The God Game: (A Dan Sharp Mystery Book 5) by Jeffrey Round

From THE GOD GAME: A Dan Sharp Mystery

Dundurn Press

By Jeffrey Round

© 2018


When the husband of a government aide disappears, private investigator Dan Sharp is hired to track him down. But when his investigation catches the attention of a mysterious political operative known only as the “Magus,” the case gets too close to home. After a body turns up on his doorstep, Dan races to catch a killer and prove his innocence.

Prologue: Toronto, 2013


Never in his life had anything like this happened to him before. He was not the sort of man to be given the sack. And that was precisely why he’d been drinking for the past two weeks. I am not the sort of man to be given the sack, he told himself as he grabbed at his bootlace and pulled. I am John Badger Wilkens III and I was not — here the bootlace snapped — born to be subjected to public ridicule and disgrace.

He frowned and threw the lace down in disgust, glaring at the ragged ends as if they were to blame for his dismissal. John Wilkens, you are hereby suspended from your duties for suspected inappropriate conduct. He remembered every word. That was exactly what they had said when they came to remove him from his office.

He sat there, one boot on and one boot off, staring at the empty bourbon bottle sitting beside the empty tumbler on the otherwise empty table. What a dismal thing to be turned out for suggesting that all was not well behind the scenes at Queen’s Park. A pack of lying thugs had taken over, besmirching his name in the process. And at Christmas, of all times!

He stared at the rebellious boot. If he simply bypassed the top eyeholes and tied the laces shorter — if he could just reach them — he leaned down and grasped. There!

He needed to clear his head and think. What could he do to fight the forces marshalled against him? He’d raised his voice above the crowd and dared to suggest that things were not all they seemed. And no sooner had he spoken those words than he’d found himself facing allegations of misconduct and improper use of public funds. Absurd!

He tugged at the other boot till he had them both on, one lace shorter than the other but secure at last. He tramped to the hallway. The closet swung open with surprising ease, clipping his nose in the process. He didn’t know his own strength!

With a tug, he pulled the trench coat from its hanger and slung it over his shoulders, inserting his arms into the sleeves with difficulty. The garment resisted his efforts. When had he last worn it? The belt barely made it around his waist.

The vestibule opened onto an unseasonably mild December evening. A warm front had come in, creating a dense fog. Streetlamps gleamed like distant fireflies before vanishing around the corner. The whole world was murky.

He patted his pockets for keys. Both sets were there, house and car, but he wasn’t about to get into the driver’s seat. That was all he needed on top of everything, to be stopped for driving while intoxicated. A taxi was also out of the question. Leave no trail. He’d been warned to come alone.

He was halfway down the street before he realized that the insistent tugging at his waist was because he’d mistakenly taken his wife’s overcoat instead of his own. It crossed his mind how ridiculous he must look, but it didn’t seem to matter. Then he saw he’d also left with two mismatched gloves: one leather and the other Thinsulate. One pair for good and the other for shovelling. For pity’s sakes! he thought. Whom the gods would humiliate … !

If he’d taken a proper look before leaving, he might have noticed another small incongruity: the garage door left slightly ajar, a coil of yellow nylon rope missing from its interior. He might have, but his thoughts were elsewhere.

Staggering along, it came to him with a flash of drunken clarity: they were going to gang up and pin this on him. With the election coming, that egregious minister and his mob of supporters were cooking things up to besmirch his party. And they thought there was nothing he could do to stop them.

They were wrong! He had a secret weapon. He’d peeked behind the curtain and discovered a thing or two in the process. But he wasn’t the only one who knew. He thought of the mysterious emails he’d recently received. We both know what’s going on here. I can help you, their sender had offered, but whether they came from friend or foe he couldn’t tell. He’d left the first unanswered. The second was more straightforward: You’re running out of time. Talk to me.

Whatever the sender knew, it meant he wasn’t the only one sitting on such explosive information. Someone besides him realized what was going on. Someone outside the inner circle of ministers and flunkies in the government, maybe even someone with a vested interest in bringing the government down.

From the start he’d tried to stay out of the rabble-rousing and keep his hands clean. But the dirt had come to him. It was impossible to avoid. And, once he began to dig, it was inevitable he would find something.

Nothing could have stopped him from looking once he had the idea. Because he had to know! How could he not? Nine hundred and fifty million! All that public funding down the drain! It still seemed impossible to believe even when he’d seen the proof.

The final message came the afternoon he was suspended. It’s you or them. Deal with me or I go public, his secret sharer had warned.

None of the notes had been signed, but he had his suspicions. They’d all heard rumours of a mysterious, behind-the-scenes manipulator who could make or break you. A Magus. He hadn’t believed in the Magus, but that had been naïve of him. It just made things that much easier to do the dirty work if the world refused to believe in you.

When the problems surfaced, he’d thought of resigning to save face for the party, but it was too late. They wanted a scapegoat. A martyr.

But now it was his turn. He was going to tell his mysterious contact everything he knew in return for clearing his reputation. One thing was sure, he wasn’t going to have this pinned on him like some apparatchik run afoul of the Kremlin.

“Information for information,” he said aloud to the fog as he stumbled along. “You want to know what I know, then you tell me what you know and how you know it.”

His breath swirled, joining the wisps and curlicues of a diaphanous curtain. He stopped and looked back. His home had disappeared in the whiteness. Thank goodness he’d sent Anne away. His cheeks burned with the memory of having to tell her he’d done nothing wrong, but that it might look otherwise until he could reveal a few simple truths. I will clear my name if it’s the last thing I do, he’d told her. Because the whole fucking mess would come out in the wash sooner or later. And then he would be vindicated.

He stumbled along, wondering who he was about to meet. He had his suspicions: it was likely to be one of those beastly reporters hanging around the assembly, sifting the dirt, looking for a juicy story. Whoever it was had found a good one and locked onto the likeliest target: John Badger Wilkens III. To his everlasting shame.

Why do you want to go into politics, Badger? his father had asked years ago. It’s a dirty business. Don’t you know that? John simply shook his head, thinking of ambition. Thinking of righting a few wrongs in the world. But to do that, you had to stay clean yourself. You’re too good for the rabble, Badger. Don’t besmirch yourself.

In his father’s day, politics meant that the big boys came in and assessed the scene then hired the companies to mine for ore and, once that ore was found, they let the corporations bid on the right to extract it. Corporations owned by friends. Next they set hiring standards and got other friends to implement those standards into law and pay the workers, men so desperate for work and so ignorant of what safety meant ever to refuse a job. They came from all over the country, with their wives and children trailing behind. There were always accidents as they stripped the earth and polluted the environment till the vegetation died and the rivers ran rust and someone cried foul, then safety standards were enacted and environmental laws set up to counteract the destruction until the day the ore itself ran out and the workers went elsewhere to start all over again, leaving behind ravaged landscapes and empty pockets for most but swollen bank accounts for a privileged few, the company executives, who simply waited for the next big strike-it-rich opportunity.

And always there were secrets to be kept, names to be protected. Then more laws were enacted to shield those same men from legal repercussions as the whole thing went round and round again. It was never the men you saw, but the men you didn’t see, who made the wheels turn in their tortured, squeaking revolutions.

That was what his father had warned him about, those men you didn’t see coming. The ones John had vowed never to be like or outsmarted by. It was a relief to know his father had died before finding out how true his words were.

John staggered to a corner to read the sign: Heath Street. How on earth … ? In the fog and in his drunken state he’d ended up on one of those little cul-de-sacs backing onto the ravine. The signs had been warning him: No Exit.

A private place, the voice on the phone said. Somewhere close to your home. And then the promise for discretion: Come alone. It’s just a talk. There’ll be no witnesses.

A pile of refuse loomed off to the right. His father had been right: politics was dirt, filth. And there was no one he could turn to except a mysterious emailer intent on discovering what he knew. Well then. Let me tell you what I know, he would say.

He reached the end of the alleyway. The moon suddenly snapped into view, a bone-luminous light coming through the fog. Beyond lay the immensity of the galaxy, the universe spreading on forever. In that moment of illumination, he saw stairs off to his left leading down to the ravine. He was saved!

Then just as suddenly the light was gone again. Eclipsed. It dawned on him that it was nothing more than a streetlamp with a rickety connection. So much for the grandeur of it all. He stopped and laughed at the absurdity. They had him exactly where they wanted him.

It might have been the only moment of true perspective he’d had all week. We are nothing, he thought, peering into the swirling fog. We live and die in the blink of an eye. A brief space between two eternities. All the while, he wondered if it was the alcohol talking. Babble, babble, babble. Just like those fools in the legislature.

Without warning he was convulsed with shame at the memory of his dismissal. The tears came quickly, clouding his vision. In his grief he sat heavily on the pavement, groping with blind hands to feel the earth beneath him.

From a distance, footsteps headed his way. He jerked his head around, wiping his eyes and stumbling to stand, not wanting to be caught in this forlorn posture. Someone was coming toward him silhouetted by the light, monstrous and grotesque, like a giant alien enlarged and projected against a screen of fog.

Suddenly he felt stone-cold sober from fear.

It was a little past seven when the fog began to lift. An early-morning jogger looked up to see the figure suspended from the bridge, an outline coming in and out of the mist. It was a man in dishevelled garb — a woman’s overcoat, mismatched gloves, and boots tied with broken laces — suspended by a yellow nylon cord.

At first the police thought it was a vagabond living in the gully, until they emptied his pockets and took a look at the ID he carried. This was no ordinary man who’d hanged himself. This was a man who’d recently been publicly disgraced. And soon the awakening city would know why.

See more of Jeffrey Rounds books at his website:


Exclusive Excerpt: Street People by Michael Nava


Ben Manso drifts through life, working as a rent boy, until an casual encounter with an eight-year old street kid named Bobby at a convenience store changes everything. When Ben sees Bobby again, the boy is with a man who claims to be Bobby’s father, but Ben suspects the man is a pedophile and the boy his captive. A third encounter draws Ben even more deeply into Bobby’s drama and forces him to face his own haunted past. After Ben’s well-intentioned plan to rescue Bobby puts the boy in even greater danger, Ben is forced to make a life-changing choice.

Street People is the story of lives at the margin, about the throw-away people we see without seeing, and the real meaning of family.


On a warm night in May, 1988, the sky above Los Angeles glowed Martian red and Ben Manso pushed his way into a 7-Eleven on Santa Monica Boulevard to buy cigarettes and condoms. The only other people in the store were a kid standing at the check-out counter and the clerk standing behind it. The boy was scrawny, brown-haired and dark-eyed—Mexican, Ben thought, wearing jeans, a dirty tee-shirt, and ratty sneakers. Waiting his turn behind the kid, Ben watched him carefully place his purchases on the grubby counter: a bag of Doritos, two pre-wrapped ham and cheese sandwiches, a carton of milk, and a Hostess cupcake.

The clerk’s name tag identified him as Ahmed. He rang up the boy’s purchases, peered at him through thick glasses and said, “Five dollars and thirty-two cents.”

The boy pulled a handful of crumpled bills and some change from his pants pocket and dumped them on the counter.

Patiently, Ahmed counted it. “This is only four-fifty,” he said gently. “Not enough. You have to put something back.”

The boy stared at him helplessly.

Ahmed picked up the cupcakes. “Take this back, ok?”

Mouth quivering, the kid took the pastry and lurched backwards, bumping into Ben.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

“Wait a second,” Ben said. “I’ll pay for his food and give me a pack of Merits.”

“Just the cigarettes?” the clerk asked.

“No,” Ben said, “A pack of Trojans, too.”

Ben slapped a twenty on the counter. Ahmed got the cigarettes and rubbers, rang everything up, and bagged the boy’s groceries. The boy grabbed the bag and threw Ben a look of startled gratitude as he hurried out of the store.

“Kind of late to be grocery shopping,” Ben said.

“He’s a street kid,” Ahmed replied. “He eats when he’s got the money. You need matches?”

“Thanks,” Ben said, accepting a matchbook advertising a nearby bailbondsman. “Are you saying he hustles?

“Could be,” Ahmed said.

“He can’t be more than eight or nine.”

Ahmed shrugged. “If he’s a seller, there’s a buyer.”

Ben tucked the cigarettes and matchbook into the pocket of his unlined ash-gray silk blazer.. “You must see a lot of sick shit working here.”

Ahmed laughed. “Yeah, they don’t call it the graveyard shift for nothing.” He picked up the rubbers. “Don’t forget these. Someone’s getting lucky.”

Ben shrugged. “Business.”

“Ah,” Ahmed said. “Take care my friend.”

Out in the parking lot, one of his pagers went off. He spotted a phone booth at the corner. Heavy traffic moved in both directions on the boulevard and the air was foul with exhaust fumes. Across the street, a teen-age kid with a mop of wild hair, in tight jeans and a wife-beater, stood beneath a streetlight smoking and peering at the passing cars. Ben stepped into the phone booth, pulled the door shut, and watched a blue Corolla pull up to the curb in front of the teen. All Ben could see of the driver was that he was male with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a blue Dodgers windbreaker.The boy approached the car, leaned into the window and after a brief exchange with the driver r, opened the passenger door and climbed inside.

“Hey, Pete,” Ben said, watching the car’s tail lights merge into traffic.

“I got a guy who’ll pay to watch us get it on,” Pete said. “You in?”

“I have a date tonight,,” Ben said.

“Meredith get to you first?”

“Yeah, it’s an overnight. Sorry, Petey.”

“Okay, cool,” he said. “Call me tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.

He hung up. A panhandler emerged from the darkness and leaned drunkenly against Ben’s Fiat. Ben smelled the guy before he reached him; he reeked of booze, body odor and unwashed clothing

“Hey, man,” Ben said. “Do you mind?”

“This your car?” the man asked, carefully forming each word.

The drunk pushed himself off the hood, pulled a filthy rag from his back pocket and said, “I’ll clean the windshield for a buck.”

“The windshield is fine,” Ben said.

“Please, man, I really need a drink.”

Impulsively, Ben asked, “What’s your name?”

It took the drunk a minute to remember. “Ron.”

Ben handed him a ten. “Here you go, Ron, for protecting my car.”

“Hey, thanks,” Ron said. “Thanks a lot.”

Clutching the bill in his hand, he lurched into the store.

Driving down the boulevard, Ben saw the kid from the store on the other side of the street lugging his little sack of groceries. He was trying to look tough but when Ben honked at him and waved, the boy jumped. He stared after Ben as if he’d seen Santa Claus and waved wildly with his free hand. For a second, Ben thought about turning around and giving the kid a ride, but he was already running late and the boy was no longer visible in his rearview mirror anyway.

He turned off Franklin and headed up the hills into a neighborhood of twisting, narrow roads, and enormous houses that commanded expensive views of the city below. At a stop sign, he fluffed his hair, put out his cigarette, and popped a breath mint. The thick scent of tuberoses in the bouquet on the passenger’s seat filled the air. Ellie was a regular, but even his regulars expected a little courtship before getting down to business; flowers to be admired and arranged in a fancy vase, the nice wine in the pretty glasses on the terrace, and the conversation that trailed off to the pregnant silence that was his signal to kiss her. No money changed hands—she had paid the agency when she requested him—but in the end, he was no different than the kid climbing into the Corolla to give a driver a ten buck blow job. They worked different streets, but they were all street people. He headed up the hill to her house.

Wade was outside his apartment in his walker when Ben let himself into the building. The old man smiled, or grimaced, it was hard to tell which. Since he’d broken his hip the summer before he was always more or less in pain. He was shapeless in an old, oversized Pendleton shirt and pair of baggy khakis. His mottled skin was like the fly-specked pages of an old book and time had dissolved his features into a puddle topped by a crown of wispy white hair. His blue eyes were still bright, however, and they missed nothing.

“Just getting home, baby?” he wheezed.


“You want some coffee?”


“Come on in and put on a pot,” Wade said.

Unless he was sleeping, Wade kept his front door open. He spent most of the day in a rocker that faced the door, trying to snare passersby into his room to visit. The other tenants hurried by because once Wade got started it was hard to shut him up. Ben didn’t mind. Ben was as natural a listener as Wade was a talker. He liked to hear the old man’s stories of his days as a bit player at the studios, tales documented by the black-and-white photographs that lined the walls of his apartment showing him with the big stars of the forties and fifties.

Wade’s room smelled faintly of bird shit. He had had a pair of canaries, Goneril and Regan. Opening the cage door to change the water one day, he’d moved too slowly and the birds had flown out and through an open window. Wade had refused Ben’s offer to replace the birds telling him, “At this rate, they’d outlive me, then what would happen to them? Unless you’d take care them.”

Ben shrugged, “I don’t know, Wade. Birds in cages? Might creep out some of my johns.”

“I thought you were strictly out-call,,” Wade crackled.

Ben smiled, “I make exceptions for the right amount of money.”

Wade knew Ben was a hustler but made no judgments since, as he had told Ben more than once, “Everyone in Hollywood has a price.”

Ben worked mostly for an agency called White Knights, which provided escorts to women, and free-lanced on the side with men. White Knights was operated by a woman named Meredith, whom he had met through Pete when they were cater waiters for the same company. One night, after working a party at Bel-Air in a steel-and-concrete house that reminded Ben of an airport hanger, he’d gone home with Pete. Later, lying in bed, Pete told him, “You’re good at sex.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“No, I mean it,” he said, taking a drag from Ben’s cigarette. “Most guys are lousy at it because all they care about is getting off. You pay attention to the other person.” He took another puff. “You fuck women, too?”

“You wanna do a threesome?”

“Just answer the question, man.”

He shrugged. “I’ve had sex with women.”

“Would you fuck someone for money?”

“You mean would I whore myself out?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, could you do it for money?”

“I never thought about it,” Ben said.

“Think about it now.”

Ben stubbed out his cigarette. For the most part, Ben, being naturally accommodating, had sex with people because they wanted him and because, having little sexual passion of his own, it interested him to observe theirs. Reading in bed late into the night was more thrilling for him than sex, a legacy of his years of boarding school when, after lights out, he had read secretly by flashlight beneath the covers in the narrow, uncomfortable beds that seemed to furnish every dorm room he had ever occupied.

“Sure,” he told Pete. “Why not?”

Pete grinned and said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“What are you?” Meredith had asked Ben during his interview.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am?”

“Ah,” she said, approvingly, “nice manners, but drop the ma’am. It makes women feel old. Your look,” she continued. “It’s All-American boy, but there’s something about your eyes and skin that’s rather. . . exotic.”

She studied him with the intensity of a jeweler examining a diamond for weight, flaws, and luminosity. Her large office, on a side street off Rodeo Drive was aggressively feminine down to the spindly white and gilt Louis XIV chair on which Ben perched. Meredith herself was a tiny woman who favored shoulder pads, wore her short blonde hair like a lacquered helmet, and exuded the faint rose scent of Jean Patou’s “Joy.” Heavy but expertly applied make-up concealed any vestige of personality, but even it could not hide her square, determined jaw and shrewd eyes. Later he would learn Meredith ran the business with her lover, Carol, who, apart from being a brunette, could have been Meredith’s twin.

“Your last name, Manso,” she said, speculatively. “Italian?”

“Spanish,” Ben told her. “My father was Mexican-American, my mom is white.”

“Ah,” she said. “That explains it. God, you mixed race boys are gorgeous. Pete says you’re bisexual.”

“I guess,” he said. “I’ve never thought about it much.”

“I don’t care what you are,” she continued briskly, “as long as you can perform with a woman. Can you?”

“Yes,” he said, biting off the ‘ma’am.’ “I’ve been with women.”

“Of course,” she said quickly, “White Knights is in the business of providing companionship, not sex. Still, what happens between you and the client once she’s paid for your time is entirely up to her. Do you understand, Ben?”

He nodded.

“Oh,” she said, “and you can sleep with boys on your own time, if that’s what you’re into, but use protection and I’d better not find out you’re hustling men on the side. I will cut your balls off if I catch you free lancing.” She extracted a business card from her desk drawer and slid it to him. “This is our photographer. Make an appointment with him for this week. He’s very good, the best. Of course, you’re giving him a lot to work with.”

He tucked the card into his coat pocket. “What do you do with the pictures?”

“They go into the book,” she said.

“The book?”

“The one our clients look through when they come in for an escort.”

“What kind of pictures?” he asked, nervously.

She smiled, “Don’t worry, Ben. They’re headshots and one or two with your shirt off. Nothing that would embarrass your mother.”

Ben helped Wade into his rocker.

“God, being old is fucked,” Wade said. “It’s the most depressing thing in the world.”

Ben smiled. “Yesterday you said bad drag was the most depressing thing in the world.”

“This is worse.” Wade rocked morosely.

From the doorway of the little kitchen, Ben asked, “Did you eat today?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Inside the refrigerator was a can of Folgers, a few slices of bologna, half a loaf of bread, assorted condiments, and something in a Tupperware container covered with fuzzy mold.

“Make a grocery list. I’ll go shopping for you,” Ben said and set about making coffee.

“So, what was it last night,” Wade asked when Ben brought him a mug of coffee. “Scrumptious dick or disgusting cooze?”

Ben sat on the floor, back against Wade’s narrow bed, and smiled. “A woman.”

Wade pretended to shudder.

“Your doctor’s a woman. You like her.”

“I’ve loved many women in my time,” Wade replied. “From the neck up.” He blew across the surface of his coffee. “You ever fall in love with any of your tricks?”

“You know the old saying, Wade, when you start to come with your johns it’s time to get out of the business.”

Wade cackled. “You’re pretty smart for a whore.”

“No, I’m just another pretty face.”

“That you are, my boy. You prefer tricking with men or women?”

“Money doesn’t have a gender.”

“Get her.”

Restlessly, Ben’s gaze swept across the room. Over a dusty desk was a framed photograph of the young Wade standing at the gates MGM with a teen-aged Judy Garland.

He remembered asking Wade, “What was she like?”

“Fifteen going on fifty, poor thing,” Wade had replied.

He told Wade about the kid he’d seen at the store the night before.

“He couldn’t have been more than eight. The guy at the 7-Eleven thinks he hustles.”

“The queen who used to manage this place let street kids stay here. I think he took the rent in trade. Filthy little things.”

“Not this one,” Ben said. “He was just a little boy. Too young to be out on the streets.”

“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

“You’ve been reading too many tee-shirts,” Ben replied. “What do you want from the store?”

Michael Nava is the six-time Lambda Literary-award winning of the Henry Rios novels and the historical novel, The City of Palaces. His most recent work, Lay Your Sleeping Head (Korima Press, 2016), a reimagining of the first Henry Rios novel, was hailed as “one of the literary events of the year,” and earned him his tenth Lambda Literary award nomination. You can find him on Facebook at Michael Nava Writer. His website is

Exclusive Excerpt: A Happy Holiday (A Nick Williams Mystery Book 17) by Frank W. Butterfield


Monday, December 19, 1955

It’s early in the morning and Carter is worried that he and Nick won’t be warm enough for their Christmas trip to Vermont.

Nick, for his part, is wondering if they will ever be able to return to the big pile of rocks he’s finally come to love. An exile in France isn’t the worst thing in the world but still…

But before they can get much more than halfway from San Francisco to Vermont, they discover that the mob is after them and is on their tails, chasing them across the country as they take planes, trains, and automobiles.

They finally get to Vermont, all covered in freshly-fallen white snow, and begin to wonder if it will be their last Christmas, after all.



I opened my eyes. The room was dark but there was a bit of street light coming in around the edges of the curtains. Carter was standing next to the bed, looking down at me with a grin.

“Time to get up.”

I groaned. “I don’t wanna.”

“I know, son. You can sleep in the car.”

With that, he pulled back the covers. The room was chilly and I just wanted to go back to sleep.

“Come on,” he said, pulling on my arm.

I stood up and hugged him. “This is one of those times when I wish we were there already.”

“Where?” he asked as he ran his hands over the back of my head.


He didn’t say anything for a while. As we stood there in the dark, I could feel myself getting sleepy again.

Finally, he said, “We could take a plane from here to New York. We don’t have to go to Vermont.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No. I wanna have Christmas with all our family.”

“Even Roger?”

He laughed. “Yes, even Roger. I changed my mind about him at dinner last night.”

I sighed. “Me, too. I love him. And John, too.”

“It would break my mama’s heart if you weren’t there for Christmas.”

I sighed again. “She loves you, too.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.


Exclusive Excerpt: MURDER AT THE PAISLEY PARROT A Marshall James Novel by Mark McNease


Time waits for no one, including Marshall James. Now 58 and living in New York City, Marshall has outlived the expiration date he was given with a cancer diagnosis three years ago. He beat the odds but he knows he may not beat the clock. So he’s decided to tell a story or three about some murders he was involved in back in the day.

The year was 1983. The bar was the Paisley Parrot, a gay, mob-run dive where people came to drink and few of them remembered the night before. Marshall loves his job as a bartender there. But one night, among the regulars, a killer arrives. Body by body, death by death, Marshall finds himself pulled into a web of murder, deceit and crime, with a psychopath waiting at the center of it all. Marshall falls for the cop who’s investigating him, not knowing if their relationship will survive or even if he’ll come out of this alive. Find out before last call comes around, in Murder at the Paisley Parrot.




A Marshall James Novel

In memory of the Lemon Twist bar. Make mine a double.


THERE’S A SOUND TO NEW YORK CITY that never goes away. It’s not exactly white noise—that seems too clean for a place this filthy—but a perpetual hum that matches the eternal grayness of the night sky. When you spend significant time here, if you’re the least bit conscious of your surroundings, you realize after a while that you can’t see the stars and there is no such thing as true silence. New York City, especially Manhattan, is a relentless sensual assault. You see it even when you don’t; you hear it at all times, and, in the summer, as it is now, you smell it. That is its most inescapable trait from June through August. You can forget about stars you haven’t seen since you were last off the island, and you can marvel at what passes for quiet at 3:00 a.m., but you can’t ignore the smell of the place. Ripe. Rotten. The way you imagine a body smells when maggots are halfway through their meal. The greatest city in the world.

All of it—the sounds, the sights, the smellswaft through my second-floor window like hot air in a slow updraft. This is especially true every Tuesday, also known as trash day, when the building superintendent and his helper of the week (they change almost as often as the girlfriends of the drag king next door) haul out a dozen trash bags and pile them by the curb. Clear plastic ones for the recyclables, the rest a dark brown, the kind they find torsos and arms stuffed into every now and then along the highway. No corpses in ours yet, just a week’s worth of Chinese takeout, cat litter, shitty diapers, and everything else we discard from our lives on a daily basis. There it sits, for a day and a night, basting in its own putrid juices until the garbage truck comes along in the morning waking everyone up, jamming traffic for a half hour as it crawls trash pile to trash pile. Ours seems to give off especially toxic fumes. Knowing that all odors are particulate, I keep my windows closed from Monday mid-day to Tuesday late morning. But it still seeps in, it still invades my home. Between the smell of summer waste and the exhaust from buses snaking up 40th Street to the Port Authority bus terminal across the avenue, it’s amazing my lung cancer came from smoking and not from living on this corner.

I’m a cancer survivor, not a combatant. I hate the way illness gets anthropomorphized, turned into some cognizant thing, a boxer in the ring with us. We’ve got the charity-approved pink boxing gloves on, and that cancer, that tumor, weighing in at a slim one-sixty and wearing the black trunks with the skull and crossbones, faces off against us in the title match of our lives. I never saw my cancer as an opponent or in any way conscious of what it was doing to me. I did not fight, at least not in any metaphorical sense. I just did what I was told to do, lived through the chemo and the surgery that took out a quarter of my left lung, and, to everyone’s great surprise, outlived my six-month prognosis by two and a half years.

Yes, it’s been three years since I first coughed up blood. It’s been almost that long since I enjoyed a Marlboro and a glass of bourbon—where I come from there’s no such thing as whiskey without a cigarette. And it’s been that long since I told my oncologist to take her dire prediction and shove it, in a nice way. We’re friends, so far as a man and his cancer doctor can be, but Dr. Lydia Carmello fully expected me to die when she said I would. She usually gets it right, and she’s not the sort of person to credit miracles. She’s a hard case, that one. She’s had to be. Death is the nightcap in her profession, after an evening of chemo and a meal of surgery for the ones who can be operated on. She assumed I would be one of her regulars—treated, comforted, referred to some support group where I could mourn the loss of myself while I was still around to do it—but nothing special. Then six months came and went. Nine months. A year. Two years. And finally, when I’d been in remission through the birth of Dr. Carmello’s daughter and the celebration of her first birthday, to which I was not invited, Lydia declared me an anomaly and said I just might get old after all. At fifty-eight I’m not that far from it, but she meant truly old, Social Security and Medicare old, the kind of old when saying you’re as young as you feel just makes you look foolish. Neither of us is counting on it, given the return rate of stage three lung cancer, but it’s nice to have possibility in your life.

I’ve had plenty of that, by the way: possibility. I was a kid who could have been something, given a chance. Too bad I never was. At least not early on, growing up in Indiana in a place too big to be a town and too small to be a city.

Elkhart in the 1960s and 70s was a bustling community of 30,000 or so Hoosiers. They headed to work at the Conn band instrument facility, or one of the motor home factories that gave Elkhart its claim to fame. We once had the highest concentration of millionaires in the country. It may not have lasted long, but it was something to be proud of. We were the RV Capital of the World. It still is as far as I know—who wants to compete for a title like that?—but I can’t confirm it, since I haven’t lived there in forty years. I went back to sell my father’s house twenty years ago and that was the last I saw of Elkhart.

Indiana was a place to flee when I was young. For a gay kid who came out at the age of sixteen, Elkhart was not welcoming. It didn’t matter that I was a native son, or that my family had been there for several generations. A queer is a queer is a queer, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, and I was certainly one of those. I announced my sexuality in high school, survived the hostile and sometimes violent reaction of my peers, and got the hell out two days after graduation. My mother was already dead. My father was drunk and on his way to an early grave. My sister and brother were old enough to fend for themselves, and I was ready to get as far away as I could.

I’d seen a report on 60 Minutes about homosexuals in Hollywood. Or maybe it was specifically about homosexual prostitutes. I don’t remember exactly, but I recall being transfixed—not by the segment itself, which was judgmental of the seedy, sad lives of L.A. hustlers—but by the fact they existed. What was a hustler? I wondered. Where did they come from? What exactly did they do for money? I had an idea, having some experience myself by then, although it all involved high school classmates and no money was exchanged. But this was exotic. Alluring. And exactly where I went when I packed my belongings into my orange Gremlin, put the clutch in drive and pulled out of my dad’s driveway for the last time, returning only for short visits over the years until I went back to plant a ‘For Sale’ sign on the lawn. I wouldn’t have gone then, except my sister and brother refused to deal with it and somebody had to bury the old man.

Los Angeles. Hollywood. 1977. Crazy how a world so exciting, that drew me like a promise of freedom, would turn so dark so quickly.

* * *

My name is Marshall James. There’s a Franklin in the middle, but I don’t like it and I’ve never used it. I think my old man called me Franklin a couple times when he was pissed at me. Hildren James was an angry sonofabith. It gave him an excuse to drink, or at least another one in a long list of them. I remember him saying, “Franklin James, you get over here right now!” I got over there, too, wherever that was. It usually just meant placing myself within arm’s length. It made it easier for him to slap me from a sitting position. He slapped us a lot, even my mom. He never hit her full on, as far as I recall, but being slapped across the face or on the top of the head was enough. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was sixteen and got the hell off the planet three months later. Who could blame her?

It was a long time ago. Everything at my age feels that way. Time isn’t really a thing. It doesn’t pass. It doesn’t fly, it doesn’t crawl, it doesn’t wait for anyone because it doesn’t wait at all. It’s more like something we spend our lives inside without realizing it, the way a fish spends its life in water. And, like water in a cracked fish tank, it drains away slowly.

I’ve got a manfriend who stays three nights a week with me in this crappy studio apartment within spitting distance of the bus terminal. His name is Buford McGibbon, but he goes by Boo. You would, too, if you’d been burdened with an antebellum name like that. It even sounds Confederate, but it’s not. Boo’s from upstate New York. He’s also ten years younger than me, but not in any way the object of this older man’s predation. We met when he took one of the tours I give for a living. If you spend much time in New York City you’ll see people like me, leading groups of straggling tourists and a few curious locals around Greenwich Village or the bars in Brooklyn, reciting history and color commentary. My specialty now is the Gotham Ghost Land Tour. It offers several different routes in Manhattan, since people tend to die anywhere. It’s not like the Bob Dylan Smoked a Joint Here tour—Oh look, that’s the window Joan Baez was gazing out when she wrote Diamonds and Rust—or the Edgar Allen Poe tour I did for a while that made exactly one mention of Poe.

I remember Boo very well that first time we met. It was a History of Gay New York tour (I’ve done them all). The group consisted of wide-eyed queens from faraway ghettos, dykes, a few straight couples, several German speakers, and Boo. He was thirty-eight then, alone, hot as a griddle, lingering when the others melted away at the end. He was one of the few who tipped me. I remember taking the five dollar bill from him, saying thanks, and keeping hold of his hand longer than is proper for a tour guide, unless he’s meeting the next love of his life in a moment of ridiculous serendipity.

We’re an odd couple by today’s gay standards. We’re not married and have no plans to be. We’d rather have herpes than children. We don’t live together. He has an apartment in Brooklyn and I’m in Hell’s Kitchen, and we like it this way. We still have sex, which is saying something after a decade, but mostly we love each other in a very relaxed way. He knows I could die if the cancer comes back, and I know he’ll miss me terribly. That’s enough for now.

The other entity I allow into my life is a cat named Critter. He’s four years old, which I know because I remember Justine taking him in as a kitten, as if a junkie prostitute had the wherewithal to take care of a cat. She lived across the hall from me and she asked me to feed him a few times when she was out of town. I had no idea where she went and she never told me. Then one day, about a year after she took Critter in, I got a knock at the door from Javier, our building super.

“You want a cat?” he asked me.

Javier speaking was a rare and curious thing.

“Where’s Justine?” I said, as he stood in my doorway holding an animal that wanted nothing more than to be free from his clutches.

“She died,” he said. Very matter-of-factly, as if she’d been a storefront that was open one day and closed the next.

“You know how she died?” I asked. Part of me dreaded being told she’d been strangled by a john.

“OD,” he said, then shrugged: these things happen.

“Well,” I replied, “we can’t say that’s a surprise, now, can we?”

I took the cat from his arms, and he’s been living with me ever since.

That’s my life: I’m a tour guide with no aspirations to be more. I’m a cancer survivor with one functioning lung. I’ve got a manfriend who spends a few nights a week with me and a cat that never leaves. And I’ve got stories to tell.

You see how things come around? I’m a man on borrowed time. We all are, but the debt collector announced his arrival in my case. I’ve outfoxed the bastard and outlived the expectations, and I started thinking, maybe I should tell people about those murders. The ones I was part of in Hollywood back then. Not murders I participated in, of course. This is not a deathbed confession. But I was part of it … them … and I figured I should go ahead and talk about it while I can. Some of the people involved are dead, and some of us are alive. I’m still not sure who the lucky ones are.

Now let’s head over to the time machine. Strap yourself in, it all happens very quickly. I’ll set the dial to 1977, the GPS to a town in Indiana where a lonely kid prepares his escape to Hollywood, the final destination a dive bar called the Paisley Parrot. Gay, mobbed up, a place for drunks, hustlers and dope dealers. My kind of bar.


THE PAISLEY PARROT WAS EXACTLY the kind of bar I liked to drink in, especially when my love affair with alcohol was still mutual. I’d started with vodka and gin when I was in high school, courtesy of my dad’s basement bar. It never closed, and it never ran dry. By the time I put on a cap and gown for my high school graduation and stumbled to the podium for my diploma, I’d been a hard drinker for several years. I’m not an alcoholic—I know how that sounds, most alcoholics deny what they are—but I was as close to being a lush as a teenager can be without running for the nearest rehab. For some reason my drinking didn’t get worse, and I had it fairly under control by the time I decided to work in a bar.

I’d been going to the Parrot and places like it since I’d first moved to Hollywood. I’ve always thought it was because I was an Indiana kid. My identity was well formed before I got to L.A. and was exposed to the prevailing gay archetypes of the time—muscle boys, drama queens, and older men who’d been part of the scene so long they were cultural furniture.  I’m not knocking it. I just knew who Marshall James was and I’ve stayed that way pretty much all my life.

I took pride in living in Hollywood, a neighborhood as diverse as it was seedy. There were black people in my apartment building, drag queens, straight couples, and, twice during my years living there, dead bodies. A woman on the sixth floor was found hanging from her shower curtain, self-inflicted; and a young man, a hustler I knew from my first year on the streets, was found on the fire escape with a syringe in his arm.

My haunts were close by. I liked bars where people went to drink, not to compare abs and gossip about their ex-boyfriends. Bars where they paid more attention to the glass of whiskey in front of them than to the guy who just walked through the door in torn jeans. There were several of them within walking distance: The Vine, on Vine Street, of course; LuLu’s for the dykes; the 12 O’clock Lounge, named long ago for reasons forgotten; the Red River, where the banks overflowed with booze and the tears of failed ambition, and the Paisley Parrot, located discreetly near the corner of Fountain and Las Palmas. There was a neon parrot on the door but no name. The Parrot had been around since the late 1950s, a time when bars that catered to homosexuals did not announce themselves. The front window was tinted so dark you couldn’t see inside even if all the lights were on. A recessed door opened onto a heavy curtain separating the world out there from the world in the Parrot. It served to protect them from each other: the people on the outside did not want to know what went on in there, and the patrons in the bar wanted no reminders that the world outside was waiting for them after the blackout, after the sloppy sex, after their best efforts to drink it all away.

I found the Parrot by accident. It wasn’t really a hustler bar. The mob still ran it in the 1980s, but quietly, and they didn’t want the attention cops brought with them. Being gay wasn’t illegal anymore, but prostitution and its emaciated sister, drug sales, were very much against the law. The two went hand in hand. Most of the hustlers I’d known either traded their bodies for dope or had some to sell. If not, they knew someone, who was conveniently located in a dark corner of the bar or waiting in the back alley.

The criminal enterprise then holding sway in the greater Los Angeles area was the Bianchi family, reported to be an offshoot of the Brooklyn Bianchi mafia clan. Rumor had it the Brooklyn branch had been crippled by law enforcement and had expanded—or escaped—to the West Coast.

Fat Dick Montagano, the Bianchi family lieutenant who kept the bars in line and the cash flowing, only tolerated hustlers who gave him free blowjobs, so the pros stayed away. His name was Richard Montagano. Everybody called him Fat Dick behind his back because he’d once topped off at three hundred pounds, though he’d lost a third of it by the time I met him. I assumed he’d been stuck with the name as a kid, or maybe his mob bosses gave it to him. It wasn’t a name anyone who valued their life would call him to his face, and we all knew to refer to him as Mr. Montagano when we addressed him or he was within earshot. If he overheard you, you might find a piece of piano wire embedded in your neck, so we left the name calling to people he was afraid of, who were all named Bianchi.

The mob presence in Los Angeles was once very powerful. After all, they’d founded Las Vegas, which was only four hours away in good traffic. But by the time I walked into the Parrot, they’d been reduced to pimping, moving drugs in from Mexico for domestic distribution, bookmaking, various other misadventures, and a few gay bars. Gregory Bianchi, the old guy who was the titular head of the family, had not been seen in public for several years and was rumored to be buried in the desert, his reputation used by his son and successor Anthony to instill fear in people’s hearts. Other than that, I knew nothing about  them and made no attempt to find out. It was enough just dealing with Fat Dick coming into the Parrot every Wednesday night to siphon off the Bianchis’ take from the week’s receipts. He was often accompanied by one pretty boy or another. He was married with three kids, but his taste for young male flesh was evident. It was also something you pretended not to notice. I’d been told he kept an apartment on Franklin Avenue for mob business on nights he didn’t return to his family in Encino. I imagine a few of those pretty boys spent the evening there.

I’ll admit to having the hots for the Parrot’s bartender, Phil Seaton. He was the real reason I went to the Parrot a second time. I had other choices for bars, but none of them had Phil slinging drinks. He was thirty-ish, shaved head, tattoos on biceps exposed by a vest with no shirt. He had big hands. Some myths never die, and some are even true.

It had been two years between the time I first walked into the Paisley Parrot and the time I started working there. Phil had been there for eight years or so and had no plans to improve his situation. Like me, the Parrot was his kind of bar. And it turned out I was his kind of twenty-something. We started having sex a week after I ordered my first bourbon and Coke, sitting on a stool staring at his arms. That lasted about three months. It also caused friction between me and Butch. Not because Butch was jealous, but because he believed Phil was a bad influence. I told him Phil and I only did lines of cocaine, washed down with two or three drinks. We stayed away from the crystal meth that was starting to be popular, and I would never use a syringe. But Butch worried and he warned. I ignored it, had a great run with Phil, and let it fall by the wayside. Phil met another young guy a month after we stopped playing together and neither of us made anything of it.

Those first years in L.A. flew quickly. I remember my twenty-fifth birthday, how old I felt and how fast I thought my life was passing. It’s an easy thing to think at that age. I look back now and marvel at how young twenty-five is, and how foolish.

I’d celebrated that New Year’s Eve with Butch, unaware of the darkness ahead. I’d seen him out just after midnight, then headed to the Paisley Parrot for my first drink of 1983. Phil was there with a few of the regulars. He set me up with my usual, a shot of Jim Beam in a glass of Coke. I bought the house a round, and one more time we toasted in the dying light.


DAVID BOWIE’S LET’S DANCE WAS a monster hit that year. So was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, and Sting’s Every Breath You Take, a meditation on stalking that got reimagined by the public as a love song. The space shuttle Challenger made its maiden voyage with the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, among the crew, and the CDC warned blood banks of a possible problem with the blood supply.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl, the Orioles won the World Series, and the domestic AIDS death toll was a mere 2,304 for the year.

President Ronald Reagan had still not said the word ‘AIDS.’

Is it any wonder so many of us sought companionship and distraction in the bars? The worst had yet to come our way, but we’d already grown accustomed to seeing … or, rather, not seeing … friends at our favorite watering holes as they vanished like fireflies in the night. There was a nervousness to every arrival, walking into the Screw or the Gold Dust or the Paisley Parrot, looking quickly around to identify faces we knew. It brought relief to see familiar faces, another nightly reprieve from our slow, steady extinction.

I was a happy guy the first few months on the job, starting as a barback with Phil. The Parrot was a great place to learn the trade. It was a slower, drunker kind of establishment. It wasn’t like Whistles or The Omega, where a bartender could lose five pounds in a night running back and forth along the bar filling drinks for trendsetters. The Parrot was reserved and quiet, more of a gentleman’s bar, if the gentleman was inebriated and gawking at anyone under forty. We had a TV along the wall that showed muted MTV videos all night while music came from a jukebox by the bathroom. It was easy to stroll back and forth along the bar for an entire shift—no rush, no frantic calling out for cocktails. Just a couple dozen regulars whose drinks we knew as well as we knew their names. There was Bobby Bray, early 50s, who’d run his own bar for twenty years until he went bankrupt buying into a pyramid scheme. There was Quincy, a retired drag queen who always came in with a protégé or two in their 20s. There was Jude and Lester, Maryanne, Gilda and a dozen more. I knew the songs each of them would play on the jukebox and when to cut them off from the vodka or rum. Even a mob bar has standards; by the time a customer is ordering another shot from the floor, you’ve got an obligation to say no.

You could still smoke in bars then, and working there was a little grimy slice of heaven for me: I could go through a pack of Marlboros in a single shift and put back three or four shots of anything I wanted, always at the expense of an admiring customer. My drinking had picked up slightly, not surprising given the environment. It’s hard to imagine a better work life for the man I was at twenty-five. I’d even get lucky sometimes and take someone home.

One of those guys I got lucky with changed everything. His name was Bentley Wennig, an unusual name unless your father’s a car enthusiast.  He went by Ben—who wouldn’t with a name like that? He’d gotten lost and wandered into the Parrot to ask for directions. It was a Wednesday night, which meant Fat Dick was there to take the Bianchi family skim for the week. Dick’s reaction was how I knew Ben had walked in: the scary mob lieutenant couldn’t stop staring at the young man who’d just appeared through the curtain.

Even Phil did a double-take, and he was as jaded as they came. Another handsome face, even one as startling as Ben’s, did not usually merit a stare from Phil. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing someone as clean cut as Ben walking into a bar as dirty minded as the Parrot.

“Can I help you?” I said. I’d been working the bar with Phil for two weeks, having been promoted to bartender under his training. I would normally say, “What’ll you have?”, but this guy looked lost. I wasn’t even sure he was gay.

He walked up to the bar, each step increasing my heart rate. I felt myself getting hard and was glad to be behind the bar.

Ben had dark brown hair just long enough to tickle the tops of his ears. He was clean shaven, no stubble, exposing perfect skin the color of cream. His eyes were so deep and liquid brown I thought of chocolate melting in front of me. And then he smiled …

“I’m kind of lost,” he said. He looked around, trying to form an impression of the bar.

“Hmm,” I said, smiling back. “How does someone get ‘kind of’ lost?”

“Well,” he said, dipping his head in a show of embarrassment, “I was supposed to meet a friend at a bar on the corner of Santa Monica and Las Palmas. I’m new in town, like, two days.”

“It would help if you were on Santa Monica,” Phil said.

I jumped. I hadn’t noticed Phil come up behind me. He slipped a coaster and a napkin in front of the stranger. Was he poaching on my territory?

“You’re two blocks away,” said Phil. “You’re looking for LuLu’s Bar None. Is your friend a lesbian?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Best friends since high school. She’s the reason I moved here.” Then, looking at me longer than a typical customer would, he added, “Well, one of them.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m early anyway, I might as well have something. Vodka rocks?”

“Marshall here will take care of you.” Phil winked at me and headed down the bar to refill one of the regulars.

“I’m Marshall,” I said, as I set about making his drink.

“Ben,” he replied, extending his hand. Few people shake hands with bartenders, that’s not why we’re there. The gesture amused me, so I shook his hand, noticing a beautiful gold ring with a striking green stone on his right pinky.

“Jade?” I asked.

He glanced at the ring, easing his hand away. “Oh, yes, from my grandmother for my last birthday. I can always count on Granny to find perfect gifts.”

It was only later, when Ben was wiping sweat off his chest with a hand towel, that I learned his full name was Bentley. He was twenty-seven years old. He’d moved to L.A. that very week from Bellevue, Washington. The only person he knew in town was Becky Walters, his dyke friend we’d said goodbye to after a 3:00 a.m. breakfast at the Buffalo Diner before heading to my place.

Is love possible after just one orgasm? I don’t know, so to be safe we made it three. By the time Ben left my apartment, the sun was well above the horizon and I was as sure as I have ever been that happiness had called my name.


WE DIDN’T HAVE SMART PHONES in 1983. When you wanted to reach someone, you used this thing called a telephone. It came with a cord stuck into a wall and numbered buttons you had to push. There were even a few rotary phones still around with confounding circular disks that had finger holes in them. When you picked up the headset you heard a dial tone, then you called the person you were trying to contact and either talked to them or left a message on another contraption called an answering machine.

I tried reaching Ben several times over the next few days. He wasn’t avoiding me, he was just very busy. Your first week in a big city is consumed with deciding what you’ll do for a living and the other thousand details of rearranging a life. I left a message on Ben’s answering machine. He left one on mine. Back and forth. We managed to speak once, on Sunday night when I was pulling my first solo shift at the Parrot. Phil’s mother had broken her leg in a fall and he’d gone to Bakersfield that weekend to help her. Normally it was just me and Phil working nights with one of the barbacks for support. If we needed help behind the bar we called Derek or Freeze.  They were the part-timers and our backup. When Phil asked if I wanted one of them to help me, I said no, I can do this, and found myself nearly overwhelmed. A dozen serious drinkers on a Sunday night can be very demanding. So when Ben called the bar around 10:00 p.m., I didn’t think anything of telling him I’d speak to him in the morning.

“I really want to see you again,” he’d said quickly. “I’ve just been so busy.”

“I get it,” I’d replied. The phone was cradled between my ear and my shoulder as I hurried to fill another drink order. “I can’t wait to see you, too. Let’s talk tomorrow and make this happen.”

I don’t remember anything from the rest of my shift. When you’re that harried, time not only flies, but blurs. I made it through. I cut off the drunks who’d had too many, which was a high percentage of the Parrot’s clientele. I’d fended off three passes made by men who wouldn’t remember making them the next day. I shared the workload with Brandon, the new barback who’d been hired to replace me in that position. And I’d made enough in tips to confirm my belief that bartending was a good career choice. It all depends on what you want in life, and at that point I didn’t have many wants: a one-bedroom apartment as soon as I could afford it, a new used car to replace the ailing Gremlin, some nice clothes and a stereo. That was pretty much my wish list … oh, and a good man. I was twenty-five. I felt time passing, and I thought I was ready to settle down for a while. The longest relationship I’d had was three months, ending in more of a shrug than a heartache. There was Butch, of course, and my short-lived fling with Phil the bartender. But nothing I would classify as a relationship. Remembering the phone call with Ben when I was cashing out for the night, I had the crazy idea he might be the one to change that. There was just something about the guy, and as I twist-tied the two big trash bags collected every night behind the bar, I found myself wishing I’d stopped what I was doing and talked to him when he’d called. I’ve never liked unfinished conversations, then or now.

There was an alley behind the Paisley Parrot. It’s still there as far as I know—alleys don’t tend to move—but the Parrot is long gone, replaced by a succession of retail shops, nail salons and, as of this writing, a pet store. I suppose the dumpsters are still there, too. Technology hasn’t done much to improve trash disposal.

I always took the bags out one at a time, since they were so heavy. Brandon had gone home with my encouragement. The kid was exhausted from working and I was used to closing the place down myself, even when Phil was on duty. I propped the back door open with a brick we used for that purpose, and lugged the giant brown plastic bag over to the dumpster.

The lids were closed in a feeble effort to keep the rats out and the smells in. I set the bag down a moment, pushed up the large metal lid of the dumpster, and found myself staring into the face of a corpse.

And not just any corpse. It was the dead, broken body of the young man I hadn’t had time to talk to that evening. The man whose smile had sent me back on my heels when he’d walked into the bar less than a week ago. The man I’d fantasized ten minutes earlier about calling my boyfriend.

Those astonishing brown eyes were open, dead and lifeless. Something was wrapped around his neck, dug so deeply into his flesh I didn’t recognize at first what it was. His right hand rested over his chest, as if pledging allegiance to a dark lord. Something about it struck me, a fleeting detail, but the thought vanished in the shock of the scene. There was no light in his beautiful gaze, only a darkness he’d seen in his final moments that was about to make its way into our lives.


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Exclusive Excerpt: The Pitiful Player by Frank W Butterfield (A Nick Williams Mystery Book 14)



Friday, July 8, 1955

Ben White, a movie producer working on Nick’s dime, is ready to show off what he’s been up to, so Nick and Carter head to Hollywood to see what there is to see and, to be polite, it stinks.

Ben’s director has an idea and he says it’s gonna make Nick even richer than he already is.

But, before they can start the cameras rolling, leading man William Fraser is found murdered at the lavish Beverly Hills mansion of seductive silent screen star Juan Zane. Carlo Martinelli, Ben’s lover, is arrested and charged with murder even though everyone in town knows he’s innocent, including the District Attorney.

Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Police Chief makes sure that Nick knows that his kind of help isn’t wanted in the posh village, home to some of Hollywood’s most famous stars. The chief is running a good, clean, wholesome town, after all.

From Muscle Beach to Mulholland Drive, Nick and Carter begin to piece together the clues that point to who did it and why. Somehow they manage to do so in the sweltering heat and noxious smog of the Southland.

In the end, however, will anyone be brought to justice? It’s Hollywood, so you’ll have to wait for the final reel to find out.


“Nick, wake up.”

I opened my eyes. I could see a shadow hovering above me. I reached up and felt Carter’s stubble-covered face. “What?”

“Ben just called. Greg and Micky got into a fight. Greg broke Micky’s nose and dislocated his shoulder. They’re all at the hospital. Ben wants us to come down.” He reached down and kissed me. “What were you dreaming about?”

I sighed. “Something about Liz and dessert.”

“Liz who? Liz Taylor? Are you dreaming about Hollywood?”

I laughed as he kissed me again. “No. Much bigger. Liz as in Queen Elizabeth.”

Carter nibbled on my left ear. He whispered, “She doesn’t look like a Liz. She looks like a Betty.”

I put my arms around his neck. “We need to get up. Ben needs us.”

Carter sighed and said, “I know.” He kissed my forehead.

“Why didn’t I hear the phone?”

“I was already awake when it rang.”

“You were?”

“Yes. That kid was in the swimming pool. I heard him splashing around. Buck naked, too.”

I laughed. “You know you’re not his type, right?”

Carter kissed my lips. “You saw that, huh?”

“You bet. I saw you running your eyes over his body. And I know why.”

“Why?” asked Carter as he ran his right hand along my face.

“He’s not the one you have a crush on. It’s his motorcycle.”

Carter laughed. “You’re right, Nick. When you’re right, you’re right.”

“Why haven’t you bought one since we were in Georgia?” He’d had an Indian motorcycle while we were on a case, investigating his father’s murder, in Albany, Georgia, back in the summer of ’53.

“It’s one thing to run around on a motorcycle in the backwoods of Georgia. It’s a whole other thing to go up and down California Street. Every time I’ve thought about it, all I can imagine myself doing is driving around and around Huntington Park. That would get boring after a while.”

“It’s mostly flat around here.”

“It’s not just the hills. It’s also the traffic.”

“We have to go, Carter.”

“I know,” he sighed. “Just five more minutes. They’ll wait.”

I said, “Fine,” and pulled him down on me.

Exclusive Excerpt: Ring of Silence (A Paul Turner Mystery Book 12) by Mark Zubro


Detectives try to save lives and protect the community and themselves.

We all saw the video of the Chicago cop who shot the kid sixteen time while his colleagues stood and watched. What would happen if Detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick in a similar scenario showed up ten seconds before the firing started. In Mark Zubro’s twelfth book in his Paul Turner, gay police detective series, they’d do the right thing and put a stop to it. But that would only be the beginning of the intrigue, danger, and death that surrounds them in a ring of silence as they try to solve a mystery and do the right thing for themselves, their families, their colleagues, the community, and the rule of law.


Thursday 3:15 P.M.

“This goddamn Taser isn’t working.” Fenwick shook it, then banged it against the brick wall they were walking next to. He glared at the electronic device. “God damn technology bullshit.” He shook it again, pressed the on button. Nothing.

“Let me see it,” Paul Turner said to his partner. He was aware that Buck Fenwick’s technique of smashing at electronics seldom had the effect his partner desired. Fenwick and anything more technical than a manual typewriter had an iffy relationship at the best of times. Once, he ran over a recalcitrant phone with the tires of his car. Six times. Fenwick most often thought violence to an inanimate object would cause it to behave in ways he thought efficacious.

Turner seldom intervened when Fenwick was at war with electronics. Today, he thought he’d give it a try.

Fenwick handed him the Taser. They were at the beginning of a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on a hot June afternoon. They’d gotten a call of pursuit in progress. They’d been on foot only about a block or so away near the corner of Harrison and Canal. They chose to hurry over instead of trying to dash back to their car, parked a block in the other direction. They hustled forward. Outright running was precluded by Fenwick’s hefty bulk. They could hear sirens ahead of them and to their left. The wind of a predicted line of thunderstorms gusted in their faces.

They rounded the corner of the building. Twenty feet in front of them, Turner saw Detective Randy Carruthers, feet spread wide, gun held in both hands, pointing it directly at them.

Carruthers had recently betrayed Turner and Fenwick by providing information on a murder case to the Catholic Church. Turner had been waiting for the perfect moment to confront the squad’s most inept detective and now notorious traitor. Carruthers had been on vacation for a week after the events in question. It had only been a few hours since he’d been back on the job.

Between Carruthers and them was a young African-American male who was standing still, facing Turner and Fenwick. Maybe seven feet from them.

Carruthers screamed, “Halt, mother fucker.” In the seconds Turner had been on the scene, the kid hadn’t moved. His hands were up. The wind carried the boy’s screams of, “Don’t shoot. Don’t kill me.”

Carruthers’s bellows mingled with the kid’s. Like an LP album stuck in a ‘stupid’ groove, Carruthers kept repeating, “Stop, motherfucker!” In between screams for his life, the kid began to blubber and cry, then started to choke. Turner saw Carruthers’s gun wobble then swing wildly. For a second or so, the man’s body gave a mighty twitch, but then he renewed his stance and gripped the gun more firmly.

The kid’s body began to convulse from his own choking while trying to hold himself rigidly still so as not to be shot. In the few seconds that passed, Turner wondered where Harold Rodriguez was. He was Carruthers’s long-suffering partner. Carruthers started firing. Instead of standing around like police officers in other situations when a moronic and incompetent cop was firing pointlessly and murderously, Turner and Fenwick acted. They were not about to do an imitation of inert morons while someone committed murder. Not while they could do something about it. Pope or president, gang banger or fool, it did not matter who was fi ring. They had to be stopped.

Fenwick rushed to the kid and tackled him, attempting to get him out of range of the wildly firing Carruthers. On his knees, Fenwick tried to yank the kid behind the nearest vehicle. In his mad haste to get the kid out of the line of fire, he managed to bang the kid’s head against the fender of a car. With his last shove, he yanked so hard that part of the kid’s shirt ripped. Fenwick lost his grip, and the detective’s momentum caused his own head to bash into the car’s headlight, shattering it.

Simultaneous to Fenwick’s actions, Turner aimed the Taser at Carruthers and jammed at the on button. The thing functioned and the wires flew straight for the idiot detective. The thin, electrified cables caught him on his left shoulder. The dumb son of a bitch fell to his knees but kept firing. His gun swayed in great arcs up and down and side to side, which meant even more people could be at risk. Turner heard Fenwick grunt and begin cursing.

Then Turner saw Harold Rodriguez running up from the far end of an unmarked police car about thirty feet away. Rodriguez tackled Carruthers, whose gun skittered away. Turner noted that Rodriguez had Carruthers face down and was handcuffing the dumb shit’s hands behind his back. Turner made sure no one was near the cop’s gun which was eight feet from his left foot. Then he dropped the Taser and rushed to his partner.


Thursday 3:18 P.M.

In seconds, he crossed the few feet to Fenwick and the kid who was half under Fenwick. The kid was crying, blubbering, and repeating. “I didn’t do anything. Don’t kill me. I didn’t do anything. Don’t kill me.” Fenwick was holding his own left bicep with his right hand. He raged his unhappiness. “Dumb, mother-fucking son of a bitch. If he’s not dead, I’m going to kill him.” Turner saw red dampness spreading on the cloth of Fenwick’s shirt and dripping down to the pavement. Fenwick applied pressure to the spot the blood oozed from.

Turner could see no visible wounds on the kid. He got out his phone, called in, identified himself, and then said, “Shots fired. Officer down. Ambulance needed Harrison and Des Plaines Avenue.”

He knelt next to the kid and Fenwick. He placed a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. Up close, he thought the kid might be all of fourteen, short and scrawny.

Several times Turner repeated “You’re safe now.” Until he saw the kid’s eyes stop fluttering back and forth. Turner asked, “Have you been shot? Hurt?”

The kid caught his eyes. His panicky wailing and weeping became reduced to moans and hiccups. Perhaps it was Turner’s words or his calm demeanor that eased the kid’s fear. The boy whispered, “No. I think I’m okay.” He grunted and tried to wriggle out from under Fenwick. “Except this guy is kind of huge.” He gave up attempting to squirm from under the heavy-set cop and gave an abrupt shove to the part of Fenwick’s bulk that was holding the left side of his own body flush against the pavement.

Fenwick bellowed. Turner was reminded of a water buffalo in pain. The kid’s movement had caused Fenwick’s wounded arm to mush against the pavement.

Turner said to the boy, “Hang on for a second. My partner’s been shot. He probably saved your life.” Fenwick ceased roaring. Turner saw that his partner was trying to ease off his own shirt to examine his wound. Turner shifted so he was closer to his friend. Their eyes met.

Fenwick asked, “Is Carruthers dead yet?”

Turner looked over. Rodriguez and his prone partner were being surrounded by cops. Others were rushing towards them, guns still out. As Turner watched, he saw Carruthers struggle against his bonds. Rodriguez yanked on the cuffs and said, “Move again, dumb shit, and I’ll shoot you myself.” Rodriguez looked up at the assembling beat cops and said, “Make a god damn perimeter around the scene.” He pointed to Mike Sanchez and Alex Deveneaux, beat cops they’d all worked with many times. “Make sure no one touches any of the dash cams on any of the cars. Get as many guys to help you as you need. Anybody touches a dash cam, shoot them.”

Sanchez and Deveneaux hustled away to comply. Others began ushering the crowd away. Turner heard one man in the crowd whose voiced carried to him. “That cop saved that boy. He’s a hero. So is his partner. I’ve got it all.” The guy held up his cell phone in one hand while pointing at the prone threesome with the other.

Turner saw a forest of cell phones aimed at the scene from, it seemed, everyone nearby. He turned back to the kid. He asked, “What’s your name?”

“DeShawn.” He put his hands on either side of his head and said, “And my head kind of hurts.” In another few seconds, he was puking softly. Turner cradled his head. He saw shards of headlight where Fenwick must have hit and a dent in the fender lower down where the kid’s head must have banged into the car. Turner couldn’t remember the sequence of how soon after a head wound one was likely to puke, and if said vomiting was a sure sign of concussion. What he knew for sure was that it wasn’t a good sign


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