EXCERPT: AFTER THE HORSES
by Jeffrey Round
Chapter 2 – “Tall in the Saddle”
The Saddle—or more correctly the Saddle and Bridle, as it was christened—had opened at the outset of the first AIDS decade. Back then it catered to a generation of gay men who felt they’d found themselves at last, only to discover that in finding themselves many would lose their lives and their friends far too early and in extremely unpleasant ways. The ugliness of the disease in its early years cannot be overstated, before drug cocktails and therapies commuted a death decree into a life sentence, but one with no foreseeable chance of pardon.
The bar thrived nevertheless, becoming one of Toronto’s preeminent dance clubs, changing hands and owners several times along the way before ending up in the reaches of one Yuri Malevski, a Macedonian immigrant who came to Canada seeking freedom from discrimination in the Old World. Malevski happily embraced all that was forward thinking about his adopted home, even while a fearsome syndrome was decimating his community in ways far more atrocious than even the worst politicians and religious fanatics had been capable of devising.
Like nearly everyone else in the gaybourhood, Dan had heard of the murdered nightclub owner. Who hadn’t? Over the years, Malevski’s reputation grew. He was praised for being a hard-working community entrepreneur, a generous AIDS charities benefactor, even while rumours proliferated about the deteriorating physical condition of the bar as well as its notorious after-hours activities. And the band played on. Few blamed Malevski for what happened behind the scenes in his club. Drug use was rampant and, despite the risks it entailed, sex had become a free-for-all. One pair of eyes could not be everywhere, they said. Not his place to try and stop it, they said. This was back in the days when the gay community was still reinventing itself, looking for greater acceptance from the world at large as it transformed from social pariah to business success. Who would dare to interfere?
The old millennium ended and another began. All the while, the club thrived. Malevski became a solid part of the establishment, entrenching himself in the bedrock of the community. Then the murder happened. It was a shock to many, but not to all. The real bombshell was the way his reputation got served up to public censor. It was messy, semen-splattered news of the coarsest sort: a rich pervert who entertained hustlers, drug dealers, drag queens and transsexuals found murdered in his luxury home. The media feasted on it. What newspaper wouldn’t splash it across their front pages, wringing every last cent from a curiosity-starved public? Strangely, in all this, the police were unusually reticent, treating it as an everyday incident, a run-of-the-mill murder rather than the sensational headline material it was proving. That in itself, Dan thought, made it noteworthy. Why downplay the case when publicity might help catch a killer? Still, chasing illegal Cuban boyfriends and other potential murderers wasn’t his thing. Let someone else be heroic—the Dan Sharps of this world needed to be practical.
He passed a muffin shop, letting his eyes roam over the display while noting a dozen ways to flavour something he didn’t particularly want before deciding he didn’t actually need another sugar high. He pictured Donny’s fingers tapping restlessly on the counter whenever he ran out of cigarettes. If he wanted to criticize his friend’s bad habits, it wouldn’t do to have too many of his own.
Dan found the Saddle and Bridle looking as forlorn and neglected as a cast-off lover. Sheets of bare plywood covered the windows. Concert posters had been pasted over the exterior like a second skin. From outside, it appeared to be little more than an overgrown, neo-gothic pub, heavy on the brickwork. Passing by on the street, you might not even register the nature of its clientele unless you stopped to consider the giant mural of two moustachioed men seated together on a black stallion, their smiles gleaming three storeys above the parking lot. Inside told a different tale. The walls were covered with far-more revealing artwork of men in various states of undress and sexual postures—nothing extraordinary for a gay bar, though Dan recalled a rumour the place contained a labyrinthine basement suitable for torture, long-term imprisonment and the deepest, darkest, acts of fetishistic carnality, all just waiting for Vlad the Impaler to return.
He skirted the building, trying first the front then the back door. Both refused right of passage, barring his entry. He was about to step aside and be on his way when he heard a staccato tapping from within.
A dim recollection surfaced through the bric-a-brac of memory: himself as a twenty-something club goer, right before he became a dad and his social life virtually ended overnight, having just had a pass made at him by a drunk whose hands wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer. He’d been upstairs in a corral-like area, surrounded by cowboys-in-drag with their chaps and spurs and Stetsons. This particular wrangler had a lasso strapped to his belt, though he’d looked too inebriated to use it even if he wanted to.
Freeing himself from the man’s insistent pawing, Dan pushed his way through a maze of black-lit rooms and out a private exit leading to a back alley fire-escape. At the bottom, he passed a trellised garden where a clutch of drag queens slinked about, cocktails in hand, before making good his escape onto the street. It was months before he returned.
Looking up now, Dan saw the fire-escape, smiling to find it intact after all those years. It touched ground in the back alley where he’d ended his youthful adventure. A quick climb up a rickety set of stairs and the exit door opened at his touch.
He stepped in and looked around. There was no one about—and therefore no one to see him doing something he shouldn’t be doing. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d overstepped his bounds and trespassed in order to get a firsthand look at something that conspired to keep him out.
Inside the bar, chaos reigned—if not supreme then at least supremely confident in its ability to make mock of the works of men. Floors were ripped up, ceiling tiles missing, walls in a shambles. The police had done their worst, tearing the place apart and tossing things aside in search of evidence of the nefarious intrigues that had gone on in the afterhours. There was no respect for the recently deceased, it seemed. What is a man remembered for? Dan wondered. The good things he does in his life, the legacy he leaves behind or for whether he partied to excess once in a while? Yuri Malevski had done favours for the gay community, but he’d also been the sort of man whose life harboured dark secrets. Nothing new in the annals of time, but clearly whoever had been through the bar in the days since his death had found little about him to honour.
He glanced around. There, behind what was once a very busy martini bar, lay the entrance to the rumoured dungeons of debauchery and sexual abandon. He tripped the latch and opened the door. Steps led down into darkness, but the lights still worked when he flipped the switch, illuminating a swath of wooden stairs descending to who knew where. He followed, wary of broken boards and slippery footing. It wouldn’t do to twist an ankle while trespassing.
At the bottom lay an overturned burlap bag with grain spilling from a tear in its side. A large rat waddled away at Dan’s approach. Cartons of empties were stacked along one wall, the wooden shelves old and dusty. The entire space was no more than twenty by twenty feet. No whips, chains or manacles, no implements of torture anywhere in sight, just a dusty, neglected storage space. Poor Vlad.