Some things are so much fun, they bear repeating two days in a row. Do you like a great mystery, some suspense and to be on the edge of your seat? Cool, because I have a great book for you. This is the second JJ Graves mystery by Liliana Hart and it looks positively delicious. The first, Dirty Little Secrets came out last year and offered up a double whammy of being set in Virginia (yes, I miss the state I lived in for more than a decade), along with all the elements I love in a mystery–a great heroine, gritty details, and a fantastic mystery. You can find out more about Liliana at her website and read on for a great excerpt from A Dirty Shame!
J.J. Graves is back in Bloody Mary, but she’s a long way from feeling at home. Between her bodily scars from being the target of a murderer and the emotional scars left by her parents, she doesn’t know who she can trust. But death doesn’t stop for anyone.
The first murder is grisly. The second even more so. And though things are shaky between them, she and her best friend, Jack, have no choice but to join forces and find the killer. Because the life of someone they love dearly hangs in the balance.
There was something about the dark.
The way it surrounded completely—a gentle embrace that comforted with a soft sigh and a delicate touch. The way it could intimidate and threaten, so the blackness was almost debilitating.
The dark wielded power.
But to me, the darkness was a place to hide—a place to bury my face when it was covered with tears, and a place to huddle protectively when the nightmares came lurking. And they always lurked. The darkness was a place to escape when life invariably turned to shit.
My name is J.J. Graves, and the darkness had become my friend over the past months. So it seemed fitting that I wait until that blackest time of the night to slink my way back home—to the place that had left a bitter taste in my mouth and sweat coating the palms of my hands. To sneak back into the town that had raised me and gossiped about me with equal fervor.
I jerked at the wheel of the old Suburban and pulled to the side of the road on the outskirts of Bloody Mary, Virginia. I lowered my head to the steering wheel and took a few desperate breaths that did nothing to relieve the tightness in my chest. The windows steamed slightly and the sound of harsh breathing echoed in my ears. I tried to ignore the pounding inside my skull and the way the heater couldn’t quite chase away the chills that wracked my body, but it was no use.
“Come on, Jaye. You can do this.”
My voice was still hoarse and low, though the pain had been gone for several weeks. The doctors said to be patient. That things would return to normal the more I let myself heal. But I wondered how anything would ever be normal again when all I could think about was the blood that had coated the floors of my childhood home—violent splatters that gleamed like the black center of a Burmese ruby as death tried to claim me. I still heard the deafening sound of the gunshot and felt the blood that rained down on my skin like scalding tears in my dreams. It was easy to forget how hot fresh blood was. It was always cold by the time I had my hands in a body on my table.
Jeremy Mooney had taken something from me that day, when he’d had his hands wrapped around my throat. I couldn’t say exactly what it was he’d taken. I only knew I was different now. I’d watched him murder a man I’d been intimate with—a man I’d told myself I could love if I only allowed it. Guilt and self-loathing ate at me because I hadn’t known if I could really be in love with Brody, while feelings I couldn’t put into words were forming for Jack—the man I’d called my best friend. The guilt still ate at me. And I’d been avoiding Jack because of it.
I didn’t love easy, and honestly I wasn’t even sure I knew what love was. I’d thought my parents had loved me. But I’d been wrong there.
Terror had crippled me after my brush with death. And I hated that about myself. I’d never been a coward. Had never been one to hide from a scandal or the terrible things that life seemed hell bent on throwing in my path. Lord knows I’d faced enough of them in my thirty years. But I guess everyone has a breaking point, and I’d finally met mine.
I was broken. And I had no idea how to fix myself.
I took another deep breath and slowly straightened my spine, wiping the inside of the windshield with the back of my sleeve to clear away the steam. I put the car in drive and checked my mirror for any traffic before I pulled back onto the road. It was habit. There would never be any traffic on these back roads at this time of night.
Bloody Mary, Virginia was like a throwback to another century. It was one of the four towns belonging to King George County and it was just shy of 3,000 of the most contrary people I’d ever met. My mother had always said it was because there was nothing to do in town except drink or procreate. My mother, come to find out, had been a consummate liar, but I was pretty sure she was right about that one thing.
It was a postcard of a town—towering trees and clapboard houses with American flags flying from the porches. The main roads were bricked and the sidewalks were cracked. It was a town that boasted family values and the American Dream. The shops closed before dark and everything was shut down on Sundays. People got up early and worked hard, and they went home to their families and home-cooked meals.
King George wasn’t a rich county, for the most part. There were pockets where the wealthy lived, of course, because the scenery lent itself well to the monstrous homes those with money tended to own. But most people in King George County were solid, blue-collar working class. It was a good place to raise a family and settle down to a comfortable life.
Maybe that was the reason driving back home made me feel out of place. A family and a comfortable life didn’t seem to be in the cards for me. I was fourth generation mortician. First generation law-abiding citizen. And I was all that was left of the Graves’ family legacy. By all accounts, I should have been buried next to my parents in the Bloody Mary Cemetery. But for some inexplicable reason, I was still breathing. The blood was still pumping through my body and causing my heart to pound erratically in my chest. I had no idea why God had chosen to spare me. It was just another thing to feel guilty for, wondering if He’d made the right decision.
My headlights slashed across the old playground equipment on the opposite side of the country road—rusted seesaws and metal slides that would blister the backs of some poor kids’ legs in the heat of the summer. There were patches of dirt where grass should have been and scarred picnic tables strategically placed under the towering oaks. It was a park well tended but in an area that couldn’t afford anything better.
The crunch of gravel beneath my tires seemed unusually loud over the whirr of the car heater, and my head turned automatically in surprise when a gust of wind had the seesaw moving up and down on its own, giving a ride to what I imagined to be the ghosts of two invisible children. My skin chilled and my flesh pebbled as I got the sense I wasn’t alone.
But it wasn’t ghosts I had to worry about. It was flesh and blood. Human. At least what was left of him. His skin was pale in the glare of my headlights, and now that I’d seen him I wondered how I ever could have missed him.
I made a hard left with the wheel and drove onto the playground, so the bright yellow of my headlights gave center stage to the man chained to the tree. His naked body was mangled and so bloody I couldn’t pinpoint the mortal wound. Heavy chains wrapped around his chest—I got the impression they were there to hold him up instead of restraining him. His dark hair hung down and his hands were limp at his sides, though from the looks of his misshapen fingers they would have been useless anyway.
I felt the initial rush of fear even as my training kicked in.
In a former life that seemed like an eternity ago, I’d been a medical doctor doing rounds in the ER at Augusta General. After my parents had died amidst lies and scandal, I’d had no choice but to pack up and move back to Bloody Mary and take over the family mortuary business. Mostly because it was damned hard to do rounds while the FBI was trying to question me about my parents’ illegal activities. It didn’t put patients at ease when they found out my parents had been using their funeral home to hide and transport smuggled goods. Sins of the fathers, and all that. Go figure.
Once I’d moved back home and taken over the business (or what was left of it), I’d somehow gotten roped into acting as coroner for the whole county. Fortunately, we didn’t get a lot of suspicious deaths in this part of the country unless you counted the serial killer who’d murdered three people last winter. Almost four.
I took a long look around the area and shoved my cell phone in my pocket before flinging the door of the Suburban open and stepping to the ground. The piercing cold of a March wind slapped at my face and sliced through my long wool coat, past the threadbare lining and straight to my bones. I didn’t bother with gloves. I stuck my hand inside my coat pocket and pulled out the small Beretta that had become like an appendage since my incident.
The wind blew the door of the Suburban shut almost before I could get out, and I looked around slowly, trying to see beyond the thick copse of trees and past the shadows that resembled grotesque pictures of my darkest nightmares.
Guilt was a vicious and cruel emotion. In the past I would have rushed straight to the victim, searching for that one last hope that he might have a chance for survival. But I learned the hard way that survival is something you have to fight for, and sometimes you have to be selfish when it comes down to your life or a stranger’s.
I breathed out slowly and put the Beretta back in my pocket, focusing my full attention on the man. If I’d had my wits about me sooner, I would have realized at first glance that hope for his survival had run out a long time ago.
Whoever had done this to the man had made a mess out of him. It looked like his hands and feet had both been broken, as well as his knees. There were small wounds all over his body, but most of the blood loss came from the area of his genitals. Someone had decided to castrate the victim and remove all signs of his manhood. Blood loss and shock would have been enough to kill him.
I fought back the urge to start an examination. I didn’t have my kit or any gloves, and technically I wasn’t coroner since I’d taken leave after my own brush with death.
But something stirred inside me that I hadn’t felt over the last three months. A spark of life. Of purpose. Lying in a hospital bed gave a person too much time to think—to question how much worth one really had. And I wanted this case. I wanted to keep my mind and my hands busy so I wouldn’t think of other things.
I needed to call into the station and report the scene, but even the thought had my breath hitching and sweat streaking down my spine in cold rivulets. I wasn’t sure I was ready to face them all. My friends. My acquaintances. My enemies. Being back in town would almost be as big news as the body. But mostly I wasn’t ready to face Jack.
There wasn’t a choice. The universe had decided it wasn’t through with me yet, even though I’d started to wonder. I’d have to face everyone sooner or later, so I pulled the phone from my pocket and dialed before I could second-guess myself.
“Dispatch,” a woman answered.
“This is Doctor Graves. I’ve got a body.”