Laine Cunningham's latest, Beloved, marries mystery with the strong literary flavor for which she is known in her award-winning novels like The Family Made of Dust. Her voice sings the cultural richness of the Hindu pantheon using a lovely South-Asian FBI Agent protagonist to make a mark in Southern serial crime. With one foot planted in the laws of man and the other in a deeply spiritual world, Priya Conlin-Kumar fights to bring two serial killers to justice…This story is beautiful, smart, and as intriguing as any good genre mystery but the award-winning talents of the author make this tale intelligently deep with lyrical storytelling and strong character development. I've admired Laine Cunningham's writing prowess for several years but Beloved takes her talent to a new high, straddling the worlds of mystery and literary, crime-fighting and spiritual revelation, giving us a story we can't put down.
--C. Hope Clark, Author, Lowcountry Bribe and The
Laine Cunningham is an outstanding writer. Beloved is proof of this. It is however a very violent disturbing thriller and not recommended for those who can't tolerate this type of writing. If you could handle Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then you will be able to handle this. The story is filled with constant action ... we have a tale that moves at an incredible pace and will keep you in suspense from start to finish.
--Amazon Top Reviewer
An "intensely compelling novel that places serial killing in the context of fantasy, spirituality, and mystical otherworld atmospheres."
--Amazon Hall of Fame Reviewer
Shortlisted for the Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Award
Beloved is an incredibly interesting, well-written psychological thriller. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the genre, this book is a great read.
Laine Cunningham has a great skill.... The book is fast paced and climactic.
--T.J. Lawson, GoodReads
Beloved is a thriller in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs but on a whole different level. Using metaphors and visions from Indian mythology as a framing device, it becomes not just the tale of a monstrously brilliant serial killer pursued by a dogged FBI agent dealing with her own past but a battle in the ongoing war between Good and Evil. With its well-crafted suspense and quick, deft characterizations, it was hard to put down.--Martin Smith, President, Pencil Point Mountain
Supported by Wildacres Arts & Humanities Center Residency
Beloved ranks among the great thrillers of all time. Laine Cunningham combines tenacity and courage along with profound insight to create a…disturbing yet fascinating account of the devastating effects of a serial killer. Through sparkling prose, her story sparks fury and tears. It is impossible to read this book unmoved.--Pamela King Cable, ALA's Top Pick Author of Televenge and Southern Fried Women
Beloved had me on the edge of my seat from the first paragraph to the last. This fast paced thriller is incredibly well written—a dark sensation. The setting, the prose, the plot, all of it comes together to create a nail-biting story, which draws you in. I usually avoid this genre, but I’m really glad I made this exception. Brava, Laine Cunningham! You did it right.
--Leah Griffith, Author Cosette's Tribe
Supported by Vermont Studio Center Residency & Grant
Chapter One from Beloved
The day Margo died was like any other. Being only nineteen years old, she thought no more of death than any other student attending the fall semester’s classes at her small West Virginia college. Instead she hustled every morning through Wheeling’s dark streets to the bakery in the historic district. For a few hours she mixed eggs and flour and water then made pastries for the early rush. Later she drove a few miles up the mountain to West Liberty State College where she vacillated between music composition and statistics. The afternoon released her to studying and chores before hungry commuters pulled her from bed again.
Her apartment was part of a house that had been subdivided into four separate units. Although the sink was cracked and the tub a distressing shade of yellow, the kitchen window looked out over a bend in the Ohio River. The pleasure boats that lingered during these still-warm days were too noisy for her liking. In winter, though, she perched on the counter for hours watching barges thrum past. As the chill crept through the glass she thought that her brother was like the speed boats, hyped up on drugs and constantly turning back to founder in the turbulence of his wake. How a big brother could have grown to prefer the company of methheads and crack addicts was a problem neither the rules of mathematics nor the cadence of music could solve or soothe.
When her father, a vibrant soul who had swept his daughter into a dizzying rumba every Saturday, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, Margo realized that having people in your life didn’t always mean you were in theirs. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t mind that her elderly neighbor stopped by several times a week. He disguised his loneliness by borrowing sugar or passing along magazines he’d just finished. She always made time for him, even if it were only a few of those minutes lost with her own family, seeing in him some reflection of what her father might have become and a bit of what her brother wouldn’t live long enough to be. So when the knock came that Friday evening at 5:45, or perhaps it was already a quarter past six, she didn’t check the peephole to see who was there.
* * *
Quinn Lawrence stood on the landing. If anyone had seen him enter the building, they might have noticed the trim of his waist or how his shoulders had been broadened by weight training. They might have noticed his crown of salt-and-pepper hair or the cologne that eddied in faint sandalwood and citrus trails around him. If they had seen him stop at Margo’s door, they might even have thought he was her father. But no one had seen him. He held the doorknob ever so lightly to feel it turn. The moment the latch was fully retracted, he shoved the door hard. He heard the tiny cry as he pushed inside.
“Margo,” he panted, “I need your help. It’s my daughter. She’s threatening to kill herself. You have to call her! You have to talk her out of it! Where’s your phone?”
As he looked around, he closed the door behind him and slid the bolt quietly into place. He’d met the young woman at the bakery months ago, and had spoken perhaps a dozen times whenever business brought him back to Wheeling. Right now, he knew, she was trying to remember if she’d mentioned where she lived. Fear was rapidly gaining the upper hand. He had to keep her off balance.
“But I don’t know your daughter,” she stammered as he led her to the phone.
“You’re her age and you’re both in college. She’ll relate to you. Please!”
He looked into her eyes. In that moment, he allowed her beauty—an overwhelming, staggering beauty so incandescent that light streamed from her skin, her fingers, every strand of her hair—to touch him. Tears filled his eyes. Just as he’d planned, Margo read those tears as a father’s concern for his daughter.
“I’ll pay for the call,” he said. “I know it’s long-distance.”
She waved off his concern and punched in the numbers he recited. Months of planning had culminated in this moment. Quinn breathed in the scent of her hairspray, the pale of her skin, the kaleidoscope of her apartment. Then he whipped her into a headlock that prevented anything more than a muffled scream. She struggled more vigorously than a woman her size normally could but he knocked her feet out from under her. After a quick loop of duct tape hooked her wrists, he buckled a ball gag into her mouth, bound her ankles, and pulled short lengths of rope from his pocket.
There was no need to hurry. He never hurried, not even when adrenaline sent blood rushing through his ears like a lake that had burst its dam. Somewhere under the roar his heart kept time and wound the movements of his hands and legs as surely as cogs. He counted the turns of each bond, the loops of each knot, the tugs and half-tugs that tightened every strand. He was careful to apply the ropes in a way that was visually pleasing. He would mark her with bruises later, eventually marking her heavily, and he wanted the imprint left by the ropes to enhance the artistry of his work. Above it all would be her face, pristine and unmarked, glowing with the radiance achieved only at the moment of death.
She accepted his hands quietly, perhaps hoping he would spare her life. He smoothed her hair back and swept away tears with his thumb. Her sepia hair had been cut into jagged layers, her ears were pierced only once, and her body was almost adolescent in structure. But her eyes were the dun of an autumn moon. With them, she saw the light of this world as surely as did he. Therein lay her true beauty. Quinn constantly sifted the crowds for them, women who paused to admire the buds on an avenue’s trees or who turned their heads to smell the oranges piled outside a corner market. Only women who treasured the beauty of the world became his. Only they received his gift.
He retrieved his gym bag from the landing. With the steady confidence of
experience, he installed a telescoping chin-up bar in the archway to the
kitchen. Margo would hang there later allowing him access to every inch of her flesh. First, though, he cleared the dinette table of placemats and plants then unpacked his instruments. Canes of varying lengths and diameters, light clubs of wood and beef bones, even a scrap of rabbit fur filled the table. The canes were an assortment of birch branches, fiberglass rods and walking sticks wrapped with handles of silk. Margo’s silks, including the cord that would end her life, were navy. When the equipment had served its purpose, it would be burned. Although destroying the equipment ensured that nothing traced back to him forensically, he did it for the women. He made every one of the tools himself. The rods were sized to one frame, the clubs weighted for a precise impact. Using them on someone else would cheapen the experience.
Hunting in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle region gave him the chance to find women he’d never meet in his old-money Philadelphia neighborhood. Since Wheeling’s tourists and transplants wanted culture with their mountain lifestyle, the region’s many arts fairs, music festivals and historic events made hunting easy. He used these different venues for his initial approach. If the woman was young, he produced pictures of children he claimed as his own even though he’d bought the snapshots from a photographer’s studio in Boston.
Slightly older women were approached as associates while women his own age were treated with the casual ease his generation had championed in the era of free love. All were dosed with charm; all sensed his absolute adoration. Women, he knew, were works of art. Their shapes were pleasing to the eye, their voices soothed the newborn, and their flesh was a soft rapture. But few let light permeate their souls.
That was how Quinn chose his partners…that’s what he called them, these women to whom he ministered—partners. Margo was his most recent, younger than average but still deserving of his gift. Dawn would touch the mountain’s peaks before she received that climax. Tonight would be the last night of Margo’s life, and it would be exquisite.
* * *
Priya Conlin-Kumar looked out the window at the mountain ridges stalking the hotel. The last few days like the days preceding all her transfers had been a rush of paperwork, garbled orders and a dearth of information. Although she’d been with the FBI for nearly fifteen years, she’d never really learned how to manipulate the bureaucracy. She was also far from what people expected in a special agent.
Barely five-four with a single thick braid that fell past her ribcage, she
often took people off guard when they saw her shield. Add to that a mix of
Indian and American heritages, a honey-brown face and dark lotus eyes, and she knew exactly why her duties had taken on a new dimension after 9/11. While a small percentage of the population could tell South Asians from Arabs from Israelis, paranoia couldn’t sort curry from Creole.
Priya had known the FBI was preparing to rotate her assignment again and had been mentally preparing to leave the few friends she’d found during her two brief years in Chicago. Although every police department from small cities to major metropolitan areas now hosted an agent tasked with homeland security, she hadn’t expected to be rotated to West Virginia. Wheeling’s digs did include the FBI’s fingerprinting lab. Still the place was more of an outpost than a field office, and Priya’s assignment to investigate potential money laundering through North Carolina’s national banking institutions promised to be as dusty as the boxes of papers she’d have to study.
Before her transfer had officially come though, the body of an Ohio resident had been found dumped just inside West Virginia’s state line. The victim was one of dozens who’d gone missing from in and around the Panhandle in recent years. While the number of missing persons was higher than average, until corpses started to surface, the police hadn’t been able to open any murder investigations. The break they’d been waiting for had finally come. Although the body was badly decomposed, the woman had been identified as a thirty-two-year-old history buff who gave tours at a museum in nearby St. Clairsville, Ohio. When a college student was found beaten and strangled in her own apartment two days later, the Bureau was asked to investigate whether Wheeling had a serial killer.
Priya had been hustled off with only a few hours’ notice. Now, after the sun had dropped behind the ridge and brought a premature dusk, she looked over the tumble of houses and highways that was her new home. Nothing, it seemed, ran in a straight line. There were only funhouse slopes, spasmodic roads and the constant press of trees bearing down, always down. Only the Ohio River, visible as a strip of waxy skin, had any sense of purpose.
As the light continued to fade, a thick fog billowed down the slopes. A Hindu story said the universe had once been a vast ocean of milk. Then a gigantic Naga, or serpent, had wrapped itself around a mountain. As the snake spun and the mountain turned, the entire cosmos had become a churn. The milk separated into the different parts of the material
world including a poisonous blue haze. The god Shiva swallowed the mist to save the newborn creation. But Shiva wasn’t on the Alleghenies and Priya didn’t see any giant snakes. Still the fog grew as if whipped by a churn. Great waves of mist boiled around the restaurant across from the hotel. Cars honked as the mist clotted around the stoplights and street lamps snapped on. A rumble like a tsunami grew as a poisonous blue haze rose toward Priya’s floor.
She couldn’t help but step back. When she did, the mist disappeared. The soft scent of cream gave way to the hotel’s bland odor. Only the slow traffic on the street hinted that the mist had been real, and the cars picked up speed so quickly Priya doubted they had ever slowed. Jet lag, she thought, even though she knew the explanation was poor. The flight hadn’t been long enough to make her miss a meal let alone much sleep. She shook off the odd vision. Her supervisor was waiting to brief her. Since he’d been working the bank case for so long, he would keep that on his desk for now and let her ramp up on the murders. Since she would attend the task force meeting the next morning, she hoped her boss could tip her off about any political landmines that might be scattered around town.
She rummaged through her overnight bag hoping her clothes weren’t too wrinkled. The moving company even now was packing her household, so it would be a week or two before her things caught up with her. With sudden transfers inherent to her job, she viewed the Bureau like an oversexed boyfriend—it always came on at the worst time and if it finished first, there wasn’t much to do except sigh and roll over. At least with the Bureau she didn’t have to shower afterward.
Occasionally she tumbled with bad guys but most arrests were handled by local officials. The FBI just offered support—manpower, labs and specialists, the occasional profiler. They rarely got their hands dirty and focused much of their time on financial fraud and other crimes heavy with paperwork.
This type of assignment had first drawn her to a career in law enforcement. Violence had been Priya’s companion since before her birth. Her mother had been gang-raped during her parent’s second honeymoon in India. The daughter conceived that night had been an eternal reminder of one terrible hour. Although Priya never sought any logical explanation for that type of behavior, she’d heard plenty of theories from others. She didn’t buy a speck of the feminist prattle that claimed all men would rape given the opportunity. Nor did she swing to the misogynistic opposite and think that domineering women turned their sons into monsters.
Sadistic killers had been around long before Jack the Ripper. People frightened by mutilated victims conjured up vampires, werewolves and witches, allowing the real monsters to slide away under the chaos created by fables. Profiling had taught her that these ghouls were horribly human. She supposed she could have become angry and blamed the world for the acts of a few barbaric men. But she hadn’t, in part due to her mother’s straightforward attitude. That hadn’t stopped Priya from turning those feelings inside, though. Her zeal for taking down sexual predators at times felt frantic, as if she’d integrated some blue haze, some poisonous corruption, during her own creation. She knew it wasn’t true, of course. Yet deep inside her was a throb as faint and threatening as an enemy drum sounding across the battlefield.