Exclusive Excerpt: The Blue Parrot (Book 3: The L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet) by Steve Neil Johnson

Who is Steve Neil Johnson?

Steve is the author of the bestselling Doug Orlando mysteries, FINAL ATONEMENT (Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Mystery) and FALSE CONFESSIONS. The books grew out of his experiences working for the District Attorney of Brooklyn. His other books include the occult thriller THIS ENDLESS NIGHT, the young adult novel RAISING KANE, and the middle-grade book (under the pseudonym Rathbone Ravenford) EVERYBODY HATES

EDGAR ALLAN POE! He was honored by ONE/National Gay & Lesbian Archives for his contributions to gay literature. He is a longtime resident of Los Angeles, where he is writing his four-book four-decade spanning saga of gay life from the 1950s to the 1980s, The L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet. The first book in the series, THE YELLOW CANARY, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Mystery. THE BLACK CAT is the second book in the series. The third, THE BLUE PARROT, was recently published.

Blurb:

Los Angeles, 1975…Eight years have passed since the events in THE BLACK CAT…Crusading attorney Paul Winters is drawn into a web of fear and peril when Jim Blake, the dangerously handsome cop from his past, is framed for murder. As they follow clues left by the killer, their search leads them through the freewheeling world of sex and drugs and gay bathhouses in mid-seventies Los Angeles, and into the dark and chilling history of psychiatric abuse in California’s most notorious state mental hospital. And Paul is forced to choose between two very different men…and face the truth that he loves them both… THE BLUE PARROT is the third book in the Lambda Literary Award nominated series The L.A. AFTER MIDNIGHT Quartet, a four-book four-decade spanning saga of gay life from the 1950s to the 1980s in the City of Angeles. In order to fully enjoy the series, the author recommends reading the books in the order they were written, starting with THE YELLOW CANARY.

April, 1975

Chapter 1

From the front doorway of his house perched high in the hills above Hollywood, Jim Blake watched as the patrol car with its lights flashing and the black sedan following it sped along Canyon Drive, the siren’s shrill peal echoing up the hillside.  The stretch of the city below him was shrouded in a blanket of fog, and tattered veils of mist floated by his porch in the cool of the night.

Blake glanced back inside to his dimly lit living room.  The smell of gunpowder hung heavily in the air, and the shotgun blast still rang in his ears.  He felt numb, and sweat beaded his thick brows.  At least he’d had it together enough to put his clothes back on before making the call.  In the haze of his thoughts he could remember the man’s lips, lush but firm, and the tautness of his body, but not his name.

He knew he was in trouble and he would never be able to explain any of it.  Through the dull pall of alcohol and drugs that lay over him, that terrible anxiety was beginning to worm its way back inside, the apprehension and foreboding that had always haunted him in the darkest moments of his life.

The vehicles slowed to a crawl and found Sierra Lane, nearly hidden among tall hedges, then climbed the hill to where the road dead-ended at the steep vine-covered incline rising to his house.  Blake’s partner in Homicide, Sergeant Pete “Mitch” Mitchell, got out of the sedan and waited for the two uniforms in the cruiser to douse the headlights and kill the siren before starting up the long flight of wooden stairs that led to his front door.

Someone was having a party on the other side of the valley, and the insistent beat of rock music filtered through the mist across the cut.  On still summer nights he could catch the sweet scent of marijuana wafting over the canyon.

The lane had no streetlights, and the neighboring houses were unlit.  The three men rose through the wisps of fog in dark silhouette.  In front, Sergeant Mitchell—tall, reedy, almost gaunt, his trench coat flapping—was undoubtedly the last detective in the LAPD to still wear a fedora.  He had the unhurried gait of a man nearing retirement, or one who had already seen everything and was in no rush to see anything more.  When he reached the porch, out of breath, the two officers chugging up behind him, Mitchell gazed assessingly at his partner for a minute without saying anything.

Blake silently gazed back.  His height of six foot two and his broad shoulders were nearly as high and wide as the frame of the door.  His expression was unreadable in the shadows of the entryway.              Then Blake stepped aside as if by previous mutual agreement and Sergeant Mitchell stood tentatively in the threshold.  He continued to watch Blake for another moment, then his focus drifted to the floor of the entry.

“Jesus, Jim.”

The naked body of a man lay sprawled on the floor, his head haloed in a thick pool of blood on the hardwood; even in the dim room it was clear little of his face remained.  Mitchell advanced farther inside, glanced inquisitively at Blake one more time, then approached the body, folding his long lanky form and crouching beside it.  He didn’t bother to check for a pulse.

After carefully examining the gaping wound, Mitchell looked up.  “A double-barrel shotgun, square in the face, right?”  His gray eyes, weary but shrewd, shifted around the room.  “Where is the weapon?”

Blake didn’t answer.  He couldn’t look at the body.  He felt dazed and the shock of the deafening gun blast in his ears came back to him.  He leaned against the door to steady himself.

Jim,” Mitchell said sharply to get his attention, “where did you put the gun?”

When Blake couldn’t find the words to respond, he knew in that brief silence his twelve-year relationship with Mitchell was coming apart.  Whatever trust they had built up—and over time there had been plenty of it—was slipping away with each passing moment.  He should have known calling Mitchell wouldn’t make any difference.  Before everything else, first and foremost, they were cops, and in his failure to reply he had just gone from being a friend and respected partner to being a murder suspect.

“Who is he?” Mitchell asked.  “What’s his name?”

“I don’t know.”

At least that much was true.  Blake shook his head, struggling to clear his mind for what was to come.  Training his sightline away from the corpse, he went around Mitchell and the body into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch.  He had to think, but that was the one thing his brain wasn’t letting him do.  That anxiety he always dreaded was working its way into his gut, burrowing upward.  He rubbed his big hands over his face.  His palms were clammy.  He found a cigarette pack on the table and lit a Chesterfield.  As he inhaled deeply it occurred to him dully that The Eagles had been playing in endless repetition on the stereo all night.  It seemed like he had put that LP on a lifetime ago, but what had it been, only an hour or so earlier?

Mitchell spoke quietly to one of the officers, who trotted back down the stairs to radio for a forensics team.  He ordered the other uniform, a rookie with a black handlebar mustache, to check out the rest of the house.  Drawing his gun, the uniform threw Blake a look hungry with suspicion as he passed by, then made his way room to room, peering into the kitchen and the dining room, and finally disappeared down the hall toward the bedrooms in the rear of the house.

Coming over to the coffee table, Mitchell bent down, sniffing at two tumblers nearly drained of liquor next to a bottle of Dewar’s, but didn’t touch the glasses.  “Anything else I should know about?  If you have a stash in the house, you know we’ll find it.”

Blake shook his head again.  He’d had the wherewithal to flush the baggie containing a few twisted joints he kept hidden on one of the slats under his box springs down the toilet before he’d called his partner.

“You look doped up.  Are you on LSD?  MDA?”  Mitchell eased onto the couch beside him.  He took off his hat and laid it in his lap and observed Blake, his long, ruggedly assembled face etched with concern.  “Sometimes people do things they never would have if they weren’t high.”

Blake was about to reply, but caught himself.  The less said now the better.  In the blur of the evening, he remembered one moment above the rest: the heat of their naked bodies nestled on the couch, hands exploring, roughly, possessively, their mouths locked together, the taste of whiskey on their entwined tongues.  And then, suddenly, the room had begun to spin, his lungs starved for air, and a dark cloud enveloped him.

His eyes came to rest on the tumblers on the coffee table.  Something had been slipped into his drink.  He was sure of it.  But that didn’t make sense.  None of it did.  All he knew was the drug must have been strong.  It had taken a shotgun blast to wake him from his stupor.

“C’mon, Jim.  Give me something to work with.  You called me because you knew I’d give you a fair shake.”

At last Blake spoke.  “There aren’t any drugs here.  The house is clean.  But you’d better check my glass.  It was spiked.”

“Okay, that’s better.  Now we’re talking.  Tell me what’s going on.  Let’s make this go away.”

A wave of despair swept over him as he recognized the lines Mitchell had used in a thousand interrogations with suspects.  Mitchell must have caught it too, because for a moment he couldn’t bear to look at his partner.  Blake knew he shouldn’t say a word, that nothing could save him, but one grain of hope remained that he could at least convince his partner that he wasn’t guilty of murder.

“Mitch,” Blake said, staring down at his hands, his cigarette smoldering between unsteady fingers, “look at the wall.  Across from the door.”

Rising from the couch, Mitchell set his hat aside and went to the shadow-laden entryway and switched on the overhead light.  He blinked, adjusting to the brightness.

An ugly splotch on the wall directly across from the door caught his attention and drew him closer.  A spray of shotgun pellets, blood and brain matter the size of a human head marred the wall at shoulder level.  Mitchell observed it closely, turned back to the door, and then to where the body lay.

He began counting down the theoretical series of events out loud, as if that was what he needed to string each strand in the sequence together.  “There was a knock at the door, right?  The vic walked over and answered, and somebody was standing there on the front porch and blew him away with a shotgun.  Right in the face.”  Mitchell tapped his finger on his long nose, then pointed at the blotch.  “The impact threw him against the entry wall, then he collapsed on the floor.  Then the perp ran off, taking the shotgun.”

But something troubled him about that scenario, and he took in the open doorway, chewing his lip.  It was the same problem Blake faced when he tried to piece together what had happened that night.  Did it seem likely the victim had answered a knock at the door without wearing any clothes?

Mitchell finally seemed to note in the dimness by the fireplace a pair of pants flung on a nearby chair, a shirt hanging on its back, shoes, socks and underwear tossed haphazardly at its foot.  He couldn’t have missed from the very beginning the implication of the man having no clothes on, but he seemed to weigh the full meaning of it for the first time.  Maybe he had just not wanted to consider it before.  Blake could see he was working his jaw, trying to make the pieces fit, not liking his conclusions.  But Mitchell didn’t ask the next question.  Maybe he just didn’t have the stomach for it.  They had been friends too long. The rest could wait for later, under the stark light of the interrogation room.

It was the one thing Blake would never be able to explain away, and that meant his days in the department were numbered.  Even if he were exonerated of everything else.  Why was the victim naked?  What was Blake doing with a naked man in his house, music on the stereo, two glasses of scotch on the table?

“Mitch,” Blake said quietly, looking up from his hands, “you know I had nothing to do with this.”

“I still have to bring you in.”  Mitchell observed him with a tired expression on his face.  “Until we get this cleared up.  You can make your phone call here, or you can wait until we get to the station.  You got a lawyer?  Someone you can call?”

Blake’s face clouded with doubt, the crease between his thick black brows deepening.  He hesitated before he replied, taking a long draw on his Chesterfield and exhaling a plume of smoke through his nose.  There was only one person he could think of.  Someone from a long time ago.  How many years had it been?  That worm of anxiety and regret made its way to his throat.

“Paul Winters,” he said under his breath.

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Something happened in his chest every time Paul Winters heard that voice.

“Paul, it’s me, Jim.”

Paul felt his hand involuntarily grip the phone tighter.

And then, after a pause, as if the greeting needed further explanation, “Jim Blake.”

A tumble of emotions too complicated to unravel cascaded through Paul’s head, and his breath caught in the back of his throat.  He hadn’t seen nor spoken with Jim Blake in eight years.

Paul quickly glanced across the kitchen to where his lover, David Rosen, was putting finishing touches on a tray of hors d’oeuvres on the countertop.  They were having a party that evening to celebrate the remodeling of their kitchen—including their gleaming brand new matching avocado stove and refrigerator—and their breakfast table was crowded with wine and liquor bottles and serving dishes arranged with fussy appetizers.  Their friends had all dutifully lined up to admire the renovation, filled their glasses with alcohol, then settled in the living room, where the sounds of laughter and disco music, and the occasional ring of the doorbell, came down the hall.

“I’m in trouble.”

For the briefest moment Paul wanted to hang up the phone and go back to the life he had known for the past several years, to shut off all the conflicting feelings toward Jim Blake that were now welling inside him, but he knew he wouldn’t.  He wasn’t sure he’d be able to trust his voice, but when he spoke his tone came out measured and professional.

“Tell me what’s happened,” he said quietly.

He listened for a minute, playing with the bristly hairs in his new and meticulously cropped mustache.  He stared down at his shoes but could feel David watching him curiously from across the room.

Then he said, “I’ll be there,” and hung up the phone.

 

Website:

http://www.steveneiljohnson.com/

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