Winner – Gay Mystery, Lambda Literary Awards
“I’m sorry to be such a bother,” Joanne said, as we drove down Sunset toward Silver Lake. “You should have just left me there.”
“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t do that.”
It was broad daylight and it wasn’t a bad neighborhood, but still, I wasn’t going to leave a seventy-year-old woman to fend for herself outside an apartment building in Hollywood.
“It’ll be fine, Joanne. When we get to Noah’s you can call Rod and leave a message, tell him where you are and he’ll call when he wakes up.”
“I wish I could say this wasn’t like him. He’s never been the most reliable boy. But then he never had to be, he’s always been one of those people—charm, I guess it is. He’ll do something irresponsible and then the minute he shows up and smiles at you, well, it’s hard to remember why you were mad.”
“I’m sure he’s a wonderful boy, and I’m sure he was just having fun and it got out of hand. Noah, why did you ask if he was at that party? She didn’t seem to like Rod.”
“I don’t know, it just seemed logical. She said he was sleeping it off, so he got drunk somewhere and she knew it. Why she wouldn’t want to admit he was at the party, that I don’t know.”
“I’ll bet you’re right. He was there,” Joanne said. “Rod is so fun at parties. That girl probably didn’t like that he got all the attention. Is that the Capitol Records building?”
It wasn’t. Not even close.
“No. It’s the Cinerama Dome,” I said about the large, white, dome-shaped movie theater.
“Oh, I’ve never heard of that,” Joanne said, sounding disappointed.
“It’s an interesting building,” my mother said. And a moment later she asked, “Is this where the riots were?”
“Some things happened up here, but most of it was a couple miles south.”
“I was so worried about you.”
“I was fine.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know that. How was Rod during the riots?” my mother asked, turning around in her seat.
“He saved a woman’s life. She was just walking down Hollywood Boulevard and some black men attacked her. He scared them off.”
“Was that on the news?” my mother asked.
“Oh no. Rod hates publicity.”
I didn’t say anything because the story sounded like a lie. Beating off ‘some’ black men in the middle of the L.A. riots seemed very unlikely. I knew that some buildings were looted on Hollywood Boulevard, but I hadn’t heard of anyone being physically assaulted up that far.
“I don’t know why everyone always says traffic is so bad in L.A. This is really not bad at all.”
“Mom, it’s a holiday. Everyone is at home or out of town.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose that’s true. I’m starting to get a headache.”
“Hangover,” I corrected.
“Noah, dear, there’s no reason to be quite so accurate.”
A few minutes and a couple of turns later, we arrived in front of my apartment. A small, boxy L-shaped building of two floors sitting on a hill about thirty feet above the street. A steep, red-painted concrete staircase led up one side of the property to the courtyard. I parked, got out of the car, and opened the metal mesh gate to my carport. Then got back in and drove my car into its space.
I was out before my mom and Joanne, opening the trunk. I lifted my mother’s two bags out and set them on the ground.
“Joanne, do you need anything from your bags?”
“I’ll just take the makeup case, I think.”
As I took Joanne’s smaller case out of the trunk, my mother grabbed both of hers.
“Mom, I’ll take those.”
“Noah, how do you think they got from the house to the car and from the car to the terminal in Grand Rapids?”
“No, I carried them. I can do it again.”
I scowled at her. “Just one.”
She picked up the bigger one and her bulky winter coat. It had warmed up and was now almost seventy, so she’d finally taken it off. I shut the trunk. Joanne didn’t move to take any bags. We stepped out of the carport, and I shut the gate behind my car and locked it. Then I picked up my mom’s smaller bag and Joanne’s makeup case.
On the stairs, Joanne said, “You mother tells me you own a video store.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you think my Rod rents movies from you?”
“Um, he’s a little out of the area. He might come by for something he couldn’t find anywhere else, but other—”
“I’ll have him take me by and show me.”
“Well, we’ll be open tomorrow.”
“Does Rod have a lot planned for you?” My mother was right. She wasn’t having any problems carrying her bag. I, however, was already winded.
“Oh yes. He has quite a lot planned. We’re going to the Observatory, and the Hollywood sign, and Universal Studios for the tour, and the Chinese Theater for a movie—oh, and we have reservations at Spago for Thanksgiving dinner late this afternoon.”
“That’s a lot,” I said. I’d barely planned anything for my mother. “How long are you staying?”
“Until Saturday morning.”
Forty-eight hours? They were doing all of that in forty-eight hours? And he was starting off by oversleeping? Wow.
Joanne started to ask what we had planned for Mom’s visit, but luckily we’d reached the top of the stairs, and as soon as we did I smelled bacon. I turned and saw my downstairs neighbors, Marc and Louis, sitting at the metal table outside their apartment right in front of a giant bird of paradise. There was a tablecloth over the table and it was set for four.
Louis was near forty, while Marc was about ten years younger. Louis looked a tiny bit like a frog and Marc was round everywhere. Both wore big welcoming smiles and their pajamas. Louis’ PJs were a traditional red plaid while Marc’s were baby blue with a floating pattern of black-and-white cows.
“Hello stranger,” Louis called out. “We expected you more than an hour ago. Where have you been?”
“Louis, shush,” Marc said. “You know how air travel can be. On a holiday no less.”
“Guys, you shouldn’t have done this.”
“Don’t worry, Louis was up doing prep for dinner anyway.” We were having Thanksgiving dinner with them later. I wouldn’t have been able to get reservations at Spago if my life depended on it.
“Well, this is my mom.”
Marc and Louis stood up and came over. “Hello Mrs. Valentine.”
“Angie,” they both said.
“And this is Joanne,” I said. “Mom and Joanne met at O’Hare while they were waiting for their flight.”
“We figured out we were both coming to L.A. for Thanksgiving with our gay sons. What are the chances?” Joanne said, her voice loud and coarse. “My son was supposed to pick me up, but apparently he’s fast asleep in his apartment. That boy. He’s the life of the party and sometimes I wonder it doesn’t kill him.”
“We stopped at his apartment on the way,” I explained.
“He’s dead to the world,” Joanne said. “We couldn’t wake him up even though we made a real ruckus.”
“Well, sit down,” Louis said. “We’ll get another chair and some coffee.”
“And plates. I’ll get plates.”
“We do need to make a phone call,” Joanne said.
“Yes, we need to go upstairs and make a call,” I said.
“All right. Fine. Put on your PJs if you want and come back down.” Louis disappeared into their apartment while Marc went to find a chair.
We climbed the wooden stairs to my apartment, which was directly above theirs. My apartment was small, not even six hundred square feet. Walking in, the tiny living room was in front of us, boasting a fabric wrapped loveseat, a black leather chair from IKEA, an antique armoire holding 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. Usually, a Hockney poster hung on one wall, but I’d taken it down and put up a photo from my parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
To our left was a Danish modern dinette set in front of the window. Beyond that, in what was meant to be the dining area, was an old metal desk under the corner windows.
“It’s just darling,” Joanne said. “Absolutely darling.”
“Where am I going to sleep?” my mom asked.
“I thought I’d give you the bed and I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“Noah, that couch is too short even for you.” She was right even though I’m not exactly tall. I was planning to put the cushions on the floor and sleep on them there.
“You raised a gentleman, Angie. Giving his mom the better bed. Such a sweet boy.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” I said. “Joanne, the phone’s right here. You can call Rod.” I pointed out the cordless phone sitting on the black Parsons-style table I’d bought at IKEA. I think it was called LACK.
“Oh thank you,” she said, making herself comfortable on the loveseat and picking up the phone.
I glanced at my mother. She was eyeing her anniversary picture. “Noah, can we get you something else for this spot? I mean, it’s sweet of you, but you can’t want to look at this all the time? I don’t even have this picture up.”
“Um, sure,” I said, planning to completely forget she’d said anything since I didn’t need a picture to hang there. “Why don’t we take your bags into the bedroom?”
Joanne left her message for Rod while we walked past her into the bedroom. There wasn’t much in there except for my queen-sized bed with a set of shelves behind it, creating a sort of headboard out of planks and concrete blocks. There was a window, a wall of closets and a built-in set of drawers next to the bathroom. There wasn’t anywhere to put my mother’s luggage but on the bed.
“It really is a sweet apartment, Noah. Very economical.” She leaned in close and added, “You didn’t need all that space anyway,” referring to the three-bedroom house I’d shared with Jeffer.
“Thanks, Mom. Oh, I cleared out a drawer for you and there are some hangers in the closet so you can hang things up.”
“Should I put my pajamas on?”
“You don’t need to—”
“What’s the number here?”’ Joanne asked.
I gave it to her. She repeated it into the phone.
“Isn’t that funny?” my mother said. “It used to be everyone had their phone number right on their phone. Now no one does. It’s funny how much changes. Anyway, I don’t mind wearing my pajamas, they’re very modest.”
“You know, we don’t even have to go back down. You’ve been up all night—”
“Oh no, your friends seem so nice. And I am a little hungry.”
“Oh, this room is adorable. I love the built-ins,” Joanne said, standing next to us and peeking in. “Noah, my pajamas are in my bag downstairs in your car.”
“That’s all right. I have an extra pair.”
“We really don’t need to—” I started.
“Go away, we need to change,” my mother said, pushing me out of the room and closing the door. I stood there a moment wondering why my mother brought two pairs of pajamas for a four-night stay and then yelled through the door, “I’m going downstairs.”
“All right, dear.”
When I got down to the courtyard, Louis handed me a mug of coffee. “Well, well, you went to get one mother and came back with two.”
I just rolled my eyes at that. “You didn’t have to do this, Louis. How long have you been up?”
“A couple of hours. But don’t worry, I wanted to check the turkey anyway.”
The turkey sat just outside his front door in a giant pot soaking in brine. And, just to make things more complicated, the giant pot was in the center of a galvanized washtub filled with ice. They would have kept it inside, but there wasn’t any room in their apartment, which had the exact floor plan as mine.
“So does your mother always pick up strange women?” he asked, unable to not tease me.
“No, she does not. They had a good time on the plane and then Joanne’s son didn’t show up, so we couldn’t just leave her.”
“Because there’s no such thing as a taxi at the airport?”
Actually, it was the one place in Los Angeles where you could reliably find a cab.
“Louis, be nice,” Marc said, coming out of the apartment with an extra place setting.
“It is strange that you couldn’t wake the guy up.”
“Maybe not. We met his neighbor. She had some kind of party last night. She wouldn’t say, but I think he was there.”
“Drugs or booze? What do you think?””
“One or the other.”
“I drank a lot in my twenties,” Louis admitted. “And I do mean a lot. I always woke up.”
“Well, maybe it’s both?” Marc suggested.
“They’re welcome to dinner. When he wakes up.”
“Thank you, Louis, but she’s been promised Spago.”
“Are you implying my dinner isn’t going to be world class?” Louis said with mock-offense.
“No, but you’ve never been on Tonight’s Entertainment News.”
“Well, there is that.”
And then my mother and Joanne were coming down the stairs. My mother had changed into lavender silk pajamas with cream-colored slippers while Joanne wore a very similar pink pair with her sensible walking shoes. Each of them carried a purse in the crook of an arm. Clearly, I was odd man out in my black jeans, red-and-white Rugby shirt and jean jacket.
Marc poured coffee for my mom and Joanne. “There’s cream and sugar if you want.”
“Thank you,” Joanne said, diving into her purse and coming out with a tiny bottle of Jack Daniel’s. She poured it into her coffee. “Angie?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“It will help you sleep.”
“Well, maybe half.”
As my mother poured Jack Daniel’s into her coffee, Louis came out of his apartment with a large platter. Setting it down in the center of the table, he said, “Fresh biscuits with gravy, scrambled eggs, uncured bacon.”
“Oh, it all looks lovely,” Joanne said. “My doctor would kill me, but he’s not here, so who cares.” She grabbed the serving spoon and scooped out a pile of biscuits.
“I see we’re being festive.” Louis nodded at the Jack Daniel’s bottles. “Marc—”
“On my way.” And he scurried back into their apartment.
“So, Spago?” Louis said to Joanne.
She set down the serving spoon, her plate already stacked, and said, “Yes. I’m so excited. Rod said it’s impossible to get reservations.”
“Almost impossible; you got in.”
I handed the serving spoon to my mother and she took some eggs, a single biscuit with gravy and a strip of bacon.
“What does your son do?” Louis asked.
“Script coordinator. Monumental Studios,” I explained, knowing Joanne would be vague. Then I put some eggs and a strip of bacon onto my plate.
“Monumental, huh?” Louis said, raising an eyebrow. Monumental Studios was one of the Gower Gulch studios that had a few sound stages, an office building or two and a handful of bungalows. Never one of the original big five, they now made the occasional low-budget, direct-to-video feature, but mainly rented out their soundstages to TV shows. And, yes, it was very unlikely that one of their script coordinators would be able to get a reservation at Spago on Thanksgiving.
“You can’t only have that,” my mother said, as she scooped a giant biscuit onto my plate.
I decided to be gracious and say thank you.
Marc popped out of the apartment saying, “Who wants a mimosa?” He had a bottle of champagne in one hand, with champagne glasses tucked between his fingers, and a pitcher of orange juice in his other hand.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Irish coffee is enough for me,” said my mom.
“Well, I’ll have one,” said Joanne.
I took a bite of a biscuit slathered in gravy. It was really much better than I’d expected. I was eating more than I had been for the last few months, though I still didn’t have what you’d call a healthy appetite.
“So, Louis,” my mother said. “Noah says you’re the cook today. What are your turkey tricks?”
“This year I’m soaking the turkey in brine.”
“Oh, I’ve read about that.”
“Last year he deep-fried it and nearly burned down the building,” Marc explained. “It’s a relief that this year we’re only facing possible flooding.”
“I didn’t nearly burn down the building. I scorched a banana tree. A little.”
“Is there a grocery store open? Noah and I still have time to make something, you know.”
“Oh my God,” Marc said. “Don’t even say that. We have so much food in our place it’s ridiculous. Plus, Louis has everything timed to the second. Adding or subtracting another dish will just throw everything off.”
Sensing he needed to change the subject, Louis asked, “Do you plan to do a lot of sightseeing while you’re here, Angie?”
“Oh no, I just want to spend time with Noah. And, of course, I want to get over to see the video store.”
“You haven’t seen it before?”
“I’ve seen it once, but that was years ago. I know he’s done a lot to it since then.”
“Not that much, really,” I said. Renovation was one of the excuses I’d used to keep her away once it was clear that Jeffer was sick and that he’d lied to me about, well, so much.
“What do you boys do for work?” Joanne asked.
Marc lit a cigarette, allowing Louis to answer first. “I’m in charge of accounts receivable for Eagle Rock Surgical Center.”
“Is that a hospital?”
“Sort of. Not really. We don’t have a trauma center and you need to schedule your procedure. We do a lot of plastic surgery and other electives. Fertility procedures that can’t be accommodated in an office. Things like that.”
“And what do you—” Joanne stopped cold and said, “Oh my God, you were on Kapowie!”
Marc’s mouth fell open. “I was. How on earth did you know that?”
“I used to babysit my grandson, Bucky. My daughter’s boy. He loved that show. You look just the same.”
That was a strange comment since Marc looked like a guy in his mid-thirties even though he was still in his twenties. Did he look like a guy in his mid-thirties when he was on the show? As a teenager?
“Of course, Bucky’s twenty-four now. He’ll be out of prison in about nine months.” No one asked why her grandson was in prison. It seemed impolite; and possibly something we didn’t want to know.
Joanne turned to my mother and asked, “Are you sorry you won’t be having grandchildren?”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Louis said. “There’s a guy at work, he and his boyfriend are having twins with a surrogate.”
“Really?” I said, a little surprised. I hadn’t known guys were doing that.
“Oh yeah, they’re very excited.”
Of course, I had not even thought about children. I was really much more focused on surviving until my thirtieth birthday. Which reminded me, it was time for my AZT. I’d have to run upstairs after breakfast and take it.
The conversation turned back to Marc’s career as a child actor. Joanne rattled off a list of famous actors asking if he’d met them. As though there were a clubhouse somewhere for everyone who appeared on TV where they got together and mingled. Talk then turned to politics. Joanne missed Reagan, which was awkward as the rest of us did not.
Upstairs, my phone began ringing.
“Oh thank God!” Joanne said. “That’s Rod. I’m sure of it.”
“I’ll get it,” I said, getting up.
“But he’ll want to talk to me.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give him the address. He’ll be here in half an hour.” I left the table and hurried up the stairs.
I got into my apartment and picked up the phone on its eighth ring. I continued into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach Mrs. Brusco.”
“Uh-huh. Is this Rod?” I took my prescriptions out of the medicine cabinet and shook the pills into my palm one by one.
“No, it’s not Rod. This is Detective Amberson, Hollywood Division.”
“Uh-huh?” A chill tickled the back of my neck. This might not be good.
“Who am I speaking to?”
“This is Noah Valentine.”
“Are you related to Mrs. Brusco?”
“No, I’m just a family friend.” And barely even that.
There was glass on the sink for brushing my teeth. I rinsed it out and filled it with some water while cradling the phone—
“Is Mrs. Brusco there?”
I swallowed my pills.
“Um, yes, she’s downstairs. Did something happen?”
“I’m afraid I can only talk to Mrs. Brusco.”
“All right. Hold on.”
I walked out onto the balcony that ran along my apartment.
“Joanne, could you come up here?” I called down to the courtyard. I watched as she got up from the table and hurried up the stairs. This was bad. We’d left Rod’s apartment building a little more than an hour ago. Best case scenario, he woke up, stumbled out into his courtyard and got arrested for drunk and disorderly. Worst case scenario—
“Rod wants to talk to me?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t Rod. Wordlessly, I handed her the cordless phone.
“Rod, I hope you know I’m just livid—what? No, this isn’t Mrs. Brusco. I don’t use that name. Who is this?” She listened. “Yes, yes I am Rod’s mother.”
She listened again.
“No, no, he’s sleeping. He had a little too much fun last night and he’s sleeping it off.”
Her mouth worked as she tried to say something more, then she took a ragged breath and let go of the phone. It bounced against her body and landed on the red tile of my balcony. She crumpled into a ball. I could hear my mother rushing up the stairs.
I snatched up the phone and said, “Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” said the detective.
“Joanne just dropped the phone. She’s very upset. Is he dead?”
“I can’t tell you that. She’ll have to tell you.”
And that told me he was.
“I understand she was at her son’s apartment earlier this morning?”
“Yes, she was. I was with her. And so was my mother.”
“We’re going to need to talk to her.”
It’s Thanksgiving, 1992 and Noah Valentine is late picking his mother up from the airport. When he arrives he discovers that she’s made a friend on the flight whose also waiting for her son. When the woman’s son doesn’t show up, they eventually take her home for breakfast with neighbor’s Marc and Louis. Soon after, they learn that her son has overdosed—or has he? Noah and his motley crew investigate over the holiday weekend; which includes a fabulous dinner, a chat with a male stripper, a tiny little burglary and some help from Detective Tall, Dark, and Delicious.
More about award-winning author, Marshall Thornton:
Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery twice, once for each series. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite Uncle, The Ghost Slept Over and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.
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