Exclusive Excerpt: The Black Marble Pool By Stan Leventhal

Excerpt:

THREE

AFTER SKIP UNLOCKED THE DOOR we entered his room, a bit smaller than the others I’d seen. The four-poster bed had a gleaming brass headboard and crocheted coverlet. The weathered plank walls and circular windows gave the impression of a ship’s cabin.

AFTER SKIP UNLOCKED THE DOOR we entered his room, a bit smaller than the others I’d seen. The four-poster bed had a gleaming brass headboard and crocheted coverlet. The weathered plank walls and circular windows gave the impression of a ship’s cabin.

“Sit,” he said.

As I lowered my butt to the bed, he searched through a gym bag. He pulled out swim trunks, T-shirts, sweat socks, bandanas and jockstraps, windmilling them into the air like a crook going through a rich lady’s lingerie in a ’40s movie. Triumphantly, he produced a notebook, thin-ruled, side spiral, rather thick.

“Read this,” Skip commanded, sitting alongside me, placing the thing on my lap.

“Now?”

“Not right this second. As soon as you can.”

“What is it?” Experience told me that it was either an autobiographical novel—probably heavy with sexual couplings, or a collection of poems—long on sentiment.

“You’ll see.”

I was in no great rush to read the collected literary works of Skip Dunnock and wondered if I could turn this encounter into something memorable. I sat there on the bed, casually, waiting to see what his next move might be. Might he pounce? Should I? Whisper sweet nothings? Tentatively brush his thigh? Was he just sitting there waiting for me to do something?

I cautiously leaned toward him and was about to drape my arm around his shoulder when he stood up, cleared his throat. I almost lost my balance and fell off the bed.

“Well,” he said, “I’m meeting someone at Streets. Got to run.”

My passion—aroused and roaring, deflated and simpered, spiraling down like a pricked balloon.

“Okay,” I said, trying to peel the bits of rubber from the floor. I tried to rearrange the pieces into an airborne thing in my mind, holding it aloft like an emblem of dignity, and ambled to the door with the notebook under my arm.

“Let me know what you think,” he said earnestly.

I wanted to escape as quickly as I could. But I couldn’t pull my eyes from his tousled brown hair, innocent face, lithe, solid body. I tore myself away with a fast “g’night” and tried to grasp whatever pride I could as I descended the stairs and fit my key to the lock.

On the bed. Ceiling fan whirred above. Sweat on my face like a damp washcloth. The breeze from the fan cooled, then dried the perspiration.

Previously, I hadn’t wanted Skip. In the presence of Edward he’d appeared too young. But without the competition of maturity and wisdom, he became almost irresistible. I’d wanted him and he’d turned me down and I felt like a loser.

I tried to ascertain what lay at the heart of my desire. Was it his face, his physique, his youth, or simply the potential of a warm body? Any warm body. In those taut moments when I wanted to throw my arm around him and he moved away, was it Skip that I really wanted? Or was he merely a surrogate for what I couldn’t have?

I don’t understand the nature of attraction. Probably because there are no absolutes. If you can be disinterested in someone at ten o’clock in the morning, then crave their attention and affection several hours later, what does this say about you? Am I fickle? Or practical? Or just desperate?

There are certain faces and bodies that stimulate my gonads from ten feet away. There are certain personalities that do the same, regardless of the physical structure in which they reside. If there is a simple or reliable way of figuring out why I’m attracted to someone at a particular time, it remains a mystery. To me.

If Skip expected me to read his poems or novel, why hadn’t he completed the sales pitch and had sex with me? This is America. You suck my dick I read your manuscript. Happens all the time.

I tossed the notebook on the floor. Curled into a fetal crouch. Drifted like a jellyfish from wave to wave. My Melville fantasies kicked in. Pretty sailors cavorting below-decks while cruel captains and scheming first mates used hard bodies for their selfish pleasure; inflicting wounds, currying favor, toying with the pecking order of rank and beauty. I saw tough men being tender with each other. I saw men brutally take one another with abandon.

The images that had begun in the North Atlantic sea, like the travels of Ishmael and Redburn on their maiden voyages, gave way to the Caribbean setting of buccaneers. I saw parrots on the shoulders of pirates, smelled hot, spicy rum, heard boisterous voices in a sing-song patois, tasted salty flesh as I pressed my body to the warm solidity of a randy sea-dog.

I awoke. Stiff and sweaty. Tight neck muscles. Cramped left calf. Showering helped. I didn’t shave. Looked at Skip’s notebook on the floor; at the paperback I’d started on the plane. Left the notebook where it was and took the novel—Anne Tyler—down to the pool. With sunglasses on, lying stomach-down, I read as the sun rose over the fence. As it ascended, the house sprang to life as bodies piloted by red eyes gathered by the pool. Steaming mugs of coffee. Aurelio made breakfast. I watched him. He was adorable.

Edward sat next to me at the table beneath the awning. Skip joined us. Then Frank. Aurelio scrambled eggs, buttered muffins, patted grease from bacon, fed oranges to the juicer, fixed more coffee, seasoned home-fries. Pearl netted flotsam from the pool with a long-handled scooper. We were the average American family breakfasting by the pool.

The one topic of conversation in which we could all participate—Walter’s death—was not mentioned. At first. Skip commented on the weather. Edward lamented that he’d have to be heading home in a few days. Frank said he’d had the best time of his life the night before—playing pool at Woody’s, then dancing at Streets until it had closed.

Pearl ate slowly, small amounts, infrequently administered. With the deep lines in her tanned face and her mane of white hair, she seemed like a reservoir of mystery. Without provocation or warning, she fixed her gaze on Aurelio and said, “The police are finished in Walter’s room; you can clean it up today. Couple of guys from Japan will be checking in this evening.”

“Okay, boss,” he grinned, and having been brought back to this reality, started eating with gusto.

Pearl sipped some coffee, wiped her brow and said, “On the evidence so far, the cops can’t be certain if it’s murder, suicide or accident. Until something new turns up, the case is on hold.”

I quickly scanned all the faces before me. To whom would this be good news? Bad news? Who would be indifferent?

Skip glanced at me, then stared down at his plate.

Frank shook his head, “So unfortunate.”

“Yes,” said Edward, “unfortunate. Tragic.”

The remainder of the meal was consumed in silence. Afterward we sprawled about the deck. Sunning, reading, crossword puzzles, tanning lotion, Walkmans.

Eventually, I splashed into the pool. I’d been avoiding it. The sacrilege of playing in a makeshift tomb. But I had to overcome this fear, so, putting my reservations on hold, I plunged in. It was so cool and enveloping. Diving under, I swam to the far end. When I came up for air, Skip dove in and swam toward me. When he got to the end he propped his elbows on the deck and whispered, “Did you read it yet?”

“No, not yet. Haven’t had the time. By the way, why is it that you think writers are interested in your diary or your poems or your novel or whatever?” I guess I was still miffed that he hadn’t tried to seduce me.

“It’s not mine,” he said indignantly. “It’s Walter’s.”

“Huh?” I must have rejoined, totally confused.

“It’s Walter’s journal. I got it out of his room before the police searched it.”

I recalled that Frank had said that Skip had lied when claiming that he barely knew Walter. Why then, would he be in possession of Walter’s journal?

Just then, Frank plunged in and swam toward us.

“Why did you give it to me?” I asked, hoping to get an answer before Frank reached us.

“Read it. You’ll see.”

He swam away and left the pool.

I listened to Frank yak about his insurance company for a while, then excused myself and returned to my room.

The house was so quiet it was almost scary; the kind of silence that portends evil or disaster. I entered my room and shut the door. Picked up the journal where I’d left it on the floor. As I opened to the first page, my breath came quickly, as though I was about to discover some deep, complex secret. But before I could read the first word, I heard a knock at my door.

“Who’s there?”

“Aurelio. You want me to clean now or later?”

I opened the door. He stood in the hall looking like a doll waiting to be played with.

“You can come in now and do it if you like,” I said, returning to the bed, picking up the notebook. Aurelio came in and closed the door behind him.

“If you’re too busy now I can come back later,” he said.

I looked him up and down. Moppet curls surrounded a virginal face. Nicely-shaped, solid but graceful, mocha arms and legs. Flat stomach. In his shorts and tanktop he looked about sixteen. I found out later he was twenty-one.

“If it’s best for you now I can just…” I didn’t know what I would do or where I would go if I had to vacate the room.

“Now or later. Whatever you want whenever you want it,” he grinned. Slyly.

Was he propositioning me? Or was my imagination succumbing to the bombardment of horny enzymes?

Aurelio sat on the bed. I looked down at him with lust in my soul. I wondered what to say to someone so young. Then I recalled that once I’d been that young and back then it hadn’t been a problem. A sure sign I’m aging. Then I asked myself why I was getting crazed over a kid. Because he was adorable. But he was probably a scummy hustler who’d demand money from me and break my heart.

The warmth in my soul turned to ice. “Why don’t you come back later when I’m not so busy,” I barked, not really meaning to sound so harsh.

Aurelio, with his eyes to the floor, left the room without responding.

I closed the door and felt like shit. Sat and lamented for him and myself. And eventually reined in my self-pity and picked up the notebook.

Then the telephone rang. Most guest houses don’t have phones in every room. Pearl doesn’t miss a trick. I picked up the receiver. It was Josh, the travel editor of the News. This was Saturday. At two o’clock in the afternoon. Same time as in New York. Why was he calling me?

“How’s the weather?” he asked.

“Perfect. What’s it like up there?”

“Freezing! Colder than the proverbial witch’s tit and all that…”

“How’s your brother doing? He was going into the hospital for…”

“He’s holding in there. But it’s so depressing and scary… that’s why I called. I’m trying to get my mind off it. Figured I’d call to see how your trip was, how the article is coming along.”

I had placed the article so far from the center of my consciousness, it was shocking to be reminded.

“Oh,” I must have stammered, “fine, fine.”

“Did you speak with the Chamber of Commerce people?”

“Not yet.”

“The tourist bureau?”

“No.”

“The photographer I told you to call?”

“Urn, no.”

He lectured me about my vast responsibilities as a travel correspondent and his enormous chore to make certain that travel writers did not abuse the many privileges of their sacred task. If I didn’t turn in one fucking great article he would exact his fucking ton of flesh by reporting me to the fucking editor-in-chief.

I sat there thinking: sure I’ll write a great travel article. But there are other things going on here which are a bit more thrilling. Besides, they wouldn’t fire a music critic for an unacceptable travel piece. Or would they?

I told Josh everything he wanted to hear. Said goodbye. There, under the influence of guilt, I placed the journal on the bureau and left Captain’s House to take notes for my travel article: Key West: Sun, Sand & Sex. Then I thought: Key West: Murder, Mystery, Mayhem. And Sex.

There is one main thoroughfare—Duval Street—which runs the length of the island. By the time I came to the intersection I’d forgotten all about Aurelio and his extracurricular enterprise. And I didn’t give a thought to Walter Burgess. I’d never met him, knew nothing about him, and didn’t care about him at all.

I passed one lovely house after another. Each set back from the street, each nestled in a bouquet of tropical verdure. The styles are eclectic—like taking a film studio tour and passing from the set of Gone With The Wind to Key Largo.

But Duval Street is all-American, Anytown, USA. All retail window displays and facades are designed to attract the eyes of upwardly mobile young professionals raised on television. Everything is bold day-glo colors offset with glass and chrome; angular, sharp, bold, screaming for attention, changing rapidly, these stores would not be out of place on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. Or, on the television screen in your living room. Most of the merchandise is not utilitarian, nor is it meant to last very long, nor is there an item lacking a well-publicized designer logo. Away from Duval Street one can find an occasional small, less ostentatious, independent venue with a stock both useful and practical. But in the center of town, competitive marketing and impulse shopping prevail.

I was glad I was wearing shorts and a tanktop. But still, I was damp with perspiration in the seven or so minutes it took to get from the house to main street. I reminded myself of the pad and pen in my rear pocket. And I set off in search of something wonderful to write about.

I passed an old theater with a Hollywood deco facade, a shop with bright, hand-painted T-shirts, and an emporium that sells nothing but over-priced junk. I placed pen to pad and jotted these things down, hoping that these words would later inspire a grand aria when I switched on my word processor.

The sights beginning to bore me, I glanced at the sky. Peaceful. Clear. Quiet. Pink clouds in a cerulean setting.

Then I turned my attention to the people. The locals could be from any small, southern town. Casually dressed, slow moving, all charm and friendliness on the surface. Extremely polite to the tourists, they sometimes say nasty things about them to the other natives. America. The visitors don’t act like they’re in a small southern town. To them, it’s like San Juan, Acapulco or Bermuda. With their fashionably tortured hairstyles, expensive leisure-wear and mania for accessories, you’d think they were visiting another planet.

I perused some postcards in a tourist-trap notions outlet then glanced up to notice Officers Griffith and Simon harassing a homeless person.

The difference between New York and Key West, besides the thousand or so miles, is that at the southernmost tip of Florida you don’t have to worry about winter. I was shocked when I realized that the homeless problem isn’t restricted to the big cities. I never imagined that a classy resort town would have sidewalk residents and alley-dwellers. But after spending some time in Key West it seemed so obvious: if one is to be without shelter, better a warm, tropical place than the bitter winds and inescapable cold up north.

The guy was very young, skinny, tanned, longish hair and wild eyes. Griffith prodded him with his nightstick. Simon nudged him with his shoe. Too unsightly for main street. The kid struggled to his feet and wobbled down the sidewalk. The cops watched him moving away, then resumed their patrol.

I watched Simon’s trim, nicely-proportioned body swagger up the street. From the rear he looked appealingly sturdy: substantial calves, meaty thighs, taut butt, slim waist, broad shoulders. I turned away before anyone might notice me staring.

Then I saw the two women whom I’d overheard at the restaurant. I decided to follow them. See if “their” Walter was also “my” Walter. See if I could stay close enough to maybe catch a bit of their conversation without being detected.

Both were about the same height—a bit shorter than me—the darker-haired one more broad and bouncy. The blond, a wispy thing, looked like a starving fashion model. At the time I had no idea what their names were, but I subsequently learned that the darker, heavier one was Regina Carson and the lighter, slimmer one was Joyce Burgess. They both wore pastel shorts, white cotton blouses, sandals, broad-brimmed hats and carried shoulder bags. The newness of their apparel and accessories bespoke their status as tourists.

They touched hand-painted T-shirts, tried on outrageous sunglasses, argued about stopping in at a dress shop. Joyce was all for it. Regina claimed that they weren’t there to shop for things that could be found back home. Where was home? I didn’t know yet.

Then they went to a restaurant. A simple place without a theme or gimmick, and ordered iced-tea and English muffins. I tried to get a table in close proximity, but was unable. When they departed I followed, keeping what I believed to be a safe distance. They walked away from Duval Street, passing the house of Ernest Hemingway. After taking a few pictures, they continued walking. I couldn’t get close enough to hear anything. The next stop was the Monroe County Library. A few more snapshots. And then, to my surprise, they walked to Captain’s House. But stood on the opposing sidewalk and just looked at it. They whispered a few things to each other. I recalled that one of them had said something about entering a house. Could this be the house to which they referred? Why were they just standing there looking?

I waited until they left, then went inside. As I leapfrogged the stairs to get to the room I told myself that the answers to all of my questions were probably very neatly written out in Walter’s journal. All I had to do was read it, satisfy my curiosity, give it back to Skip and get on with my travelogue and vacation.

But when I reached my room I discovered it was gone. Nowhere in my room. I searched everywhere: under the bed, under the rug, in the closet, on the night table, on the bureau. I wondered who might have taken it? Probably whoever killed Walter Burgess. But I had no idea who that might be. And who knew I’d had it, apart from Skip?

I decided to take a nap, try to forget all of the unexpected complications I’d been confronted with. It would soon be Saturday night and I was ready to go out, party hearty, have a joyous and memorable evening.

About the Author:

STAN LEVENTHAL, author, editor, and publisher, lived in New York City. He was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award three times: “Mountain Climbing in Sheridan Square”, “Faultlines” and the current volume, “The Black Marble Pool”. He published two other novels and two collections of short stories. In addition to his previously published books, his work has appeared in several anthologies. The author was actively involved in the fight for literacy. His message to his readers: “Literature is crucial to our lives; reading is fun.” The ReQueered Tales editions mark the 25th anniversary of his death in January, 1995. This volume includes a foreword by his long-time friend, business partner and publicist, Michele Karlsberg.

Profile of Author, Stan Leventhal:
http://www.requeeredtales.com/blog/2019/08/10/stan-leventhal-a-25th-anniversary-return-to-print/

Purchase Links:
BMP (Kindle) https://amzn.to/33EYCc1 ; BMP (Kobo) https://bit.ly/2L4BJqj ; BMP (Nook) https://bit.ly/2Z7Pnhf ; BMP (iBooks) https://apple.co/2OZO8AU

Cover Design by: Dawné Dominque, www.dusktildawndesigns.com

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EXCLUSIVE Excerpt; The Deadwood Murders (Kendall Parker Mysteries – Book 2) by Jon Michaelsen

DEADWOOD

ded wood

noun

The dead branches of a tree; dead branches or trees.

Useless or burdensome people or things.

Chapter One

Two men dressed in dark slacks, pressed white shirts, scuffless black shoes shinier than a new penny, and aviator shades pushed above their foreheads examined the crime scene. Their suit jackets remained across the backseat of the black Chevy Suburban parked behind them the shoulder of the interstate. Sweat layered their backs and pooled in droplets at the temples, soaked their armpits. Swatting at the insects swarming about proved useless.

The Georgia heat this day was stifling, the air thick with humidity, and enlaced with a putrid odor familiar to homicide investigators and most cops. They stared at the nude body about fifteen feet away, a male corpse lying face up on damp, decaying leaves. The skin of the cadaver was grayish and mottled; blood dried a Moorish brown. The eyes of the victim had been eaten away by the scavengers of the forest.  

Coming August 2019

A trio of sheriff’s deputies and a couple of attendants clad in white jumpsuits from the county coroner’s office stood on the perimeter. Forensic pathologists, the medical doctors who performed  autopsies, rarely left the morgue. The professionals watched  both FBI investigators intently, awaiting their turn with the body. No doubt they were cursing from having to wait in the stifling heat. One consolation however, was the Feebs appeared as miserable as everyone else on this blistering day in mid-July, a record ninety-degrees or better twenty-one days straight and counting.

The sheriff, a fiftyish gray-headed man with a round belly, tie askew, and top button of his dress shirt open to reveal a tuft of graying hair, stood a couple of spaces off to the side of the tall agents. He had placed the call to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta upon notification of the horrific discovery. He had referenced a BOLO alert disseminated to statewide law enforcement agencies the previous month mentioning a string of linked and unsolved homicides. 

“Who found the victim?” asked Special Agent Hales without looking away from the body.

“Georgia Department of Transportation mowing crew,” Sheriff Hinson said. “One of their men walked up into the wooded a hundred feet that way to take a leak out of view of the interstate. Claims he caught a foul stench and noticed buzzards circling overhead. Figured it was a dead animal, a wild hog or such, and though he’d take a peek. Made his way ‘round that ravine over yonder and saw something curious. Thought it might be a decomposing animal carcass, but it looked strange to him from a distance, so he decided to get a better look-see. Curiosity got the best of him, I guess. It always does.” Hinson chuckled, but lost his grin when the agents remained stoic.

Hales snorted as his partner and Special Agent Delvecchio spoke up, obviously frustrated with the man’s slow, winding southern drawl as evidenced by the scowl ripped across his red face. “Go on sir.” 

“When the worker got closer, he ain’t seen no dead hog at all, but a body. He told his supervisor and 911 Dispatch got the call from GDOT’s office in Macon. A couple deputies called out here to check.”

“Thanks sheriff,” said Delvecchio. “That’ll be all for now.” He waved the official off. “We’ll motion to you after our initial walk-through. You can inform the photographer and techs to complete their work afterward, and not a moment before. You understand?”

Hinson opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and slunk away. They took their cue, snapped on matching opaque latex gloves and microfiber booties before moving closer to the body, careful not to disturb the scene.

“Give me the rundown,” said Delvecchio.

Hales bent at the knees. After a thorough once over, he began reciting what he observed. Delvecchio took notes: “White male, twenty-five to thirty-five, one-seventy to one eighty-five pounds alive. Height about six feet. Dark hair cut short to the scalp, hairless torso. Signs of trauma to the neck and chest. Bruising, ligature marks visible on both wrists, ankles, and neck.” Hales lifted a stiff arm and portion of the right shoulder. “Dark patches beneath the arms, shoulders, legs and buttocks appear to be livor mortis caused by hypostasis. Abrasions caused by some ligature device; rope, twine, or a type of cord perhaps. Hard to determine without a more thorough examination.”

The younger agent swatted at the gnats and flies swarming around, then shifted his eyes lower. ” Significant defects noted to the pelvic region. Victim’s penis, scrotum and a portion of the abdomen incised.” Hales cleared his throat and continued, albeit in a more gravely tone. “No clothing or personal identification present on scene, same with any visible tattoos, scars or other identifying marks. Autopsy will determine length of exposure to the elements and possible cause of death, but my best guess is the victim has been here four or five days at most.”

Delvecchio spotted something at the base of a thick tree-trunk approximately three feet away and moved off, calling back over his shoulder. “No drag marks or foot impressions I can see, but damn weather could have erased any evidence therein by now.”

Hales followed his partner’s movements. Delvecchio bent at the waist and retrieved something from the ground. He stood, holding an object midair for closer inspection. “Looks like a piece of leather shoelace,” he said. “The kind used for work-boots. Might be the ligature used on DB.” Delvecchio inspected the area around the barnacled trunk, circling to the backside of the tree. “Hales, you need to see this.”

The agent joined Delvecchio after making a wide arc around any potential evidence on the ground before cutting back to where his colleague stood. On the lower portion of the trunk Hales saw a gouge in the bark, like a wedge or deep notch. Inspecting farther up the tree, he spotted numerous, thinner marks scored into the rough crust. Rope burns, perhaps even from the portion of shoelace Delvecchio held aloft.

“Victim was either tied to or propped against this tree, strangled with some sort of ligature device, perhaps the shoelace you found,” Hales said, bending at the knees. “The scars in the tree’s bark suggest the UNSUB braced a foot against the trunk for leverage to garrote his victim, but the shoelace broke, so another device was substituted used.” Hales looked around the base of the tree. “Body was cut down or the binding broke.”

Hales stood after inspecting the lower impression further, then retraced his steps to the body.

“This our guy’s work?” Delvecchio asked, following close behind, but his tone suggested he knew the answer.

“MO appears the same, but I cannot be sure until getting a closer inspection of the body, more specifically the throat.” Hales motioned for the crime scene photographer. A gawky shutterbug with billowing white shoe coverings joined them at once. “Get your prelims before we inspect the body. You can finish your evidence-quality shots once we’ve stepped away.”

The photographer nodded and began snapping away with a fancy digital camera, bending, squatting, and contorting his lithe frame in a bizarre dance around the corpse, positioning himself near enough, but not too close in order to avoid contamination. When satisfied, he stepped away from the body to reclaim his spot at the perimeter where he began fussing with his equipment and unpacking a tripod.

Hales withdrew a pair of chrome-plated micro tissue forceps from his shirt pocket and stepped next to the corpse. Lowering his solid frame to one knee, he leaned over the body. “Let’s find out for sure.” He used the thin instrument to pry open the purple lips, and probed the interior of the mouth, removing some dead leaves and earth. The steel prongs of the tool snagged something solid, lodged deep within the throat. Hales withdrew the forceps, held the foreign object aloft for inspection. “Piece of deadwood shoved down the throat,” he said, scowling. “Just like all the others.”

“Where to next?” asked Delvecchio, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his meaty hand. The gnats were relentless; the heat insufferable.

Hales glanced at the interstate and sighed. Vehicles whipped past at breakneck speed; their occupants oblivious to the horrific discovery a few yards away. “Based on the UNSUB’s previous pattern and northern trajectory these past few months, and considering the body’s been here a few days, I’d say he’s already arrived at his next destination.”


Coming Late 2019

Excerpt: The Death of Friends: A Henry Rios Novel (The Henry Rios Mysteries Book 6) by Michael Nava

Excerpt:

I woke to find the bed shaking. Somewhere in the house, glass came crashing down, and on the street car alarms went off and dogs wailed. The bed lurched back and forth like a raft in the squall. The floorboards seemed to rise like a wave beneath it, and for one surreal second, I thought I heard the earth roar, before I recognized the noise as the pounding of my heart in my ears. My stomach churned and fear banished every thought except Get out. And then it stopped, as abruptly as it had begun, the bed slamming to the ground, a glass falling in another room. Outside, the car alarms still shrilled, the dogs whimpered and the frantic voices of my neighbors called out to each other, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I sat up against the headboard and drew deep breaths. My pulse slowly returned to normal. I was aware that someone else was in the room. I reached for the lamp, but the power was out.

I called out, “Who’s there?”

My eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, but I could not see anyone among the familiar shapes of the room. Yet I was sure someone was there, hovering at the foot of the bed, watching me. It moved, and then a great wash of emotion passed over me. Sadness. Regret. Relief. I felt them but they were not my feelings. I reached out my hand, but there was nothing. The room began to rattle, shaken by an aftershock. It lasted only a few seconds and when it was over, I was alone again.

I hopped out of bed and ran into the closet door which had been shaken open. The blow stunned, then focused me. “Think,” I commanded myself. Clothes. Shoes. Flashlight. Get outside. I pulled on a pair of pants, a sweat shirt, sneakers and headed to the kitchen for the flashlight. The usual hum of appliances was stilled. Glass crunched beneath my feet as I crossed the room to the small pantry, where I found the flashlight in a utility drawer. I shot a beam of light across the kitchen. The cupboards had swung open, cans and boxes spilling out of them. The refrigerator had been knocked a couple of feet from the wall. I opened the refrigerator to find its contents spilled and shaken. I drank some orange juice out of the carton and thought of Josh, alone in his apartment. I picked up the phone but, as I’d expected, the line was dead. I got out of the house.

The street where I lived ran along the east rim of a small canyon in the hills above old Hollywood. On maps of the city, it was a curving line off Bronson Canyon Drive, hard to find and seldom traveled. My house, like other houses on the block, dated back to the 30s. It was down a few steps from the street, behind a low hedge, the bland stucco wall revealing little of the life that went on there. Until thirteen months earlier, I’d lived there with my lover, Josh Mandel. Now I lived alone, Josh having left me for another man who, like Josh, was HIV positive. It was Josh’s belief that, because of this, Steven could understand him in ways that were inaccessible to someone like me who was uninfected. But then Steven died and Josh’s own health began to deteriorate. I would gladly have taken him back but he insisted on living on his own. Still, we’d had some­thing of a reconciliation, drawn back together by memories of our shared life and the impending end of his.

As I closed the door behind me, I considered driving to West Hollywood to check up on him, but I doubted I would get that far. The quake had likely knocked out traffic signals and the roads would be filled with panicked motorists and nervous cops turning them back. I remembered the spooky presence in my bedroom and wondered anxiously if it had been Josh, but that was absurd. It had been nothing more than a trauma-induced hallucination; a momentary projection of my terror.

I went around the side of the house and turned off the gas. When I returned to the street, my next-door neighbor, Jim Kwan, approached me, flashlight in hand, and asked, “Hey, Henry, you okay?”

“So far,” I said. “Of course, the night’s still young. How about you?”

“We came through in one piece. Knock on wood,” he said, rapping his forehead. “I’m going to check on Mrs. Byrne down the street.”

“I’ll come with you,” I said, wanting to keep busy.

We passed a group of our neighbors huddled around a radio. The radio voice was saying, “. . . is estimated to be a six-point-six quake centered in the San Fernando Valley, with the epicenter near Encino …” I was relieved to hear that because it meant Josh was at least as far away from the epicenter as we were and there didn’t seem to be any major damage to the hill.

I heard the clatter of metal against the street and trained my light on Kwan’s feet. He was wearing cleated golf shoes.

“What’s with the shoes?”

An embarrassed smile crossed his round, good-natured face. “I was scared shitless, man. I grabbed the first shoes I could find.”

I shone the light on my own scuffed Nikes and recognized them as a pair Josh had left behind.

“Is your phone out?” I asked Kwan.

“Look across the canyon,” he said. “Everything is out.”

Through a gap between two fences I could see the west rim of the canyon, where far grander houses than ours commanded breathtaking views. Darkness. The October night was beautiful, cool and mild. Without the distracting blaze of city lights, the stars glittered in the deep blue sky. A damp herbal smell came up from the undergrowth. Rosemary. Back in his naturopathy phase, Josh warmed rosemary oil in a diffuser because he claimed it reduced anxiety. I tore a sprig from a bush, crushed it between my fingers and sniffed it.

“Spooky, huh?” Kwan said. “Like the city was clubbed in its sleep.”

 “Did you feel anything strange in your house after the quake?”

“You mean besides my life flashing in front of me?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a ghost?”

Kwan laughed. “Something must’ve come down on your head, Rios.”

I felt the bump on my forehead where I’d hit the closet door. “Maybe so. Maybe I just imagined it, but, for a minute there, it sure felt like there was someone in the room with me.”

“Maybe it was Jesus,” Kwan joked. “The Second Coming. Mrs. Byrne will know.”

We found her sitting on her porch steps reading her Bible by candlelight. She was an old woman, her mottled, veiny face framed by stiff white tufts of hair. She had lived in Los Angeles, which she pronounced with a hard Midwestern “g,” for over forty years. Once or twice a month she went door to door with a sheaf of faded religious tracts of the hell-and-brimstone variety, and raved at the neighbors polite enough to let her in about God’s coming and wrathful judgement on our Sodom of a city. I barred the door when I saw her coming but Kwan, whom she usually caught while he was out gardening, suffered her rants with good humor. When I kidded him about it, he said she was lonely. With good reason, I replied.

“Mrs. Byrne, are you okay?” Kwan asked.

She looked at him with rheumy eyes and said, “Didn’t I tell you, Kwan, it’s the last days. Earthquakes, fires, plague.” Her voice got high and a little crazy. “Jesus is coming.”

“Just in case he doesn’t come tonight, I’m going to shut off your gas,” he said. “Keep an eye on her, Henry.”

She squinted at me. “Who are you?”

“Your neighbor from down the block,” I said. “Henry Rios.” I sat down beside her and asked, “The quake scare you, Mrs. Byrne?”

“Knocked me clean out of my bed,” she replied. “But I’ve been through worse, and worse is coming, young man.” She rattled her Bible. “Now you take this AIDS—”

I trained my light on her Bible and said, “Why don’t you read to me until Kwan gets back?”

She opened the book and began reading in her high, shaky old woman’s voice: “‘And I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.’” As I listened, I felt the kind of euphoria people feel when they survive a disaster. I realized then that I’d thought I was going to die in the quake. My mind drifted back to that moment after the quake ended when I’d imagined there was someone else in the room. Was it just a hallucination? It had seemed so real. Mrs. Byrne’s voice broke into my ruminations. “‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.’”

“What part of the Bible is that?” I asked.

“Revelations, young man.”

“I thought that was all about the destruction of the world.”

“It is,” she said, “and then what comes after. The end of all suffering. The end of death.” With an unexpectedly sweet smile, she added, “You don’t know what the word gospel means, do you?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“It means the good news. Whatever we suffered here on earth, there is joy with Christ when we die. That’s why I wasn’t afraid tonight. I’m not afraid to die. Are you?”

“I’m hoping I won’t have to answer that question for many years, Mrs. Byrne.”

“Silly boy,” she said. “You don’t know how many years you have. Best to be ready now.”

Then Kwan came around the corner, gave the all clear, ending our conversation.

For the rest of the night, I huddled with my neighbors around the radio, listening to reports of the damage. Most of the city was dark and there were reports of fires, leveled buildings and downed freeways, but the worst of the damage was confined to the valley. To my relief, damage to West Hollywood was reported as minimal. For a while, the echo of sirens reverberated on the hill from the streets below, but by dawn it had quieted down. As the sky began to lighten, our little disaster party broke up and we trudged back to our houses.

A boy was sitting at my front door, asleep. I came down the steps and stood above him. Occasionally, homeless people wandered up the hill, but he was too clean and well-dressed for that. His arms were wrapped around his knees and his head was down, long, black hair covering his face. I had no idea who he was, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t stumbled into my doorway by accident. I’m a criminal defense lawyer and accustomed to strangers showing up at my door at odd hours of the day and night.

I didn’t particularly welcome these unexpected visitations; I’d always seemed to attract a class of clients who were, as a disgruntled ex-partner once put, “from hunger, Henry.” I was a magnet for the desperate, frightened and reviled, who somehow or other had heard about the fag lawyer who was a sap for a sad story and let you pay on installment. Josh used to tell me, “You’re a lawyer, not a social worker.’’ After he left, I had plenty of time to wonder if he would’ve stayed had I spent less time on my clients’ troubles and more on ours; that question and the other mysteries of my midlife. I’d gone into therapy like a good Californian, and learned that in all probability the reason I’d devoted myself to the legal lepers of the world was because I felt like an outcast myself – “queer,” in every sense of the world—and I struggled to compensate with good works.

In the end I’d taken this insight and decided, so what. I was forty- two years old, and law was all I knew or cared about, apart from Josh and a few friends. I threw myself back into my practice. Occasionally, a fellow defense lawyer would refer me a particularly hopeless case. I wondered which one I had to thank for the sleeping boy.

I hunched down on my heels, shook his shoulders gently and said, “Wake up, son.” He raised his head and his eyes fluttered open. They were unusually blue, which was surprising, given his dark coloring. I judged him to be in his mid-twenties and he was strikingly handsome: long hair, dark skin, blue eyes and a silver loop in either ear. Wearily, he got to his feet. He was medium height, five-seven or -eight, but tightly muscled, a featherweight. Beneath loose-fitting jeans and a black pullover sweater, his slender body radiated tension and fatigue.

“Are you Henry’ Rios?” he asked nervously.

“Yes. Who are you?”

“Zack Bowen,” he said. “I’m . . . Chris Chandler’s boyfriend. Can I talk to you?”

For a moment, I was too astonished to answer. Chris Chandler’s boyfriend?

“Come inside,” I said.

As soon as I stepped into the house, exhaustion hit me. I’d been running on adrenaline since the quake and it was all used up. I left Zack Bowen in the living room and went into the kitchen to figure out some way of making coffee that didn’t require either electricity or gas. There was still some hot water in the tap, so I mixed two cups of muddy instant and carried them into the living room. Zack was stretched out on the couch, asleep again. I sipped the vile brew and thought, Chris Chandler’s boyfriend. Well, well. That was certainly a long time coming.

Blurb

Winner of six Lambda Literary awards, the Henry Rios mystery series is iconic and Michael Nava has been hailed by the New York Times as “one of our best” writers. Originally published during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community, The Death of Friends received extraordinary praise both as a mystery and an eloquent work of witness. Publisher’s Weekly said, “This is a brave, ambitious and highly impressive work.” The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “A beautifully executed novel, with a classic whodunit at its core.” And People magazine said, “Nava can devise as canny a plot as he can a defense motion. His latest, though, has something special – the scent of memory that lingers as poignantly as a departed lover’s cologne.”

More about Michael Nava

Michael Nava

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

Exclusive Excerpt: The Cricketer’s Arms: A Clyde Smith Mystery by Garrick Jones

Excerpt:

I stayed with Trescoe for an hour, helping him put the study back into order. He was a nice enough bloke, but over time I came to realise although the enormity of the tragedy of Mike Hissard’s death had hit hard, he hadn’t really cared much for the man, calling him at one stage a “misguided petty thief”. He wouldn’t be pressed, but the more we chatted, the more I sensed he’d been aware of something untoward going on, but had made a conscious decision to keep his nose clean, and to mind his own business. I offered him a lift home, which he accepted, telling me after I’d enquired about the cat that he was happy it had found a good home. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear; as much as I liked animals, I wasn’t sure right now was the best time for me to be tied down to regular feeds, cat-tray cleaning, and patting sessions.

As he got out of my car and thanked me for the lift, he passed me a key.

“Laneway behind Kellett Street, at The Cross,” he said. “Garage marked with M.H. above the door. It’s the third one along on your left, coming from Bayswater Road.”

“What’s in it?”

“I’ve no idea. But it was originally his father’s. Michael always said to me if anything ever happened to him, to take everything inside to the incinerator at the tip and burn it—and not to look at what’s inside.”

“Would you have?”

He shrugged. “What you don’t know can’t kill you. Any fool will tell you that.”

I smiled. It was a bittersweet smile, because during my time in the war it had always been what you did know would save your life. Only those who didn’t know what was coming bit the dust.

“Will you be all right?” I asked. “What will you do?”

“His parents left a proviso in their will for me, and he promised me the same. I hope he’s honoured it. Between the two, it will keep me going.”

“Well, thank you for the phone number and the offer to help if need be. Detective Sergeant Telford will be in touch. If you’ve got any queries, or are worried about anything, here’s my number.”

I scribbled it on a sheet of paper from my notebook. He touched his hat as he waved me goodbye.

*****

I decided the garage at The Cross could wait until another day. It was after four and I wanted to have a quick look through both Stan Lowe’s and Philip Mason’s home offices—assuming they both had one.

As Stan’s flat was in a short laneway off Broadway, I went there first; I could call past Philip’s on the way home. Its back door was, like mine, up a fire escape and on the top floor. The lock opened easily; no inner bolts. Inside, the house was immaculate; not in the same obsessive way Mike’s had been, but as if everything had been put away while the owner was on an extended holiday. I checked—the fridge had been turned off and the phone was disconnected. He had a set of suspended files in one of his deep desk drawers—there wasn’t much there, so I emptied them into a large leather briefcase I’d brought with me. There were only two bundles of documents. The first was company invoices—Liu and Sons, Importers and Exporters of Fancy Goods. The other bundle consisted of bank statements—two separate accounts with the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank in Dixon Street. Each bundle was held together by a sturdy alligator clip and faced with a long strip of paper covered in Chinese writing.

Philip’s house was not so tidy. There was stuff everywhere. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked, more like he and his wife had packed and left in a hurry. On his study desk was a pile of manuscripts and radio plays. I knew he did some radio theatre broadcasting occasionally. In his typewriter was the second page of a play he’d been writing. I glanced at the first page on the desk next to the typewriter and then read as far as he’d got on the sheet in the machine. It was truly awful, overwritten, clueless muck, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find a pile of manuscripts on the floor next to his desk with rejection letters. However, taped to the underneath of the top drawer, in which he kept his pens and pencils, was a clear-paned envelope, in it a bank statement for the Bank of the Philippines, in the name of Mr. Mason Phillipe—a nice enough pen name—with a recent deposit of two thousand pounds. I slipped that into my jacket pocket.

As I was about to leave, something caught my eye. I’d noticed it, but then not taken notice of it. It was a roll of thin, striped cord—two hundred yards, the label said. Exactly the same type and colour of thin cord that had been used, not only to bind up Daley Morrison’s collection of pubic hair samples, but also his wrists when he was found dead on the pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground. That went into my briefcase with everything else I’d collected that afternoon.

My mind whirred on the way home. I got out of the car, unlocked my garage, and then drove the car inside, sitting for a moment while I got my thoughts into order after I’d turned off the engine. I glanced at my watch to check the time, when a soft metallic click sounded from behind my right ear.

“You know the drill, Mr. S.,” Larry the Lamb said. I knew his voice; I didn’t even have to look. “Raise your hands slowly in the air, and don’t try anything fancy, because my friend here, Mr. Clancy, has a tommy gun trained on your back. He doesn’t like me much, so even if you grab me, we’re both dog food.”

I raised my hands slowly in the air, and then a black hood slipped over my head, and I smelled the distinctive sweet, clinical odour of chloroform as a hand pressed a pad of something soft over my mouth.

Blurb:

“I’m sorry I have to tell you this, Harry, but Daley Morrison was murdered. It was no heart attack. He was stabbed through the heart and then staked out, naked, in the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground as some sort of warning to someone.”

Harry Jones almost fell into his chair, such was his shock.

Clyde Smith is brought into the investigation by his former colleague, Sam Telford, after a note is found in the evidence bags with Clyde’s initials on it. Someone wants ex-Detective Sergeant Smith to investigate the crime from outside the police force. It can only mean one thing—corruption at the highest levels.

The Cricketer’s Arms is an old-fashioned, pulp fiction detective novel, set in beachside Sydney in 1956. It follows the intricacies of a complex murder case, involving a tight-knit group of queer men, sports match-fixing, and a criminal drug cartel.

Was Daley Morrison killed because of his sexual proclivities, or was his death a signal to others to tread carefully? Has Clyde Smith been fingered as the man for the case, or will the case be the end of the road for the war veteran detective?

More About Author Garrick Jones

From the outback to the opera.

After a thirty year career as a professional opera singer, performing as a soloist in opera houses and in concert halls all over the world, I took up a position as lecturer in music in Australia in 1999 at the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music, which is part of CQUniversity.

Brought up in Australia, between the bush and the beaches of the Eastern suburbs, I retired in 2015 and now live in the tropics, writing, gardening, and finally finding time to enjoy life and to re-establish a connection with who I am after a very busy career on the stage and as an academic.

Author Joe Cosentino on the release of Drama Dance, the 8th Nicky and Noah mystery & an exclusive excerpt!

Why do we love murder mystery novels so much, reveling in the murder, mayhem, and madness? I think it’s because we enjoy sorting through the clues, sifting out the red herrings, meeting the quirky and fabulously suspicious suspects, falling in love along with the lovers, laughing out loud at the sleuth’s antics, and most of all bringing order and justice to our disordered world full of injustice. As a past professional actor and current college theatre professor/department head, I know first-hand the wild and wacky antics, sweet romance, and captivating mystery in the worlds of theatre and academia. Hence, the Nicky and Noah mysteries were born.  

After seven novels, adorable couple Nicky and Noah had used their theatre skills (including impersonating others) to solve seven mass murders, direct numerous theatrical productions, travel to exotic places, and adopt a son. What was left for them to do? Direct and star in my favorite ballet: The Nutcracker! So, in book eight, Drama Dance, our handsome heroes play the Mouse King and the Cavalier in a holiday production at their TreemeadowCollege (founded by deceased gay lovers Tree and Meadow) in picturesque and cozy Treemeadow, Vermont. Their colleagues and friends Martin (Drosselmeyer) and Rubin (producer) and of course their son Taavi (Fritz) come along for the bumpy ride as hunky dance faculty and students drop faster than their dance belts. As in every Nicky and Noah mystery novel, there are lots of cracked nuts as characters, and the yule tide is definitely gay. Not to mention there are more murders than altar boys in a priest’s closet (as Nicky would say). Laugh out loud humor, sweet romance, intriguing plot twists and turns, and a shocking ending all combine in usual Nicky and Noah mystery fashion. So, take your seats. The curtain is going up on The Nutcracker Ballet Nicky and Noah style!

DRAMA DANCE (the 8th Nicky and Noah mystery) by JOE COSENTINO

Special $3.99 pre-order sale on Kindle version until release day August 1

Exclusive Excerpt of Drama Dance, the eighth Nicky and Noah mystery, by Joe Cosentino:

I felt a tap on my thigh. Naabih Bahri was next to me on one knee. The Associate Professor of Jazz said, “Nicky, I think it would be more interesting if the mice and toy soldiers did a jazz number—like the Jets and the Sharks’ rumble in West Side Story.

I was not going to cave to the Cavalier. “Naabih, please go backstage with the rest of the cast.”

The sword fight music played next. Thomas and Duffy danced and waved their swords. As they came at each other, Thomas banged into the toy chest and flipped backwards out of the window.

“Stop!”

Thomas rose behind the window flat. “Sorry, Professor. I can’t see well without my glasses. Can I wear them?”

I stood in from of the orchestra pit. “Do you have contacts?”

“I did but they bothered my eyes.”

Piero groaned from the second row. “I’ve never seen a Nutcracker wear eyeglasses.”

Liz chimed in next to him. “And I’ve never seen a Clara lie so seductively on the chaise.”

“Quiet, please!” I took in a deep breath. “Thomas, wear your glasses for tonight. We’ll speak to the costumer and figure something out for tomorrow night.” I spun around to face the house. “Understudies, this isn’t a comedy club. Please watch the show quietly and review the choreography. Now let’s resume the ballet.”

I sat down. In the seat next to me, Noah took my hand and squeezed. He looked so handsome in his Cavalier understudy costume, I wanted to share a little sugar with him. Onstage, Thomas, wearing his large black eyeglasses, danced toward Duffy. They raised their swords and began the duel. Thomas grandly hit Duffy’s shoulder with the sword. Duffy waved his sword dramatically and struck Thomas’s hat, which exploded, sending Thomas into the tall gift box.

Caterina screamed from the chaise. Duffy took off the mouse head, sweat and shock filling his face. Amidst the gasps of horror all around us, Noah and I dove onto the stage. When we reached the large box, Noah cringed at the sight of the hole in Thomas’ head. I bent down to the floor and examined the fallen Nutcracker hat. Noah placed his finger under Thomas’s neck and stated the obvious. “Nicky, he’s dead.”

The Nutcracker’s cracked.

Blurb

Theatre professor Nicky Abbondanza is back at Treemeadow College directing their Nutcracker Ballet co-starring his spouse, theatre professor Noah Oliver, their son Taavi, and their best friend and department head, Martin Anderson. With muscular dance students and faculty in the cast, the Christmas tree on stage isn’t the only thing rising. When cast members drop faster than their loaded dance belts, Nicky and Noah will once again need to use their drama skills to figure out who is cracking the Nutcracker’s nuts, trapping the Mouse King, and being cavalier with the Cavalier, before Nicky and Noah end up stuck in the Land of the Sweets. You will be applauding and shouting Bravo for Joe Cosentino’s fast-paced, side-splittingly funny, edge-of-your-seat entertaining eighth novel in this delightful series. Take your seats. The curtain is going up on the Fairy—Sugar Plum that is, clumsy mice, malfunctioning toys, and murder!

More About Author Joe Cosentino:

click for Joe Cosentino‘s website

Bestselling author Joe Cosentino was voted Favorite LGBT Mystery, Humorous, and Contemporary Author of the Year by the readers of Divine Magazine for Drama Queen. He also wrote the other novels in the Nicky and Noah mystery series: Drama Muscle,Drama Cruise, Drama LuauDrama Detective, Drama FraternityDrama Castle; the Dreamspinner Press novellas: In My Heart/An Infatuation &A Shooting StarA Home for the HolidaysThe Perfect Gift,The First Noel,The Naked Prince and Other Tales from Fairyland with Holiday Tales from Fairyland, the Cozzi Cove series: Cozzi Cove: Bouncing Back,Cozzi Cove: Moving Forward, Cozzi Cove: Stepping OutCozzi Cove: New Beginnings, Cozzi Cove: Happy Endings(NineStar Press);andthe Jana Lane mysteries: Paper DollPorcelain DollSatin DollChina DollRag Doll (The Wild Rose Press). He has appeared in principal acting roles in film, television, and theatre, opposite stars such as Bruce Willis, Rosie O’Donnell, Nathan Lane, Holland Taylor, and Jason Robards. Joe is currently Chair of the Department/Professor at a college in upstate New York, and he is happily married. Joe was voted 2nd Place Favorite LGBT Author of the Year in Divine Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Awards, and his books have received numerous Favorite Book of the Month Awards and Rainbow Award Honorable Mentions.

Orientation (Borealis Investigations Book 1) by Gregory Ashe

Excerpt:

Something had taken a dump in Shaw’s mouth. He rolled, felt the familiar crease of his buckwheat pillow, and instantly regretted it. The mouse that had taken a dump in his mouth was currently burrowing up into his head. It was trying to gnaw through his skull. Cold sweat flashed out along his entire body, and Shaw knew he was going to be sick.

“I put your popcorn bucket by the bed.”

The words landed like a hammer, practically shattering Shaw’s head, but they were still a godsend. He flopped onto his stomach, found the bucket blindly, and fitted it around his mouth. Then he puked. And puked. And puked.

When he’d finished, he gently set the bucket down. And then he tried to die.

“It was one whiskey sour.” North’s voice moved closer, and the bucket’s plastic chirped against the floor as North picked it up, and then North’s voice moved away again. “It’s not like you were trying to outdrink some asshole in Dogtown.”

From the adjoining bathroom came the sound of running water and then the flush of the toilet. North’s footsteps came across the room. Those strong, rough hands gathered Shaw’s hair and wound it into a loose knot, and North pressed a cool, wet cloth against the back of Shaw’s neck.

“Here.” Two ibuprofen. “And here.” A glass of water. “Drink all of it.”

“I’m going to die.”

“It was one whiskey sour.” But North didn’t sound confused. He sounded amused. Shaw was used to that by now, the gently mocking amusement that North found in every idiotic thing Shaw managed to do. It used to bother him. That was back in the early days, freshman year, when the only thing that mattered in Shaw’s universe was gaining North’s approval.

Shaw’s first glimpse of North, from the far end of the dorm hall, had totally, utterly ruined Shaw for anybody else. At least, that was how it felt at the time. When Shaw saw North’s thatch of messy blond hair and his blue work shirt, complete with an oval that spelled Mick across his well-developed chest, and the jeans sculpting a magnificent ass and the boots—Timberland, back then, instead of the Red Wings he wore now—Shaw had been lost. Obliterated. And that was before—Shaw groaned again, and this time it was only partially due to the whiskey—that was before Shaw learned that North was smart and funny and kind. Shaw had never had a chance.

That was before, too, the night Shaw had sat on the Sigma Sigma roof and listened through the window and heard North shatter all his dreams with a single sentence.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something,” North said. A chair squealed across the floor, and the sound went through Shaw’s brain like an anti-aircraft shell. “It happened again last night.”

Shaw didn’t dare roll over—he was convinced he would puke if he moved anything more than his eyelids—but he wanted to burrow under his pillow. No, forget the pillow. He wanted to burrow through the bed, through the floor, through the basement, and just keep going. If he somehow managed to dig his way to China like in a cartoon, that would be ok. If he evaporated inside the Earth’s molten core, that might be better.

Shaw’s stomach lurched, and he concentrated on not barfing. Last night. Lord, why had he been such an idiot last night? All of North’s needling about drinking, that had been fine. North liked to give Shaw a hard time. North liked to tease. Most days, it was fine. But yesterday had been a storm of things. It had started with North asking how the date had gone—Hank? Harry? Harold?—and with the disappointment in North’s face when Shaw told him the truth: it had ended the same way, with a slow build of heat all evening and then a flash freeze that left Shaw standing awkward and embarrassed and fumbling for a way to get home, alone, as fast as possible. North’s disappointment had been bad enough.

But then there had been Matty. Matty’s unruly wave of blond hair. Eyes like gemstones—a clarity of color that was sapphire or amethyst when the light shifted. There was—not that Shaw could have admitted it, not that the thought even quite reached the surface—the fact that Matty could have been North’s younger brother, albeit without all the muscles and with slightly more refined features. There was the way Matty had clutched Shaw’s hand, and that familiar rumble of fire in Shaw’s gut. And of course, there was the fact that North didn’t like Matty, which made perfect sense in this universe.

But if Shaw were honest, most of that stupid decision had been about the pretty boy with the cuffed sleeves on his tee and the low-cut white sneakers and the bare ankles. It had been about the way he had leaned across the bar, just a fraction of a degree, toward North and the way he had shifted the towel over his shoulder when North smiled at him, a nervous, totally unselfconscious gesture that only made Shaw hate the kid more because it was so transparently honest. And there had been the moment North called the kid beautiful.

Shaw groaned; his fingers scraped blindly at the floor. “I think I’m—”

“Bucket’s right here.” North’s hand lifted the rat’s nest of hair and refolded the cold cloth. “But try to breathe through it first.”

North was right, as he so often was, and the need to barf passed. North’s hand hadn’t left Shaw’s neck. His fingers coiled Shaw’s long hair. Every once in a while, just accidents of chance, his thumb would scrape the side of Shaw’s neck. It was so wonderful that it was much, much scarier than barfing into the popcorn bucket again.

“What I wanted to talk about—” North began.

And here it was. This was the moment when they had to confront the truth they’d both danced around since freshman year. They’d never talked about it—thank God, Shaw thought with a bubble of clarity through the pain, thank God I didn’t open my mouth five minutes earlier when we were out on the Sigma Sigma roof; thank God I was a coward and I got to hear what he really thought. But now North was going to say something about how he was worried Shaw had feelings for him, and that was ridiculous of course, that was totally impossible, Shaw had moved on, Shaw had gone out with a lot of guys since then, Shaw had basically forgotten, almost totally forgotten what it had felt like to see North for the first time at the end of the dorm hall. But North wouldn’t believe him; North was going to make a big deal out of nothing.

But all North said was, “—is that I think you’ve got a drinking problem.”

Relief went through Shaw like a hailstorm, cold and pinging all over him, almost painful with how hard it hit. He flattened his face in the pillow and laughed, and he didn’t even feel like he needed to puke. Not yet, anyway.

“I think you might need time for detox. Maybe some recovery time in a treatment center.” North’s thumb kept scraping that hot line up the side of Shaw’s neck.

“Of course,” Shaw said into the pillow.

“We’ll have to make some pretty big lifestyle changes.”

“That would really help.”

“If you want, Pari and I could do an intervention.”

“I think Pari would only like an intervention,” Shaw said, “if it was for her.”

“Well,” North said, “I’ve got a list of grievances.”

Shaw lifted his head, and even though the whole room looked like it was under water, he could see that typical North smile lightening those ice-rim eyes, crinkling the corners, without ever touching his mouth. North had matching black eyes today, and a fresh split across the bridge of his nose covered by tape. Shaw wanted to ask when North had found the time for more boxing, but all he said was, “I don’t think you’re supposed to call them grievances.”

“I’m running this intervention. I can call them whatever I want.”

Shaw dropped his head into the pillow again.

“I’d like to take you all the way back to Labor Day, freshman year.”

“Please don’t,” Shaw said. “I’m not ready for time travel.”

As North spoke, he peeled back the wet cloth, and his fingers took up a light massage: kneading the sensitive flesh at the base of Shaw’s neck, the touch dry and rasping—workman’s hands, the thought flashed along Shaw’s synapses like brushfire. “The setting: your dad’s lake house at Innsbrook,” North said. “More specifically, the docks. The characters: Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich, North McKinney—”

“North Ebenezer McKinney,” Shaw said groggily into the buckwheat.

“That is not my middle name, but a very nice try. Tucker Laguerre, Rufus Johnson, and a host of Chouteau bros that you decided to invite for some reason I will never understand.”

“They were cute. And we were all trying to make friends.”

“Well, there was that one Ladue boy you wanted to lick the sunscreen off.”

“Percy was cute.” Shaw found himself dragging the word out in response to the pressure of North’s fingers. “And he read me a poem by Lord Byron.”

“Well, you are a slut for poetry.”

“I would say I’m a—”

“Slut. For poetry.”

Shaw had a brilliant rejoinder, but then North’s fingers dug deeper, and he moaned into the pillow.

“And,” North said, “if you’ll recall, after the equivalent of approximately three-quarters of a wine cooler—”

“I’d been pregaming. I had a big glass of orange juice that morning, and it was old. I think it was kind of fermented.”

“—you managed to wind up naked, in the bathroom, puking into one of Tucker’s shoes. A very, very good first impression, by the way, on my future husband.”

“His shoes were white.”

“Uh huh.”

“And big.”

“Uh huh.”

The deep tissue drag of North’s fingers was hypnotic, and Shaw was surprised that the worst of the hangover was receding. “Anybody could have mistaken them for the toilet. And anyway, Tucker was being a total asshole to you that day, and he kept trying to get his hand down Percy’s swim trunks because he said he wanted to find out manually if Percy was cut or not.”

Then Shaw heard what he’d said. He froze.

North’s hand froze.

“North, I—”

“You need a shower. And then we need to get going. Unless you’re not feeling up to it?”

Shaw couldn’t bring himself to look up from the buckwheat where he was burying his face. “North, that was a million years ago, and I wasn’t—”

North’s Red Wings stomped toward the stairs so hard that the whole house seemed liable to fall. Then down the stairs. Then through the galley kitchen. Stomping like he meant to test every floorboard’s structural integrity.

“Shit,” Shaw whispered into the pillow. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”

And then he threw up once more in the popcorn bucket.

About the Author

Gregory Ashe

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

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

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