Exclusive Excerpt: The Unfinished by Jay B. Laws

Excerpt:

So why in the world did he always feel reluctant to open the front door and step inside? Why this sinking heaviness, almost like sadness, stealing into his heart. It wasn’t fear, exactly. More a growing wonder over what might happen next.

He had barely completed that last thought when a shadowy, amoeba-like shape rippled across and up his front door. Jiggs rubbed at his dilated eye and blinked. It didn’t go away. Whatever it was moved like a heavy liquid, fingers of it spilling upward toward the eaves of the roof. Without being aware he was doing it, he squinted shut his left eye. There—again, the elusive shimmer of heat-fanned waves as it curled and seemingly reabsorbed into the boards of the house.

He took a moment, not knowing what he should do. He could run up the street to Kate and Susan’s, but what then? Tell them about these hunches, these intuitions, these visions which might possibly be just a trick of his eyes?

His hand trembled as he turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. Almost instantly the hairs on his arms stood on end. His skin went clammy. The interior hallway was dim, despite the midday brightness of the sunny afternoon. As he stepped inside he was suddenly, absolutely sure he was not alone in the house.

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Jiggs curbed his impulse to shout, “Hello?” His breathing grew shallow as he shut the door. The sensation of someone watching from a hidden corner latched onto him and would not loosen its grip. There was a pregnancy to the stilled air, a heaviness that stole light. Something was thickening the air into syrup.

God, this was crazy. Crazy. Where was he going to live, if he was afraid of walking into his own house? He forced himself to walk down the hallway and stare into his living room.

The rocking chair was moving. Back and forth, back and forth. The leather seat sagged under an invisible weight, and something unseen pressed against the pillow strapped to the back of the chair.

Jiggs stumbled backward, and may have even cried out in surprise. He felt shot through with an electric jolt, sure that every hair on his body now stood on end. His vocal cords were paralyzed; it was all he could do just to swallow. While he watched, the rocker began to slow its rhythmic back-and-forth movement. It came to a gentle halt. The cushions sprang back to their normal shape, as though a weight pressing against it had lifted.

He cleared his throat. “Don’t mind me, guys,” he whispered, hoping his voice was souffle-light, masking his tension. As soon as the words fled his lips he was struck by what they implied: a kernel of belief that suggested not something in the house, but someone.

A breeze rustled his hair, accompanied by an abrupt drop in temperature. A biting cold moved through and around him—a meat locker cold, like something frozen solid pushing past. If Jiggs had been shaken by the sight of the rocking chair moving by itself, his fear then was nothing compared to finding himself enveloped by this Arctic blast. The silent wind tugged at his hair and clothes and seemed to want to burrow into his gaping mouth; he snapped his jaw shut in reflex. He was afraid to breathe, afraid he’d see his breath plume out in frosty, ghostly defiance of reality. He sucked in a breath and tasted a horrible gravelly sludge in his mouth. The pebble-and-mud taste made him gag and his stomach revolt. His eyes clamped shut. He raised fists next to his ears. Very clearly he heard the scrape of a shovel as it skimmed across metal.

His eyes blinked open. Something was above him. He tilted his head further back and saw a shovel hanging in the air. Poised above his head, it tipped. All at once a sludgy muck splattered onto his face. 

“Hey!” Jiggs cried out. His hands flew to cover his face. The cold released him. The stunning image of the shovel released him. His mouth still reacted to the taste of whatever it was, bitter and rocky. He peeked through webbed fingers and lights danced across his vision, lights that warned he’d better plant his behind onto a chair before he passed out. His legs were loose and wobbly. In one fluid motion he collapsed onto the couch.

It was only much later, as he tried to put the experience into perspective, that Jiggs realized he had heard the shovel dig its cargo from the wheelbarrow.

It was the first sound he had consciously heard in over twenty-two years.

* * *

Sometime in the dead hours of that morning, when night wielded its tightest grip, a car horn shattered the silence. Jiggs came awake with the blare of the second horn, and sat upright in bed, heart in his throat, with the shrill of the third blast. His hands gripped each other, as though the pressure would assure him he was awake.

Awake, and that he had heard a horn. Actually heard it.

He threw his legs over the side of the bed. He was definitely awake, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and if he heard the car horn one more time he was going to spring from the bed and investigate. He didn’t dare to think what it could mean.

He waited. The silence with which he had made an uneasy truce over the years spun on and on, uninterrupted.

But the mystery nagged at him. Jiggs got out of bed and padded over to the front door. He tugged back the flimsy curtain covering the peephole window. Beyond the gate, sleek in the moonlight, waited the limousine. With his face nearly pressed against the cool glass, he thought he could actually hear the chug chug chug of the limo’s exhaust pipe. He felt his testicles crawl into hiding at the sight—and sound—of it. His skin erupted into gooseflesh. This isn’t happening. But the illusion moved. A back window glided open on electric skates. The interior was a black maw against the gleaming white, with no hint of what lay inside. Until the arm appeared.

It was shaped like an arm. Jiggs saw the crook of elbow, and stubby fingers spread wide as though in signal. It just didn’t look like an arm. It was covered with something viscous and gray. Blobs of it dripped onto the side of the car as the hand motioned for Jiggs to step out of the house. It reminded him of bird droppings.

“No,” he whispered. “No.” He could hear the engine of the great machine idling, but he could not hear his own voice. The insanity of this pulled him away from the curtain. He could look no more, and double-checked the locks with trembling hands.

But he heard the limousine shift out of park into drive, as it rolled away into the night.

Blurb:

Jiggs, a hearing-impaired gay man tortured by the recent death of his parents, moves into a long-vacant San Francisco apartment. The apartment is revealed to be haunted by the Unfinished, spirits whose lives ended prematurely through tragedy, violence or betrayal. Jiggs’s initially adversarial relationship with his spectral housemates soon becomes a partnership when both parties see each other as instrumental to ending their own suffering. The stories unfold via visitations by three Dickensian ghosts offering accounts of their deaths. In one story, a man dying from AIDS confronts the limits of his vanity when he realizes the terrible price of his wish to recapture his looks. In another, a car mechanic’s soul is left to ponder how his weakness led to his murder.

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The Boystown Mysteries: 10 Year Anniversary by multi-Lambda Literary Award winning author, Marshall Thornton

Multi-Award Winning Boystown Mystery Series

The Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries detail the cases of former police officer-turned-private investigator Nick Nowak. Set in Chicago and covering the period between 1981 and 1985, the twelve books of the series follow Nick as he struggles with memories of his abrupt departure from the CPD and the end of his long-term relationship with librarian Daniel Laverty. He moves through a series of casual tricks until he meets homicide detective Bert Harker with whom he begins a tentative relationship.

As cynical and difficult as the city he calls home, Nick doggedly pursues his cases and often solves them out of sheer stubbornness. He relies on help from a charming cast of characters, who provide clues and comfort in equal measure. Beyond the mobsters and murderers, Nick encounters a larger villain looming on the horizon. A villain who begins striking down Nick’s friends and lovers, bringing the freewheeling fun of the early eighties to an end.

For the tenth anniversary of the series, here is an excerpt from the very first book, Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries, published in November 2009.

Excerpt: Little Boy Fallen

Always be careful who you trick with. I should have that tattooed on my forehead so I can see it every morning when I shave.

The woman was waiting for me when I got to my office. She looked to be in her late forties, thick around the hips, busty. There was lot of red lipstick caked onto her lips, and her hair was done up in a way that had probably gotten a lot of attention during the Eisenhower administration. At first, I thought she was a patient of the dentist down the hall, but when I pulled my keys out and started to unlock the door, she came over.

“Are you Mr. Nowak?” she asked.

A few weeks shy of my thirty-third birthday, I didn’t much like being called ‘mister’ by anyone who wasn’t still in grammar school. “You can call me Nick.”

I opened the door and led her into my tiny office. The furniture was crammed together, and still I had room left over for a dead corn plant in one corner. The window was big, taking up most of the outer wall. Eight floors below was LaSalle Street. Across the way stood an ultra-modern, steel and glass building that was so tall it cut out most of my light.

“He said you were nice,” she commented, while making herself comfortable in my guest chair. She wore a red cloth coat with a white fox collar. Instead of a purse, she carried a photo album, clutching it tight to her chest.

I hung my suede jacket on the back of my door and pulled a box of Marlboros out of the pocket. I decided not to ask who ‘he’ was. Not yet. Instead, I asked, “What’s your name, ma’am?”

“Helen Borlock.” I sat down at my desk and lit a cigarette while she talked. “He told me to come. He said you’d help. You can help, can’t you?”

“I don’t know if I can help,” I said honestly. “I don’t know why you’re here.”

She gave me a confused look, as though I should know why she was there. “Bobby told me to come. He said you’d help.”

“Bobby who?”

“Bobby Martin.”

I was pretty sure I didn’t know a Bobby Martin and said so.

“Bobby was my son’s roommate. One of them, I mean. There were four of them living there. Sweet boys, always laughing. The apartment is on Clark and Fullerton. They did it up nice. Every room a different color.”

I still hadn’t a clue who she was talking about.

Abruptly, she held out the photo album. “This is my Lenny.” To be polite, I took the album. “I never wanted to name him Leonard. My husband insisted. He’d had a friend, in the Marines. Wanted to name his son Leonard, after his friend. The friend died, you see.”

I flipped the album open. There was Helen with an infant. I was right. In her day, Helen had been a looker. I flipped a few pages and Lenny began to grow up. Looked like he was on his way to being a looker, too.

“What is it Bobby thought I could help you with?”

She glanced out the window like she suddenly needed to check the weather. It was overcast and threatening to rain or, worse, throw in one last snowstorm for the winter. After a little sigh, she said, “Three weeks ago, my son was murdered.”

“Mrs. Borlock, I’m a private investigator. I don’t investigate murders. The police do that.”

“They don’t care. Lenny is just another pervert to them.”

I waited a few moments, considering. I was telling her the truth. It wasn’t the kind of thing I did. Or at least tried not to do. Mainly I did background checks, skip traces, once in a while a little surveillance. That was it. Murder was different. Yes, I used to be a policeman, but I’d only worked a beat. I’d never been a detective. In the nearly six years I spent on the job, when it came to murder I’d never done much more than secure a crime scene and make sure witnesses stayed put.

“Can you afford a private investigator?”

“Yes. I always put a little aside for Lenny. Ever since he was a little boy.” She stared at her hands, which seemed particularly empty now that I was flipping through the photo album. “I used to think I’d give him the money on his wedding. He was sixteen when I figured out that was never going to happen, so for a while I thought I’d give him the money to go to college. But he was never book smart. Last couple of years, I’ve been waiting to see, did he maybe want to start a business or get a nice beau and buy a house.” Her voice turned bitter. “I should have given it to him. Should have let him spend on whatever he wanted.”

She looked like she might break down, but fortunately she didn’t. I took the final drag off my cigarette and stubbed it out. Against my better judgment, I said, “Tell me what happened to Lenny.”

“Someone pushed him off the seventh floor of the atrium at Water Tower.”

That seemed pretty cut and dried. “Were there witnesses?”

“It was a little after ten in the morning.”

“No one saw him being pushed?”

She shook her head.

“So, how do you know he was pushed?”

Mrs. Borlock pursed her lips. Tears popped into her eyes and threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. “You’re going to tell me my boy killed himself, just like the police.”

“Right now, I’m not telling you anything. Right now, I’m asking questions. How do you know he was pushed?”

“I just know,” she spat. “I know Lenny. And he wouldn’t kill himself.”

“Why wouldn’t Lenny kill himself?” I was expecting a lame answer, like she’d raised him as a good Catholic, and, since it was against God’s law, he wouldn’t do it. But she didn’t say that. She said something completely different.

“Lenny was the happiest person I ever met.”

* * *

That afternoon, I hopped on the El and got off at Diversey rather than going all the way to my regular stop at Belmont. I turned away from DePaul and walked toward the lake. Mrs. Borlock had given me the address of the apartment her son shared with three roommates, one of whom was the mysterious Bobby Martin.

At first, I wasn’t sure it had been a good idea to take the case. Logic told me the kid had killed himself. Yes, his mother thought he was the happiest person she’d ever met. But suicidal tendencies are exactly the kind of thing children hide from their parents. If the police thought it was suicide, then in all likelihood it was suicide. I had my issues with the Chicago PD, but that didn’t mean they did sloppy work.

So, why’d I take the case? Mrs. Helen Borlock, that’s why. Someone needed to help her. Not to find her son’s murderer; there was no murderer. She didn’t understand why her son killed himself, and she needed to understand. She needed the reason. As I rang the bell to her son’s apartment, I promised myself I’d find it for her.

I got buzzed into the building and climbed the stairs. On the second floor, a door sprang open and a boy in his early twenties stood there looking me up and down. He had short brown hair, a heavy five o’clock shadow, a small mustache hanging out beneath his nose on what looked like a temporary basis, and a pair of impossibly large glasses. He was short, real short. About five four, which made me nearly a foot taller. He was wearing a pair of gray gym shorts with the name of some high school partially rubbed off and not much else. He had decent legs and a tight chest, both covered with lots of dark hair. In the background, the Go-Gos got the beat.

“You’re not Bobby, are you?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I’d have remembered him if he was.

“I’m Freddie. Who are you?” Without waiting to find out, he turned and went back into the apartment. I followed him in. The living room was painted an antacid pink. Over an aqua-colored vinyl sofa that looked like it was stolen from a bus station was a large painting. Globs of paint arranged themselves to form a large, erect, rainbow penis. At its base, the painter had glued several handfuls of what looked like dryer lint.

Freddie lifted the needle off the record and the Go-Gos were silenced. He gave me the once-over a second time. “You’re looking for Bobby? Why? Did someone send you as a present? He’ll be—”

“I’m Nick Nowak. I’m a private investigator. Mrs. Borlock hired me to look into Lenny’s death.”

“Oh, my.” Behind his glasses he blinked a few times. He was one of those guys with eyelashes so dark and thick it made you wonder if he was wearing mascara.

“What’s your last name, Freddie?”

“Twombly,” he said. “Isn’t it terrible? It sounds like I’m lisping. Even when I’m not.” He lit an extra-long cigarette. I decided to be sociable and pulled out my Marlboros.

“You mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Only if they’re personal,” he said playfully. He hooked a finger into the elastic band of his shorts, dragging them down over his hip. I struggled to keep my focus on lighting my cigarette.

“Why do you think Lenny killed himself?” It was the question of the hour, so I figured I’d start there.

Freddie stopped being playful and sat on the sofa. It squeaked. “I don’t think Lenny killed himself. No one thinks that.”

I had hoped it would be easier than this. “Why do you say that?”

“Jumping? At Water Tower? It’s so dramatic. Lenny wasn’t a drama queen. Actually, I’m the drama queen in the house. Everything upsets me, but nothing upset Lenny. He was always mellow.”

“So, what do you think happened?”

Freddie shrugged. “Isn’t it your job to figure that out?”

“Do you mind if I look at Lenny’s room? And then maybe ask you a few more questions?”

He picked up the ashtray and walked out of the room. “Come on. It’s this way. Lenny and I share a room.”

I followed Freddie down the hallway. Just above the waistband of his shorts, he had dimples in the small of his back, one on each side. Halfway down the hall he turned, and we were in a small bedroom crammed with two twin mattresses, a schoolhouse desk, and another penis picture with lint for pubic hair—this one was flaccid.

The walls were painted an electric blue, and the ceiling was black. One of the mattresses was stripped naked, showing its sweat stains. The other wore pink polka-dotted sheets. On the bare mattress was a box filled with odds and ends from around the apartment—a frying pan, a picture, some juice glasses from the fifties.

Freddie watched as I looked over the room. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. Hints, I suppose, little clues as to why Lenny might have killed himself: angry letters from creditors, love letters from a failed romance, the complete works of Sylvia Plath. Anything.

“Did Lenny have money problems?” I asked.

“It’s a two-bedroom apartment and there are four of us. We all have money problems.” I looked into the closet. “The left side is his,” Freddie volunteered.

“What about boyfriends? Was he involved with anyone?”

“No. Lenny had sex. He tricked and stuff, but there wasn’t anyone serious.”

I moved Lenny’s clothes around. Stuck my hand in the pockets of his coats. Freddie continued chattering. “I used to be Bobby’s boyfriend. So did Chuck, our other roommate, but only for about five minutes. Bobby tricked with Lenny, which is what broke Bobby and I up, though at this point I can’t remember why I cared.” He gasped suddenly. “Oh, my God! You’re gonna think I killed Lenny for having sex with Bobby! That’s just ridiculous. It was a year and a half ago for God’s sake. In gay years that’s like a decade. Besides I have an alibi.”

“You don’t need an alibi. Lenny killed himself.”

He was silent for a moment. “I wish people who didn’t even know Lenny would stop saying that.” He stuck out his chin. “Lenny’s mom doesn’t think he killed himself. I don’t think she’s paying you to prove something she doesn’t believe.”

“I’m sure she’ll be satisfied if I can tell her why Lenny did it.”

Freddie huffed his disagreement. I lifted the lid to the schoolhouse desk. In the drawer beneath there were Lenny’s bills, his bank statements, some time cards, and an address book. I picked up the address book and flipped through it. Mostly first names.

“I’m supposed to be getting ready for a party. It’s Bobby’s birthday. That’s why I thought you might be a present.” He paused dramatically. “You know, like in Boys in the Band.”

“Yeah, I know. It was at The Parkway two months ago.” Not that I’d particularly enjoyed it. They were a whiny bunch. But it did prompt me to ask, “How did Lenny feel about being gay?”

“I don’t think he thought about it much. He was too busy sucking cock.” I suppose it was meant to shock me, but it didn’t. “I knew you were gay the minute you walked in,” Freddie continued.

“Oh yeah? What gave me away?”

“I’m almost naked. You keep pretending not to notice. Pretend being the operative word.”

It’s embarrassing, but I’m used to guys flirting with me. I’m six foot three and weigh about two-ten. I work out a few times a week to make sure the scale doesn’t tick much higher. That month, my dark hair was just beginning to curl since I needed a haircut. I was thinking about giving a beard a try, or maybe I was just being lazy. Either way, in addition to my mustache, there was heavy stubble all over my face. Trouble, in the form of boys who look like Freddie, always seems to find me. I guess that means I’m good looking.

“Tell me more about Lenny,” I asked, ignoring his flirting.

“Lenny wrote poetry. Dreadful poetry. I can show you some if you want, but my guess is Mrs. Borlock isn’t paying you enough to actually read it.” He pointed to a stack of black and white composition books by Lenny’s mattress. I shook my head. I might have to read them sometime, but hopefully I could figure this out without them.

I picked up Lenny’s bank statements and flipped through them.

“We’re all artsy, the four of us. Bobby is an actor. I’m a painter, a primitive representationalist. I work mostly in acrylics and found objects.” He paused, waiting for me to look up at the painting over his bed and compliment it. I stuck to the bank statements, so he continued, “Chuck is in a band called The Wigs. It’s glam rock. They all wear makeup and have pretty hair, but Chuck’s the only one who’s gay. They’re touring. Well, I mean they have a gig in Bloomington.”

Contrary to what Freddie had said, Lenny wasn’t broke. His most recent bank balance was nearly four thousand dollars. I flipped back over the past few months. His previous balances were significantly smaller, usually never more than six or seven hundred at the most. He’d even overdrawn the account a few times. I went back to the most recent statement. Halfway down the page, there was a circled deposit for three thousand, five hundred, and sixty-four dollars.

“Did Lenny come into some money recently?”

“No.”

“What did he do for money?”

“Oh, we’re all temps. It’s very flexible. We work for a service called Carolyn’s Crew. Carolyn’s great. She used to be an actress, so she understands.”

“She give bonuses?”

“Oh, yeah. If you stay on an assignment for two months, you get a hundred dollars. Then two hundred at six months. Lenny was about to get his second bonus.”

“Lenny had been on the assignment for a while, then?”

“He was having a rough time of it, though.”

“What do you mean a rough time?”

“Well, I’m not sure. He talked about his boss a lot, this guy named Campbell. Obviously, the guy had money. No one names their kid Campbell unless they’re also giving him a trust fund. One minute Lenny adored the guy, and the next he hated him. I think Lenny had a crush and it wasn’t going well.”

“Do you think they might have had a relationship?”

“No, if Lenny was having sex with someone he wouldn’t shut up about it. Seriously, I can tell you the size of every dick he’s touched for the last two years.” He looked at me expectantly, like I might ask him to do so. Curtly, he said, “I’m trying to seduce you, but you seem not to notice.”

“I notice.”

Freddie watched me, waiting for me to make a move. When I didn’t, he padded over to me. Frowning, he looked up and asked, “Are you trying to hurt my feelings?” He was so short I had to practically pick him up to kiss him.

Of course, I knew I shouldn’t have sex with him. It wasn’t what you’d call a reliable interrogation technique. But he didn’t seem to know why Lenny killed himself, didn’t even think Lenny did kill himself, so it was hard to see the harm in it.

Pushing me away, Freddie flopped down on the bed and, lifting his hips, slid off his gym shorts. His dick was semi-hard in anticipation and belonged on a much bigger man. I slipped off my jacket and began to undo the underarm holster holding my 9mm Sig Sauer.

“No,” Freddie said with a devilish smile. “Leave that on.”

I threw my jacket on the floor and joined Freddie on the bed. Taking him into my arms, I kissed him long and deep. There was something sexy about his being completely naked and my having most of my clothes still on. My hard-on rubbed against his, the cotton of my jeans making it all the more exciting. He pulled away from me and looked into my eyes. “You’re a good kisser.”

I thanked him for the compliment by kissing him some more. His hands were in my jeans, working to unbutton them and set my dick free. Once he got it into the open, he gave an appreciative little growl. He jerked me a few times and then rubbed our cocks together.

“This is going to be so good,” he whispered, then rolled over and spooned his naked butt into my lap. I ran my hands across his chest, pinching his nipples. He reached behind himself, grabbing my dick and rubbing the head along the crack of his ass.

His breathing began to come faster, and, somewhat abruptly, he reached around the edge of the mattress and pulled out a small container of Vaseline. Quickly, he lubed up my dick and his pucker hole. Before I slid my dick in, he said, “Take it easy at first.”

I fucked him slowly for a bit, lying there on my side with my pants down around my knees, giving him time to relax into it. Soon, though, I became impatient and pushed him over until he was face down. I crawled on top of him and slipped my cock back into him. He groaned happily.

My hands on his hips, I had to splay my legs wide to get a good angle. I thrust into him until the muscles on the insides of my legs began to ache. I pulled my legs closer together and lifted him up with me. His knees were off the bed, his ass practically floating in front of me as I pounded into him. His moaning began to blend into one long keening sound that reminded me of a siren.

Then I flipped him over. I wanted to see the look on his face while I screwed him. When he looked up at me, he stopped moaning and grinned. I slid back into him. “Yeah, that’s it,” he whispered.

Taking his cock into my hand, I started to jack him off. Matching each stroke with a thrust. He pushed my hand away. “You’re going to make me come too soon.”

I wanted to make him come, though, so I fucked him harder and faster. My holstered gun bounced against my ribs. He arched his hips, meeting each thrust. His hard cock bounced on his belly, and then he was coming. I reached out and jerked him a few times to help him along. All the while, I kept fucking him.

When he stopped spasming, Freddie said, “Pull it out. I want to see you come.”

I pulled out of him and began to jack myself off. It only took a few pumps and I was coming all over Freddie’s reddened dick and his already sticky belly. I collapsed on top of him. He slipped his arms around me and squeezed me close.

When he’d caught his breath, he said, “I hope this means you’ll try extra hard to find out what happened to Lenny.”

I pulled away from him, “Is that what this is about? You fucked me so I’d do a good job?”

“No, I fucked you because you’re sexy. But I can still ask for special treatment, can’t I?”

“I always do a good job,” I said.

He shrugged. “You never asked for my alibi.”

“Okay, tell me your alibi.” Obviously, he was eager to do so.

“The night before Lenny died, I got drunk off my ass on Long Island Iced Teas and took the bus in the wrong direction! This big, burly black guy took pity on me. After that, all I remember is holding onto a bathroom sink in some apartment while the black guy fucked the living daylights out of me. I woke up the next morning around eleven. I had no idea where I was.” He watched me to see what kind of reaction his story might get.

I didn’t know what the big deal was with his alibi. Was he that desperate to display his sexual prowess? Did he want to present himself as some kind of slut? Was this his way of saying, “don’t take what we just did too seriously”?

I dead-panned it. “Could you find this guy again?”

“Probably not.”

“Then it’s not an alibi, is it?”

He frowned. “Oh. I guess not.”

I rolled over and looked at him. “Can you think of anything else that might be important?”

Freddie thought for a moment, then smiled. “He would have liked you. That’s for sure. You’re just his type.”

It was time for me to leave, so I got off the bed. My hands and cock were still gooey with Vaseline. “Which way is the bathroom?”

“It’s right across the hall.”

With my pants around my ankles, I had to waddle across the hall. When I got halfway to the john, the front door opened and in walked Bobby Martin. Immediately, I remembered him. I’d picked him up at The Loading Zone a couple months before. I never saw him after that. We hadn’t exchanged numbers.

He took a moment to look me up and down. My greasy shirttails, my red, sticky cock hanging out, my hairy knees. He smiled and said, “Well, nice to see you again.”

I wanted to punch someone.

Author Bio

Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the  Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery three times. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite UncleThe Ghost Slept Over and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.

Exclusive Excerpt: Flight by K’Anne Meinel

Excerpt:

Jess had a lifetime pass to ride Into the Air, a family perk but also due to her wife’s sacrifice.  Few, if any, abused this privilege.  Technically, she flew standby, and she had to dress as a representative of the airline.  That didn’t bother her though.  She liked dressing nicely and did so for work all the time.  She just had to make sure she didn’t dress in jeans and a sweat shirt as they didn’t appreciate that.  She also had no guarantee of first-class privileges but would be bumped up if they could accommodate her.  She was lucky this time.  She boarded the plane in New York, and her first-class seat was waiting for her on the trip to Antwerp, Belgium.

She leaned back in the luxurious seat and enjoyed the ride, oblivious of the fact that she probably knew the pilot and trying not to think of the things that could happen to a plane, as they had to her beloved wife.  Instead, she tried to enjoy the flight: reading the magazines the airline provided, savoring the excellent meal that Into the Air was known for, and meeting her fellow passengers.  She chatted easily about her career as a decorator and enjoyed herself immensely.

Jess had only a moment of fear as they landed at Antwerp Deurne airport, but she had often experienced that and knew it had nothing to do with her wife’s death or the crash.  A taxi whisked her from the airport to her hotel, and she checked in, enjoying the well-appointed surroundings and the old-world charm.  The décor was something she appreciated at any time, and she drank it all in as the staff showed her to her room.  After taking a small nap, Jess felt rested and went out to explore the city.  She found some of the jewelry stores that catered to tourists and went looking for a bargain, not only in jewelry but also in the diamonds that Antwerp was known for.  She smiled as she looked at the expensive displays.  Some were better quality than what she owned, and some weren’t nearly as nice as her collection.  She enjoyed herself as she wandered around, getting lost half a dozen times as she explored.  She finally called a taxi to take her back to her hotel, realizing too late that she was a mere block away.  It was amusing, and she tipped the taxi driver for their discretion.

The next day, Jess took a taxi to the address on the paperwork and arrived at a rather imposing, old building made of large blocks of cut stone, its grey coloring mirroring the sky above.  She looked at the monstrous door and saw there were no handles on it.  Nor were there any attendants.  She thought about it for a moment, aware that she was under surveillance by the high-tech cameras mounted above the door, but unable to figure out how to get into the building.  There was a small pillar at the bottom of the three steps leading into the building.  She looked at it bemusedly for a long time before she became aware there was a small, triangular hole in it.  Thinking for a moment, she fished out her wife’s set of keys, which she had brought along.  She realized the odd, little key that had given her the address must fit in this hole.  Carefully, she inserted it.  At first, it didn’t fit, and she realized she was holding it wrong.  She turned the triangle upright and it slipped right in.  The door began to open slowly, ponderously, and she pulled the key out to walk up the stairs and enter a rather elaborate lobby.  

This was unlike any bank she had ever seen before; there was just one man behind the counter.  She walked up.

“Hallo,” he said with a delighted smile, as though she were a long-lost friend.

“Hello,” she repeated back, wondering if he spoke English.  Her worries were immediately cast out with his next words.

“Ah, you are American!” he sounded just as delighted as he had been at her arrival. 

“Um, yeah,” she said and then held up the triangular key that opened the door.  “I have this key…” she began uncertainly.

“You have never been here before?” he sounded even more delighted, if that were possible, and he smiled widely at her.

“No, I haven’t.”  She wondered what this was about.

“Many inherit these keys, and sometimes, the instructions are lost,” he explained.  “Let me show you,” he explained as he came out from behind the counter to show her how the key fit another door.  He punched in a code on a keypad that came up and another set of doors opened, this one opening just as ponderously as the outside door.  “Our depositors are looking for high-end security,” he explained.  “This is one of the safest vaults in the world,” he assured her.  “If you have your account number, you can use your key to withdraw your box.”  He indicated another post like the one outside where her key would fit. 

She now knew how it fit, so she got that one right on the first try.  A panel came up for her to type on.  She backed away, expecting him to type on it.

“You enter your account number,” he explained, indicating the screen.  “You have as much time as you want.  If you need any refreshments, please help yourself.”  His hands encompassed the well-appointed room, which was set up like a library and had a bar and fridge at one end. 

Not wanting to appear too naïve, but having no idea how this worked, she asked, “What if I don’t remember my account number?”

He turned from where he had been about to make an exit.  “That would be very unfortunate.  The passkey,” he indicated the one in the small kiosk, “is coded to the account number that was taken out when the vault was assigned.”  He left her with a smile, but before he closed the doors, he guaranteed her, “Your privacy is assured.”

Jess stared blankly at the closed doors and looked around the room.  This was way beyond her, way beyond anything she could fathom.  What had her wife needed such a vault for?  What in the world had Lena been involved in?  She looked thoughtfully at the screen and wondered what Lena would have possibly used as an account number?  Jess saw there was room for seven numbers.  She thought she had known Lena after all their time together, but now, she worried if she had ever really known her.

Think, she ordered herself.  She had known Lena.  She had known her wife!  She couldn’t allow the doubts that Andy planted in her psyche so long ago make her ever doubt her wife.  Lena had been a simple airplane pilot, not the smuggler they had implied.  They had receipts for the things she had brought back from her trips.  Why would anyone think Lena was involved in anything illegal?  “Think,” she said aloud, and then it hit her.  They had both been big fans of eighties music and a seven-digit code just might be that song they had both loved.  Carefully she typed in 8, 6, 7, 5, 3, 0, and then, very hesitantly, she typed the number 9.  The tune was playing in her head, but she was starting to sweat as she entered that last digit.  Now, what?  She looked around, waiting for something, but nothing happened.  She looked down at the pad again, exasperated, and noticed it was waiting for her.  Then she saw the word “enter.”  With sweat breaking out again, she pressed the enter key, not knowing what would happen.  She was surprised when it flashed the word ‘correct’ on the screen and closed the pad to her.  The window in front of her lowered, and a conveyor belt became visible to her.  A gigantic arm moved around in a large arc and plucked what looked like a tote from a shelf.  She watched as something out of the future, some type of robotic arm seemed to place the tote on the conveyor belt, and it rolled out in front of her.  She looked around the room, wondering what she should do with it.

Noticing the fasteners on the tote, she flipped them one at a time until she was able to lift off the lid.  She carefully placed it beside the tote while she looked inside.  There was a pile of papers, which she reached for and began to look through.  One of them was for a house in a town called Kanne Riemst.  Why would Lena have needed a house in Belgium, Jess wondered?  Putting that aside, she looked through the paperwork and found a statement for a bank account located at this very address.  She pulled out the paperwork of the wife benefit insurance policy to see where the monies had been paid, and the accounts matched!  Her eyebrow raised at the balance in the account.  What was this?  Why had Lena needed this bank account in Belgium?

She couldn’t read all the papers as some were in Dutch and some contained the German translation.  That did her no good.  She had only taken French in school, back in the day, and she hadn’t been a very good student.

Thinking the paperwork in this high security vault wasn’t needed, given the expense of renting one, she was about to replace the lid when she realized the tote wasn’t empty.  Because it was all black inside the tote, she hadn’t realized there were black velvet bags lining the bottom.  She had thought the material was part of the tote.  She lifted out the first one, then another and another and another and still, there was one more remaining.  Frowning, Jess carefully opened what looked like a jeweler’s bag.  Shocked, she saw the sparkle of what was contained in the bag.  Very gently, she poured the contents into her hand…the diamonds cascading like thick water. 

Jess’ heart was beating like a drum.  This was proof that her wife must have been a smuggler.  This must be how Lena afforded the down payment on their house and land, land, that while overgrown and abandoned, had been valuable and expensive because it was on the ocean.  That meant Lena must have been doing this for a very long time. 

Jess looked in the other bags, finding similar caches of diamonds.  One bag held what looked like garnets but might be rubies?  Jess did not know, but she wondered how in the world her wife had acquired these valuable items.  She closed the bags and returned them to the tote, wondering what she was going to do with her discovery?  She could go to the authorities, who would demand that she turn them over, but how would that look?  She might be implicated.  Her reputation and her wife’s legacy would be destroyed.  And what about Tabitha?

Jess sat down to try and think clearly, absentmindedly looking at the paperwork as she thought.  Trying to think rationally, she realized, even without knowing the actual value of the stones, that the monies represented in the bags were staggering.  It was scaring her beyond measure to think of what she had in her possession.

She had been prepared to come to the bank, ask about her wife’s account, and take possession of it.  She had even brought a copy of Lena’s certified death certificate, her will, and their marriage certificate along, planning to give them to the bank to prove who she was.  She hadn’t expected…this.  What the hell was she going to do with it all?  If she just showed up with all this money, the IRS would become suspicious, and with the governments suspicions about Lena being a smuggler, they would confiscate everything.  The FBI would have no problem arresting her and asking questions later.  Wouldn’t Interpol and the NTSB be interested as well?  Conspiracy theories would abound.  Their lives would be ruined…forever.

Blurb:

A tragic explosion results in the death of over 200 airplane passengers. Was the explosion caused by pilot error, or was it a conspiracy?

Pilot Cathalene (Lena) Penn, accused by the airline of being a smuggler, died in the tragedy, and her wife, Jessica is desperate to clear Lena’s good name. When Jessica travels to Belgium, her wife’s home away from home, she discovers diamonds, a second family, and a mystery…

Sometimes, choosing between what is safe and what is right isn’t easy, and running away is always an option…Flight!

About Author K’Anne Meinel

K’Anne Meinel is a prolific best-selling fiction writer with more than one hundred published works including shorts, novellas, and novels.  She is an American author born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised outside of Oconomowoc.  Upon early graduation from high school, she went to a private college in Milwaukee and then moved to California for seventeen years before returning to the state.  Many of her stories are noted for being realistic, with wonderfully detailed backgrounds and compelling story-lines.  Called the Danielle Steel of her time, K’Anne continues to write interesting stories in a variety of genres in both the lesbian and mainstream fiction categories.  Her website is @ www.kannemeinel.com.  K’Anne is also the publisher and owner of Shadoe Publishing, LLC @ www.shadoepublishing.com and in December 2017 she started the Lesfic Bard Awards @ www.lesficbardawards.com.  In December 2018 she launched the Gay Scribe Awards @ www.gayscribeawards.com in hopes of duplicating the first year’s success of the Lesfic Bard Awards and to showcase more LGBT literature.

Exclusive Excerpt: Pumpkin Eater: A Dan Sharp Mystery (Book 2) by Jeffrey Round

Excerpt:

Four faces looked up expectantly as Dan entered the room. Seated with the two officers he’d encountered at the morgue were the chief of police and Dan’s former boss, Ed Burch.

     “Hello, Ed. Fancy meeting you here.”

     “Good to see you again, Dan.”

     The chief stood to shake his hand, introducing the two officers as Danes and Pfeiffer.

     “Thanks for coming to meet us. The reason we’ve asked you here today, Dan, as I’m sure you realize, is because of the body you discovered at the old slaughterhouse last night.”

     “The man’s name was Darryl Hillary,” Dan said.

     The chief’s cool blue eyes stayed on him, taking his measure like any good tailor or undertaker.

     “Yes, of course. And I understand you were hired to find him by his sister.”

     “Darlene Hillary. That is correct.”

     “For reasons of discretion, I have to ask you to keep to yourself what I’m about to disclose. Are you good with that?”

     Dan inclined his head. “I’d have to know what it is first, but if it’s above-board and nothing to do with me then I can give you a reasonable assurance I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

     The chief looked to Ed. “You described him pretty well, Ed.”

     “Dan’s a straight shooter,” Ed said.

     The chief gave him another shrewd look, as though trying to decide how much to confide in him. As far as Dan was concerned, they’d invited him to this game of poker, so it was up to them to reveal their hand first.

     “I won’t mince words here, Dan. The reason we’ve asked you to come by today is because Ed suggested you might help us.”

     Dan’s ear picked up. This was the first he’d heard of being asked to help the police. He turned to Ed, who took up the narrative briefly.

     “That’s right, Daniel. I’ve been asked to work as a special consultant on the case, in light of my capacity as a former police officer. When I heard what was being asked, I suggested you might have a part to play in it.”

     The chief’s icy eyes travelled from Ed back to Dan. “We believe yesterday’s murder is related to a larger investigation into a child prostitution ring, which has taken on the proportions of a Canada-wide operation.” He indicated the two officers. “Detective Danes was assigned to lead the operation in the GTA. With Hillary’s murder, Constable Pfeiffer has just taken over as evidence officer. That’s where Ed felt you might help us, Dan.”

     Dan noted how the chief liked to say his name, as though to bring him further into his confidence.

     The chief continued. “With this recent death, we feel we may have the makings of a serial killer on our hands. This past spring, an ex-priest was murdered in Quebec. Like the victim you found earlier this week, he was severely beaten and had his left ear cut off.” The chief paused. “You may recall that part of the National Sex Offenders Registry was dumped on the Internet last year. Both the ex-priest and Hillary were named on it.”

     Dan recalled reports of the incident, the inconclusive findings as to whether it had been deliberate or not. He held up a finger. “Excuse me. Was it proved to be an accident? The names being dumped on the Internet?”

     The chief nodded. “We still don’t know how it got there, but the information was deliberately released by person or persons unknown.”

     The registry was created to compile information, including current addresses, phone numbers and identifying markings such as tattoos that would enable police officers to finger possible suspects in sex-related crimes. Providing up-to-date personal information was mandatory on the part of the offenders. The public was never supposed to have access to the list, however. That the registry had been leaked on the Internet was cause for alarm for any number of reasons, including the possibility that someone might try to harm or kill anybody named in it, as seemed to have been the case here.

     “So you think someone is targeting known sex offenders?”

     The chief nodded. “The only thing linking the two victims is that both names were on the Sex Offenders Registry and they both had their left ear cut off.” He scrutinized Dan’s face. “Are you fine with everything we’ve told you so far?”

     “Sure.” Dan nodded. “But I still don’t know why you’re telling me this.”

     The chief opened a file. Clipped to the dossier was the photograph of a young man in jeans and a sweatshirt. His cherubic face and curly dark hair made him look like the junior member of a boy band.

     “This is the chief suspect in the murder of the ex-priest, Guillaume Thierry. He was an altar boy at the church in Montreal where Thierry worked. Eventually, Thierry went to jail for eight years and was released two months before his murder.” He put a finger on the photograph. “The young man’s name is Gaetan Bélanger.”

     Dan nodded. “Why do you think it was Bélanger instead of one of the other abuse victims?”

     “Speculation, mostly, but he was heard uttering death threats against Thierry when he was released.”

     “Anything connecting him to Hillary?”

     “Nothing yet. What we know of this kid since his molestation is that he’s lived by thievery. He was caught twice over the past few years. The first time he was caught stealing from a church — not the one where he was molested, but I’m sure there was a connection in his mind.”

     “But why kill Hillary?” Dan asked. “Why not murder another priest?”

     “We’re not sure why, but the missing ear tells us it’s Bélanger. It seems to be his signature.”

     Pfeiffer spoke up. “All our data indicates that Bélanger is holed up somewhere in Toronto. He may have been here for several months already.”

     Dan considered this. “Then why not put all your efforts into finding him?”

     Pfeiffer’s expression hardened. “Oh, we’ll find him all right,” he said with the sort of burning zeal Dan distrusted in authority figures. “But we’d prefer to find him before he kills again.”

     “Well, it’s all very intriguing,” Dan said. “But I still don’t understand how I can be of help.”

     The chief smiled. “You are here because of the swiftness and accuracy of your search for Darryl Hillary. We understand you located him in less than three days. That’s impressive.”

     Dan shook his head. “Still, I’m not a police officer and as far as I know the police force doesn’t hire outside. So, again, I ask why I’m here.”

     The chief looked at Burch then at Dan. “Ed said that you have some very good contacts on the street. I’m told they are contacts the police are not always privy to. We would like access to those sources.”

     Dan sat back. At last it was clear. He shook his head.

     “Even if I gave you the names of the people I use, I doubt any of them would help you. Most of them live off the grid and would not willingly have anything to do with the police, if they could help it. You might say that money talks, but I’m sure you realize there are some things even money can’t buy.”

     “They wouldn’t need to know,” the chief said.

     Dan shook his head and stood up. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I can’t help you.”

Blurb

Dan Sharp searches the seamy underbelly of the city for a brutal killer.

Following an anonymous tip, missing persons investigator Dan Sharp makes a grisly find in a burned-out slaughter­house in Toronto’s west end. Someone is targeting known sex offenders whose names and identities were released on the Internet. When an iconic rock star contacts Dan to keep from becoming the next victim, things take a curious turn. Dan’s search for a killer takes him underground in Toronto’s broken social scene — a secret world of misfits and guerrilla activists living off the grid — where he hopes to find the key to the murders.

About Author Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is the Lambda-winning author of the Dan Sharp mystery series. A native of Toronto, he is currently creating a writers retreat in rural Mississippi.

Implications: A Lesbian Detective Novel (Carpenter/Harding Series Book 9) by Barbara Winkes

Excerpt:

It was with some regret that Ellie extracted herself from Jordan’s embrace only a few hours later. She wanted to get to the station early. With a little luck, she could find something to present to the lieutenant that convinced him it was worth talking to the A.D.A.

Despite the interrupted sleep, she felt like she had a lot more energy than in recent days. After having to deal with Natalie, assessing and coping with the damage she’d done, Ellie welcomed the opportunity to focus on more important matters.

The baby plan, first and foremost.

Maybe, she’d have the opportunity to clear an innocent man’s name.

The officer working in Records regarded her with wide eyes when she made her request.

“Wow. That was a long time ago. What you need might not even be in this building.”

“Could you take a look?”

“Yes, of course. Give me a minute.”

The woman typed something on her keyboard. She looked up at Ellie, giving her an apologetic smile. “You might want to sit down for a moment. First, we’ll have to check if the file was already digitalized.”

Ellie had to admit that she hadn’t even considered these possible obstacles, but it made the case all the more intriguing.

“That’s okay.” She hadn’t snuck out of bed at 5:30 for nothing. Ellie hid a yawn behind her hand.

“Okay, there’s a file here. I can get it for you, but for the rest, you’ll have to go to the Archives. They open at eight.”

“Thank you, that’s very helpful.”

The officer disappeared behind a door, and Ellie was left alone. Ten minutes later, she had to sit up straighter in her chair to make sure she wouldn’t fall asleep. Another five minutes later, the officer reappeared.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, thanks. This is great. I’ll go to the Archives later.”

Ellie found Maria Doss at her desk. Her night seemed to have been fairly uneventful.

“Good morning. I take it you didn’t have to notify the lieutenant about anything.”

“Why are you here already? What’s wrong with you?”

Ellie laughed. “I was just about to get myself a coffee. I take it you’d like one?”

“I shouldn’t, as I’m going to a brunch later, but yes, please.”

A few minutes later, Ellie was back, enjoying her coffee as she went over the specifics of the Wilder case.

These forms had been filled out on a typewriter. She noticed the names of the investigators, who would be long retired by now—or dead. She hoped she’d be able to find the retired ones and talk to them.

George Wilder was a twenty-year-old college student, accused of and convicted for killing his girlfriend Stella Brown after a party. He claimed he was innocent, but the evidence was damning: The murder weapon wrapped in a bloody shirt, hidden in the closet of his dorm room. There was the mention of a witness who had seen him go into Stella’s room the night of the murder. Where was the motive? Some of their classmates suggested that jealousy might have been a reason, but if Stella had been seeing someone else, no one knew about it. It remained unclear whether this theory was valid.

Ellie assumed that she might find more information at the courthouse. Something about Wilder had made the jurors think that he had committed the atrocious crime. He had admitted that both he and Stella had been drinking, but that he’d said goodbye to her at the door to her dorm room and left. He appeared devastated over her death, and never confessed.

Ellie tried to imagine the scene, a young couple enjoying a night out together, going home to their respective dorms, then…what? Someone had stolen into Stella’s room with an axe? That was a big risk. She might wake up, try to defend herself, scream…unless there had been more in her blood than alcohol.

She needed more of a background on both the victim and convicted suspect. She started to jot down notes—Archives, Investigators, Family, Prison, Newspapers—when a soft kiss to her neck alerted her to the fact that Jordan had finally made it to work. The gesture was tender and quick, but of course Maria had noticed.

“You two are so adorable, it’s annoying,” she said. “I’m out of here. Thanks for the coffee, Ellie, and good luck.”

“So did you find anything?” Jordan was in a much better mood than she had been when Allen approached them about the case. Of course she had slept longer and taken the time for breakfast. Ellie also prided herself in having to do something with Jordan’s much improved spirits, including their conversation about the future and subsequent activities the previous night.

“It’s too early to say, but for one, the motive is still unclear to me from what I’ve seen. I have a list of places to go.”

“It will be tough to find most of the people involved at the time.”

“Yeah, but we already have Doreen Byrd. She might be able to tell me where to find some of those people. And I want to talk to the prison employees. I’ll take it up with the lieutenant when he comes in, and he’ll hopefully agree that we talk to Valerie.”

Jordan looked doubtful. Ellie thought that unfortunately, she had a reason—A.D.A. Esposito wouldn’t follow along on a vague hunch, but Ellie needed her on her side.

“I can’t help it,” she said. “I keep thinking about what Jill said—what if it was someone we cared about? We can’t just forget about it because it happened sixty years ago. There might be a murderer out there who’s been enjoying his freedom while this man spent his life in prison.”

“It’s a shame if that’s what happened. The system isn’t perfect.”

“Such dark thoughts on a beautiful morning,” Valerie Esposito joked.

Ellie jumped to her feet.

“You’re here! Could I talk to you for a second?”

“Actually, I was here to speak to your boss for a second, and then I have a working brunch later. If you could come to my office this afternoon?”

“Perhaps I could join you in the lieutenant’s office? I swear this won’t take long.”

Lieutenant Carroll was already in the room, observing the scene with amusement.

“You see, Counselor, it’s almost impossible to say no to Detective Harding. Five minutes.”

“That’s all I need for now. Thank you so much.”

She sent a triumphant smile to Jordan before joining Carroll and Esposito.

Ellie usually got what she wanted. If there was anything new to find about this case, she’d find it.

Blurb:

Did George Wilder die in prison serving a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit? A reporter asks Ellie on behalf of Wilder’s family to look into the decades old murder. When initial inquiries raise doubts about Wilder’s guilt, Ellie thinks that the real killer might have gone unpunished, but she doesn’t have much time to prove her theory.

Jordan gets more than she bargains for when she accepts a tip from a detective with another precinct. The murder of a local store owner turns out to have international implications.

Together, Jordan and Ellie work on the most important project of their lives…

More about author, Barbara Winkes:

Barbara Winkes writes suspense and romance with lesbian characters at the center. She has always loved stories in which women persevere and lift each other up. Expect high drama and happy endings. Women loving women always take the lead.

Exclusive: Carved in Bone: A Henry Rios Novel (Henry Rios Mysteries Book 2) by Michael Nava and Giveaway!

Video Trailer – Carved in Bone

Exclusive Excerpt:

4.

Framed by a million-dollar view of the Bay Bridge in the window of her eighteenth-floor office on California Street, Ruth Fleming regarded me skeptically. The large, gleaming desk that served as a buffer between us held an in and out box and a complicated, many-buttoned phone but not a single personal item; no framed family photographs or fancy paperweights for her. Her desk proclaimed she was all business, as did the woman herself. Her makeup had been painstakingly applied to project attractiveness without a trace of sensuality just as the silk burgundy shawl that draped the padded shoulders of her jacket seemed calculated to soften her authority. The nameplate on her desk identified her as a vice president. The only other women I had seen when she led me from the foyer to her office were secretaries. Larry Ross’s words may have been good enough for her boss, Myles Landon, in L.A., but Fleming tapped with doubtful fingertips the résumé she had asked me to bring her.

“I have to say, Mr. Rios, you don’t seem to have any relevant qualifications for this job,” she observed in a firm but modulated voice.

“That’s what I told Myles Landon,” I replied. “He seemed to think my experience as a litigator would be sufficient. You don’t agree?”

She frowned. “No, I don’t, but Myles is the boss, so here we are.”

Clearly, having an unqualified man foisted on her was a reminder that the old boys network was alive and well. I sympathized but was hardly in a position to concur. I needed the work.

“Look, Ms. Fleming—”

“Mrs. Fleming,” she said, automatically.

“Mrs. Fleming, give me a chance and if you think I’m not up to the job, I’ll quit and tell Landon it was my decision.”

She seemed a fraction less annoyed with me. “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Rios.” She picked up a folder from her in box and slipped it across the desk. “This case involves a claim of accidental death which would require us to pay double the policy amount.”

“How much?”

“A hundred thousand dollars. A lot of money, obviously, but not in and of itself the reason for us to investigate. The cause of death is accidental asphyxiation—apparently, there was a gas leak in the insured’s apartment. His, uh, male companion was also in the apartment but he survived. The companion is also the beneficiary. The claim was filed on his behalf a few days after the accident, but we haven’t been able to reach him since.”

“Who filed the claim?”

“The agent who wrote up the policy. Not one of our agents. We bought the policy from Confederation Insurance.”

“You bought a policy from another insurance company? Is that a common practice?”

“Yes. It’s called reinsurance. The selling company wants to spread the risk of loss by carrying fewer policies and the buying company wants the business. It works out for everyone. Anyway, we called the Confederation agent and he said he can’t find the claimant either. Obviously, we’re not going to take any action on the claim until we have a beneficiary.”

“That’s all you want me to do? Find the beneficiary?”

She allowed herself a tight little smile. “Well, to start. After that, I expect you to do the standard investigation.”

“Which involves?”

She swiveled her chair away from me and reached for a fat binder on the credenza behind her. “This is our operations manual. You’ll find a chapter on investigating death claims.”

I took the binder and the manila folder. “May I call you if I have a question?”

“I’m vice president in charge of operations,” she said. “Perhaps you could call Myles.”

I crammed the operations manual and the case file into my briefcase and lugged it into the Gold Mountain Café, a Chinese-American restaurant near Civic Center. The restaurant was close by the county law library and within walking distance of both the civil and criminal courthouses. I was drawn by its cheap prices, decent food and the willingness of its elderly owners, the Chus, to let me camp out at a back booth for a couple of hours and work when it was inconvenient to walk back to my office. If I was being entirely truthful, Gold Mountain held one other big attraction for me: Adam, the Chus’ twenty-three-year-old grandson. Adam was their jack-of-all-trades who cooked, waited tables, ran the cash register and even, I saw, passing the place late one night, mopped the floors after closing time.

The Gold Mountain was never crowded and often almost empty. The menu featured both American diner food, burgers and Denver omelets, and standard Chinese food, wonton soup and beef with broccoli, and hadn’t been changed in years; new prices had simply been taped over the old ones. Unlike the retro fifties diners springing up elsewhere in the city, Gold Mountain’s long, Formica counter, checkerboard linoleum floor and red vinyl booths appeared to actually date to the second Eisenhower Administration. Cracks in the vinyl were covered with duct tape and Adam’s best efforts could not lift the decades of scuff marks on the floor.

Adam was a fresh and vivid presence in the dim, shabby, somnolent restaurant. He towered over his diminutive grandparents and he was massively muscled, his big thighs and powerful chest straining the seams of his black trousers and white dress shirt waiter’s uniform. His square-jawed, big featured, broad face, topped with a close-cropped bush of inky hair, had a warrior’s fierceness in repose but when he smiled, which he did frequently, dimples and a natural sweetness emerged. Our brief conversations about the fate of the Giants took a turn toward friendship when I asked him about the photographs that inconspicuously lined the walls the restaurants; old black-and-white images of Chinatown. The one that hung above the booth where I usually sat depicted a counter restaurant filled with Chinese laborers, some in Western clothes, some in Chinese garb, their hair in queues, plainly taken in the late nineteenth-century.

“That was our first restaurant,” he explained. “On Grant Street. There’s only a counter because back then most of the Chinese were guys without families so they’d come in, sit down, eat and leave. You can still find a few of those old counter restaurants in Chinatown.”

“What happened to their families?”

“The guys came over to work and make money to send home. The women and kids stayed behind in China. Then the exclusion act kept them out.”

“How many restaurants has your family owned?”

“Gold Mountain is number four. The one in the picture was destroyed in the earthquake. We opened another one in North Beach but the Italians burned it down.”

“They what?”

His good-natured expression soured a little. “The Italians didn’t want any Chinese in their neighborhood so they torched the place. The third one opened in Chinatown. Then my granddad opened this one in the sixties. The Chinatown place got sold, so Gold Mountain is the end of our little empire.”

“Are you going to take it over?”

Adam laughed. “No, this isn’t the life for me.” He glanced toward his grandparents who were having an animated conversation in Cantonese at the cash register. “A couple of years ago, he had a stroke and she told him it was time for them to retire, but this place is more to him than a business. This is what his dad and granddad handed down to him and he was ready to die at the grill. She asked me to talk to him because,” he said with a grin, “I’ve always been his favorite grandkid. I’m the only one who listened to his stories. We made a bargain. I’d come and work for him and he’ll retire next year, after New Year’s. Chinese New Year’s.”

“None of their children want the place?”

He laughed again. “My dad and his brothers and sisters had to work here when they were kids. They hated it.”

“So, basically, you’re putting your life on hold to work here until your grandfather’s ready to retire?”

“Sure,” he said with a quizzical grin as if my question puzzled him. “It’s for my family.”

After that, he’d linger at my table and talk after he took my order or, if he was in the kitchen, he’d come out and take his break with me. I quickly realized there were two Adams. One was the easygoing, all-American boy with the quick smile who loved sports and joked about being too tired from his twelve-hour days to look for a girlfriend. The other was the serious young man who had learned from his grandfather the difficult history of the Chinese in San Francisco and who, when he spoke of it, showed flashes of the warrior I had first taken him for.

Once when we were talking, I mentioned Yick Wo versus Hopkins, an 1886 Supreme Court decision I had studied in my constitutional law class. In Yick Wo, the court ruled that a San Francisco ordinance requiring permits for laundries violated the equal protection clause because it was administered in a way that denied almost all Chinese applicants. Adam knew all about Yick Wo and its aftermath.

“That was just one law,” he said. “There were lots of them to keep us in our place and when they didn’t work, the mobs did things like burning down my family’s restaurant. The city’s always been a tough place for us.”

“Even now?”

He frowned. “You ever really looked at Chinatown? I mean, past the tourist joints? It’s a slum. San Francisco’s always been a tough place for us.” The easy smile reappeared. “But there’s good and there’s bad, right? You know why my granddad named this place Golden Mountain Café?”

“No, and I was curious since there aren’t any mountains around.”

“In Cantonese, Gold Mountain is gam saan. That’s what the Chinese immigrants called San Francisco, before they got here. They thought they’d come over and get rich.”

“Find streets paved with gold?”

“Yeah,” he said. “They didn’t find that but a lot of our families found a home. Hey, is that all you’re going to eat?”

“Are you trying to fatten me up for a reason?”

He grinned. He’d made it clear he thought I was too thin and often piled my plate with more food than I could possibly eat, then packaged the leftovers.

Larry had warned me not to get romantically involved my first year of recovery but I figured even he wouldn’t object to my discreet infatuation with this smiling straight boy. Because clearly, Adam was a straight guy, cluelessly friendly and open and at ease in his big body as only straight guys can be. A gay guy who looked like him would have carried himself with the slightest bit of theatricality to show off the gym-built muscles, and the eyes of gay men in the city at that moment were all touched with a drop of anxiety, like a tiny tear that never fell. Adam’s eyes were clear.

I felt Adam’s meaty fingers digging into my shoulders and briefly massaging me. “Hey, what you got there?”

The operations manual was open on the table before me. I explained to him what it was and the job I had taken on.

“I thought you did criminal law,” he said, positioning himself in front of me, order pad in hand.

“Business is slow and a man’s gotta eat,” I said.

He smiled. “Speaking of eating, what’ll you have today?”

“Surprise me?” I ventured.

“Tuna melt and tomato soup.”

“I have that most days. What’s the surprise?”

“Side of salmonella,” he said. “Kidding!”

He went off and I stared appreciatively at his broad back and big, tight glutes, and then, with a sigh, turned my attention to my work.

Compared to the opaque legal documents I was accustomed to, the operations manual was refreshingly to the point. Thus far I had learned that every life insurance policy contained a contestability clause that allowed the insurer to challenge the validity of the policy within two years of the death claim. Whether the company exercised that option depended on the results of a preliminary inquiry called a death confirmation investigation. This investigation centered on three areas: whether the insured’s information on the original application—name, age, gender, address—contained any material misstatements that would void the policy; confirmation of the insured’s identity to make sure the insured and decedent were the same person; and verification of cause of death. If those three things checked out, the claim was paid.

I opened the file on William Ryan, the man whose death I was investigating. There wasn’t much there: a copy of the application, the policy itself, and the death claim. At the time he applied for the life insurance policy, a year and a half earlier, Ryan was thirty-two years old, lived on Eureka Street and listed his occupation as businessman. Under intended beneficiary was the name Nick Trejo, a twenty-two-year-old who lived at the same Eureka Street address. Beneath the space for “beneficiary’s relationship to insured” was the word “roommate.” Reading between the lines—two unrelated men, one older than the other, living together in the heart of the city’s gay neighborhood—it was obvious Trejo was Ryan’s lover and the older man had taken out the policy to provide for the younger one in the event of his death.

“Roommate,” “companion,” “friend,” “lover,” “partner.”  I thought about all those words, some innocuous, some salacious, and always pronounced with a slight, mocking hesitation that simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed the bond, the way Ruth Fleming had paused before describing Nick Trejo as William Ryan’s “male companion.” A man joined to a woman was a love story. A man joined to a man was a smutty joke. Well, at least the company wasn’t trying to withhold payment because Trejo was Ryan’s lover as it might have in an earlier time. That was progress, I guess.

I called Brendan Scott, the insurance agent who had issued Ryan’s policy, from the restaurant payphone and made an appointment to see him at three. That gave me an hour to kill. What could I learn about William Ryan in that hour? It occurred to me I could look up his obituary at the nearby city library.

Mrs. Chu was working the cash register. She took my money and made change and I went back to the booth and left a five for Adam who was back in the kitchen.

“Will you tell Adam I said goodbye?” I asked Mrs. Chu on my way out. She smiled and nodded.

The last of the city’s Indian summer had been washed away in a violent storm over the weekend. The damp streets were filled with small tree branches and the gutters were clogged with leaves. The gray sky cast a funereal pall across the city where everything and everyone, cars, buses, streetcars, pedestrians, seemed to move in slow motion. I pushed open the doors to the gloomy library building with cold fingers. A reference librarian directed me to the fourth floor reading room where back issues of magazines and newspapers were piled on wooden shelves.

Ryan had died three weeks earlier. I pulled a month’s worth of issues of the city’s gay newspaper and flipped through the first one to the obituaries. They took up two pages, ranging in length from a full column to a couple of paragraphs, all illustrated with thumbnail black and white photographs of the eulogized men—they were all men—some no more than blurred snapshots, others studio portraits.

I scanned the names and didn’t find William Ryan among them but I did see a familiar face grinning at me from one of the photographs. Tom Rustin. He’d been in his last month of residency at the halfway house when I’d arrived. I noticed him immediately because he and I were the only guys at the house who weren’t white. I remembered his imperturbability and how, when he spoke at a meeting, he always began, “Hi, family.” Now he was dead: “Complications from HIV. His only regret was not being able to pick up his nine-month AA chip at the Show of Shows.”

I leafed through three more issues of the paper and fifty-seven obits before I found William Ryan’s notice. The accompanying photograph showed an attractive, dark-haired man with light-colored eyes, a sharp nose and a forceful jaw, wearing a dress shirt and tie, a phone pressed to his ear.

Bill Ryan was born on August 18, 1955, in Eden Plains, Illinois. He came to San Francisco in 1971 and never left. He got an Associate Arts degree from City College and worked as real estate agent with Bay Realty before opening his own office in the Castro in 1977. Many of the neighborhood’s Victorians were sold by Bill. In 1980, Bill turned his agency into the successful property management company he was running at the time of his sudden death. He is survived by his faithful office manager, Doris Chen, and his partner of five years, Nicholas Trejo. In keeping with Bill’s wishes, there will be no memorial.

It took me a couple of readings to decode the terse notice. Bill Ryan was clearly a guy in a hurry. He would only have been twenty-two when he started his own real estate agency and got caught up in the boom years when gay men were transforming a quiet Irish neighborhood called Eureka Valley into the epicenter of the city’s gay life they renamed the Castro. Property management implied property to manage which made me think he had not just been a seller but a buyer. Like many other young men before him, going back to the Gold Rush, Ryan had come to California to make his fortune.

He was only eighteen when he uprooted himself from the Midwest and moved across the county. Surely, his reason for such a dramatic migration wasn’t to attend a community college or work in real estate, things he could have done anywhere. No, I surmised that he, like thousands of other young men in the ’70s in similar situations, had fled his small-minded Midwestern town for San Francisco to find a community of his own kind. And, because he was so young, I had to think there had been some serious trouble at home behind his move. The likeliest scenarios were either that he’d been discovered and his family had thrown him out, or, fearing imminent discovery, he’d run off before the shit hit the fan and become another gay refugee in a city filled with us.

Unlike other refugees, however, it did not appear he had immersed himself in that community. Their obituaries were filled with mention of gay clubs and groups to which the men had belonged, gay charitable organizations in which they had been active, and included long lists of surviving friends and personal messages of grief from them. Nothing like that for Bill Ryan. A casual reader of his circumspect death notice might not have even realized he was gay. Even the mention of his lover, Nick Trejo, was cast as his “partner” suggesting a professional rather than a personal relationship.

No family was mentioned among his survivors, confirming my suspicion that he was estranged from it. We were a generation of men who, when we had come out as gay, had been stricken from our family trees, and become non-persons whose names were spoken, if at all, in shamed whispers. Both my parents had died before I had to come out to them, and my only sibling, my sister, Elena, was also gay. But I did have uncles, aunts and cousins—none of whom I had seen since my mother’s death a decade earlier because I hadn’t wanted to come out to them. Maybe my Mexican, Catholic relatives would have been okay with a gay nephew and cousin but more likely they would have been disgusted or appalled. Even before my parents had died, and after I’d left home for school, I’d seen my relatives so rarely, it hardly seemed worth risking rejection, so I drifted away. The habit was so ingrained, I had even drifted away from my sister, though she had probably saved my life.

Brendan Scott’s insurance agency was on the same block of Market Street as Ryan’s property management company. Their two businesses were separated by a dry-cleaners, a camera shop and a coffee shop where, Scott was telling me, the two men sometimes met for coffee.

“Not that Bill had much time for socializing,” Scott said. He was fiftyish, paunchy and going gray but he had a salesman’s easy smile and twinkling eyes, as if he was about to tell you a particularly good joke. “Nope, it was always business with him. Terrible how he died, though I guess it was better than AIDS.”

“What does that mean?”

The smile flickered off. “People would have thought he was one of those sleazy South of Market guys hanging out in bathhouses with their legs up in the air and a bottle of poppers stuffed up their nose.”

“I don’t think the virus limits itself to them,” I said mildly.

He shrugged. “All I’m saying is Bill wasn’t like that. He was about the straightest gay guy I knew. He worked long hours and then went home to Nick.”

“You know Nick Trejo?”

“I only met him a couple of times,” he corrected me. “Cute kid. Younger than Bill.”

“You sold the policy to Bill.”

He nodded. “Sure did. He came in one day out of the blue and said he wanted to make sure Nick was taken care of if something happened to him. Lots of gay guys do that, you know, to make sure there’s something for the boyfriend the family can’t get to.” He frowned. “Of course, these days, with the virus, it’s getting harder and harder to write a life insurance policy if the applicant’s gay.”

“How would your company know if someone’s gay?”

“Red-lining,” he replied. “If an application for life insurance comes out of certain zip codes where there’s lots of gay men, the company rejects it.”

“That’s okay with you?”

“No,” he replied firmly. “It’s not. There are ways around it—” he paused. “I think I better keep them to myself.”

“Sure, I understand. Getting back to Bill Ryan’s policy. You filed the claim when he died. Did Nick ask you to?”

He shook his head. “I left him messages but he didn’t call back so I went ahead and filed the claim to preserve his rights.”

“Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“Sorry, no, but you let me know if you find him.”

“Of course,” I said, standing up. I noticed the gay paper on his cluttered desk was opened to the obituaries.

He noticed me noticing it. “My granddad called the obits the old man’s sports page. Didn’t think I’d be paying much attention to them before I was his age.”

“Hard times,” I said.

“You keep safe now,” he replied.

Maybe too late for that, I thought, but did not say, not wanting him to write me off as one of those South of Market guys.

I went around to Ryan’s office but the door was locked with a handwritten sign taped to it: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A light drizzle fell from the darkening sky onto a narrow street in Hayes Valley where I stood before the tumbled-down, uninhabited, nineteenth-century cottage where Hugh Paris had lived. My lover. A recovering junkie, ex-rent boy, the black sheep of a wealthy family, whose murder remained officially unsolved. When I’d first returned here after leaving rehab, it was for evidence that Hugh had really existed and not been simply a figment of my alcohol-soaked imagination. In my mind, I walked myself up the creaky steps, through the door and the oddly barren living room into the bedroom. There, on a mattress on the floor, Billie Holiday crooning in the background, the damp sheet twisted around our feet, we had what was now called unsafe sex but which, at the time, I had thought of as making love. Standing there in the drizzle, I wondered if, in our heedless exchange of fluids, one of us had passed the virus to the other. Not that it mattered to Hugh. He lay beneath the snow in a Boston graveyard. He was twenty-six when he was murdered and I remember thinking, how can that be? Who dies that young? Now the city was filled with gay men wondering if they would live to see thirty.

What if I got sober just so AIDS could kill me, I asked Larry one particularly anxious morning. Have you been sick, had any of the symptoms? he asked. No, I said, but—He cut me off. If you start down the road of what ifs, it’s going to lead you back to the bottle. I’m afraid, Larry. Afraid of what? A possibility? Something that might never happen? It’s more of a probability, I said. Is it happening today, he demanded with an asperity I realized later was a measure of his own anxiety. No, I said. Then stop these fantasies and learn to live in your body. What? You heard me, he said. Your mind lives in fear and regret but your body can only live right now, in this moment. So, take some deep breaths and live in your body. It’s a safer place to be than in your head.

The drizzle turned into a cold, pelting rain. I opened my umbrella and headed home.

Blurb

Was Bill Ryan’s death an accident? Henry Rios has his doubts.
The first new Henry Rios novel in 20 years from six-time Lambda Literary award winner Michael Nava is a brilliantly plotted mystery that weaves together the gripping story of two gay men against the backdrop of 1980s San Francisco as the tsunami of AIDS bears down upon the city.
Kirkus Review says: “Delivering an unusual subject and structure, this tale offers refreshing emotional depth and a gay narrative seldom seen in thrillers.”

Author, Michael Nava

Michael Nava is the author of an acclaimed series eight novels featuring gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios who The New Yorker, called “a detective unlike any previous protagonist in American noir.” The New York Times Book Review has called Nava “one of our best” writers. He is also the author of an award-winning historical novel, The City of Palaces, set at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican revolution. In addition, he is the writer/producer of the Henry Rios Mysteries Podcast which adapted the first Rios novel, Lay Your Sleeping Head into an 18-episode audio drama. In 2019, he also founded Persigo Press, through which he hopes to publish LGBTQ writers and writers of color who write genre fiction that combines fidelity to the conventions of their genre with exceptional literary merit.