by Jody Valley
A woman is found dead in the wetlands outside of Lakeside City, Michigan. When the town learns the nature of the markings on the dead body, panic rages through the community. And when citizens discover that the dead woman was a lesbian, and that her lover happens to be a local high school teacher and girl’s coach, bedlam breaks out in this ultra conservative community on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Private investigator Kera Van Brocklin has her hands full. She’s trying to prove that her client, the high school teacher, didn’t kill her lover—not an easy task in a town of bigotry and right-wing fanaticism. If that weren’t enough, Kera’s personal life isn’t going so well either. She fears that her girlfriend, Mandy, is leaving her for another woman.
Trying to prove her client’s innocence by finding the killer, Kera is drawn into the web of a demented murderer who is ready and willing to kill again.
Twisted Minds is the highly anticipated sequel to the Golden Crown Award finalist A Venomous Cocktail.
More Praise for Jody Valley
GCLS Goldie Awards
A Venomous Cocktail — Finalist, Lesbian Mystery, Lesbian Debut Author.
He opened the tailgate. With his leather-gloved hands he yanked the woman out, letting her limp body drop to the wet ground.
A sickly groan belched out of her.
The woman had been rolled up in a blanket, cocooned, and then jammed into the rear of his minivan. She had no better standing with him than the rest of the objects that he’d stashed in with her: a small suitcase, computer bag and shovel.
He’d brought with him only what he thought was needed, nothing more, as nonessentials might be accidently left behind, connecting him to his night’s work. His plan was to keep it simple, thorough, swift.
The van had been rented under a false name. He’d worn a stick-on mustache, a pair of fake glasses, and had spoken in a deeper pitch. He planned to ditch his clothes and gear when the job was finished, then have the vehicle detailed before its return.
She wasn’t dead yet, just drugged and boozed up. But leaving her out in this place with no medical intervention—along with the exposure from the cold spring night—would probably kill her.
But he’d better not chance it. Didn’t matter, finishing her off was no problem for him.
It would’ve been better had he known of a good place to dispose of her somewhere in the Lansing environs. That way he could’ve quickly gotten rid of her body. But since he didn’t know of a good spot, he waited until he got to the Lakeside City area—a familiar place where he knew the territory. The chances of anyone being around this particular place, especially at this time of night, were negligible.
It’d been frustrating. He didn’t know his way around Lansing, never had been to the capital. It was his fault, he’d forgotten his damned GPS. Trying to get out of the city, he’d somehow ended up in East Lansing before he found his way back to the western side of the state. He’d driven carefully—he had used his blinkers, come to a standstill at stop signs, and driven several miles per hour under the speed limit, all the while trying not to get stopped for some random traffic violation. That’s all he would have needed, to be pulled over by the cops, and for whatever reason they’d get curious and peer into the back of his van…
It would have been all over.
There was another reason to return to Lakeside City. No doubt the capital city of Michigan would have a better-equipped police department with more resources than the Lakeside City Police Department. He didn’t expect to make any mistakes or leave evidence that would lead to him, but you never knew. Life didn’t come with guarantees, so he had a backup plan, an arrow pointing to someone else, if the body were ever found.
Part of him, actually a big part, wanted her grave to be discovered.
He sat down on a tree stump by the elevated, two-tire track road that ran through the wetlands and put on his boots. Then he got up and grabbed the bottom of the blanket near his victim’s legs and dragged her limp body into the marsh. The putrid smell of decay—winter’s brew below the ice—floated up from the mostly thawed water. He brought up the bandana around his neck to cover his nose. Thin clouds allowed for a dim light to filter through from the stars, just enough for him to make out the surroundings.
She gave out another groan as the freezing water iced its way into her consciousness and awakened any remaining awareness. The shallow water, five inches, maybe six, splashed into his unfastened boots and up onto his pant legs, sending shivers through him. He’d decided to leave his coat—a favorite hunting jacket—in the vehicle. He didn’t want it to get dirty.
Irritated, he dragged her cumbersome, drugged body awkwardly through the mucky water. Scraggly stumps, fallen tree branches, and sharp stick-like plants poked up from the earth and snagged the blanket, hindering his progress, delaying her fate. His back let him know she was no lightweight. Hell, she’d be heavy even if she were cooperating. He stopped, dropped her, placed his hands on the lower part of his spine and arched backward in an attempt to ease the pain. Feeling some relief, he reached down and picked up the blanket that shrouded her.
“Fuck!” The saturated blanket released icy water onto his shirt and pants, soaking him. He wondered why he hadn’t thought to wear waterproof clothing but then remembered he hadn’t planned on this place for the burial.
From where he stood, he estimated how much further he’d need to go. Her grave had to be out of sight. In time, Mother Nature would rehab the ground and cover his tracks.
He found a suitable site, dropped her, then grabbed the ends of the blanket, unrolled her naked body until it spilled out and splashed into the frigid water of the wetlands.
Her groggy eyes stared up at him.
Not anger. She didn’t appear angry.
Not distress. Her face didn’t register any anguish, as far as he could tell.
More like numb, vacant…
Whatever. He wouldn’t dwell on it.
He took out his jackknife, opened it up, then bent over her and carved a design into each breast and one on her belly. He stepped back, assessed his handiwork, and then carefully folded in the bloody blade and stuck it into his pocket.
He wondered why she hadn’t seemed to squirm when he’d carved his designs into her—he thought of them as tattoos. Maybe the drugs and icy water had numbed her, kept her from feeling pain, along with his razor-edged blade he’d spent hours sharpening. He wanted his carved symbols to be clear and identifiable. They were a crucial piece for the backup plan, the insurance policy he would be happy to cash in on.
Two birds; one plan.
A win-win for him.
He flipped her onto her stomach, pushed his knee down on her upper back, then held her face down into the sludge. He felt a minor, lethargic push back, gurgling, then stillness…
Life left quickly.
Easy come, easy go.
Initially he’d intended to dig her a grave. However, here in the wetlands, no shovel work would be required. He snapped off branches and arranged them over her body, then scooped up winter’s rot for the covering, blending her grave into the earth.
From muck to muck. He snickered.
He stood back, pleased with his work. Using the obscurity of the wetlands to do the burying worked well. And it wasn’t like hikers would be trekking through here at this time of year. Even if someone came by this remote area, the body shouldn’t be noticeable, given his rubble camouflage. Of course, spring weather might move shit around and expose the carcass. But surely hungry critters would feast on her and leave only remnants that would sink out of sight well before there’d ever be a full-out search. His imagination rolled on. If there were a hunt, they’d bring in dogs, volunteers, possibly even helicopters. He pictured himself watching the entire spectacle on TV. Undoubtedly the manhunt would be televised…
The event would call for some beer and popcorn.
His stomach growled, but dinner would have to wait, like maybe fifty or so miles from this place. He gathered up the water-soaked covering and made his way back to the van. The blanket would be tossed in some faraway Dumpster along with what he was wearing. A change of clothes couldn’t come too soon; he was soaked and freezing from the penetrating night air.
He scanned the backseat of his car to make sure he’d brought his duffel bag. He had. Then he remembered Stacey’s computer and suitcase in the back of the vehicle. By taking them, his plan was to make it appear as if she’d taken off somewhere, a last-minute kind of decision. Come to think of it, why not dump the bags right here? After he retrieved them, he slushed back to where she lay under the debris. For sure the heavier computer bag would slip down into the mud. Just to be certain the suitcase would follow, he found a few rocks to weigh it down. When he opened the case he spotted the purse he’d tossed in earlier, and then removed any sources of identification. The police would have to work harder to ascertain who she was, and making more work for the cops appealed to him. He cracked a grin.
On the ground, he found a spindly tree branch and dragged it along from the water’s edge to the door of his car, erasing his footprints.
He searched his pockets for his package of cigarettes, plucked one out with his lips, lit it, and sucked the nicotine into his lungs.
Satisfied, he headed for dinner.
Kera grabbed the remote and clicked off the TV. She wondered why she’d even turned it on. It was only March and she was already subjected to the crazy, no, nasty political ads that came with elections. She guessed the Republicans’ ability to spawn such bad candidates couldn’t hurt. It’d give Obama a better chance to win a second term, but to listen, once again, to conservatives use the gay community as bait was beyond aggravating.
She pushed a hairbrush through her thick, short hair, and then cased her cue stick. The jingle of keys, as she slipped them off the hook and opened the heavy, creaky wooden door, drew four large canine paws with nails that clicked against the metal staircase as the German/Rottweiler mix flew down and came to a halt at the door.
“Well, sounds like you were up in the lighthouse tower. Hoping to see ships come in?”
When she opened the door, the dog bounded out, took a quick pee, then came back, slurped Kera’s hand and stood next to her, ready. Kera scratched the dog behind her pointy, flapped-down ears inherited from the Rottweiler lineage, otherwise, she favored the German shepherd side of her roots.
“How about we go shoot some pool tonight? Vinny will be waiting for us.”
It was a cool spring evening and a chilly breeze blew off Lake Michigan. The lighthouse’s residence offered her a first shot at penetrating cold winds. This year’s past winter had been mild, and, except for this cool evening, spring had shown up early.
The residential quarters of the old—now automated—lighthouse suited her fine, actually better than fine. It was peaceful and as close to perfect as it could get. The red brick house had a great view of the Turtle River as it tumbled into the harbor of Lake Michigan. The place offered her an ideal refuge, even though Deidre, Kera’s identical twin sister, thought she’d become a hermit and called it a hideout .
Kera knew that Dee, the name most people called Deidre, understood Kera’s need for retreat, as much as anyone could who hadn’t personally experienced combat in the Iraq war. But Dee didn’t understand the intensity of her need for a getaway. Outside the safety zone of her sanctuary, the noise, bright lights, and people flitting from one place to another unnerved her. Kera obsessed about most everyone in her environment, where they were going and their motivations, and who, she frequently wondered, might be concealing a bomb. Commotion made her nervous, edgy, ready to pounce. Like a stalker, the nightmare of Iraq had followed her back to the States.
Kera whistled to Lakota to get in her Jeep—ragtop down—on their way to town.
* * *
The Out-and-About was a gay bar, the place where Kera had spent the majority of her time since coming home from Iraq almost three years ago. It was her second home and the only public place where her vigilance could stand down. The stone castle-like bar served up most of her lunches and dinners, as well as providing a place to be with her friends, hone her pool skills, and meet with her clients.
“Hey Ker, thought you two might not make it tonight.” Vinny Belsito sauntered over and held his arms open to the tail-wagging dog who jumped up and gave him a wet slurp.
Vinny had trained Lakota to be Kera’s service dog to help her deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder. Without Lakota, Kera’s quality of life wouldn’t be worth shit. Trained to check out Kera’s environment, the dog lessened her hyper-vigilant, knee-jerk reaction to life. Running her fingers through Lakota’s fur had a calming effect on her.
Kera set her cue case on a chair next to the pool table. “I wouldn’t miss our Thursday night pool tournament, Vinny. Hell, it’s one of the highlights of my week, and it’s one of the few events you’re on time for.”
“I function mostly on gay time, Ker, you know that.”
“Yup,” Kera laughed, “but I can count on you being here in a timely fashion for pool night.”
“Sometimes, not showing up is a good thing, at least for some people.” Vinny winked.
“True enough.” Kera winced. Last week her game had been a disaster—she’d missed easy shots. She thought it might have to do with the fact that she’d put too much time in at work and didn’t get enough alone time. But to be honest, her bad game was a result of a lack of concentration, brought about by that night’s imprudent mix—and amount—of alcohol and weed. When she was on a job, she used marijuana judiciously, just enough to keep functioning. Her weed usage was something she didn’t bring up to her therapist, who thought she took prescription meds. Kera preferred home remedies, like Lakota, Bell’s Ale and marijuana to prevent or diminish the nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks that snuck up on her and threatened to take her out of commission, and embarrass her.
“Shit, I was about ready to feed you to the fish last week,” Vinny said scornfully, while he pretended to box Lakota’s ears as she bounced against his chest with her front paws.
Vinny, a burly guy with tattoos plastered up one arm and down the other, had taken in Lakota as a stray. In the past he’d learned dog training under the tutelage of a well-known dog trainer.
Kera was surprised to see the manager behind the bar. “Hey Marcy,” she called, “Isn’t Ally working tonight?”
“Ally couldn’t make it in. Not sure why.” Marcy was dressed as a peasant—the entire staff dressed in medieval period garb of one sort or another.
“Okay, just wondering if she’s all right.” Kera opened her cue case.
“Couldn’t say, Kera. Darin took the call, but he would’ve told me if there was anything major.” Marcy went back to her mug-filling task.
“I know I’m overly superstitious, but I like Ally at the bar when we’re competing.” Vinny combed back his hair to get it out of his eyes. “Remember last week when we lost our second game? She’d taken the night off.”
Ever since Vinny had let his hair grow longer, halfway down to his shoulders, Kera had had an urge to grab a pair of scissors and chop it off. When she talked to people, it was important for her to see their eyes, even with people she knew and trusted. She didn’t think it was as big a deal to her before Iraq, but it was now. Anyway, she couldn’t figure out why he’d want to cover his face. He was a handsome guy, in a rugged sort of way.
Her thoughts returned to Ally. Kera had run into her just that morning, at the coffee shop, where Ally had mentioned that she’d see her tonight.
“By the way,” Vinny said, breaking her train of thought, “On my trip to the Detroit Gun and Knife Show I picked up a few pieces that might be of interest to you. You said you were looking.”
“I’m always looking, Vinny, but I’m broke right now, though I suppose I could come and window-shop. In fact, I’ll be getting paid next week for my last job.” She made a mental note to stop over at Vinny’s Gun and Knife Shop some morning on her way in to town.
Since she had earned her Private Investigator’s license last year, Kera had been pretty busy—busier than she wanted to be, and with crazy shit. Her latest weird case could have cost her license. She’d filed it away as the case of the purloined feline. She’d driven to Detroit to try and convince her client’s sister to give back the cat she’d taken. Kera’s retrieval had been successful, but dealing with the crazy cat burglar had been an over-the-top life experience. The thieving sister claimed the animal was hers—not because it’d been abused, but because God told her to take the cat when she’d been visiting Kera’s client. It wasn’t like Kera could have proven to the local cops that the cat snatcher didn’t own the mouser—nor did she think they’d care or get involved. So she had climbed in a window and repossessed the kidnapped tabby after the woman left the house. She’d located the cat in a bedroom designed for a newborn, decked out in baby clothes, as it snoozed in a crib under a musical mobile of dancing mice. On her way back home she ruminated over how life had taken her from the war in Iraq, searching for bombs and bad guys, to breaking into a house for a damned cat dressed like a baby. She’d derived a modicum of comfort from the knowledge that there weren’t any of her fellow soldiers around to witness her two-bit escapade.