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

Exerpt:

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.

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.”

Purchase the series’ first three novels here: 

https://www.amazon.com/L-AFTER-MIDNIGHT-QUARTET-Book/dp/B01MYT5SK7/ref=sr_1_1_ha?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1492272679&sr=1-1&keywords=the+yellow+canary

 

 

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Exclusive Excerpt: Edward Kendrick’s “The Elevator Murders”

Excerpt:

Tony debated going to the club that evening, then decided being with his friends, rather than staying home worrying about the murders, was the better option.
When he got there, and approached the table, Greg jumped to his feet to hug him.
“How are you holding up?” Greg asked as they sat.
“I’m still alive, which is what counts,” Tony replied, taking the bottle of beer Dan handed him. “You were that sure I’d be here?” he asked him.
“Yep. When trouble strikes, us four Musketeers always gather to deal with it.”
Tony took a drink, chuckling at his friend’s words. “Where are our floppy hats and swords?”
Greg snickered. “I know where my sword is.” He glanced down at his crotch.
“Bad one,” Pat said with a laugh. Then he asked Tony, “How are you doing?”
“I’m pretty shaken up. Like an older man I know who lives there pointed out, it’s guys my age who are being murdered. Okay, it’s only been two of them, but still…”
“Whoever heard of a serial killer confining himself to one building?”
“If that’s what’s happening,” Tony replied. “I keep telling myself it’s coincidence. The first time it could have been a robber who got caught in the act. This time, umm, a quarrel gone way bad?”
“And they were both killed, stabbed according to the news, in the elevator?” Pat said. “That’s kind of pushing the limits on coincidence, Tony.”
“Shush. You’re not helping things,” Dan told him, smacking his arm.
“He’s right,” Tony said. “As much as I hate admitting it, that is a stretch.”
Greg started to say something but paused, looking past Tony toward the bar. “Will you look at that?”
The others turned to see. Dan snorted. “Lover boy looks like he just came from work.”
Tony nodded. Kirk was dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt instead of his usual body-revealing jeans and T-shirt. He rolled his eyes, saying, “Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf.”
“This is Kirk we’re talking about. That is not happening,” Greg replied.
“Probably not,” Tony agreed. He should dress like that more often, though. It’s actually sexy without being blatant. Still… “A five says he picks someone up, even dressed like that, in…in twenty minutes, give or take.”
Greg laughed. “No bet.”
Tony finished his beer and offered to buy the next round, since Dan had bought his first beer for him. No one argued, so when he caught a waiter’s eye he held up the bottle and four fingers. When they came, he paid, accepting his friends’ thanks. They sat in silence for a minute, drinking, before Greg got up, heading to the edge of the dance floor. He said something to one of the men there and a moment later they were dancing.
“May I have the next dance?” Dan asked Pat, grinning. Pat nodded, so they took off as well.
Tony watched for a moment before his thoughts went back to the murders. He shivered, taking a long drink of his beer.
“Is this seat taken,” someone said from behind him. Without waiting for an answer, Kirk took Greg’s seat.
Tony scowled, trying to calm his racing pulse. “What do you want?”
“To say hello? To talk?” Kirk shrugged. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m okay,” Tony replied tightly.
“You didn’t look it, a moment ago. After they left you stopped smiling. The murders?”
“What do you think?”
“After seeing the story on the news, I think you should be terrified. Twice in a week, in your building, in the elevator? It sounds like someone’s got it in for people living there.”
“The young guys,” Tony replied without thinking.
“Like you.”
Tony shot him a look. “Is this your idea of how to cheer me up?”
“Yeah, that probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but it’s the truth. Right?”
Tony nodded. “It seems to be.”
“Do the cops have any suspects?”
“You watched the news, so you know they don’t.”
“That they’re talking about,” Kirk countered.
“Or that they’ve told me. But today was only the second one. They probably have to reevaluate things.”
“No shit.” Kirk took a sip of his drink then set the glass down. “Are they at least putting someone in there to protect everyone?”
“Again, not that they’ve told me,” Tony replied dryly.
“Well, they’d better.”
“Why do you…? Never mind. You’re being nosy, is all. Don’t you have something better to do than bother me?”
“No,” Kirk replied with a small smile. “Right now the only thing I want to do is make sure you’re really all right.”
“I am, so you’re free to go do what you usually do.” Tony pointed toward the bar where young men lined the stools.
“Not tonight.” Kirk took another drink. “Why were they home in the middle of the day?”
“You’re asking me?” When Kirk gave a short nod, Tony said, “Maybe they came home for lunch, or left work early, and caught a burglar in their apartments. The poor guy who was murdered today only worked a few blocks away, so that’s feasible.”
“Okay. That makes sense. But why kill them in the elevator?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Think about it. You walk in on a burglary what would you do? Me? I’d make a run for it.” He paused, frowning. “Although, as slow as the elevator is…”
“Meaning?”
“It takes forever to get where it’s going, the door acts like it’s going to kill it to open, and its closing is just as bad, even when you push the Close Door button. Why didn’t they run for the stairs?”
“They didn’t get the chance? If it was a burglar, he’d have heard them at the door and hidden, or I would have, if it was me. Is it the kind of building where well-to-do people live?”
Tony snorted. “Not even. Half the tenants are elderly. The rest of us? I suspect they’re in the same boat I am. They’re there because the rent in reasonable and the heat is paid for, which is a bonus in the winter.”
“So, unless he was really stupid, a burglar wouldn’t hit it up. Right?”
“Not necessarily true. Everyone these days owns a computer or a laptop, and a TV. Maybe a gaming system, too. If he was desperate, and knew that all of us who are younger are working class, so we’re gone all day… Well, other than me, that is.”
“Why you?”
Tony shot him a hard look. “That’s right. You know nothing about me, which is the way I like it.”
“Come on, Tony.” Kirk sighed. “Give me a break. I’m trying to help out here. Do you work from home?”
“Yeah. I’m a writer.”
“Like books?”
“Ebooks, mainly. And magazine articles. And a couple of the ebooks went to print.”
“Interesting. So you’re home all day. Do you have decent security? If not, you should get something.”
Tony smiled sourly. “Let me guess. That’s what you do—install security systems.”
“No. I’m a marketing manager.”
Chuckling, Tony replied, “Marketing manager by day, roué by night.”
“I am not!” Kirk paused to take a drink, then smiled crookedly. “Okay, maybe—I suppose. I’m sort of giving my family the finger, though they don’t know it.”
“You are not going to tell me that, at your age, they still don’t know you’re gay.”
“I don’t have to. You just said it.”
“Wow. Why?”
“I’m their only kid and they have these high hopes for me. Use my looks.” Kirk grimaced. “Use them to make it big in the business world and then find the perfect wife and raise beautiful kids. That’s how I was brought up, and in spite of all their pushing for me to do that, I do love them in my own way.”
“So you don’t want to disappoint them. Honestly, that’s sad.”
“I know,” Kirk admitted, looking down at his half-empty glass. He started to pick it up, stopped, and shook his head. “I drink more than I should, screw every man who’ll let me, and I’m no happier than I would be if I sat at home watching TV or reading, or whatever.”
Tony was surprised to discover he felt sorry for Kirk. “So, do something about it.”
“It’s a bit late for that.”
“Why?” Tony looked long and hard at him. “You’re an adult. Act like one. They might be disappointed in you—”
“Might be? They’ll hate it. I’ll be destroying their dreams for me.”
“What about your own dreams? Do you want to go through life being something you hate? I mean, you do hate it, don’t you? Or am I misreading things?”
Kirk sighed. “I don’t particularly like the person I’ve become. I don’t like dating, and I use the term very loosely, the women my mother finds for me. The ones she thinks are excellent prospects. It’s a sham.”
“And you’re hurting those women, I suspect. They think you’re for real and that they have a chance, then you toss them aside…” Tony tapped Kirk’s arm to make certain he was paying attention. “Toss them aside the same way you do the guys you up pick up here.”
“I don’t sleep with the women,” Kirk protested.
“No kidding. But you make them think you might, or they wish you would. It’s the same difference. As far as the men go, you’re playing them because you’re afraid to commit. After all, if you did, your folks might find out.”
“You don’t believe in pulling your punches, do you?” Kirk said tightly.
“Not when it comes to someone…” Tony broke off what he was going to say, using the excuse that Dan and Pat were coming back to the table. “Let’s drop this.” He smiled at his friends, telling them, “We were talking about the murders. Kirk heard about the one today on the news and was being nosy.”
“Or trying to pick you up and using that as the excuse,” Dan said, his tone dripping with contempt.
“Not at all,” Kirk replied angrily, getting to his feet. “He’s not my type.” With that, he strode back to the bar.
‘Shared pain is lessened,shared joy is increased, thus do we refute entropy.’ Spider Robinson

Exclusive Excerpt: Black Irish by David Lennon – Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Horror

Exclusive Excerpt:

The upside down city shimmered on the surface of the Charles River. Doyle stared at it, musing whether the people who lived there would be any less miserable. It seemed to make some sense that in an upside down world, everything would be opposite.

A horn bleated and Dopplered as he jerked the wheel right, pulling the Camaro back across the center line. “Bastard,” he muttered. He rolled down the window and let the frigid air blast his face, gulping breaths to clear his head. There was only a slight taste of something unsavory.

The road dipped as it passed over the Esplanade into Back Bay.

Fucking Back Bay. The only part of downtown that wasn’t laid out with pick-up sticks. They even alphabetized the cross streets for the rich fucks. The rest of the city is a big “screw you” to anyone who didn’t grow up here. Typical parochial Boston bullshit.

He spit, but most of it blew back, freezing on the side of the car.

At least Southie was built on a proper grid, even if it’s bent in the middle. It might be all drunken loons now, but whoever designed it was sober enough at the time.

He turned left onto Commonwealth Avenue.

Hereford. Gloucester. Yeah, try pronouncing that one if you’re not local. Fairfield. Essex.

Snowflakes drifted down, melting as they hit the windshield. He turned on the wipers, rolled the window halfway up, and lit a cigarette.

Dartmouth. Clarendon. Brick, granite, brick, brick, granite. Colonial, Federal, Victorian. Berkeley. Arlington. Rich fucks.

He puffed impatiently on his cigarette and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited at the lights opposite the Public Garden. His chest felt tight and his brain was buzzing. The light changed and he popped the clutch, the tires squealing on the wet pavement as the car careened right onto Arlington. He tapped the brake twice and straightened it out.

“Jesus fuck,” he exhaled, looking around apprehensively for flashing lights. “Stay in control. Don’t lose your shit.”

As he eased to a stop at the lights at Boylston, another car pulled alongside on the left, its radio blaring an anonymous disco tune. He reflexively shot a look of annoyance, then quickly looked straight ahead as he registered tank tops, feathered hair, and neatly trimmed mustaches. The windows of the car were all open, despite the intensifying snow.

“Guess she didn’t like what she saw.” The fey voice was so loud he knew it was a deliberate play for attention.

“Then I guess she must have seen you,” another replied as loudly.

“Fuck you, bitch,” said the first.

Doyle pretended not to hear them.

“She’s a butch one,” said the second voice.

“And cute, too,” added a third.

He felt heat traveling up his neck and focused hard on the stoplight, willing it to change.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” the third voice called eagerly, and Doyle saw an arm waving in his peripheral vision. “Do you have a light?”

“Guess she’s the shy type, Felicia,” said the first.

“More likely the type with a humpty frumpty wifey and three little dumplings waiting at home,” said a new voice.

“Well, if you change your mind, we’ll be at 12 Carver,” called the third voice hopefully. “I’ll save you a seat.”

“On her face,” trilled the fourth, followed by raucous laughter.

The light changed and the car rocketed away, turning left onto Boylston. “Bye, girlfriend!” a voice carried back.

Doyle sat at the green light for almost a minute breathing hard, his heart pumping. Finally a horn beeped behind him and he crossed the intersection and continued up Arlington. He felt numb, dizzy. As he passed the old armory on the corner of St. James, he suddenly pulled to the curb, opened the door, and began dry heaving.

She? She? She?

The words echoed in his head.

Why would they call me that? Why would they assume I’m one of them?

His stomach convulsed again, but still nothing came up.

Or maybe it was just some dirty fag trick to make me feel insecure, trick me into thinking I am.

He stopped gasping and spit a phlegmy gob into the street.

I’m nothing like them. If I had my gun I’d have taught them not to fuck with me. I’d have taught them to show respect.

He sat up.

What did the one in the passenger seat look like? The one who waved?

He couldn’t remember any of their faces. He hadn’t looked at them that closely.

But I know where they’re going and what the car . . . .

He shook the thought out of his head.

As if I’d ever go to a fag bar. That’s all I need, one of the mobsters who owns them or some cop collecting a pay-off thinking I’m a fag. Besides, in a bar people want to talk. They want to know things about you or spend time with you after. Fuck that. I don’t want to spend time with fags. I just need to take the edge off.

He wiped his mouth with his hand and lit a fresh cigarette.

A few times around the block in the car that nobody knows.

But first, another bottle.

 

Sal Pesky pulled the dirty sheet up, but the cold had already seeped into his bones. He checked his watch. Another four hours.

Kansas. Over the rainbow. Or was it before the rainbow? That part of the movie always confused him. He knew Dorothy went over the rainbow to get to Oz, but since she ended up back in Kansas and the rest of it was probably just a dream anyway, did that mean Kansas was actually over the rainbow?

He began absently humming the song.

He knew he was getting squirrelly. Another day and he’d probably be babbling to the furniture. He wished he had someone else to talk with, but the phones in the motor lodge were dead, along with the electricity and heat, and the snow and wind were too strong to walk to the gas station up the highway to use the pay phone.

Besides, it wasn’t like anyone wanted to talk to him. So much for turning to family and friends in times of need. The nicest thing anyone had said to him was, “I’m going to do you a favor and pretend you never called me, you dumb sonofabitch.”

But he wasn’t a dumb sonofabitch. Even though he’d never killed anyone before, he was sure he’d done it right. He’d pressed the muzzle right against the side of Conti’s head and pulled the trigger twice. He hadn’t missed. He was sure of it, even though he’d had his eyes closed. He’d heard Conti’s brain splat on the wall and smelled the burnt hair and skin and blood. Yeah, maybe he should have stuck around long enough to check whether Conti was still breathing, but he needed to get outside before he puked.

His humming became more frantic.

It was all that little bitch’s fault. If it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t be here now. That fucking bitch. If she’d been home where she was supposed to be instead of out in the park in her little pink jammies, none of this would have happened.

As soon as he’d found out who she was, he’d gone to Jules and told him what had happened. Or at least enough so Jules would know it was all just a big misunderstanding, that he didn’t really do anything. Jules had understood and had promised to keep him safe.

He cradled the gun tighter to his chest.

Not that that had kept the nightmares away. Every night he’d had the same dream about The Gardener coming after him. He wasn’t even sure what The Gardener looked like, but he’d still dream about him and wake up screaming, soaked in sweat, and have to check to make sure he still had his tongue and all his fingers and toes.

He’d had to eat a lot of shit, but Jules had kept his word, and then suddenly he had the chance to make it right. Take care of Conti, and it would all be square. Now everyone wanted him dead instead. That fucking bitch. It was all her fault.

He checked his watch again. Only a minute had passed. Four more hours and he could leave for Portsmouth and catch a bus to Albany, then a train to Topeka.

They’d never look for him there because he had no connection. Just the movie, but he never talked about that with anyone because they might think it was strange he liked it so much.

And he’d been careful. After he took the bus to Springfield he’d hitched a ride to Providence, then stolen a car and driven it right back through Boston and up to Danvers. Even if they figured out the Springfield part, they wouldn’t be able to find him.

The old motor lodge had popped into his mind as soon as he knew he had to find a place to hole up. Just like that it had come to him. He’d driven past it probably a thousand times since it closed after the fire and he’d never thought twice about it, but then suddenly he knew it was where he should go.

The car was out back. No way anyone could see it from Route 1. He was cold and hungry as hell, but at least he was safe. Jimmy the Gardener would never be able to . . . .

He heard a faint rustle outside the door and froze. Cold sweat trickled down the small of his back as he strained to listen. Just the wind, he tried to reassure himself.

Another noise, just outside the door. A cough? He jerked the gun up, his arm shaking as he cocked it. His eyes stung, his vision blurred.

In the darkness he thought he heard the door knob twisting, though he was sure he’d locked it. A sliver of light appeared just inside the frame and his finger spasmed on the trigger. A dry click echoed in the room. He let out a small whimper and frantically pulled the trigger again and again.

When he heard the sharp metallic tick of the pruning shears snapping shut, he began to scream.

Exclusive Excerpt: Ghostly Investigations by Edward Kendrick

Excerpt:

“This is crazy,” Jon said. “How the hell many bars are there in the city?”

Brody laughed. “Too many, from a cop’s perspective. Let’s try this one and a couple more and call it a night.”

They took advantage of two men leaving Far Horizon to enter without having to go through the wall.

“I think… Yeah, I’ve been here before.”

“Last night?”

“You know I don’t remember yesterday. But…” Jon looked around. “This is the club I came to with Grant. Then a couple of times after, looking for him.” He smiled sourly. “I guess I was hoping to reconnect, since he hadn’t called me after the first time. Hope springs eternal and all that shit.”

Brody patted his back. “It happens. Is he here tonight?”

“Hard to tell from where we’re standing. Let’s wander.”

* * * *

Mike was halfway to the door when Sage grabbed his arm. “I saw the man in the picture,” he said excitedly. “But…”

“Not possible,” Mike replied shortly. “He’s dead. He was murdered last night.”

“You lied to me?” Sage said in dismay. “Not that it matters. I knew he was dead the second I saw him and his friend—who’s also dead. They’re here, and they’re ghosts.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “Look. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull…”

“I’m not lying,” Sage protested. “I can see—”

“Dead people? That worked in the movie, but not with me.” Mike looked pointedly at the drink Sage was holding. “Maybe it’s time to ease up on those.”

“Damn it! It’s the truth. I can see ghosts, and that’s what the guy is. A ghost.”

Figuring he’d play along to see what Sage would do next to try to convince him, Mike asked, “What’s he wearing?”

“Jeans, a blue work shirt, over a dark red T-shirt.”

Okay. He was here last night and saw Watts. But why the games?

“Am I right?” Sage asked.

“Yeah. Lucky guess. Half the guys here are in jeans and blue shirts.”

“Not work shirts.” Sage looked around, then pointed. “They’re right over there. Honest.”

* * * *

“The detective’s here,” Jon said, nodding toward him.

“Harris?” Brody looked. “Well, damn. I told you he was good.”

“Who’s he talking to?”

“You’re asking me?” Brody replied. “I never… What the hell?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Whoever the other guy is, he sees us. He’s looking right at us. I mean at us.”

“He can’t be.”

“Oh, yeah? Move away a bit, and watch his eyes.”

Jon did. The man’s gaze followed his movement. “Now what do we do? What if he tells Harris he sees us?”

“I think he already has, from the look of disbelief on Harris’ face.” Brody chortled. “I bet Harris is about to call the guys in the white coats. Come on.” He walked toward Harris and the other man.

“By all that’s holy, he’s here,” the man who’d seen them said to Harris. “In fact, he, they’re, coming over.”

“Sage…” Harris sighed. “I know you believe what you’re saying but it’s impossible. Dead people don’t come back, except in bad movies. If I were you, I’d go home and sleep it off. That’s what I’m going to do.” He smiled. “Well, not the sleeping off part. I haven’t been drinking.” He started toward the door, stopped, and asked Sage, “Were you here last night?”

Sage looked as if he wasn’t going to answer, then nodded. “I was. So was he. The guy in the picture. I was going to tell you that when you took off for the bar.”

“Alone?”

“He was when I saw him. Over there.” Sage pointed to a table in a dark corner of the room. “I didn’t stick around for very long so…” Sage shrugged.

“Okay. Thanks. That helps. Is there anyone else here now who was around last night?”

Sage looked around. “Him, I think, and that couple over there,” he replied, pointing out the men.

Harris thanked him before heading it their direction. As soon as he was gone, Sage looked directly at Jon. “He doesn’t believe me, but I do see you.”

“I know,” Jon replied. “What are you? I mean…”

“I think he’s a medium,” Brody said. “Right?”

“Yes,” Sage replied. “That’s the term for it.” He grimaced. “Unfortunately, when people hear it, they think of some woman dressed like a gypsy, working out of a tent in a carnival, or a sleazy storefront shop. I’d rather die than do something like that.”

“Dying’s not all it’s cracked up to be, so I’d pass if I were you. By the way, I’m Brody and you know he’s Jon.”

Sage started to hold out his hand, stopping with an embarrassed wince. “Can we go somewhere less public? People are beginning to look at me funny.”

Brody laughed. “Sure. Where?”

“My office isn’t far from here.”

“Lead the way.”

“Why are we going with him?” Jon whispered as they followed Sage out of the club.

“Because you can talk to him and he can tell Harris what you know that might be relevant to why you were killed.”

“I don’t think Harris would believe him.”

“Then we’ll have Sage set up a meeting.”

“Riiiiight.” Jon looked at Brody as if he was crazy.

“I could,” Sage said, obviously having overheard them, now that they were out on the street. “He lives in the same townhouse complex I do, so I see him on and off.”

“We’ll see,” Jon replied doubtfully.

They stopped talking as they walked the few blocks to Sage’s office. The sign on the door said ‘Sage Crewe – Landscape Architect’.

When they were inside, Jon immediately went over to one wall which was covered with sketches and photos of what he presumed were yards and parks Sage had created. “I could happily live next door to this,” he said, tapping one of the park pictures. “But then,” he sighed, “I would happily live anywhere, just to be alive again.”

* * * *

Sage smiled slightly when Brody put his arm around Jon’s shoulders and said, “It could be worse. At least you’ve got me hanging around to keep you company.”

“I’d be crazy by now if you weren’t,” Jon murmured. “How you managed to survive on your own…”

“I have a mission. Not that it’s done me much good. Five years and all I have to show for it is zilch.”

“How did you die?” Sage asked.

“Shot by someone who didn’t like that I was an undercover cop. They never found out who did it, so I’m stuck here. Once in a while I meet someone like Jon, but they’ve all moved on.”

Sage sat in one of the chairs along the wall under the sketches and photos, gesturing for the ghosts to take the other ones, “If you can.”

Brody snorted. “Of course we can. You think we’ll sink through a chair?”

“You probably wouldn’t,” Sage retorted. “But I met a ghost a while back who was newly dead. He had trouble staying materialized, to say the least of in one place if he wasn’t standing on the ground. I learned then that it takes a lot of willpower to stay visible and interact with the real world.”

“Not for me,” Jon protested. “I was there, watching, sitting on a retaining wall when the…when my body was found and the cops showed up.” He shivered. “I think I’d have passed on that, given the choice.”

“I take it you don’t know who killed you,” Sage replied in sympathy mixed with, he realized, a bit of ghoulish interest.

“I wouldn’t be here if I did,” Jon said scathingly.

“Not true, from what I understand,” Sage retorted. “Even if you did, you won’t be free until he’s caught.” He glanced at Brody. “Right?”

“Sometimes,” Brody replied. “I think it’s… Well, honestly I don’t know what makes the difference between getting closure when you find out who killed you and not being able to move on until the killer’s caught.”

Sage tapped his lip. “Maybe, it depends on whether the killer’s dead?”

Brody nodded. “Possibly. It would be hard to bring them to justice in that case.”

“Well, my killer’s still around,” Jon said. “I mean, it’s only been a day. I’m betting no one’s offed him in the last twenty-four hours.”

“Probably not,” Sage agreed. “I take it you don’t know who it was. All right. Stupid question. You wouldn’t be here if you did.”

Brody held up a finger. “Not logical. He could know, but with no way to tell anyone, there’s no resolution.”

“Which is where I come in,” Sage replied. “If you can figure it out, I can tell Mike Harris.”

“Uh-huh.” Brody snorted. “I got the feeling from listening to the two of you that he thinks you’re a few cards short of a full deck.”

Sage’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. I’m afraid so.” His expression brightened. “But if we had proof, then he’d have to listen.”

“How are we going to get it?” Jon asked. “I don’t remember anything from yesterday. Zilch, to quote Brody.”

‘Shared pain is lessened,shared joy is increased, thus do we refute entropy.’ Spider Robinson

 

Exclusive Excerpt: Fever in the Dark: A Jane Lawless Mystery by Ellen Hart

In FEVER IN THE DARK by MWA Edgars Grand Master Ellen Hart, Fiona and Annie return home from their one year anniversary trip to discover that their poignant proposal video has been posted on YouTube and has garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. The video is on the verge of going viral, and there’s enormous media interest in Fiona and Annie, as their fame comes just on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across the country. As some of the attention starts to turn vicious, Fiona pulls in an old friend, private investigator Jane Lawless, to help separate the harmless threats from the potentially harmful.

As the media storm continues to grow, Fiona revels in the attention, but Annie is furious. Fiona has always known that Annie has secrets, but her newfound notoriety threatens to bring Annie’s past straight to their door. And then, when a murder occurs and Annie and Fiona are both suspects, it’s up to Jane to prove their innocence…although the more she learns, the more she starts to wonder whether they actually are innocent.

Blurb:

Annie’s Notebook

Letter #2

Dearest Dirtbag:

A new year.  A new letter.  Lots to celebrate, right?  I’m sure Bridget and Noah are still the golden couple, and you still think I’m a despicable home-wrecker.  You’re glad I had to good sense to disappear.  Which means the new year changes nothing.

Wanna know a secret?  Bridget flew to Boston right after New Years.  I wondered when one of you would figure out where I was and come calling.  She came to Sharif’s apartment yesterday while I was here at the coffeeshop, demanded to know where I was.  Like a good soldier, he lied for me, said he had no idea what she was talking about.  But Bridget spotted my leather jacket tossed over one of the chairs in the living room, so he was busted and had to come clean.

You’re probably not interested, but I’ll give you the blow by blow.

Bridget found me sitting at “my” table in the coffeehouse.  At first, I couldn’t believe she was right there in front of me.  I was so excited I burst out of my chair and hugged her.  We held each other for a long time.  But then, she didn’t know I’m a home-wrecker.  She sat down, took off her gloves.  It was beastly cold and her clothes were way too Pasadena to keep her warm.  I offered to get her something hot to drink.  She seemed kind of nervous, so she got right to the point, like she always does.  (I’ll do this like I’m writing a novel.  Just so you know, it’s the complete truth.)

“Why did you leave school?” Bridget asked.  “Leave home?  Why did you run away and not tell anyone where you’d gone?  You never even said goodbye the night of the wedding.  I didn’t know you’d left until Noah and I got back from our honeymoon.”

I sidestepped the question.  “Did you have a wonderful time?  Santorini, right?  Are the sunsets as spectacular as they say?  Did you stay in one of those pristine, white-washed villas?”

Reluctantly, for it wasn’t what she’d come to discuss, she did give me a few details.  I could see she still glowed when she talked about her husband, her new life.  Eventually, she came back to her questions.

“I kind of got into it with Mom and Dad,” I said as an explanation.

“I figured as much.  But they wouldn’t tell me what it was about.”

“No?”

“And anyway, what’s that got to do with me?  I didn’t do anything to upset you, did I?  Why wouldn’t you let me know where you were?”

I gave her that tried-and-true cliche:  “It’s complicated.”

She took my hand.  “Please, Annie.  Tell me what’s wrong.”

It was such a broad question I almost laughed.  “I’m gay,” I said.  Her reaction was about what I had expected–like watching a rock hit a windshield in slow motion.

“Are you…sure?” she asked.

“Yup,” I said.  “I like to have sex with women, not men.  That’s pretty much the definition.”

Her lips formed an “O,” as if she might say something more, but she remained silent.  She began to fidget, releasing my hand and taking my napkin, wiping a coffee spill off the table.

“Are you surprised?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” she said.  “You’d think I’d know if my sister was gay.”

“Not necessarily.  You have no idea how blind straight people can be.”

That caused a frown, a moment of deep indignation.  “You don’t look like a lesbian.”

“What’s a lesbian look like?”

“You know.  I don’t have to spell it out.”

“Ugly?  Mannish?  Sad?  Hostile?  I can think of a lot of straight people who fit that definition.”

“Don’t be obnoxious.”

We were off on a tangent which had nothing to do with why I’d actually left.  I felt sorry for her because she was so completely in the dark.  That’s when I wondered if I should tell her the truth.  But no, you’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t.  I couldn’t.

At some point in the conversation, Bridget covered her stomach with her hand.

Realizing what the gesture might mean, I asked, “Are you pregnant?”

“Three months.  I’m not showing yet.”

“Are you…happy about it?  Is Noah?”

Her eyes shimmered.  “Over the moon.  Both of us.”

That was the end of the conversation, as far as I was concerned.  But she wasn’t done.

“Do you have…a girlfriend?”  Saying the last word seemed to cause her actual pain.

“Several.”  I wasn’t seeing anyone.  I sure wasn’t going to tell her that it had taken me a year to work up the nerve to leave the apartment and walk to a coffeehouse a block away.

“Nobody special?”

“I like to keep my options open.”  Such a load of bull.

“You know, Annie, there are people who can help you…change…who you think you are.”

“I’m perfectly happy with who I am.”

“Then why leave home?  Why change your life so radically?”

“Because nobody in my family shares that opinion.  I choose to be around people who support me.  Think about it.  Would you want to spend your life with people who hate your husband, who say he’s the scum of the earth and you were a fool for marrying him?”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” she said.   She asked about school.

I told her I was rethinking my decision to become a doctor.  That’s true.  I’ve got another profession in mind.  And no, I’m not planning on taking up stripping.

Oddly, after a few more minutes, we didn’t seem to have much to say to each other.

I told her to go home.  To have a safe journey.  She asked if she could tell you where I was living.  I told her no.  If I wanted to get in touch, I would.  By the end of the conversation, I was shivering inside.  I don’t think she saw it, or if she did, she didn’t say anything.  There was no way she could understand and no way for me to explain it.  Certainly not that day.  Probably never.

And so she left.

Are you happy?  Do you consider me a grownup now?  Did I pass your test?

Fuck you.

 

Exclusive Excerpt: The Mysteries of the Curiosities (Snow & Winter Book 2) by C.S. Poe

Excerpt:

I’m the first person to understand that murder isn’t great for business.

So the fact that, before I knew it, museum security had ushered patrons out, suspicious old me had been forbidden to leave, and the director had escorted Calvin and Quinn across the massive room, more or less imploring the NYPD to make it quick and get the hell out, was not any surprise to me.

No one wants a dead exotic dancer to outshine the newest dinosaur exhibit.

Bad for donations, I imagine.

Calvin stopped several feet away from me, put a hand on his hip, and ushered me over with one snap of his wrist.

I stepped away from the nearby display I had been planted at while waiting. “I only found her,” I said, reaching his side.

Calvin set both hands on his hips. “What did I tell you?” he whispered. “I told you to go to your father’s. This is not there. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I got another note after leaving the precinct,” I whispered back, rather loudly. “It had this address, so I decided to come. It’s a public place—what was going to happen to me?”

“The same thing that happened to this woman,” Calvin said.

“Well, it didn’t,” I answered stupidly, crossing my arms. “I’m fine.”

Calvin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sebastian, how did you not learn the first time? How many different ways to do I have to tell you how suspicious you look in these situations?”

“Oh, please,” I hissed. “She’s been dead at least twelve hours. I’ve got alibis for days.”

“And if you keep popping up every time a dead person does, sooner or later you will be seen as a convenient suspect.”

“I don’t even know these people. I have no motive,” I argued.

Calvin raised a finger to silence me. “Motive isn’t important. One person’s reason to kill may not be understood, but it was sound enough for them in the moment.”

I groaned and dropped my head down. “For fuck’s sake, Calvin. Fine. My bad, okay?”

“My bad?” he echoed, voice deep and very much not amused.

“Not the time or the place, gentlemen,” Quinn finally said. “Calvin caught me up on all this shit,” she continued, looking up at me. “What was this new note?”

I reached into my pocket and removed the paper. “I stopped on my street to see—everything. Someone threw a brick at me. And no, I didn’t see who.”

Quinn took the paper, and Calvin read it over her shoulder.

“With this address and the mention of the whale, I thought it must have been talking about that guy.” I motioned above us. “But obviously I got here and there was nothing. I almost left until I remembered this display here. It’s a sperm whale.”

“Yes, fascinating,” Quinn remarked.

“Sort of. Squids and sperm whales are—”

“Focus, Seb,” Calvin muttered.

I huffed and turned to point at the display. “So I came over here and found a newspaper clipping.” I held it up next. “It’s an original, I think. It’s one of P.T. Barnum’s ads for his Feejee Mermaid.”

“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned Barnum,” Quinn said.

“Uh, I guess that’s true,” I said when I recalled my mention of the bricks and the story of Barnum’s unique advertising. “There’s another note on the back.” I turned it around for both detectives to see. “That’s when I saw Meredith.”

Calvin glanced up from the note, narrowing his eyes. “Meredith?”

“She goes by Crystal. A dancer, I think. I called the number on the business card in her purse.”

Calvin took a breath and raised his hands, sort of like he wanted to strangle me, but Quinn took his jacket sleeve and tugged him away to look at the body.

I pulled my phone out once I was alone again. I was supposed to solve the murder. Not that I wanted to win a prize, but anything learned could bring us one step closer to catching a mistake this maniac made and taking them down before another person could be hurt. I pulled up the web browser and briefly checked out Ricky’s online presence. Lots of scantily clad ladies and dubious use of Photoshop. It didn’t look like anything particularly special—one gentlemen’s club is like all the others.

I tried searching for any news related to the club. Maybe there was some dirt on the owner, or bad blood between rival businesses. If I lived anywhere else, I’d say that was ridiculous, that this poor woman just got jumped and the tragedy was that there was no reason for her death, but I live in New York City and last Christmas I was stalked by a guy who planted a heart under the floorboards of my store.

Anything is possible.

Nothing of any particular interest was showing up in Google’s news feed for Ricky’s, other than some sizzling winter ball they’d had in January.

I looked over at the group of police and a few museum personnel. Calvin had climbed into the display and was looking down at Meredith. I squinted—it was hard to see his expression from where I was. But Calvin had certain ticks I had begun picking up on in his posture that helped me understand his mood when it was difficult to read his face. And I think he was surprised just then, because he had a hand over his mouth, rubbing his jaw.

That was interesting to me.

Did Calvin know her?

Not personally, of course. He may have been in the closet until recently, but I knew Calvin wasn’t one for lap dances from ladies either. Now I would certainly sit on his lap and show him a good time, but I drew the line at putting on glitter.

“Fuck,” I murmured to myself, because now I had the image in my head of me naked, riding Calvin’s cock, and having the greatest of times, and that was so not what I should be thinking about at a murder scene. “Get it together,” I muttered.

I caught a uniformed officer glancing at me in confusion.

I squared my shoulders and took an extra second to look at Calvin as a professional, and not my unbelievably gorgeous boyfriend, which was admittedly a little hard to do. He was saying something to Quinn, who appeared to agree with him. Maybe Meredith had been on the wrong side of the law before. But if Calvin knew her, it had definitely been serious. A suspect in a murder case?

I looked down at my phone again and tried a few keywords that included Meredith, Ricky’s, and murder. I found exactly what I was hoping for, third link down on the list. NYC Exotic Dancer Suspect in Daughter’s Death. That didn’t paint Meredith in a particularly good light. I clicked the link and expanded the page to better read the text. It was a case from two years ago, led by the recently promoted Detective Calvin Winter. DNA evidence had been incorrectly handled at the scene and was unusable in laboratory testing. Meredith’s alibis had apparently been suspicious, but her boss had backed her statement, and Calvin had ultimately ended up with no legal way to prove she had bludgeoned her teen daughter to death.

“Calvin!” I called out, and when a few officers looked at me, I followed up with, “I mean, Detective Winter. Could you come here?”

Calvin got out of the display and walked toward me. “What?” he asked in a low tone.

I held out my phone. “This is the same lady, isn’t it?”

He looked at the article. “Yes. How did you find this?”

I shrugged. “Seemed like she was familiar to you.”

Calvin’s mouth formed a tight line and he gave my phone back. “It’s a cold case. Not enough evidence to convict her, but everyone knew she did it.”

“The note said I had to prove the murder.”

Calvin raised a hand to stop me. “No.”

“But—”

“No. Stop right now, Seb.”

“But what if it leads us one step closer to who did this? You’re going to ignore that chance to stop this person?”

“I’m not, no. But you are.”

“Like hell.”

Calvin took a long breath. “We’re not having this argument again. Plant your ass on your father’s couch and stay out of trouble.”

“It seems pretty suspicious to me that one of your cold case suspects was murdered,” I said without regard to Calvin’s statement. “What about someone seeking revenge? The daughter’s father, maybe? A friend? Did the daughter have a boyfriend? Someone who would want to bring closure. Someone who clearly knew the mother was guilty.”

“I know how to do my job,” Calvin retorted.

“I didn’t say you couldn’t. I’m just trying to work this out.”

“Sebastian, what’s your degree in?” Calvin interrupted.

“My what?”

“Degree.”

“Uh… fine art.”

“Not criminal justice?”

“I get it,” I stated, crossing my arms.

“No, you don’t,” he said before taking another breath. “Baby, I know you’re smart. I know you’ve got a knack for figuring this shit out. You don’t have to prove it to me.”

“I’m not trying to—”

“This is dangerous. Do you not remember what happened last time?”

All too well, actually. And the guilt hit me like a truck out of control on a freeway. If Calvin ever got hurt again because of my own stupidity, I don’t know what I’d do with myself.

It was painful to swallow. I stared at my shoes. “Sorry,” I whispered.

“I only want you to be safe,” Calvin said after a beat. “If—If your expertise were ever required for me to solve a case, I’d call on them.”

That made me look up. “You would?”

“Yeah.”

“Not that you expect to ever need someone skilled in trinkets from Victorian America to solve a murder.”

“You helped with Tamerlane,” Calvin pointed out.

“I guess.”

“Seb, I don’t want anyone questioning your involvement in this. You understand that, right?”

I nodded. I was done arguing. I hated fighting with him. I really did. I loved Calvin too much to bicker, especially when he was right and I was wrong and I knew that from the start.

But the urge to put the mystery to bed myself was still overwhelming. Maybe I did subconsciously crave some sort of way to prove I was smart. That I was clever. Useful, even. That what I did with my life made a difference, like Calvin’s.

Jesus. I needed a hug or something.

“Can I wait at your place tonight?” I asked.

“I’m going to be working—”

“Come home,” I insisted. “Please?”

Someone from behind called my name, and we both turned.

“N-Neil?” I heard myself stutter.

Neil stood a few feet away, holding a forensic kit in one hand. “Why are you here?” he asked me.

“Uh… getting into trouble. Per usual.”

Neil looked at Calvin. “Detective Winter,” he said coolly.

“Millett,” Calvin said with a nod.

This wasn’t awkward at all.

What were the chances my ex would be the CSU detective assigned to collect evidence?

Someone roll the week back to Monday. I demand a do-over.

I cleared my throat. “Has it gotten sufficiently uncomfortable?”

“Yes,” Neil answered.

“Okay, good. I’m leaving now,” I answered.

“I’ll have an officer drive you,” Calvin said. “To my place.”

I caught the sour look that took over Neil’s face. “Thanks,” I answered.

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