A Dirty Shame
J.J. Graves Mysteries Book 2
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.”
I moved the Suburban and parked a little further down the lane to let the official vehicles get through, and I sat there in the dark with my coat wrapped around me until the first squad car arrived on the scene. I’d only had to wait about fifteen minutes. That had given him long enough to roll out of bed, throw on some clothes and make the drive across town. Not bad.
The eerie yellow of headlights cast shadows around the sharp bends in the road as the black and white came to a stop in front of me. He hadn’t bothered with flashing lights or blaring sirens. It wasn’t Jack’s way. He was a good cop. Too good of a cop to be stuck in Bloody Mary writing traffic tickets and settling petty disputes. But he had his own demons to deal with, and I knew better than anyone that sometimes you just needed a refuge. Maybe I’d never really understood the demons he faced until now.
My lungs started to burn, and I realized I was holding my breath. It had been twelve weeks and four days since I’d last seen him, and I hadn’t even been able to say goodbye or tell him I was running away for a while. I couldn’t face him. Not after everything we’d been through.
He’d have understood my reasons for leaving, and he would have helped me pack and make the arrangements with more ease than I’d managed on my own, but things were off between us. Jack Lawson was the best friend I’d ever had. He was still the best friend I ever had. But something had changed in those days before my near death, and we looked at each other differently now. Or maybe it was just me looking at the world differently and it wasn’t him at all. That would almost be worse somehow.
Jack’s deputies wouldn’t be far behind him, and part of me wanted to stay hidden inside the Suburban until there was a crowd surrounding us. That cowardice was the exact reason I pushed open the door and put my shaky legs on the ground. I left my headlights on, and I leaned against the hood of the car, trying to look casual, and then I watched as he reached into his cruiser and grabbed two silver travel mugs of steaming coffee and a high powered flashlight.
I tried to look at him as a stranger would. We’d been in and out of each other’s pockets our whole lives, and it was easy to take someone for granted when they’d always just been there. I’d forgotten how big he was—six-feet-five-inches of solid muscle—broad shoulders and lean hips. He’d been S.W.A.T. in D.C. before he’d taken the job of sheriff here, and he still kept the same rigorous exercise regimen.
His dark hair was cropped close to his head and a five o’clock shadow peppered with the occasional hint of silver covered his face, though he was only a couple years over thirty. His buckskin colored shearling coat was unzipped so I caught a glimpse of green flannel shirt and shoulder holster as he walked with easy strides towards me. He was backlit by the glare of his own headlights, and even in the shadows, he made an impressive picture. He’d always been too handsome for his own good, but I’d never thought of him as such until recently. He’d just been Jack.
“Your hair’s longer,” he said, handing me one of the mugs. I tried not to flinch at his nearness. I’d had a little trouble with people being close enough to touch me after my incident. He pretended not to notice when I scooted over a little, and he leaned against the hood next to me as we sipped our coffee in silence for a few minutes.
I’d never been one to think on my appearance overly much. I’d spent too many years in med school and living on an hour’s worth of sleep to have time to care. But part of me wondered what exactly Jack saw when he looked at me. I hardly ever wore makeup, but I had good skin and nice grey eyes. I was mostly average in every way. Not like the women he was normally attracted to. And I knew, because I’d seen legions on his arm over the years.
“I wasn’t expecting you until sometime tomorrow,” he said, breaking the silence.
I looked up sharply so my eyes rested on his chin. I didn’t quite have the courage to look him in the eye yet. I hadn’t told anyone of my plans to leave my parents’ cabin in the Poconos. I hadn’t even decided I was leaving myself until twelve hours ago. Some of the things I’d found out about my parents while staying there hadn’t made it a place of rest. And the FBI had managed to find me there as well. Almost two years after their drive over a cliff and there were still unanswered questions. I knew some of the answers now. But I wished I didn’t.
Jack’s fingers barely touched my chin and he tilted my face up until our eyes met. I tried not to jerk out of his grasp, but it was difficult. The only thing that kept me still was the fact that I knew he’d be hurt if he knew I no longer liked to be touched. Even by him.
“You didn’t think you were staying up there all alone without someone keeping tabs on you, did you? What if you’d gotten into trouble or had a relapse?” He raised a brow in question and I could see the censure in his gaze, letting me know without words that he’d been hurt I’d left without saying goodbye.
I could have gotten angry at his overprotective nature, but I just didn’t have it in me. I think somewhere inside, I’d known he wouldn’t just let me go away on my own. He’d probably alerted every cop in the area to keep an eye out for me. I turned my head away, and he dropped his hand so it curled back around his cup.
“Why would you tell them that?” I asked.
He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of thin latex gloves. He held them up in front of my face so I had no choice but to stare at them.
“Because I thought I’d need the extra time talking you into coming back,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “But I can tell by the gleam in your eye I might have overestimated my time frame a bit. I’ve got a job opening for a new coroner. What do you say, Doctor Graves? The hours are lousy and the pay is even worse.”
He could have said a million different things on this first meeting together after being separated for so long. He could have asked how I was doing or feeling. He could have pulled me into his arms and tried to rekindle that brief moment before my incident where the sparks between us had almost turned to flame. But he just stood beside me like he had my whole life and given me the one thing he knew I needed more than anything else.
Tears clouded my eyes and I blinked them away rapidly before I made both of us more uncomfortable than we already were.
“It just so happens I’m between jobs at the moment,” I said, taking the gloves.
Our hands met briefly and I jerked, but I felt the heat of his touch all the way to my toes. I pushed the feeling away and busied myself with putting on the gloves so I wouldn’t have to look at him and see that he hadn’t felt it the same as I had.
“Show me the body,” he said, putting on his own gloves and turning on the flashlight. “Walk me through it.”
I discarded my long coat and tossed it back in the Suburban, forcing myself to deal with the cold. I couldn’t afford to ruin a perfectly good coat with blood and other unmentionable things that no dry cleaner would ever be able to get out. My finances were in dire straits at the moment, and a new coat wasn’t on the list of necessities.
“I’d pulled over to the side of the road just there,” I said, pointing to the skid marks my tires had made when I’d slammed on the brakes after my brief panic attack. Jack didn’t say anything, but I noticed the corners of his mouth tighten as he looked at the evidence of my loss of control.
“I didn’t see the body until I pulled back out onto the road and my headlights glanced off him. Scared the hell out of me,” I admitted.
“Playgrounds are creepy at night.”
“I’ve always thought so,” he agreed. “Worse than a graveyard.”
We walked up to the tree where the victim was chained, and I felt my strength slowly seep back into my bones. My thoughts were sharper now and the cold had been forgotten. Only the victim existed for me now.
“I don’t recognize him,” Jack said, positioning the flashlight on the ground so it acted as a spotlight.
“Me either, but I’m not sure his own mother would recognize him at this point.”
A couple of squad cars pulled in behind us, and the deputies were quiet as they got their equipment out of the car. Jack had managed to amass a competent police force over the several years he’d been sheriff, drawing in men who’d served in larger cities and who had specialized in different areas. I recognized Marcus Colburn immediately. The same man who’d tried to kill me had murdered Colburn’s pregnant lover. I was actually surprised to see he’d stuck around, especially since his lover had still been married to one of Bloody Mary’s council members during their affair. The situation had been messy at best.
I was willing to bet Jack had gone to bat for him. Colburn had worked as a cop in Bloody Mary for ten years, but before that he’d worked violent crimes in Arlington, so his experience was invaluable to a small force like ours. He helped train the younger cops when something like this came up. Jack nodded to his detectives and we took a couple of steps back so they could start documenting and securing the scene.
“Let’s get spotlights set up,” Jack called out. “It’s too dark for Doctor Graves to examine the body. I want everything, no matter how small, tagged and documented.”
A smattering of yessirs filled the air, and everyone got to work. Bulbs flashed from the cameras, but I hardly noticed as I tried to take in everything I could with a quick visual examination.
“He’s been tortured,” I said, thinking aloud to myself. “All his fingers are broken. Toes too. As if a hammer had been taken to them. I don’t suppose the mob has infiltrated King George County.”
“Not unless you mean the mob that hit the Piggly Wiggly during that snowstorm in January. I had to arrest three women fighting over the last package of toilet paper.”
“The fun never stops,” I said dryly. “I’ll be able to give you more specifics once I get him on the table. It looks like he’s been out here a little while. Or at least dead a while. He’s already out of the stages of rigor, so I’d put death between 30-48 hours ago.”
“I’ll check and see if we’ve had any missing persons reports,” Jack said, using his cell phone to call into the station and make the request to whoever had drawn the short straw to stay behind.
“Someone was supremely pissed at this guy,” I said once he’d hung up. “His kneecaps are shattered. The blood on the lower half of his body makes it too difficult to see his other wounds, but he was definitely alive when they relieved him of his genitalia. There’s too much blood for it to be otherwise.”
“Jesus,” Jack winced. “Would that be the cause of death?”
“Most likely. If they didn’t clamp the arteries and stop the blood loss, he would have gone into shock and eventually bled out. They knew what they were doing with the torture. Nothing was so severe it would have killed him.”
“What about that?” Jack asked, pointing to the black spot just below the hipbone that was crusted with dried blood.
I leaned in closer to get a better look, and I hissed out a breath between my teeth. It didn’t matter. The smell of charred flesh burned the inside of my nose, and I knew I’d be smelling it in my nightmares.
“He was branded,” I said almost to myself, following the unusual pattern with the tip of my gloved finger. I looked up at Jack and saw the anger smoldering behind his dark eyes. “I’ll take an imprint of it once I get back to the lab so we have a better picture, but it looks like someone left us a calling card.”
“That’ll certainly make them easier to find,” he said.
“I need a camera and a recorder,” I said. “I’ll need to collect some samples here because of the shape of the body. I don’t want to pick up anything extra or leave behind something important.”
Jack walked back to his cruiser and popped the trunk, producing both items.
“Record for me,” I said, snapping a few up close photos of each area of the body. “The victim is male, between the age of twenty-five and forty-five. Brown hair, brown eyes. Small scar on chin not congruent with current wounds. Probably sustained from childhood. He’s a big son of a bitch. Probably your height, Jack. But he’s got a little more weight on him. Ligature marks are visible around ankles and wrist. Slight abrasions around the neck and a few rope fibers. Bones in the hands and feet are crushed. So is the patella and surrounding bones in the knee. Blood loss looks like COD as there are no other mortal wounds that I can see. Unless he had a heart attack from the stress first.”
I took a step back and looked at what was left of what had been a man. There was pity inside of me, but also anger. I knew what real cruelty was, but it never ceased to amaze me that there were those who found joy in inflicting it.
“Jesus, Jack. What are we dealing with here?”
He held up a finger as his phone signaled a text message. “I don’t know what we’re dealing with, but maybe I know who. Reverend Thomas called into the station last night and said he thought Reverend Oglesby was missing—he’s the new priest the church brought in a few months ago,” he explained when he saw my blank look. “But the officer who took the call didn’t put much credence in it because Oglesby was supposed to be on vacation for a week visiting his father.”
I looked at the man strapped to the tree. A man who could have been someone chosen by the church to do no harm and help whomever he could. A man who was supposed to be gentle and kind.
“He deserves better than this,” I said.
“Everyone deserves better than this. Let’s cut the chains and get him the hell down from there.”