Video Trailer – Carved in Bone
Framed by a million-dollar view of the Bay Bridge in the window of her eighteenth-floor office on California Street, Ruth Fleming regarded me skeptically. The large, gleaming desk that served as a buffer between us held an in and out box and a complicated, many-buttoned phone but not a single personal item; no framed family photographs or fancy paperweights for her. Her desk proclaimed she was all business, as did the woman herself. Her makeup had been painstakingly applied to project attractiveness without a trace of sensuality just as the silk burgundy shawl that draped the padded shoulders of her jacket seemed calculated to soften her authority. The nameplate on her desk identified her as a vice president. The only other women I had seen when she led me from the foyer to her office were secretaries. Larry Ross’s words may have been good enough for her boss, Myles Landon, in L.A., but Fleming tapped with doubtful fingertips the résumé she had asked me to bring her.
“I have to say, Mr. Rios, you don’t seem to have any relevant qualifications for this job,” she observed in a firm but modulated voice.
“That’s what I told Myles Landon,” I replied. “He seemed to think my experience as a litigator would be sufficient. You don’t agree?”
She frowned. “No, I don’t, but Myles is the boss, so here we are.”
Clearly, having an unqualified man foisted on her was a reminder that the old boys network was alive and well. I sympathized but was hardly in a position to concur. I needed the work.
“Look, Ms. Fleming—”
“Mrs. Fleming,” she said, automatically.
“Mrs. Fleming, give me a chance and if you think I’m not up to the job, I’ll quit and tell Landon it was my decision.”
She seemed a fraction less annoyed with me. “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Rios.” She picked up a folder from her in box and slipped it across the desk. “This case involves a claim of accidental death which would require us to pay double the policy amount.”
“A hundred thousand dollars. A lot of money, obviously, but not in and of itself the reason for us to investigate. The cause of death is accidental asphyxiation—apparently, there was a gas leak in the insured’s apartment. His, uh, male companion was also in the apartment but he survived. The companion is also the beneficiary. The claim was filed on his behalf a few days after the accident, but we haven’t been able to reach him since.”
“Who filed the claim?”
“The agent who wrote up the policy. Not one of our agents. We bought the policy from Confederation Insurance.”
“You bought a policy from another insurance company? Is that a common practice?”
“Yes. It’s called reinsurance. The selling company wants to spread the risk of loss by carrying fewer policies and the buying company wants the business. It works out for everyone. Anyway, we called the Confederation agent and he said he can’t find the claimant either. Obviously, we’re not going to take any action on the claim until we have a beneficiary.”
“That’s all you want me to do? Find the beneficiary?”
She allowed herself a tight little smile. “Well, to start. After that, I expect you to do the standard investigation.”
She swiveled her chair away from me and reached for a fat binder on the credenza behind her. “This is our operations manual. You’ll find a chapter on investigating death claims.”
I took the binder and the manila folder. “May I call you if I have a question?”
“I’m vice president in charge of operations,” she said. “Perhaps you could call Myles.”
I crammed the operations manual and the case file into my briefcase and lugged it into the Gold Mountain Café, a Chinese-American restaurant near Civic Center. The restaurant was close by the county law library and within walking distance of both the civil and criminal courthouses. I was drawn by its cheap prices, decent food and the willingness of its elderly owners, the Chus, to let me camp out at a back booth for a couple of hours and work when it was inconvenient to walk back to my office. If I was being entirely truthful, Gold Mountain held one other big attraction for me: Adam, the Chus’ twenty-three-year-old grandson. Adam was their jack-of-all-trades who cooked, waited tables, ran the cash register and even, I saw, passing the place late one night, mopped the floors after closing time.
The Gold Mountain was never crowded and often almost empty. The menu featured both American diner food, burgers and Denver omelets, and standard Chinese food, wonton soup and beef with broccoli, and hadn’t been changed in years; new prices had simply been taped over the old ones. Unlike the retro fifties diners springing up elsewhere in the city, Gold Mountain’s long, Formica counter, checkerboard linoleum floor and red vinyl booths appeared to actually date to the second Eisenhower Administration. Cracks in the vinyl were covered with duct tape and Adam’s best efforts could not lift the decades of scuff marks on the floor.
Adam was a fresh and vivid presence in the dim, shabby, somnolent restaurant. He towered over his diminutive grandparents and he was massively muscled, his big thighs and powerful chest straining the seams of his black trousers and white dress shirt waiter’s uniform. His square-jawed, big featured, broad face, topped with a close-cropped bush of inky hair, had a warrior’s fierceness in repose but when he smiled, which he did frequently, dimples and a natural sweetness emerged. Our brief conversations about the fate of the Giants took a turn toward friendship when I asked him about the photographs that inconspicuously lined the walls the restaurants; old black-and-white images of Chinatown. The one that hung above the booth where I usually sat depicted a counter restaurant filled with Chinese laborers, some in Western clothes, some in Chinese garb, their hair in queues, plainly taken in the late nineteenth-century.
“That was our first restaurant,” he explained. “On Grant Street. There’s only a counter because back then most of the Chinese were guys without families so they’d come in, sit down, eat and leave. You can still find a few of those old counter restaurants in Chinatown.”
“What happened to their families?”
“The guys came over to work and make money to send home. The women and kids stayed behind in China. Then the exclusion act kept them out.”
“How many restaurants has your family owned?”
“Gold Mountain is number four. The one in the picture was destroyed in the earthquake. We opened another one in North Beach but the Italians burned it down.”
His good-natured expression soured a little. “The Italians didn’t want any Chinese in their neighborhood so they torched the place. The third one opened in Chinatown. Then my granddad opened this one in the sixties. The Chinatown place got sold, so Gold Mountain is the end of our little empire.”
“Are you going to take it over?”
Adam laughed. “No, this isn’t the life for me.” He glanced toward his grandparents who were having an animated conversation in Cantonese at the cash register. “A couple of years ago, he had a stroke and she told him it was time for them to retire, but this place is more to him than a business. This is what his dad and granddad handed down to him and he was ready to die at the grill. She asked me to talk to him because,” he said with a grin, “I’ve always been his favorite grandkid. I’m the only one who listened to his stories. We made a bargain. I’d come and work for him and he’ll retire next year, after New Year’s. Chinese New Year’s.”
“None of their children want the place?”
He laughed again. “My dad and his brothers and sisters had to work here when they were kids. They hated it.”
“So, basically, you’re putting your life on hold to work here until your grandfather’s ready to retire?”
“Sure,” he said with a quizzical grin as if my question puzzled him. “It’s for my family.”
After that, he’d linger at my table and talk after he took my order or, if he was in the kitchen, he’d come out and take his break with me. I quickly realized there were two Adams. One was the easygoing, all-American boy with the quick smile who loved sports and joked about being too tired from his twelve-hour days to look for a girlfriend. The other was the serious young man who had learned from his grandfather the difficult history of the Chinese in San Francisco and who, when he spoke of it, showed flashes of the warrior I had first taken him for.
Once when we were talking, I mentioned Yick Wo versus Hopkins, an 1886 Supreme Court decision I had studied in my constitutional law class. In Yick Wo, the court ruled that a San Francisco ordinance requiring permits for laundries violated the equal protection clause because it was administered in a way that denied almost all Chinese applicants. Adam knew all about Yick Wo and its aftermath.
“That was just one law,” he said. “There were lots of them to keep us in our place and when they didn’t work, the mobs did things like burning down my family’s restaurant. The city’s always been a tough place for us.”
He frowned. “You ever really looked at Chinatown? I mean, past the tourist joints? It’s a slum. San Francisco’s always been a tough place for us.” The easy smile reappeared. “But there’s good and there’s bad, right? You know why my granddad named this place Golden Mountain Café?”
“No, and I was curious since there aren’t any mountains around.”
“In Cantonese, Gold Mountain is gam saan. That’s what the Chinese immigrants called San Francisco, before they got here. They thought they’d come over and get rich.”
“Find streets paved with gold?”
“Yeah,” he said. “They didn’t find that but a lot of our families found a home. Hey, is that all you’re going to eat?”
“Are you trying to fatten me up for a reason?”
He grinned. He’d made it clear he thought I was too thin and often piled my plate with more food than I could possibly eat, then packaged the leftovers.
Larry had warned me not to get romantically involved my first year of recovery but I figured even he wouldn’t object to my discreet infatuation with this smiling straight boy. Because clearly, Adam was a straight guy, cluelessly friendly and open and at ease in his big body as only straight guys can be. A gay guy who looked like him would have carried himself with the slightest bit of theatricality to show off the gym-built muscles, and the eyes of gay men in the city at that moment were all touched with a drop of anxiety, like a tiny tear that never fell. Adam’s eyes were clear.
I felt Adam’s meaty fingers digging into my shoulders and briefly massaging me. “Hey, what you got there?”
The operations manual was open on the table before me. I explained to him what it was and the job I had taken on.
“I thought you did criminal law,” he said, positioning himself in front of me, order pad in hand.
“Business is slow and a man’s gotta eat,” I said.
He smiled. “Speaking of eating, what’ll you have today?”
“Surprise me?” I ventured.
“Tuna melt and tomato soup.”
“I have that most days. What’s the surprise?”
“Side of salmonella,” he said. “Kidding!”
He went off and I stared appreciatively at his broad back and big, tight glutes, and then, with a sigh, turned my attention to my work.
Compared to the opaque legal documents I was accustomed to, the operations manual was refreshingly to the point. Thus far I had learned that every life insurance policy contained a contestability clause that allowed the insurer to challenge the validity of the policy within two years of the death claim. Whether the company exercised that option depended on the results of a preliminary inquiry called a death confirmation investigation. This investigation centered on three areas: whether the insured’s information on the original application—name, age, gender, address—contained any material misstatements that would void the policy; confirmation of the insured’s identity to make sure the insured and decedent were the same person; and verification of cause of death. If those three things checked out, the claim was paid.
I opened the file on William Ryan, the man whose death I was investigating. There wasn’t much there: a copy of the application, the policy itself, and the death claim. At the time he applied for the life insurance policy, a year and a half earlier, Ryan was thirty-two years old, lived on Eureka Street and listed his occupation as businessman. Under intended beneficiary was the name Nick Trejo, a twenty-two-year-old who lived at the same Eureka Street address. Beneath the space for “beneficiary’s relationship to insured” was the word “roommate.” Reading between the lines—two unrelated men, one older than the other, living together in the heart of the city’s gay neighborhood—it was obvious Trejo was Ryan’s lover and the older man had taken out the policy to provide for the younger one in the event of his death.
“Roommate,” “companion,” “friend,” “lover,” “partner.” I thought about all those words, some innocuous, some salacious, and always pronounced with a slight, mocking hesitation that simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed the bond, the way Ruth Fleming had paused before describing Nick Trejo as William Ryan’s “male companion.” A man joined to a woman was a love story. A man joined to a man was a smutty joke. Well, at least the company wasn’t trying to withhold payment because Trejo was Ryan’s lover as it might have in an earlier time. That was progress, I guess.
I called Brendan Scott, the insurance agent who had issued Ryan’s policy, from the restaurant payphone and made an appointment to see him at three. That gave me an hour to kill. What could I learn about William Ryan in that hour? It occurred to me I could look up his obituary at the nearby city library.
Mrs. Chu was working the cash register. She took my money and made change and I went back to the booth and left a five for Adam who was back in the kitchen.
“Will you tell Adam I said goodbye?” I asked Mrs. Chu on my way out. She smiled and nodded.
The last of the city’s Indian summer had been washed away in a violent storm over the weekend. The damp streets were filled with small tree branches and the gutters were clogged with leaves. The gray sky cast a funereal pall across the city where everything and everyone, cars, buses, streetcars, pedestrians, seemed to move in slow motion. I pushed open the doors to the gloomy library building with cold fingers. A reference librarian directed me to the fourth floor reading room where back issues of magazines and newspapers were piled on wooden shelves.
Ryan had died three weeks earlier. I pulled a month’s worth of issues of the city’s gay newspaper and flipped through the first one to the obituaries. They took up two pages, ranging in length from a full column to a couple of paragraphs, all illustrated with thumbnail black and white photographs of the eulogized men—they were all men—some no more than blurred snapshots, others studio portraits.
I scanned the names and didn’t find William Ryan among them but I did see a familiar face grinning at me from one of the photographs. Tom Rustin. He’d been in his last month of residency at the halfway house when I’d arrived. I noticed him immediately because he and I were the only guys at the house who weren’t white. I remembered his imperturbability and how, when he spoke at a meeting, he always began, “Hi, family.” Now he was dead: “Complications from HIV. His only regret was not being able to pick up his nine-month AA chip at the Show of Shows.”
I leafed through three more issues of the paper and fifty-seven obits before I found William Ryan’s notice. The accompanying photograph showed an attractive, dark-haired man with light-colored eyes, a sharp nose and a forceful jaw, wearing a dress shirt and tie, a phone pressed to his ear.
Bill Ryan was born on August 18, 1955, in Eden Plains, Illinois. He came to San Francisco in 1971 and never left. He got an Associate Arts degree from City College and worked as real estate agent with Bay Realty before opening his own office in the Castro in 1977. Many of the neighborhood’s Victorians were sold by Bill. In 1980, Bill turned his agency into the successful property management company he was running at the time of his sudden death. He is survived by his faithful office manager, Doris Chen, and his partner of five years, Nicholas Trejo. In keeping with Bill’s wishes, there will be no memorial.
It took me a couple of readings to decode the terse notice. Bill Ryan was clearly a guy in a hurry. He would only have been twenty-two when he started his own real estate agency and got caught up in the boom years when gay men were transforming a quiet Irish neighborhood called Eureka Valley into the epicenter of the city’s gay life they renamed the Castro. Property management implied property to manage which made me think he had not just been a seller but a buyer. Like many other young men before him, going back to the Gold Rush, Ryan had come to California to make his fortune.
He was only eighteen when he uprooted himself from the Midwest and moved across the county. Surely, his reason for such a dramatic migration wasn’t to attend a community college or work in real estate, things he could have done anywhere. No, I surmised that he, like thousands of other young men in the ’70s in similar situations, had fled his small-minded Midwestern town for San Francisco to find a community of his own kind. And, because he was so young, I had to think there had been some serious trouble at home behind his move. The likeliest scenarios were either that he’d been discovered and his family had thrown him out, or, fearing imminent discovery, he’d run off before the shit hit the fan and become another gay refugee in a city filled with us.
Unlike other refugees, however, it did not appear he had immersed himself in that community. Their obituaries were filled with mention of gay clubs and groups to which the men had belonged, gay charitable organizations in which they had been active, and included long lists of surviving friends and personal messages of grief from them. Nothing like that for Bill Ryan. A casual reader of his circumspect death notice might not have even realized he was gay. Even the mention of his lover, Nick Trejo, was cast as his “partner” suggesting a professional rather than a personal relationship.
No family was mentioned among his survivors, confirming my suspicion that he was estranged from it. We were a generation of men who, when we had come out as gay, had been stricken from our family trees, and become non-persons whose names were spoken, if at all, in shamed whispers. Both my parents had died before I had to come out to them, and my only sibling, my sister, Elena, was also gay. But I did have uncles, aunts and cousins—none of whom I had seen since my mother’s death a decade earlier because I hadn’t wanted to come out to them. Maybe my Mexican, Catholic relatives would have been okay with a gay nephew and cousin but more likely they would have been disgusted or appalled. Even before my parents had died, and after I’d left home for school, I’d seen my relatives so rarely, it hardly seemed worth risking rejection, so I drifted away. The habit was so ingrained, I had even drifted away from my sister, though she had probably saved my life.
Brendan Scott’s insurance agency was on the same block of Market Street as Ryan’s property management company. Their two businesses were separated by a dry-cleaners, a camera shop and a coffee shop where, Scott was telling me, the two men sometimes met for coffee.
“Not that Bill had much time for socializing,” Scott said. He was fiftyish, paunchy and going gray but he had a salesman’s easy smile and twinkling eyes, as if he was about to tell you a particularly good joke. “Nope, it was always business with him. Terrible how he died, though I guess it was better than AIDS.”
“What does that mean?”
The smile flickered off. “People would have thought he was one of those sleazy South of Market guys hanging out in bathhouses with their legs up in the air and a bottle of poppers stuffed up their nose.”
“I don’t think the virus limits itself to them,” I said mildly.
He shrugged. “All I’m saying is Bill wasn’t like that. He was about the straightest gay guy I knew. He worked long hours and then went home to Nick.”
“You know Nick Trejo?”
“I only met him a couple of times,” he corrected me. “Cute kid. Younger than Bill.”
“You sold the policy to Bill.”
He nodded. “Sure did. He came in one day out of the blue and said he wanted to make sure Nick was taken care of if something happened to him. Lots of gay guys do that, you know, to make sure there’s something for the boyfriend the family can’t get to.” He frowned. “Of course, these days, with the virus, it’s getting harder and harder to write a life insurance policy if the applicant’s gay.”
“How would your company know if someone’s gay?”
“Red-lining,” he replied. “If an application for life insurance comes out of certain zip codes where there’s lots of gay men, the company rejects it.”
“That’s okay with you?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “It’s not. There are ways around it—” he paused. “I think I better keep them to myself.”
“Sure, I understand. Getting back to Bill Ryan’s policy. You filed the claim when he died. Did Nick ask you to?”
He shook his head. “I left him messages but he didn’t call back so I went ahead and filed the claim to preserve his rights.”
“Do you have any idea where he might be?”
“Sorry, no, but you let me know if you find him.”
“Of course,” I said, standing up. I noticed the gay paper on his cluttered desk was opened to the obituaries.
He noticed me noticing it. “My granddad called the obits the old man’s sports page. Didn’t think I’d be paying much attention to them before I was his age.”
“Hard times,” I said.
“You keep safe now,” he replied.
Maybe too late for that, I thought, but did not say, not wanting him to write me off as one of those South of Market guys.
I went around to Ryan’s office but the door was locked with a handwritten sign taped to it: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
A light drizzle fell from the darkening sky onto a narrow street in Hayes Valley where I stood before the tumbled-down, uninhabited, nineteenth-century cottage where Hugh Paris had lived. My lover. A recovering junkie, ex-rent boy, the black sheep of a wealthy family, whose murder remained officially unsolved. When I’d first returned here after leaving rehab, it was for evidence that Hugh had really existed and not been simply a figment of my alcohol-soaked imagination. In my mind, I walked myself up the creaky steps, through the door and the oddly barren living room into the bedroom. There, on a mattress on the floor, Billie Holiday crooning in the background, the damp sheet twisted around our feet, we had what was now called unsafe sex but which, at the time, I had thought of as making love. Standing there in the drizzle, I wondered if, in our heedless exchange of fluids, one of us had passed the virus to the other. Not that it mattered to Hugh. He lay beneath the snow in a Boston graveyard. He was twenty-six when he was murdered and I remember thinking, how can that be? Who dies that young? Now the city was filled with gay men wondering if they would live to see thirty.
What if I got sober just so AIDS could kill me, I asked Larry one particularly anxious morning. Have you been sick, had any of the symptoms? he asked. No, I said, but—He cut me off. If you start down the road of what ifs, it’s going to lead you back to the bottle. I’m afraid, Larry. Afraid of what? A possibility? Something that might never happen? It’s more of a probability, I said. Is it happening today, he demanded with an asperity I realized later was a measure of his own anxiety. No, I said. Then stop these fantasies and learn to live in your body. What? You heard me, he said. Your mind lives in fear and regret but your body can only live right now, in this moment. So, take some deep breaths and live in your body. It’s a safer place to be than in your head.
The drizzle turned into a cold, pelting rain. I opened my umbrella and headed home.
Was Bill Ryan’s death an accident? Henry Rios has his doubts.
The first new Henry Rios novel in 20 years from six-time Lambda Literary award winner Michael Nava is a brilliantly plotted mystery that weaves together the gripping story of two gay men against the backdrop of 1980s San Francisco as the tsunami of AIDS bears down upon the city.
Kirkus Review says: “Delivering an unusual subject and structure, this tale offers refreshing emotional depth and a gay narrative seldom seen in thrillers.”
Author, Michael Nava
Michael Nava is the author of an acclaimed series eight novels featuring gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios who The New Yorker, called “a detective unlike any previous protagonist in American noir.” The New York Times Book Review has called Nava “one of our best” writers. He is also the author of an award-winning historical novel, The City of Palaces, set at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican revolution. In addition, he is the writer/producer of the Henry Rios Mysteries Podcast which adapted the first Rios novel, Lay Your Sleeping Head into an 18-episode audio drama. In 2019, he also founded Persigo Press, through which he hopes to publish LGBTQ writers and writers of color who write genre fiction that combines fidelity to the conventions of their genre with exceptional literary merit.