27th Annual Lambda Literary Award Finalists – Awards Announced June 1, 2015

It’s finally here! The 27th Annual Lambda Literary Awards will be announced at a dinner ceremony in New York Monday evening, June 1, 2015.

MYSTERY FINALISTS:

LESBIAN MYSTERY

  • The Acquittal, Anne Laughlin, Bold Strokes Books
  • Done to Death, Charles Atkins, Severn House Publishers
  • The Old Deep and Dark-A Jane Lawless Mystery, Ellen Hart, Minotaur Books Slash and Burn, Valerie Bronwen, Bold Strokes Books
  • UnCatholic Conduct, Stevie Mikayne, Bold Strokes Books

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GAY MYSTERY

 

http://www.lambdaliterary.org/27th-annual-lambda-literary-award-finalists/

EXCERPT: Done To Death: Lambda Award Finalist Charles Atkins – Lesbian Mystery

Done To Death

by

Charles Atkins

Excerpt:

Chapter Two

Barry Stromstein felt the migraine coming. His vision had wavy lines around the edges and it was hard to focus on Lenore’s face. There was her trademark auburn bob and arresting green eyes; admittedly, her hair was wavering to the right and, at the moment, she had four eyes. He heard her words, but struggled to put them into sentences. Just nod and smile, he told himself, hoping he could make it through, knowing it was her perfume – Lenore’s ‘Possession’ − that triggered what was blossoming into a headache that if he didn’t take his Rizatriptan in the next ten minutes would leave him desperate for his bed and a dark room for the next three days. ‘Right,’ he parroted her last sentence, ‘local color . . . petty jealousies, fun characters.’

‘Are you even listening?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think you’re getting this, Barry, and to be honest, your first treatment I wouldn’t use for toilet paper. Bargain Bonanza? What kind of crap project is that? We’re not cable access. You either pull this together fast, or I’ll give it to Carrie. And if that happens . . .’

He wanted to scream, and he knew she wasn’t kidding. ‘I’ve got it, Lenore,’ and, struggling to find the words, he blurted, ‘you want blood, guts, expensive tchotchkes and scenic New England. Kind of Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls.’

There was a moment’s pause. ‘Hallelujah!’ she said, closing the space between them.

Her perfume, like a wave of noxious gas, engulfed him. He had to get out of there. ‘I’m on it.’ He backed away, ‘I’ll have something on your desk by morning.’

‘That’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘And Barry, if you don’t . . .’

He took that as his cue and, holding his breath, bolted from her inner office. Half-blinded by the oncoming migraine he raced out of Lenore’s penthouse suite and down the hall. He bypassed the elevators and flew down eight flights of stairs, his thoughts fixed on the pill in his upper desk drawer. He sprinted to his offices and banged his knee on a glass top desk in the reception area.

Celia, his secretary, looked up, ‘Oh crap,’ she said. ‘You’ve got migraine eyes.’

‘Yeah,’ he said without stopping, the words thick on his tongue. It was always the same. First the vision went, then his words, and then came the actual headache, like a vice squeezing his eyeballs while a steel pike pounded into his brain. He jerked the drawer open, grabbed the little blue box, pulled out the ridiculously expensive pills, fumbled at the packaging and finally popped the melty lozenge under his tongue. It tasted like chalk and like something trying to be a pastille mint, but bitter and metallic. He closed his eyes, and heard Celia as she quietly walked around his corner office closing the blinds and shutting out the spectacular views of Central Park and midtown.

‘Do you want me to cancel your afternoon meetings?’

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‘Please.’

‘You got it . . . you should go home.’

‘Can’t. Need to come up with a new concept. She hated Bargain Bonanza. Give me forty-five minutes. Wait!’ Still tasting the pill’s remnants on his tongue, he thought through Lenore’s directive. ‘Tell the team to toss everything on Bargain Bonanza but the locale . . . I think that’s still OK – in fact, I know it is. Tell them blood lust and collectibles, and to be ready to pitch by one. And no one’s leaving till we have a winner.’

‘Will do. Anything I can do to help?’

‘No . . . it’s just got to run its course. Thank God for the magic melt-under-the-tongue pills.’

‘It was her perfume, wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why don’t you tell her?’

Barry looked at his assistant through hooded eyes. ‘Seriously?’

‘Right,’ Celia shrugged, as her phone rang. ‘Hope you feel better,’ and she shut the door.

Just breathe, he told himself, his head in his hands, his eyes shut tight. Let it pass. What a bitch! After three years with Lenore, Barry had no illusions. Either he came up with an acceptable pitch in the next twenty-four hours or he could take his résumé and try to find another producing job in an industry where thirty-five is over the hill and forty is washed up, and he was thirty-eight. To the outside world this was a great gig, a high six figure salary, bonuses, a team of young and energetic wannabes snapping at his heels. His NYU Alma Mater, Tisch School of the Arts, wanting him to take interns, holding him up as an exemplar of someone making it in the entertainment industry. And in a single day it could all turn to ashes. Lenore was desperate to stay on top . . . of the ratings, of her celebrity, of everything and everyone. She was hunger personified, a gaping maw always wanting more. ‘She’s a monster.’ He cracked his eyes open, and thought of his one point five million dollar apartment that was barely eleven hundred square feet, with a tiny patio, two modest bedrooms − one for him and Jeanine and the other for three-year-old Ashley. He pictured his gorgeous wife and their little girl, with blond ringlets that would darken with time, bright hazel eyes − they were his two treasures, his salvation. You have to pull this together.

He and Jeanine, a contestant on his last successful show, Model Behavior, had no more than a two month cushion in the bank and no family safety net. To Barry’s blue collar Jersey parents and Jeanine’s, who survived crop to crop on their Iowa farm, they were the affluent ones.

His phone buzzed; Celia’s voice came through the speaker. ‘Barry, it’s Jeanine, do you want me to tell her you’re out?’

‘No, put her on.’

The line clicked.

‘Hi sweetie,’ Jeanine’s husky voice even better than his magic pill.

Barry closed his eyes, ‘Hey babe, what’s up?’

‘It’s kind of stupid,’ she said. ‘But I felt like I should check before blowing twenty-five hundred bucks on a pocketbook.’

‘What?’

‘I know you’ll tell me just to do it. But I’m looking at all the other high-end real estate agents and the ones who get the million dollar sales are all carrying Chanel or Birkin. It’s part of the uniform − a Chanel suit, a pair of Louboutin pumps and a Birkin bag.’

‘Then do it,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Babe, if you need it, you need it.’

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘Migraine.’

‘What triggered it?’

‘Lenore’s perfume.’

‘That bitch! Are you going to be OK?’

‘Yeah, actually just hearing your voice helps.’

‘Why don’t you take the rest of the day? Screw the purse, I’ll pour you a bath, give you a massage . . .’

Barry let Jeanine’s words fill his head. He imagined her soft hands kneading his tense shoulders, the tickle of her silky curls against his skin. ‘That would be what the doctor ordered, but I can’t.’

‘Barry, tell me what’s wrong, and I’m not just talking the headache. What’s going on?’

He didn’t want to tell her. He hated this crushing sense of failure, of letting her down. He also knew she wouldn’t let up until he told her. ‘She hated the pitch.’

‘Barry, I’m so sorry. What’s the backup plan?’

‘Working on it now. I’ll come up with something.’

‘And if you don’t? What did she say? Tell me, please.’

‘Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. Everything’s fine. Really. It’s just the headache couldn’t have come at a worse time. But I got to my pill in time, it’s passing. You know me, it’s all about pulling rabbits from hats. I want you to go out and buy that pocketbook. Because you know what they say?’

‘What?’

Remembering advice from one of his first mentors in the industry. ‘The more you spend, the more you make.’

‘You’re sure of that?’

‘Absolutely. I’m going to want to see that purse when I get home. Although don’t wait up, it’s going to be a very long night.’

‘I love you Barry,’ Jeanine said. ‘And that has nothing to do with a pocketbook.’

‘I know. But I want you to have it. I want you and Ashley to have everything, and I’m going to make damn certain that this next pitch blows Lenore away.’

‘OK then . . .’

He heard the concern in her voice. It was like a knife. ‘I’m going to make this work.’

‘I know you will.’

‘Buy the pocketbook.’

‘OK.’

‘I love you.’

‘I love you too,’ she said, ‘and I hope that bitch Lenore drops dead.’

‘Please God no,’ he said. ‘Without Lenore there will be no Birkin bags.’

‘Fine, then I guess she can live. And Barry . . .’

‘Yeah?’

‘I am going to wait up.’

After he hung up he felt a familiar tingle that pushed against the migraine. Eight years into their marriage and ten into their relationship, just her voice made everything right. If she wanted a Birkin bag, he’d make damn sure she’d get it. Lenore trashing Bargain Bonanza was not the end of the world . . . not yet. With his eyes closed he hung on to the sound of Jeanine’s voice. How did you get to be that lucky? It was time to get to work.

He glanced at his monitor and braced for the stab of pain the light would send to his head. He squinted and focused on unread emails. His vision was clearing. The pill was doing its trick with the pain − holding it back. Sure, he’d have a headache, but he’d gotten to the med in time. Just function, he told himself. That was all that mattered − function, come up with something brilliant − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls − pitch it and get Lenore to love it. In spite of everything, he chuckled. ‘That won’t happen.’ In his three years with Lenore she didn’t love anything, and even when she did, she’d never let you know. ‘I expect brilliance,’ is what she’d say. ‘It’s what I pay you for.’

            Celia, who pre-screened his emails, had divided them into files. He started in with those related to the now tanked Bargain Bonanza. There was one from the field agent who’d been scouting locations − Grenville, CT being a front runner, as Lenore had a country place in Shiloh, the town immediately north. There were several from agents who represented prospective hosts they’d approached, and a small stack from assorted locals at the various sites. He flipped through a couple from freelance show runners and field producers, two of whom he knew well, one he’d gone to school with, Jim Cymbel.

He opened Jim’s.

Hey B:

            Wanted to get back with some ideas for your killer new reality show − Bargain Bonanza. Where the market’s saturated with these flea market contests, it’s a tough sell getting a new boy to float to the top. I’ve got several ways we could do this. I’d love to talk it over and see if we could make a marriage.

            Love ya . . . and Jeanine.        

            Jim

He thought about calling, but only as a last resort. Sure, Jim wanted to help − help himself to Barry’s job. Because that email − and several others in his queue − were a lot like the one he’d sent to Susan Grace, the woman whose offices he now occupied. Last he’d heard she’d fallen down the industry food chain to where she couldn’t even get pitch meetings.

He looked back at the screen and shifted from prospective producers and their promises to deliver fresh ideas, scanning the ones from talent agents − waste of time till you know what you’re doing. He scrolled past the smattering of locals at various sites. Those were a crap-shoot, everything from mayors and first selectmen, wanting Lenore’s reflected glamour in their town, to B and Bs and prospective locations eager to sign lucrative deals.

His eye caught on one headed ‘Cash or Trash − Lil Campbell’. ‘That’s as lame as Bargain Bonanza’ – but he clicked it open anyway.

Dear Mr Stromstein:

            This is in response to the email I received about my syndicated antiques and collectibles column, ‘Cash or Trash’. Yes, I’d love to set up a phone time to talk about one of my favorite things − my hometown Grenville, CT, the antiques capital of New England (possibly the world). The thought of having a Lenore Parks show feature our town is a thrill. Feel free to call any time − the home number is the best, but I do carry my cell.

            Best,

            Lil Campbell

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He replayed his Hail Mary pass that Lenore seemed to like − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls. Scenic Grenville, in the Litchfield Hills, fit a third of the equation. Through hooded eyes he dialed Lil Campbell’s number and pressed the button for speaker. He leaned back and waited for an answering machine.

‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice answered.

‘Hi, this is Barry Stromstein, of Lenore Parks Productions. I’m trying to reach a Lil Campbell.’

‘How strange is that? I had literally just dialed your number when you popped up on call waiting.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Talk about synchronicity. Do you mind if I put you on speaker? My partner Ada Strauss is with me and we don’t often get calls from TV producers.’

‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘So what got you to dial?’

‘You’re kidding,’ she said. ‘The thought of having even a single episode of a show shot in Grenville would be a big deal. I mean several of our dealers have been experts on other shows, but nothing in the town itself.’

‘Right,’ and Barry recoiled at the familiar scent of want. ‘So,’ falling into his familiar role of gatekeeper to the brass ring, ‘what makes Grenville special?’

He listened as this Lil woman extolled the town’s beauty. He’d seen the pictures and knew she wasn’t lying. It would be a dream to film: the changing seasons, lovingly preserved Colonial and Federal houses, the tidy greens with their romantic bronzes and ancient cannons. Fine, it’s pretty, he thought, lots of places are pretty. And sure, it probably fulfills two out of three − Antiques Roadshow and the set of Gilmore Girls. He imagined bringing Jeanine and little Ashley out for the shoots; they’d love it. His thoughts drifted, and he made polite noises as though he were paying attention as Lil Campbell talked about the two hundred antique dealers, the weekly flea market and active council − God save me from active councils. He’d heard enough. He gently cleared his throat. ‘It does sound like a place to consider,’ he said, and prepared to launch into his kiss off.

‘Lil, don’t forget to tell him about the murder rate,’ a new voice popped in.

‘Excuse me?’

‘The murder rate,’ this other woman, with a slight New York accent, repeated. ‘Grenville had the highest per capita murder rate in Connecticut for two years running. And if you think about it, all of the victims were in some way connected to the antiques industry, although in that horrible fire at the assisted living center it was mostly that doctor.’

‘Which doctor? And I’m assuming you’re Ada.’

‘Ada Strauss. Long story short: it was a huge Medicaid fraud, we’re talking millions, that centered on this doctor − who apparently was both an antique clock collector and a hoarder. We’d see him every week at the flea market. It wound up as an arson slash multiple murder at one of the biggest assisted care facilities in the state. And, considering the total population of Grenville is twelve thousand, it doesn’t take much to bump our numbers up. That pushed us to the top for 2011, and in 2010 there was a serial killer who was taking out high-end antique dealers. Come to think of it, another doctor − what is with them? That one was a dentist. The freaky thing is he actually worked on a crown for me that came off when I was eating a crème brulée . . . sorry, too much information. Although both Lil and I barely made it out when he torched his place.’

‘What? Wait a minute!’ Barry was forward in his seat. ‘Not too much at all.’ His complacency and the throbbing in his head had suddenly been blown away like leaves in a storm . . . meets The Hunger Games. Ding ding ding. ‘Tell me about the murders. It seems like you know a fair amount about them.’

‘Please, we were there . . . I mean really there, as in almost got killed. You see Calvin Williams, the psychopathic dentist, had a lifelong crush on Lillian, and apparently his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, had been selling off the family heirlooms to local dealers who’d essentially robbed her blind.’

Barry was mesmerized as plots and twists fell from this Ada Strauss’s lips. A town filled with competing dealers, a supply of merchandise that was hotly contested, corruption, bribes, small-town scandals, a child-molesting dentist . . . murder. Too good to be true. He tried to picture Ada Strauss. She sounded a bit older, knowledgeable and funny. At one point he interrupted her, ‘Do I have your headshot?’

She laughed, ‘Why would you?’

‘Right . . . not an actress or on-screen personality, I’m assuming.’

‘Hardly. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Strauss’s department stores.’

‘I remember them.’ He laughed. ‘I remember my mother putting us in matching caps so she wouldn’t lose us during the back to school sales.’ He felt a twinge of regret. She might be too old for on-screen talent, or she could be a total dog. ‘You’re that Strauss . . . and Mr Strauss?’

‘Passed several years ago.’

‘Sorry.’

‘You didn’t kill him. But it’s kind of you to say.’

‘You’re quick.’

‘You’re surprised.’

His usual defenses were down. There was something here − at least he hoped there was. You’re desperate, Barry, this is a reach. ‘Is there any way I could get you – I mean the two of you – into the city for a pitch meeting this afternoon?’

‘I have no idea what that is,’ Ada Strauss said. ‘I mean aside from what you read in Jackie Collins novels. Lil? What do you think?’

‘We could be there in two hours. It’s the middle of the day, and traffic shouldn’t be bad.’

‘Fantastic!’ And he gave them the address.

After they hung up, he buzzed his assistant. ‘Celia, we’ve got an Ada Strauss coming in from Connecticut. I want some test shots, and get Jason to get her on tape. Have her talk about anything: antiques, murder, whatever.’

He hung up and realized his headache was gone. Please, he thought, feeling the dangerous seed of hope take root. Please, please, please.

 

 

 

Exclusive Excerpt – Lambda Award Finalist – Jameson Currier’s “A Gathering Storm”

An excerpt from A Gathering Storm, a novel by Jameson Currier, published by Chelsea Station Editions.

Chapter 54

Thursday

The room is four walls, white, plaster flaking where moisture has invaded, warmed, and dried. The floor is beige linoleum tiles full of scuff marks, black and brown from boots, wooden chairs, the metal legs of the table in the room. It is chilly, a musty smell hangs in the air. The lighting is fluorescent, artificial, heartless. On the table top sits a microphone, wires that lead to a tape recorder, and an ash tray.

“We went to Joe’s first,” he says. “Sloppy Joe’s. That’s the place on Market.” He doesn’t attempt to lean into the microphone. The orange jumpsuit he wears is the brightest thing in the room. It highlights the redness in his eyes, only half-open because he feels heavy, tired. “We had a pitcher of beer there, then Rick said he wanted to go somewhere else.”

“The beer was all you had?” Teddy asks. He sits across the table from the suspect. His hands rest on the table top. A pencil and a notepad are in front of him but he doesn’t write anything down. A lawyer sits next to his client. Kurt Vong. He is in a dark suit, hair slicked back. There is a sharpness to him that his client does not have. Another man stands watching at the door. The town prosecutor. Cal. Cal Marram. Like Teddy, there is a lumpiness to him. Bald, mustache, something of a gut. Wears a jacket, tie.

“To drink, yeah,” A.J. answers. “We ran out of crank that morning.”

“Crank?” Teddy asks.

“Yeah,” A.J. answers. “We used up a bag the day before. Toked it.”

“So you had nothing other than the beers that night?” Teddy asks.

“Yeah,” A.J. answers. “We had a pitcher at the Starlite, too.”

“So you weren’t looking for any drugs?” Teddy asks.

“Sure, we were looking,” A.J. says. His eyes swivel, then steady. “We’re always looking. But we were both broke. Rick had spent what he had at Joe’s. We barely had enough money to get the pitcher at the Starlite.”

“What time did you arrive at the Starlite?” Teddy asks.

“It was about 11:30,” the suspect answers. “I didn’t have any money on me except some change. We paid for the pitcher with change. Rick did.”

“So you walked into the Starlite. Got a pitcher. Saw you didn’t have any money. And decided to rob someone.” Teddy says. “Because you needed some money?”

The lawyer does not offer an objection. His expression is tense. Wavy lines in forehead. Flat lips. A meeting before this one he agreed to let his client talk. Confess. Tell his side of the story.

“No. Not at first,” he says.

“What happened first?”

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“We played a game of pool,” A.J. says. “We didn’t even know anything about the guy. We were just shootin’. Rick wanted a cigarette so he asked a couple of guys at the bar. The queer dude had one. They talked a bit before I came over.”

“So he introduced himself to you?” Teddy asks.

“I got his name,” A.J. replies.

“Did the college boy—did Danny offer you any drugs?”

“Nope,” A.J. answers. “If he’d had anything like that we’d probably wouldn’t be here.”

“Here,” Teddy says. “In this room.”

“Yeah,” A.J. answers. “We were strung out because we were coming down from the crank. From the night before.”

“So all you had were the beers. A pitcher at Joe’s. A pitcher at the Starlite.”

“That’s it,” A.J. says. “That’s what I said before.”

“So you had a lot to drink. Two pitchers. You were drunk then?”

“On a pitcher?” A.J. laughs. “Don’t think so.”

“So you wanted some more,” Teddy says. “So you and your friend, Rick, decide to hit on someone to get some more beer.”

“No,” A.J. answers. “Not beer. We wanted the money.”

“You wanted money,” Teddy says. “But not for beer. Drugs, maybe? So you could score some drugs?”

“Maybe,” A.J. says. “Or maybe another pitcher. We weren’t sure. We’d been cranked up since Friday night. We sorta wanted to come down a bit.”

“So when you met Danny at the bar,” Teddy says. “Did he identify himself as homosexual to you?”

“Well, he looked like fag to me,” he answers. “From the way he was talking and stuff.”

“What do you mean?” Teddy asks. “That he looked feminine?”

“Yeah,” he answers. “He looked like a sissy boy.”

“And that’s when you decided to rob him,” Teddy asks.

“No,” he answers. “We went to the head. Rick said we could give him a ride home and jack him then.”

“So it was Rick’s idea to rob him?”

“That’s what I said.”

“And he left the bar with you because you were giving him a ride home?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Did you give him any indication that you were homosexual?” Teddy asks him.

“I ain’t queer,” he answers quickly, an edge in his voice. His eyes are wider now, a blackness to the pupils, as if it is drawing in anger. “You know that.”

“But did he think you were?”

His eyes shift a bit uneasy. He looks for something to alight on, to deflect his expression, but there is nothing in the room except the suit by the door, staring down at him. He casts his eyes uneasily at the table. “He might have. Rick was being flirty.”

“Flirty?”

“Dancing a bit,” he says. “The music was playing. Rick was sort of dancing as he smoked. Like he was showing off for the guy or something.”

“And it was sexual?”

“Depends on how you look at it?”

“So he thought you were a homosexual?”

“He was askin’ Rick if he’d been to a place in Richmond,” he says. “Said he’d gone there over the weekend. He said it was a place for queers.”

“He used that word—queer?” Teddy asks.

“No, he said ‘gay.’ He said it was a gay club. He started talking about the music they played there.”

“And your friend, how did he respond?”

“He played it real cool,” he says. “Said he wanted to go there sometime and check it out. The queer guy said he’d go with him, if Rick wanted.”

“And did he?” Teddy continues.

“He was being friendly with him,” A.J. answers. “He was leading the guy on. That’s when he asked the faggot if he wanted a ride home.”

“Danny?”

“Him.”

“And then what happened?” Teddy asks.

“We left together,” he says. “Walked out to the car.”

“And where were you headed?”

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“Rick was driving,” he answers. “I let Rick pick the spot.”

“So Rick was driving your uncle’s truck?”

“That’s the way it was,” he answers. His voice is again steady, unrattled, sleepy.

“And that left you free to beat the guy?” Teddy asks.

There is a pause, as if A.J. is aware that he is offering a confession. He tilts his head toward his lawyer, then back. “I didn’t do anything to him till he grabbed me.”

“He grabbed you?”

“That’s right,” A.J. answers.

“Where did he grab you?”

“He sort of ran his hand along my thigh,” he says. “And he was close to my crotch.”

Teddy is surprised by the answer, but tries not to show it. He thinks the suspect is taunting him, mocking him. That this part was rehearsed with the lawyer. “And this was when you hit him?”

“He was coming on to me,” he answers. “I let him know I wasn’t that way.”

“And then what happened?”

“He tried it again. Said ‘please.’ I gave him a good punch. That’s when I took his wallet.”

“And Rick was driving during this.”

“That’s right,” he answers. “He was sort of laughing. That’s when we pulled over and drug him out of the car.”

“Did he try to defend himself?”

“Well, yeah,” A.J. says, as if it is the dumbest question he has been asked all day. “But he won’t much of a fighter. Too much a girl. He kept saying ‘please, please,’ real soft like. Like a sissy would.”

“And that made you angry?”

“He was coming on to me,” A.J. says, his voice rising. “He was all over me.”

“I think my client has established that he panicked,” the lawyer says. It is the first thing he has said, except for clearing his throat when he arrived to the room. He folds his hands across the table, an edge of a lip pulled up into a smile.

Teddy returns to A.J. “And your friend, what was his reaction?”

“He was laughing at first,” A.J. says.

Teddy looks down at the pad, thinks a moment, then asks, “How long were you out there—at the fence?”

“Maybe ten minutes,” A.J. says. “Seems like longer.”

“Did he ask you to stop?”

“Well, yeah, he was getting the shit beat of him,” he answers. He gives a little laugh. Then decides it is the wrong thing to do, turns his head toward his lawyer, then back. “I wanted to take him home but Rick got a rope from the truck and said to tie him up to the fence and leave him there.” He thinks some more about his story, then continues. “It was like someone else was doing it. I don’t know what was going on with me.” He looks over at the detective, searching out his eyes for the first time since he entered the room. “He’s bad off, isn’t he, Mr. DeWitt? Is he gonna die for sure?”

“I think so,” Teddy answers. He doesn’t give A.J. the satisfaction of returning his gaze.

A.J.’s expression changes. His cheeks flush, then the corner of his lip turns downward, into a pout, like a bad boy mad that he got caught. “I didn’t mean to kill him. I can’t believe it happened. I just blacked out. I felt possessed. You know, he was coming on to me.”

“Is that why you were afraid of him, A.J.? Because he made you think you were gay?”

“I ain’t gay.”

“You beat him and took his money and his coat,” Teddy says. “Because he made you scared about yourself. Is that why you took his shoes? Because he scared you?” Teddy asks.

“His shoes?” he answers. His voice is rusty. Like it is a stupid question. “Don’t know. When is this ending? This is making my head hurt, you know. I don’t know why we took the shoes. You should ask Rick. Rick was behind all this. Why haven’t you asked Rick all these questions?”

____________

Jameson Currier is the author of ten works of fiction. In 2010 he established Chelsea Station Editions, an independent press devoted to gay literature (located on the Web at www.chelseastationeditions.com). Books published by the press have been honored by the Lambda Literary Foundation, the American Library Association GLBTRT Roundtable, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards Foundation, and the Rainbow Book Awards.

 

Excerpt: Lambda Award Finalist – Lesbian Mystery – The Old Deep And Dark

The Old Deep and Dark

By

Ellen Hart

Chapter Two

“The old deep and…what?” said Cordelia, tossing her rhinestone-encrusted reading glasses on the restored Chippendale card table she used as a desk.  A giant woman and a giant desk, one with huge claw feet, were meant for each other.   At least, that’s how the antique dealer had sold it to her.  As the part-owner and artistic director of the newest theater in Minneapolis–The Thorn Lester Playhouse–Cordelia required an office that reflected her personality and status.  Gilded Age, while not a reflection of her bank account, seemed the perfect fit.  It was also the general era in which the theater–originally an opera house–had been built.

Across from her sat the University of Minnesota’s preeminent Minnesota historian, Archibald Van Arnam, a friend and avid theater goer.  He had, on his own time and at his own expense, offered to look into the history of the theater for her.  He’d come to her office at the crack of dawn this morning–nearly ten A.M.–to give her his initial findings.

“Yes, yes,” he said eagerly.  “That’s what they used to call this place.  The Old Deep and Dark.  Fascinating, isn’t it?  Fascinating.”

Archibald, when excited, tended to repeat himself.  He was a naturally pedantic man, used to speaking in front of large crowds of disinterested college kids, and thus primed to talk more loudly than was strictly necessary.  He was in his early fifties, with the face of an embittered Roman emperor–or a hired thug–the body of a wrestler gone to seed, and a combover that was so pathetic, Cordelia couldn’t imagine how he could look at himself in the mirror every morning and not dissolve in a fit of hysterics.  In her opinion, he was the perfect dinner guest, always arriving with several bottles of excellent wine, ever willing to entertain.

“Yes, it’s interesting,” she said, picking up her reading glasses and settling them back on her nose, “but even you have to admit, it’s not exactly good news.  ‘Let’s get tickets to The Old Deep and Dark for a show tonight, Sweetums.’  Virtually every staff meeting I’ve had this week has devolved into a conversation about branding and positioning our new theater.  Do we really want to be The Old Deep and Dark?”

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“Don’t you want to know why it’s called that?”

“I don’t know,” she said, one eyebrow arching.  “Do I?”

“The original owner, Elijah Samuelson, the man who built the place in 1903, sold it in 1923.  The new owners, Gilbert and Hilda King, intended to turn it into a vaudeville stage, but because of mismanagement, and some say Gilbert’s gambling problems, they couldn’t make a go of it.  Remember, this was right around the beginning of Prohibition.  Apparently, as the theater was on its way toward insolvency, Gilbert got involved with some unsavory types.”

“Gangsters?”

“Bootleggers, though you’re probably right.  They were likely connected.  Lots of mob activity in the Twin Cities back then, you know.  Anyway, Gilbert King–he started calling himself King Gilbert–only ran shows on weekends and spent the rest of his time developing a speakeasy.  That’s what kept him and Hilda afloat until the early-thirties.”

“Where was the speakeasy?”

“In the basement.  People came in through a door along 5th.  They were hustled down a narrow back stairs.”

The comment jogged Cordelia’s memory.  The basement of the theater was essentially unexplored territory.  She’d been down there a few times with her sister to check out the rooms, many of them stuffed with old theater paraphernalia.  Beyond heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical concerns, and because extra storage space wasn’t needed at the moment, she’d decreed that the basement renovation could wait until the upper floors had been completed.  As she thought about it, she did recall seeing a rather beautiful Art Deco bar somewhere in the bowels of the building, but had assumed it was a shell, a prop created in a scene shop for a specific play.

The proscenium stage was located on the third floor of the main building.  The costume shop, scene shop, electrical shop, and prop and costume storage rooms fit reasonably well on second.  The main floor served as a small lobby, with elevators at the edges, and a ticket booth out front under a large marque.  A two-story addition had been added on to the east side of the building during the late forties.  The first level contained two rental spaces, already taken by an independent general bookstore and an Italian Deli.  Theater offices were on second.

“Where exactly was the speakeasy?” asked Cordelia, removing a nail file from her sack purse.

“The southwest corner of the main building.  King Gilbert had it walled off from the rest of the basement. That is, except for a small door, which, at the moment, is unlocked.”

“You’ve been down there?”

“I’ve been searching for old theater records.  I assume you don’t mind.”

She waved the comment away.  “And thus, because of the illegal nature of the speakeasy, the theater became known as The Old Deep and Dark?”

“No, the building wasn’t called that until Gilbert and Hilda were murdered.”

Her eyes widened.  “Murdered?”

“It was 1933, the year Prohibition ended.  Supposedly, King Gilbert got in over his head with the wrong guys.  Those guys cornered him and Hilda behind the bar one night and blew them away.  According to eyewitness accounts, it was a fairly typical gangland shooting.  One goon stood upstairs outside the door on 5th, while two more crept down the stairs and opened fire with Thompson submachine guns.  A couple of bystanders were wounded.  Thankfully, both survived.”

“Wonderful.  Just…exactly what I wanted to hear.”

“I believe Gilbert was hit with at least fifteen rounds.  Seven slugs passed through Hilda.  What was left of them was buried at Lakewood a few days later.”  He adjusted his bifocals.  “I’m afraid there’s more.”

“Of course there is.”

“The building’s haunted.  For the past eighty years, folks have seen faint images of Gilbert and Hilda on the stairs, in the elevators, on stage during shows.  They’ve heard voices and footsteps, creaking floorboards when nobody is around.  Windows in the offices are found open in the middle of winter.”  Leaning closer to her, he dropped his voice.  “Apparently, they don’t get along.”

“Excuse me?”

“There’s a lot of bickering.  You’ve got a ghost light on the stage, right?”

“Of course.  It’s an actor’s equity thing, a safety feature.  It’s not supposed to work for actual ghosts.”

“Why are you smiling?” asked Archibald.

“Every theater should have a ghost,” declared Cordelia.  “It’s tradition.”

“Yes, well,” he said, clearing his throat.  “If you believe in that sort of thing.”

“You don’t?”

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“I believe in the romance of any given theater being haunted, but no, I don’t believe in actual ghosts.”  Flipping past a couple of pages, he continued.  “To move on with our mini-history tutorial.  After Gilbert and Hilda died, the theater sat empty for many years.  It was the Great Depression and nobody had the money to restart it.  Eventually, two Chicago-based entrepreneurs bought the property for a song and turned it into a movie theater.  They slapped a neon marquee on the front, added elevators in the front lobby, built the addition, and operated it until 1959, calling it The Downtowner.  It was sold again in 1967.  The third floor movie theater was dismantled and the space was used as a general auditorium.  It continued to deteriorate.  A couple theater groups rented it after that.  One from 1975 to 1987.  One from 1998 to 2006.  It sat empty for the rest of the time.”

“And then my sister and I bought it,” said Cordelia, trying to hurry him along.  She had another meeting scheduled for eleven and wanted to get some breakfast before it began.

“Speaking of your sister, where is Octavia?” asked Archibald, closing the folder.  “I was hoping she might sit in on our discussion this morning.”

“Italy,” said Cordelia, repositioning her turquoise necklace across her impressive décolletage.  She knew the necklace was gaudy, which was why she liked it.  “She’s trying to disentangle herself from husband number fifteen.”

“Fifteen?” he repeated, looking shocked.  “So many?”

“Well, eight?  Twelve?  I can’t keep track.  This one’s a real bloodsucker, that’s all I know.”

“When will she be back?”

“Next month.  Next week.  Tomorrow.  She is a willow-the-wisp until we start rehearsals.”

“With a name like hers–so famous on the New York stage, in movies–”

“She obviously has the lead in our first production.”

“And you’ll direct.”

It gave Cordelia a bad case of indigestion to even think about directing her sister.  Not only was Octavia a black hole when it came to emotional hand holding, she didn’t take direction well.  Since the renovations and the need to get the theater organization on firm footing had run into a few snags, the opening production couldn’t be mounted until spring.

Rising from her chair, Cordelia hoped that Archibald would get the message and do the same.

“Am I being dismissed?”

In high heels, at nearly six-foot three, she towered over him, though she wasn’t interested in intimidation–at least, not this morning.

“One more question before I go,” he said, shuffling papers back into the folder.  “You’re giving me full access to all areas of the building, right?”

She saw no reason to deny the request.  “Everything but our current office space.”

He smiled, tucked the folder under his arm.  “I’d like to continue our little meetings, just to keep you abreast of what I’m learning.”

Cordelia walked him to the door.  “Just so that we’re clear.  You intend to write the text for the pamphlet we intend to use for publicity purposes, yes?”

“As long or short as you’d like.”

“You’ll need to talk with our marketing director, Marcus Yeboah.”

“I have a meeting scheduled with him later today.”

“Good man.  I owe you.”

His smile broadened.  “I’m easily bought off with comps.”

“Consider that a given.”