Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries by Marshall Thornton
From “Little Boy Burned”
That Valentine’s Day I was sleeping alone—by choice.
I was in the middle of a sex dream about the kid in that island movie that came out last year, the one about the boy and girl who get shipwrecked, run around mostly naked, and eventually learn about sex. In my dream, though, there wasn’t any girl on the island, and things between the kid and I had begun to get hot and heavy when the phone rang.
“Yeah,” I said, untangling my hard-on from my twisted boxers. I glanced at the clock. It was 6:12 a.m. I’d slept a little more than two hours.
“Nick, it’s Ross.” His voice was electric. “Something’s happened. Paradise is on fire.”
“I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
I worked the door at Paradise Isle two nights a week and had for a couple of years. Ross was one of the bartenders and my occasional fuck buddy. The nightclub, which we usually called just Paradise, was part of a string of brick storefronts down on Broadway right above Diversey. Ross and I had both finished shifts just hours before.
Groggy and a little horny, I threw on some clothes and ran out to find a cab. It had been easier to find one at three a.m. In the wee hours of a Sunday, cabs cruised around ready to take late-night revelers home. But by six-thirty they’d become scarce. It took almost ten minutes, but I finally got one, and it zipped me down Clark to Diversey. We couldn’t make the V turn to get onto Broadway because fire trucks blocked the way. I paid the driver and hopped out.
I got there about six-forty. Smoke was still pouring out of the top of the building, but it looked like the fire was winding down. The sky in the east had turned pink, and I figured the sun would be up in a few minutes. The air was frigid cold, but at least it wasn’t snowing. Two big, red fire trucks sat in front of the bar. Hoses crisscrossed the street. Firemen scuttled back and forth; the sidewalk slick with icy water, washing away the dirty snow that currently graced most curbs in Chicago.
I saw our DJ, Miss Minerva Jones, standing on the east side of Broadway in a small crowd. I made my way over. I’d never seen Miss Minerva out of a dress. Usually she favored wrap-around silk disco dresses, six-inch heels, over-teased blond wigs, and a dusting of glitter. That morning, though, she wore a pair of Sergio Valente jeans with their bull’s-head logo stitched into the back pockets and a gray parka. She’d left her wig at home and made a half-hearted attempt to take off her makeup. Whiskers were starting to poke their way through the remaining streaks of foundation.
When she saw me, she growled, “Every album I own is in there.” In the DJ booth, there were about five milk crates stuffed with the best disco ever recorded. “My life is ruined,” she moaned.
“What happened?” I asked.
“No one knows. I was getting ready for bed when I heard the sirens.” Miss Minerva had a studio apartment a block away on Clark Street. “They kept getting louder and louder. When they stopped, I knew. I called Davey and then Ross.”
I looked around and saw the owner, Davey, and Ross talking with a fireman. Ross was wearing a long, gray wool coat that was actually mine. He’d borrowed it a couple weeks back and now seemed unwilling to return it. Too thin for this weather, the only way I got away with wearing it in winter was to layer up with a corduroy blazer, a flannel shirt, and a T-shirt. Ross wasn’t wearing anything underneath but a BVD T-shirt. Even from where I stood, I could see him shivering.
“Bernie was inside,” Miss Minerva said flatly. Bernie was another of the bartenders. I didn’t know him well. He’d started on the afternoon shift and had only recently begun working the peak nights, Friday and Saturday. I had noticed that, like all of Davey’s bartenders, he was a very good-looking boy.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“No. He’s burned pretty bad. They took him to the hospital a few minutes ago.” She was sullen, seeming to grind her expensive caps.
“What time did this start?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Not long ago. Close to six?”
“What was Bernie doing here at six in the morning?
“Sleeping in the storeroom,” Miss Minerva said. Then with a roll of her eyes she added, “Boyfriend trouble.”
I nodded, then headed over to join Davey, Ross, and the fireman. As I walked over, I noticed that an axe had been used to get through the front door where I usually stood checking IDs and keeping an eye out for trouble.
Davey and Ross greeted me, and I patted Davey on the shoulder.
The fireman wore stiff, yellow turnout gear that made him seem enormous. His face was smudged with soot, and he smelled like sweet, acrid smoke. He explained, “It appears the fire began near the bar or possibly even behind it. Accelerants were used, but it could have been bottles of liquor.”
“151 Rum would have done it,” said Ross.
“It’s arson,” the fireman said bluntly.
Davey went pale. “Someone did this on purpose?”
“We’re not finding any signs of forced entry.”
“What does that mean?” Davey asked.
“It could mean a lot of things,” I interrupted. Davey didn’t seem to understand the situation, but I did, and I didn’t think he should say anything else. The fireman gave me a look. His eyes were a sharp blue. We stared each other down for a moment. And then he said, “I’ll be back to talk to you later.” He walked away.
Davey shook his head, confused. Paradise was his world. It was the second bar he’d put together. The first had been called The Cellar and had a five-year run in Old Town. He’d hit at just the right time. Disco was big then, and there had been long lines around the block on Fridays and Saturdays. Paradise Isle was successful, but not on the same scale.
Ross pulled out a pack of Camel Lights. He offered me one, and I took it. We lit up and smoked for a minute. “If there are no signs of forced entry, it means that whoever started the fire was let in or had a key,” I explained.
“They had a key?” Davey wondered. “How would they get a key?”
“They might have hidden somewhere,” suggested Ross. “In the bathroom maybe?”
I took a drag on my cigarette and said, “The thing is, Davey, you’re gonna be the most likely suspect.”
He blushed a little. “I have an alibi.” Davey had a much younger, Asian boyfriend who barely spoke English and called the bar if Davey was five minutes late leaving.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “You could have hired someone to start the fire.”
“I love this place. I would never burn it down.”
“You have insurance, right?”
“That’s your motive.”
“What, they think I burned the place down so I could redecorate?”
I smiled. “That’s a better reason than some I’ve heard.”
“I have to go to the hospital and see how Bernie’s doing,” Davey said, as though to himself. He walked away without saying goodbye. Then he turned and came back.
“Find out,” he said. “Find out who did this.”
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