THE BLONDIE BRICK HOUSE on Winona never changed. North had grown up here; his mother had died here. His father would die here too, probably sooner than North expected. As North sat behind the wheel of the Beamer, the engine ticking as it cooled, he studied the street and told himself he was reminiscing.
In the gray light from the street lamps, the rough edges of the blue-collar neighborhood softened. The peeling paint was harder to notice; the warped lines of fencing were easier to miss. Everything looked a little more respectable, which was a good thing. Lindenwood Park was still a nice neighborhood, still a working-class neighborhood, and that was impressive in one of America’s most dangerous cities. Somehow, this urban slice had survived the destitution and decay that had blighted so much of St. Louis. A lot of that, North knew, had been possible because of men like his father, and North wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
Grabbing his bag from the seat, North made his way along the side of the house, bypassing the front door, which nobody used, and letting himself in at the sun porch—never locked, of course. He fenced Jasper and Jones with his foot, keeping them from sprinting out the door, and they yowled and whined for a minute before rubbing up against his foot. He didn’t blame them for wanting to get out; cat piss fouled the air, and North wondered how long it had been since his father had cleaned their litter box. If, that was, he had ever cleaned it. Maybe he didn’t even smell it anymore, the way he couldn’t smell the black pall of cigar smoke that hazed every room in the small house.
The small desk fan, which North had kicked over on his last visit, was back in place. The motor made a grinding noise as the blades turned. He lifted it onto a folding chair and elbowed open the window a few more inches. Hot July air—a muggy heat that lingered long after sundown, pasting itself to the skin—seeped into the house, but maybe hot, fresh air was better than the refrigerated, recirculated cigar smoke.
“Dad,” North called into the house, passing into the kitchen with its mountain of dirty dishes, the disconnected dishwasher sitting in the middle of the room, and the air stinking of burned grilled cheese sandwiches. “You awake?”
“Jesus, it’s you.” Then the kitchen fluorescents fluttered to life. David McKinney had slipped even farther down the shit-hill in the two months since North had seen him. His yellow skin sagged, and he looked much too thin. He leaned heavily on a walker now, and the nasal cannula had slipped and hung askew. Shaking his head in disgust, he lowered the pistol he had aimed at North and placed it in the pocket of his bathrobe. Then, checking the oxygen tank on his walker, he shuffled past North and into the living room.
North waited until his father was gone. Then he closed his eyes and counted to twenty. He told himself he wasn’t a kid anymore. He thought of what Shaw had said to him the last time he had come here: you come back different. And then he thought of Shaw under Jadon Reck, the cop’s muscular body tight as he drilled into Shaw, the way Shaw would throw his head back, his long hair spilling like ribbons of fire across his chest, his shoulders, his back. The way Shaw would sound as Jadon tore him apart. The way Shaw would sound when he climaxed. And the vision was so sudden and so startlingly real that North thought he could feel the acid churning in his stomach. Then he didn’t care about counting to twenty anymore. He opened the fridge, pulled out four Bud Lights, and carried them into the soft, TV-glow flicker of the living room.
On the old CRT, in its massive wooden cabinet, an episode of Gunsmoke was playing. Marshal Matt Dillon was talking to a pretty blonde who’d gotten stranded. She looked like she was holding up pretty well, and Matt didn’t seem to mind talking to her very much.
“I think I’ve seen this one,” North said, settling onto the folding chair next to his dad’s recliner. It was the same folding chair that, two months before, he had dragged in front of the TV. Had it been here this whole time? And if it had, what did that mean? That nobody else had stepped inside this house except David McKinney in those two months?
North set out the beers on the TV tray between the two seats and popped the top on his first one. “Her carriage got robbed, isn’t that it?”
His dad grunted, popped open a beer, and sucked spray off his knuckles.
North felt the ache in his own knuckles where bruises were already forming and the scabs over his split skin pulled. He said, “Isn’t that this one?”
“That’s all of them.”
“Yeah, but she’s got a friend who got taken by the bandits.”
David McKinney punched the volume up.
With a sigh, North opened up his throat, closed his eyes, and pounded down the beer. Then he opened the second one.
They watched Gunsmoke. Then the Wheel of Fortune rerun. North’s dad drew the line at Jeopardy and switched the channel to KDNL and caught the end of the news. North, for his part, got a lot of exercise: pulling the tabs on the Bud Lite, lifting the cans, carrying the empties to the sink. He felt like he could do this forever: stare at the TV with the images flashing on and off against the back of his eyes; stare out the window above the sink at the smudged light pollution above the city; stare into the yellow glare of the fridge until he wasn’t even sure how long he’d been there, with the cold air wicking against him pleasantly, and then come back to himself just enough to snag a few more Buds and carry them to the TV.
“Thought you were a towel head.”
North was six beers deep by then, practically swimming, and he had to blink and focus. “Oh. The gun. It’s ok. You can’t say that anymore, though. People don’t . . .” He forgot what he’d been trying to tell him.
“Bunch of them moved in on the other side of the park. I’ve just been waiting for them to make their move.”
“People don’t say that kind of thing anymore.” North thought he had more to say, but instead he slid down in his seat until his neck rested on the back of the folding chair.
“Some kind of fight with Laguerre, is that it?”
“He’s my husband.”
“I know who he is.”
“His name’s Tucker.”
“I know his name.”
After that, the TV’s murmur seemed to grow louder and louder until North’s ears were ringing with a white hiss. It was so much easier like this. He felt like he could do this forever. He didn’t even remember walking, but he was in the kitchen, slumped against the fridge door, the cold air brushing the tops of his bare feet. He didn’t remember taking off boots and socks. He didn’t remember drinking so many beers, but the fridge was empty except for that glare the color of egg yolk.
He wanted to call Shaw. That seemed like a good idea, so he stumbled out to the sunroom and dug his phone out of his pocket and after a few mistakes, managed to get Shaw’s number on the screen. The phone rang. And rang. And rang. It was going to voicemail; North was dimly aware that this was the most likely possibility, and again came that vision of Shaw on his back, legs in the air, hair burning in coils across his chest, with Jadon’s muscular frame above him.
Then the phone clicked, and a voice said, “Hello?” And that was the clue that it was voicemail because (North’s logic was inescapable): a) Shaw was too busy getting drilled by Jadon to answer the phone, and b) if Shaw had answered the phone himself, he would have said North’s name, the way he always did.
“You knew,” North said. “You knew and you didn’t . . . you didn’t even say anything. You knew. You fucking . . .” North’s stomach roiled again, and he wasn’t sure that this time it had anything to do with that mental image of Shaw. “You fucking knew. You knew.” He was sweating badly now, and he leaned up against the windows, where the swampy air trickled in with the buzz of mosquitos and the hot mulch scent. “Do you remember watching . . .” He gagged; a monstrous burp forced its way out. “Do you remember watching Supernatural, do you even remember? Do you remember anything, do you remember fucking anything from that, back before you met Jadon, fucking Jadon, back before you met—” North’s stomach cramped. His breath was foul as it furled against the glass and rolled back at him. “You fucking knew and you didn’t even say anything, and I fucking hate you.”
Something hit North’s hand, knocking the phone from his grip. Hands gripped North and spun him.
“Jesus Christ,” his dad said, leaning on his walker, the cannula slipping again. His face was gray in the weak light. “Are you trying to wake the whole fucking neighborhood so they can listen to your fucking bedroom problems?”
“I didn’t—” North tried to swallow, but his stomach was really turning now. “Dad,” he managed to say.
“For fuck’s sake.” With surprising strength, David McKinney dragged his son to the door, swung it open, and shoved North’s head out into the thick, wet heat of the darkness.
North barfed long and hard. And when he’d finished, his knees were shaking, and cold sweat dampened the shirt on his back.
“You’re hosing that off in the morning,” his dad said as he stomped away on the walker. “And you’re calling Ronnie. He’s been looking for you.”
North nodded. That was a good idea. But a better idea was to lie down, right here in the sunroom. Just for a minute. And he managed to do so just before a black tide rolled in.
After a recent case with a treacherous client, North and Shaw are ready to go back to work building Borealis Investigations. They’re also ready to go back to dodging their feelings for each other, with neither man ready to deal with the powerful emotions the Matty Fennmore case stirred up. Everything is getting back to normal when their secretary asks for help: her girlfriend’s boss has gone missing.
Shep Collins runs a halfway house for LGBTQ kids and is a prominent figure in St. Louis’s gay community. When he disappears, however, dark truths begin to emerge about Shep’s past: his string of failed relationships, a problem with disappearing money, and his work, years before, as one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.
When Shep’s body turns up at the halfway house, the search for a missing person becomes the search for a murderer.
As North and Shaw probe for answers, they find that they are not the only ones who have come looking for the truth about Shep Collins. Their investigation puts them at odds with the police who are working the same case, and in that conflict, North and Shaw find threads leading back to the West End Slasher—the serial killer who almost took Shaw’s life in an alley seven years before. As the web of an ancient conspiracy comes to light, Shaw is driven to find answers, and North faces what might be his last chance to tell Shaw how he really feels.
About the Author:
Gregory Ashe is a longtime Midwesterner. He has lived in Chicago, Bloomington (IN), and Saint Louis, his current home. Aside from reading and writing (which take up a lot of his time), he is an educator.
Learn more about Gregory Ashe and forthcoming works at www.gregoryashe.com.
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