Step aside Stephanie Plum!
In Jinx Ballou, Dharma Kelleher has created a tough, complex character who is a former police officer, a comic book nerd, and a Wonder Woman cosplayer. Jinx also happens to be transgender.
Dharma herself is trans and in our interview she talks about writing the books she wants to read, something I can totally relate to because I do the same thing. Dharma wanted to read about complex characters with rich lives in a way that wasn’t focused on their gender identity or their transition. Those kinds of books are amazing and have undoubtedly supported and assisted many people, and now there’s room in the publishing space for the type of book Dharma wants to read and write. Thank goodness for that!
In the introduction I also mention that I recently found out that my memoir, Cult, A Love Story, is being used as one of the textbooks in a psychology of cults class at a university in Iowa. Exciting!
Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor
This week’s mystery author
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty crime thrillers including the Jinx Ballou Bounty Hunter series and the Shea Stevens Outlaw Biker series.
Dharma is one of the only openly transgender authors in the crime fiction genre. Her action-driven thrillers explore the complexities of social and criminal justice in a world where the legal system favors the privileged.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Alliance of Independent Authors. She lives in Arizona with her wife Eileen and a black cat named Mouse
To learn more about Dharma and all her books visit DharmaKelleher.com
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Excerpt from Chaser
A blond woman opened the door, her swollen left eye shining with the rich color and texture of an overripe eggplant. Dried blood trailed from her twisted nose, over her split lip, and onto her faded Disney Cinderella T-shirt. Purple, green, and yellow bruises on her arms and legs documented a history of abuse.
“Jesus Christ! That looks like it hurts.” I stood on her doorstep in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope neighborhood, sweat beading on my skin in the late-afternoon heat. “Freddie do that to you?”
“What do you want?” Her fat lip and broken nose made it sound more like “Wuh you wuhn?” She glared at me from her open doorway, resting a hand on her hip.
“You’re Vanessa Nealey, right?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Gee, I figured the words Bail Enforcement Agent printed in big yellow letters on my Kevlar vest would’ve given it away.” I handed her my business card with a sardonic grin. “Jinx Ballou, friendly neighborhood bounty hunter. Your boyfriend, Freddie Colton, missed his court date. Big Bobby Mills at Liberty Bail Bonds hired me to pick him up. Is he here?”
Vanessa crumpled the business card and tossed it at my feet. “Go to hell, lady.” She started to shut the door, but I caught it with the toe of my boot.
“Listen up, princess! You put your home up as collateral. If Prince Charming doesn’t come along with me, your bond is forfeit. Know what that means? It means no happily ever after. Liberty Bail Bonds will take your house, and you’ll be on the street. Is Freddie really worth all that?”
She held my gaze for several seconds before her expression softened. “He ain’t here.”
“You sure about that?”
Vanessa stepped aside. “You wanna look around? Be my guest.”
I was tempted to take her up on her offer, just in case she was bluffing. Technically, I didn’t need her permission or even a warrant. By law, people on bail were still considered to be in custody, which was one of several reasons I quit the Phoenix PD years ago to be a bounty hunter. Too many regs. Too much paperwork.
My gut told me Vanessa was telling the truth. Freddie’s Trans Am wasn’t in the carport, and I didn’t get the impression she was ready to lose her home just yet. “Where is he?”
“Out drinking, prob’ly.”
I rolled my eyes. Sometimes my job was like pulling teeth. “Out drinking where?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. We done here?”
I considered pressing her, but the sun was turning the back of my neck into bacon. I retrieved my crumpled business card and planted it in her hand. “Might want to hold onto this. If Freddie shows up, you’ll want to call me. Unless you’d prefer living on the street when it’s a hundred and ten out.”
I turned to go, then pivoted to face her again. “Tell me something. Why do you put up with his bullshit? How many times has he been arrested for beating you up? Six, seven times at least, according to his sheet. And yet you keep posting his bail, dropping the charges, and letting him back in to do it all over again. I don’t get it.”
“Freddie loves me.” She raised her chin with royal indignation.
“Geez, you really believe that, don’t you?”
“We done here?”
“Do yourself a favor, Vanessa. Toss his crap onto the sidewalk, change the locks, and don’t bail him out again. He isn’t worth it.”
“Mind your own damn business, lady.” She shoved me away and slammed the door.
I wiped the sweat from my face and pulled my walkie-talkie from my tactical belt. “Okay, guys! Let’s pack it up. Girlfriend says he ain’t here.”
“Bullshit!” came a gravelly reply from my associate, Fiddler. “When’ve you ever taken the word of a skip’s girlfriend, Jinx?”
“Not usually, but this time I think she’s telling the truth. Car’s gone. Looks like he beat the ever-lovin’ shit out of her—again—and went out drinking.”
Fiddler, whose real name was Robert Dixon, was a bounty hunter from way back and was considered a legend in the business. Medical issues had forced him to give up leading his own team. But he could still guard a back door, and his prowess as a fugitive hunter was an invaluable resource. At least when I listened to him.
“I bet money he’s in there hiding like the little pissant he is.” Fiddler shuffled around from the backyard, his beer gut bouncing with each stride. Gray hair hung like ragged curtains from his jawline and down the back of his denim shirt.
Nathaniel “Rodeo” Kwan, an army veteran I’d been training for the past few months, approached from the east side of the house. He was a slim guy, a few years younger than me, sporting a straw Stetson on his head and a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds slung over his shoulder. “If he ain’t in there, where’s he at?”
“Not sure.” I led them back to my seven-year-old silver Nissan Pathfinder. Nicknamed the Gray Ghost, it featured an extensive collection of dents, scrapes, missing trim, and peeling paint that rendered it invisible when I was looking for defendants on bail who’d missed their court dates.
I hopped into the front seat and started the engine. The blast of hot air from the vents made me wince. Rodeo claimed the seat next to me. Fiddler slid into the back.
Flipping through Freddie’s paperwork didn’t yield any clues about his usual hangouts. I pulled out my phone and checked his social media accounts.
“Ha! You can run, but you’re too stupid to hide.” I held out the phone to Rodeo, showing a status update posted twenty minutes earlier. “He’s at some place called One-Eyed Jack’s. Dunlap and Nineteenth. I love dumb criminals, don’t you?”
“One-Eyed Jack’s?” Fiddler harrumphed. “Jesus! That place is a bucket of blood.”
“It’s that bad, huh?” I asked.
“Bad?” Fiddler laughed darkly. “Used to be called Jack’s Saloon till the owner lost an eye in a bar fight. Friend of mine took a knife in the belly there for ogling some dude’s girl.”
“Friend of yours, huh?” I shook my head as I navigated out of the neighborhood and turned north on Seventh Avenue toward Dunlap. “You hang out with some choice people, Fiddler.”
“All turned out for the best, though,” he continued. “After my friend got outta the hospital, he never cheated on his old lady again.”
Rough bars didn’t scare me. Okay, maybe they did a little. But after my high school boyfriend’s father beat me half to death on our graduation night, I’d made it my mission to learn how to handle myself. I’d trained for years in krav maga and aikido. I also practiced parkour to help me escape situations that got out of control.
In my eight years as a bounty hunter, I’d been in countless fights, often with guys much bigger than I am. I’d been stabbed a few times. Caught bird shot in the shoulder once. A moon-shaped scar on my lower back marked where a .44 Magnum slug had clipped the edge of my Kevlar vest. Typical hazards of the trade.
Nevertheless, I was the team leader. It was on me to determine how to take Freddie the abusive asshole into custody, ideally without starting a brawl with a bar full of his drinking buddies.
A plan formed as I waited for the light on Dunlap and Fifteenth Avenue to turn green. I’d tried it a few times before with mixed success, but it beat any alternatives I could come up with. “Okay, kiddos, we’re going with a honey trap,” I announced.
“Aw, shit!” Rodeo and Fiddler said in unison.
“You lost your damn mind, girl?” Fiddler growled. “Those animals’ll eat you alive and ask for seconds. Besides, Conor would have my ass if I let you go into that bar alone.”
Conor Doyle was my boyfriend and a fellow bounty hunter who had worked with Fiddler back in the day. Until we started dating a year ago, Conor was also my boss. When our relationship caused friction among the other team members, I started my own fugitive apprehension crew with Conor’s help.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Fiddler, this is my crew, not Conor’s.” I balked. “I sign your paychecks. I call the shots.”
“With all due respect, Jinx,” Rodeo said, “a honey pot doesn’t sound like a smart strategy for this situation. Too many ways it can go sideways. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”
I wiped the sweat from my face. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“I say we go in with guns drawn and drag his sorry ass out of that shit hole they call a bar.” Fiddler chucked Rodeo on the shoulder. “Give ’em a little shock and awe, right, soldier boy?”
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed. “One of us might even get out alive to collect the bounty.”
“GPS says One-Eyed Jack’s is over there.” Rodeo pointed at a shopping center to our left, and I slipped into the turn lane. “A more prudent approach would be to wait and grab him as he’s leaving. Maybe he’ll be too soused to put up much resistance by then.”
I shook my head. “That could take hours. Phoenix Comicon starts tomorrow. I’m not cosplaying as Wonder Woman with bags under my eyes. Nobody wants to see that.”
I turned in to the shopping center lot and parked on the other side of Colton’s Trans Am, out of sight of the bar’s front door. The AC was only now blowing cold. I leaned in and savored the cool air on my face.
“We’re going with the honey trap. So you got a choice. Either be my backup and get paid, or you can catch an Uber home and I’ll keep the whole bounty for myself.”
“I got your six, Jinx,” Rodeo said after a tense moment of silence. “Honey trap it is.”
Fiddler’s phone rang. He answered it in hushed, angry tones. I couldn’t make out the words but figured it was one of his ex-wives calling to bitch about something.
When he hung up, I asked, “Which one of the former Mrs. Fiddlers was that? Molly, Daisy, or Daphne?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, Daisy.”
“Child support again?” Rodeo asked with a smirk.
“Something like that.”
“So you in or out, Fiddler?” I turned in my seat to look at him directly. I’d been getting tired of his nonsense lately. Half the time he didn’t answer his phone when I called. And when he did show up, he smelled like the crowd at a Phish concert.
“Aw, what the hell! I’m in,” he grumbled. “But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
“Duly noted.” I pulled off my ballistic vest and handed it to Rodeo.
“I got a bad feeling about this, Jinx,” Rodeo said.
“Zip it, Han Solo. We each do our jobs, no one gets hurt.” I handed him my Ruger .40 caliber, my Taser, and my tactical belt. “Toss me my purse.”
He pulled my black cloth purse from the glove box and offered it to me. “But if what Fiddler says about this place is true—”
“Relax, I still have the .357 revolver in my ankle holster if things go sideways. Hand me the cuffs from my tactical belt.” He did, and I slipped them into my back pocket.
“Now for a little macho-man kryptonite.” With the makeup kit from my purse, I added some smoky eye shadow and thickened my lashes and eyeliner to make my eyes pop. I finished off the look with some slutty red lipstick. Normally, I was more sporty gal than girly girl, keeping the makeup to a minimum. But I could still crank up the femme when the job called for it. “How do I look?” I asked.
Rodeo studied my outfit and makeup, turning my face one way then another. He removed the band from my ponytail and let my black hair fall loose on my shoulders.
“Makeup’s good—hot but not too over-the-top trailer trash. The oversized Diamondbacks jersey is okay, barely. But the dad jeans and biker boots don’t exactly scream ‘sexy,’ especially for pulling a honey trap. A lacy blouse, Daisy Dukes, and strappy sandals would be better.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have any of those with me, do I, Mr. Project Runway?”
He tilted his head, squinted, then tied a knot in the bottom of my jersey, exposing my midriff. “Gonna have to show some skin, girl.” He flicked open a jackknife and pointed it at my chest.
My eyes widened. “What the hell?”
“Chill, girl.” He pulled at the front of my collar with his free hand, cut a six-inch vertical slit in the top of the jersey, then folded under the newly made corners. “Just exposing a little cleavage. If you’re gonna go fishing, you gotta use the right bait.”
“Dude, I borrowed this jersey from my brother. Cost him a hundred bucks. He’s going to kill me.”
“Yeah, but now you look less like a construction worker.” He popped his Stetson onto my head. “And more like a hot piece of ass.”
I smirked, unsure how to take his comment. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Enough with the fashion show,” Fiddler grumbled. “We gonna do this or not? I got shit to do.”
“Fine. I’ll go in and draw Freddie out. Rodeo, I want you in front to help me muscle him into the Gray Ghost. Fiddler, guard the rear door in case Freddie makes me and bolts out the back.”
I turned off the ignition, and we climbed out. The heat hit me like a blast from a hot oven. I hoped my face didn’t melt before I got inside.
“All right, everybody in position. Let’s take this guy down and call it a day.”
Fiddler moseyed past the Subway shop at the end of the strip mall on his way around to the back of the bar. Rodeo took a position near a support column, shotgun at his side, where he watched me hustle toward the entrance.
A mountain of a bouncer sat on a stool beside the door, staring at his cellphone. As I approached, he stood and looked up. “ID?”
I handed him my driver’s license. The bouncer glanced at it, then looked me up and down.
A tremor of nervousness rippled through me, accompanied by a memory of me with my best friend, Becca Alvarez, on our way to see the movie Anywhere but Here at the dollar theater. I was eleven and still new to going out dressed as a girl. Despite Becca’s reassurances that I looked very feminine, I was terrified someone would figure out I was transgender.
I had handed our tickets to the woman in the theater lobby. She looked down at me and stopped in the middle of tearing the tickets, no doubt deciding whether I was a boy or a girl.
I stood there feeling like a deer in the headlights until Becca nudged me and whispered, “Smile, Jinx.”
I did. The ticket taker reciprocated. “Enjoy the movie, girls.”
I brought my mind back to the present and forced a smile. The bouncer handed me my driver’s license without a word and returned to his phone.
I breathed a sigh of relief and opened the heavy front door. As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I realized Fiddler wasn’t kidding about the clientele.
A dozen or so men looking like escapees from a supermax prison sat at mismatched tables, their eyes following me to the bar. Some chatted up young women with a definite pay-for-play vibe. A couple of bikers in leather vests and bandanas crowded around a pool table along the far wall. The place reeked of stale beer and dollar store perfume, with a metallic undertone I suspected was blood.
On a flat screen mounted above the bar, the Arizona Diamondbacks were losing to the Phillies, while Keith Urban belted out a tune on the sound system.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been in a place like this. Certainly not the last considering my line of work. I should’ve been terrified. Not the kind of joint a trans woman should linger in if she valued her life. But I was on the job, and my pulse raced with the thrill of the hunt.