Mortal Choices, the first in the Mortal Series of murder mysteries, is now available on Amazon as an e-book for only $2.99. The print version should be available mid-August. Book Two, Mortal Deeds, is slated for publication Spring 2013.
Lakehouse Publishing is so excited about these books that we decided to offer the first three chapters on our website to give readers a free sample. We hope you like the book as much as we do.
He hefts the scalpel in the palm of his gloved right hand, admiring its shine, its balance, its deadly beauty. Taking a deep pull on the cigarette he holds loosely between his lips, he turns the scalpel in his hand, grasping it firmly to make a long incision across the abdomen. One last, long drag and he tosses his smoke carelessly to the floor and crushes it underfoot, adding one more small black scar to the concrete floor.
The powdery scent of old concrete and decay mingles in the air with the metallic smell of blood. The industrial room is framed by an acoustic ceiling above brick walls painted white. No windows for this small space.
A second quick incision follows and then he slides his left hand into the gaping wound to grasp a kidney. With practiced precision he quickly severs its ties to the body on the cold steel table. He drops the bloody organ into a plastic bag standing on the counter then reaches back in for the second kidney. After only a few minutes, the old man has yielded both kidneys and his liver. They stand in individual plastic bags on the worktable.
“You won’t miss them at all, will you, old fellow?” His voice soft, calm. “Won’t need them where you’re going.”
The cutter drops his bloodied scalpel onto the table beside the organ bags, slides a blue paper mask over his mouth, and picks up an electric saw. The stainless steel blade glimmers under fluorescent lights. Sliding to the side of the shining table, he flicks on the bone saw and grinds into the top of the body, cracking through ribs. The saw’s whine changes pitch, complaining as it chews through bone. Spatters fly, defacing the cutter’s apron like a mad spider web.
He trades back to the scalpel, slashes again, then pulls the wound open to sink his right hand into the fresh gash. A flick of his wrist, then he pulls the hand out, moving the scalpel to the left hand which still holds the ribs back. The bloody right hand thrusts back into the chest cavity and comes out with a palmful of heart, which he tosses with a wet splat into the steel trash can beside the work counter.
The cutter calmly pulls his mask down around his throat, snags another Marlboro from a pack on the counter and lights it. The cigarette dangles between his lips as he works. He grasps the wheeled table that holds the corpse and pushes it the few feet across the room to the red brick wall fronting the cremation chamber, which stands ready, its door open.
“Your chart says you only weigh 130, old man.” He heaves and the body jerks forward, sliding in spasms. “Sure feels like more. Maybe you’re not ready to go.”
Another pull and the body slides forward again. “But it’s too late for that now.”
He reaches out and rolls up the silver metal door of the cremation chamber, exposing its concrete flooring and crumbling brick sides. The face of the chamber shines despite its age. A panel of large red and green buttons sits to the right of the door. One push and the chamber will begin its work, heating to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, returning its cargo to the ashes from which it came. In two to three hours, the cremation chamber reduces a fresh corpse to four or five pounds of off-white bone fragments and ash.
Despite his full six-foot frame, the cremator struggles with the reluctant flesh of the withered man. It takes him a couple of tries to lever the corpse through the two-foot square door. The chamber is designed to hold a body weighing up to 450 pounds, so this scrawny specimen fits easily. Once the body is fully contained, he pulls the door down and absently depresses the top right green button, igniting the gas jets within.
“You’ll be smaller than a bread box, won’t you fella? Ready for delivery and no one the wiser.”
Whistling softly to himself, he pulls off the gloves and tosses them into the trash with the discarded heart. He then removes the butcher’s apron, surgeon’s cap and mask and the goggles that protect his eyes from splatters and hangs them one by one on nails beside the counter that holds the bloody tools of his trade.
The cremator’s dark eyes flick momentarily to the rapidly heating chamber. Soon the whole room will be uncomfortably warm. In a few short minutes, the body will begin to assist in its own cremation, its fat bursting into flame.
The cremator pulls a cardboard box to the front of the counter and removes a wrapped bundle of dry ice. He places the three organ bags delicately inside, nestled together in a polystyrene nest that insulates its contents. The coolant is returned, sitting on top of the bagged organs, followed by another sheet of insulating foam before he closes the flaps and flips the box up under his arm, so he can carry it easily with one hand.
Whistling a catchy fast food jingle from the radio, he steps out of the room and flicks off the light behind him.
What was I thinking volunteering for a week of this, I wondered while surveying the assorted mourners scattered throughout my sister’s living and dining rooms. Teresa, with her white-picket-fence life, called me early this morning. One of those calls you dread making or receiving.
Her father-in-law, ill for a handful of months, was dead. So here I stood in her dining room, comfortably nestled next to the living room with the vaulted ceiling and the double patio doors. Snagging a carrot off a grocery store tray, I surveyed the rooms and my brother-in-law’s relatives.
The tidy rows of two-story brick homes in Teresa’s neighborhood looked as much like a movie set as a real suburb. The landscaped lawns were as indistinguishable as the houses they fronted, and I had been forced to cruise along slowly, reading the curb numbers to be sure I was at the right house. The primary difference, as far as I could see was that some homes had basketball hoops and some did not. Aside from that, the homes were all two-story, red brick buildings with white wood trim and two-car garages.
This version of upper middle-class suburban bliss has spread generically across the continent until the only way to tell this Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood from a handful of communities back home in the Oklahoma City suburbs was by checking the dirt under the immaculate lawns. Oklahoma City sits on brilliant red clay and Tulsa sits on brown clay. In this well-heeled neighborhood, you’d have to dig through a couple of inches of imported top soil to reach the clay, but it’s always there.
My green Honda sat snug to the curb just ahead of the brick mailbox that stands sentry in the front yard. There was space available in the concrete double driveway, but I was planning to stay overnight and the occupants of the conservative sedan and the farm truck already parked in the drive likely weren’t. This way I wouldn’t have to run out and move the car.
I arrived just after lunch, juggling my luggage and purse. Grief and tension hung in the air. Stepping into the entryway I could almost smell them, an undertone to the gigantic lasagna that a neighbor or church group had delivered. On the right, the formal dining area was a spread of donated munchies—the remains of the lasagna, plates of home baked goodies, the vegetable tray, a couple of pot-luck casseroles that defied identification, and the obligatory green bean casserole.
My muscles were still stiff from the drive from my little apartment two hours away in Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb. Teresa’s call left me little choice but to pack a bag, get my downstairs neighbor to feed my cat, and head for Tulsa.
During the drive, I called my boss from my cell phone, explained the situation, and finagled a week off. It wasn’t all that hard to do, because I’m a magazine editor with a job that is set up to accommodate traveling to gather articles.
No one was manning the front door, but I spotted my sister across the living room. She was on the far side, near the patio doors, hovering behind her husband Doug and his mother—now the widow Stout.
The grief and lack of sleep, plus months of stress and irregular eating habits had left them all thinner of both body and spirit, with new lines etched into their faces. Their coloring was faded from fluorescent lights and long nights spent in waiting rooms.
Teresa stood up straighter when she saw me. A flicker of light returned to her blue eyes. “Amanda!” She flung out her arms and headed my direction. Her mane of brown hair, always worn long, was even longer than usual. It needed a trim but was carefully curled by hot rollers, as always. The sleeveless navy summer dress she wore hung loosely, testifying to her recent weight loss.
I dropped my bags on the plush hunter green carpet to receive her hug. I gave her a tight squeeze before stepping back. Even with the two-inch heels on her pumps, she stood about five inches shorter than me. My little, big sister.
People often remark on the similarity in our appearance. And there are some—a big head of brown hair, thin noses, smallish ears that lay flat to our heads. Our coloring is different though. I’m darker by far. And our size is different. She’s not only shorter, she’s far more dainty. We would look much more similar if I somehow managed to shrink by about fifteen percent.
“Thank goodness you’re here! How was the drive?” Teresa asked, brushing a wayward curl away from her face.
“Fine. How are you holding up?”
“Okay.” Her eyes darted away, toward Doug and his mother, telling me she was lying.
I followed her gaze to Doug’s mother—always the jittering center of attention. Any makeup she had applied that morning was worn off, probably by the tears that had left her eyes bloodshot and her nose a raw red. Dark rings under her eyes could have been from lack of sleep or smeared mascara, or both.
After a deep breath and a silent pause, we crossed the room.
“Mrs. Stout, I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said, holding out a hand to her.
She didn’t answer, instead burying her face in a tissue. Sobs came muffled through the tissue and her hands.
“Jesus, Amanda. Let her alone!” Doug stood protectively behind his diminutive mother, one hand on her shaking shoulder.
My hand fell limp to my side.
“Here, Mama. Let’s sit you down.” Doug led his mother to a chair only a couple of steps away and settled her into the seat, placing a box of Kleenex from an end table in her lap.
He turned to me. “The hell’s the matter with you?” Veins stood out in his neck as he fought to keep his voice a notch below a shout.
“Um, I’m sorry Doug.”
“You should be.” He turned his back, effectively dismissing me.
I gave Teresa a big-eyed look with raised eyebrows, silently asking, “What just happened?”
Teresa took my hand, pulling me toward the staircase. Her other hand held the luggage I had dropped on her floor. “Let me show you to your room.”
My work bag was slung across my shoulder onto my back and I would be glad to set it down. The laptop inside was growing heavier by the minute as the strap dug into my shoulder.
I was to stay in the “game room” which also served as a guest room. The smallest of the four bedrooms in the house, it held a wall of video equipment, games, and a computer station along with an old day bed and a busted recliner patched with duct tape. Her boys entertained their friends in this room and it was currently chock full of teens and preteens playing video games. The room always smelled vaguely of hot plastic and old Cheetos. Teresa and I waved at the kids and continued down the hall to her room.
“We’ll park your bags in here for a bit until the game room clears.” She dropped my bag unceremoniously to the floor and flung herself down on the bed, laying on her back with a forearm across her eyes.
“I’m so sorry. Just ignore him. He’s a bear.” She sighed. “I’m losing my mind. I’ve never been the main house for a funeral. It’s awful.”
I sat on the edge of the bed, straightening the crease in my black slacks, not sure what to say. Teresa sat up halfway, leaning back on her elbows.
“There are relatives everywhere, you saw them. And they never seem to leave. The whole house is a mess. Every counter in this house is sticky or smudged and the carpet will just have to be taken out and burned after this. I’ll never get all the stains out.” She sat up the rest of the way, dangling her legs from the side of the bed. “And it’s not only the relatives I like—it’s all the ones I don’t like too. Thank God you’re here. I need somebody that’s on my side. Somebody that won’t expect to be waited on hand and foot.”
“You know I’ll do what I can to help.” I picked at the worn Chenille bedspread, probably white at one time but now a mellow beige. Its tattered softness was comforting. Teresa had an eye for antiques, picking them up at garage sales and flea markets, so her house was dotted with interesting old items. I patted her knee.
“I can’t figure out how to handle Doug these days. He’s so explosive. I’ve tried agreeing with him and I’ve tried keeping my mouth shut. Doesn’t seem to matter. He yells anyway.” She flung out her arms for emphasis.
“He’s sure on edge. I didn’t mean to make his mom cry.”
“The poor thing. She’s cried almost constantly since yesterday. I think I even heard her crying in her sleep. Doug hasn’t cried yet. Maybe that’s part of his problem. I cried myself dry at the hospital the last couple of days.”
We permitted ourselves a few minutes to chat and dish on the current batch of relatives before returning downstairs to the impromptu wake. It was Sunday afternoon and the funeral was scheduled for Tuesday morning. Another day and a half of this.
Many of the final arrangements had already been made. Ken Stout, Doug’s father, was being cremated and only his ashes would be at the ceremony. No graveside services. The ashes would eventually be scattered, but there was a fight within the family about the location. Delores Stout, center of attention in the living room, wasn’t certain she would be able to part with the ashes to allow the scattering anyway. It was shaping up to be a long week.
“Please tell me the hot tub is working,” I whispered as we walked back down the stairs to the main living area of the house.
Teresa actually flashed me a quick smile. “Oh, yeah! I couldn’t have made it this long without it. I’ve got aromatherapy spa scents and everything.”
She returned to her post beside her husband and his mother. Left to my own devices, I milled around the dining room with a handful of Doug’s relatives. One of his several interchangeable uncles took an interest in me.
“Teresa’s baby sister, aren’t you?” His bald head topped a round body, uncomfortably dressed in a navy suit that looked to be several years old and not much worn. Probably his special funeral suit. We’d likely be seeing a lot of it.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m Amanda. And you’re Doug’s uncle?”
“Uncle Clement. You can call me Clem.” He was holding a small plate of vegetables complete with a glob of orange-colored dip in his chubby right hand and a tired broccoli floret in his left. “I didn’t see your husband come in with you.”
“I’m divorced, Uncle Clem.” I scanned the room, but didn’t see any great opportunities to extract myself from this conversation.
“Oh, right.” He eyed his plate for a moment, chewing the broccoli. “What is it you do, then? I’m retired myself.”
“I’m a magazine editor.”
“Really?” He suddenly lost all interest in his plate and focused expectantly on my face. But I knew it wouldn’t last. “What magazine?”
“Oklahoma Monthly.” The magazine focused on in-state news and events, mostly cultural and upscale events and venues. If only I were a stringer for the National Enquirer or Rolling Stone, cocktail conversations would be so much easier.
“Oh, right.” His disappointed gaze returned to the plate, giving me full view of his thin comb-over. “I’m retired myself.”
I nodded toward the kitchen, “If you’ll excuse me.” I moved purposefully across the room, hoping he’d think I had work to do. I hate that particular conversation. It always leaves me feeling like I should defend myself.
Once in the kitchen, I opened and closed drawers until I found the junk drawer that contained the phone book. Flipping through the residence listings, I found the number and quickly called Terry Walkingstick before I could change my mind.
Thank goodness for Terry. My college roommate’s younger brother, he had moved to Tulsa several years ago, and was now a police officer in nearby Broken Arrow. He was also the only person I knew in this part of the state besides my sister and her current infestation of in-laws.
He answered on the third ring and agreed to meet me for dinner on Monday night. I counted myself lucky to find him home. It gave me something to look forward to.
A batch of uncles moved into the kitchen during my brief phone call and by the time I hung up, they had me penned in. I couldn’t get out of the kitchen without moving at least one of them.
“They still don’t know how many there are.” It was Uncle Clem speaking through a bite of broccoli, and the others were nodding their little bald heads in silent agreement.
“How many what, Uncle Clem?” I was trapped, so I may as well get in on the conversation.
“Missing people of course. Don’t you read the news?”
“Usually. But I’ve been on the road today. And I’m not from around here.”
“Oh, right.” His veggie plate was full again, and he continued to graze as he talked. “There’s a bunch of people from around here gone missing, and all of a sudden the police think they’re connected.” He gestured with an oversized cauliflower floret. “Big announcement this morning. They’re making a task force and everything.”
“The missing people are from around here?” I’d kept the CD player in the Honda cranked all the way up the turnpike to Tulsa and hadn’t caught the news.
“Yeah, it’s all they’re talking about on the TV. People been disappearing for a year from all around here, and the police decided that they’re connected.”
Another uncle jumped in. “No, they think its been going on for a couple of years, Clem.”
“Don’t matter. They’re all dead anyways.” The third uncle was slightly taller than the other two, and looked to be the oldest of the three brothers.
“You reckon?” Clem stopped chewing momentarily to consider it.
“Of course they’re dead. They been gone what, one, two years and you think they’re just hiding in the barn? They’re dead.” The oldest sibling, Virgil, was still the leader.
“Then you think it’s one of them serial killers, Virgil?” The plate listed to one side in Clem’s hand, forgotten. His broccoli was dangerously close to rolling off.
“I reckon it must be.” The oldest brother did not hold a snack plate, but the front of his thin white dress shirt was speckled with telltale crumbs.
“When they took the prayer outta the schools, they damn near ruint this country.” Clem glared at Virgil. This was an obvious challenge on an old, much-chewed topic.
“Now, we don’t know that any of this has anything to do with prayer in schools.” Virgil’s voice was lower now, his tone soothing.
Clem straightened his posture. “It’s one of the biggest reasons for the moral decline of this country. And if all these missing people aren’t a big signpost from Satan, well then, I don’t know what is.” He leaned forward as he spit out the dare.
My reporter’s instincts kicked in. “How many are missing?” It was past time to change the subject anyway.
Virgil jumped in, “They don’t know for sure. They’re sayin’ at least 10. Could be more.” He turned his attention back to Clem. “And they don’t know much of nothing yet about what happened to those people. It’s way too early to declare it a morality crisis.” So much for changing the subject.
“It’s a sign of these times, Virgil. This country’s going to hell in a hand basket, and all anybody wants to talk about is how the weather’s getting hotter. The problem here ain’t the weather.” Clem stared straight into my shocked eyes. “It’s the proximity to hell!”
Later that evening, once we were finally rid of all the relatives that weren’t staying at the house, Teresa and I slipped into the hot tub, each with a glass of White Zinfandel. Several relatives and friends had come and gone early, pleading prior engagements or apologizing for dogs that needed let out. The rest had exited reluctantly after I closed up the buffet in the dining room as a not-so-subtle hint that today’s festivities were complete.
Doug and his mother were watching a show about something Egyptian on the Discovery Channel. Teresa’s three children had long since escaped upstairs.
“Okay, explain to me why everyone is meeting and eating at your house.” I took a sip of the cool wine then sank down into the floral-scented bubbling water until it licked at my collar bones.
“It’s Doug. He insisted that the family meet here. He’s moving his mother here permanently.” Teresa sighed and lowered her voice a notch, realizing that stress was boosting her volume. “He’s lost it, I’m telling you. He started this crap a couple of weeks ago and it’s not letting up. He’s now officially the leader of the family. My God, he’s even got real estate agents searching the countryside for a big ranch. He wants to buy one, surround it with barbed wire or something, and move the whole family in. I don’t want to live on a ranch. And I definitely don’t want to live on a ranch with his whole damn family.” Her voice was shaking and I could hear the tears that were only a half-step away from freedom.
“And he doesn’t realize how nuts that sounds?”
“No! If I so much as ask a question, he starts yelling. Starts ranting about how I don’t support him and it’s the wife’s duty to support and obey the husband. I’ve never heard such crap.” She waved her hands as she talked, sloshing part of her wine into the tub.
“Well, he’s in shock,” I stalled. “Surely, he’ll snap out of it. He’s freaking out, but he’ll adjust, don’t you think? Given some time?”
Teresa hit a button on the hot tub’s control panel and stopped the jets. “They make me itchy after a minute, and I can hardly stand the noise these days. There is way too much noise in my life.” She took a deep breath, released it, and leaned her head back against the side, gazing up at the stars.
The hot tub area was secluded in a notch in the back of her house. A short fence that hid the air conditioning and heating unit served as another small wall, giving the tub a private feeling. This retreat was my favorite part of the house.
“This is probably a stupid question, but who’s gonna pay for all this ranch business?”
“Apparently we are. Or I should say, Doug is. Because now all our money is HIS money. He brings home the money and I’m supposed to keep the house. I’m having some kinda warped “Father Knows Best” flashbacks from this crap.”
I thought for a minute, splashing water up on my shoulders. “It’s just too crazy. He’s gonna snap out of it.”
“I hope so, but I don’t know. It seems to be getting worse. I’ve been fending off calls from real estate people for over a week. He has Realtors searching for a house in this neighborhood to bring his mom closer so he can take care of her, and other Realtors looking for ranch land in the country with at least 100 acres.” She heaved a sigh. “I haven’t passed on any of the messages from the real estate people. After the funeral, things will quiet down some, and he’s gonna notice.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to the crickets and tree frogs and soaking up the soothing heat of the tub. The early-summer heat of the afternoon had evaporated with sundown, leaving a pleasantly cool evening. May is a fabulous month in Oklahoma, with warm days and cool evenings that only hint at the stifling summer heat that lays around the corner.
I swished down the last of my wine. “You know, this whole thing sounds like the first part of one of those bad TV movies. You know, the ones with an aging sitcom star playing the mom, and the husband goes insane, and things get worse and worse, and eventually the police get involved, and then they think the wife is the bad one and she gets arrested. But then everything gets worked out perfect, just in time to switch back to a network channel for the evening news. You know the ones I mean?”
“Yeah. Very flattering,” Teresa lounged against the side of the tub with her eyes closed.
I had meant to make her laugh, although I kind of meant it. Our mother had never allowed dramatic outbursts when we were kids. Yelling was grounds for punishment. I had heard more yelling and crying this afternoon than in a decade when I was growing up.
“It’s not funny, Amanda. I’m afraid Doug’s using drugs again, and you know what happened last time.”
He crouches in deep shadow near the corner of the garage. Neglected bushes and trash cans edge the chain link on its backside. He leans into the fence, hidden. His car is also in shadow, parked on the very edge of the alley, unseen from the houses. Garages and bushes keep its secrets.
Streetlights here sit at the ends of the alleys, tossing out rings of light that fade before the middle of the block. The small houses, built in the 1950s and bought as starter homes, sit quiet. These blocks are mixed, occupied by stooped retirees and young couples with children. Most of the back yards are delineated with chain link, but the occasional wooden privacy fence protrudes up through the overgrown bushes near the alley.
Nightfall dissipated the heat of the day, just after the streetlights came on. It is now pleasantly cool in the damp quiet of the alley, its asphalt tongue leading through to the next neighborhood cross street. Shadows here are long and still.
The children playing on Little Tykes yard toys, squealing and throwing balls, are a recent memory, all taken inside for baths or beds. The block lies silent, listening to the crickets and the other bugs of the night, holding its breath, waiting for sleep. Waiting for morning, when the children’s voices will return.
A screen door slaps shut with a crack and the darkest shadow in the alley tenses and hunkers down. From the house, bare feet whisper through the moist grass. Here comes the trash.
The gate creaks and the men’s shadows meld together as the predator raises a gloved hand to his victim’s throat, squeezing. Strong hands covered in physician’s examining gloves press the vessels on the sides of the throat.
Suffocating. The victim flails wildly, dropping a white kitchen trash bag onto the asphalt. The scent of honeysuckle wafts by on a whisper of breeze. The victim’s feet scuffle for purchase and his balance begins to go.
Squeeze the throat, but don’t break it. Not yet. Just squeeze.
A screen door slams across the alley and the predator jerks to his right, looking over his shoulder.
“Damn.” The victim is slumping in his embrace, growing heavier as he loses consciousness. The predator releases his grip on the man’s throat, grabbing him under the arms to pull his victim six steps to the partially hidden car. He yanks the back driver’s-side door open and wedges his catch into the back, laying half on the seat, half on the carpeted floor of the sedan. No dome light blinks on to illuminate his actions so the shadows remain undisturbed, but the crickets have lost their song. The car door clicks shut.
An old man in an undershirt and walking shorts stands on a concrete patio on the opposite side of the alley. A small bag of trash is clutched in his hand as he stands frozen, squinting dimly out into the alley.
The predator grabs the front door handle, levers the door open and jumps in, starting the car in the same sweeping move. He stomps the gas, rockets the car down the alley and around the corner onto the street then stabilizes his speed and flips on the headlights.
The pounding in his chest softens as he begins to put distance between his car and the alley and the old man’s scream.
To read the rest, visit Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008RLL9HM