Authors: Jess Lourey
Tags: #fiction, #mystery, #jess lourey, #mira, #murder-by-month, #cozy, #twin cities, #mn
Knee High by the Fourth of July
© 2007 by Jess Lourey.
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First e-book edition © 2010
E-book ISBN: 9780738717197
Book design and format by Donna Burch
Cover design by Ellen Dahl
Cover illustration © 2010 Carl Mazer
Editing by Connie Hill
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Woodbury, MN 55125
Manufactured in the United States of America
For Dr. Holly Hassel, my first and best editor.
First, I’d like to thank my poor TV reception. If not for a pitiable selection of channels, I would write much less. Second, I’d like to extend a heartfelt thanks to my lackluster social life. Because of those endless nights at home,
was able to see the light of day. Third, and most importantly, thank you to my mom for coming to watch the kids so I could write, thank you to my dad for keeping everything working in my house so I could concentrate on more important stuff, and big love to my children, who inspire me to evolve and grab all that life has to offer.
I’ve also been remiss in my earlier novels in not thanking the people of Battle Lake, who are good sports about the fun-poking and murder-creating I do in their beautiful town. If you’ve never been to Battle Lake, go. It’s worth the drive, and Chief Wenonga is just as sexy as you think he is.
It was the first
Thursday in July, the hottest month in Minnesota. The thermometer was busting my hump at a moist 86 degrees, and it wasn’t even 8 am. The Channel 7 news, the only station that came in clearly at my double-wide in the woods, was predicting the hottest July in history. The humid, sticky weather made the whole state feel like a greenhouse, or the inside of someone’s mouth. As a direct result, people who had to work were cranky, people on vacation were ecstatic, and crops were growing like a house on fire. Locals said that if the corn was knee high by the Fourth of July, it would be a bumper crop. We were two days shy of that date and the corn was already shoulder high on a grown man. That strangeness should have been a warning to us all.
I stepped out of the shower into the sauna of my bathroom, wrapped a towel around my wet hair, and crossed the house to flick on the morning news. The droplets of water on my naked body felt deliciously cool against the heavy morning air.
A phone call while the sun is still pinking the horizon never bodes well, particularly for someone like me who was lucky enough to have been within two feet of one fake corpse and two real ones in as many months. I let down my hair and rubbed it, stirring up the spicy smell of rosemary ginger shampoo.
I tossed the towel over the back of a chair and reached for a pair of tattered jean shorts.
I threaded the button fly and reached for a midnight blue tank top with a built-in shelf bra to rein in the booblets.
. My answering machine clicked over, and whoever was calling hung up.
Must not have been important
. I unclenched my shoulder blades and went to brush my teeth. I squeezed out a pea-sized glop of Tom’s of Maine cinnamon toothpaste, trickled a little water on it, and started scrubbing.
Shit. I ran through a list of people I knew who could be dead or hurt, of money I owed, and of anyone who might be mad at me.
The sigh came from the bottom of my soul. I was gonna have to answer that phone. A few years ago, I could have ignored it, but the older I got, the less reliable my denial mechanism became. I wondered what other cruel tricks my looming thirties had in store for me. That simultaneous wrinkles-and-pimples one was my favorite so far.
“Mira James, please.” The male voice had an East Coast inflection and a monotone delivery, as if the speaker were reading off a card.
“Hello, Ms. James!” I could almost see the exclamation point quivering in the air. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m good, thank you! Tell me, Ms. James, has love found you?”
I pulled the cordless phone back from my head, looked at it, found no hidden cameras, and pressed it back against my ear. “What’s this about?”
“It’s about helping you find love. Are you single or married?”
“Who is this? Are you asking me out?”
I heard a rustling of pages, a quiet second of reading, followed by tinny laughter. “Why no, Ms. James. I’m calling to find out if you’d be interested in joining Love-2-Love, the new online dating service from Robco. We have thousands already entered in the system, and one may be your soul mate!”
Cripes. I needed a soul mate like a monkey needed a bikini wax. “Yeah, no thanks.”
“Registering is free and easy, Ms. James! Save yourself from a lifetime of loneliness. Let me read you a testimonial from some of our newest customers.”
“Do you know it’s 7:30 am in Minnesota?”
“This is from Becky Rafferty, West Virginia: ‘Before Love-2-Love, dating was a tedious process that involved many hours of picking through unsavory men in the hopes of finding one good egg. Now, Love-2-Love chops that time in half!’”
“Nothing personal. I know this is just your job, but I’m really not interested.”
“Check out what
Alan Rotis of Pennsylvania had to say. ‘Like you, I was suspicious of online dating. That was before I met my beautiful wife, Lora. Thanks, Love-2-Love!’”
I wondered what hellacious karma debt had placed my name on this phone list. Had I smashed a bunny on my way home from work? Cut off a nun in traffic? Accidentally killed someone? Ooh. Maybe this was payback for not pursuing a relationship with the post-operative transsexual professor I had been set up with in May. Man, somebody somewhere was keeping a close eye on the score. “I have to go to work.”
Another riffling of papers. “I understand, Ms. James. You’re happy without love in your life, with no one to take romantic walks with at night or to smile into your eyes as you wake up. Could I give you our web address in case you change your mind and decide you don’t want to die alone?”
“Do you have pen and paper?”
I had my car keys in one hand and the doorknob in the other. “Yup.”
“OK, it’s www.love2love.com. The ‘2’ is written as a numeral.”
“Got it. Bye.”
“Thanks. And rememb—”
I clicked the “end” button, tossed the phone on the couch, let out my calico kitty, Tiger Pop, and Luna, my German Shepherd-mix foster dog, and was out the door. Nobody likes to be told they’re in for a lifetime of loneliness, but for me, the issue was especially painful. I had formally filed love in the junk drawer of my mind two months ago, right about the time my erstwhile boyfriend, Jeff Wilson, turned up murdered in the Pl–Sca aisle of the Battle Lake Library, a bullet hole drilled through his forehead. There’s nothing quite like finding your man dead at work to turn a gal off dating for a spell.
The downside to this out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy of mental health and romance was that when I finally found someone worth opening the junk drawer for, it was going to be messy. In the meanwhile, I really
happy with myself, and it didn’t hurt that I had a good, detachable showerhead and reliable water pressure. I also had been attending a Community Education class early Saturday mornings taught by Johnny Leeson, local horticultural hottie. The next class was called the Second Sowings of Lettuce and Beets, but what was more pressing was Johnny’s curling golden hair, strong hands, and the smell of sun-heated black dirt and spicy greens that followed him. Something about his organic quality turned me into an idiot in his presence, so I admired from a distance, keeping my junk drawer tightly closed.
When thoughts of Johnny weren’t enough to keep me company, I took emotional isolation to a whole new level with Chief Wenonga. Aah, the Chief. Twenty-three well-sculpted feet of dark alpha male forever guarding the shores of Battle Lake. He was the perfect man, if one overlooked the blatant racist stereotyping and the fact that he was a giant fiberglass statue. If he had been in the Love-2-Love system, I might have joined. The Chief visited many a dream of mine, all strong and silent, sporting a full headdress, six-pack abs on a half-naked body, tomahawk in one hand, and the other hand raised in a perennial “How.”
The Chief, or at least his statue, had been in Battle Lake for exactly twenty-five years this July. The Battle Lake Chamber of Commerce had originally commissioned the figure as a tribute to the flesh and blood Chief Wenonga, an Ojibwe leader who gave the town its name in 1795 in honor of a fierce battle with the Sioux. The Chief was my favorite part of summering in Battle Lake. Or at least that’s what I would call what I was doing if I were rich. Since I wasn’t, I called it house sitting for my friend Sunny and holding down one job running the Battle Lake Public Library and another as a reporter. The newspaper I worked for, the
Battle Lake Recall
, came out every Wednesday and sold for fifty cents.
Matter of fact, I had just gotten promoted and now wrote my own column, “Mira’s Musings,” which was a nice addition to the weekly recipe feature, “Battle Lake Bites,” that I also penned. My new column ran on the back page of the
. There was even a tiny black-and-white photo of me that ran with it. It was so fuzzy that my long brown hair looked dark gray, my freckled skin looked light gray, and my gray eyes looked black. It didn’t really matter because as far as I was concerned, no headshot was going to show my best qualities—my brain and my ass.
I was granted “Mira’s Musings” because news seemed to find me in Battle Lake, first in the shape of Jeff, whose lifeless body I discovered in the library in May, and then again in June when I uncovered the mystery of the disappearing jewels on the shore of Whiskey Lake. Ron Sims, the editor for the
, hadn’t asked for any specific content when he assigned me the weekly column ten days ago, but I assumed he wanted me to write about murder and money when I could find them and gossip and garage sales when I couldn’t.
It was because of this position as star reporter that I was on my way to the Chief Wenonga Days final planning meeting. Every July, to celebrate the man who had named the town and the coming of his statue a couple hundred years later, Battle Lake hosted a three-day festival. It was always scheduled the weekend closest to the Fourth of July so the town could double-dip on the tourists. Wenonga Days perennially included Crazy Days and a street dance on Friday; a kiddie carnival with turtle races, a parade, and fireworks on Saturday; and a bike race, pet and owner look-alike contest, 5K run, and all-town garage sale on Sunday. The planned revelry this year would be extraordinary, though, because the Chief statue was twenty-five years old. The festival happenings weren’t in the hands of the citizens of Battle Lake, however.
The Wenonga Days final planning meeting was only a formality designed to make the entire town feel involved without letting them actually have any say. Kennie Rogers, the town mayor and resident busybody, was the mastermind behind the festivities, and she wanted to keep it that way. I knew for a fact that she had organized the entire weekend last summer, including booking a country group for the street dance and getting local high school bands and organizations like the Girl Scouts signed up for the parade. Normally, she opened the final planning meeting to the public two weeks before Wenonga Days so that there was a semblance of town involvement without enough time to actually change anything. This year, however, Kennie had been out of town until late yesterday to receive some hush-hush training, and she refused to allow the Wenonga Days pretend planning to begin until she returned. I suppose I could have skipped the meeting, particularly because the paper wouldn’t come out until Wednesday, three days after Wenonga Days was over, but I had promised Ron I would cover it.
I sniffed at my armpits as I drove my rusty, light brown 1982 Toyota Corolla to the meeting in town and wondered if the unrefined rock deodorant I had picked up at Meadow Farm Foods outside of Fergus was going to hold back the floodgates. The lush hardwoods lining County Road 83 looked tropical, but there were no birds singing. It was too crazy hot. I propped my left foot on the top of my driver’s side door and splayed my blue-painted toenails, redirecting the tepid morning breeze pawing at my wet, half-combed hair. The other foot was holding the gas pedal at a constant sixty-two miles per hour as I navigated the snake curves of Whiskey Road with only my right hand on the wheel. This was the coolest I was going to get all day.
I pulled up to the stop sign at the intersection of County Roads 83 and 78. On my right was Larry’s grocery store, across the street was Stub’s Supper Club, and to the left was the old granary. I turned north on 78, also called Lake Street, and drove the two blocks to the Battle Lake Public Library. The yellow brick building was barely ten years old and an incongruity in a tiny town. William T. Everts, a man who made his fortune in the lumber industry and a beloved mainstay in Battle Lake until his death a decade ago, had bequeathed his entire estate to create it.
The library was located on one corner of Lake and Muskie. First National Bank, Area Lakes Dental, and a temporarily abandoned building that once housed Kathy’s Klassy Klothes occupied the other three corners. I had noticed some activity in Kathy’s Klassy windows lately, and word on the street was that soon a quilting shop—or maybe a kwilting shop—would occupy the building. Alongside each of these cornerstones were knick-knack and antique stores, a bakery, two hardware stores, a drugstore, a post office, a Lutheran church, and various service offices—chiropractor, accountant, real estate agent. It was a full-service small town with something for everyone.