Excerpt: Drama Queen: A Nicky and Noah Mystery by Joe Cosentino

Drama Queen: A Nicky and Noah Mystery


Joe Cosentino


It could be curtains for college theatre professor Nicky Abbondanza. With dead bodies popping up all over campus, Nicky must use his drama skills to figure out who is playing the role of murderer before it is lights out for Nicky and his colleagues. Complicating matters is Nicky’s huge crush on Noah Oliver, a gorgeous assistant professor in his department, who may or may not be involved with a cocky graduate assistant…and is also the top suspect for the murders! You will be applauding and shouting Bravo for Joe Cosentino’s fast-paced, side-splittingly funny, edge-of-your-seat, delightfully entertaining novel. Curtain up!


Surrounded by darkness, I sat tensely watching as a young, beautiful man lay on the floor with blood dripping off his six-pack abs. I held my breath. Another muscular young man stood over the first and looked down with a vengeful gaze and devious smirk. My heart pounded as he strutted through the quiet street in his long flowing cape, weaving from corpse to corpse. His knife, erect, poised. “The Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath. And revenge is oh so sweet,” he said.

“Blackout then lights up!”

Tyler, the technical theatre graduate assistant running the lighting board, hit a button, and our Treemeadow College theatre once again sported its Victorian proscenium, cream-colored walls, maple wood wainscoting, bronze wall sconces, and ruby red stage curtain.

Sitting behind the director’s desk (actually a wooden plank temporarily set up in the center of the audience seating area) I scribbled a last note before shouting, “Good work, everyone! Please get out of costume and make-up as quickly as possible and join me in the first two rows of the house for notes.”

Students scurried about: the actors off the stage; the technicians behind the set securing lighting and prop pieces.

Since it is tech week for my show, I have been working in our Edwardian style theatre every evening alongside our workaholic technical director. Tyler Thompson is our technical theatre professor’s graduate assistant, who like all good technical directors, eats, sleeps, breathes, and basically lives in our Scene Shop behind the stage. Standing at five feet tall with mountainous shoulders, a broad back, powerful arms, thick hands, and stick legs, Tyler rules over all things sound, lights, projections, set pieces, and props at Treemeadow College. When he leaves, we will be at a total loss to find or do anything technical in our theatre.

Sets for plays used to consist of wooden flats screwed together to create the walls of a room or a slide projection of a building. Nowadays no set is worth its weight in a Tony Award if it doesn’t include moving film projections of farmland, urban settings, fireworks, or whatever exterior is called for in a given scene.

“I’ll fix the video of the street scene for tomorrow night, Nicky.” Tyler slumped in a chair next to me as the familiar smell of pepperoni, his staple food, and sawdust stung my nose. He wore his usual techie attire: a soiled white T-shirt under frayed overalls above worn workboats. This look was accented by a gold cross around his neck, tattoos on his arms (like an illustrated book with words, numbers, and pictures), and long, stringy, unwashed hair. Tyler scratched at his beard, a result of him not having shaved (or washed) since we started tech. “I also want to fix the sound cue for the siren, and change a few gels for the red wash across the stage during the murders.”

Before I could thank Tyler, David Samson, Professor of Technical Theatre and our show’s Scenic Designer, barreled down the theatre aisle like a bull in a field of tomatoes, shouting, “Tyler!” David is an imposing six feet two inches tall, weighing about a hundred and eighty pounds with a shaved head.

Tyler froze, and replied like a convicted chemical dumper facing an environmental lynch mob. “Yes, David?”

“You didn’t add in the new light cue I gave you for the top of Act II.”

“I’ll have it for tomorrow night,” Tyler said.

David’s strong features hardened. “Your procrastination and laziness are not acceptable.” He scowled. “Do it now.

“Sure, David,” Tyler responded as he leapt off the theatre seat and hurried into the lighting booth at the back of the theatre.

I came to Tyler’s defense. “David, Tyler has done an amazing job—”

“Nicky, the pacing of the show is too slow. The blocking isn’t balanced. The actors aren’t committing fully to their roles and to listening to one another. This comes as no surprise to me since our Acting professor is as incompetent as you are, Nicky, as our Directing professor. Unfortunately, it seems you’d rather flirt with one another than get to work! This is a disgrace to our department!” David raised his arms in the air like a preacher facing an unrepentant congregation. “You’re the director, Nicky. And I use that term lightly. Your other shows have been insulting to the intelligence of the audience, but this one has reached the pinnacle of being even worse! Will even you let an audience see this repugnant crap?”

“David, this is not the time or place to have this discussion.”

DramaQueencoverWith the student actors and technicians sitting in the front of the theatre (obliviously texting on their phones), my student stage manager, SuCho, screamed for everyone’s attention, and for me to come to the front of the theatre house to give them my notes. This thankfully sent David off to his office in a huff.

After I had given my first few notes, I noticed Noah Oliver standing in the back of the theatre. Noah is tall and lean with curly blond hair, blue eyes, and the sweetest smile I have ever wanted to kiss in an Assistant Professor. While I teach Theatre History and Play Directing, Noah is our department’s specialist in Acting, and for good reason. Noah is a terrific actor, a creative and passionate teacher, and a wonderful colleague. More importantly, I have had a crush on him since the moment he made his entrance into our humble campus three years ago. Noah is single, gay, and seems to really like me. Why don’t I ask him out? Noah is twenty-eight years young. As a junior professor in my department in need of my vote for tenure this year, if I make a pass at him it could be considered attempted coercion on my part.

It was difficult for me to concentrate on giving my notes to the students since Scotty Bruno, my graduate assistant and Assistant Director of the play, was talking, laughing, and obviously flirting with Noah in the rear of the theatre. I had reason to be concerned. Scotty has bleached blond hair, contact lens turquoise eyes, ultra-white bonded teeth, and muscles as if sculpted by Michelangelo, housed in multi-colored, stuffed shorts and tank top (in winter) that were not unnoticed by Noah. Unless I was becoming nearsighted, I could have sworn that Scotty whispered something into Noah’s ear then handed Noah a box. What the heck is in it? Love letters? Condoms? My heart on a silver platter? 

“Any notes for me, professor?” Paul Amour, my leading man, sat front row center and winked at me. Identifying as bisexual, Paul uses his charms with men and women alike to get their attention. Tall with shiny, wavy black hair climbing down his neck, chiseled features, and a body like a Greek god, getting attention wasn’t too difficult for Paul.

“You were like terrific tonight, Paul. I really believed you were like the murderer!” Ricky Gonzalez, Paul’s co-star and last onstage murder victim, sat next to Paul like an art dealer admiring the Mona Lisa. Ricky is shorter and darker than Paul with a smaller but equally cut physique. After he graduates from college and gets over his crush on Paul, Ricky will no doubt make some guy a wonderful husband.

“Thanks, Ricky.” Paul squeezed one of Ricky’s abdominal muscles.

Ricky beamed like a floodlight.

Kayla Calloway and Jan Annondale, who play murder victims one and two in the play, sat on the other side of Paul to reward their peripheral visions. Zaftig, giggly, and insecure, they hung on Paul’s every word, wishing they could hang on Paul.

“Your fight scenes were totally awesome tonight, Paul,” said Kayla.

Jan added, “And you really like aced your cool monologue at the end of the play.”

Before Paul could sign autographs, I said, “I have five more pages of notes tonight, people. Can I have everyone’s attention?”

As the cast members groaned I noticed that Noah and Scotty had left the theatre (to have a quickie in the lobby?). The students listened while I gave notes for improvement on their diction, movements, timing, reacting on stage (or lack thereof), character development, and emotional levels. After my last note, the students presented me with a blueberry cheesecake (thanks to the organic dairy farm bordering the college), singing “Happy Birthday” in four-part harmony (the lesbians at the lower notes and the gay men hitting the high notes). I was filled with gratitude until I noticed the thirty-five candles on top of the cake (obviously leaked to my students by Eve Harrington, my graduate assistant Scotty Bruno).

Allow me to break the fourth wall a moment—

This is the twentieth play that I have directed. Half of them were prior to my becoming a college professor, meaning when I had a low salary, no benefits, and no job security. Thankfully the fates led me to nabbing the coveted brass ring: a tenure track Assistant Professor position in the Theatre Department at a small, private New England college. This ultimately led to tenure and Associate Professor status with all the benefits it entails (salary, house, medical insurance, pension) and a hopeful promotion to full Professor next year.

My name is Nicky Abbondanza, PHD. The PHD (as an ex-boyfriend used to say before he left me for his life coach) stands for perky, hot, and adorable. He wasn’t much of a speller. My parents told me that my brother got the looks and I got the brains. Since my brother looks like Margaret Thatcher, I wasn’t too hopeful about my academic future.

Thankfully I was a straight B+ student and enjoyed writing academic papers such as “The All Male Acting Ensemble of the Elizabethan Theatre,” “Shakespeare’s Sonnets to His Mystery Male Lover,” and “Christopher Marlowe’s Secret Husband.” Catch my drift?

Because you, gentle reader, are always curious what your leads look like…well, I am over six-feet tall with straight black hair, green eyes, Roman nose, and an average to muscular build; meaning I go to the gym when I’m between boyfriends. I go to the gym a lot. And I’ll come right out and say that I have a huge penis. You might think this an idle boast—doesn’t everyone claim to be well-endowed these days, as if rulers aren’t standard measurements. The truth is my flaccid penis is nine and a quarter inches long and two inches wide. This is according to an ex-boyfriend who measured it while I was writing my dissertation. This blessing, or curse, back in high school caused teasing in the locker room: “Hey, it’s the original foot-long wiener!” At least they didn’t tease me for being gay. It has also solicited numerous more recent calls for “a viewing” at the gym. Finally, it has led to either great joy or incredible horror for anyone who dates me. I know what you are thinking. I should become a porn star. No thanks. I’ll keep my day (and night) job at the college. I don’t even watch porn, except in the evenings when I’m not working, during the day if I’m sick or depressed, on weekends, and during holidays.

Coming from Kansas, I truly am a friend of Dorothy’s who has settled down in Treemeadow, a little college town in Vermont, surrounded by snowcapped mountain landscapes dotted with white church steeples, quaint covered bridges over babbling brooks, and a warm and cozy fireplace burning next to a rainbow flag seen through the window of the LGBT bookstore.

“Thirty-five! Professor, you are well preserved for someone so old.”

“I hope I’m still working at thirty-five.”

To Paul and Ricky, and to all of my students, thirty-five is older than Methuselah.

“The first one back with a piece can feed me,” said Paul with a bad boy grin.

“No food in the theatre.” After laying down the law, SuCho yanked open the theatre doors and the students filed out into the lobby.

Ariella, our Professor of Costuming and the costume designer for the play (with costumes hanging over both arms) carefully made her way off the stage and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Happy birthday, Nicky.”

“So you’ve heard I’m ancient…and incompetent.”

Flicking back her long, black hair, Ariella said in her usual monotone, “Don’t let the kids get to you, Nicky. And don’t let David get to you either. The show is terrific.”

I unleashed a half smile. “Tell David that.”

“I already did. Right after his tirade about the ‘pedestrian and mundane’ costumes. Nicky, David doesn’t like anything, except David.” Are there tears brimming in her dark eyes? “Nobody knows that better than me.”

“Ariella, I hope this isn’t too personal, but with all of your complaints about David, why do you stay married to him?”

She offered a bitter smile. “That my friend is a very good question.”

Ariella went to the Costume Shop adjacent to the stage. I joined the students who were scattered throughout the theatre lobby licking their plastic forks clean of cheesecake while texting each other in dismay over the rising tuition at the college.

Paul, Ricky, Kayla, and Jan sat on the flared stairway leading to the balcony. Kayla, a beautiful dark-skinned African American, and Jan, a gorgeous pale-skinned Albino, were on either side of olive-skinned Ricky as if forming a three-layer cake. Paul faced them and appeared to be presenting some type of proposal. Since they are the officers of the Theatre Club on campus, I assumed they were discussing club business. As I am the club’s faculty advisor I walked over, leaned on a gold marble column, and overheard their conversation.

Jan whispered, “I don’t know if I can um go through with this, guys.”

Paul arched his massive back and slipped his muscular arm around her quivering shoulder, “Sure you can, Jan. Trust me. I’ll take care of everything.”

As Jan melted, Kayla combed her hair and giggled. “It could be like fun.”

With eyes only for Paul, Ricky said, “If you um want me to do it, Paul, I’m in.”

I made my way to the gold staircase railing, and asked if they needed my help.

“No thanks, professor, we’re cool,” said Paul with a contraction and release of his pectoral muscles to the delight of his cohorts.

“Cool cake, professor.” Kayla and Jan giggled as they each fed a piece to Paul.

Ricky added with a smirk, “Paul and I can like drive you home if you are too old to drive, professor.”

I grimaced. “Very funny.”

I left my students to their private discussion and joined my young graduate assistant seated on a red velvet bench in a turreted area of the lobby. As I dug into my sizable piece of cake, Scotty leaned into me like a cat facing a sardine, “Since it looks like the tech rehearsal will run late, I can teach your morning Theatre History class tomorrow.”

“That won’t be necessary, Scotty.” Just stick your finger down your throat then head to the gym as usual.

“With teaching your classes, assessing and updating curriculum, going to faculty meetings, advising students, writing your articles, advising the theatre club, and directing plays, I worry that you may get sick.”

You’d unleash the bubonic plague if it meant getting my job. I patted his shaved and oiled knee, and said a la Margo Channing, “I’m fine, Scotty. Just leave your notes on tonight’s performance in my office box tomorrow.”

“Am I too late for the party?” My knees dipped as Noah Oliver took off his coat and scarf and stood next to me. “Happy birthday, Nicky!” He winked at me.

Maybe we can adopt seven children, run away to the hills, and start a family singing act.

Scotty leapt from his seat like it was a pogo stick. “Have a piece of cake, Noah. No nuts!”

I beg your pardon?

“Thanks for remembering, Scotty.” Noah sat between Scotty and me and dug into the creamy wonder. Was that a familiar smile between Scotty and Noah?!

Scotty explained as if he was Noah’s husband, “Noah is allergic to nuts, Nicky.”

Hopefully not to mine.

Noah took me in with his baby blue eyes. Did I notice a look of lust in them? “How’s the show going?”

What show? Oh! “We’re all exhausted, frazzled, panicked, and certain of a great opening night.”

Noah squeezed my hand. “You’re an amazing director. The creative way you move your characters around the stage, how the elements of design compliment the story, and your unique vision is thrilling to watch. I expect nothing short of brilliance in this production.” Noah beamed with pride. “And you have some powerful student actors in the show.” Scotty collected our empty plates. “Noah is a terrific acting teacher.” He gazed at Noah with pure adoration. “The students are lucky to have you.”

Since theatre is a collaborative art, I said, “Tyler’s execution of David’s scenic design is amazing, and as usual Tyler has been a total work horse. Ariella’s costumes have an incredible gothic look, but they’re light enough for the students to move around in them.”

Noah whispered in my ear, and I restrained myself from throwing myself on top of him. “Can I speak to you about something…personal?”

“Sure.” How about a June wedding?

While Scotty stared at us with an inquisitive look on his face, Noah led me to a window seat in a corner of the theatre lobby. White snow fell softly outside the window behind us like cotton bits in a glass ball. I could tell something was bothering Noah, and it hurt me that he was hurting.

“I don’t want to take advantage of our friendship.”

Take advantage! “What’s wrong?”

“It’s about my tenure application.”

I thought back to the neurosis, prayers, nightmares, and sheer terror before my tenure decision. “Noah, anybody lucky enough to get a tenure track position nowadays goes through the jitters stage. It’s not fun, but it’s part of the game. I read your application. It’s very strong. All the students and all the faculty in the department like you.”

His head dropped to his chest. “Not everybody.”

David, the self-prescribed technical theatre god, strikes again.

“I went to David’s office while you were giving notes.”

Tongue firmly in cheek, I said, “And the two of you had a cozy little chat about your promising future at Treemeadow College?”

Noah let out an I Love Lucy, “Hah!” then continued. “After complimenting David on the set design for the show, I mentioned my positive student surveys, and my supportive evaluations from Martin as department head.”

“And when you asked if he will support your tenure, David said he’d have to think about it.” I sneered. “That’s what David said to me when I applied for tenure.” I felt my jaw, hands, and knees clench in unison. “His was my only no vote, which I will never forget.”

“I fared worse than you. David came right out and told me I am too easy on my students, and that like most gay men I am too weak to be a dynamic lecturer.”

“That’s a lie. And against the law in this state.”

Noah’s magnificent lips pouted. “David told me that he wouldn’t support my tenure if I gave him a thousand dollars.”

“He’s never supported anyone for tenure. He has voted against every new course and program modification proposal in the department. He even voted against having a department holiday party. But David’s is only one vote.”

Resting his warm hand on my grateful shoulder, Noah said, “Nicky, David is running for department head.”

“He won’t win against Martin.”

Slumping back against the window seat, Noah said, “There are only seven tenured faculty members in our department. David can be very persuasive.”

“Ariella may be David’s wife but she’s her own person, and she likes you a great deal. And I doubt Jackson Grier would support David since David voted against Jackson’s tenure too.”

“I heard Jackson and David arguing in David’s office tonight before I went in to talk to David about my tenure. Jackson slammed the door and left in a huff.”

“What were David and Jackson arguing about?”

Noah’s shrugged. “I heard David criticizing Jackson’s movement and stage combat choreography for the show. Then all I could get were the words, ‘fresh start.’” Soft lines surfaced on Noah’s handsome face. “David could be making deals, offering his support to faculty if he becomes department head and if they vote against my tenure.”

I stood and lifted Noah to his feet. “Come on, young man.”

He looked like a school boy at a fire drill. “Where are we going?”

“Where everyone in our department brings all of our problems.”

A delicious line formed between Noah’s eyes. “Is Martin here at this hour?”

“My bet is yes.” I pushed Noah in front of me, and said grandly, “To the Wizard of Theatre Arts.”

A few minutes later we were in the white stone building next door, which houses our faculty offices, lab theatre, rehearsal hall, and classrooms. Martin was just about to leave his office when Noah and I arrived like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man asking for our special wish.

Our department head is a short, thin, balding man who looks like Pinocchio, if Pinocchio was in his sixties. Besides being a terrific Theatre Management professor, Martin is honest, kind, incredibly competent, and a tireless advocate for everyone and everything in our department. When I grow up, I want to be Martin Anderson.

“Nicky! Noah! Come in. Have a seat.” Pretending he hadn’t been on his way home, Martin surreptitiously slipped off his hat and coat then settled us all on tall, leather wingback chairs around his cherry wood mantel fireplace with china cups filled with hot cocoa in our hands and monogrammed cranberry cloth napkins on our knees. Martin wore his usual wardrobe of a white button-down shirt, black pants, and matching sweater vest and bowtie (cranberry today).

I said, “Working on next term’s budget?”

Martin smiled revealing jagged teeth from biting on too many number two pencils. “The budget, course schedule, and curriculum reports for next term are finished. I was going over student grade appeals.”

Noah’s jaw dropped. “It’s only February. Grade appeals so soon?”

I patted Noah on the head, and said a la W.C. Fields, “The way our students are coddled at home and in high school, there are always grade appeals, my boy.” I took a sip of my sweet cocoa, and asked Martin, “Doesn’t Ruben ever complain about the hours you keep at the college?”

Martin smiled at the picture of him and his husband on his large cherry wood desk. “After over forty years together, we understand each other’s passions…for one another and for our work.”

Ruben is the C.E.O. of a gay rights organization, a devoted husband to Martin, and a loving father to their two adopted children, now grown women with families of their own.

“But enough about me. How’s the show coming?”

“I’ll let you know after opening night…and after I sleep about twenty-four hours.”

“You do terrific work…both of you.”


Martin looked like a termite in a wood shed. “Now tell me everything that is going on at rehearsals. Any love affairs among the students? Arguments between the staff? Artistic tempers flaring?”

Besides being an amazing department head, Martin is also an amazing gossip. Though he will keep any secret asked of him in confidence, everything else is fair game for a major Martin chin wag.

I filled Martin in on the latest antics of my cast and crew, including Ricky, Kayla, and Jan’s infatuation with my play’s leading man.

After I ran out of gossip, Noah said tensely, “Martin, we came to see you about David Samson.” Noah rested a shaky elbow on the arm of his chair. “Besides Ariella, who in our department might be swayed by him?”

Martin’s eyes twinkled like the Big Dipper. “I doubt Loptu would be…any longer.”

That peeked my interest. “What does Loptu have against David?”

Martin salivated over each word. “Well, they were once…an item.”

I couldn’t believe our bipolar Playwriting professor was once David’s mistress. “How do you know?”

“Loptu was in here weeping and wailing when David dumped her last week. I held her hand and let her cry on my shoulder…” he grinned, “…while I got the whole story out of her.”

Unleashing his warm heart, Noah asked, “How is Loptu now?”

“Fine, thanks to a steady supply of little red, blue, and green psychotropic wonders from her psychiatrist.”

“Does Ariella know about David and Loptu?” I asked.

Martin giggled merrily. “How could Ariella not know? We are a very small community here at Treemeadow.” Back to Noah’s question, Martin said, “However, Millie will probably do anything David asks.”

My jaw dropped to the cocoa stain on the carpet. “Millie and David are together?”

Martin was nearly orgasmic. “They are glued together like a televangelist and his wig.”

Noticing the look of fear on Noah’s face, I said, “As our Voice and Diction professor, Millie is Noah’s closest colleague. Regardless of her affair with David, she would never do anything to hurt Noah.”

“What’s this about?” asked Martin at the edge of his seat.

I stood by my man, or rather by the man I wished was my man. “Tonight David told Noah that he isn’t supporting Noah’s tenure application.”

Martin laughed. “Big news. David has never supported anyone or anything.”

I nodded. “But David said some untrue and probably illegal things to Noah.”

Martin’s curiosity was peeked, a relatively easy task. I filled Martin in on the latest words of wisdom from David to Noah.

When I was finished, Noah’s leg shook nervously, as he said, “My concern is that David might try to poison others in the department against me, and use his running for department head as leverage.”

Martin seemed to grow a foot in stature. “David’s a bully. And the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him.” Looking like a mother bear facing a hunter, Martin added, “David tells me that everything I do is wrong. Well, now I will do something that is right.” He put his hand on Noah’s shoulder. “And I promise, we won’t lose you, Noah.” Martin put his arms around us and walked us to the door. “The people in this department mean more to me than you know. I won’t stand idly by when a fox gets into my hen house.” We stopped at the door. Martin looked at us like a father sending his children off to bed. “Go home. Get some rest. And let me take care of David.”

After thanking Martin, Noah and I did exactly that. Unfortunately, each in our own beds.

I woke the next morning to the local news blaring from the radio alarm on my night table. Before I could hit the snooze button, I heard the news announcer’s top story. “Early this morning David Samson, Professor of Technical Theatre, was found dead in his office at Treemeadow College with a knife lodged in his back.”

DRAMA QUEEN (a Nicky and Noah mystery)

a comedy/mystery/romance novel


from Lethe Press

paperback, ebook, and audiobook available now

purchase links:

Purchase the audiobook narrated by Michael Gilboe at Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Drama-Queen-Nicky-Noah-Mystery/dp/B012O702CW/

Purchase the audiobook at Audible at: http://www.audible.com/pd/Mysteries-Thrillers/Drama-Queen-Audiobook/B012I834LS/ref=a_search_c4_1_9_srTtl?qid=1438019265&sr=1-9 

Purchase the paperback from Lethe Press at: http://www.lethepressbooks.com/store/p303/Drama_Queen%3A_A_Nicky_and_Noah_Mystery.html

Purchase the paperback from Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Drama-Queen-Nicky-Noah-Mystery/dp/1590214676/

Purchase the ebook from Smashwords at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/546002



Exclusive Excerpt: Straight Up – a new Dan Stagg Mystery by James Lear

Straight Up


James Lear


Who is trying to kill the members of an elite special ops team that worked off the radar in Iraq in the ’90s? It’s up to Dan Stagg to track down the survivors — the men with whom he stormed an undefended surveillance station, killing everyone inside. And now, many years later, the team is being targeted in what seems like a series of unrelated attacks.

Dan teams up with his old comrade Al Benson, once a rising star of the USMC, now a respectable married civilian with a few secrets to hide. As they dig deeper into the secrets of the past, Dan discovers that Benson’s looking for more than just answers. An explosive affair threatens everyone’s future, and connects Dan to a past he thought he’d left behind.

Excerpted with Permission From Straight Up: A Dan Stagg Novel

Now, those of you who know me well will have rolled your eyes when I said I worked in a gym. ‘Oh yes, Dan, a gym. A place where guys come and take their clothes off. How convenient.’ I might bust your chops for that, or I might say ‘You’ve got me all wrong, I’m in a relationship now and I don’t fool around,’ and you’d pretend to believe me because you’d prefer to keep your limbs intact. But of course, you’re absolutely right. My official job at The Strong Box – ‘Lowell’s Premier Fitness and Martial Arts Facility’ (ie the only gym in town) – is personal trainer, specializing in kickboxing and other legitimized forms of violence. In between clients, who are sparse, I sit at the front desk, answer the phone, pick up wet towels in the locker room, mop the floors and generally clear up other people’s shit. It’s kind of like working for Uncle Sam, without the killing.

Of course there are opportunities, and yes, I’ve taken them. Not with the members: I can’t afford to lose this job, and the boss made us sign a piece of paper agreeing that any fraternizing with the clients would lead to instant dismissal. I guess a few too many horny housewives got banged up by their personal trainers. They’re safe from me, but their husbands might not be. Nobody need know that. I’m not what you’d call out at work.


I didn’t sign anything about co-workers, though. People move around a lot in the fitness industry – there’s a high staff turnover even in a little joint like the Strong Box, college grads trying to get a toehold in the business, former athletes whose competition days are over, even a few ex-military men like me. They’re all physically fit, and at a rough guess I’d say about 40 per cent of the men could be persuaded. You get talking about your bodies, you hit the showers after locking up at night, you compare abs or delts or whatever fucking muscle you like, and Bob’s your uncle. And it was just as I was putting the key in the ignition that I remembered I was sharing a shift with Lee, the young English guy who was doing a masters in sports science in a college over towards Boston. Like me he was living in cheap rented accommodation in Lowell, like me he was paying the rent by working at the gym, and in the couple of weeks he’d been there we’d really enjoyed complaining about stuff. He was 21, his first time abroad, his first time living away from home, and he was homesick. I guess I should also mention that he was tall and lean and had played rugby back at home, and hoped one day to play for his country. He had the English rose tattooed on his left pectoral muscle. ‘I want to wear that on my shirt one day,’ he said, the first time I saw him naked. If I had my way he’d never wear clothes again, but I just nodded and said something about sport.

He was already waiting when I pulled up to the kerb, leaning against the wall, wearing jeans and a thick sweater and a watch cap; it was September, the days still warm but the mornings cold as ice, a promise of the winter to come. He’d found a patch of thin early sunshine and was basking in it like a lizard, soaking up the warmth. His face was striking rather than handsome, particularly with the strong shadows accentuating his high cheekbones and deep brow. His eyes were close-set, his mouth large; in repose, he could look quite stupid, a brainless meathead. I liked this. I spent my career giving orders to guys like Lee, and I always had a soft spot for the dumb ones. When he heard the car door slamming he opened his eyes and smiled.


He stood up straight, pulled his cap off and ran a large hand over his head. The hair was cut in some crazy style, buzzed at the side but long at the top and back, a kind of modified Mohawk that would look fucking awful on anyone over 22. When you’re Lee’s age you can get away with it – just. His nails were bitten down to the quick, and he had a band-aid on his right middle finger.

I shook his hand, then inspected his fingers. ‘What’s the matter, Lee? Can’t you afford regular food? Been eating yourself?’

He pulled his hand away, stuffed it into his pocket, ashamed of the childish habit. ‘Yeah, right, I know.’

He had a habit of mumbling which, combined with a thick London accent and an unfamiliar vocabulary, made communication interesting. ‘How are you mate?’

‘I’m good. You?’

‘Yeah.’ He did a nervous little sidelong smile, hissed between his teeth. ‘All right. Cold innit.’

‘Let’s open up.’ I checked my watch. ‘Half an hour before we let ‘em in.’

‘I need a shower.’ He sniffed his armpit and grimaced. ‘I fucking stink.’

I scratched my 24-hour stubble. ‘And I need a shave. Come on.’

The Strong Box occupied the basement of two retail units, an outdoor clothing store and a tackle and bait shop, accessed by a metal staircase and a tiny front area into which garbage always blew. Our first job was to clear out the night’s debris.

‘I’ll do this,’ I said, opening the door: as the senior employee, I was entrusted with the keys. ‘You go get the water running.’

‘Cheers mate. I owe you.’

Yeah, and I can think of a thousand ways to make you pay, I thought, watching his ass recede into the gloom of the interior. I kicked the trash into a little pile and dumped it in the bin, hoping there were no sharps. Usual stuff: burger wrappings, cigarette butts, cans. I needed to wash my hands.

I could hear the shower as soon as I walked in; good boy, he’d done as he was told, first thing in the morning it could take five minutes for the water to get up to a bearable temperature. The boiler was always breaking down, which made for pissed off members and smelly employees. The Strong Box was not exactly high-end.


Releasing September 8, 2015