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.

Excerpt: The Yellow Canary (The L.A. After Midnight Quartet) by Steve Neil Johnson

Excerpt:

December, 1956

Chapter 1

He heard the music, wisps of sullen jazz that ached with loneliness, through the open back window as the unmarked patrol car cruised past the bar. No name above the bar door, just a flashing sign in the shape of a caged bird, the glow of neon reflecting yellow ripples in puddles on the gum-scarred sidewalk.

Jim Blake leaned back in the rear seat and told himself to relax.  All he had to do was wait for someone to ask him home.  How hard could it be?  He rested his right hand on the armrest, but his fingers couldn’t keep still.  He lit a Chesterfield and tossed the match out the window.

The Santa Anas had kicked up that evening, a restless wind scuttling leaves and litter in the gutter, an arid heat that blew through the window and left his face taut and his throat dry.

At the wheel Sergeant Hollings slowed to a stop down the block, nestling the Plymouth Savoy between two parked cars.  He glanced over his shoulder at Jim and beamed.

“You ready to get lucky?”  Hollings’s grin was wide.  His bristly dirty blond crew cut and chubby cheeks gave him a boyish look, despite being nearly forty.  But Blake had heard around the precinct house that the sergeant’s amiable manner belied a stubborn streak and an unerring sense of right and wrong.  It had kept him from involvement in the gambling, prostitution, bookmaking, and loan sharking payoff scandals that had almost brought the department down.  Hollings wasn’t one to ever back off, and that had gotten him in trouble with the brass and left a once promising career floundering in Vice.

Blake wasn’t going to let that happen to him.

Riding shotgun, Detective Ryan shifted in the front seat to look back at him.  He had a beer keg for a belly, so it wasn’t easy.  “Let’s look you over, you handsome devil.”  He raised one bushy eyebrow—thick as a mustache—and licked his lips.  “Mmmmm, they’re going to eat you up.” He was enjoying himself too much to even try to wipe the smirk off his face.

“The tie will get them,” Hollings commented, playing along and nodding approvingly.

“Yeah, they like bright colors.”

Blake felt his cheeks flush and smiled gamely; he had expected a hazing on his first night on the job, and it looked like he was going to get it.

Hollings gave him a wink.  “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

Climbing out of the back seat, Blake hesitated on the sidewalk, pulling on his sport jacket.  He was a big man, six foot two, with broad shoulders.  He had bought the jacket hurriedly this morning from a men’s store on Vermont, and it felt a little tight.  It was hard to find jackets off the rack wide enough to accommodate the span of his shoulders, and he hadn’t had time for alterations.

“Oh, a little piece of advice,” Ryan said, leaning out the window, his expression suddenly serious.

Blake bent toward the front passenger window expectantly.

“If you have to pee, hold your dick tight and your buns tighter.”

Shaking his head, Blake forced a grin, and turned down the street.  Hollings rolled down his window and stuck his head out.  “And if they ask you if you’re butch or fem, be sure to tell them you’re fem.”  He chortled loudly.

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He made his way toward the bar.  The sidewalks were nearly empty tonight, but it was early.  A few figures, their voices scarcely carrying above the din of traffic, huddled at the corner, and across the way a man exited a tavern, quickly put a hat on his head obscuring his face, and strode rapidly away.

Blake remembered this strip from shore leave during the war, spanning Fifth Street from the downtown central library to the blocks east of Main, where dozens of bars had been plastered with warnings for service members, off-limits to military personnel.  The queer run.  The streets had been filled with people then, carousing from bar to bar, the all-night coffee shops packed, the parks alive with shifting shadows.

He wondered briefly if he’d made the right choice.  He’d also been offered a position in the abortion unit in the homicide division, but had turned it down.  Investigating and arresting the victims of botched back-alley abortions—mostly poor women, Negro and Mexican, who didn’t have the money to go to the legit physicians who clandestinely performed the procedure—left a sour taste in his mouth.              Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.  And in a short while, he would be out of Vice, and he could forget the whole thing.  He’d had bad memories before.  The war.  The war, and other things.  No, he’d made the better choice.

The city had changed so much in the last decade that he hardly recognized it upon his arrival last week.  The sprawl spread straight to the ocean, and gas rationing and the tops of headlights painted black to protect the city from bombing had given way to a building boom and streets snarled with traffic.  The new super highways promised to change all that, and construction was underway all over the city.

Gone were the days when servicemen squeezed two to a bed in overcrowded Ys, and the sound of snoring young men would follow him down to the communal bathroom late at night, where a constant commotion of soldiers coming and going from the ports in Long Beach and San Pedro left the showers busy all night long.

After what had happened here, it was a wonder he could come back.  But ten years was a long time, and the city had called to him, first in his nightmares after the war ended and he had returned to Wisconsin.  And then, as a gnawing ache that wouldn’t let go until he gave his notice to the Milwaukee Police Department and hopped a train to the coast.  Yes, a short stint in Vice, and then he would be on to better things.  He’d be making $464 a month, one dollar and eighty-two cents per hour after taxes, social security and his contribution to the Widow’s Fund were taken out.

And all he had to do was sit at the bar and wait for someone to ask him home.

Though sodomy was a felony that could carry a life sentence in California, none of that would even come into play this evening, he had been assured during training.  Section 647 of the Penal Code prohibited soliciting a lewd act.  A misdemeanor.  A vag-lewd rap.

A sudden gust of dry wind lashed at his face, and he closed his eyes against grit flung upward from the sidewalk.  It had always been a dirty city, that hadn’t changed.  Bits of litter squabbled in the gutter, and the front page of a tattered tabloid darted up and pressed against his ankle, then was swept away.  He had seen the scandal sheet earlier that evening: an obviously doctored photo of a city councilman and a sultry blonde B-movie actress cropped in the shape of a heart below the masthead, and the blazing headline proclaiming the two had run off to a secret love nest in Mexico.  The whole city was talking about it.

As he approached the bar, his stomach didn’t feel right, and he drew deeper on his cigarette, as if that might soothe him, exhaling a plume of smoke through his nostrils.  He tossed the spent cigarette into the street and quickly lit another.

Blake hesitated at the door, gazing up at the neon sign above, momentarily mesmerized as the yellow glow played on his face.  He couldn’t tell if the bird was supposed to be flying, or just trying to escape his cage.

Music drifted through the closed door.  Now it was rock and roll.  He recognized the song by a singer who was raising a ruckus with young girls—the one who sounded like a Negro—and had been popping up on The Ed Sullivan Show.

He took one last drag—forgetting he had just lit the cigarette—flicked it in the gutter, and stepped inside.  It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness of the bar, a lazy pall of smoke hanging in the air and softening the shadows.   The establishment was filled with well-dressed gentlemen, alone and chattering in groups; at first, it seemed like any other after-work spot, most of the men in suits and ties, a few more casual.  An ordinary layout: a pool table to the right, a brightly lit juke box opposite, and beyond the crowd of men, a liquor bar and stools at the far end.  A bit better heeled, perhaps, than the cop bars he’d frequented in Milwaukee.

But then something happened he wasn’t so used to.  He felt every eye in the bar drift his way, assessing him in a manner that was hard to define; a bold stare, then the gaze shifted away.  There had been a lot of that during the war, in commissaries, in the barracks, in the holds of aircraft carriers, in the open shower stalls at the Y.  Eyes that lingered, then drifted.

His face felt suddenly hot and the room overbearingly oppressive.  He found himself avoiding the glances of the men he passed and headed straight for the men’s room.  His training had led him to think this would be easy, but now that he was here, inside the bar, he felt something strangely like panic.  The can was in an alcove off the far end of the bar counter, next to a side door that led to the alley.

Blake was relieved to find himself alone in the bathroom.  He splashed water in his face at the sink and patted his cheeks on the revolving cloth towel from the wall dispenser.

He gazed into the small mirror.  A crack, snaking diagonally across the glass, seemed to separate his head from his body in a disturbing way.  He had never liked the way he looked—seeing too much of his father in his square jaw and wide-set eyes that seemed too dark to be blue—but others seemed to differ, and he had noticed people’s admiring glances since the days he played football in high school.  His hair was black and wavy—sometimes to the point of unruly—and an unrepentant curl often looped down on his forehead that no amount of Brylcreem could keep in place.

He was a lot older now than when he’d last been in L.A., nearly thirty.  He’d been a kid back then—with fake papers to get him into the Navy—but tall and broad and scrappy enough to convince his commanders he belonged there.

Jack Spencer had been young, too, just a few years older.  His terrible death still haunted him for so many reasons.  His death, and the long, hot train ride to Barstow, where Blake told lies to Jack’s parents, maybe the best thing he had ever done.  They had been kind people with hurt in their eyes, and he’d wondered at how different Jack’s childhood must have been from his, in this small desert town surrounded by brothers and sisters.

His own mother was barely a memory, the Ivory soap she smelled of long after she bathed him, the flowered cotton apron she wore in the kitchen when baking him brownies.  And after she was gone, only his father, always with a bottle; he’d seen him only once upon his return from the war.

When he went back into the barroom, nobody seemed to notice him.  He found an empty stool at the far end of the bar near the restroom and sat down.  He glanced around casually as he waited for the bartender, who stood at the other end of the counter mixing a drink, to fill his order.

Idly he wondered why his training officers had chosen this particular bar.  There were so many along this strip, like the Crown Jewel, with its neon crown above the front door and a strict coat and tie dress code.  Maxwell’s, near Pershing Square, with its unsavory crowd of self-pitying drunks, shrieking queens and young studs looking for an extra dollar and a place to sleep for the night.  And further west, the bars on La Brea, lots of them, and the Pink Poodle on Pico and the Red Raven on Melrose.  He’d heard about them all in training.  His eyes came to rest on a cage hung above the bar, fluttering with yellow canaries.

“I think it’s sad, keeping them like that, stuck in a smoky room.  They ought to be out, making things more beautiful in the world.”

Blake turned to the speaker, who was sitting on the next stool, noticing him for the first time.  He was slight, somewhere in his thirties, nattily dressed in a crisp business suit, his hat lying beside his drink on the bar.

“My name’s Jim.”  Blake offered a firm handshake.  The man’s eyes brightened and he looked heartbreakingly glad someone was talking to him.

“I’m Charlie.”

“Good to meet you, Charlie.  Come here often?”

“Not so much.  I’m not really a bar person, you see.  I work downtown, with the Department of Transportation.  Accounting.  How about you?”

“I’m new in town,” Blake drawled.  He remembered what he’d been taught.  Be friendly.  Engage them in conversation.  Gain their confidence.  Act like they’re the most interesting person in the world.  Wait for the pass.  Or any attempt at physical contact.  “Still looking for work… and a place to stay.”

Maybe he had gone too far too fast, because the man swallowed nervously, an expression of longing on his face, as if he wanted to ask Blake home but didn’t dare hope, and looked away shyly.

Suddenly he felt sorry for the guy, and wondered if there was someone else, anyone else, he could snare.  His eyes began to wander around the room, pausing on a figure who looked like none of the others, standing aloof, leaning in a dim corner by the juke box, the neck of a beer bottle gripped in one hand, his thumbs planted in the pockets of his Levi’s.  He had on a skin-tight black T-shirt that showed off his narrow waist and muscular chest.  His biceps were large and in the dimness Blake spotted a tattoo, something winged, like so many men got in the war.  The man was pointedly ignoring everyone in the bar; when his eyes rose and he surveyed his surroundings, it was as though he saw through them.  Trade, Blake thought.

A queeny young man who appeared underage kept passing by the man, looking him up and down in undisguised admiration.  The boy’s shirttails were tied in a knot at his abdomen like a calypso dancer, and his pastel lavender Capri pants could get him arrested on the street.

The man in the black T-shirt continued his pose of utter indifference, but that didn’t seem to deter the kid.  Through the fog of smoke and milling bar customers, the boy seemed to sense he was being watched and caught Blake looking his way.  He tilted his blond head, his eyes narrowing, his mouth forming a frown.

Blake turned away.  He didn’t want to arrest a kid.  Finally the bartender approached, the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up, and asked for his order.

“Draft beer would be fine.”

“You got it.”

The bartender nodded, looking him over in something akin to recognition, and went down the bar.  Just then, the kid in the calypso shirt leaned over the bar and spoke to the bartender in a hissing tone, glancing over at Blake.  There was a knowing smirk on the young man’s face, and Blake couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard the words, “Hollywood Reject.”

The bartender didn’t seem to need a moment to think about what he’d been told; he went directly to a high shelf behind the bar, rather ceremoniously picked up a glass, and filled it from a tap and set it on the counter before Blake.             Blake couldn’t be sure, but he thought a murmur arose from the crowd behind him.  To Charlie, the bartender said, rather pointedly, “Can I refresh your drink?” He gazed down at the slight man and subtly—so subtly Blake wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t alert—shook his head at him, warning.

Charlie swallowed and blinked, and looked over at Blake, his eyes suddenly filled with anxiety.

“Oh,” he said, in almost a whisper.

Blake peered down at the dry glass in front of him and realized he had been made.  Glancing down the bar, he saw all the other glasses were dewy with condensation, taken from a refrigerated box under the bar.

The music on the juke box had stopped and the room was strangely quiet.  He looked around and was struck by the realization that everyone in the bar was watching him.  Not directly, but out of the corners of their eyes.  Waiting.  He had seen that look before, like cattle in a slaughterhouse.  Several men broke from their friends and headed for the front door, putting their hats on before they got outside.

Charlie swiveled toward him, as if to get off his stool, panic written on his face.  He lost his balance and his knee touched Blake’s and his right palm landed briefly on Blake’s shoulder.

It was enough.

Blake slid his badge and identification onto the bar beside his glass.  “You’re under arrest,” he announced.  “I want you to get up quietly and follow me.  Do you understand?”

Charlie nodded, but he couldn’t seem to stand on his own, and Blake had to grip his arm with both hands to keep him from collapsing.

The bar patrons stared at them, openly now, and there was something in their gaze Blake hadn’t seen before, and it wasn’t the look of cattle.  Suddenly he felt unsafe.  The front door appeared way too far to him and the path too crowded, so Blake pulled Charlie past the restroom and to the side door.

The door slammed shut behind them, and when nobody followed, the sense of alarm Blake had felt just moments before quickly dissipated.  A stale wind blew down the dark cobblestone alley lined with dumpsters overflowing with garbage.  It brought a fetid smell to his nostrils and he could feel slick grease on the stones under his feet.  One direction led to utter darkness, the other, the lights and traffic of Fifth Street a dozen or so yards away.  A scattering of stars rose overhead.

Charlie collapsed to his knees, clinging to Blake’s legs.  “Please,” he begged.  “Please don’t do this.”  He looked up pleadingly.

“It’s just a vag-lewd charge,” Blake said gruffly.  “You pay the fine and you forget it.”

“I’ll lose my job,” he whimpered.  “I’ll lose everything.”

Blake looked toward Fifth helplessly and wished he could just get out of this stinking alley.

The grip of Charlie’s hands tightened on his slacks.  “I’ll have to register for the rest of my life.  I won’t be able to get another job.”

“Not if you plead.” He wasn’t actually sure of that, but he felt a strange need to reassure this slight little man who had looked at him with such longing minutes before.

“Please,” Charlie whispered.  He looked up at Blake and light from Fifth Street glinted on his darkened face, catching the tears welling in his eyes.

Blake was getting annoyed now.  His training officers would be wondering what was taking him so long, and that sick feeling in his stomach had come back.  “Look,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s just the way things are.”

Then Charlie’s entire body began to shake.  Blake had seen grown men cry before, in the war, in battle, but not like this.  His whole body seemed to convulse as he clung to Blake’s legs, and a deep sound came from his throat, an eerie wail that floated in the darkness all around them.

“Aw, c’mon.  Get up.”

Charlie shook his head, silent now, cowering at his feet.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here.”

“I’ll never come back here again.  I promise.”

Blake sighed.  His mouth was dry and more than anything he needed a cigarette.  Reaching into his jacket pocket, he found his Chesterfield pack and lit up.  He tossed the match on the ground.

He looked to the far end of the alley, lost in darkness, a darkness pure and deep.  He could let him go, he thought.  Just let him walk into the night.  No one would know.  Tell Sergeant Hollings and Detective Ryan there had been no nibbles tonight.  Try as he might, he couldn’t get any of the fruits to make a pass.  He wasn’t cut out for it.  He must not have whatever they were looking for.  Then he could just up and quit this job and forget the whole thing, forget the assessing eyes that lingered, the smoke hanging low, the hot oppressiveness of the bar, forget that ache that had brought him back here in the first place.  Just hop the next train to Wisconsin and crawl on his knees to get his old job back.

He sighed again, exhaling a plume of smoke.

Charlie looked up at him hopefully.  His voice croaked.  “Please?”

Then Blake heard something in the opposite direction, perhaps the backfire of an engine, and he turned his head and saw the unmarked Plymouth crawling down Fifth.  It stopped there, at the entrance to the alley, and through the windshield he could see Hollings and Ryan gazing at them and knew his decision had already been made for him.

Chapter 2

Paul Winters loved their nights out with the girls.

He grinned and winked at David across the table in the Roman Room of the Biltmore Hotel.  David took a sip of wine and grinned back at him.  Earlier that evening they had picked up Jeannie and Pat, Jeannie sitting across from him in the front seat of his Ford, Pat with David in the back, just like a real double date.  They had joined a dozen of their crowd at a long table under wrought iron chandeliers in the Pompeii-inspired sunken dining room and to all intents and purposes they appeared to be a group of married couples sitting side-by-side enjoying a night on the town.

After a toast to Paul for winning another high-profile case and sending a Sunset Strip gangster to life in prison for the killing of a mobster rival, the conversation turned to the other headline everybody was talking about.  City Councilman Bullock had run off with a starlet named Victoria Lynn and they were reportedly holed up in a love nest in Tijuana.

Paul had seen her in supporting roles in several films—she made at least three a year—and remembered her as a rather stiff blonde beauty.  Jeannie, who worked as a make-up artist at Universal and knew all the Hollywood gossip, was holding court.

“It’s all a big lie,” she announced breathlessly.  She had a shiny turned-up little nose, bouncy auburn hair, and a petite frame.  Paul had brought her as his date for last year’s Christmas party at the D.A.’s Office, and they’d had a big laugh together when everybody said what a great couple they were.  “None of it even happened.  It couldn’t have happened.”

Parker Huston, two seats down, leaned his chubby torso forward in his seat, his cheeks red from a bit too much to drink, and picked up a steak knife as if readying himself for battle.  He rarely suffered being wrong about anything regarding movies or the film industry’s social scene.  The fact that he worked as a librarian and had no connections whatsoever in Hollywood or to movie stars was beside the point.  “Now, dear, how is that possible?  It was in Confidential, and everybody knows that particular publication has spies everywhere and pays for information.”

Pat suddenly came to attention.  Nobody—especially Parker—was going to question her girlfriend’s credentials on anything Hollywood.  Or maybe she was just wrangling for a fight because her high heels fit too tightly.  She had looked so miserable in full make-up, a frilly dress and a stole that evening, instead of the jeans and checkered shirt she usually wore for her landscaping business, that Paul felt sorry for her.  Even her short hair, usually straight and the color of straw, had a limp wave in it.  Everybody had been instructed to make a big fuss about how good she looked, but Paul just saw a boy forced into drag.

David had known Jeannie for quite a while through his political activities and a homophile magazine the two volunteered at, but the girls had become close to them only after a frantic call in the night from Jeannie that Pat had been arrested for masquerading.  Paul had quietly advised her attorney that the late nineteenth-century law against wearing the apparel of the opposite sex had been ruled unconstitutional in 1950—despite the fact that vice officers continued to use the statute to arrest men and women whose clothing violated gender norms.  Pat had been released the next day.

“Go ahead,” Pat urged, eyes shining, “Tell them.  Tell them about Victoria Lynn.”

Jeannie glanced around at the surrounding tables to make sure no one was listening, then bent low in a conspiratorial whisper.  “She’s a Lizabeth Scott, if you know what I mean.”

That caused a buzz around the table, and Paul crooked his head at David quizzically.

In response, David grinned and cupped his hand to the side of his cheek and mouthed the word dyke.

Then Paul remembered.  A nasty exposé in Confidential the year before had sent Scott’s career into freefall.  According to the tabloid, her name and number had been found in the top secret address book of a madam who provided a stable of gorgeous blondes to male—and female—stars.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Parker put in, clearly trying to wrestle back control of the conversation.  “The most glamorous stars are.  Dietrich, Hepburn, Garbo…”

“You think everybody in Hollywood is,” David said.

“I think everybody is, because…” Parker replied, refilling his glass, “everybody is.”

“Victoria Lynn is a goddess” Pat announced.  “I love that woman!  And she’s one of us.”

“Don’t get her started on Victoria Lynn or we’ll be here all night,” Jeannie warned.  Her lower lip pouted.  “I’m totally jealous.”  But Paul noticed the two women were playing footsy all the while under the table.

The maitre d’ brought a note to David, who read it silently, frowned, glanced up at Paul, squinted his eyes meaningfully, then rose and excused himself.  Paul watched as David made his way across the restaurant, past the standing filigreed candelabra, and into the main lobby.  He wondered what he was going to do about David.  He was so adorable, and they had such a great time together, but he was way too young for the deputy district attorney.  Just out of college, and the seven year age difference was a huge gap in maturity and sensibility.  Despite David’s rather conservative Jewish upbringing, he could be impulsive—and indiscreet—and that was dangerous in a lot of ways.  And the political stuff… just this evening on their way to pick up the girls he’d carped about how wrong it was that they had to pretend to be Normals—as David called them—in order to be welcomed in a group in restaurants and nightclubs.

“But you love going out with Jeannie and Pat!” Paul had pointed out.

“That’s not the point!” David had groaned.

Paul took a Marlboro pack from his pocket, lit up, and laid the red-and-white box beside his wine glass.

Pat began to sing melodiously, “You get a lot to like, filter, flavor, flip-top box!” mimicking the commercials on TV.

Parker added his two cents worth, only after making sure the waiter was beyond hearing range. “Oh, my, my.  You do know, Mr. Marlboro Man, Mr. Paragon of Masculinity, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, Mr. Future District Attorney, back in the twenties that particular cigarette was originally marketed to women… and nelly queens.  The slogan back then was ‘Mild as May!’”

“It’s poison,” Jeannie said disgustedly.  “Did you read that article in Reader’s Digest?”

“That’s what the filter’s for,” Paul countered, grinning good-naturedly, and tapping an ash into a glass tray at the center of the table.  “It’s to keep all that muck from going into your lungs.”

Parker’s eyebrows rose theatrically.  “You do realize that filter used to have a red band printed around it… to hide lipstick stains?”

“Only you would remember that,” Paul said.  “From experience, no doubt.”

“I know what I know, and once a cigarette for nelly queens, always a cigarette for nelly queens, no matter the packaging.”

Paul noticed David had returned to the dining room, but was hesitating by the door, signaling to him, and he knew by the expression on his face that something was wrong.  Here we go again, he thought.

He put his cigarette pack back in his jacket pocket, and said, “Excuse me.”

“If you’re planning a jaunt across the street to Pershing Square, count me in!” Parker quipped, taking a sip of wine.

Paul crossed the room quickly and found David in a state of agitation.  He’d seen him like this before, and knew what was to come.  He couldn’t help but be a little annoyed.

“I got a message from Billy,” David began excitedly.  “I think it sat at the front desk for about an hour because they weren’t sure where I was seated.  A fellow was arrested at a bar downtown tonight and taken to Lincoln Heights.  I just called the jail…”

Paul glanced at his watch wearily.  It was getting late and it had been a long exhausting day.  All he really wanted to do was go home and climb into bed with David.  He felt that spike of resentment he got every time his boyfriend pressured him to get involved in these situations.  He couldn’t help everybody.  It didn’t look good at the D.A.’s Office: so far nobody had asked any questions, but he never knew when his interference might get noticed and come back to haunt him.  And, anyway, he had only so much influence in cases like this.  “What does he want?  Legal advice?”

“No,” David said.  “He’s dead.”

Blurb:

LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST MYSTERY

Los Angeles, 1956. It’s a dangerous time to be gay. Nobody knows that better than closeted prosecutor Paul Winters, the rising star in the L.A. District Attorney’s office. But when the police insist a gay man arrested for soliciting committed suicide in custody–and Paul knows it was murder–he risks everything to uncover the truth. Thrown together with a strikingly handsome vice cop with a dark past, the two men race to expose a conspiracy at the highest levels of government that threatens to tear the city apart. THE YELLOW CANARY is the first book in The L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet, a four-book four-decade spanning saga of gay life from the 1950s to the 1980s in the City of Angels. The second book in the series, THE BLACK CAT, is also available.

Author, Steve Neil Johnson

Steve is the author of the bestselling Doug Orlando mysteries, FINAL ATONEMENT (Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Mystery) and FALSE CONFESSIONS. The books grew out of his experiences working for the District Attorney of Brooklyn. His other books include the occult thriller THIS ENDLESS NIGHT, the young adult novel RAISING KANE, and the middle-grade book (under the pseudonym Rathbone Ravenford) EVERYBODY HATES

EDGAR ALLAN POE! He was honored by ONE/National Gay & Lesbian Archives for his contributions to gay literature. He is a longtime resident of Los Angeles, where he is writing his four-book four-decade spanning saga of gay life from the 1950s to the 1980s, The L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet. The first book in the series, THE YELLOW CANARY, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Mystery. THE BLACK CAT is the second book in the series and THE BLUE PARROT the third book. Steve is currently writing the forth book in the L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet.

Love You To Death (Stan Kraychik Mystery Book 2) by Grant Michaels

Excerpt from the Foreword by Frank W. Butterfield

When I came across Grant Michaels’s first novel, A Body to Dye For, at Now Voyager in Provincetown, I plunked down my nine bucks and snatched it right up. I took it back to my little room above the guest house on Commercial Street where I worked for $75 a week, plus room and board, and, with a bag full of salt-water taffy, devoured it and the candy in one long, lazy October afternoon.

Excerpt of Love You to Death

I sat for a long time with my eyes closed, letting the white noise of the surf lull me into a state of alpha consciousness. Awake in a dream, I sensed someone approaching me, and I happily assumed it was my lively subconscious, once again beckoning my incubus. However, rather than ravish me as usual, my loving other-self decided to speak to me this time.

“Did you like the chocolate?” he asked, with a French accent.

I opened my eyes and turned my head. The sun blinded me for a moment, but I could still make out Rafik, in all his tall, handsome glory. He was wearing a grey warm-up suit, without an overcoat or jacket. The wind caused the soft flannel to hug his body and reveal a slender, well-formed physique, much like a dancer’s.

“Hi,” I said, perhaps too enthusiastically. “I figured you had sent it.”

“You did not like?” His eyelids drooped sadly.

“I took it to the police to have it checked for poison.”

“Ah, non, I will not poison you.” Then, with an inviting smile, he asked, “You are coming to see me?”

“I came to see Prentiss Kingsley. I’m curious why you’re here though.”

“I am here with Dunny.”

“And Mr. Kingsley? Is he here too?”

With a wink Rafik shook his head no. What a charmer! It could be easy

to say yes to any demand of his.

I began, “I just wanted to, uh …” Control your yapper, Stanislav. Don’t

tell this gorgeous man you came here to warn Prentiss Kingsley that someone is trying to kill him. “I wanted to plan a little surprise for Liz and Danny, so I thought Prentiss could help me with it. But don’t tell Dan, okay?”

“We have secret then?”

“Yeah, that’s right. A secret.”

“So maybe we can have one more secret?” he asked with a sly look.

“What do you mean?”

“You like to go to bed?” He pushed his right hand up under his sweatshirt, lifting it slightly so that I could watch him caress his taut belly and finger the short, black hair there. Damn! Why was this guy so interested in me, first at the party, now out here by the ocean?

“What about Danny?” I asked.

“Dunny? He’s not home.”

“But aren’t you two …?”

Rafik shook his head no. “We are not lovers anymore.

“I thought you said you were here with him?

“I am with him, but not together.”

“Then why are you here?”

Rafik grinned self-contentedly. “Mr. Kingsley invite me.

“But you just said he’s not here,” I said, trying to get his story straight.

“Yes, he is not. I work at his company, driving the truck, you know?”

“Yes, I know, but does that qualify you to stay at his summer place, in the middle of winter?”

“Oh, sure.” His hand pushed the jacket up further to show a well-formed pectoral. “So you want to go inside?”

“I would like to get warm.”

“I have good idea,” he said, and suddenly peeled off his sweatshirt. His muscular chest had a neatly trimmed, fan-shaped mat of coarse hair, clipped short and bristly. The cold air set it all on end, and the rest of his skin also went bumpy in the breeze. His nipples greeted the frigid air with a perky salute through the dark hair. “Come,” he said, and undid his sweatpants as well. He jogged away from me, then stopped momentarily to pull off the sweatpants, leaving only his robin’s-egg-blue jockstrap. I was right. He did look like a dancer, and he moved like one too, as though this were all a familiar sequence of steps rehearsed and performed many times before. But I’ll confess, his furry limbs sure were appealing against the patchy snow. He turned toward me and beckoned. “We go to bed now.” He ran toward the solarium attached to the back of the big house.

Being a lonely pile of flesh and bones, I’d be a fool to pass up a chance like that. I got up from the bench and headed toward the house, picking up Rafik’s discarded clothing along the way— already the wife. As I got near the house, Dan Doherty emerged from the pathway that led around from the front of the house.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded. Then he saw Rafik’s near-naked body entering the solarium, while I stood there holding his clothes. Dan frowned and said, “Figures you’d get your way with him, Vannos.”

“Uuuuhhhh …”

“Don’t worry,” he said, irritated but resigned. “I’m used to it. He’s good for nothing.” Dan watched Rafik waving energetically from inside the solarium. “I take that back. Rafik is certainly good for one thing.”

“Danny, I didn’t come here to have sex with him. I came to talk to Prentiss and you. I even tried to find you at your place last night. I’ve got some unpleasant news, I’m afraid.”

“Vannos, you can cut the crap. You don’t need an excuse to have sex with Rafik. Really, it’s ‘anything goes’ out here in the ’burbs.”

“I’m not making excuses, Danny. And you can call me Stan now. Vannos is okay in the shop, but this has nothing to do with the shop.”

His face relaxed slightly. “You mean it, don’t you?” he said with less  anger in his voice. “You’re serious.”

“Yes, this is serious.”

“We’d better go inside then.”

We walked by the solarium. Rafik stood within, exposed and appealing in his glass cage. Cripes, I’d just about got my sludgy juices moving again, and yet again I had to interrupt the flow. I don’t know why my parents didn’t  just name me Frustration.

Inside the house Dan removed his down-filled parka and hung it in a fastidiously organized closet. “Take your coat off, get comfortable,” he said. I dropped my jacket on a chair, but Danny picked it up and hung it—arranged it—alongside his in the closet—ever the designer. Then he led me into a large, bright room with numerous bay windows, complete with window seats and chintz-covered cushions, all facing out onto the bluff and the ocean beyond. The fireplace was blazing, even though it was mid-afternoon.

Through one of the front windows I saw Danny’s car, easily identified by the vanity plates: D D D E S I G N .

Danny flopped himself onto one of the sofas. I sat in a high-armed chair that enveloped me luxuriously as the down-filled cushions wheezed out their air. “Is Prentiss here?” I asked.

“No,” he said, reclining and stretching himself out provocatively. I hoped it wasn’t for my benefit.

“Danny, it’s important that you both hear this. Will you promise to tell him?”

“Depends.” His eyes seemed to be flirting, and I soon recognized a behavior pattern that I’d often seen with other couples: Love my spouse, love me.

I said, “Depends isn’t good enough, Danny. I found out something about the poisoned chocolate that killed that man the other night.”

“The one Laurett Cole gave to her boyfriend?

“That’s the point. It was a mistake. The truffle that killed that guy was intended for Prentiss Kingsley.”

Blurb:

A Stan Kraychik Mystery, Book 2 — Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and everyone has a sweetheart, except Stan Kraychik, Boston’s sassiest hairdresser. Ever hopeful of meeting Mr. Right, Stan attends a gala reception that culminates in a death by poisoning, and romantic problems take a back seat to murder. Then Boston police arrest Stan’s friend Laurett Cole, who leaves her four-year-old son in Stan’s care. In his quest to free Laurett from suspicion and himself from his ill-mannered ward, Stan finds himself exploring the secrets of a revered Boston institution, the Gladys Gardner Chocolate Company. There, along with the sweet edibles, he finds an assortment of not-so-delectable murder.

A Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in 1993, this edition includes a new 2019 foreword by Frank W. Butterfield.

Buy Links:

Kindle and KU: https://www.amazon.com/Love-Death-Stan-Kraychik-Mystery-ebook/dp/B07WYMNGK2

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Exclusive: Entire First Three Chapters of EMENDARE by R.E Bradshaw

Excerpt:

1

Let’s start here…

“Do you know why they call this Doe’s Ferry?”

A middle-aged bottle-blonde in need of a root touch-up held a camera to her eye. Struggling with the weight of a giant telescoping lens, she clicked away at the deepening colors of the sunset over the Albemarle Sound and glanced at her male companion between shots.

“It’s a charming tale,” she went on.

Blondie spoke in a thick Northeastern North Carolina accent—a confluence of Virginia drawl and coastal twang. I noted the amateur historian layered the southern sugar on a little too thick to be genuine, while she lilted her way through the tourist trap mythology of the abandoned ferry dock. Her companion looked bored as hell. I just wanted them to go away.

“It’s said, back in the colonial days, a doe—as in,” the woman paused to sing, “doe, a deer, a female deer.”

The tall gentleman with her, wearing skinny jeans and working too hard to be hip, nodded impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. I got it without the Julie Andrews,” he said.

Maybe that’s what he said. He pronounced only the essence of his words, abandoning the hard consonants on the ends and allowing vowels to swim about in his cheeks. I thought he’d be more at home in a pub somewhere along the Thames. English explorers peered over this expanse of water for a glimpse of the mainland more than four hundred years ago. The historic landscape remained virtually unchanged but unimpressive to this modern day Englishman.

The blonde lowered the fancy digital camera from her eye. “You’re cheeky, Richard. Do you need a snack?”

The Englishman’s hands popped out of his pockets and up into the air. He screeched, “What? I understood it was a feckin’ deer, Helen. I’m not a toddler in need of a nap. Finish the bloody story.”

“Isn’t the sunset beautiful?” The woman seemed willing to ignore her companion’s worsening attitude.

“Bit like lookin’ over Saint George’s Channel, innit? Same ol’ sun at evenin’ tide.”

In response, Helen raised the camera again and took a long burst of pictures. I couldn’t tell if she was letting the snide remark pass or plotting her date’s demise. I would have gotten up a head of steam and pushed him off the dock, but that’s just me.

The setting sun painted the prismatic rippling surface of the water with the full expanse of the color wheel. I’d come to the water to “do dusk,” as my dad used to call it. He’d roll one up and burn it down, then head out to the dock to enjoy his buzz in peace. I had a few cannabis edibles an hour ago when I crossed the county line and had been basking in the familiarity of this particular falling of the sun. Richard and Helen were a distraction, but I couldn’t help being amused at the train wreck it was becoming.

Richard’s skinny jeans must have been squeezing his tiny brains. He certainly wasn’t using his big one. He kept up the provocative attitude, apparently looking to end the date abruptly. He chided the photographer as she continued to snap away.

“The silent treatment is a childish ploy used by cowards. At least that’s what my ex-wife’s therapist told her to tell me.”

Richard chuckled a little, in an attempt to assure his audience that the recollection was meant to be humorous. Stand-up comedy was not his forte. Helen was not amused.

She lowered the camera and glared at the man she had liked until about five minutes ago. “Fuck you, Richard.”

“Not likely with that attitude,” he answered back.

“I don’t see any need to continue this charade. You’re not having much fun, are you?”

“Well, now that you mention it, you’ve had me in a car all day, runnin’ about the countryside peerin’ at,” he made air quotes around, “antique things.”

Helen looked and sounded genuinely surprised. “Your profile said you loved relic hunting.”

The date already a disaster, Richard laughed. “This rubbish is far from old. The foundation of my grandmother’s barn was growin’ moss when they built that expatriate jail you’re so proud of.”

Richard pointed over his shoulder at one of the first jails erected in the region during the late 1700s. The original lost to fire, the jail standing now was built in the early 1800s on the old foundation with the addition of an adjacent county courthouse. Our English visitor had spotted the bait and switch in the tourism marketing team’s wording of “colonial foundation.” But why bother with that factual detail?

The county erected a set of replica stocks for photo ops on the courthouse lawn and let the colonial legends take flight. The lore was part of the tourist draw to a county desperate to replace the waning traditional agricultural and watermen economies. Albemarle County wasn’t on the main route from the north down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so it had to work to draw visitors off the faster four-lane highways. Now that the bypass bridges were built and the ferry route closed, the people of Doe’s Ferry couldn’t be faulted for a white lie or two.  

Richard continued, “Show me evidence of Viking exploration or ancient Native American relics and we’ll talk about old things. You New World yanks act as if you were the first ones here.”

“I’m not going to take colonization insults from a British imperialist. I think this date is over,” Helen replied, with no trace of the sugary veneer left on her drawl. She headed for the driver’s side door she’d left open in her excitement upon arriving.

“Aren’t you going to throw tea in the harbor before the revolution?”

I stifled a laugh. Okay, maybe Richard had a future behind the microphone. Helen, again, was not amused.

“Well,” Richard said, following her, “now you’re withholding information just to be cunty. How American of you.”

Helen whirled to glare at him and spat out the romanticized fable of Doe’s Ferry. “During a hurricane, a doe washed up here with her baby on a small raft of storm debris. It’s probably a lie, just like your profile suggested you were an English gentleman with a passion for history.”

“I am,” Richard argued. “I’m sure it’s a lovely story. Although it does lose some of its historical quaintness when told through gritted teeth.”

Helen reached the car, tossed the expensive camera on the passenger seat and climbed in. The door slammed with force as the engine turned over. Helen wasted no time and left no doubt Richard would need a ride home.  She peeled away, sending gravel flying in a plume of trailing tire smoke, but didn’t go far. The courthouse stood less than one hundred yards from the old ferry dock. The North Carolina highway patrolman waiting to pull out of the parking lot had only to flip on his blues and slide in behind the angry blonde for the first ticket of his shift.

“Fuck it all,” Richard complained. He pulled a cell phone from his jacket pocket and began waving it about above his head, in search of a signal. It was at this moment that he realized I had witnessed the entire scene.

I had been sitting on the picnic table next to the dock’s tiny public restroom doing dusk, floating up and down memory lane—or the memory docks, as it were. The Brit and Helen were just the latest to interrupt my reflection on the innocence of childhood and how quickly we discover we’ve been fed a line of crap since day one. Bad men win because they do not play by the rules. Rules are for suckers. The myth of triumphant decency could be found in the last national election and in the number of cable news satellite trucks hovering about Doe’s Ferry.

Multiple photojournalists shooting B-roll of the Albemarle Sound had come and gone from the dock during my short time of observance. Everyone wanted to be first on the scene when the President cut the shortlist for the next nominee down to one. If one believed the rumors, my childhood neighbor was next in line.

I felt my old friend nausea returning and popped another twenty-five milligrams of medicated chocolate into my mouth. My stomach had been in knots since I arrived. Past mistakes churned against my stomach lining, eating it away. I knew I’d die of a bleeding ulcer if I remained in Doe’s Ferry long.

My movement drew Richard’s attention.

“Oh, hello,” Richard said, taking a few steps in my direction.

If I ever possessed the southern hospitality gene, I killed it on a peyote quest with some old hippies in the Black Hills in the late 80s, far from here. It was then that I decided my motto would be “fuck people.” I’m so glad I thought better of getting that tattooed on my neck after I came down. Even behind dark sunglasses, my lack of interest in social engagement must have registered with Richard.

He stopped his approach and asked, “I don’t suppose they have car service this far from civilization?”

I raised my eyebrows so they could be seen above the rims of my glasses. Lowering my chin and curling my upper lip into a sneer, I maintained a “Do Not Enter” perimeter with nothing more than body language, a skill picked up in prison.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That sounded worse than I meant it to.”

People get hung up on my stint in prison. It is hardly the most thrilling or mysterious part of my story. I took my first breath in a high school locker room not far from the ferry dock. Fifty-eight years later, I had come full circle—back to the land of my people.

As Richard noted and the desperate waving of his cell phone at the sky emphasized, we were far from civilization. Cultural advancement lagged on this stretch of sand and swamp sandwiched between the mainland and the coastal counties on the Atlantic Ocean. The po-bocra—longstanding Carolinian slang for white trash—gripped tightly to the deeply planted roots of white supremacy. The haves told the have-nots that the have-nothings were stealing everyone blind, while the haves got richer and fed the fires of social unrest. The mask of civility worn by the God-fearing, law-abiding, deeply rooted citizens of Albemarle County slipped on and off as quickly as their drawls and drawers.

“Grandma, last one in is it,” a child’s voice drifted on the breeze into my thoughts.

On the old dock to my left, two children ran out in front of a middle-aged woman in a white beach wrap and hot pink flip-flops. The cut of her blonde hair—an excellent dye job—held captive by a white visor, the rhythm of her gait, the glimpse of her profile, all hints of a woman I used to know. She had a phone pressed to her ear, but listened to her grandson.

She held up one finger, finished her call, and then challenged, “Marco!” She dropped the phone in her pocket and removed the wrap to expose her hot pink bathing suit. Grandma was still a hottie, but she knew it, making her less attractive and leaving my “selfish bitch” opinion of Cindy Spencer unchanged.

The kids yelled, “Polo,” and jumped into the water.

Doe’s Ferry faded back to a memory.

2

Sin is always attractive…

“Jane Doe, you know I can’t kiss a black boy. It’s in the bible.”

“It’s 1972, Cindy. No one cares about what it says in that old book about black boys kissing white girls. Don’t y’all study Civil Rights in sixth grade?”

William Malachi Blount, Jr., the black boy in question, was my friend and my third-half-cousin. It’s complicated. Malachi and my dad shared a great-great-grandfather, but not a great-great-grandmother. Skin colors and races meant a lot more to other folks than it did to two kids grown from birth together. I was barely a month older than Mali. We hadn’t known there was a difference between us until we started school. Now, at age eleven, it had been made clear to us that people didn’t see the world like Mali and me.

Cindy Spencer was having none of my argument. “Civil Rights means Mali can ride our bus and go to school with us. The bible still says we are not to mix the races.”

Malachi spoke up, “Actually, it says—”

“Marco,” Doodie shouted, coming to the surface about ten feet away, eyes squinted shut.

Hains said to him, “We’re not playing anymore.”

Doodie opened his eyes and rubbed the brackish sound water out of them. He tried to focus on the rest of us. “Man, I was down there a long time, probably ten minutes at least.”

Hains disputed Doodie’s fantastic claim. “No way, man. One minute tops.”

I continued trying to convince Cindy to sacrifice her morals for the cause.

“Well, you kissed me, and I’m a girl. I’m pretty sure that’s in the bible too.” I shoved Malachi toward her. “Go on, Cindy, kiss him.”

Cindy ignored Malachi, stepping around him to preach at me instead, “It just says boys can’t lie with boys. Besides, girls can practice kissing on each other. My brother said so.”

Hains nodded, agreeing with Cindy’s older brother’s pronouncement because J.P. Spencer was already in college and Hains thought that made JP the expert on everything.

“It’s okay because girls can’t get each other pregnant,” he said with mock authority. “It’s safe for them to kiss and stuff.”

“I don’t think kissing is how you get a baby, Hains,” Doodie said, pointing down below the surface of the water to his crotch. “It happens down there,” he mouthed. His cheeks flushing red, Doodie was overcome with giggles.

“Shut up, Doodie,” Hains, ever the alpha male, barked at his toady. He slapped the surface, sending an arch of water into Doodie’s face.

Malachi looked kind of scared. He had never kissed a girl—let alone a white one. He wasn’t as enthused as we were about the prospects and agreed with Cindy that this was a bad idea. His daddy was all the time hollerin’ after us, “That white girl is going to get you in trouble.”

I focused on Cindy, arguing, “If girls kissin’ was okay, you wouldn’t tell me we had to keep it a secret. We can keep you kissin’ Malachi a secret too.”

Cindy rolled her eyes and whined, “Well, it’s not a secret now.”

Doodie covered his mouth to stifle another giggle, but Hains still said, “Shut up, Doodie,” and splashed him until he dove under to escape the onslaught.

The five of us waded in chest-deep water just off the deep channel used by the mainland ferry. Sometimes we slid dangerously close to the sandy edge of the frequently dredged chasm. Even good swimmers were wary. In the cold black water under the ferry dock lived a creature that dragged kids beneath the surface to their deaths.

We knew of one high school kid who dove in and wasn’t found until his bloated body floated up a week later. We all saw him, bobbing there on the surface, while the Sheriff’s men tried to grab onto him with a gaff hook. They said he got caught up in some tree branches sunk down in the channel. But we could clearly see claw marks on his back when they pulled him out, making the ferry dock creature more plausible in our minds.

Doodie resurfaced close enough to the abyss to require a frantic backstroke away from the reach of the ferry dock monster, which we’d all decided looked a lot like the creature from the Black Lagoon. Only Malachi had insisted on long octopus-like tentacles for fingers because we had all felt the icy grip around an ankle, just the tip of something slipping by, and seen a shadow in the darkness recoiling away. Of course, it could have been a fish or an eel, but the mere possibility it could be a monster negated dismissing anything unknown as benign.

Cindy sought another way out. “Why does it have to be him? Why can’t it be Hains?”

“I told you. The clue says only a male Doe kissed by a virgin is protected from the curse.”

Popping up from the water between Cindy and Malachi to demonstrate how little he knew about genetics, Doodie said, “What about me? My mom is your momma’s sister, Jane. Doesn’t that make me part Doe?”

Doodie’s real name was Brian Duty. His last name, as pronounced by his peers, unfortunately, rhymed with a euphemism for shit. Our socially awkward pal was unaware of boundaries and slow to catch on to this fact. He was almost as tall as Hains and thickly muscled, also a bit uncoordinated and clumsy. He barely made the cut to be in our grade, which made him almost a year younger than the rest of us. An only child, spoiled and overprotected, he matured a little slower. These facts made him the lowest ranking in our group dynamic.

Though goofy and awkward, Doodie actually read a lot and made good grades. He was a nerd-filled with random facts and our loveable teddy bear. Being Doodie’s friend was like handling a hot biscuit as it dripped butter down the back of your hand. The mess was worth it; even if it required a thorough clean up afterward. We loved him and helped him try to fit in, though our methods were sometimes harsh. We were children, modeling behavior demonstrated for us by adults in our lives. The most famous character on TV was a crude, ignorant bigot. People thought it wasn’t reality, but they didn’t live in Doe’s Ferry.

“Shut up, Doodie,” the four of us said in unison.

The “courthouse kids” ruled Doe’s Ferry. We were given the label, not for our delinquency, but because we all lived within shouting distance of the county seat. Malachi lived next door to me, and our houses backed up to the Albemarle Sound on the north side of the mainland ferry dock. Hains lived by the courthouse on the southern side of the dock. His lawn sloped down to a short sandy beach with a long wharf paralleling the ferry channel. Doodie lived across the canal from Malachi’s house on the north side.

Cindy’s house was the biggest and newest. It sat across from the ferry dock next to the longstanding Swann place. The petite pretty girl foil to my solid-bodied tomboy athleticism, Cindy, already twelve, had completed the sixth grade where the rest of our cadre headed in the fall. She also had boobs, which made me, the only other local girl for miles around, invisible.

The road we lived on followed an old wagon path to the courthouse, where we all had ties. Cindy’s father was the district judge; Hains’s father, the Sheriff; Malachi’s mother, the custodian; Doodie’s mother cooked for the jail, and his dad was a jailer. My father, whose ancestor lent his name to the original colonial trading post now known as Doe’s Ferry, was a frequent guest of the county’s drunk tank. According to my grandmother, I would be too if I didn’t change my ways. I was eleven, hardly a hardened criminal or a drunk, but there was time.

“Look,” I said, trying a different approach with our stubborn virgin. During Cindy’s bible study, she had missed several of the seven deadly sins. I appealed to her vanity and greed. “If this clue leads us to Bonnet’s treasure, you can move to New York and be an actress. Like you said you would if you had the money.”

“I’m not sinning for financial gain. You cannot serve both God and money,” Cindy complained loudly, with full Southern Baptist preacher inflection.

This was the same girl that would share a stolen cigarette with all of us and had been known to sip a beer, at least that one time when I took one from my dad’s cooler. We chased it with orange soda. Damn the temporary reformation qualities of vacation bible school.

“You know, you get like this every summer when you come back from staying at your grandma’s. That church camp makes you mean.”

“It isn’t mean to follow the Lord.”

I pointed at Malachi’s deeply tanned bare chest and said, “But Mali isn’t any blacker than I am. He’s brown. Besides, we’re cousins. So, what does that make me?”

Cindy refused to listen. “Bertie’s daddy was a bastard son of James Doe. That doesn’t make you cousins. It makes him an abomination according to the word.”

“Goddammit, Cindy. Just stop quoting the bible and kiss him so we can get on with it.”

Cindy turned and walked away, calling over her shoulder, “I won’t be your friend Jane Doe if you’re going to take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Fine. We’ll find a virgin somewhere else.”

She wheeled around, red-faced. “I don’t believe that stupid pirate’s map is real anyway.”

“When we’re rich, we’ll send you a postcard from Hawaii,” I said, pretending not to care if she stayed.

Cindy glared at me and then went for the kill. “Aren’t you a virgin? Why don’t you kiss him?”

Cindy knew why. She was just being hateful now. I wasn’t about to lose my chance at finding the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet’s treasure over a technicality. We found the map and accompanying directions to the cache in an iron-strapped wooden box. It was buried in the woods behind the salvage yard attached to my family’s service station up on the new road. The new road had been there since the early 1800s, but as long as there was an old road, it would always be the “new” one. The fenced lot filled with rusting wrecks towed in off the county byways was part of our playground. The courthouse kids roamed freely in the twenty acres between the sound shore and the busy highway.

I hollered after Cindy, “I’d rather go to hell than kiss you again, anyway,” and then kissed Mali on the cheek.

We all stared at the sky when it rumbled a warning of the coming summer squall.

“God is going to get you for that, Jane Doe,” Cindy yelled at me.

Already out of the water, she ran toward her house. The rest of us scampered for the shore when lightning streaked across the sky.

Mali shouted over the sound of our legs churning against the shallow water, “Jesus, Jane. You’ve cursed us all.”

“Do you think God is about to strike us down?” I said, laughing at the thought.

I wasn’t the typical god-fearin’ churchgoer that my peers were. My grandmother’s response to my irreverence was to say she thought I read too many of my father’s books while he was overseas. She complained that the preacher didn’t come by as much after I started talking.

Mali, who had heard my take on the “good book,” said, “No, not that bible stuff—the pirate curse. You ain’t exactly pure. Maybe you just put a hex on us.”

Having been raised by two devout Methodists and one avid atheist’s book collection, I got a kick out of what people thought unseen forces could do to you, but I believed with all my heart in pirates and pirate treasure. We could see the evidence of their existence all around us. Pirates built wharves for unloading spoils in what was now my backyard. The ancient pilings were still there. We dug up artifacts all the time. My grandpa had a flintlock pistol he found when he was cleaning out the ditch that drained the low spot across the road.

Malachi believed in pirates and pirate curses. He picked up his pace.

Hains added his take on the matter. “I guess we should have found a real virgin.”

Doodie tripped and fell face first while trying to say something, “Lightning travels on the surfa—” Splash. Splash. “Dang, did you see me step in that hole?”

The air filled with the smell of rain. Another flash and thunder pounded against my chest. We pushed through the shallow water, arms pumping at twice the speed of our knees. Our legs fought against the dense milfoil, an invasive aquatic grass that grew near the shoreline.

Mali looked over at me with his dark chocolate eyes and smiled. “It’s just God making sure you don’t get any ideas about kissing a black boy again.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it,” I said, laughing as the sky opened up.

We could no longer hear each other over the roar of the rain pounding the surface of the Albemarle Sound behind us. Lightning cracked across the sky. Danger loomed. In our youthful innocence, fear only made us laugh louder and run faster. The storm would pass, and we still needed to find a virgin. Our original plan kept the treasure and map within our trusted gang of five. Cindy’s reaction would force us to seek help from outsiders.

I couldn’t figure why Cindy was so hung up on kissing Malachi. He had near as much white blood as I had. Mali and me, we were both naturally tanned; like coffee with cream, only I got an extra splash of half and half. Cindy and Hains were blonde and blue.

One time when my dad was home on leave, he called them the “evidence of European expansionism.” I laughed, even though I’m not really sure what he meant.

Mali and I were on the other end of the color scale, with our dark black hair and deep brown eyes ringed in amber. But in the summer, when we wore little clothes and browned every exposed inch of our bodies, Malachi turned a deeper bronze that amplified his father’s ethnic roots. His head was full of shiny black curls while mine lay flat. He was the prettiest person, boy or girl, I’d ever seen. I wasn’t alone in my thinking.

Earlier that morning, we had passed some women I knew from Grandma’s bridge game afternoons. With teased hair and bows carefully centered behind identically trimmed short bangs, the evidence they had the same hair stylist was overwhelming.

Hains stopped, as the rest of us ran past. Ever the gentlemen or politician—both in his nature and genetics—he said, “Good morning, Mrs. Sprague. Good morning, Mrs. Dowdy.”

“Thank you, Hains. What a polite young man,” Mrs. Sprague said.

We plopped onto the creaky porch steps of Swann’s store with our grape sodas and cheese nabs.

The women stopped on the porch above us, not knowing we could hear them or just not caring if we did.

Mrs. Sprague said, “That mulatto boy is so beautiful.”

Mrs. Dowdy answered, “Sin is always attractive, Beth.”

I glanced at Mali. He just shrugged and turned up the soda for a long swig. After several cooling gulps, he pulled the bottle from his lips and let out a loud, “Ahhhhh,” so the women would notice. He smiled up at them, dimples in full charming rascal position, and boldly winked.

Grown women blushed and covered their mouths because an eleven-year-old black boy winked at them. Mali was just learning the power he wielded with his looks. I laughed when he turned that magical smile on me, as the women scurried away.

Malachi never cared what people said about him. He probably should have.

3

Howdy, Sheriff…

Malachi’s smile faded from my memory, his image replaced by the Englisher’s silhouette. Richard blocked the last rays of sunset and my chance to appreciate them. He attempted to communicate through sign language, managing to convey only gibberish with his hands. He also spoke his words deliberately and loudly, which I’ve never understood. Why yell at a person who can’t hear you?

“Can you hear me? I require assistance.”

“Might I be able to help you, sir?”

To my rear, a friendly male voice offered a way out of having to deal with Richard. Skinny jeans man looked over my shoulder and sighed with relief. He stepped around the picnic table to greet the new member of our ferry dock party.

“Hello, officer. Chuffed to see you.”

“I hope that’s a good thing,” the officer responded.

Richard laughed. “Yes, an excellent thing. I seem to have been left without transportation. I can’t locate a cell signal and need assistance.”

I had a good idea to whom the approaching voice belonged without looking. I could also imagine Richard indicating me with a tip of his head or glance of the eye, he may have even pointed at my back.

He lowered his voice and informed the new arrival, “I think she’s deaf and dumb.”

My former playmate said, “Who, Jane Doe? I’ve never known her to be shy.”

Richard responded like the rest of the world. “Her name is Jane Doe? Really? You aren’t joking?”

“Yes. Her father’s name was John Doe. Her mother’s last name was Smith. Jane Smith Doe, that’s her. Her dad said he guaranteed her anonymity for life. Thought it was funny.”

“Probably hard to get a bank card,” Richard said, “or use one. Merchants must suppose them some sort of sample sent through the mail.”

“TSA is a real bitch, I imagine,” my friend added, chuckling audibly.

My head bobbed slightly, as I involuntarily agreed with both men.

Richard should have stopped there, but he didn’t. He mistook the locals’ amusement as a sign to continue.

“I imagine sticking your child with that name would serve as a family jest among the ancestral progeny of the lawless colonial coast. Wasn’t this place run amok with pirates and people who wished not to be found?”

“Yes, sir. We are part of the pirate coast.”

Richard should have stopped, but he continued, “The chances are one’s DNA might lead to a life requiring anonymity. Still doesn’t explain why she won’t acknowledge a person in need.”

Intending to be entertaining, Richard’s comments showed the familiar disregard held among people living north of the Virginia/North Carolina border for those living south of it. William Byrd surveyed the line in 1728 and wrote of the fitness of the land and its people only for the husbandry of pigs, pinning forever the label of simpletons struck by laziness to those living in the Carolina colony. After his disparaging remarks, Byrd bought a broad swath of the land straddling the border and founded a family that would make its way to the highest offices in the nation. The chip on our collective Carolinian shoulders had grown with the weariness of our hick reputations. I could hear the resentment in the Sheriff’s response.

“It’s Sheriff, not officer. I work for the county. We don’t have any city police officers around here.”

I was thinking we didn’t have a city or a town. The best we could muster was a blinking caution light at the only major crossroad and a bunch of colloquial village names where old families happened to settle together. If there were enough people, the government had made whatever name the villagers settled on official and gave them a post office. It still didn’t mean we were ignorant swamp dwellers, at least not all of us.

I’m pretty sure Richard heard the change in the Sheriff’s tone, too. He took a few steps back. Able to see his lower legs in my peripheral vision, I watched as he shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot while the Sheriff spoke.

“It’s probably a turn of your luck that ol’ Jane there decided to give you a pass. Your date is waiting for you with the patrolman.” There was a pause and a chuckle before he sent Richard on his way. “Be nice. At least until you get back to Virginia.”

“Thank you, Sheriff.”

In the practiced style of one whose department budget depended on tax dollars generated by tourism, the Sheriff regained control of his emotions, and let his schmoozer pitch follow Richard down the sandy path by the road until he was beyond earshot.

“My pleasure. Y’all come back when you can stay longer. Stop and get some of Miss Edna’s pie on the way back. Her place is just about a mile north on your right. It’ll put the sweet back in your sweetheart. You’ll come back for more, guaranteed.”

Then my blood brother, sealed in a ceremony inside a candlelit boathouse fifty years ago, turned his attention to me. My shoulders were probably still visibly moving, as I tried to subdue the laughter at his hokey delivery of Edna’s sales pitch.

I heard him take a step closer, before he said, “What’s the word of the day?”

“Reditus.”

“I’ll have to dig my old Latin dictionary out.”

“It’s a returning, a turning back.”

“Appropriate.”

“How’d you know it was me, Hains?”

“You’ve been sittin’ here for two hours, according to my deputy. By the way, he’s on to you. He’s certain you’re a risk and should be reported to the feds.”

“I’m the last person you anticipated finding in Doe’s Ferry, I expect.”

“I don’t know. With all that’s going on, it isn’t all that surprising to find you here. I know it’s the last place you could be anonymous, name or not. So, you aren’t hiding from anyone.”

“I forgot how quickly strangers who linger are singled out here.”

“You’re not a stranger, Jane.”

“Oh, I’ve been that from the day I was born, but tell me this, what prompted the Sheriff to personally check out the report?”

Hains moved around to stand just in my peripheral vision, an old cop trick to make a suspect turn or remain uncomfortable. “My deputy’s description of the stranger down at the ferry dock: female, forty to fifty.” He paused to say, “You should thank him for that.” And then continued the description from memory, “Short, five-three or four, salt and pepper gray hair, tattoos on inside wrists that read ‘No Justice’ on one, and ‘No Peace’ on the other, muscular build, probably works out. Awfully accurate I’d say.”

“Put that clerk at Swann’s on the payroll. She’s the source of the detail, not your boy.”

“Oh, so you met my confidential informant.” Hains laughed. “She’s as nosy as they come. Her radar pinged because you gave that guy directions to the marina. That’s a local kind of thing to do.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t because she saw the name when I opened my wallet to get out some cash?”

Hains chuckled. “You’re too smart to have let that happen unplanned. I figured you wanted to see who would come looking.”

“Now, why would I do that?” I smiled to myself, knowing he was absolutely right. “Is everyone’s hypervigilance because of Judge Spencer’s pending nomination to the Supreme Court? Were you waiting for me, Hains? Are you here to have me state my business?”

Hains chuckled. “Your business is no concern of mine until you break the law. Promise you’ll be a good girl?”

“Commitment and I have an on again off again relationship, so I’m going to keep my options open. Besides, I have ‘Rebel Without Cause’ tattooed on my ass. Omitting the ‘a’ was purposeful.”

“Wow, it’s like a time warp. Jane Doe, sarcastic to the point of arrogance, living on the edge of the blade, tilting at windmills, you haven’t changed.” He paused to consider his tactics and settled on a different approach. “I was right there with you most of the time, so I can’t say much. I know we survived more often than we had a right to.”

“Some of us didn’t.”

My flatly delivered cynicism directed at his attempt at levity resulted in what felt like backing up to our respective corners. Hains needed to reassess his opponent. The pause gave me a chance to slow my heart rate and swallow the adrenaline. Don’t show your hand.

The leather of his utility belt creaked when he sat beside me on the picnic table. Clouds floated by on the surface of his polished black boots. Ironed to a razor’s edge crispness, the crease of his pants stood perfectly straight up to his bent knee. He used to smell like his father’s Old Spice. Today, he’d chosen for his scent—a hint of birch, pineapple, and musk—a signature blend of an expensive men’s cologne. It went well with his underlying bouquet of tea tree soap, leather, and gun oil.

I made my living reading people. Hygiene could tell you a lot about a person. Expensive products hinted at disposable cash. Knowing real money from the cheap knock-off was essential to my success as a…well, they don’t really have a name for what I am. We’ll get to the details in a bit. My nose was telling me the Sheriff was either making some cash on the side, or he was still the same guy women were willing to spoil for his attention. Growing up, it was like watching the virgins bring offerings to the prince.

Next to the words “ladies’ man” in the dictionary should be a picture of Hains Lawton Forster, III, with emphasis on the plural nature of ladies. The secret of his conquests lay not in his natural charmer status, but in the size of his penis, or so I’ve been told. According to Malachi, Hains’s dick acquired legendary locker room status at age twelve, when the county boys began playing sports in middle school and had to start taking showers together. Mali swore the rumored measurements were not exaggerations. I’d never cared to find out. Cindy, however, declared Hains’s penis her property in high school. I was already gone when they married and really didn’t give a damn what happened to either of them by then.

Hains eventually let out a disarming chuckle, a tactic he had used to defuse confrontation since we were in diapers together. It seemed almost reflexive this time, meant to cover emotions brought on by my presence and the memories I awoke within him.

In his warm baritone, he said softly, “No, some of us didn’t make it, that is true. I don’t know if it’s because I’m closing in on sixty or a longing for simpler times, but I think of our little gang often. You were all part of the happiest days of my life. I miss us, together, taking on the world. I’ve missed you, Jane.”

“That’s surprising. The last thing I remember you saying to me before today was ‘Fuck you, Jane Doe,’ when I called you a coward. Have your feelings on the issue changed?”

“We were kids stuck in a mess created by adults. Our parents made decisions for us. I’m sure we all said things we wish we hadn’t. My therapist says you have to let go of the past and live in the now.”

I turned to see that time had been very kind to Hains Forster. He had grown sexier with age, more distinguished, with a little gray in his closely cropped beard and a bit of salt and pepper at the edges of his hatband. He made eye contact with me and grinned. His blue eyes still sparkled with mischief, just as they had when we were too young to know all the shitty stuff life would dump on us.

“Are you fucking your therapist?”

“She’s not my type. I think she plays on your team.”

“My team? Are you assuming I’m a lesbian because I was never all over your legendary dick.”

Hains shook his head, chuckling again. “No, not because of your lack of interest in me sexually. I saw you and that girl from the campground. Her name was Mary, I think.”

“Maria.”

“Yeah, Maria. That’s her. I saw you two in the boathouse one night, the summer before our senior year.”

What he might have seen flashed through my mind. It was my turn to chuckle. “Oh, that summer.”

“Yeah, you were ‘unavailable,’” Hains made air quotes, “for most of July. Then she left, and you were miserable.”

I studied his expression, remembering that I had loved him before I hated him. We had all loved each other. We were more than childhood friends. Malachi, Hains, Cindy, and me, we formed some kind of love quadrangle. Doodie seemed to love the idea of us as a whole. The five of us swore loyalty to the end. The end came sooner than we expected.

I smiled involuntarily. I couldn’t help it. Hains hid a gentle strength behind a swaggering grin. My weakness would always be for the wholesome athletic type, the boy or girl next door. I studied myself as much as I studied others. In Hains, I recognized the source of my lifelong infatuation with lean athletic muscle and clean-cut handsomeness.

I acknowledged his good deed all those years ago. “You never said anything. You could have tormented me with that information.”

Hains turned to look out over the water. “You were hurting enough.”

We sat quietly for another moment. I’m sure his thoughts raced, as did mine, through our childhood bonds.

Finally, I said, “Well, I’ve given up women at least five times since that summer, so your assumption is informed, but incorrect. I’m not a lesbian or any other pigeonholed label. I’m not a single dot on the sexuality spectrum. For the most part, at this stage of the game, I lean toward stable humans with jobs. Body parts are less important than a lack of drama and a paycheck.”

He nodded, “What’s that they say? ‘There are no wrong holes if you love someone.’ That’s what my fourteen-year-old grandson says anyway.”

“Wow, a teenaged grandson. You’re old, Hains.”

“You forget I started on my eighteenth birthday. Our first was conceived the day I became old enough to be held legally responsible for her.”

“How convenient for Cindy.”

“Hey,” he warned me with a frown.

“I see Cindy is still off-limits for criticism.”

Hains stiffened. “Cindy is my wife.”

This response came so quickly, I knew it was reflexive and one he’d repeated to the point of muscle memory. He forgot I knew this rehearsed tone. We sat together for twelve grades. I knew him better than he knew himself. I had known he’d marry Cindy if she got pregnant. She did too. That’s what pissed me off.

He continued defending his wife. “It took both of us to make that baby. Our daughter wasn’t planned, but I’ve never regretted having her in my life.”

 “Shit happens. Just because it worked out, doesn’t make it less shitty.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. Her name is Emily, by the way. She is a nurse, like Cindy, with kids of her own. We have a son too. He’s nineteen, a bit of a wild child and tempered like his mother.”

“I read about him in the paper last year. How in the hell did y’all get those charges dropped? I love how sexual assault is just boys being boys. ‘Athletic hazing’ I think they called it. I hope the younger boy is okay.”

“You of all people should know how things can be blown out of proportion.”

“I didn’t fuck a kid in the ass with a broomstick.”

“Let’s just drop it, okay?”

I couldn’t without saying, “From what I saw, he’s JP with your build. Basically my worst nightmare. And you can stop blaming yourself. You had a fifty-fifty chance of hatching a bad seed.”

Hains decided to ignore my digs, another of his social tactics. He said, “I love my kids and grandkids, Jane. It wasn’t a bad life.”

“That sounded final. I think we have a bit to go, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I was just saying…anyway, I love my children, even when they aren’t likable.”

I noted he didn’t say he loved Cindy, but I let it go. We sat in silence for a second or two.

Hains seemed to let the ‘what ifs’ settle down in his brain, before asking, “So, you haven’t set foot in Doe’s Ferry since 1979, what finally brought you back?”

“Do I have to answer that question?”

“You didn’t come home when your father died in 2000. With your history, you can see why this sudden appearance would concern me.”

“My history? Which part? The part where we were cradle to grave friends, all of us, or the part where one of us died, three of us lied, and one of us went to prison.”

“I’m assuming that means this isn’t a nostalgic trip home.”

“No point in pretending I’ve made peace with the total fucking-over I received in that courthouse at the hands of men covering their own asses.”

Hains turned to look at me, really look at me. I stared ahead at nothing, as I learned to do when a corrections officer had me against a wall.

“I went to see you. The prison officials wouldn’t let me in. My name wasn’t on your list.”

“There were no names on my list.”

Hains chuckled. I wondered if he knew this mechanism had gone from charmingly disarming to an anxiety tell. Maybe it always had been. He tried his concerned tone next, another interview technique. I had trusted Hains with my life at one time. Now, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. My game plan involved trusting no one.

 “How much time did you do?”

“I did the whole five. Got out in ’84.”

“Five years is a long time to go without seeing anyone who cared about you. Why the whole five? No time off for good behavior?”

I turned to look him in the eye, before I said, “To get time off for good behavior, I would have had to be good. Also, they required that I show remorse for a crime I did not commit.”

“Come on, Jane. You were guilty.”

“Your father caused it by turning a blind eye.” I paused the appropriate amount of time for effect, before adding, “And you had done exactly what I did on multiple occasions. So, don’t play innocent with me.”

“You got caught by the feds. You can’t blame my dad for that.”

“Who planted that pot on me? And who sent them to a little bar in the middle of nowhere looking for drug traffickers, Hains?”

“I don’t know, and my dad is dead. So we can’t ask him.”

“I was set up and the people that should have helped me lied or looked the other way. Nobody wanted to know the truth.”

Hains tried more therapy crap. “Maybe we all told the truth as we saw it.”

“Bull shit! Every one of you told the story that had the least negative consequences coming home to roost.”

“Are we talking about you or Malachi, Jane?”

“It’s the same thing, Hains. That’s been my contention all along. I went to prison because I wouldn’t accept all the lies. I couldn’t turn my back on a friend and so my friends turned their backs on me.”

Hains turned to look past me toward the courthouse. He seemed to desire my ire return to smoldering ash from raging red coal. I followed his gaze, watching as the parking lot lights blinked on. Streetlights lining the old road filled the late dusk gloom with an amber halogen glow, as the mist rolled ashore.

The light fixtures outside the ferry dock restrooms buzzed to life. The one by the women’s entrance began to strobe slightly. The fluttering light reflected in the gold badge on Hains’s hat. My head started to hurt. I closed my eyes and rubbed my left temple. When I opened them again, I realized too late that Hains was looking at me.

He decided to steer the topic away from my incarceration. I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me about fucking me over either.

“So, where’ve you been since you got out?”

“Anywhere but here. I see the apple didn’t fall too far from the badge. From the next Roger Staubach to Andy Griffith. How does that happen?”

“My freshman year at State I took a hit during a mop-up preseason appearance, broke a vertebra and pretty much ended my hopes of an NFL career, or college for that matter. Another hit like that and I wouldn’t be walking they said. I had it fused, and that was that. I had a wife and child to support. I couldn’t join the military with pins in my back. I got an associate degree in criminal justice and took a job in the department. I ran for Sheriff after my dad died. Been in office for twenty years now.”

“Bet that screwed Cindy’s plans of leaving here and never looking back.”

He glanced over at the home where, as it turns out, he had spent his entire life. The lights were on in almost every room. Silhouettes of people moved behind the closed blinds.

“We even live in the old house. This was the last place she thought we’d be, across the street from her parents, back in Doe’s Ferry for a life sentence.”

“Whoa, that’s a bit poetic. Try not comparing your comfortable, if not ideal, life to one in a penitentiary. I assure you your burdens were easier to bear.”

“Everybody’s got their own version of prison.”

“Damn. When did you become so deep? Are you sure you aren’t fucking that therapist?”

“I’m positive. Blame it on podcasts and long drives up and down these country roads. I’ve evolved. Besides, I told you I’m not her type. I should introduce you two. How long you going to be here?” He waited for an answer.

“Nice try and no thanks.”

He grinned. “Are you going to tell me why you’re here, or are you going to make me figure it out on my own?”

I had a decision to make. Up until I was eighteen, Hains would have been the first person I reached out to in a situation like this. He was our white hat hero, the guy we counted on to lead us out of danger. I wondered who Hains had become. Was he anymore estranged from the man he thought he would be than I was from the dreams of my childhood? Was he contemplating the same thing about me? I decided to dodge his question with one of my own. “Do you remember when we went looking for a virgin?”

Blurb:

“Her name is Jane Doe? Really? You aren’t joking?”
“Yes. Her father’s name was John Doe. Her mother’s last name was Smith. Jane Smith Doe, that’s her. Her dad said he guaranteed her anonymity for life. Thought it was funny.”
Forty years away from Doe’s Ferry, it didn’t take long for word to get around that Jane Doe had come home. Most people remained unconcerned with her arrival—memories of young Jane having been long forgotten or never known. But like any tiny place with tiny minds, the whispers at her sudden reappearance revived old rumors and fanned long cold embers into a blaze.
“So, you haven’t set foot in Doe’s Ferry since 1979, what finally brought you back?”
“Do I have to answer that question?”
“You didn’t come home when your father died in 2000. With your history, you can see why this sudden appearance would concern me.”
“My history? Which part? The part where we were cradle to grave friends, all of us, or the part where one of us died, three of us lied, and one of us went to prison.”
“I’m assuming that means this isn’t a nostalgic trip home.”
“No point in pretending…”

There were those who wished Jane had stayed gone. Most folks were willing to let the past die with the ones that lived it—but not Jane, and not the person who sent the package that summoned her home. Wrongs needed righting. The time had come for the truth of what happened at Doe’s Ferry to come to light. Jane Doe has come home to amend the record, to make it right: Emendare.

About the Author

Four-time Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Mystery–Rainey Nights (2012), Molly: House on Fire (2013), The Rainey Season (2014), and Relatively Rainey (2016)–and 2013 Rainbow Awards First Runner-up for Best Lesbian Novel, Out on the Panhandle, author R. E. Bradshaw began publishing in August of 2010. Before beginning a full-time writing career, she worked in professional theatre and also taught at both university and high school levels. A native of North Carolina, the setting for the majority of her novels, Bradshaw now makes her home in Oklahoma. Writing in many genres, from the fun southern romantic romps of the Adventures of Decky and Charlie series to the intensely bone-chilling Rainey Bell Thrillers, R. E. Bradshaw’s books offer something for everyone.

Triangulation (Borealis Investigations Book 2) by Gregory Ashe

Excerpt:

THE BLONDIE BRICK HOUSE on Winona never changed. North had grown up here; his mother had died here. His father would die here too, probably sooner than North expected. As North sat behind the wheel of the Beamer, the engine ticking as it cooled, he studied the street and told himself he was reminiscing.

In the gray light from the street lamps, the rough edges of the blue-collar neighborhood softened. The peeling paint was harder to notice; the warped lines of fencing were easier to miss. Everything looked a little more respectable, which was a good thing. Lindenwood Park was still a nice neighborhood, still a working-class neighborhood, and that was impressive in one of America’s most dangerous cities. Somehow, this urban slice had survived the destitution and decay that had blighted so much of St. Louis. A lot of that, North knew, had been possible because of men like his father, and North wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

Grabbing his bag from the seat, North made his way along the side of the house, bypassing the front door, which nobody used, and letting himself in at the sun porch—never locked, of course. He fenced Jasper and Jones with his foot, keeping them from sprinting out the door, and they yowled and whined for a minute before rubbing up against his foot. He didn’t blame them for wanting to get out; cat piss fouled the air, and North wondered how long it had been since his father had cleaned their litter box. If, that was, he had ever cleaned it. Maybe he didn’t even smell it anymore, the way he couldn’t smell the black pall of cigar smoke that hazed every room in the small house.

The small desk fan, which North had kicked over on his last visit, was back in place. The motor made a grinding noise as the blades turned. He lifted it onto a folding chair and elbowed open the window a few more inches. Hot July air—a muggy heat that lingered long after sundown, pasting itself to the skin—seeped into the house, but maybe hot, fresh air was better than the refrigerated, recirculated cigar smoke.

“Dad,” North called into the house, passing into the kitchen with its mountain of dirty dishes, the disconnected dishwasher sitting in the middle of the room, and the air stinking of burned grilled cheese sandwiches. “You awake?”

“Jesus, it’s you.” Then the kitchen fluorescents fluttered to life. David McKinney had slipped even farther down the shit-hill in the two months since North had seen him. His yellow skin sagged, and he looked much too thin. He leaned heavily on a walker now, and the nasal cannula had slipped and hung askew. Shaking his head in disgust, he lowered the pistol he had aimed at North and placed it in the pocket of his bathrobe. Then, checking the oxygen tank on his walker, he shuffled past North and into the living room.

North waited until his father was gone. Then he closed his eyes and counted to twenty. He told himself he wasn’t a kid anymore. He thought of what Shaw had said to him the last time he had come here: you come back different. And then he thought of Shaw under Jadon Reck, the cop’s muscular body tight as he drilled into Shaw, the way Shaw would throw his head back, his long hair spilling like ribbons of fire across his chest, his shoulders, his back. The way Shaw would sound as Jadon tore him apart. The way Shaw would sound when he climaxed. And the vision was so sudden and so startlingly real that North thought he could feel the acid churning in his stomach. Then he didn’t care about counting to twenty anymore. He opened the fridge, pulled out four Bud Lights, and carried them into the soft, TV-glow flicker of the living room.

On the old CRT, in its massive wooden cabinet, an episode of Gunsmoke was playing. Marshal Matt Dillon was talking to a pretty blonde who’d gotten stranded. She looked like she was holding up pretty well, and Matt didn’t seem to mind talking to her very much.

“I think I’ve seen this one,” North said, settling onto the folding chair next to his dad’s recliner. It was the same folding chair that, two months before, he had dragged in front of the TV. Had it been here this whole time? And if it had, what did that mean? That nobody else had stepped inside this house except David McKinney in those two months?

North set out the beers on the TV tray between the two seats and popped the top on his first one. “Her carriage got robbed, isn’t that it?”

His dad grunted, popped open a beer, and sucked spray off his knuckles.

North felt the ache in his own knuckles where bruises were already forming and the scabs over his split skin pulled. He said, “Isn’t that this one?”

“That’s all of them.”

“Yeah, but she’s got a friend who got taken by the bandits.”

David McKinney punched the volume up.

With a sigh, North opened up his throat, closed his eyes, and pounded down the beer. Then he opened the second one.

They watched Gunsmoke. Then the Wheel of Fortune rerun. North’s dad drew the line at Jeopardy and switched the channel to KDNL and caught the end of the news. North, for his part, got a lot of exercise: pulling the tabs on the Bud Lite, lifting the cans, carrying the empties to the sink. He felt like he could do this forever: stare at the TV with the images flashing on and off against the back of his eyes; stare out the window above the sink at the smudged light pollution above the city; stare into the yellow glare of the fridge until he wasn’t even sure how long he’d been there, with the cold air wicking against him pleasantly, and then come back to himself just enough to snag a few more Buds and carry them to the TV.

“Thought you were a towel head.”

North was six beers deep by then, practically swimming, and he had to blink and focus. “Oh. The gun. It’s ok. You can’t say that anymore, though. People don’t . . .” He forgot what he’d been trying to tell him.

“Bunch of them moved in on the other side of the park. I’ve just been waiting for them to make their move.”

“People don’t say that kind of thing anymore.” North thought he had more to say, but instead he slid down in his seat until his neck rested on the back of the folding chair.

“Some kind of fight with Laguerre, is that it?”

“He’s my husband.”

“I know who he is.”

“His name’s Tucker.”

“I know his name.”

After that, the TV’s murmur seemed to grow louder and louder until North’s ears were ringing with a white hiss. It was so much easier like this. He felt like he could do this forever. He didn’t even remember walking, but he was in the kitchen, slumped against the fridge door, the cold air brushing the tops of his bare feet. He didn’t remember taking off boots and socks. He didn’t remember drinking so many beers, but the fridge was empty except for that glare the color of egg yolk.

He wanted to call Shaw. That seemed like a good idea, so he stumbled out to the sunroom and dug his phone out of his pocket and after a few mistakes, managed to get Shaw’s number on the screen. The phone rang. And rang. And rang. It was going to voicemail; North was dimly aware that this was the most likely possibility, and again came that vision of Shaw on his back, legs in the air, hair burning in coils across his chest, with Jadon’s muscular frame above him.

Then the phone clicked, and a voice said, “Hello?” And that was the clue that it was voicemail because (North’s logic was inescapable): a) Shaw was too busy getting drilled by Jadon to answer the phone, and b) if Shaw had answered the phone himself, he would have said North’s name, the way he always did.

“You knew,” North said. “You knew and you didn’t . . . you didn’t even say anything. You knew. You fucking . . .” North’s stomach roiled again, and he wasn’t sure that this time it had anything to do with that mental image of Shaw. “You fucking knew. You knew.” He was sweating badly now, and he leaned up against the windows, where the swampy air trickled in with the buzz of mosquitos and the hot mulch scent. “Do you remember watching . . .” He gagged; a monstrous burp forced its way out. “Do you remember watching Supernatural, do you even remember? Do you remember anything, do you remember fucking anything from that, back before you met Jadon, fucking Jadon, back before you met—” North’s stomach cramped. His breath was foul as it furled against the glass and rolled back at him. “You fucking knew and you didn’t even say anything, and I fucking hate you.”

Something hit North’s hand, knocking the phone from his grip. Hands gripped North and spun him.

“Jesus Christ,” his dad said, leaning on his walker, the cannula slipping again. His face was gray in the weak light. “Are you trying to wake the whole fucking neighborhood so they can listen to your fucking bedroom problems?”

“I didn’t—” North tried to swallow, but his stomach was really turning now. “Dad,” he managed to say.

“For fuck’s sake.” With surprising strength, David McKinney dragged his son to the door, swung it open, and shoved North’s head out into the thick, wet heat of the darkness.

North barfed long and hard. And when he’d finished, his knees were shaking, and cold sweat dampened the shirt on his back.

“You’re hosing that off in the morning,” his dad said as he stomped away on the walker. “And you’re calling Ronnie. He’s been looking for you.”

North nodded. That was a good idea. But a better idea was to lie down, right here in the sunroom. Just for a minute. And he managed to do so just before a black tide rolled in.

Blurb:

After a recent case with a treacherous client, North and Shaw are ready to go back to work building Borealis Investigations. They’re also ready to go back to dodging their feelings for each other, with neither man ready to deal with the powerful emotions the Matty Fennmore case stirred up. Everything is getting back to normal when their secretary asks for help: her girlfriend’s boss has gone missing.

Shep Collins runs a halfway house for LGBTQ kids and is a prominent figure in St. Louis’s gay community. When he disappears, however, dark truths begin to emerge about Shep’s past: his string of failed relationships, a problem with disappearing money, and his work, years before, as one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.

When Shep’s body turns up at the halfway house, the search for a missing person becomes the search for a murderer.

As North and Shaw probe for answers, they find that they are not the only ones who have come looking for the truth about Shep Collins. Their investigation puts them at odds with the police who are working the same case, and in that conflict, North and Shaw find threads leading back to the West End Slasher—the serial killer who almost took Shaw’s life in an alley seven years before. As the web of an ancient conspiracy comes to light, Shaw is driven to find answers, and North faces what might be his last chance to tell Shaw how he really feels.

About the Author:

Gregory Ashe is a longtime Midwesterner. He has lived in Chicago, Bloomington (IN), and Saint Louis, his current home. Aside from reading and writing (which take up a lot of his time), he is an educator.

Learn more about Gregory Ashe and forthcoming works at www.gregoryashe.com.

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