She knew she was going to die. The feeling persisted, like something pushing out from inside her until it took on a kind of force. The climb had been a mad, nerve-wracking scramble, up from the campground over moss-covered rock and low-lying brush to the top of the escarpment. She’d fought panic all the way. It was only on reaching the top that she paused for breath, her sides heaving.
The drizzle had finally stopped. On any other day, this would have been a dazzling view. The town of Lion’s Head lay in the distance across the bay. A ghostly finger of light slipped through the clouds and slid over the water. Far below, seagulls wheeled over treetops and the broken boulders lying scattered along the shoreline like pieces of an unfinished puzzle. If she fell, she’d be smashed to bits.
The breeze gusted the word away. She checked her cellphone. No signal yet. The logging road was still another twenty minutes up ahead. They should have stayed together.
The promontory gave way to bare rock. A white blaze on a twisted cedar showed where the trail picked up again before disappearing in the woods on the far side. She followed where it led down. Stray branches whipped her cheeks, stones cut her fingers as she grabbed them, passing from handhold to handhold to steady herself, all the while fighting panic.
A sharp turn near the bottom confused her. The blazes seemed to switch back on themselves. Had she come the wrong way? Here the rocks were treacherous, greasy with moss and damp. She was nearly at the bottom when her foot gave way. Instinctively, she reached out and caught a branch. It held for a heart-stopping moment then slid through her grasp as she fought to right herself.
Her back slammed hard, knocking the wind out of her. For a second she lay there, too stunned to move. She tried to cry out, but her lungs refused to draw breath. An ache clutched her chest. Where it had first been cold and numbing, now it was an excruciating burn, a hot knife jabbed between her muscles. Panic overwhelmed her as she gasped for the breath that failed to come. She struggled to rise, but an invisible hand held her firmly down.
Forest stretched in all directions, a dim twilight world. By nightfall the blazes would vanish entirely then the fear would set in for real. She had to get to the car.
She pictured the blue-and-yellow child’s tent, a tiny bubble set beside the larger khaki-coloured one. Jeremy’s favourite bear — a one-eyed, fur-shedding monstrosity that he clung to through thick and thin — had lain just inside the entrance when they woke. She’d cried to see it.
Her voice sounded barely above a whisper. A gnarled root protruded from the dirt. She wrapped her fingers around it, gripping until her knuckles turned pink-white. As a child she’d visited a farm and watched a chick break out of an egg, first one small feathered wing then the other, everything in the world focused on that struggle. Just so, she raised herself now, gripping and pulling, the ache so intense she thought she might black out.
Then, somehow, she was sitting upright. A small miracle. For the moment, it was all she could do. Slowly releasing her grip, she slid to the bottom of the incline and squatted, trying to get her lungs to breathe. Just breathe. Ten minutes went by. At last, when the pain had retreated a little, she fought to get to her feet then headed haltingly for the parking lot.
Five minutes in she had to stop again. The effort was making her light-headed. She leaned against a smooth-skinned tree and lowered herself to the ground, legs stretched out in front. Her chest pounded. She was having a heart attack. She was going to die up here alone. They would find her like this, broken, wretched. Somehow the thought calmed her. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go. The head had always been a sanctuary, a place of peace and respite.
But, no — there was Jeremy to think of. Where the hell was Ashley? Anger shot through her. Get it together, you stupid bitch! If nothing else, she would simply lie here, fighting mosquitoes and black flies till Ashley rallied help. Unless there were marauding bears. Then she wouldn’t stand a chance. The best she could hope for was that they would smell her pain and give her a wide berth. Wolves might not be so cautious. They’d heard them howling the past two nights, coming closer and circling the tents, hating the fire and the smell of people.
She struggled to stand then —
When she came to, her nostrils caught an acrid scent. Wood smoke. It took her a moment to remember where she was. She’d fallen and blacked out. The ache was far worse now, every breath a knife thrust. Gently, she pulled on her collar and looked down. A purple stain spread across her chest under her left breast. A fresh wave of panic backed up in her throat, making her retch. She’d broken a rib … punctured a lung … that was why she couldn’t breathe. The premonition had been real. She was going to die.
A dragonfly buzzed overhead. Its wings shimmered, green and purple iridescence, as sunlight broke through the leaves, lifting the gloom. She sniffed at the air. Unless the woods were on fire, in which case she was clearly doomed, then someone had to be nearby.
She pushed against the tree until she stood upright, her head woozy. The pain wasn’t getting any better. She needed to hurry. The smoke came from up ahead. She simply followed it. Within minutes she reached a wire fence and limped alongside it for a while, but the bush grew thicker again.
She retreated and headed back until she discovered the open field. She pushed down on the wire and hauled herself over one leg at a time, collapsing in a heap on the other side. She fought to stand again then staggered toward the smell.
The farmhouse looked like something out of a fairy tale. Smoke issued from a chimney. The day was warm, so it wasn’t for heat. Someone was cooking. She dragged herself forward, bent over, gasping with each step. An old, grey wagon wheel had been planted in a bed of yellow nasturtiums. A wide porch seemed to invite visitors, despite the secluded surroundings.
“Help!” she cried, her voice faint.
She headed for the house, one arm clutching her chest, the other striving to keep her balance as she stumbled along. Somewhere a dog yelped.
“Please! Is anybody there?”
A door opened. A grizzled man in jeans and red-checkered shirt peered out. He had a long, white beard like a biblical prophet. His expression was stern, as though he disapproved of her. Whether that was because she was trespassing or for the sorry state she was in, she couldn’t tell.
“I’m lost,” she called out, as though it might not be apparent.
She couldn’t make out his reply. He flapped his hands in the direction of the fence, as though telling her to leave. Like hell am I leaving, she thought. Not that she could have even if she’d wanted to.
Sweat fell from her brow and clouded her eyesight. Something rustled in the bushes off to the right. The man disappeared back inside the house. A moment later he returned bearing what looked like a tea towel, waving it furiously. He came toward her with a jarring motion, as though he had to make an effort to swing his hips to get his legs to work, first right then left, like rusty hinges long out of use. He was ominous, a figure in a dream. She opened her mouth to cry out, to say she needed help, but the words wouldn’t come. Sparkles formed at the edge of her vision, waves of tiny lights followed by black clouds. As she fell forward, she wondered if she was about to find herself in far more trouble than she was already in.
Learn more about Jeffrey Round
A former television producer and fashion model, Jeffrey Round is the author of 15 published books, including the Lambda-winning Dan Sharp mystery series. He is also an award-winning filmmaker, poet and musician. His first two books were listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. He lives in Toronto.
I had spent the better part of the morning sitting at a beat-up wooden table in the conference room of the Provincetown Police Station, wishing I were someplace else while various policemen came and went. Anyplace else would have been fine. Back with my ex-girlfriend, Emily, watching the Cubs lose again while the wind off the lake made dust devils out of the trash in the gutters. Back with my ex-lover Susan (the bone of contention over whom Emily had walked out on me almost a year ago), rolling around under the recessed lighting set in Susan’s fourteen-foot vaulted ceilings. The craziness of my relationships wasn’t looking so bad when compared objectively with the alternatives.
What I knew for sure was this: if I hadn’t let Naomi talk me into a Provincetown vacation, someone else would be sitting here with the cops. Someone else would be feeling vaguely unsettled in her own existence and I would be reading about it in the Chicago gay rags as if it were an earthquake in India or a little flood in the Philippines. I could turn the page and go on to the next heart-wrenching, sick-making headline. And if it all got too awful to think about I could turn the page again and read the phone-sex advertisements or the personal ads for more commonplace horrors.
But Naomi Wolf had a knack for calling trouble, then stepping aside; the situation fairly stank of her dubious kind of kismet or rather, my own in knowing her. When the meteor struck, it was my kind of luck to be standing in the way. So, on the occasion of my first visit to the Provincetown police station, I was there to report a corpse.
I had first noticed it while I was running down Commercial Street. The leg was a flaw in the sweep of my vision, a blemish at its corner, the way you might catch the belly of a fish floating white side up in a lake where you are planning to swim, the way you let your eye take you down the chalky stomach to the quiet gills and the sightless, staring eye. Your own eyes can betray your sense of well-being by calling you quickly and against your will to the faults in a smooth clean surface when a minute ago everything seemed just fine. This was the way I had come upon the remains of Joan. Looking harder as I came up close and squinting my eyes as if I were waiting for a spot on the floor to move. Then bending towards the gravel, bracing my hands on my thighs the way I’d bent to catch my breath when Joan and I had jogged together the day before, I was retching sick. I had thought of Joan often since we’d met – but not like this and I stood away from her so that I didn’t step in the blood.
Joan had been shot chest-high at the distance of a friendly handshake, then again in the head while the gun sat flush against the side of her face. Like the special effects from a B-grade movie, black gunpowder tattoos were splattered in deco-like accidental paint against the pallor of her skin. Her stare had the frozen surprise of car headlights left on too long and her tank top rode halfway up her chest, above a stomach as flat and white as winter. Her blood had settled in the backs of her arms and legs. Leached out of her veins when she died, it stained her skin like one last sunburn. On her left hand was a bona fide tan line where she’d worn her diamond ring.
Her hair was clotted with blood gone brown in the sun. There was a pool of it around her head and she was black with flies. They had danced on her face in the shade of half-built Cape Cod vacation homes, the last frail gasp of Boston’s Xerox miracle. Her lips were parted slightly against the gravel. And even in death Joan had managed to look as if she were planning a kiss.
Sheriff Edward Harmon scratched his leg discreetly and we looked at each other across the table. It seemed that while Joan Di Maio had enjoyed the company of many women, on the occasion of her murder the police could find no one in particular to call.
The sheriff ran his hands through his hair from his forehead to the nape of his neck. The hair was thinning and grey, slicked down with something I hadn’t thought they sold anymore. He asked me again what I had been doing when I found Joan as if the question was new.
Since 8:30 that morning, Wednesday, the police had been asking me the same questions over and over again. Even they seemed to be getting tired of the answers, so they took turns. The old ones would leave and new ones would take their shift. But the questions didn’t change much. What had I been doing when I found Joan? What had I been doing before I found Joan? Why was I doing it? How did I know her?
The first question they asked, of course, was where, but that had been eclipsed by the others after I took them to the construction site. We rode in a squad car, I in the back, two policemen in the front and at least one other car behind us. I didn’t mind that this was the biggest news in the last decade for these small town cops, but I didn’t like it that I felt more like a convict behind the wire cage than a helpful, upstanding citizen. Next they wanted to know my name and where I was staying and where I lived and what I did for a living there. If they wanted to know whether I’d been breastfed as a baby, they stopped just short of asking. And behind every inquiry was the sneaking suspicion that I had done something wrong. I won’t say the cops weren’t pleasant enough, but it didn’t feel like they were ready to give me any awards for cooperation.
They had asked their questions in various tones of insinuation, as suspicious as stray dogs, from the time I’d come into the station to announce that I’d found a body. And I was starting to get the idea that I was in a lot of trouble or could be without much additional effort.
By night – the bars, the music, the sexual energy. By day – the beaches, the bay … basking in the sun and the scent of suntan lotion. And everywhere the women of Provincetown. Among these women in the sun is Virginia Kelly, a woman of color, on vacation from the mostly white world of finance. Ginny has come to P-town with friend Naomi, and without lover Emily. They stay at Lavender House, a hotel for lesbians run by Sam, a woman with whom Naomi has had some dramatic history. Other inhabitants include Anya, who works for the inn; Joan, a writer and sometime guest; loud Barb and her quiet partner. And in P-town, Ginny is drawn to another woman. Then … murder shatters the vacation bliss. For among the people brushing up against Ginny and Naomi for these few sensual days is a ruthless killer. And a victim whose death will change the lives of Ginny and Naomi.
First published to acclaim in 1992, and nominated for Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, this new edition features a 2020 foreword by Ann Aptaker (Criminal Gold). “It is a refreshing change to see real-life lesbians with real-life terrors and real-life anger on the pages of a novel …” — Washington Blade “Baker has produced a winning character in Ginny Kelly … Read it by the fire one cold autumn night, then smugly recommend Nikki Baker to your friends.” — Deneuve “It has adventure, romance, and some of the best internal dialogue anywhere.” — Meagan Casey
The following is an exclusive excerpt from Reservation for Murder: A Kyle Callahan Mystery, the 6th book in the series. You can find the book on Amazon, enter a Goodreads giveaway to win one of 100 Kindle editions, and listen to the author’s personal narration on the Mark McNease Mysteries Podcast, beginning with the first three chapters, all at the links below.
Thank you so much for the birthday card. The big six-oh! I remember thinking at twenty-five how old forty would be, and now forty seems young and distant. Young because I wish I had the energy I had at that age, and distant because it is. The idea of twenty years shortened by fading memories into a slideshow of the past two decades is hard to express. And you and I had known each other so many years by then!
I hope you and Elliot are finding Los Angeles to your liking. How is his father’s health? Moving there to take care of him was an amazing thing to do. I know from our conversations it was a difficult but necessary decision. My mother and her second husband Farley are in Scottsdale now, and I can’t imagine moving there to take care of her if anything happened to him. We would if we had to, of course, but why ponder these things at all? It’s like expecting heartache, or anticipating the things we dread most. For you and Elliot, I hope only that you like it there and that you’re happy. The new grandchild helps, I’m sure, and having Elliot’s son in Santa Barbara has to be a plus. I always knew you’d find the man of your dreams (for who is that but the one who brings us contentment?), and you did. We both did, and we’re both at a time of life that’s changing, new, exciting, and more than a little frightening.
We’re leaving New York City at last. We’ve been driving back and forth to Lambertville for the past few months, getting the apartment ready to sell, and, to be honest, dragging our feet just a bit. New York has been my home since I moved here with you all those years ago, and for Danny even longer. But everyone’s gone now. We seem to be the last two people on the train. His parents moved to Florida two years ago (shoot me if I ever suggest it). My beloved boss Imogene has packed up and flown the coop, teaching now in Santa Clarita. She has a sister there. Margaret Bowman passed away last Christmas. We went to both memorial services – one in Fort Lauderdale where she’d made so many friends, as Margaret was bound to do, and one here at the restaurant. You should have seen the crowd! The previous two mayors were there, along with celebrities, a few icons in the New York restaurant business, you name it. She got the sendoff she deserved, and a week later we decided it was time to move, to face the sadness of leaving our home for a new one, but also to embrace the adventure.
We sold Margaret’s Passion to Chloe Sparks. You remember her, she was the best assistant Danny ever had running the restaurant, and a fine woman. It’s called Chloe’s Gramercy Park now, and it’s a success. What else would it be? We’ve kept the building for the income from the tenants, but the restaurant is all Chloe’s and we’re very proud of her.
At last the apartment has been sold and we have to vacate this week. Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Not at all. We’ve had our bed and breakfast, Passion House, in operation for two months. It’s a huge learning curve with no end in sight, but I like that. I’m out of the TV business. My friends, including you, have all moved on. And I love Lambertville. New Jersey is such a beautiful state, and the Delaware River Valley is spectacular. I wish you’d seen it before you moved, but I also know you’ll visit. Soon? Summer is your favorite season, and a great time to see such a beautiful town.
I’ll let you go now. I so enjoy our letters. No one writes them anymore, everything’s email and text. I do plenty of that, too, but old fashioned letter writing is something to savor.
I’ll write you next from our home in Lambertville. We’ve got a big week coming up with a convention in town and Passion House is booked solid. I’m happy, Danny’s happy, our new kitty Wilma is happy (God rest Smelly’s little cat soul, we miss her still), and I don’t imagine I’ll be running into any serial killers in Lambertville! I’ve enjoyed the past few years without them, and if I never encounter another one it will be too soon. That was the old life, this is the new one.
Give my love to Elliot. Our best room is yours anytime, on the house. Or should I say on Passion House. I think Margaret would be happy we named it that, and I know Danny is.
Kyle Callahan stood by the apartment doorway staring at what now seemed like vast emptiness. The movers had finished ten minutes ago and were already on their way out of the city.
“We have to go,” he said to his husband Danny Durban. “We’re meeting them at Passion House and we need to be there.”
“You don’t have to state the obvious,” Danny replied.
Kyle knew the move was even harder on Danny than it was on him. The apartment had been Danny’s long before he met Kyle thirteen years ago. Kyle and his cat, Smelly, had moved in from their home in Brooklyn. They’d been the new members of a family that had previously consisted only of Danny and his cat Leonard. It hadn’t taken long, either. The men had been dating for three months when they decided to combine households, and that household had just been sold. They were vacating because they no longer owned it and the new residents were coming the next day. All the empty space Kyle was looking at, freshly painted, scrubbed, cleansed of their presence, had held memories until this very moment. Now those memories were ghosts who had to leave with them. The furniture and belongings they’d decided to keep would still provoke the same sentiments—the coffee cups Kyle bought from every place they’d traveled, Danny’s awards for his years in the restaurant business—but they would not be housed in the same place. They, like their owners, were being uprooted by choice and planted in new ground.
“Are we doing the right thing?” asked Danny, standing next to Kyle with only the front door between them and their new life.
Danny was shorter than Kyle by six inches, and just a little over a year older. Kyle had fallen in like the first night they’d met at a dating event, and within weeks the like had turned to something close to love, or at least the anticipation of it. They were both thirteen years older now, and their added age, along with their height difference, was something Kyle never noticed except in photographs.
“There is no wrong thing, Danny. Everyone’s gone. Some of them have left the planet. Time only goes in one direction and we’re going with it. Let’s be excited.”
“I am excited. It’s just hard. All those years in one place. This isn’t just change. It’s upheaval. I’m a city boy moving to the country. Who would ever have guessed that?”
Kyle put his arm around Danny. “Lambertville is not the country. Linda and Kirsten live in the country,” he said, referring to their friends who had a small house in the woods outside Stockton, New Jersey. “We’re moving to a fabulous, artistic, vibrant town we both love. And we already live there!”
The couple had been travelling back and forth the past three months between Lambertville, where they’d already opened their bed and breakfast, and Manhattan, where leaving had not been an overnight proposition: there had been the restaurant to deal with, the building they owned, and a thousand details that had to be dealt with when settled lives moved from one place to another.
“We should go,” Kyle said gently.
He sensed Danny was crying silently. Just a tear or two.
“Joy and grief are not mutually exclusive,” Kyle said. “Remember, when one door closes …”
“Oh, for godsake, I hate that expression,” Danny said.
“I know you do. That’s why I said it.”
The mood had lifted slightly and Kyle knew it was time. He turned and opened the door, taking in yet another view he would not see again: the hallway. They’d known their neighbors, and their neighbors’ children and pets, all in this hallway, on the other floors and in the lobby. Life in a New York City apartment building was a microcosm of the city itself, teeming with personalities and lives grand and small.
A moment later they were outside the apartment. Kyle handed Danny the key.
“Here, you should be the one to do this.”
Danny nodded. He took the key and locked the door.
A short elevator ride later they were at the front desk. Danny gave their key to Freddy, the morning shift doorman.
“You’ll be back,” Freddy said, trying to put the best face on a goodbye that was hard for the staff, too. Doormen, porters, handymen, the super—some of them spend their entire working lives in one building. They see new apartment owners settle in. They see the tenants’ children grow up. They see the old ones die. And they see some of them leave.
“No, Freddy,” said Kyle. “We won’t. But I appreciate the thought. We’re going to miss you, too. Tell your wife I want some of those cakes for the bed and breakfast.”
“You serious, Mr. Callahan?”
“Of course we are!” Danny chimed in. “Nobody makes cakes like Loretta. We want them for our guests. How else can we make sure they come back? Now here—”
He pressed the key into Freddy’s palm.
“—we’ll call you in a few weeks to say hello. Tell Loretta to pre-heat the oven.”
Freddy got up from behind the desk. He looked around nervously, as if he didn’t want to violate any rules, then hurried to Kyle and Danny and hugged each of them.
“You’ll be missed, really,” he said.
“You will be, too,” Kyle replied. “Remember, any time you and Loretta need a nice getaway, Passion House is yours.”
“That’s too kind, we’d love that.”
Kyle knew Freddy would never take him up on it. It had been hard just getting people from Manhattan to come to Brooklyn when he lived there. The island was the center of the known universe for most people who lived on it. He knew doormen seldom resided in the city, but they were still city people. Lambertville might as well be Petticoat Junction to them. That’s how he and Danny had thought of it until their first visit. Love at first sight had changed their minds.
A moment later they were in their car, a Toyota they’d purchased for their new life. You don’t need a car in New York City, but life outside it is nearly impossible without one. Then came the drive cross town, a short delay into the Lincoln Tunnel, out the other side, and off into their new life.
Scott Harris was excited about the trip. He hadn’t been back to Lambertville in five years and had not expected to return. He didn’t dislike the town, he’d just had enough of it growing up there, then staying as his twenties passed, his thirties, and finally his forties. He’d always had what he thought of as bigger dreams, although he’d never been able to define those dreams beyond getting rich, famous, or some combination of both. When he found himself working at a grocery store, a middle-aged man slicing meat and cheese for impatient octogenarians, he decided his life was over and dreams were for the foolish. Then, one day, a handsome older man (which at Scott’s age meant in his sixties), number 42 from the ticket machine they used to serve customers, asked for a half-pound of Vermont Yellow Cheddar. Scott looked up at the person who’d placed the order. His eyes met those of Harold Summit, and love arced over the deli counter, striking them each in the heart. That Harold was rich and sort-of-famous, the author of a series of thrillers set in Los Angeles, made Scott rethink the death of his dreams. Maybe they’d just been on life support and Harold was the experimental treatment they’d needed. Harold, never a bashful man, wrote his cell phone number down on a business card and exchanged it for his bag of cheese.
Scott’s manager Daphne was on duty that day. Fearful of being scolded for flirting with a customer, Scott discreetly tucked the business card into his apron and nodded politely at Harold, telling him to have a nice day. A last smile was exchanged as Harold wheeled his grocery cart around and walked slowly toward the dairy department.
Later that evening Scott could not believe his good luck. The business card read: Harold Summit, Author, Lecturer, Man of Letters. Then, as if one subtitle were not enough, it added in italics, The Connor Dark Novels. Not “mysteries,” not “thrillers,” but “novels.” Hoping Summit was not as pretentious as his calling card, Scott dialed the number. What followed was a two-hour-long conversation with Harold that left them aching for more. Harold was visiting Lambertville for old time’s sake. He’d lived there for many years before moving to Manhattan a decade ago to pursue his career as a writer, with a second move to Los Angeles more recently.
“I could have written from anywhere,” Harold said, “but I wanted to be in the thick of it, you see. I needed to feel the city, to smell it. The bustle of Times Square, the stench of Hell’s Kitchen. My character Connor lives there, and it seemed I really should, too. It’s best to write about places you know intimately, you understand?”
Scott nodded as if Harold could see him through the phone. He noticed Harold had mentioned his fictional antihero as if he were a living person but he gave it little thought, assuming writers and artists were just odd that way.
“The series was a smashing success, as you know …”
Actually, Scott didn’t know—he’d never read a Connor Dark novel but planned to remedy that immediately.
“I came back to visit friends in the city and we decided to spend a few days at Pride Lodge. I went to the grocery store for some provisions, I’m not one to eat every meal out.”
Scott knew where Pride Lodge was, just a few miles outside New Hope. He had availed himself of their large, popular swimming pool in the summer, but never stayed there.
“Back to the city?” asked Scott. “I thought you lived there.”
“I’m in Los Angeles now,” came the reply. “For the past two years, developing movie ideas and plans for a Connor Dark TV series. It’s in pre-production.”
Scott’s heart sank. This wonderful man, this cultured, talented, wealthy man, was from the other side of the continent. So why had he bothered flirting with Scott? Was he looking for a one-night fling while he strolled memory lane in his old home town, something to tell his friends about around a game of Monopoly?
“I’ve never been to Los Angeles,” Scott said, hoping he didn’t sound as disappointed as he felt.
“Then you must come.”
“But I work in a deli. It would take me months to save up the money for a trip.” Taking a risk, he added, “Will you wait for me? I could probably swing it by October.”
“There’s no reason to wait, Scott. Money is not an obstacle.”
They were words Scott had never heard before.
“But I’ve always paid my way. I’m a proud man.”
“And you can stay that way. I need an assistant, and I have no interest in the pretty young things one so often finds at the side of old men.”
“Older,” Scott said.
He heard Harold laugh over the phone. “I’m not the pompous ass you might think from the business card. It’s meant to be playful, even if I’m the only one playing. It also creates an appearance, when appearances and bullshit are half the game.
“I don’t say ‘older’ when I’ll be sixty-seven in a month. I’m not frightened by my own mortality like so many people you meet. I’m old, Scott, and unashamed of it. Now let’s cut to the chase, as they say. I’d like to have dinner with you—we can go Dutch if it’s important to you—and then I’d like to talk about your first trip to L.A. I’ll need to interview you in my own environment, so to speak.”
“Interview me?” Scott asked. “Is that what you want to do?”
He felt himself smiling.
“I’m sure you’ll get a call-back,” Harold replied. “So what do you say?”
What Scott wanted to say was, “When’s the next flight?” Instead he said, “I’ll think about it, Mr. Summit.”
“‘Mr. Summit.’ I like that. But only in public if you take the job. In private you can call me Harold.”
“I might call you Forty-Two,” Scott replied.
“That was your number at the deli.”
“Call me whatever you’d like to, just say yes.”
“I have to think about it,” Scott said, not needing to think about it at all. “I’ll let you know over dinner. When, where, and what time?”
The following night they had an incredible meal at Marsha Brown in New Hope, which Scott allowed Harold to pay for. Complete with an excellent red wine and a bill for over $200, it provided evidence for Scott that money was indeed not an obstacle.
Five years, three novels and a canceled television series later they were back in Lambertville. Scott had moved to L.A. two months after meeting Harold. He’d accepted the job as the personal assistant to Mr. Summit and, two years later, as his husband. He’d also learned that Harold wasn’t so unconcerned about being old that he didn’t team with a younger writer named Bradley Manning to accompany him to industry meetings. He might not have a problem with his age but the money men and women of Hollywood weren’t so accepting.
They were in town for a conference of the Mystery Authors Alliance being held at the Lambertville Station Restaurant and Inn. Harold maintained memberships in a half-dozen professional organizations, and MAA was one of them. The conference moved around from year to year, attempting to please a membership that included writers from all fifty states. It was pure coincidence they’d chosen a river town in New Jersey that had once been home to both Harold and Scott. Harold loathed staying in the hotels and convention centers where the meetings were always held, so they’d booked one of the suites at a new bed and breakfast in town.
“Passion House,” Scott had said, when he was looking for a place to stay. “That’s an intriguing name. And it’s run by a gay couple.”
Harold was accustomed to letting Scott make all the arrangements. That’s what a personal assistant does.
“I like the name. Who doesn’t need a little passion?”
Scott called that day and booked the room, making them the final guests in a full house. He’d spoken to Kyle Callahan, one of the owners, when he’d made the reservation. He could have done it online but preferred talking to human beings.
That was three weeks ago. Now, after a flight to Newark, a car rental and an hour’s drive, they were parked in front of Passion House, early but pleased. The house looked marvelous. Scott gazed up at the second floor, where he’d been told their suite was, and wondered which window would be theirs.
“We’re here,” he said, reaching over and gently shaking Harold in the passenger seat.
Harold opened his eyes, adjusting back to consciousness. It had been a long day and he was ready for a power nap followed by a stroll through town.
“Do you think they’ll let us check in early?” Harold asked, unbuckling his seat belt.
“They always do,” Scott replied. “Once they realize who you are.”
“And if they don’t know, I’m sure you’ll tell them.”
“It’s my job, Forty-Two.”
Harold did not like being called Forty-Two but he’d humored Scott for the past five years. He truly loved the younger man, having come to think of him as incredibly efficient and committed, offering a devotion Harold had not always returned. There had been dalliances, as there probably would be until Harold was no longer capable of performing or interested in other men. Scott had turned a half-blind eye, and in exchange Harold had provided him with an extremely good life.
They exited the car, Scott circling around to the trunk for the suitcases and laptop. He took a deep breath, convinced the air smelled of Lambertville, memories, and triumph. He’d come a long way on the road back home, and he’d come in style.
“Gladys Finch is a legend in lesbian fiction,” Kyle said. “And she’s staying at our bed and breakfast!”
Danny was sitting across from him at the small table that was proportional to the size of their kitchen. Everything in the guest house was small. It had not been intended for comfort, since the butler and maid were there to work, not to enjoy themselves, and it had been up to subsequent residents of the main house to upgrade it. Danny and Kyle had done quite a bit of that themselves, with the help of Chip and Justin, and it could now be described as a cozy cottage for four: Kyle, Danny, and the two cats.
“I didn’t know you read lesbian fiction,” Danny replied dryly. He’d been going over the breakfast menu for the next few days, as well as plans for a book signing Thursday night. Kirsten McClellan’s third Rox Harmony mystery had just been published and they were holding a reading at Passion House.
Kyle didn’t appreciate Danny’s tone. “I read good fiction. Gladys Finch is a master of the short story and a respected novelist. It could be beneficial for our brand if she likes it here.”
Admitting Kyle had a point, Danny said, “Make sure to include something extra in her welcome basket.”
All the guests were treated to a basket of jams, jellies and crackers from Dahl House Jams, a local operation run by a woman named Maggie Dahl who’d been among the first to welcome Kyle and Danny to Lambertville’s business community.
“There’s a whole shelf at Booketeria devoted to her books,” Kyle said, referring to the town’s popular bookstore. “We need to get some this morning and put them on the bookcase in the parlor. I’ll bend the spines so they look read.”
“What room is she in?”
“They,” Kyle said. “She’s coming with her wife, Carol something …”
“That’s her name? Carol something?”
“I don’t know her last name. I just know Gladys dedicated her most recent story collection to her. They’re booked into the Manhattan Suite, across the hall from the other big name writer, Harold Summit. We’ve already got a couple of his books in the parlor.”
Kyle leaned forward and scanned Danny’s menu upside down. “Can we pull this off?”
“A full house? Of course, we have to. This is what we do for a living now, Kyle. It’s not a hobby.”
Kyle sat back in his chair and sighed. They’d managed to stay in business for two months and had every intention of succeeding, but the stress of it was sometimes hard for him. They had five people already checked in, with four more on the way. They had plans for a book reading that would bring in another sizable group from outside, and four fabulous breakfasts to make before everyone checked out and headed home. The writers conference had been a gift for them, but it had also presented them with a first big test: keeping a house full of guests happy from the time they arrived until the time they drove off with Passion House in their rearview mirrors.
“Excuse me,” Kyle said, getting up from the table. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Danny replied, not looking up from his menu. “And please feed the kids.”
Kyle said nothing else, heading to the cabinet for a can of cat food. The sound of the cabinet door opening was enough to bring Wilma running into the kitchen, her claws clicking on the tile as she slipped and slid in a mad dash for her food bowl. Leonard sauntered in a moment later, tail up, taking his time. He was old now and had no use for such foolishness.
Kyle had discovered quickly that running a bed and breakfast meant sometimes feast, and sometimes famine. There had been a few weeks when they only had one or two rooms booked, usually on the weekends, but they had to maintain the same cozy environment, with the same welcoming attitude, as if every night were booked solid and a breakfast table for ten with only four people at it was not the least bit awkward. If they only had a guest or two, or were out of town themselves for some reason, Justin and Patty would fill in, acting as their surrogates.
Patty Langley was a good cook, perfectly capable of taking Danny’s place when she needed to. She was also an outstanding housecleaner, room attendant, errand runner, and task master. Kyle learned quickly that keeping a house clean was much more difficult than keeping an apartment clean. For one thing, you could see everything in a house full of windows. Their co-op in Manhattan had faced the back of Baruch College, depriving them of a view but also of sunlight. Once they were living at Passion House, they couldn’t escape the sight of dust and the everyday debris of living outside the city. Leaves fell, grass clippings flew. The next thing you knew, there were twigs inside your front door and you could coat your finger in dust just running it across an end table.
Patty was somewhere in her fifties, though she wouldn’t say how far and would not take kindly to being asked. She was tall and thin; she wore her hair most days in a graying braid down her back, and she tended to dress in calf-length skirts, simple blouses and, when the weather was chill, a draping, button-down sweater she said her mother had given her many years ago. That the sweater was in good condition after such a long time was evidence of Patty’s fastidiousness. She was hard to get to know because she kept her personal life and her professional life completely separate. That extended to living on the third floor of Passion House. She’d insisted on a lock on her door, which Kyle and Danny promptly installed, and she spoke only of her late mother, as if there had been no one else in her life for the fifty-plus years she’d lived it.
This all suited Kyle and Danny fine. They knew from the first day that running a bed and breakfast was hard work, requiring daily commitment. They needed people like Patty and Justin if they were going to succeed. Patty’s work ethic was awe-inspiring, with Monday always strictly off. Sometimes she stayed in her room, with forays into town, and sometimes she simply vanished, returning Monday night to rest for the resumption of work the next morning. They had encouraged her to take a second day off, but the thought of not working for two days seemed unsettling to her, as if looking after Passion House gave her a reason for living.
Justin Stritch was another matter, and a polar opposite to the woman who quietly and quickly exercised authority over him. Twenty-six going on eighteen, Justin was the first person to tell you he was a free spirit and the last to admit that it meant immature. But he was a demon with a hammer and a wrench and could be called on any time of the day or night to appear with a toilet plunger. He was the fix-it guy, and a house as large and demanding as Passion House needed someone on-site. It saved Kyle and Danny from those 5:00 a.m. calls from guests who’d used a half roll of toilet paper or whose HDMI cable had come unplugged from their TV set.
One of the rules they’d laid down for Justin: no men in his room. Passion House had not been named for that kind of passion, and Justin was very much in his sexual prime. They knew from the grapevine that he had a fondness for no-strings sex. They refused to judge him for it, insisting only that he take his pleasure elsewhere, and never with a guest.
They were all a kind of family, with daddies Kyle and Danny living in the guest house with the cats. It was something neither man had expected, but both had come to enjoy, a sort of communal enterprise that enriched their lives in ways they’d never expected.
Everything was running smoothly and today all hands were required on deck. Danny had gone to the Giant grocery store in New Hope for supplies, with a stop at Booketeria to pick up a few of Gladys Finch’s books. Patty was doing her daily inspection of the house. Justin was edging the lawn along the walkway. Kyle heard the edger stop and Justin say, “Good morning! Welcome to Passion House,” a greeting he’d taken it upon himself to offer each and every guest.
Kyle looked at the clock on the parlor wall above a guest registry that sat on an oak pedestal. It was 10:00 a.m.
“Don’t worry, the rooms are ready,” a voice said.
Kyle turned, surprised to see Patty standing in the doorway with a dust rag. She was quiet in more ways than one, and had often startled them by being in a room without them knowing it.
“Thank you, Patty. You’re amazing.”
She cracked the slightest of smiles, then turned and walked down the hallway.
The front door opened, and in walked Scott Harris and Harold Summit. Kyle recognized Summit from his author’s photo on the back of his books. The picture had been taken some years earlier, or possibly Photoshopped: the man was obviously a decade older than his headshot.
“I hope we’re not too early,” the younger man said.
“Of course we’re not,” Summit stated, as if someone of his stature could arrive whenever he pleased.
Kyle immediately disliked the man, but it didn’t matter. “Not at all,” he said. “Your room’s been prepared.”
“Suite,” Summit said, frowning.
“Suite, yes.” Stepping forward, Kyle extended his hand. “I’m Kyle Callahan, and this is Passion House.”
About Reservation for Murder: A Kyle Callahan Mystery
It’s been several years since Kyle Callahan sought the help of a New York City therapist to overcome the trauma of his encounter with a serial killer, and just as long since his investigation into a teenage girl’s murder brought down the Manhattan District Attorney. He and his husband Danny Durban have decided to move away, to start a new life in the idyllic river city of Lambertville, New Jersey. They have friends there. They’ll have peace and quiet. They can leave the hustle and bustle and stresses of America’s biggest metropolis behind.
They open a bed and breakfast, and soon discover that murder and mayhem are waiting to check in. There’s a writers conference in town, with big names and big egos heading for a clash—and a killing—of titans. No sooner has the ink dried on the guest registry than Kyle finds himself pursuing another murderer, this one closer to home than they’ve ever come. He enlists the help of his old friend and local resident Linda Sikorsky, once a detective on the New Hope, Pennsylvania, police force. The two of them follow one lead after another in a race against time until the shocking truth is exposed.
Read Reservation for Murder: A Kyle Callahan Mystery to find out which of these ego-driven authors meets their final edit, who among the houseguests puts murder on the menu, and how it all twists and turns to its shocking conclusion.
More About Mark McNease
Mark McNease is the author of nine novels, six produced plays and dozens of short stories. Two of his Kyle Callahan Mysteries were best sellers on Kindle, and his short story ‘Stop the Car’ was selected as a Kindle Single. He won an Emmy and Telly as a co-creator and writer for the children’s program ‘Into the Outdoors’ and currently lives with his husband and two cats in rural New Jersey.
As I walked farther along, I kept my eyes down, hoping trouble wouldn’t find me, but suddenly I saw a grotesque flash of red. Blood red.
Getting closer to the bridge, I could see an open cardboard box of Holy Bibles with improbably garish and cheap-looking leatherette red covers. In the whirling dense crowd of students, those covers were like a fiery distress call – or a warning.
“They’re back,” I thought wearily. The preachers were back. I stopped where I was.
Every spring, SUM was hit by a blight of these thin and fevered preachers, who passed out Bibles at most of the campus crossroads and bridges, occasionally bursting into tirades as if they were singing waiters at a religious restaurant. The preachers were as dreary and startling as the enormous, strident crows that had become as common a spring sight on campus as the squirrels and raccoons.
Today the lurid box by the bridge was guarded by a meager-fleshed young man in a crumpled blue suit, his forehead a flaming relief map of pimples that made the red binding an even more unfortunate choice. As students and faculty passed, he stabbed Bibles at them with the spring of a malevolent troll. Though the day was cool, he looked hot and sweaty – fired up by his mission, no doubt. He must have been expecting some kind of martyrdom, since people like him were often heckled on campus, and sometimes threatened. Maybe he’d even been reading the letters in the student newspaper, where the presence of preachers on campus was attacked or defended in the kind of intemperate language the paper loved because it generated controversy.
The preachers descending on campus were strange and geeky clones: all of them in plain, unattractive suits and haircuts that made them look like rejects from the Lawrence Welk Show, each one with false thunder in his voice. Doling out their Holy Bibles, they sometimes hectored students to “Save yourself!” as if Michiganapolis were as steeped in moral degradation and evil as New York, Los Angeles – or Ann Arbor. Whenever I walked past them, I had an image of myself as trapped in some weird kind of carnival with barkers offering salvation instead of rides or teddy bears.
I didn’t understand why they were even allowed on campus, but I guessed that university officials simply wanted to avoid an argument with the local religious right.
I stood and watched the action. Most students crossing by today’s preacher on the Administration Building bridge bent away from him or darted past his outstretched hand, but some seemed pathetically eager to receive any kind of gift, and he blessed all of those. I could imagine their loneliness or confusion. Many students at SUM came from Michigan towns barely half the size of the university and felt hopelessly overwhelmed and disconnected (which was probably why the administration cut counseling services every year).
Two EAR colleagues passed me, locked in conversation: boring Carter Savery and grim, miserable Iris Bell. I’d never seen them together before – what could they possibly have in common? Iris was perpetually complaining about being under-recognized in EAR, and Carter was as blandly self-satisfied as Jabba the Hutt. Neither of them paid me any attention in the department.
I let them get a good distance ahead of me before I finally approached the bridge. I veered away from the young man and his box so that I wouldn’t get a bloody-looking Bible thrust at me. And so that I wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed by saying “No, thanks” or something equally inadequate to the occasion. When people ring my doorbell at home to share what they claim is the word of God, that’s different: I always tell them I’m offended by their invasion of my privacy. It satisfies me to leave them nonplussed. But here at the bridge – an open, public place – I felt constrained. And I was a faculty member – my nutty outbursts were supposed to be saved for departmental meetings.
Safely across, I took a seat on the edge of one of the wide steps of the terrace that was just west of the bridge. I wasn’t teaching today, and it was dress-down Friday anyway, so I had jeans on and didn’t have to worry about getting dirty.
The preachers gave me the creeps; they made me feel that we here at the university were nothing more than a bunch of campers huddled over a dwindling fire, trying to pretend the hungry wolves weren’t just beyond the edge of light.
And their presence made me worry about SUM.
See, no one was really in charge at the university right then, so we were a little like a former Soviet republic, drifting while various power centers prepared themselves to compete for control. The provost had left after a sexual harassment scandal, and there was fierce competition on campus to fill the plum position, even though there was a pro forma national search going on. My own chair, Coral Greathouse, was a front-runner in this race.
There’d also been a shake-up on the Board of Trustees, and our moronic president, Webb Littleterry, was continuing to provide uninspired, uninvolved leadership. That wasn’t surprising, since he was SUM’s former football coach, and his election to the board had proven the scornful observation in some quarters that SUM wasn’t much more than a football program with a university attached. If only it were a winning program …
I tried to relax into the day, tried to enjoy the life all around me here: toddlers waving and flapping at the ducks, gamely flinging bits of bread; students taking time off from classes to just sit and drink pop, chat, catch some rays; other students coming with more elaborate plans for picnics that included Frisbees, board games, and puppies. It was a combination park and town square, and if you stayed there long enough, you were bound to run into people you knew.
Juno Dromgoole, the rowdy visiting professor of Canadian studies, dashed across the bridge toward Parker Hall, her chic black leather briefcase clutched under one arm like a large purse. Headed in the other direction was Polly Flockhart, an annoying neighbor of ours who was a secretary in the History Department.
From the bridge now came what sounded like fierce quotations from Revelation or a Stephen King novel. I tried to block out the noise and the image of that angry pimpled face so that I could enjoy my thermos of Kenyan coffee and my smoked turkey breast on focaccia.
Lev Raphael. The Death of a Constant Lover (Kindle Locations 385-394). ReQueered Tales.
About Lev Raphael
Lev Raphael has wanted to be an author since he was in second grade, and he’s not only achieved his dream, he’s published twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery to erotic vampire tale; had his work translated into fifteen languages; seen one sell close to 300,000 copies; appeared in two documentaries; won various prizes; done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents; sold his literary papers (92 boxes!) to the Michigan State University Libraries (MSUL); been the subject of scholarly articles, papers, and book chapters; and seen his work taught at colleges and universities around the country. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew?
After close to twenty years of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops as well as editing at http://writewithoutborders.com.
I pointed at my one last bite with my fork. “When Nick and Carter were in Sydney back in 1955, they rented a house from a woman named Mrs. Tutwiler. She made them something called lamingtons. It’s an Australian cake that’s kinda like this, although usually they’re more like snack cakes.”
“I’ve heard of those,” said Dwayne.
“You have?” asked Billy as another boom of thunder echoed around the canyon.
“There was an episode about them on that Australian show we both liked. You know, piggy. The one about the doctor?”
Billy nodded. “The Doctor Blake Mysteries.” He looked at the cake and poked at it with his fork. “But I think this is backwards. The cake is supposed to be vanilla and the icing is chocolate. The coconut is right, though.”
I said, “This may be the version that Nick’s cook came up with after they got back from Australia.”
We were all standing side-by-side with our backs to the door and the front windows. That was the only spot that wasn’t getting rained on as the wind blew the drops in different directions.
“What was the cook’s name?” I mused to myself. “She’d been a famous chef in Paris before and during the war.” As I was trying to remember, I looked off in the distance. I couldn’t see much further than the lodge because of the sheets of rain. “Mrs. Strakova?” I asked out loud. I stabbed the last bite and then ate it. As I was swallowing, I thought I saw something move. I pointed with my fork. “Something or someone’s down there on the ridge.”
Dwayne was suddenly all business. He grabbed my plate and Whit’s plate and threw them out into the rain.
Billy who’d been standing in front of the door, quickly opened it and waved us inside.
Apparently, Whit and I weren’t moving fast enough because Dwayne shoved from behind, pushing me against Whit.
Surprisingly, he and I had enough sense not to say anything until we were in the cabin.
Dwayne shut and locked the door as Billy closed all the curtains.
“What—?” asked Whit.
I said, “Hush,” in a whisper. My heart was racing, and I was scared but I had this intensely weird feeling that was almost a déjà vu. I felt like I’d been preparing for that particular moment all my life. I couldn’t immediately figure out why. But, if nothing else, I knew to keep quiet and to let Dwayne and Billy take care of things.
It took less than a minute for Billy to close all the curtains. While he did that, Dwayne disappeared down the hall.
After a few seconds, Whit muttered, “Oh, right.” He looked at me, his face full of worry and concern, and tilted his head towards the hallway. “Follow me, Eddie.”
I did that, wondering if we were going to make a run over to the lodge through the French doors that led out to the swimming hole.
About halfway down the hall, Whit suddenly stopped, and I bumped into him, my belly pressing into his ass. “What—?”
Before I could say another word, Whit had slid around and was behind me.
I could see a grim-faced Dwayne standing in front of a plywood door and next to a dark opening that confused me. Had there been a closet there and I’d just not noticed it?
I started to ask Dwayne about that when, without saying a word, Whit pushed me from behind.
At first, I didn’t resist. In three steps, I was in front of the closet opening, or whatever it was.
Whit grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me to the left. All I saw was a dark nothing in front of me. Then, in a flash, I realized what he was doing and where we were going. Without even thinking, I instinctively stuck my hands out to either side so that he wouldn’t be able to shove me inside. Like I was in a nightmare, I tried to scream, “No!” but only a croak got out.
“It’s OK, Eddie,” said Whit as he yanked my left arm behind me while Dwayne did the same with my right arm. The two of them were way too strong for me to stop them, so in I went.
Whit was right behind me, pushing me forward, and I had no choice but to keep going. Somewhere, in the recess of my mind, it occurred to me that I could have dropped to my knees and rolled into a ball or something like that. But part of me knew that I needed to let what was happening actually happen.
The door closed. All light was gone. I heard an awful metal-on-metal sound. When it finally stopped, I tried to scream again. And, again, all that came out was a croak.
More About Frank W Butterfield
Butterfield is the Amazon best-selling author of over 20 books and counting in the Nick Williams Mystery series, stories about Nick & Carter, a private dick and a fireman who live and love in San Francisco.
To learn more about Frank W. Butterfield’s novels, Nick & Carter and their ongoing adventures, click here for his website.
“The kid – pardon me, the eighteen-year-old young man – fled the scene. The witness got his license number as he sped away. The cops traced it to his parents’ house in Echo Park. Found him in his bedroom, earphones on, listening to Latin rap, whatever the hell that is.”
“Rap – I believe that’s a capital offense right there.”
“There was blood on a sleeve of his shirt.”
“Maybe he cut himself shaving.”
“Judging by his mug shot, I doubt he shaves yet. Not too big, either, which is probably why he used a gun. Or maybe they all do that, now that fists are out of fashion.”
Harry raised his eyebrows, awaiting a rejoinder. I didn’t have one. I was already mulling what Men’s Central Jail must be like for an inmate of small stature, with a youthful face. That’s where he’d be imprisoned by now, transferred from Metropolitan Jail following his arraignment. With nearly 7,000 suspects and convicts packed into a building designed for 5,000, Men’s Central, operated by the county, was among the largest jails in the world, with a quarter of the inmates convicted of or awaiting trial for violent crimes, and enough certifiable mental cases to make it a veritable asylum. The kid was lucky, I thought, to have a gang affiliation for protection. On the other hand, if he’d murdered someone in cold blood, maybe he was getting his due. Either way, it wasn’t my concern.
“For what it’s worth,” Harry went on, “the blood type from his shirt matches the blood type of the victim.”
“They processed it that fast?”
“Rushed it through, using the new science. Victim’s stepfather golfs with the Chief, which didn’t hurt. I’ve got an old source at the lab who owed me a favor. Called me an hour ago. We can’t break it until after the PD’s news conference tomorrow, but we’ll scoop the Times again. Like we did today, thanks to some smart reporting by Alex Templeton.”
“What about a weapon?”
Harry and I were falling into a familiar pattern, working out what might or not be a story I felt was worth chasing. Not a balance of power an editor likes, but Harry put up with it in our glory days, because I was good at what I did and he knew I’d jump to one of the big papers back east if I started feeling constricted or bored. It was a game we’d played many times, with well-defined roles. Harry was the brusque, curmudgeonly editor, skeptical as all good editors should be, but essentially a product of his conservative Midwest roots, a believer in the safety of the status quo, in well-established boundaries and institutions. I was the hell-raising reporter, two decades younger, unapologetic about loving men, raised in the East in a home where alcohol and violence provided my most vivid memories, distrustful of authority as a rule. That undercurrent of tension between Harry and me had been a constant. In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, we’d hammered out dozens of attention-grabbing articles at the Times, “damn fine articles,” as Harry once called them, in a rare moment when he wasn’t grousing.
What was different now was that Harry was no longer employed as an editor at the mighty Times but instead at the barely profitable and far less respectable Sun, struggling to put his career back together. And I was no longer in the trade, with little of interest beyond my private thoughts and extending as much time as possible between drinks, which rarely made it past the early evening hour.
I also had no idea why Harry was here, telling me about the murder of a man I’d never heard of outside a gay bar in Silver Lake I hadn’t visited in years. Perhaps he thought I could provide special sources or contacts, but I didn’t want even that much involvement with Harry or the newspaper business or anything else beyond these walls.
“Templeton says the cops have all the evidence they need,” Harry said, sounding suspiciously blithe. “The weapon’s a moot point.”
“A moot point?”
He shrugged. “The kid confessed.”
“Open and shut, I guess.”
“Even bragged about it. Like I said, some kind of gang ritual. Templeton’s working on an update for tomorrow.”
“Not content with that scoop in this afternoon’s edition?”
“It lacked some details you would have dug up, but at least we beat the LAT.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Banner headline, front page. ‘Gay Man Gunned Down by Wannabe Gangbanger.’ A dead faggot, ripe for exploitation, then quickly forgotten.”
“Don’t get too dizzy up there on your high horse.”
“The Sun has a grand tradition for sleaze and sensationalism, Harry. Two days tops, and you’ll have that reporter of yours chasing some other sleaze fest.”
“We’ll follow up as events warrant, treating the story with the respect it deserves.”
“A queer, murdered outside a gay bar in a working-class neighborhood that’s largely Hispanic? Since when has the Sun considered such things worthy of respect?”
“You haven’t read the Sun recently, have you?”
“Nor any other newspaper, so don’t feel bad.”
“I’ve been making some changes. Moving away from the tabloid stuff. I figure this murder gives us a nice hook for some in-depth reporting. Maybe even a series.”
“Because of its socioeconomic implications?”
“If you want to use five-dollar words.”
“What’s the kicker, Harry? Why this particular story?”
He removed the unlit cigarette from his lips, rolling it thoughtfully between his fingers. “The victim’s stepfather is Phil Devonshire, the golf pro. Plays on the senior tour now, still has an endorsement deal or two, sits on half a dozen corporate boards. Mother’s Margaret Devonshire. Comes from old Pasadena money, heavy into philanthropy. Perched up in Trousdale Estates, looking down on Beverly Hills.”
“Wealth, social status, and the right zip code.” I shrugged, smiling a little. “Makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”
“It does make a difference, whether you like it or not. Poor people dying violently has never been big news.”
“Unless the victim is white, female, and mutilated, preferably with crime scene photos?”
“Give it a rest, Ben.”
I suddenly felt edgy and impatient, and it wasn’t just my need for a drink. I didn’t like all the journalism talk, as if I was still part of it.
“What’s this really about, Harry?”
He slid off the chair, stood by the front window, and stared out across treetops to the Pacific Design Center: a bold glass monolith in two sections, one cobalt blue, the other deep green, jutting in odd shapes into a sky scoured clean by the winds, with a third building of red glass still at the blueprint stage. West Hollywood on the rise, with lots more planned, as developers found legal ways to funnel campaign cash to compliant councilmembers.
When Harry spoke again, the combativeness was gone from his voice. It was the sound of a tired man now, worn out not from the day but from the years.
“I want you to put together a short feature,” he said, still looking out. “I want your byline back in print. Maybe long term, if it works out.”
His proposition was so preposterous I took it at first for a lame joke. Half a minute passed before he turned to face me. I hadn’t seen him look that vulnerable since his third wife left him the day he turned fifty, placing a note next to the cake and taking the dogs.
“All I want is a sidebar,” Harry said. “A short piece to go with a deeper follow-up later in the week. Templeton will handle the facts, you’ll add the perspective.”
“How long have you been delusional, Harry? Taking your medication?”
“I don’t need much. Fifteen column inches would do it. Your personal take on gay-bashing, anti-gay violence. Why it happens, what it means.”
“Let Templeton write it.” “She’s barely a year out of grad school. A good reporter, but –”
“You’ve got other staffers at the Sun who can handle that piece.”
“Maybe you focus on the victim, flesh him out. Maybe you try to get inside the head of the gang-banger. You can work it any way you want. It wouldn’t take much time. You were always a fast writer. You could wrap it up in half a day.”
“I’m not talking about time, and you know it.” I slid off the bed, agitated, and angry with myself that it showed. “Even if I wanted to write that piece, which I don’t, you’d never get it in the paper.”
“We’ll run it deep inside section one, with the jump. Slip it in, no fanfare.”
“You can’t put my name on an article and expect it to have any credibility.”
“I’ve already cleared it with management. If it’s handled right, the guys upstairs think it’s got some good promotional value.”
“Running an article by a reporter who won a Pulitzer for a series he fabricated? That’s good promotion?”
More About Author John Morgan Wilson
John Morgan Wilson is a veteran journalist, TV news and documentary writer, and fiction writer. SimpleJustice (1996) launched his Benjamin Justice mystery series, earning an Edgar Allan Poe Award (AKA “the Edgar”) from Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel. Three other Justice titles in the eight-book series won Lambda Literary Awards for best gay men’s mystery; six were nominated. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, AlfredHitchcockMysteryMagazine, Blithe House Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. For thirty years, he served as an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He lives with his longtime companion (no husband), artist Pietro Gamino, in West Hollywood, California, the primary setting for the Benjamin Justice series.