’ve had opportunities, but nope, not a one. I’m not the ‘out of control badass’ Cookie Kutter would have people believe.”

“You watch that show?”

Rainey laughed and fibbed a little. “No, but Katie does. She says she likes to know what the enemy is up to. I can always tell when Cookie uses that clip of Katie punching her. That pisses her off, but between you and me, I think Katie’s glad she did it.”

Sheila chuckled. “I can’t help it. I love that clip. I saved it to my computer for days when I’d like to do something similar to Ms. Kutter.”

Rainey smiled at her friend. “Me, too, but Katie doesn’t know.”

“Well, let’s get you back home to your Valentine’s weekend. I know last year’s plans were a bust.”

“I made no plans this year. I didn’t want to jinx it. Katie is in charge, and I am blissfully ignorant of what lies in store.”

“Just remember to take your weapon. You, of all people, can never be too prepared.”

“Always,” Rainey answered absently, refocused on the room. “Okay, back to business. This is a straight up fetish burglary with sadistic tones. The note is meant to extend his terror. But there is nothing new here, nothing to learn, other than he’s treading water.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s bored. The patrols slowed him down but haven’t stopped him. I don’t think this is regression, though. I think he’s planning his next step up the sadistic ladder. This guy is a thinker. He has a fantasy—he fulfills it. He moves on to the next fantasy, seeking a higher high each time. It took him two years to build up to what he did to Shayna Carson. He spent more time with her than the others, extending her suffering as long as possible. He appears to be going through sexual sadist school, but if you look at the last four months, he leapt from middle school to college. Postgraduate work is next. Keep an eye out for missing women.”

“He’s not a kidnapper,” Sheila countered.

“He wants more time. He needs more time, more privacy, a chance to focus only on his victim without fear of interruption. He has a private place. I bet it’s near those Chatham County scenes down by the river. That’s how you’ll find him. Locate the lair. I’d deploy deputies in that area, account for all the residents. You’re looking for a man who visits but doesn’t live there. Locate the owners of vacated structures and seasonally occupied homes, hunting cabins, fish camps, anywhere a lone man would go unnoticed.”

“Women go missing all the time. How will we know he took her?”

“Victimology should at least give you a clue. She’ll be white, twenty-five to forty-five, live alone on a property near the woods, and if he is the planner I believe him to be, she will have no close relatives or friends that would notice her weekend absence.”

Rainey pulled the latex gloves from her hands and locked eyes with Sheila.

“Realistically? You will know when you find the body.”

#

8:15 PM, Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Place For Us Charity Ball

Feme Sole Nightclub, Durham, NC

Rainey leaned against the wall near the entrance as the woman she adored stepped into the center stage spotlight.  The large women’s bar inside a former tobacco warehouse was decorated to fit the refinement of the evening. Diamonds and jewels glinted at every table in the dimly lit hall. Hundreds of haute couture-wearing guests with exceedingly deep pockets sat at elegantly decorated tables. The bar owner, Phyllis, stood nearby, grinning at the stage. She, too, had been placed under the spell of the beautiful blonde at the microphone.

Katie had called out the country club set and the left-leaning movers and shakers in the Triangle area. They were there to raise money for homeless LGBTQ youth. Kids were on the street because parents threw them out or made life a living hell from which escape was the only means of survival. Molly Kincaid, Rainey’s friend, lawyer, and sometime employer recruited Katie to head the fundraising campaign knowing Ms. Bell-Meyers could bring a crowd, and that she did.

Rainey’s infatuation with Katie had never worn thin in the nearly five years they had been together. It seemed to grow stronger every day. The red dress Katie wore was stunning, but Rainey thought her wife more attractive with pancake batter on her cheek and triplets at her feet, just a few hours ago. The three-year-olds were fussy and wanted breakfast for supper. Katie, the triplet whisperer, went to dress for the ball after she fed and washed them, leaving Rainey to wrestle the hyper trio into pajamas and bed. The children noted Katie’s transformation into the sexiest mom in the room when she came in to kiss them goodnight.

“Mommy is pretty,” Mack said.

“Mommy is pretty,” Timothy echoed.

Weather, the only girl and lover of all things shiny and expensive, pointed at the diamond necklace around Katie’s neck.

“Mommy is sparkly.”

Rainey’s mother, Constance, the evening’s overnight babysitter, took over the kid watch because they had to be supervised. They were into everything, constantly on the move. Katie was the only person they didn’t try to outmaneuver. She never raised her voice and rarely lost patience with the children, yet they obeyed Katie without question. Rainey figured it was because they recognized Katie as their main food source. They pulled most of their worst stunts when Rainey was watching them. Their latest escapade involved stealing Katie’s makeup bag from the master suite, decorating the nursery and each other while they were supposed to be napping.

Rainey dressed under Katie’s watchful eye. She had refused to wear a man’s tuxedo, and an evening gown was simply out of the question—not convenient for hiding her weapon—but the fundraiser was a black tie affair. Katie found a tailor who could recreate the look of the 1966 Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking tuxedo for women and presented it to Rainey as a gift. The tailor had required a final fitting, which included Rainey wearing her sidearm. He wanted to make sure she didn’t mess up the lines with a bulge in the wrong place. The Glock was a no-go with the tailor. They compromised on a smaller weapon and a holster close to her ribcage. Katie had not seen the finished product.

When Rainey stepped out of the walk-in closet dressing area still working on a cuff link, she said, “Thank you, honey. This is the most comfortable suit I’ve ever worn.”

Katie smiled and winked, saying, “Oh, no. Thank you.”

Now Rainey leaned on the wall and smiled at the pretty mommy on stage, listening as Katie wrapped up her short speech.

“Forty percent of the homeless youth in America are from the LGBTQ community. The Internet provides exposure to worldviews, opening minds and presenting opportunities.  Along with this newfound awareness, the strides forward in social acceptance have given many young men and women the knowledge that they are not alone and the strength to be themselves. They are now revealing hidden truths to family and friends at earlier ages than ever before. These children are still dependent on the adults in their lives for food, shelter, and financial support. While many families are embracing and loving, others use archaic belief systems to justify throwing a child out into the street. These children need our help, and that is why we are here tonight.

“Thank you all for coming and for the expression of care and concern you have shown our youth. I don’t like to use words like ‘straight ally,’ which some would use to describe those of you in this room who are heterosexual. The only label necessary to comprehend that we are all equal is ‘human.’ We are all human beings deserving of respect and the right to be our unique selves, loving whom we choose. Thank you again for being compassionate souls caring for all of us. Have a wonderful evening.”

Katie began making her way from the stage to the back of the room, stopping to speak to guests. Molly walked over to Rainey, accompanied by her girlfriend, Leslie. Leslie had become Katie’s closest friend. The four of them spent many social evenings together.

“Is your babysitter spending the night?” Molly asked.

“Yes,” Rainey answered. “Why?”

“Because if the way you’re looking at your wife is an indication of your intentions, you two are going to need some alone time.”

Katie arrived and stood on her tiptoes to give Rainey a quick kiss on the lips. “Hey, good lookin’. How’d I do?”

“You were perfect,” Rainey said, beaming back at her.

Molly and Leslie gave Katie hugs and congratulations on the event’s success. Wendy joined them. She was twenty-four years old and the mirror image of her older sister at that age. Wendy’s evening gown was exquisite, matching the green of her eyes. The dress was the direct result of a shopping spree with Leslie and Katie, who were determined to dress Wendy properly because Rainey was a lost cause.

“Katie, that was a great speech, and you look fantastic,” Wendy said, hugging her. She waved over Katie’s shoulder at Rainey. “Hi, sis.”

Rainey waved her fingers back at Wendy, realizing she was mimicking behavior she used with her kids. Life changed for her every day, even as some things remained the same. Rainey didn’t want to think about nightmares and past mistakes tonight. Katie was dazzling, the night out with good friends was just beginning, and they had a babysitter. Life was good at the moment.

As Wendy introduced her date, Rainey noticed Molly glaring at him. The date was a casual one. Two young professionals attending an event, Wendy explained earlier. With no steady boyfriend, she was focused on her career, as Rainey had been once.

“Rainey, Katie, I’d like to introduce you to Nick Prentiss. Nick, this is my sister, Rainey Bell-Meyers, and her wife, Katie Bell-Meyers.”

Rainey and Katie shook Nick’s hand and exchanged greetings. He was starkly handsome. His dark hair and tanned skin contrasted with his hazel eyes and playfully pouty pink lips. His tuxedo was not a rental, but a tailored fit worthy of his model good looks. He was also charming.

“I can see the family resemblance,” Nick said. “It’s a compliment to both you and Wendy.”

Rainey took note that Molly still glared at Nick. She wanted to know what was up, so she sped things along.

“Nick, these are our friends, Molly Kincaid and Leslie Walker.”

Leslie stuck her hand out first and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Nick.”

Molly never lifted a finger. Instead, she said, “Sleeping with the enemy, Wendy? Hello, Nick. Aren’t you just a little too Fox News for this crowd?”

Rainey grinned. She loved to watch Molly take somebody on, even if it was her sister’s date. Molly was usually the last one to show her colors. She must have had an intense dislike for this young man. It was sure to be entertaining.

Nick came back with, “Ms. Kincaid, you’ll find I’m a man of many passions. It’s good to see you again.”

“Your passions are for sale, I take it,” Molly quipped.

“Of course,” Nick answered honestly. “A good lobbyist can be passionate about anything if the price is right. I’m paid to sway people to my clients’ position, much like you make a living swaying juries on your clients’ behalf. It’s not my fault the system is broken. I’m merely making money until they fix it. It isn’t any more of a crime than representing a murderer in court.”

“At least if one of my clients claims God made him do it, I can plead insanity,” Molly countered.

Everyone in the social circle had been following the conversation like a tennis match. So far, the score was fairly even. However, Rainey counted on Molly to have the last word.

Undaunted, Nick said, “It’s politics. It’s not personal.” He offered his hand to Molly again. “Truce.”

“Oh, but it is personal, Nick. If I recall, and I do recall quite clearly, you were on the front lines protesting funding for the women’s center named after my mother with that asinine Jedidiah Lilly horde. What was it they were shouting? ‘God hates dykes,’ and my personal favorite, ‘Sarah Harris was a white-trash drug addict.’ I understand you were responsible for that little ditty.” Molly raised the Champaign glass in her hand in salute to Wendy. “You look ravishing, Miss King, but I’d work on the arm candy. This one won’t taste as good as he looks. As my mother used to say, sugar coated crap is still crap. Well, actually, she would have said, ‘shit’, but as I’ve left my white-trash roots behind, I thought I’d clean it up a bit.”

Most women would have delivered that line, followed by a quick turn of the heel and a sachet away, but not Molly. She sipped from her glass, handed it off to Rainey, and slipped her arm around Leslie’s waist.

“Let’s dance, honey,” Molly said. “They’re playing my song.”

Rainey started laughing when she realized the band was playing “Devil With The Blue Dress On.” It was indeed, Molly Kincaid’s theme song.

To Wendy’s credit, she turned to Nick. “Did you actually make that sign?”

Nick blushed red, losing some of his charming composure. “No, I didn’t make it. I just did the research on Sarah Harris and forwarded the information.”

“But you did work for Lilly?”

“Hey, Molly Kincaid’s mother’s history is public knowledge,” Nick argued.

Rainey narrowed her eyes at Nick. “I’m quite sure you have no idea what the real history involves in Molly’s mother’s case. That part of the story is not public knowledge.”

“If she doesn’t want it to be a political football, she should not have put the name on the building and then asked for public funding. It’s the reality of politics today.”

Katie had been uncharacteristically quiet, but that was about to change. The Sarah Harris Battered Women’s Shelter was her baby.

“No, Nick, the reality of politics today is that a few rich men have bought some elections, using lobbyists such as yourself for the dirty work. Playing political football with the lives of women and children is shameful. Claiming it’s God’s work is despicable. Come on, honey,” Katie said, grabbing Rainey’s free hand. “Let’s dance.”

Rainey tipped up Molly’s glass and finished the contents. She was being pulled toward the dance floor when she handed the glass to her sister.

She winked and said, “Choose wisely, young one. If you need a ride home, I got you covered.”

Wendy handed the glass to her date. “Catch you later, Nick. You look good in that tux, but my mother agrees with Molly’s—you can’t polish a turd.” That said, and in typical little sister form, she called out, “Hey, Rainey, wait for me.”

#

Later that night.

The Bell-Meyers Residence

Chatham County, NC

Rainey stood outside the nursery doorway hugging Katie close, watching their children sleep. They were both a bit tipsy. Rainey was glad Molly had arranged a car for them. They dropped off her slightly more inebriated sister at her little home in a nearby neighborhood, at Wendy’s insistence. Her house was smack in the middle of the Triangle Terror’s hunting grounds, which made Rainey nervous. But Wendy was a grown woman, and she was determined to sleep in her bed. Rainey made the car wait while she checked all the doors and windows before leaving Wendy tucked in bed, a trashcan by her head and the alarm system on.

Now she watched her children sleeping while holding the woman she loved, truly at peace for the moment.

Rainey whispered, “They always look like angels when they sleep.”

Katie tilted her head back to look up at Rainey. “Well, those little angels will be awake in a few hours, and if you want some of your slightly sloshed wife, we best get at it.”

Rainey began leading Katie toward the master suite without further delay.

She chuckled while saying, “I love that our foreplay has become ‘we best get at it.’ ”

Katie spun away from her. “You want foreplay?” she asked playfully.

She then reached for the bottom of her long red dress, shimmied it over her head, threw it on the floor, and started dancing down the hall with her back turned to Rainey. She peeled the remaining layers from her body and tossed them over her shoulder. Rainey stood frozen in place. Katie disappeared into the bedroom and crooked a finger out the door, beckoning Rainey to come hither. A few seconds had passed before Katie stuck her head out the door to see why her invitation was being ignored.

“Oh, hi, Constance,” Katie said to Rainey’s mother, who was standing next to her daughter. “Sorry about that.”

“Oh, no, nothing to be sorry about. I heard noise on the baby monitor. I just came to make sure they were still asleep. Sorry to interrupt. Good night.” Constance elbowed Rainey as she turned to leave, trying desperately not to burst out laughing. “If I looked like that, I’d dance naked in the hall for John, too.”

Rainey didn’t speak or move until she heard the door close on the guest bedroom her mother occupied. Katie leaned on the bedroom doorframe giggling.

Rainey sighed heavily. “That’s going to take a while to forget. I may never have sex again.”

#

10:35 AM, Monday, February 23, 2015

Durham County Sheriff’s Office

Criminal Investigations Division

Interview Room

The soldier stood when she entered the room.

“Good afternoon. I’m Detective Robertson.”

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Staff Sergeant Russell Whitaker,” he said, shaking her extended hand.

Sizing up the young soldier, a living recruitment poster for the armed services, Sheila commented, “You’re mighty young for a staff sergeant.”

Russell Whitaker smiled. “I just received the promotion. The Army has an up or out policy. I like to keep the Army happy, ma’am.”

“Please, have a seat.” Sheila gestured to his chair. She took the one opposite and continued, “A career man, I take it—‘Be all you can be.’ ”

“Hooah, ma’am.”

“I understand you think something may have happened to your sister.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been to her house. Drove up from Bragg this morning. I got worried when Kaitlyn didn’t check in this weekend.”

“You and your sister, you stay in touch regularly?”

“Yes, ma’am. We have a standing appointment to check with each other on Friday nights. Our parents are abusive alcoholics. Me and sis, we fought our way out of that life. She’s four years younger, so when I was eighteen and joined the Army, I came back to get her after I got out of basic. I got custody of her from the state. While I was deployed she stayed with my colonel’s family. She went through high school pretty much on her own.”

He became emotional but smiled through the welling tears.

“She made straight As. Got a four-year scholarship, graduated magna cum laude from State College last spring.  She started graduate school and working at the research library on campus in the fall. She loves books and—” His voice cracked with emotion, saying, “Oh, God,” before he broke into sobs.

Russell Whitaker was scared and helpless. A big tough soldier, straight and tall, who was realizing that even with all his warrior skills, he could not protect his baby sister.

Sheila gave him the time he needed to recompose before seeking more information.

“So, am I to understand your sister missed a standing check-in time on Friday?”

Russell’s breathing calmed. He wiped the tears from his cheeks before visibly resuming a soldier’s posture, eyes forward.

“Yes, ma’am, but that was prearranged. Kaitlyn had dinner plans with colleagues after work before attending a lecture she had been looking forward to Friday evening. We agreed to speak on Saturday morning. She did not respond to my calls, texts, or emails. That is very out of character, ma’am.”

Sheila smiled, trying to ease the impact of the next few questions.

“Has Kaitlyn ever ignored your communications before? Maybe you sometimes disagreed. Is she a bit rebellious, a little resentful of having to check in with her big brother? Does she have a boyfriend?”

“I understand why you are asking these questions, ma’am, but if you will permit me to tell you what I discovered at her home, I think we might be able to speed the process up a bit.”

Sheila sat back in her chair. A seasoned investigator, she could read people and knew when to be quiet and listen. This young man was bursting to have his story heard.

“Okay, Staff Sergeant, tell me why I should be looking for your sister.”

“When Kaitlyn didn’t respond to anything by Sunday morning, I went to my CO, explained the situation, and caught the next transport back to Carolina. I can’t tell you where I was unless you get some clearance from someone above my pay grade.”

“That probably will not be necessary, but why didn’t you just call the police and ask for a welfare check.”

“I did, ma’am. They went by the house. Her car is still there. They found a note taped to the inside of the front storm door. It’s addressed to someone I don’t know, but it says Kaitlyn was sorry she missed them and would see them soon. She wouldn’t do that, ma’am—just leave without telling me. I knew something was off.”

“Not to mention, who leaves notes on doors these days? You say Kaitlyn texts and emails, has a phone. Do you have this note?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Russell reached into his chest pocket, but before he handed over the note enclosed in a plastic bag, he finished his story. “When I got to her house, I used my key to get in. The minute I walked in, I knew something was wrong. Her purse and keys were on the table by the door. I found her phone on the bedside table in her bedroom, resting on top of the program from the lecture Friday night. It looked like she came home, went to bed, and then just vanished into thin air. I came straight down here to report her missing.”

He handed over the bag.

Sheila read the handwritten note through the bag. She hoped the gasp that left her throat had not been too noticeable, but when she looked up to see the expression on the staff sergeant’s face, she knew he heard it.

The note read:

Rainey,

Sorry, I missed you. See you soon.

Kaitlyn

#

A few minutes later…

The Bell-Meyers Residence

Chatham County, NC

“No, I don’t know her. I’ve never heard that name to my knowledge,” Rainey said into the phone, one whimpering child on her hip and two all out bawlers wrapped around each knee.

“Then it’s him, toying with you—us.”

“Ya’ think, Sheila?” The sarcasm indicated the mood she was in.

“Don’t be a smartass. Why are those babies crying like that?”

“Because they picked up a stomach virus at the women’s center day care and have been spewing from both ends since 2:30 this morning. I’m not sick, but I’ve spewed a few times myself from the smell. I may not survive this.”

“Oh, my,” Sheila said. “Where’s Katie?”

“Katie and her mom are cleaning the nursery and I’m really glad I am not involved. This is— Oh, crap— Hey, I’m going to have to call you back. No, no, no, don’t puke in the vent. Hey, hey, hey. Oh, god—”

 

Exclusive Excerpt: Cheap As Beasts by Jon Wilson-Lammy Finalist in Gay Mystery

Exclusive Excerpt – Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Gay Mystery

Cheap As Beasts by Jon Wilson

At ten o’clock, I was trying to get the three magazines in the foyer to fan properly atop the small table. Not that anyone would want to read them. The newest was from March. I had tried sitting in my chair smoking, but that wasn’t going to work. At ten-ten, I was standing by the open window, practicing tossing my hat across the room and getting it to catch on the coat rack. At ten-twelve, I heard the elevator ding for the third time and leapt to get settled in my chair.

Unlike the two previous dings, this one was for me. The outer door opened, and he strode into my office a moment later.

I was leaning back in my chair, my feet up on the corner of my desk, my ankles crossed, a cigarette hanging jauntily from the corner of my mouth, and I looked up at him like he was the last person in the world I had expected to see. “You’re late.”

His ginger hair was combed neatly to one side, and he had gone with nice blue-gray slacks of light cotton. He had on a sweater vest, a ten dollar tie, and no hat. These kids today. Control of his expressions had not quite returned to the level he’d exhibited that first time we’d met. His cheeks ripened as he stood and looked at me. “I nearly didn’t come.”

“Sure. That’s natural.”

“What is? My almost not coming or my saying that?” He ran his hand through his hair negating in a moment all the hard work he’d apparently done on it. He was talking fast, like he had sat somewhere building up his nerve, and now it was unwinding like a top. “Because it’s a lie, of course.” He moved jerkily over between the two client chairs and then took the one on his right. He plopped down into it hard, like it was his turn to prove a point. There was more to his soliloquy. “I don’t even know why I said it. I tried to convince myself I might not come. I wasted a lot of time and plenty of good bourbon on it. But the more I drank, the more inevitable it seemed.”

“How much have you had today? Liquid courage, I mean.”

Cheap_as_Beasts_finalcoverJEdit

He looked up at me, his eyes wide. “You just…you’re brutal. Is that attitude supposed to help? Keep me from lapsing into shock like—” He swallowed something hard. “Like that slap you offered yesterday? I saw those tricks during the war. It struck me as bunk then, and it strikes me as bunk now. And brutal. Give me a cigarette.”

“Say please.” But that just confused him, so I dug out my pack. “You people. Why don’t you carry your own?”

“I usually do. My mind was a bit distracted this morning. I…I think I have a pack in my car. Probably.” Taking the cigarette I offered, he did produce his own expensive, gold-plated lighter, which made me think he might not have been lying about normally carrying his own. He lit up and sat back, relishing that first puff. He closed his eyes closed, then opened them and perused my desk. “Why don’t you keep some out? For clients. My broker has a Faberge dispenser he keeps right about here.” He leaned forward to touch my desktop near the front about a foot from the corner. “Three different brands of cigarettes.”

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