March of Crime, page 1
March of Crime © 2017 by Jess Lourey.
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First e-book edition © 2017
E-book ISBN: 9780738753355
Book format by Cassie Kanzenbach
Cover design by Ellen Lawson
Cover illustration by Carl Mazer
Editing by Nicole Nugent
Midnight Ink is an imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Lourey, Jess, author.
Title: March of crime : a murder-by-month mystery / Jess Lourey.
Description: First Edition. | Woodbury, Minnesota : Midnight Ink,  |
Series: A murder-by-month mystery ; #11
Identifiers: LCCN 2017012756 (print) | LCCN 2017022005 (ebook) | ISBN
9780738753355 (ebook) | ISBN 9780738752631 (print)
Subjects: LCSH: Murder—Investigation—Fiction. | GSAFD: Mystery fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3612.O833 (ebook) | LCC PS3612.O833 M37 2017 (print) |
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017012756
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To my mom, who is my most vocal supporter and
a wizard-level copy editor. Grammar nerds rule!
“Convince people that Otter Tail County is safe.”
Shouldn’t have been too hard, what Ron Sims was asking. Otter Tail County was plop in the heart of gorgeous northern Minnesota. From the air, it appeared more lakes than land, a fistful of sapphires scattered across an emerald field. On the ground, at least in March, it smelled like melting snow and rich black dirt. Most residents didn’t lock their doors, and they’d be sure to stop and ask if you were okay if they happened upon you stalled on the side of the road. Five bucks at a local café bought you coffee, juice, bacon, toast, and eggs done any way. Kids sold lemonade on corners come summer, about the same time of the year as the turtle races started back up. Norman Rockwell surely had held the area gently in mind when he painted his folksy vision of America.
Convince people that Otter Tail County is safe.
Not only should Ron’s demand have been a slam dunk, as editor, owner, and publisher of the Battle Lake Recall, his request was reasonable. It’s not like he was, say, my gynecologist requesting that I spin a shiny PR web across a whole county. I’d written articles for his newspaper since I’d relocated to Battle Lake, Minnesota, one year ago this month. I was known mostly for my weekly, passive-aggressive “Battle Lake Bites” recipe column, but there was room to expand. Writing one positive Otter Tail County article a week was well within my ability and job description.
As a decided plus, Ron was offering to pay me extra to punch out the PR column, and I needed the money. Bad. I’d taken a pay ding at the library to help it stay afloat after the county budget was slashed, and it looked like another cut was coming soon. The powers that be had threatened to fold us into Fergus Falls’ larger library if we didn’t trim our speck of a budget even further. Taking more out of my salary would bury me under poverty wages. I currently made side money as an odd-jobber for a local lawyer, but that cheddar wasn’t enough to cover a modest plate of nachos. The only bonus was that the Girl Friday work for the attorney shambled me closer to obtaining my private eye license, a goal that required approximately a gazillion hours of supervised work.
Altogether, I made enough to stay afloat if I didn’t treat myself to luxuries like, say, fresh fruit or dental floss.
This March, though, I wanted to do more than scrape by. I wanted to save a nice egg so I could treat Johnny Leeson to a romantic vacation. He’d been my #1 for months now, a Greek god sculpted of steel and drizzled with honey, his smile guaranteed to weaken my knees and tingle my tidbits, his strong fingers magic at locating my shivery spots. We’d been through a lot, he and I, most of it consisting of crises I manufactured. Crises that were punctuated by, um, unexpected outside events.
Last month had been the worst.
Last month, my heart was shredded. My beautiful, wholehearted, goofy friend Jed had been murdered on a train ride to Oregon, right in front of my eyes, trying to save my life. He had been one of the last innocents, a pure puppy ball of love and kindness. I’d slept only in fits since I lost him, images and dreams of Jed playing across the back of my eyelids. Some of them were terrible, gray with guilt, his hands slipping through mine as he fell screaming to his death. Others were bright bits of his life, so real that some mornings I would wake up thinking he was still alive, a smile on my face.
And then I’d remember.
Johnny had been by my side ever since, nearly living at my place, and as much as my fear-brain was screaming at me to run, to end the relationship before it exploded on its own, my love-brain told me to stay put and cultivate gratitude. It can get seriously noisy in my head, yeah?
For once, though, I was listening to my love-brain. It convinced me that because Johnny was leaving tomorrow for a week in Wisconsin, I should plan a getaway for when he returned. Something romantic, just the two of us, to show him how much I loved him and that I appreciated all the thoughtful gestures he made for me. All I had to do was come up with a destination and the money to cover it.
Cue Ron, and his offer.
If you’re keeping score, his request was reasonable, appropriate, and well-timed.
But here’s the thing.
Not even counting Jed, I’d stumbled across a dozen murdered corpses, at an average of one a month, since I’d moved to Otter Tail County.
I don’t think a single one of the deceased would argue that the county was safe.
Of course, they might argue that the problem was me and not this neck of God’s country. Before I moved to Battle Lake a year ago, the whole area was sweet and sleepy with a nearly nonexistent homicide rate. The only problems they’d encountered were of the small-town variety, like people driving their lawnmowers to the bar so they wouldn’t get a DWI on the way home, or, if the rumors were true, your occasional Peeping Tom.
The alarming murder
To be fair, though, before I’d arrived, I’d never come across a single corpse, if we don’t count driving past the odd woodland creature taking a pancake nap on the highway. Sure, my dad was officially deceased, but I’d had nothing to do with that. Besides, his funeral had been closed casket. A career alcoholic, he’d killed a family and himself in a head-on collision the summer before my junior year of high school. The situation wasn’t cleanly murder or suicide, just a sad, horrible mess that made my mom and me as popular as goose poop in my hometown of Paynesville.
I ditched that wide spot on the map the second I graduated high school and shimmied up the road, landing in Minneapolis. Enrollment at the University of Minnesota led to a BA in English. I also waited tables, made terrible dating choices, and applied for my own career in alcoholism. When that didn’t pan out like I’d hoped, I signed up for graduate school, possibly one of the first good choices of my adult life. I was a few classes in when I caught my musician boyfriend, heretofore known as Bad Brad, giving flesh horn lessons to another woman.
I packed up and hit the road once more.
Battle Lake was the only light that beckoned. My friend Sunny, a Battle Lake native, was traveling to Alaska to be with Dean, her unibrow lover. She needed someone to house-sit her doublewide on the outskirts of the tiny town. I took over her life, including adopting her dog, a German Shepherd mix named Luna. The house-sitting was only supposed to last through the summer, but in the unlikeliest of outcomes, I’d found a place in Battle Lake. I loved living on Sunny’s slice of heaven. The prefab house was the perfect size for me, Luna, and Tiger Pop, my gender-fluid Calico kitty. Several picturesque outbuildings added charm to the land, and in the summer, I cultivated a nice-sized garden right outside my door. On the opposite side, the silvery surface of Elbow Lake winked at me when it was warm and offered a glassy ice-skating spot in the winter.
Besides the natural beauty of my home, as the town’s head librarian (at least until we found someone qualified to take over) and a columnist for the newspaper, I was putting my English degree to good use. As a super bonus, I, a woman whose only consistent type had been “fixer-upper,” had fallen hardcore for the aforementioned Johnny Leeson, a guy who was most certainly too good for messed-up me.
Otter Tail County had turned out to be weirdly perfect.
Except for those dozen dead bodies, of course.
The first corpse was my murdered lover. I literally stumbled over his body in the library last May. Next came a nasty surprise I discovered sealed inside a safe in June. You guessed it—another dead body. This was followed by a scalped man I found in a cabin in July, a religious cult I uncovered along with a handful of corpses in August, and … you get the picture, right? A murder a month, for nearly a year. That’s why making this slice of the earth pie appear safe and welcoming was tougher than it looked.
Maybe the problem wasn’t Otter Tail County.
But that doesn’t mean it was me, either.
Maybe the problem was me in Otter Tail County. And now Ron Sims was handing me an opportunity to rectify the situation by writing an ongoing puff piece to end all puff pieces: weekly features on the beauty, culture, and safety that was Otter Tail County. He’d asked me to start this very week with a survey of the most popular community education classes the region offered: a bridge club, water aerobics, mountain climbing for cowards, a cooking class, and finally, yoga. Was this column falling into my lap a gift from karma, offering me a chance to even the score? After all, other than its general corpsiness, Otter Tail County had been good to me.
“Exactly what will you pay me to write these articles?”
Ron set down his coffee cup. The mug was old school white porcelain, perfectly in keeping with the ’50s diner atmosphere of the Turtle Stew. The Stew’s atmosphere wasn’t a million-dollar, modern-trying-to-look-retro ’50s diner, by the way. The building had genuinely not been updated since the middle of the century. It still housed a pie case by the cash register. The counter was lined with upholstered stools, two of which Ron and I were currently occupying. We could have chosen a red Naugahyde booth on the perimeter of the diner or a particle board table in the center if they weren’t all crammed with the buzzing morning rush. No matter where you sat in the Stew, though, you were guaranteed cozy food that tasted like home and took four hours to digest.
Ron introduced his sentence with a grunt. “What am I paying you to write the Bites column?”
“Twenty bucks a pop, cash.”
He shook his head. “Jesus.”
“I know.” I swirled a generous pour of half and half into my coffee. I liked it creamy, not sweet. “You told me I was lucky to get any money for it.”
He had the decency to appear sheepish as he shrugged. “None of us thought you’d last long. I didn’t want to fuss with paperwork.”
I nodded empathetically. I hadn’t thought I’d be here this long, either. “If you want me to take on another column, one with extensive research involved, you need to make me official. Put me on payroll, two-fifty a week, plus a travel budget.”
He tipped back another chug of his black coffee, his expression landing somewhere between “thoughtful” and “testicle cramp.” The clank and scurry of the Turtle Stew’s breakfast crowd held us in a pocket, a bacon-and-toast scented cloud of stillness. Despite an overpowering urge to fill the silence between us with nonsense words, a bad habit of mine when I was anxious, I held my tongue. Ron might appear to be a disheveled middle-aged man with a penchant for energetically and publicly making out with his wife, drinking off-brand cola, and scratching himself in places that you should wash your hand after touching (he didn’t), but I wasn’t fooled. He’d proven his intelligence too many times to disregard. He knew I’d do the work for less money.
He was also kind, though I’d promised him I wouldn’t let anyone else in on that.
“I dunno about two-fifty,” Ron finally said. He signaled for a coffee refill. “That’s twelve thousand a year. That’s more than my wife makes.”
As office manager, ads specialist, and layout supervisor, his wife was the only other on-the-books employee of the Recall. I had no doubt she made less than twelve thousand dollars a year. I also knew Ron made significantly more.
I tasted my coffee. Still too bitter. I tipped more cream into my cup. “You should pay her more, not me less. I have a degree.”
“An English degree. Not worth five cents on the dollar.”
Ouch. But at length the truth will out. “I know all the movers and shakers in town.”
He snorted. “That’s because you find dead bodies. You’re less of an ambassador, more of an undertaker.”
I shrugged to cover a twitch. “I know the Recall’s procedures. You wouldn’t have to train me.”
“The job is easy. A monkey could do it.”
Boy, was he slinging the truth arrows. This man could negotiate. Well, so could I. “I’m not going below two hundred fifty a week. If it’s that easy, hire someone off the street to write the pro–Otter Tail column. Heck, you could make it a package deal and throw in my ‘Battle Lake Bites’ feature. Maybe this woman is interested?”
I hooked my thumb at the quiet lady two stools down. She’d been sitting there since before I’d arrived. That commitment to a seat wasn’t unusual in a small town. The older residents treated the cafes like social clubs, setting up camp for a morning or an afternoon to hear the latest news, sharing lemon bars and decaffeinated coffee with whoever passed through. Usually, I recognized all the old-timers. Not this woman. Her white hair was hanging in her face, somewhat disheveled under her hat, and she’d been cradling the same cup in her gloved hands since I’d noticed her. I was growing worried and figured drawing her into the discussion would serve my negotiations but also allow me to check on her. She might not be well.
I pushed his pointer finger down and lowered my voice. “Don’t be rude.” My cheeks warmed. I hated to make other people uncomfortable.
Ron didn’t take a hint. He pounded a fist on the counter and called toward the owner of the Turtle Stew, who was behind the counter brewing a fresh pot of coffee. “Doris! Mira thinks that Ida’s girl over there would like to write for the Recall. What do you think?”
Doris, a tired bowling pin of a woman who baked the best hotdish this side of my own mother tossed a glance where Ron was pointing.
I knew Doris only superficially. She was always at the Stew, her appearance somewhere between Eeyore and Droopy, bags big enough to pack resting under her eyes. If it was slow, she’d talk your ear off. Same if it was busy. In neither case would she ever smile. But when her eyes landed on the elderly woman who was the subject of our conversation, Doris’ face lit up. “I’ve had some bad staff here, the likes would steal, or not show up for their shift, or even spit in people’s food. I could tell you stories and will in a minute, but my point is, I know what a rotten employee looks like. That one on the stool? She’d be the worst you’ve ever hired.”
Ron laughed agreeably.
My blush crawled all the way to my scalp. I don’t know if I felt worse for the woman—Ida’s girl? She was eighty if she was a day, but that didn’t mean she was hard of hearing—or for me. It sucked not to be in on the joke. I kept my voice low. “I don’t know what’s so funny.”
Doris dumped the grounds, grabbed the full coffeepot, and took off toward the main floor of the restaurant, clearing plates as she went. “She’s a doll,” she said as she walked behind me.
I scowled, flashing side eye at the woman on the stool. “I thought you said she’d be a terrible employee.”
Doris shook her head, chuckling. “She’s an actual doll. Sewn together? A toy, not a person. Ida Gilbertson over at the Senior Sunset is putting them up all over town. It’s a pet project. She’d be happy to learn she’d fooled you.”
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