Hi Dru Ann and all you LOVElies (see what I did there?).
Thanks for letting me (Shannon Baker) and Jess Lourey share a little taste of our characters’ days. Jess and I are globetrotting with our second Lourey/Baker Double Booked Blog Tour and we wouldn’t travel a mile without stopping at Dru Ann’s.
Jess’s newest in the laugh-out-loud Murder by the Month mystery, March of Crime, launched in September and my next Kate Fox mystery, Dark Signal, is slated for October 17th. (Pre-order!) Forge is releasing a .99 Kate Fox short story September 17th, but at the time of this writing, I don’t have a link, so I’ll put it in the comments. So here’s some Mira James (from Jess) and Kate Fox (from Shannon) playing dueling dumba**es. Who wins?
I shuffled the sheriff department budget worksheet pages for the billionth time. I’d calculated and recalculated and concluded I could afford a new computer to replace the antique on my desk that was as big as a two-ton boulder and about as efficient. Done with that chore, I checked email, picked up my pencil, dropped it on the desk and took the ponytail elastic from my hair. Put it back in my hair and grasped the pencil again.
When the phone rang, I nearly shouted for joy. Anything to break the monotony. “Sheriff.”
Marybeth, dispatcher extraordinaire, spoke in staccato. “Nine-one-one call from First National. Sounds like attempted robbery in progress.”
Holy moly. A real crime in Grand County. It took me less than five minutes to run from the courthouse to the bank.
Skeeter Duning stood on the polished pine floor, in the middle of the bank lobby. He held a gun like he might dangle a horse halter from his right hand. Faded jeans hung from skinny hips, greasy felt cowboy hat limp on his head, he looked like something from an Ace Reid comic.
Joanne, the gray-haired teller, stood behind the worn wood counter looking irritated. “He’s all yours, Kate.” Since this was a Tuesday afternoon, the branch manager would be in Broken Butte for the weekly regional meeting, leaving Joanne alone in the bank.
I kept my tone light. “Hey, Skeeter.”
His shoulders dropped even further and he didn’t raise his face to look at me.
I took slow steps his way, keeping my eyes on his gun. “Why don’t you take that pantyhose from your face and tell me what you’re up to.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“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.
But here’s the deal. I’d just found out that what I thought was a quiet restaurant patron sitting two stools down from me was actually a life-sized, realistic doll crafted by an elderly woman named Ida.
Battle Lake, right?
Still, I was considering his request when the restaurant’s door opened behind me.
Ron’s face dropped.
He was not happy to see who had just entered.
I swiveled to check it out.
And immediately regretted my decision.
* * * * * * * * * *
Skeeter’s sigh sounded like final surrender. He raised his gun hand and I closed my fingers on the handle of my Smith and Wesson.
Then I understood he wanted me to hold his revolver so he could lift his hat to peel off the pantyhose. I checked the cylinder. No bullets.
The bank’s phone rang and Joanne lifted her plucked eyebrows at me. “I’ve got to get that.”
I nodded and waited for Skeeter to mash his old hat back on his nearly bald head. I didn’t offer the gun back to him.
His chin sank to his chest. “Sorry to roust you from your business.”
I led him to the cracked leather couch under the front window and waited for him to sit. “I wasn’t busy. What’s going on?”
Sad eyes swam in his wrinkled face. “Welp, that ol’ caddy of Ava’s, you know the blue one?”
I knew. Skeeter saved for years to buy his wife that car. A ranch hand doesn’t earn much, so a Cadillac, even in the early 70’s would take a commitment.
Not sure I’d ever seen a face so sad. “Welp, the transmission went out. You know, Ava’s got the cancer, ain’t ’spose to last the year. She loves that car, calls it her baby. I just wanted to make sure she gets to ride in it until the end.”
Joanne mumbled into the phone and I hoped she wasn’t starting the rumor race about Skeeter.
* * * * * * * * * *
Battle Lake’s Mayor Kennie Rogers, she of the country-music name and the death-metal soul, famous far and wide for her thick make-up, outrageous clothing, questionable politics, fake southern accent, and far-fetched business ventures, was striding into the Stew. Today she appeared to be sporting an ensemble from the Ride Me Barbie collection, starting with a tiny plastic cowboy hat nestled in her crunchy platinum beehive and plastic Barbie boot earrings dangling from her lobes. The accessories would be ridiculous if they didn’t so beautifully accent her sheepskin coat and over a Western snap-front red shirt—currently more front than snap what with her ample bosoms pushing toward the light—and jeans so tight that her camel toe had spawned fingers. Bright pink stiletto cowboy boots finished off the outfit.
Whoo-boy. My roller coaster morning was taking another screeching dip.
It wasn’t her outfit, which I had to admire for its sheer commitment to a single message. Nope. It was that Kennie was one of those people who made your life harder simply by occupying the same space as you. In a special twist of fate, something about me intensified her life-hardening superpower. She sought me out like it was her job, always wanting to involve me in her money-making schemes, either as a customer or a partner.
Before you say “that doesn’t sound so bad,” here’s a sampling of the businesses: a reused marital aid company called “Come Again”; coffin tables (place your coffee cups on it now and your body in it later!); a home bikini waxing service; and her most recent, sales of a raspberry-flavored hair tonic that rumor had it was actually a veterinary-class sedative that caused baldness. I didn’t want to stick around to find out what was up next.
* * * * * * * * * *
I wanted to pat Skeeter’s hand or give him a hug, but I’m sheriff and that didn’t seem appropriate. “You know you can’t rob the bank to pay for your car repair.”
He slumped against the couch. “I couldn’t see no other way.” Ranch jobs didn’t offer 401k’s or pension packages. Skeeter and Ava would be getting by on social security. Proud as the old cowboy was, he wouldn’t allow anyone to have a benefit pancake feed or even a collection can set out at the Conoco.
Joanne hung up and watched us from behind her counter. I couldn’t read her expression.
I thought of my budget, the new computer I wouldn’t be getting next year. “It happens I’ve got some odd jobs that need taken care of around the courthouse. If you’d be willing to help me out for a week or so, I’d be grateful.”
Skeeter didn’t move for a few seconds, then he sat up straighter. “I guess I could see my way free to do that.”
I reached out to shake his hand.
His grip was firm and when he let go he smiled, showing the gap where the mama cow had kicked out a tooth. “Can I have my gun back?”
I stood and we walked out together. “I’ll hang on to it for a while.”
I love Grand County and I’m settling into my new job, but I’d bet a rhubarb pie (I hate rhubarb) that no other county has weirder crimes.
* * * * * * * * * *
I waved at Ron, who was still regarding Kennie like a child watches an incoming spoonful of cough syrup, pitching my voice low so as not to draw Kennie’s attention. “Thanks for the coffee, Ron, but I need to head out.”
Kennie hadn’t noticed us in the rear of the restaurant yet. She was working the crowd near the front door. I’d never been more grateful for the Turtle Stew’s side entrance. I could sneak out unseen! I turned toward the rear exit, a satisfied smile pinching my cheeks. Dang if I wasn’t going to salvage this morning.
Kennie’s southern-tinged yell drew the attention of the handful of patrons who hadn’t yet noticed her Western-themed resplendency. I shrank into myself, tossing all my eggs into the “she can’t see me if I don’t look at her” basket.
“Stay where you are, honey!” she continued. “I have a proposition for you.”
My stomach dropped below Battle Lake’s water table. I spun on my heels, committed to sprinting if need be. Unfortunately, I turned so fast that I collided with the nightmarish doll. Ida’s freakshow toppled toward the floor.
“I’m so sorry!” I hollered at the world, watching the crapfest play out in slow motion. My physical reflexes kicked in almost as soon as my apologetic ones, and I dove toward the doll, trying to catch it before it fell. I slipped a hand under it a nanosecond before it hit the floor. My plan was to keep it from smacking in case there were any breakable parts. Instead, surprised by the weight and density of the doll, I found myself falling along with the human puppet.
Something primal recoiled as I plummeted with the doll, a sickly-sweet smell causing my flight response to kick in, though I was off balance and powerless to flee. The doll hit first, with the weight and slap of a side of frozen beef. I tumbled on top immediately after, knocking her akimbo in my effort to not land directly on her.
The doll’s hat and wig went flying, and the coffee cup she’d been holding crashed to the floor. After a collective gasp, the restaurant went deathly silent, everyone watching me scramble to balance myself and fix this mess.
Something was shrieking at me to run, something dark and terrible and slimy, but the terror was so great, so enormous, that it couldn’t get ahead of my mouth, which was still trying to negotiate the social faux pas of tumbling the life-sized doll. “Don’t worry! I’ll put her back just like I found her!”
I gathered the wig and hat, planning to slam them back onto the doll and hoist her back onto the stool before the other patrons had a chance to process what was happening. That’s when the terror caught up to me, silencing me, crashing me finally, fully into the moment.
My slack-jawed horror was reflected in the faces of every person in that restaurant.
They were staring at the doll, their mouths agape.
I followed their horrified gazes.
The only sound I could make was a greenish oof as my heart plummeted.
What had been sitting on that stool all morning wasn’t a doll at all.
When she’d tumbled to the ground, her China doll mask had slipped enough to reveal gray human flesh underneath the macabre porcelain.
I saw a hand reach forward to remove the mask. When the cold porcelain shocked my system, I became aware that the hand was mine, and it was working without my permission. A gentle tug, and the mask was free.
Underneath was a human corpse, female, her icy cold death stare pointed at the drop ceiling, her mouth in a tight angry rictus as if she’d died yodeling.
The mask dropped from my numb hands, crashing to the ground and shattering into white and red shards.
That’s when the screaming started.
We are each giving away three books on the Lourey/Baker Double-Booked Tour. For every comment you make along our tour stop, you’ll get another entry in the contest. Don’t be shy; we love talking to you.
September 2 – Mysterious Musings
September 5 – Janice Hardy
September 7 – The Creative Penn
September 9 – Write to Done
September 12 – Wicked Cozy Writers
September 20 – Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog
September 21 – There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room
September 23 – Femmes Fatales
September 24 – Writer Unboxed
September 25 – Dru’s Book Musings
September 27 – Do Some Damage
October 3 – Terry Ambrose
October 12 – Jungle Red Writers
About the authors
Shannon Baker is the author of the Kate Fox mystery series (Tor/Forge). Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, Kirkus says, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” She also writes the Nora Abbott mystery series (Midnight Ink), featuring Hopi Indian mysticism and environmental issues. Shannon makes her home in Tucson where she enjoys cocktails by the pool, breathtaking sunsets, a crazy Weimeraner, and killing people (in the pages of her books). She was voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 and 2017 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.
Jess Lourey (rhymes with “dowry”) is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.” She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft’s Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 “Rewrite Your Life” TEDx Talk. March of Crime, the 11th book in her humorous mystery series, releases September 2017. You can find out more at www.jessicalourey.com.
All comments are welcomed.