(Released with this new cover on March 24, 2015)
SKEWED… a tantalizing mystery thriller that opens with a bang, drags you through the muck, and delivers a shocking jolt of a finale...
Janie Perkins rocks a warped relationship with cameras. Forced in front of them as an infant under grim circumstances, she now hides behind them as a crime scene photographer with a bad habit. But for a girl born to a waitress in a coma—courtesy of a bullet from her famous father—warped relationships are the norm. When Janie receives two photos of her mother's crime scene, she gains a dire perspective on the decades-old death, one that threatens to upend her life and resurrect the wrath of the long-dormant Haiku Killer.
With her twin brother running for office and her own problems rising to the fore, Janie finds herself in the dreaded spotlight once again. These recent photos won't help matters. Enlisting the help of a unique crime consultant, a newbie detective, and her estranged father, Janie pries off the layers of deceit that marked her mother's final day. But as an unwelcome truth finally comes into focus, Janie may wish she'd left things undeveloped. Will she now pay the ultimate price for righting her skewed existence?
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Grady McLemore didn’t get caught off-guard, so what the hell just happened? His knees crashed to the floor, the pain evaporating in the face of his gritty resolve. His left hip went next, collapsing beneath him like a rusty joint. Still, he had time. Grady McLemore fell to no one, and he wasn’t about to risk the future of the one person he cared most about in the world. His eyes found Bridget. He’d never admit to anyone the countless hours he spent imagining their future, where he would finally allow himself to trek the long road to the political pinnacle before an adoring, demanding public.
But now this. Had he tempted fate? Had it been gluttony to envision a picture-perfect life with Bridget while fulfilling his own needs?
Screw that. Fate may have played its strongest hand in the form of this intruder behind him, but it couldn’t hold a candle to Grady’s resolve. It should have known better.
Grady blinked, eyelids grating against corneas. There was someone in the room, wasn’t there?
A shot of agony bolted through his arm as his elbow slammed down. The chemicals riding shotgun in his bloodstream showed no intention of slowing, not while his heart still pounded. They might shut him down, cell by cell, limb by limb, but he would not leave Bridget alone here. Risking unconsciousness with her survival in question was not an option. For God’s sake, what if the creep hid her away somewhere? Would Grady receive insane threats and ultimatums in the mail?
Through hazy eyes, he gazed at Bridget, the perfect complement to all he lacked. The magnetic qualities that drew people to her rushed through his fading mind: her down-to-earth spirit, her compassion for the less fortunate, her unbridled allure, and a laugh that could tease a smile from the dead. If only he’d put an end to her intrepid bravado, that dodgy habit of hers that never failed to spark a glint in her eye. It might now be the very trait that extinguished her singular light.
Grady spotted the other man in a shadowy fog. Enough of this. Grady raised his gun, his arm cement, the gun a cannon. Freighted with a sense of foreboding, he fought to retain the laserlike focus that had taken him this far.
Was he moving as fast as he thought?
He aimed. Fired.
And never saw it coming. The kick from the assailant jolted his arm just as the bullet soared through the chamber.
Bridget leapt for cover, desperate to protect the twins inside her.
Mere milliseconds made the difference as the lead messenger of death followed its altered trajectory.
Bridget Perkins landed with an unexpectedly light thump, given her twenty-five extra pounds and the force of the bullet destroying her balance. Her eyes remained open despite the blood seeping from her head.
“Hey, Jane Doe,” said Detective Chase Nicholls, the best-looking slob on the Kingsley police force. “Make sure you get that brain gunk on the wall. Lab guys love that stuff.”
I aimed my DSLR camera at my favorite detective and twirled the focus ring, the tactile sensation of the slim ridges providing a jolt of satisfaction. I brought Nicholls’ spiked-up, glistening hair into focus and caught him in three-quarter face to highlight cheekbones that looked like they worked out.
Nicholls claimed to be part Cherokee, a lineage I credited for his blazing dark eyes, the aforementioned bench-pressing zygoma, and the coffee-tinted skin that stayed pristine despite the mounds of grease he shoved down his gullet. A unique presence here in Central Virginia, Nicholls grew up in the suburbs of D.C., raised by parents from Brooklyn, and then moved here as a teen. He tended to strut rather than walk, and emitted a New Yorker vibe so tough, it practically buzzed. Sugarcoating was as foreign a concept to the guy as manners.
Just as my shutter snapped, he shoved his pinky nail in his mouth. I’d have a tough time explaining in court why that shot was relevant if this case went to trial. Lawyers made us turn in every photo now—even the blurry ones.
“I’ll give you two quarters, Nicholls, if you let me get one good shot of you for the hon-gray, hon-gray ladies out there.” He’d recently joined three internet dating sites.
“Never gets old, eh Janie? With the quarters-nickels thing?”
“It’ll get old when you retire Jane Doe and come up with anything original.”
“How ’bout Haiku Twin?”
I sneered. “Even less original.” The public had deemed my brother and me the Haiku Twins at birth for reasons I tried to repress on a daily basis.
Nicholls’ perfect teeth finally loosened whatever lurked beneath his nail. He spit it with a light thunk into an empty corner.
“Real sterile,” I said. “Could you show some respect for Dizzy?”
Nicholls stepped over the exploded head of Dizzy the Drug Lord and checked out some receipts near the body. I went to my kit and switched the filters on my camera to get clearer shots of the torso and neck. Poor Dizzy. Despite his status as a high-achieving leader in Kingsley’s competitive underworld, no onlookers had assembled outside to mourn his sudden passing. Crowds usually offered an opportunity for unstructured shots upon my arrival, but I’d yet to capture a criminal partaking in the notorious return to the scene. Usually, I’d overlap crowd photos with my exterior four-corners shots to determine who was scoping out what and which gory details piqued their interest, but the crowd sizes had lately become inversely proportional to the crime rate. Corpses piled up weekly; murder had become mundane. In Kingsley, it’d be like gathering every time a bird flew by. Why bother?
“How’s Barton?” Nicholls said, bored with Dizzy’s purchases.
“Still in the hospital, but stable. They’re watching to make sure it doesn’t turn into pneumonia.”
“Gonna take more than pneumonia to bring your grandfather down. Lemme know when he’s ready for visitors. I’ll send in some hookers.”
“Can’t imagine why the ladies aren’t lining up at your quarters, Nicholls,” I said to his departing ass.
He turned and shot a finger-gun at me, then went to address the scant reporters while I captured an image of Dizzy’s brain matter and blood on the lilac wall. The body fluids had formed the profile of an ancient Kung Fu master who’d taken a pop to the eye, his long, drippy beard cascading to the floor. I leaned in and got a nice, clean shot of some scratches running parallel to Kung Fu’s facial hair. There’d be traces of lilac paint under either the victim’s nails or the perp’s—although in this case, the victim had been a perp more often than not. His nickname, Dizzy, fit him well. He’d spent a lifetime spinning, looking both ways for either trouble or opportunity while checking behind him lest the inevitable happen. Which it had, sometime between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., according to the medical examiner who’d left a couple minutes ago.
Alone in the room, I felt the familiar stirring in my gut and realized my opportunity. I glanced around for the right prop to stoke my habit—the one that could cost me my job and reputation, maybe even land me in jail. I spotted statuettes, dried flowers, do-it-yourself magazines that taught Dizzy how to customize hollow-point bullets, and a chipped candy dish with a discarded wrapper—all tedious. And then I saw it—a chewed tennis ball, its skin split along a seam, long discarded by the German Shepherd outside, the one wondering what had become of its master’s head.
I grabbed the ball from the fireplace mantel. Grimy with remnants of dog saliva and crawling with bacteria, the fuzzy green orb would create my best photo in months. I placed it near Dizzy’s cupped, non-dominant hand—didn’t want to disturb any gunshot residue on his shooting hand.
I snapped away with my personal camera. Much better. Now Dizzy was a guy whose last thoughts were of his dog, a dude who expended his final breath tossing his pooch’s favorite toy across the room.
I picked up the ball and tossed it in the air as a flash from the open window caught me off-guard.
“Hey!” I protested, shoving the ball into my loose jacket pocket. Behind the offending flash stood a ruddy-faced photographer who looked like he ate beans straight from the can and followed them up with fries. No way could he be comfortable out there in the tight alleyway. Wheezing and coughing, he aimed his lens down and snapped several photos of Dizzy. The window screen would leave a hazy residue on his photos, but the cheaper rags liked that effect. It gave the picture an air of authenticity, as if sneaked without permission, which this one was.
I backed away from his flash, my relationship with cameras sketchy at best and schizophrenic at worst.
As the odor of stale cigarettes and wet perspiration crawled from the photog’s clothes to my nose, I cringed. I didn’t care if he took photos—wasn’t my job to manage the crowd—but this guy was overstaying his welcome and coating my insides with a stench worse than the corpse’s.
“You mind?” I said.
“Hey, ain’t you the Haiku Twin?” he shouted through the screen. “The one with the brother?”
As if there were multiple sets of Haiku Twins. I flipped him off as his flash blinded me again. Great. My brother would love that one on the campaign trail. The smelly paparazzo-wannabe took off.
“You about finished in here, Janie?”
I turned around to see Detective Alex Wexler, Nicholls’ partner of a few months, fresh off the rough-and-tumble homicide detail of central Wyoming. I asked him once if he’d ever hosted Wile E. Coyote in central Wyoming’s single jail cell and he’d almost smiled. Surely he questioned his decision to move to Kingsley, Virginia, where gang murders didn’t even make the front page.
“Almost done, Wexler. A few more.” He remained rooted, looking uncomfortable. As I filled my frame with snaps of Dizzy’s head, I became hotly aware of Wexler’s presence. He was a few years older than me and his aloof attitude made him difficult to decipher. I had a gift for siphoning information from corpses, but the living gave me a harder time. Now Dizzy here, he was easy. Never allowed anything to ruminate beneath his nails or in his conscience. Smelled fresh, looked clean—at least the parts that weren’t covered in blood—always thought he was the best-looking guy in the room. Kept his dirt hidden, along with his secrets. The gel in his hair didn’t allow for flyaways, even under the force of a bullet traveling a thousand feet per second, and he exerted that same control over his peeps. The accounting software on his desk signaled a guy who kept a balance of criminals and cops on the payroll, and the pressed pants and funky belt suggested leadership with a hint of derring-do.
But Detective Alex Wexler? A tougher hide to penetrate. Kept himself distant and never betrayed his emotions with careless expression. Everything tightly controlled, with a personality as neat and tailored as his clothes. The guy could be a museum display, with those onyx eyes that anchored his square, serious face. Untouchable. Unknowable. Sacrosanct. That was Wexler. And I did hate leaving precious things untouched, especially the sacrosanct—or situations deemed permanent by the finality of a photo.
The tension in the room built to a crescendo and I couldn’t take it anymore. I hit Wexler with my upswept hazel eyes, the ones that closed deals with guys when I wanted them closed. Yes, Wexler? Something you want to say?
He shuffled just an inch, then held out an envelope. “This came for you at the station.”
I glanced at him for an explanation, because 8x10 envelopes came for me all the time, filled with photos and evidence files.
“Wasn’t sure you’d get it,” he explained. “The mail guy almost sent it back.”
I took it, our fingers as close as they’d ever been, and read the address:
No last name. No street or zip. And yet, despite Kingsley’s phone book boasting a plethora of Janies, this envelope had found me. Of course it had. Thirty years of this stuff, I should be used to it. Sometimes months would pass where I could be Janie Perkins, Plain Citizen. But the infamous recognition always returned, washing over me like a wave of revulsion tinged by empty indifference. I hadn’t asked to be born famous, to a dead mother no less, but tragic endings rarely led to bright beginnings.
With a sigh, I tucked the envelope under my arm, unable to muster up a thanks.
Wexler swallowed away his discomfort. “Guess that’s one of the benefits of working in a smaller city.”
I would have felt grateful for his attempt to lighten the situation, but I was too busy wallowing in reflexive self-pity. “Yeah, Wexler, that’s it. This found me because Kingsley has a mere 200,000 people. Now I see why you’re the whiz kid on the force.”
He retreated without reacting, neither hurt nor embarrassed. It crossed my mind that he might suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome and be unable to process sarcasm, but I decided against it. I’d seen him give as good as he got. Nicholls had once asked him if blood washed out more easily from a pricey, tailored jacket than from one off the rack. “As a matter of fact, it does,” he’d answered, “but only because I don’t trust my wardrobe to a Tide-To-Go stick.”
He’d suffered flak for weeks over the word wardrobe, but he’d taken it in stride.
“Thanks!” I shouted as he disappeared.
I stepped into Dizzy’s bathroom to open the envelope in private. Might as well get it over with. One more weirdo to decipher, one more psycho to shun from my nightmares. As I closed the door, the incoming medics made a racket.
“I’m in here,” I shouted. Let them assume I was capturing vital photos of Dizzy’s Irish Spring and Turkish towels.
Catching a glimpse of myself in the toothpaste-speckled mirror, I cursed my forgotten lipstick. Its absence made my small face look downright undersized. Didn’t matter how many push-ups I did to bulk up my narrow shoulders, or how much I fluffed my hair, I always looked small. At 5’3 and 104 pounds, I was tiny, but I felt all of my 29 years and deserved to look 39. Meanwhile, it was typical of my brother, Jack, at 6’1” and 190 pounds of muscle and bravado, to have hogged all the nutrients in the womb. To this day, he continued to suck the life out of the peaceful, anonymous existence I craved.
I sat myself on Dizzy’s fuzzy, zebra-striped toilet seat and examined the envelope. Although the writer had tried to be precise, a tremor showed through in the labored cursive. The postmark read Ridge, West Virginia, and had been mailed a couple days ago. I loosened the barely-sealed flap to reveal two blown-up photographs and I handled them by their edges—fingerprints might come in handy if they were the work of a nut job who intended to follow through this time.
The first photo made me gasp.
This psycho had been in my house.
The second photo made my heart stop.
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