Rating: 4 stars
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A mother receives a letter threatening to kill her disabled child if she hasn’t left town with the child by a specified date. While her husband doesn’t take the note seriously, the mother does and reports it to her father, the mayor. With the mayor’s family involved, the police assign Detective Jeff Woods and his partner, Detective Parker Trenkins, to the case and their initial findings are unsettling. It’s not only the mayor’s daughter whose disabled child is threatened, but others as well. At the center of the investigation is St. Christopherus School, a private school for disabled children, where a number of accidents involving their students have occurred.
Gay and in the closet, Jeff Woods seeks out one night stands at local gay bars to ease his sexual frustration and stress over the case. At the bar is a young man, Alex Fisher, who is determined to pick up the attractive detective, no matter how many snubs he receives from Jeff. Alex succeeds after convincing Jeff he wants a casual hookup only. But their one night stand turns into something neither man was looking for, with a casual sexual encounter turning serious towards the end.
Both men flee back to their private lives in response to their feelings, Jeff to his job and investigation and Alex to his life centered on his disabled brother and the multiple jobs he needs to support them. As Jeff’s investigation spreads out to other students in the school, he encounters Alex and his brother. Their attraction and connection snaps to life when they meet again. It also brings up a prejudice against the disabled that Jeff didn’t know he had. Jeff and his partner must fight their own prejudices and their past to find a hidden killer targeting disabled children before Alex and his brother become the killer’s next victims.
It took me a while to like the main characters and storyline of Attachment Strings. At the beginning, this is a pretty gritty and brutal story. Jeff and his partner, Parker, are not easily likable men. Parker, who becomes important later on, is a loudmouth, a seeming bigot, and definitely not someone you would want as a partner. What a surprise he turns out to be. But it is Jeff’s character that must overcome several large obstacles before the reader’s affections are engaged. Jeff is all about control. He doesn’t appear to have any prejudices, he is gay and in the closet, although not very deeply. Chris T. Kat gives us a complicated man in Jeff Woods because she makes him stubborn, somewhat arrogant, and finally so prejudiced against a section of society especially vulnerable and fragile that his bigoted attitude is just so ugly that it threatens to derail her story. That is one mess of a main character and a huge portion of readers might not make it through the first ten chapters to get to the best part of this story and Jeff’s redemption.
Yes, I said ten chapters. That is almost one third of the book, but it is necessary to outline and set the foundation for this story and I found it kind of brave. One remarkable aspect of Attachment Strings is that disabled children are not portrayed as glowing totally unrealistic little kids who always smile like cherubs, are easy to care for, and put up little to no fuss. No, Kat gives us realistic portraits of children who drool, flail, gibber, and hoot. Kids that others, including some adults, look askance at even as the kids are strapped into chairs, with helmeted heads and uncontrollable limbs. The children that no one really wants to look at but would never admit to that fact. This is our and Jeff’s first introduction to Sean, Alex’s brother:
A shrill, piercing whistle startled both Parker and me. Alex appeared to be the only one unperturbed. He smiled at the child in his arms and asked, “You wanna stand and say hello?”
Another piercing whistle answered. This time Parker and I merely winced. We exchanged a worried glance when Alex shifted the weight of his bundle until the child stood on his feet.
“Should he, uh, even try to stand?” Parker asked cautiously.
“I’m holding him and he loves to stand and walk.” Alex wound his arms around the child’s torso and together, they maneuvered him around until he faced us.
The boy’s movements were spastic and I hastily took a step backward, barely evading getting hit by his flailing limbs. The boy was as blond as Alex, but he bore not even a trace of Alex’s beauty. The skin on his face was stretched taut and saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth in a steady stream. The bandana he wore functioned probably as some kind of bib; it just looked more stylish. I wrinkled my nose. The sight of this kid was not pretty. Most definitely not.
And the descriptions of life with Sean get more graphic as Alex feeds Sean while answering Jeff’s questions. Jeff’s reaction to Sean surprises both himself and his partner. It’s ugly and perhaps even pretty common. This is also where the story really grabbed onto my attention and heart. We watch not only as Jeff comes to grips with his feelings and prejudices, but also watch the love and care that Alex feels for and gives to his brother. In fact, this story is full of parents and teachers who are fervent in their love and support of these special children. We are pulled into that love and intimacy along with Jeff. And that makes the killer all the more heinous.
Jeff’s partner, Parker, is another quirky character. It is hinted that he is in a D/s relationship towards the end, and his character undergoes several transformations in this story, all terrific and believable. I loved him; he is a surprise in every way. I can see that more of his character will be revealed as the series continues and I can’t wait to see the true Parker that emerges.
Along side the relationship drama playing out, we have a murderer on the loose and a case with very few clues as to who the killer is. The threatening notes are scary and nauseating in content, with a brutal view towards these children as burdens on their parents and society. This is an absorbing case and my only quibble with it is that I wish it had played out a little more in depth towards the end. As it is, it is still a chiller of a mystery. And the closer the killer gets to Alex and Sean, the faster your heart will beat that Jeff and his partner will get there to save them in time.
I think my only quibbles here with this story and the author is that I wish she had truncated the section of the story where Jeff’s initial feelings of disgust are displayed from ten chapters into perhaps even five. By shortening this portion of the story, she would have been able to engage the reader sooner and been able to concentrate on the investigation in greater detail. As it stands, I am sure that a fair number of readers won’t make through to the heart of the story, and that would be a shame indeed. For this is where it starts to turn:
THE fork crashed down hard on the plate. So hard in fact that a delicate fracture line became visible. Alex’s furious face softened as he turned around to his brother. The boy mewled pitifully and tears rolled down his cheeks. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t mean… they don’t… oh please, hush now. No one is disgusted by you.” Sean started to cry in earnest. Parker and I exchanged an embarrassed and very helpless look. We watched uneasily as Alex heaved Sean out of his wheelchair and placed him on his lap. He rocked back and forth lightly, all the while murmuring soft, soothing words into Sean’s ear.
It took Sean a long time to calm down. Alex asked me to hand him a paper towel and used it to clean up Sean’s face. My gut knotted in sympathy when Sean’s face emerged from his hiding place against Alex’s chest. It was blotchy and his eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. Suddenly, he simply looked like a lost and hurt little boy. There was no place for any kind of disgust in my heart, only guilt and shame.
Trust me, this is a story you will want to read. Hang in there and be rewarded with an unusual detective and his partner who we will be seeing more of. Attachment Strings is the first in the Jeff Woods Mystery series and I can’t wait for another installment.
Cover art by Catt Ford is terrific and pertinent to the story. Great job.