Rural Kentucky had its share of crime, but Deputy Ben Grover never got excited, even when something sounded like a good case. Normally it ended up being something simple, like a family dispute or misunderstanding. Family didn’t snitch and almost everyone was related in some distant way or through marriage.
Sheriff Larry, as he was known to everyone, liked things nice and quiet. His reelection signs were all over town with a picture of Larry in case anyone didn’t know who he was. A portly guy in his late fifties with a big smile, everyone liked Sheriff Larry, and Larry liked the calm and boring county.
The country life was good. Ben enjoyed knowing the people and being able to drive around his county blindfolded if he had to. Still, Ben longed for a bit more excitement, but his life was here. The radio in his squad car demanded his attention.
He grabbed the handset and pressed the button. “Grover here.”
“Respond to a report of a dead body behind the Good Ole Boy Inn. All yours,” said dispatch.
“Responding,” Ben replied. He flipped on the lights for a bit of fun. The sheriff didn’t respond unless it was high profile and the Good Ole Boy Inn was a gay dive bar just inside their jurisdiction. It drew men on the downlow from Lexington to Frankfurt and all the surrounding areas.
Three gay men had been reported missing in the last week. Of course, the families wouldn’t admit to them being gay, but interviews with coworkers and neighbors had confirmed it. But there was no sign of foul play, no blood, no signs of a struggle and no calls for ransom. Sheriff Larry was convinced they’d all gone on some gay camping trip and forgot to call off work…
The only real link between them so far was the red roses. Each had commented, before they went missing, to a friend or coworker about a red rose being left on their windshield at work, at home, or both…. Not much of a clue. If it was just one guy, it’d be weird, but not a major problem. Just a potential stalker they needed to identify and have a little chat with. Three guys with the rose man stalking them, however, was a big signal to Ben that someone out there was targeting gay men.
Some of the men didn’t live within the jurisdiction, so Larry was talking to other law enforcement, which complicated matters. Ben knew it wasn’t a big priority—gay men missing triggered Deliverance jokes or brought up John Wayne Gacy analogies.
The reality was that men going missing wasn’t the big news story or priority that kids or women were. Men wanted to believe they were all tough and that only weak and vulnerable people needed that sort of help. Plus, with no body, there was no proof of any crime. No blood at any scene and no witness to a struggle left them with nothing—it could just be a case of guys going out of town at the same time. Vacation, family emergency or whatever… To make it more challenging, some of the men worked and some didn’t.
Ben turned off down the dirt path that wasn’t well marked as any sort of driveway or street—he’d been to that gay dive bar plenty in his life. People had to know their way around the backwoods to find it. He’d been coming here since he was fourteen.
Ben parked his car along the side of the bar. The surroundings were was all dirt and sparse grass until he hit the woods behind the place. The bar itself was a dingy one-floor glorified shack with a wraparound porch. Underage teens were kept to the porch unless they had a decent fake ID. Luckily it was only noon and the bar wasn’t officially open yet.
The owner, Charlie Mullins, sat on the back porch in a rocking chair. He was pushing sixty and the eternal hippie. Rumor had it plenty of weed was grown in the woods around the bar. He had to support the business somehow. Inside, the drinks were cheap but the décor was often updated. Huge flatscreens hung around the bar, pool tables and dart boards were along the side and there were dark corners, as well as a disco ball over the smallish dance floor.
Ben had to be careful how much he shared with Charlie. He wasn’t just an older gay guy and friend now—Charlie was part of a case, and Ben had to keep his professional boundaries clear for the sake of the victims. To him, Charlie wasn’t a suspect, but what he knew might crack the case. Every gay guy who walked in here trusted Charlie with his life.
“Ben, thank God it’s you.” Charlie waved and walked down from the porch. “Drove up for a delivery and saw this rolled-up tarp. I got close enough to check if it was garbage and I saw enough of a body to call Sheriff Larry.”
“Garbage?” Ben asked.
“Sometimes we get the skinheads setting a fire or dumping scrap parts after they butchered something. Sometimes it’s trash, but they usually set it on fire. I never expected a dead body.”
“We’ll get the CSI group out here.” Ben took initial pics with his cell phone and sent the text for backup. A piece of paper was taped to the plastic trash bag.
“I didn’t touch nothing,” Charlie said.
“Good call. Ya’ll might need to close down for a night or two,” Ben warned.
“Come on, you know that’d cause a panic,” Charlie said.
“Let’s just see. We’ll try to keep things quiet, but not much happens around here. People start asking questions whenever they hear a siren or see flashing lights.” Ben took a few more pics with his cell phone, put on gloves and gently peeled the tape off so he could see the piece of paper. It was neon pink, hard to miss once the outer layer of plastic was pulled back.
“It’s a flyer for the Valentine’s dance at the community center.” Ben shook his head at the name. Cupid’s Ball.
Charlie nodded. “Something scribbled on the back.”
Ben flipped it over.
What comes by the dozen and sells out fast on Valentine’s Day? I promise not to take out more than a dozen men…we might not be welcome at the ball but you should come and see if there are any of them left…
“Valentine’s Day is only like a couple weeks away,” Charlie said.
“And this guy is going to take a dozen men. Damn,” Ben replied.
Charlie nodded. “You’ll find the bad guy. Wonder why he killed this one?”
Ben studied the note a moment longer. “Why, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out who. He’s not super young. I’d say our bad guy is in his thirties or older.”
“Why?” Charlie asked.
“Just the note. It’s in cursive. Kids today don’t use it much. Why would anyone have a problem with the dance? It’s at the community center, not one of the Baptist churches. Why wouldn’t gay couples be welcome?” Ben asked.
“I see your point.” Charlie sighed.
Bagging the note as evidence, Ben secured it in his pocket for now. He unrolled enough of the body to see that it was one of their missing persons. “Kevin Lawrence.”
“Shit. One of my best customers. I thought he’d just gone off on a bender. Sometimes he finds a boyfriend and drinks them both into the poorhouse,” Charlie said.
“No family or employer that we could find beyond his sister who’d reported him missing.” Ben took more pics. “I’ll call the coroner to get him out of here as soon as we can.”
“Thanks. He didn’t work that I know of. Maybe he turned a few tricks with guys at the bar, but he wasn’t a pro at that either. I think he had two sisters, lived in the basement of one of them.”
“Did he mention anything odd before he disappeared?” Ben asked.
“Just the rose. He drove a piece of crap older than he was. Who’d leave a rose on his windshield?” Charlie asked.
“At home?” Ben asked.
“That’s what he said.” Charlie shrugged. “We’re going to be on the news.”
“Sorry, we’ll try to keep it quiet. Two other gay men are missing. We could have a serial killer on our hands. Do you know Jim Hannigan or Tony Morgan?” Ben asked.
“I know most of my customers by face, not necessarily full name. Jim works the deli counter at the supermarket in town. I’d have to see a pic of the other guy.” Charlie pulled out his asthma inhaler and took a puff. “Damn humidity.”
“You and Kevin have any issues?” Ben asked.
Charlie shook his head. “He had an outstanding tab but never started fights or anything. Sometimes I’d find him sleeping on the back porch. Not sure if he fought with his sister, got locked out, or had a bad date and no ride home. His dad kicked him out in high school for screwing around with guys. That shit still happens, but it’s less common. More people got sense now. How do you finish high school or get a job without an address? Sleeping over at friend’s houses and so on. I felt bad for the kid.”
“That sucks.” Ben had heard the story plenty of times before, but that didn’t give Kev a reason to run up a tab or impose on others—he was in his mid-twenties now. The economy sucked and good jobs were hard to come by, but he could find some sort of work and help his sister, not just sponge off her.
Charlie sneezed. “Damn. Mold must be high. I gotta take something.”
“Sure, you can go inside. I’ll wait until backup gets here and join you,” Ben said.
“Thanks. I need a drink too. Guys come and go, but this isn’t looking good.” Charlie shuffled into the bar through the back door.
Ben surveyed the area. No tire tracks or ATV tracks into the woods. Smiling at the memories from his teen years that he’d made in those woods and on that back porch, Ben pushed the guilt down. He’d have been easy pickings for some creepy gay serial killer. In a bar like this, people trusted that everyone was here for the same thing, a safe place to be gay. Nowhere was safe anymore.
The backup arrived quickly, and Ben hoped they’d find some concrete clues to help catch whoever had done this. Maybe they could save the two other missing guys before they were killed. With their limited resources, the odds were against them.
“Sheriff wants you back at the station. The Feds came in to help since we had three missing persons. Guess he made the case they were potential kidnappings,” Dr. Jessie Manning called as she waited for the others to finish with the body.
Jess was the town doctor and the elected county coroner. Today she looked a bit greener than normal.
“Thanks for the info. You okay, Doc?” Ben asked.
“Sure. I should say, I’m expecting so I can’t do the autopsy. The chemicals. I’ll have it done as fast as I can round up someone else,” she said.
“If you need to go, go. He’s pretty dead. We can have a doc at the hospital morgue pronounce him,” Ben offered.
Small towns had to bend the rules to protect their own at times. But dead was dead.
“No, I just have to check him over. Then I poke him in the liver, see what his body temp is. That’ll give us a close-ish time of death.” She headed down into the ditch.
“Feds? Really?” Ben asked.
“One, anyway. Ross something. Hot. Tall with curly hair. Looking for you like he knew you. Said he’s from around these parts.” She snapped on gloves and went to work. “Dead, appears to be strangulation. Wallet says he’s Kevin Lawrence and the face matches the ID. Good enough for me.”
Ben tossed her a few evidence bags. “Thanks.”
She pulled the thermometer from the body. “Dead for ten to twelve hours. Plastic was good for preservation, kept the critters away, but bug infestations are setting in. I’ll get you more when we have it.”
“Thanks. Guess I should get back.” Ben watched the guys load the body into the coroner’s van, then headed to the squad car.
Ross? Of course they’d send him. He was from the area and he was gay. Ben wasn’t ready to face his high school ex, who’d gone off to the big city for college and was a freaking hero to the people around here. But no way would Sheriff Larry or this case allow Ben to avoid Ross Burns.
The gangly-ish Ross from high school with curly hair he’d grown out to annoy his dad had filled out and sharpened up the last time Ben had clapped eyes on his ex. Ross’d turned out to be tall and well-built, with short dark curly hair and ice-blue eyes. He’d been called handsome by everyone. His looks were just half of his charms. The man was fearless, confident and smart. It’d been twelve years since graduation—although there had been a few hookups when Ross came home from college. The sex was always amazingly hot, but their relationship couldn’t work. The FBI had moved Ross around the country after he’d completed the academy.
Ben headed for the station. “Focus on the case, not your ex,” he reminded himself. He was already talking to himself and feeling crazy—but that was what his ex did to him—and Ross would be cool and relaxed about everything. Ben would have to fake it.