Exclusive Excerpt: MURDER AT THE PAISLEY PARROT A Marshall James Novel by Mark McNease

Blurb:

Time waits for no one, including Marshall James. Now 58 and living in New York City, Marshall has outlived the expiration date he was given with a cancer diagnosis three years ago. He beat the odds but he knows he may not beat the clock. So he’s decided to tell a story or three about some murders he was involved in back in the day.

The year was 1983. The bar was the Paisley Parrot, a gay, mob-run dive where people came to drink and few of them remembered the night before. Marshall loves his job as a bartender there. But one night, among the regulars, a killer arrives. Body by body, death by death, Marshall finds himself pulled into a web of murder, deceit and crime, with a psychopath waiting at the center of it all. Marshall falls for the cop who’s investigating him, not knowing if their relationship will survive or even if he’ll come out of this alive. Find out before last call comes around, in Murder at the Paisley Parrot.

EXCERPT:

MARK McNEASE

MURDER AT THE PAISLEY PARROT

A Marshall James Novel

In memory of the Lemon Twist bar. Make mine a double.

PROGNOSIS

THERE’S A SOUND TO NEW YORK CITY that never goes away. It’s not exactly white noise—that seems too clean for a place this filthy—but a perpetual hum that matches the eternal grayness of the night sky. When you spend significant time here, if you’re the least bit conscious of your surroundings, you realize after a while that you can’t see the stars and there is no such thing as true silence. New York City, especially Manhattan, is a relentless sensual assault. You see it even when you don’t; you hear it at all times, and, in the summer, as it is now, you smell it. That is its most inescapable trait from June through August. You can forget about stars you haven’t seen since you were last off the island, and you can marvel at what passes for quiet at 3:00 a.m., but you can’t ignore the smell of the place. Ripe. Rotten. The way you imagine a body smells when maggots are halfway through their meal. The greatest city in the world.

All of it—the sounds, the sights, the smellswaft through my second-floor window like hot air in a slow updraft. This is especially true every Tuesday, also known as trash day, when the building superintendent and his helper of the week (they change almost as often as the girlfriends of the drag king next door) haul out a dozen trash bags and pile them by the curb. Clear plastic ones for the recyclables, the rest a dark brown, the kind they find torsos and arms stuffed into every now and then along the highway. No corpses in ours yet, just a week’s worth of Chinese takeout, cat litter, shitty diapers, and everything else we discard from our lives on a daily basis. There it sits, for a day and a night, basting in its own putrid juices until the garbage truck comes along in the morning waking everyone up, jamming traffic for a half hour as it crawls trash pile to trash pile. Ours seems to give off especially toxic fumes. Knowing that all odors are particulate, I keep my windows closed from Monday mid-day to Tuesday late morning. But it still seeps in, it still invades my home. Between the smell of summer waste and the exhaust from buses snaking up 40th Street to the Port Authority bus terminal across the avenue, it’s amazing my lung cancer came from smoking and not from living on this corner.

I’m a cancer survivor, not a combatant. I hate the way illness gets anthropomorphized, turned into some cognizant thing, a boxer in the ring with us. We’ve got the charity-approved pink boxing gloves on, and that cancer, that tumor, weighing in at a slim one-sixty and wearing the black trunks with the skull and crossbones, faces off against us in the title match of our lives. I never saw my cancer as an opponent or in any way conscious of what it was doing to me. I did not fight, at least not in any metaphorical sense. I just did what I was told to do, lived through the chemo and the surgery that took out a quarter of my left lung, and, to everyone’s great surprise, outlived my six-month prognosis by two and a half years.

Yes, it’s been three years since I first coughed up blood. It’s been almost that long since I enjoyed a Marlboro and a glass of bourbon—where I come from there’s no such thing as whiskey without a cigarette. And it’s been that long since I told my oncologist to take her dire prediction and shove it, in a nice way. We’re friends, so far as a man and his cancer doctor can be, but Dr. Lydia Carmello fully expected me to die when she said I would. She usually gets it right, and she’s not the sort of person to credit miracles. She’s a hard case, that one. She’s had to be. Death is the nightcap in her profession, after an evening of chemo and a meal of surgery for the ones who can be operated on. She assumed I would be one of her regulars—treated, comforted, referred to some support group where I could mourn the loss of myself while I was still around to do it—but nothing special. Then six months came and went. Nine months. A year. Two years. And finally, when I’d been in remission through the birth of Dr. Carmello’s daughter and the celebration of her first birthday, to which I was not invited, Lydia declared me an anomaly and said I just might get old after all. At fifty-eight I’m not that far from it, but she meant truly old, Social Security and Medicare old, the kind of old when saying you’re as young as you feel just makes you look foolish. Neither of us is counting on it, given the return rate of stage three lung cancer, but it’s nice to have possibility in your life.

I’ve had plenty of that, by the way: possibility. I was a kid who could have been something, given a chance. Too bad I never was. At least not early on, growing up in Indiana in a place too big to be a town and too small to be a city.

Elkhart in the 1960s and 70s was a bustling community of 30,000 or so Hoosiers. They headed to work at the Conn band instrument facility, or one of the motor home factories that gave Elkhart its claim to fame. We once had the highest concentration of millionaires in the country. It may not have lasted long, but it was something to be proud of. We were the RV Capital of the World. It still is as far as I know—who wants to compete for a title like that?—but I can’t confirm it, since I haven’t lived there in forty years. I went back to sell my father’s house twenty years ago and that was the last I saw of Elkhart.

Indiana was a place to flee when I was young. For a gay kid who came out at the age of sixteen, Elkhart was not welcoming. It didn’t matter that I was a native son, or that my family had been there for several generations. A queer is a queer is a queer, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, and I was certainly one of those. I announced my sexuality in high school, survived the hostile and sometimes violent reaction of my peers, and got the hell out two days after graduation. My mother was already dead. My father was drunk and on his way to an early grave. My sister and brother were old enough to fend for themselves, and I was ready to get as far away as I could.

I’d seen a report on 60 Minutes about homosexuals in Hollywood. Or maybe it was specifically about homosexual prostitutes. I don’t remember exactly, but I recall being transfixed—not by the segment itself, which was judgmental of the seedy, sad lives of L.A. hustlers—but by the fact they existed. What was a hustler? I wondered. Where did they come from? What exactly did they do for money? I had an idea, having some experience myself by then, although it all involved high school classmates and no money was exchanged. But this was exotic. Alluring. And exactly where I went when I packed my belongings into my orange Gremlin, put the clutch in drive and pulled out of my dad’s driveway for the last time, returning only for short visits over the years until I went back to plant a ‘For Sale’ sign on the lawn. I wouldn’t have gone then, except my sister and brother refused to deal with it and somebody had to bury the old man.

Los Angeles. Hollywood. 1977. Crazy how a world so exciting, that drew me like a promise of freedom, would turn so dark so quickly.

* * *

My name is Marshall James. There’s a Franklin in the middle, but I don’t like it and I’ve never used it. I think my old man called me Franklin a couple times when he was pissed at me. Hildren James was an angry sonofabith. It gave him an excuse to drink, or at least another one in a long list of them. I remember him saying, “Franklin James, you get over here right now!” I got over there, too, wherever that was. It usually just meant placing myself within arm’s length. It made it easier for him to slap me from a sitting position. He slapped us a lot, even my mom. He never hit her full on, as far as I recall, but being slapped across the face or on the top of the head was enough. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was sixteen and got the hell off the planet three months later. Who could blame her?

It was a long time ago. Everything at my age feels that way. Time isn’t really a thing. It doesn’t pass. It doesn’t fly, it doesn’t crawl, it doesn’t wait for anyone because it doesn’t wait at all. It’s more like something we spend our lives inside without realizing it, the way a fish spends its life in water. And, like water in a cracked fish tank, it drains away slowly.

I’ve got a manfriend who stays three nights a week with me in this crappy studio apartment within spitting distance of the bus terminal. His name is Buford McGibbon, but he goes by Boo. You would, too, if you’d been burdened with an antebellum name like that. It even sounds Confederate, but it’s not. Boo’s from upstate New York. He’s also ten years younger than me, but not in any way the object of this older man’s predation. We met when he took one of the tours I give for a living. If you spend much time in New York City you’ll see people like me, leading groups of straggling tourists and a few curious locals around Greenwich Village or the bars in Brooklyn, reciting history and color commentary. My specialty now is the Gotham Ghost Land Tour. It offers several different routes in Manhattan, since people tend to die anywhere. It’s not like the Bob Dylan Smoked a Joint Here tour—Oh look, that’s the window Joan Baez was gazing out when she wrote Diamonds and Rust—or the Edgar Allen Poe tour I did for a while that made exactly one mention of Poe.

I remember Boo very well that first time we met. It was a History of Gay New York tour (I’ve done them all). The group consisted of wide-eyed queens from faraway ghettos, dykes, a few straight couples, several German speakers, and Boo. He was thirty-eight then, alone, hot as a griddle, lingering when the others melted away at the end. He was one of the few who tipped me. I remember taking the five dollar bill from him, saying thanks, and keeping hold of his hand longer than is proper for a tour guide, unless he’s meeting the next love of his life in a moment of ridiculous serendipity.

We’re an odd couple by today’s gay standards. We’re not married and have no plans to be. We’d rather have herpes than children. We don’t live together. He has an apartment in Brooklyn and I’m in Hell’s Kitchen, and we like it this way. We still have sex, which is saying something after a decade, but mostly we love each other in a very relaxed way. He knows I could die if the cancer comes back, and I know he’ll miss me terribly. That’s enough for now.

The other entity I allow into my life is a cat named Critter. He’s four years old, which I know because I remember Justine taking him in as a kitten, as if a junkie prostitute had the wherewithal to take care of a cat. She lived across the hall from me and she asked me to feed him a few times when she was out of town. I had no idea where she went and she never told me. Then one day, about a year after she took Critter in, I got a knock at the door from Javier, our building super.

“You want a cat?” he asked me.

Javier speaking was a rare and curious thing.

“Where’s Justine?” I said, as he stood in my doorway holding an animal that wanted nothing more than to be free from his clutches.

“She died,” he said. Very matter-of-factly, as if she’d been a storefront that was open one day and closed the next.

“You know how she died?” I asked. Part of me dreaded being told she’d been strangled by a john.

“OD,” he said, then shrugged: these things happen.

“Well,” I replied, “we can’t say that’s a surprise, now, can we?”

I took the cat from his arms, and he’s been living with me ever since.

That’s my life: I’m a tour guide with no aspirations to be more. I’m a cancer survivor with one functioning lung. I’ve got a manfriend who spends a few nights a week with me and a cat that never leaves. And I’ve got stories to tell.

You see how things come around? I’m a man on borrowed time. We all are, but the debt collector announced his arrival in my case. I’ve outfoxed the bastard and outlived the expectations, and I started thinking, maybe I should tell people about those murders. The ones I was part of in Hollywood back then. Not murders I participated in, of course. This is not a deathbed confession. But I was part of it … them … and I figured I should go ahead and talk about it while I can. Some of the people involved are dead, and some of us are alive. I’m still not sure who the lucky ones are.

Now let’s head over to the time machine. Strap yourself in, it all happens very quickly. I’ll set the dial to 1977, the GPS to a town in Indiana where a lonely kid prepares his escape to Hollywood, the final destination a dive bar called the Paisley Parrot. Gay, mobbed up, a place for drunks, hustlers and dope dealers. My kind of bar.

CHAPTER THREE (FAST FORWARD)

THE PAISLEY PARROT WAS EXACTLY the kind of bar I liked to drink in, especially when my love affair with alcohol was still mutual. I’d started with vodka and gin when I was in high school, courtesy of my dad’s basement bar. It never closed, and it never ran dry. By the time I put on a cap and gown for my high school graduation and stumbled to the podium for my diploma, I’d been a hard drinker for several years. I’m not an alcoholic—I know how that sounds, most alcoholics deny what they are—but I was as close to being a lush as a teenager can be without running for the nearest rehab. For some reason my drinking didn’t get worse, and I had it fairly under control by the time I decided to work in a bar.

I’d been going to the Parrot and places like it since I’d first moved to Hollywood. I’ve always thought it was because I was an Indiana kid. My identity was well formed before I got to L.A. and was exposed to the prevailing gay archetypes of the time—muscle boys, drama queens, and older men who’d been part of the scene so long they were cultural furniture.  I’m not knocking it. I just knew who Marshall James was and I’ve stayed that way pretty much all my life.

I took pride in living in Hollywood, a neighborhood as diverse as it was seedy. There were black people in my apartment building, drag queens, straight couples, and, twice during my years living there, dead bodies. A woman on the sixth floor was found hanging from her shower curtain, self-inflicted; and a young man, a hustler I knew from my first year on the streets, was found on the fire escape with a syringe in his arm.

My haunts were close by. I liked bars where people went to drink, not to compare abs and gossip about their ex-boyfriends. Bars where they paid more attention to the glass of whiskey in front of them than to the guy who just walked through the door in torn jeans. There were several of them within walking distance: The Vine, on Vine Street, of course; LuLu’s for the dykes; the 12 O’clock Lounge, named long ago for reasons forgotten; the Red River, where the banks overflowed with booze and the tears of failed ambition, and the Paisley Parrot, located discreetly near the corner of Fountain and Las Palmas. There was a neon parrot on the door but no name. The Parrot had been around since the late 1950s, a time when bars that catered to homosexuals did not announce themselves. The front window was tinted so dark you couldn’t see inside even if all the lights were on. A recessed door opened onto a heavy curtain separating the world out there from the world in the Parrot. It served to protect them from each other: the people on the outside did not want to know what went on in there, and the patrons in the bar wanted no reminders that the world outside was waiting for them after the blackout, after the sloppy sex, after their best efforts to drink it all away.

I found the Parrot by accident. It wasn’t really a hustler bar. The mob still ran it in the 1980s, but quietly, and they didn’t want the attention cops brought with them. Being gay wasn’t illegal anymore, but prostitution and its emaciated sister, drug sales, were very much against the law. The two went hand in hand. Most of the hustlers I’d known either traded their bodies for dope or had some to sell. If not, they knew someone, who was conveniently located in a dark corner of the bar or waiting in the back alley.

The criminal enterprise then holding sway in the greater Los Angeles area was the Bianchi family, reported to be an offshoot of the Brooklyn Bianchi mafia clan. Rumor had it the Brooklyn branch had been crippled by law enforcement and had expanded—or escaped—to the West Coast.

Fat Dick Montagano, the Bianchi family lieutenant who kept the bars in line and the cash flowing, only tolerated hustlers who gave him free blowjobs, so the pros stayed away. His name was Richard Montagano. Everybody called him Fat Dick behind his back because he’d once topped off at three hundred pounds, though he’d lost a third of it by the time I met him. I assumed he’d been stuck with the name as a kid, or maybe his mob bosses gave it to him. It wasn’t a name anyone who valued their life would call him to his face, and we all knew to refer to him as Mr. Montagano when we addressed him or he was within earshot. If he overheard you, you might find a piece of piano wire embedded in your neck, so we left the name calling to people he was afraid of, who were all named Bianchi.

The mob presence in Los Angeles was once very powerful. After all, they’d founded Las Vegas, which was only four hours away in good traffic. But by the time I walked into the Parrot, they’d been reduced to pimping, moving drugs in from Mexico for domestic distribution, bookmaking, various other misadventures, and a few gay bars. Gregory Bianchi, the old guy who was the titular head of the family, had not been seen in public for several years and was rumored to be buried in the desert, his reputation used by his son and successor Anthony to instill fear in people’s hearts. Other than that, I knew nothing about  them and made no attempt to find out. It was enough just dealing with Fat Dick coming into the Parrot every Wednesday night to siphon off the Bianchis’ take from the week’s receipts. He was often accompanied by one pretty boy or another. He was married with three kids, but his taste for young male flesh was evident. It was also something you pretended not to notice. I’d been told he kept an apartment on Franklin Avenue for mob business on nights he didn’t return to his family in Encino. I imagine a few of those pretty boys spent the evening there.

I’ll admit to having the hots for the Parrot’s bartender, Phil Seaton. He was the real reason I went to the Parrot a second time. I had other choices for bars, but none of them had Phil slinging drinks. He was thirty-ish, shaved head, tattoos on biceps exposed by a vest with no shirt. He had big hands. Some myths never die, and some are even true.

It had been two years between the time I first walked into the Paisley Parrot and the time I started working there. Phil had been there for eight years or so and had no plans to improve his situation. Like me, the Parrot was his kind of bar. And it turned out I was his kind of twenty-something. We started having sex a week after I ordered my first bourbon and Coke, sitting on a stool staring at his arms. That lasted about three months. It also caused friction between me and Butch. Not because Butch was jealous, but because he believed Phil was a bad influence. I told him Phil and I only did lines of cocaine, washed down with two or three drinks. We stayed away from the crystal meth that was starting to be popular, and I would never use a syringe. But Butch worried and he warned. I ignored it, had a great run with Phil, and let it fall by the wayside. Phil met another young guy a month after we stopped playing together and neither of us made anything of it.

Those first years in L.A. flew quickly. I remember my twenty-fifth birthday, how old I felt and how fast I thought my life was passing. It’s an easy thing to think at that age. I look back now and marvel at how young twenty-five is, and how foolish.

I’d celebrated that New Year’s Eve with Butch, unaware of the darkness ahead. I’d seen him out just after midnight, then headed to the Paisley Parrot for my first drink of 1983. Phil was there with a few of the regulars. He set me up with my usual, a shot of Jim Beam in a glass of Coke. I bought the house a round, and one more time we toasted in the dying light.

CHAPTER FOUR

DAVID BOWIE’S LET’S DANCE WAS a monster hit that year. So was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, and Sting’s Every Breath You Take, a meditation on stalking that got reimagined by the public as a love song. The space shuttle Challenger made its maiden voyage with the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, among the crew, and the CDC warned blood banks of a possible problem with the blood supply.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl, the Orioles won the World Series, and the domestic AIDS death toll was a mere 2,304 for the year.

President Ronald Reagan had still not said the word ‘AIDS.’

Is it any wonder so many of us sought companionship and distraction in the bars? The worst had yet to come our way, but we’d already grown accustomed to seeing … or, rather, not seeing … friends at our favorite watering holes as they vanished like fireflies in the night. There was a nervousness to every arrival, walking into the Screw or the Gold Dust or the Paisley Parrot, looking quickly around to identify faces we knew. It brought relief to see familiar faces, another nightly reprieve from our slow, steady extinction.

I was a happy guy the first few months on the job, starting as a barback with Phil. The Parrot was a great place to learn the trade. It was a slower, drunker kind of establishment. It wasn’t like Whistles or The Omega, where a bartender could lose five pounds in a night running back and forth along the bar filling drinks for trendsetters. The Parrot was reserved and quiet, more of a gentleman’s bar, if the gentleman was inebriated and gawking at anyone under forty. We had a TV along the wall that showed muted MTV videos all night while music came from a jukebox by the bathroom. It was easy to stroll back and forth along the bar for an entire shift—no rush, no frantic calling out for cocktails. Just a couple dozen regulars whose drinks we knew as well as we knew their names. There was Bobby Bray, early 50s, who’d run his own bar for twenty years until he went bankrupt buying into a pyramid scheme. There was Quincy, a retired drag queen who always came in with a protégé or two in their 20s. There was Jude and Lester, Maryanne, Gilda and a dozen more. I knew the songs each of them would play on the jukebox and when to cut them off from the vodka or rum. Even a mob bar has standards; by the time a customer is ordering another shot from the floor, you’ve got an obligation to say no.

You could still smoke in bars then, and working there was a little grimy slice of heaven for me: I could go through a pack of Marlboros in a single shift and put back three or four shots of anything I wanted, always at the expense of an admiring customer. My drinking had picked up slightly, not surprising given the environment. It’s hard to imagine a better work life for the man I was at twenty-five. I’d even get lucky sometimes and take someone home.

One of those guys I got lucky with changed everything. His name was Bentley Wennig, an unusual name unless your father’s a car enthusiast.  He went by Ben—who wouldn’t with a name like that? He’d gotten lost and wandered into the Parrot to ask for directions. It was a Wednesday night, which meant Fat Dick was there to take the Bianchi family skim for the week. Dick’s reaction was how I knew Ben had walked in: the scary mob lieutenant couldn’t stop staring at the young man who’d just appeared through the curtain.

Even Phil did a double-take, and he was as jaded as they came. Another handsome face, even one as startling as Ben’s, did not usually merit a stare from Phil. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing someone as clean cut as Ben walking into a bar as dirty minded as the Parrot.

“Can I help you?” I said. I’d been working the bar with Phil for two weeks, having been promoted to bartender under his training. I would normally say, “What’ll you have?”, but this guy looked lost. I wasn’t even sure he was gay.

He walked up to the bar, each step increasing my heart rate. I felt myself getting hard and was glad to be behind the bar.

Ben had dark brown hair just long enough to tickle the tops of his ears. He was clean shaven, no stubble, exposing perfect skin the color of cream. His eyes were so deep and liquid brown I thought of chocolate melting in front of me. And then he smiled …

“I’m kind of lost,” he said. He looked around, trying to form an impression of the bar.

“Hmm,” I said, smiling back. “How does someone get ‘kind of’ lost?”

“Well,” he said, dipping his head in a show of embarrassment, “I was supposed to meet a friend at a bar on the corner of Santa Monica and Las Palmas. I’m new in town, like, two days.”

“It would help if you were on Santa Monica,” Phil said.

I jumped. I hadn’t noticed Phil come up behind me. He slipped a coaster and a napkin in front of the stranger. Was he poaching on my territory?

“You’re two blocks away,” said Phil. “You’re looking for LuLu’s Bar None. Is your friend a lesbian?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Best friends since high school. She’s the reason I moved here.” Then, looking at me longer than a typical customer would, he added, “Well, one of them.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m early anyway, I might as well have something. Vodka rocks?”

“Marshall here will take care of you.” Phil winked at me and headed down the bar to refill one of the regulars.

“I’m Marshall,” I said, as I set about making his drink.

“Ben,” he replied, extending his hand. Few people shake hands with bartenders, that’s not why we’re there. The gesture amused me, so I shook his hand, noticing a beautiful gold ring with a striking green stone on his right pinky.

“Jade?” I asked.

He glanced at the ring, easing his hand away. “Oh, yes, from my grandmother for my last birthday. I can always count on Granny to find perfect gifts.”

It was only later, when Ben was wiping sweat off his chest with a hand towel, that I learned his full name was Bentley. He was twenty-seven years old. He’d moved to L.A. that very week from Bellevue, Washington. The only person he knew in town was Becky Walters, his dyke friend we’d said goodbye to after a 3:00 a.m. breakfast at the Buffalo Diner before heading to my place.

Is love possible after just one orgasm? I don’t know, so to be safe we made it three. By the time Ben left my apartment, the sun was well above the horizon and I was as sure as I have ever been that happiness had called my name.

CHAPTER FIVE

WE DIDN’T HAVE SMART PHONES in 1983. When you wanted to reach someone, you used this thing called a telephone. It came with a cord stuck into a wall and numbered buttons you had to push. There were even a few rotary phones still around with confounding circular disks that had finger holes in them. When you picked up the headset you heard a dial tone, then you called the person you were trying to contact and either talked to them or left a message on another contraption called an answering machine.

I tried reaching Ben several times over the next few days. He wasn’t avoiding me, he was just very busy. Your first week in a big city is consumed with deciding what you’ll do for a living and the other thousand details of rearranging a life. I left a message on Ben’s answering machine. He left one on mine. Back and forth. We managed to speak once, on Sunday night when I was pulling my first solo shift at the Parrot. Phil’s mother had broken her leg in a fall and he’d gone to Bakersfield that weekend to help her. Normally it was just me and Phil working nights with one of the barbacks for support. If we needed help behind the bar we called Derek or Freeze.  They were the part-timers and our backup. When Phil asked if I wanted one of them to help me, I said no, I can do this, and found myself nearly overwhelmed. A dozen serious drinkers on a Sunday night can be very demanding. So when Ben called the bar around 10:00 p.m., I didn’t think anything of telling him I’d speak to him in the morning.

“I really want to see you again,” he’d said quickly. “I’ve just been so busy.”

“I get it,” I’d replied. The phone was cradled between my ear and my shoulder as I hurried to fill another drink order. “I can’t wait to see you, too. Let’s talk tomorrow and make this happen.”

I don’t remember anything from the rest of my shift. When you’re that harried, time not only flies, but blurs. I made it through. I cut off the drunks who’d had too many, which was a high percentage of the Parrot’s clientele. I’d fended off three passes made by men who wouldn’t remember making them the next day. I shared the workload with Brandon, the new barback who’d been hired to replace me in that position. And I’d made enough in tips to confirm my belief that bartending was a good career choice. It all depends on what you want in life, and at that point I didn’t have many wants: a one-bedroom apartment as soon as I could afford it, a new used car to replace the ailing Gremlin, some nice clothes and a stereo. That was pretty much my wish list … oh, and a good man. I was twenty-five. I felt time passing, and I thought I was ready to settle down for a while. The longest relationship I’d had was three months, ending in more of a shrug than a heartache. There was Butch, of course, and my short-lived fling with Phil the bartender. But nothing I would classify as a relationship. Remembering the phone call with Ben when I was cashing out for the night, I had the crazy idea he might be the one to change that. There was just something about the guy, and as I twist-tied the two big trash bags collected every night behind the bar, I found myself wishing I’d stopped what I was doing and talked to him when he’d called. I’ve never liked unfinished conversations, then or now.

There was an alley behind the Paisley Parrot. It’s still there as far as I know—alleys don’t tend to move—but the Parrot is long gone, replaced by a succession of retail shops, nail salons and, as of this writing, a pet store. I suppose the dumpsters are still there, too. Technology hasn’t done much to improve trash disposal.

I always took the bags out one at a time, since they were so heavy. Brandon had gone home with my encouragement. The kid was exhausted from working and I was used to closing the place down myself, even when Phil was on duty. I propped the back door open with a brick we used for that purpose, and lugged the giant brown plastic bag over to the dumpster.

The lids were closed in a feeble effort to keep the rats out and the smells in. I set the bag down a moment, pushed up the large metal lid of the dumpster, and found myself staring into the face of a corpse.

And not just any corpse. It was the dead, broken body of the young man I hadn’t had time to talk to that evening. The man whose smile had sent me back on my heels when he’d walked into the bar less than a week ago. The man I’d fantasized ten minutes earlier about calling my boyfriend.

Those astonishing brown eyes were open, dead and lifeless. Something was wrapped around his neck, dug so deeply into his flesh I didn’t recognize at first what it was. His right hand rested over his chest, as if pledging allegiance to a dark lord. Something about it struck me, a fleeting detail, but the thought vanished in the shock of the scene. There was no light in his beautiful gaze, only a darkness he’d seen in his final moments that was about to make its way into our lives.

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