Excerpts! Lammy Finalists: Boystown 10: Gifts Given & Night Drop, both by Marshall Thornton

Two Exclusive Excerpts from this year’s double Lammy Finalist (Gay Mystery)  – Lambda Literary Award winner (and multi-nominated), author, Marshall Thornton!

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Exclusive Excerpt #1 – Lambda Finalist – Boystown 10: Gifts Given

Given what I’ve seen, given what I’ve lived, it strikes me that love is a kind of madness. An insanity that poses as a necessity, tricking us into believing we need it as much as breath, as much as life itself. A sensible man would run from it, bar the doors, hide in a cupboard like a child, rifle through the kitchen drawers looking for a weapon to stave it off. A sensible man would have nothing to do with love. I am not a sensible man.

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A week before Christmas, a Tuesday, I asked my friend Brian to go shopping with me. I needed his help picking out a gift for my live-in boyfriend, Joseph Biernacki, which was how we ended up standing in a very long line, empty-handed, waiting to get into Marshall Field’s Walnut Room for lunch. We’d done exactly forty-five minutes of shopping, most of it spent looking at watches even though I knew that was the wrong gift for Joseph. He’d given me a Swatch for our six-month anniversary, so a watch felt wrong, repetitive and unoriginal. Besides, I’d accidentally thrown the Swatch he’d given me away—and I didn’t want to remind him. I was also a little afraid he’d buy me a new one for Christmas.

“You know, lunch is going to take two hours,” I pointed out. “Maybe we should go out to State Street and buy a slice of pizza.” There were greasy little pizza places roughly every two blocks.

“Isn’t this a Chicago tradition, though? A Christmas lunch at Field’s?” Brian asked. He’d grown up downstate. But he was right, lunch at Field’s was a Christmas tradition. Hence the line we were in.

It was something I’d done a dozen times as a child. My mother, like thousands of mothers, had brought my brothers and me each year for shopping and lunch. Unfortunately, whatever fond memories I had of that had been obliterated by the fact that the last time I was in Field’s I’d been shot at.

“It’s not a tradition I need to repeat,” I said.

He read the impatience on my face and said, “Hold on a second,” before walking up to the hostess stand. After a brief conversation he turned and waved at me to join him.

When I got there, the hostess smiled and said, “Right this way.”

As we walked through the atrium, passing the giant, three-story Christmas tree, I whispered into Brian’s ear. “How did you manage this?”

“You’ll see.”

The hostess led us across the wood-paneled dining room—presumably walnut given the name of the place—to a table that sat in the corner in front of two enormous windows looking out at a random collection of Loop office buildings. Sugar Pilson sat alone at a table for four. She was casual but elegant in a cabled cream-colored sweater and a pair of washed-out, high-waisted jeans. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she looked more like the cheerleader she was rumored to have once been than the socialite she actually was. I’d met her years before on a case, but she was now more Brian’s friend than mine. Not that I didn’t like her immensely, it’s just that she and Brian did charity work together for Howard Brown, creating a bond between them I wasn’t part of.

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Obviously, Brian had known Sugar was there, so why had we waited in line at all? Were they planning to pretend we were meeting accidentally?

As soon as the hostess walked away, I said, “This is a setup, isn’t it? What’s going on?”

“Of course it’s a set-up, darling. I need to have a professional conversation with you.”

I took off my trench coat and threw it over the fourth chair beside Sugar’s white fox car coat. Brian slipped his down jacket over the back of his chair.

“Why not just come to my office?” I asked as I sat down.

“I’ve driven by your office. Really Nick, how do you expect to attract clients? Your name isn’t on the door and it looks like the kind of place you’d go for a back alley abortion.”

She wasn’t wrong. My office was hardly appealing.

“Abortion is legal, Sugar, and you’re too young to know anything about back alley abortions.”

“I’m not, but it’s sweet of you to say so.”

“So, what exactly do you need?”

She didn’t answer, though, since a waitress showed up. “Can I get you something from the bar?”

“Yes, please. I’ll have one of those wonderful coffee drinks you make,” Sugar said, then she looked at Brian and me and said, “Perfect for a day like today.”

Outside, it was in the low twenties and threatening to snow. Though in all honesty, I doubted Sugar had experienced much of the weather walking from her front door to the limo and from the limo into Field’s. She’d probably been outside for a whole minute and a half.

“I’ll have the same,” I said.

“Can I have a diet Coke?” Brian asked.

When the waitress walked away, I asked Sugar again, “Why do you need my professional services?”

She took a moment, chewed some of the pink lipstick off her lower lip, and finally said, “I’ve fallen in love.”

“And like most women the first thing you thought about was hiring a private detective?”

“Nick, don’t tease her,” Brian said. “It’s not nice.”

“Sorry. I assume you think this gentleman is after your money.”

“Oh, I know he’s after my money,” Sugar said. “They always are. I need to know more about him so I can decide how much I want to spend on him.”

“That’s an interesting attitude,” I said.

“Well, it’s not like I can flip him over and check the price tag.”

Brian giggled at the image.

“All right. What’s his name?” I asked.

“There’s one more thing.”

“Okay.”

“I have the feeling I’m being watched,” Sugar said. “It’s a feeling I don’t like.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

“Things keep showing up in Gloria’s column. Things that shouldn’t be there.”

Gloria Silver wrote “The Silver Spoon” for the Daily Herald. We had a long, unpleasant association. She was the wife of the late Earl Silver, who originally wrote the column. He was also the lover of my friend (and onetime fuck buddy) Ross. I suppose that made us sexual relatives in a way. An extremely unpleasant thought.

I read her column every day, and Sugar was right, she’d been in the column a lot. Several of the mentions had to do with her drinking habits, the others weren’t much more flattering.

“And do you think your new beau is the source of Gloria’s information?”

“No, she’s written about things he couldn’t know.”

“So you think Gloria’s having you followed?”

“Oh God, that sounds so paranoid when you say it out loud.”

The waitress brought our drinks. I took a spoon and stirred mine up. It was topped with whipped cream. Whipped cream and mustaches don’t go well together in public. I took a sip; it was warm and sweet and very strong.

“You can help her, right Nick?” Brian asked.

I wasn’t exactly ready to commit. “Tell me about the man.”

“He’s an artist. I met him at a gallery about two months ago. He paints orchids and flamingos on gigantic canvases. I bought a flamingo for my dining room. That’s how we got to know each other.”

“It’s a great painting,” Brian said.

“Isn’t it?” Sugar said. “I think it just makes the room.”

“How much was this great painting?”

“Hardly anything.”

“Hardly anything in my world is twenty bucks,” I pointed out. “How much is it in yours?”

“Five thousand.”

“Are you his only client?”

“Goodness no. He sells all the time.”

“He’s very popular,” Brian added.

“How long does it take him to paint a picture?”

“A couple of weeks. It’s hard to tell. He works on more than one at a time.”

“So he makes roughly ten grand a month and you think he might be after your money?”

“Darling, I clip coupons. And I never touch my principal.” She also she lived lavishly and gave generously, meaning that her income was large enough to impress people who made ten grand a month.

“You clip coupons? I hope that’s just an expression. I don’t like to think of you having a lot of bearer bonds lying around the house.” Bearer bonds were not registered to their owner and therefore a very convenient thing to steal. They’d also gone out of fashion and, if I wasn’t mistaken, weren’t being issued anymore.

“Of course it’s an expression,” she said. “And I don’t keep anything valuable around the house.” Except the paintings on her walls, the furs in her closet and, I’d guess, a couple handfuls of diamonds lying about.

“We should get back on topic. We were talking about your painter. Michael France.”

“Oh Nick, you know his name! You’re psychic, aren’t you? That must be so useful in your line of work.”

“I read ‘The Silver Spoon.’ Gloria has been promoting him for a while now. A year? Longer?”

“How can you read that dreadful witch?” We’d both had run-ins with Gloria. It was something we had in common. Gloria hated both of us.

“I read her because I like to know what the witch is up to.” Of course, it was obvious that Sugar read the column every day herself. Then something occurred to me. Michael France was a sort of protégé of Gloria’s, or possibly…

“Sugar? Did you steal Gloria’s boyfriend?”

“I wouldn’t phrase it exactly like that.”

Brian, though, was furiously nodding his head.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Didn’t you tell me that Gloria was in love with some twenty-five-year-old who was robbing her blind?”

“He’s not twenty-five, he’s almost thirty. And apparently Gloria is doing just fine since she bought a condo on Lake Shore and Burton. Two bedrooms, three hundred thousand dollars.”

“A hundred and fifty thousand a bedroom?”

“Well, it is an entire floor. And it has more bathrooms than bedrooms.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know her real-estate agent.”

“I guess the Daily Herald pays better than I thought.”

“It doesn’t. She acts like she comes from money, but I don’t think she does.”

“Did they give her a discount for publicity?”

“A steep discount, I imagine.”

Another waitress came and asked if we wanted to order lunch. There was wait staff everywhere running around and they didn’t seem too concerned with who did what. I ordered the Walnut Room’s famous chicken potpie, Sugar ordered a salad, and Brian ordered meatloaf.

When we were alone again, I said, “I’ll do a standard background check, but I’d also like to meet France—if you don’t think that would be too awkward.”

“There’s a holiday open house at his studio on Thursday. I’ve already invited Brian. Come as his guest. Don’t mention that I’ve hired you.”

“Of course not. Do you plan to tell him, though? At some point?”

“It depends on what you find.”

The conversation drifted to the AIDS test that was supposed to be coming out soon. The test was still being tested, and activists were already raising concerns about confidentiality and whether insurance companies or employers might be able to get hold of your results.

“I was having a conversation with a board member about creating a testing center where people could be tested for free on a strictly confidential basis,” Brian said.

“Does it really matter, though?” I asked. “There’s no cure. So what good is knowing?”

“I’ve heard that before. I think it’s better to know. So that people can take precautions.”

“People are already taking precautions.” Precautions that don’t always work, I did not add.

“Darling, it’s not just about individuals. The test is also important for research and helping doctors learn how to treat their patients.” That was annoyingly true.

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Exclusive Excerpt #2: Night Drop by Marshall Thornton

At times I felt like a ghost. I think I hadn’t had enough time to become myself before I met Jeffer, and then I was part of Noah and Jeffer, Jeffer and Noah. We went to a party once and I overheard someone saying about me, “It’s like he has no personality when Jeffer leaves the room.” It was a cruel thing to say, mostly because it felt true.

That’s what I was thinking about as I drove home in a riot. Strange, I thought. Very strange. But then I remembered it was almost the anniversary of Jeffer’s getting sick; the great unraveling of secrets and lies; the beginning of my floating away from him, ghostlike and empty.

My apartment was less than a mile from Pinx Video. Around the time Jeffers died, I’d moved to a small, one-bedroom apartment on a hill in Silver Lake. Not one of the better hills, a hill well below Sunset. The good part of Silver Lake was north of Sunset surrounding the actual lake, of course. Fanning out from there were some decent blocks, but then, when you crossed Sunset, you came to a hilly area where altitude and income fell into step. The wealthier people lived at the top of the hills, while the poor and desperate lived at the bottom.

Not that my apartment was the kind of place where rich people lived. The dishwater gray building was a small six-unit L wrapped around a shabby, old-growth courtyard. There were thick, shaggy palms, birds of paradise and a dribbling fountain, leaving only enough room for a single metal table and chairs. A cement stairway—painted rusty red—came up from the street and garages to the courtyard, then a wooden stairway led to the second floor. A red-tiled walkway with white railings ran across the entire second floor.

My place was on the second floor at the front giving me a southwest view of the basin. As I was unlocking my door that morning, I glanced out and saw plumes of smoke rising above the city in at least a dozen spots. I suppose most of them had been there when I’d left two hours before, but I hadn’t thought much about them, assuming they were left over from the night before. Now they seemed ominous; a hint of the future rather than a glimpse of the past.

I wasn’t sure if the apartment measured six hundred square feet, if it did it was just that. The living room was small, too small for a full sofa so I had a second-hand love seat that I’d wrapped in a crazy black and purple print I’d gotten at the new IKEA in Burbank. Beside that there wasn’t much other than a black leather chair with a bent-wood frame—also from IKEA, it was called POONG or something unpronounceable along those lines—a veneered armoire from the thirties which held my 13-inch TV/VCR combo, my video collection (or at least part of it), a compact stereo and a stack of CDs I’d gotten from a record club. On the wall over the POONG chair hung a Hockney poster that Jeffer had bought me at the LACMA retrospective in eighty-eight.

There was a faux Danish modern dinette set that I’d put in front of the window next to the dining area off the kitchen. That area was too small for the table, so I’d turned it into an office area by putting my sixties-style metal desk under the corner windows.

The minuscule, U-shaped kitchen had appliances that were brand new when I was in high school and very little counter space, most of which was taken up by my most important appliance, the microwave.

The bedroom had a wall of closets, and a wall of built-in cabinets and drawers, leaving exactly enough room for a queen-sized bed. I had set my bed in front of a do-it-yourself bookcase made of concrete blocks and planks of wood, using it as a kind of headboard. This eliminated the need for nightstands, which there wasn’t room for anyway. I’d painted the entire apartment dove gray and put in bright white miniblinds. I ignored the sculptured brown carpet as best I could.

I put on a Dionne Warwick CD and kicked off my shoes. I went into the bathroom to wash my face. I don’t think it was dirty, but just the idea of a riot made everything seem sooty and thick. I tried not to look at myself. If I had I would not have seen the ghost I felt like but instead a reasonably attractive young man of around twenty-eight. I had brown eyes and unremarkable but symmetrical features. The most noticeable thing about me was my hair. It was massively thick and stubborn. It did whatever it chose and I had little say in the matter. I’d tried every product out there and nothing tamed the beast on my head. At that particular moment it needed cutting, but I could hardly put out a bulletin to stop the riot so I could find a barber.

I tried even harder not to look at the rest of me. If you were being unkind you’d call me delicate, frail, skinny—I couldn’t for the life of me keep weight on—elf-like even. And if you were being kind, well, there were few kind words for a man of my stature.

Dionne was nearly finished loving Paris when the phone rang. I pressed pause on the CD player and picked up the cordless. It was Louis from downstairs.

“Marc is on his way home from the studio. They’re shutting down. Did you close the video store?”

“I did.”

“Good idea. I’m making lunch. Come down.”

I’d barely said yes when he hung up. Louis was partial to short telephone chats and long after-dinner conversations. I didn’t need to change my clothes; I dressed casually at Pinx—though not as casually as my employees. Still, I changed into a pair of khaki shorts, flip-flops, a mock turtleneck and an over-sized jean jacket. I ran a comb through my hair but quickly gave up trying to subdue it. Then went down to the courtyard about ten minutes later.

Louis had a glass of chardonnay already poured for me. The sky was thick with clouds—the marine layer—but that didn’t matter. There was an umbrella stuck into the center of the metal table in the extremely remote chance it rained.

Sitting on the ground next to the table was a high-end boom box tuned to KCRW. They were discussing whether the Federal government might now file charges against the LAPD officers accused of beating King. The guest was fairly certain they would.

“We live in strange times,” Louis said coming out of his apartment. He and Marc lived directly below in an apartment that was identically small. While I had a view, they’d claimed this end of the courtyard for themselves.

Wearing navy shorts, penny loafers, a light blue dress shirt and an apron that said “Finger Lickin’ Good,” Louis was tall, nearly forty and spreading in the middle. His eyes protruded a bit and his smile was wide, giving him the look of a jovial frog. I wasn’t the first to notice it; there was a collection of miniature frogs on his kitchen windowsill. In one hand he held a plate full of uncooked ribs.

“We live in strange times, so you thought you’d barbecue?” I asked.

“It was that or pack up the car and flee.”

He set the ribs on the table and bent over a small hibachi. In a short while, he had the coals lit and sat down with me at the table.

“So. Can you believe the verdict?” he asked.

“It was shocking.”

“I don’t see how they could come to that decision. Between the videotape and Gates himself saying it was…what was the word he used, an aberration?”

I sipped the wine. It was cold, sweet and tart at the same time, and warming as it went down. The glass had sprouted beads of water. I rubbed at them while I listened to the sirens in the distance.

“I don’t remember much about the beating. I wasn’t paying attention,” I admitted.

“Well, it wasn’t an aberration. I’ve seen the LAPD beat people like that before.”

“You have?”

“Absolutely. I mean, there was no video camera handy. And the person was white. But you have to know LAPD makes a habit of this.”

“So, it’s systemic?”

“Again, the video. Look at all those other cops standing around watching, doing nothing. That’s systemic.”

“What about people saying King was on PCP?”

“And it gives you superhuman strength?”

I shrugged. That’s what they said, but I had no idea.

“If that man had superhuman strength they left it out of the video,” Louis said.

Just then, Marc came up the stairs. He was smaller and wider than Louis, and about ten years younger. He wore gray wool slacks, a white shirt and a red tie. In one hand, he carried the jacket that went with the slacks, in the other a scuffed briefcase. His face was round and his lips were what my mother’s generation would have called bee-stung.

Not bothering to go inside, he flopped down in one chair and tossed his things in another, before he pulled out a pack of extra-long menthol cigarettes.

“Oh. My. God. I just drove through hell.” He lit his cigarette and inhaled. “I took Washington to Vermont, my normal route. Huge mistake. I had no idea that South Central was like a block away from there. A block! They started talking about it on the radio. Did you know that it goes all the way up to the 10? I certainly didn’t. And there I was, a block from the 10. And then, almost as soon as I realize that, I glance over and there are these guys trying to break into a liquor store on the other side of the street. I mean, the place had all these security bars and they’re just ripping them down like they’re curtains—Louis, why haven’t you gotten me a glass of wine?”

“Well dear, it seemed rude to walk away while you were talking.”

“Go get me wine. I’ll talk louder.” He inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “So, every few blocks there’s someone trying to break into a business and then…OH MY GOD!” he yelled so Louis could hear him inside. “I get to Washington and Vermont and there are two, not one but TWO GAS STATIONS ON FIRE!”

Louis came out of the apartment with a fresh glass of wine for himself and one for Marc. “You didn’t stop for any red lights, did you?”

“Are you crazy? Not after the things we saw on TV last night.” He took the glass of wine. “Oh thank God.” After a long sip, he continued. “I don’t know what happened. This morning—I mean, I drove the same route at eight-thirty—nothing was happening, nothing was being broken into, and nothing was on fire.”

“I guess rioters like to sleep in,” Louis suggested. “They were up late last night, after all.”

“Did you really run red lights?” I asked.

“Only the one at Washington and Vermont.”

“So, there were no fire engines at that intersection? No police?”

“No, the gas stations were just burning.”

“Well,” said Louis. “We’re glad you made it home safe.”

“Yes, my being dragged from the car and beaten would have ruined your appetite.”

“Well, it would have,” Louis said. “Though not as much as worrying about how I’d get the Infiniti back.” He looked at me and said, “It’s on a lease.”

I enjoyed Marc and Louis and their banter. I felt safe with them for some reason. I wondered what Jeffer would have thought of them. I doubt he’d have liked them. I remember the first time I brought Jeffer up, Marc said, “Good God, what kind of a name is Jeffer?”

“He was Jeff as a child. And then Jeffrey. But he liked Jeffer best.”

“Pretentious,” Marc said.

“Now, now,” Louis interrupted. “Don’t speak ill of the dead. Not when there are living people you can speak ill of.” And then he did just that, taking a few swipes at the president, who I found too bland to be worth insulting, or Pat Robertson or the mayor. It was fine with me, of course, since I preferred to talk about anything but Jeffer.

“Did you close the video store?” Marc asked.

“Of course, he closed the video store,” Louis replied for me. “He’s here isn’t he? He wouldn’t just leave his employees to fend for themselves.”

“Do you think it will be all right?” Marc asked, pointedly ignoring his lover.

“Well, they’re not sure it’s going to get this far,” I said. “I’ve heard most of it is still happening in South Central and Koreatown.”

“Yes, I imagine Koreatown’s getting slammed,” Louis said. “It’s one thing to murder a child. It’s another to get off scot-free.”

“It was involuntary manslaughter,” Marc corrected.

“You say potato I say murder.”

White flakes of ash began falling through the air. One or two at first, then more. The wind picked them up somewhere nearby. A somewhere nearby that was on fire.

“And Koreatown didn’t kill the girl, that cashier did. It’s not the neighborhood’s fault. It’s really the judge’s fault, she’s the one who reduced the sentence. They should go burn her house down and be done with it.”

“And the jury out in Simi Valley. They should get their houses burned down. Come to think of it, they can burn the whole Simi Valley.”

“I blame public transportation,” I said quietly.

“What?” Louis asked, and they both looked at me.

“Public transportation is terrible in L.A. The rioters can’t get to Simi Valley.”

Louis erupted into laughter. He put the ribs onto the hibachi, and when he stood up noticed the white flakes of ash floating in the air.

“Huh. Who says it never snows in Los Angeles.”

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