Authors: Jess Lourey
Tags: #fiction, #mystery
August Moon: A Murder-By-Month Mystery
© 2008 by Jess Lourey.
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First e-book edition © 2010
E-book ISBN: 978-07387-1710-4
Book design by Donna Burch
Cover design by Ellen Dahl
Cover illustration © 2007 Carl Mazer
Editing by Connie Hill
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For Jen, who treats me like her little sister
even when I don’t deserve it.
As I brushed my
hair for the seventh time, I made a deal with myself. If Johnny knocked on my door tonight, I would open up to him like a lilac on a golden May morning. If he didn’t show, I was packing it up and moving back to Minneapolis to join a nunnery or finish my grad program and become a dried-up, cat-collecting, fist-shaking, asexual English professor. No one could claim I hadn’t given Battle Lake a chance, not after what I’d been through the last three months. But oh, did I hope that Johnny would do right by me tonight.
While I waited, I tried reading an old copy of
magazine that I had recycled from the library, but I didn’t even have a sufficient attention span to follow Christopher Hitchens’ latest rant. A
rerun on my grainy TV was no more engaging. I settled on spending most of the early night beaming at my animals. Johnny Leeson was coming to my double-wide tonight!
My long dark hair was loose and natural. Except for the wisp of mascara around my gray eyes and shiny, honey-flavored gloss on my lips, I was makeup free. I didn’t want to do the Mary Kay bait-and-switch, where you are all curled hair, smoky eyes, and sultry lips at the beginning of the make-out session and scary, oven-baked clown face at the end. With me, what you saw was what you got, which might explain why there weren’t a lot of men seeing and getting in my life. Johnny had spent time with me at my worst, though, from inarticulate and dorky to bruised and battered, and he had still asked to come over tonight. I hoped our transition from friends to lovers would be a smooth one. I had tried the relationship conversion before and found it to be like that moment when you stroll onto the dance floor and shift from walker to dancer—if you think about it too much, you mess it all up.
I watched anxiously through the kitchen window for his headlights to appear down the driveway and pushed open all the windows on the back of the house so I would hear his car if I didn’t see him approach. I breathed in deep the spicy woodsmoke-and-zinnias scent of Minnesota in July and listened to the clock tick a happy beat. Johnny Leeson was going to be with me tonight! I moved from the couch to the kitchen table and then to the edge of my bed, where I tried reading a book. When the clock ticking began to sound a little too much like Chinese water torture, I slid a CD onto my stereo. I blipped through Sting, the Indigo Girls, and Gillian Welch before I figured Norah Jones would convey the desired attitude of suave aloofness and cool availability that I was after.
The moody jazz, however, soon became monotonous, and then taunting, as the minutes ticked off the clock and fell to the floor like gravestones. At first, I consoled myself by recalling that Johnny had simply said “tonight,” and not given a specific time. Tonight means different things to different people. I kept my optimism revved for nearly an hour after that before I moved on to worrying. Johnny was a decent guy, and he would have called to cancel if he could have. By eleven p.m., however, I was darkly pissed.
I stabbed the “stop” button on my CD player and blew out the beeswax candles that had been melting toward extinction. Apparently, Johnny had had second thoughts. Fine. That’s fine. A romantic evening with him probably would have had a terrible ending anyhow, with me discovering that he was a lousy lover, or a collector of fingernail clippings.
That’s what I was telling myself as I walked past my front door, angrily ripping off the cute rainbow T-shirt I had chosen just for the occasion, the one that made me look like I had boobs. When, I wondered fiercely, would interactions with men stop being excruciating experiences I had to learn from, instead of nurturing relationships that I could grow in? I rubbed itchy tears from my eyes, angry for even getting my hopes up. I should have known from the start. Relationships and me went together as well as dark chocolate and sauerkraut. A cloister loomed in my future, or maybe a job teaching English at a rural technical college.
That’s when the first knock came. I jumped away from the door and yanked my T-shirt over my head. I hadn’t heard or seen a car. Then came a second knock, and my heart and loins did a mighty leprechaun kick. The person on the other side of this door was going to decide whether I returned to Minneapolis/St. Paul to pursue a thrilling career in the English language arts, or stayed in Battle Lake, wrapped in the loving arms of Mr. John Leeson.
Instead of waiting for the third knock, I ripped the door open, naked hope in my eyes. The hope quickly turned to shock, and then confusion. Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the body in front of me. This was Battle Lake, after all. Anything can happen here, and it usually does.
“Kennie?” At first I thought she had gotten in a paintball fight, but then I realized she had been crying so hard that her bountiful makeup was running riot over her features. See? Oven-baked clown face finds the habitual makeup wearer every time. You’re better off facing the world with an honest mug.
“Yeah.” She pushed her way past me, tripped over Luna, my now-growling dog, and didn’t give my cat, Tiger Pop, a glance. If she had checked him out, I’m pretty sure she would have seen he was smiling. He likes drama. “What you got to drink?”
Oh, oh. The only thing worse than Kennie without an accent was Kennie on a bender. I had gotten to know the mayor of Battle Lake pretty well over the past five months. She was not your average west-central Minnesota woman—fake Southern accent, tight clothes, cosmetics applied with a putty knife, crispy blonde hair, and a controlling streak that would make Martha Stewart blush. The fake accent was what set her apart from the crowd. Rumor had it she was spooning Gary Wohnt, the local police chief, but I wasn’t much for gossip. All I knew for sure was that Kennie was two clicks away from crazy, and somehow she made it work.
“I think there’s some vodka in the cupboard over the fridge.” Think, my ass. I had bought two liters of Absolut last week, after I had lurched over my third dead body in as many months. I had managed to save half the second bottle, but only by supplementing it with wine. When relocating to Battle Lake last March by request of my good friend Sunny, who needed a house- and dog-sitter while she flitted off to Alaska with her mono-browed lover, my goal had been to take a life timeout—get sober, rest, reprioritize—and then launch myself back into the mix with both fists swinging. A small town is the perfect place to do that, right? Ha! Welcome to Battle Lake, Minnesota, where the women are churchgoers, the men like to hunt, and the body count is above average.
On the surface, Battle Lake was picturesque. You could reach it on a straight shot up Interstate 94 and a little jog north. The journey took about three hours from Minneapolis, and you’d swear it was worth every minute of that drive when you crested that last hill and spotted the red-topped water tower, tree-lined Lake Street, and wide-open, smiling faces. The town was packed with antique and knick-knack shops, an art gallery, a full-service drugstore, and its very own accountant, health clinic, municipal liquor store, dentist, chiropractor, and law firm. In the summer, there was even a gingerbread shed right off the main drag where you could buy vegetables on the honor system, leaving your folded dollars in the cash box. People didn’t lock their doors in Battle Lake, and if you went in the ditch, you’d have someone pulling over to help you before you even got out of the car.
The downside was that everyone in town would know you had slipped in the ditch just as quick. Plus, you could only get two channels on your TV, and short of counting dead bodies and drinking, there wasn’t much to do. I had my gardening, of course, and two jobs, one as the librarian for the Battle Lake Public Library, open 10–5 Monday through Saturday, and the other as the on-call reporter and regular columnist for the
Battle Lake Recall
, which came out every Wednesday and sold for fifty cents a copy. I was horribly underqualified to run a library, but a series of calamitous events in May had pushed me into a promotion. Mrs. Berns, the local bawdy old lady, helped me by shelving books and checking out patrons, and we limped along just fine at the library.
I wrote two columns for the
. One was “Battle Lake Bites,” and it featured a regional recipe each week. The other column was cleverly titled “Mira’s Musings,” and contained updates on local events. You wouldn’t think that would be an edge-of-your-seat affair in a town of 797 people, but you would be wrong. I had just composed a doozy of an article about the kidnapped Chief Wenonga and Big Ole statues, the former a twenty-three-foot fiberglass sex bomb that normally resided directly off the western shore of Battle Lake, and the latter a pasty, twenty-eight-foot fiberglass Norwegian “warrior” with a skirt, who was supposed to live in Alexandria, Minnesota, but who had disappeared along with the Chief. Call it a run-of-the-mill July for this whacked-out town.
However, despite the lethal mix of quirky locals and mischievous mayhem that made up Battle Lake, I had been eking out my place in the town. People waved to me on the streets, I knew where to find a good cup of coffee and some killer Tator Tot hotdish, and both my jobs centered around reading and writing, the two consistent loves of my life. And I had been deliciously excited to make a little extra room for Johnny Leeson, local hottie. I didn’t normally go for the Scandinavian type, but his dirty blonde hair was curly thick, his eyes were so blue I swear I could see waves in them, and he had these tanned, muscular hands perfect for pulling you close for a brook-no-objections, Harlequin-romance-cover, marauding-pirate kiss. Or so I had imagined, during many a long hot shower.
Better than his looks, though, Johnny was smart. He was a local who had gone on to earn a B.S. in horticulture and been accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s doctoral program in same. He had been visiting his parents this past spring, set to start grad school in the fall, when his dad had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Johnny stayed around to help his mom take care of his dad, and after his father died, to help his mom adjust and get back on her feet. He was making the best of his current life—working at the nursery, teaching Community Ed gardening classes, and playing around with a local band. Oh, and making pants wet everywhere he went.
Johnny would be embarrassed if he knew how many chicks in Battle Lake dreamed about him. I had sworn I wasn’t going to be one of them. Nature had facilitated this questionable endeavor by turning me into a stuttering idiot in Johnny’s presence. I had been safe until we ended up working together last week to find the Chief Wenonga statue. Johnny’s deep blues had stared hard into my core, his vibrating cell phone had thrummed between us, and his beautiful cupid’s bow of a mouth had asked if he could come over to my place. Tonight. And instead of consummating those plans, I was looking at the ass of a forty-something woman digging into my panic-attack cupboard for the last bottle of vodka.
“Why are you wearing bike shorts?”
“I was exercising when I got the news.” Kennie huffed as she pushed herself off my countertop, unscrewed the silver Absolut cap, and took a swig. She critically surveyed my green and white, pre-fabricated kitchen as she swallowed. “I never liked these modular homes. One strong breeze and you’re all of a sudden living in Douglas County.” She fingered a hole in the wall, left over from a party a few summers back. “The walls aren’t even a quarter inch thick. Would you look at this?”
I was grateful for the distraction, as I had been trying to look anywhere but at the giant moose knuckle spray-painted between her thighs, begging for attention. Some genius had apparently decided that sewing padding into bike shorts would make for a more comfortable ride. Unfortunately, it also made Kennie look like she had a fast-rising loaf of bread baking in the front of her shiny-tight pants.
“Maybe you want to sit down?” I asked, pulling out a chair. She shrugged and plopped herself into the straight-backed wicker kitchen seat. I sat across from her, relieved to have a table between my eyes and her privates. Too bad the table was glass-topped. I slid the fruit bowl over to block my view of her down below and snatched away the vodka, no pun intended.
“Let’s start from the beginning. You were exercising when you got
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So why’d you come over?”
Her face screwed up. I thought she was going to burp, but then she started sobbing in loud, horsy snorts and seized the vodka bottle back. “It’s Gary.”
“Gary Wohnt? Is he okay?”
“Someone else,” she said, between sobs. Her makeup shifted another level.
“No! Gary’s found