The Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries detail the cases of former police officer-turned-private investigator Nick Nowak. Set in Chicago and covering the period between 1981 and 1985, the twelve books of the series follow Nick as he struggles with memories of his abrupt departure from the CPD and the end of his long-term relationship with librarian Daniel Laverty. He moves through a series of casual tricks until he meets homicide detective Bert Harker with whom he begins a tentative relationship.
As cynical and difficult as the city he calls home, Nick doggedly pursues his cases and often solves them out of sheer stubbornness. He relies on help from a charming cast of characters, who provide clues and comfort in equal measure. Beyond the mobsters and murderers, Nick encounters a larger villain looming on the horizon. A villain who begins striking down Nick’s friends and lovers, bringing the freewheeling fun of the early eighties to an end.
For the tenth anniversary of the series, here is an excerpt from the very first book, Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries, published in November 2009.
Excerpt: Little Boy Fallen
Always be careful who you trick with. I should have that tattooed on my forehead so I can see it every morning when I shave.
The woman was waiting for me when I got to my office. She looked to be in her late forties, thick around the hips, busty. There was lot of red lipstick caked onto her lips, and her hair was done up in a way that had probably gotten a lot of attention during the Eisenhower administration. At first, I thought she was a patient of the dentist down the hall, but when I pulled my keys out and started to unlock the door, she came over.
“Are you Mr. Nowak?” she asked.
A few weeks shy of my thirty-third birthday, I didn’t much like being called ‘mister’ by anyone who wasn’t still in grammar school. “You can call me Nick.”
I opened the door and led her into my tiny office. The furniture was crammed together, and still I had room left over for a dead corn plant in one corner. The window was big, taking up most of the outer wall. Eight floors below was LaSalle Street. Across the way stood an ultra-modern, steel and glass building that was so tall it cut out most of my light.
“He said you were nice,” she commented, while making herself comfortable in my guest chair. She wore a red cloth coat with a white fox collar. Instead of a purse, she carried a photo album, clutching it tight to her chest.
I hung my suede jacket on the back of my door and pulled a box of Marlboros out of the pocket. I decided not to ask who ‘he’ was. Not yet. Instead, I asked, “What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Helen Borlock.” I sat down at my desk and lit a cigarette while she talked. “He told me to come. He said you’d help. You can help, can’t you?”
“I don’t know if I can help,” I said honestly. “I don’t know why you’re here.”
She gave me a confused look, as though I should know why she was there. “Bobby told me to come. He said you’d help.”
I was pretty sure I didn’t know a Bobby Martin and said so.
“Bobby was my son’s roommate. One of them, I mean. There were four of them living there. Sweet boys, always laughing. The apartment is on Clark and Fullerton. They did it up nice. Every room a different color.”
I still hadn’t a clue who she was talking about.
Abruptly, she held out the photo album. “This is my Lenny.” To be polite, I took the album. “I never wanted to name him Leonard. My husband insisted. He’d had a friend, in the Marines. Wanted to name his son Leonard, after his friend. The friend died, you see.”
I flipped the album open. There was Helen with an infant. I was right. In her day, Helen had been a looker. I flipped a few pages and Lenny began to grow up. Looked like he was on his way to being a looker, too.
“What is it Bobby thought I could help you with?”
She glanced out the window like she suddenly needed to check the weather. It was overcast and threatening to rain or, worse, throw in one last snowstorm for the winter. After a little sigh, she said, “Three weeks ago, my son was murdered.”
“Mrs. Borlock, I’m a private investigator. I don’t investigate murders. The police do that.”
“They don’t care. Lenny is just another pervert to them.”
I waited a few moments, considering. I was telling her the truth. It wasn’t the kind of thing I did. Or at least tried not to do. Mainly I did background checks, skip traces, once in a while a little surveillance. That was it. Murder was different. Yes, I used to be a policeman, but I’d only worked a beat. I’d never been a detective. In the nearly six years I spent on the job, when it came to murder I’d never done much more than secure a crime scene and make sure witnesses stayed put.
“Can you afford a private investigator?”
“Yes. I always put a little aside for Lenny. Ever since he was a little boy.” She stared at her hands, which seemed particularly empty now that I was flipping through the photo album. “I used to think I’d give him the money on his wedding. He was sixteen when I figured out that was never going to happen, so for a while I thought I’d give him the money to go to college. But he was never book smart. Last couple of years, I’ve been waiting to see, did he maybe want to start a business or get a nice beau and buy a house.” Her voice turned bitter. “I should have given it to him. Should have let him spend on whatever he wanted.”
She looked like she might break down, but fortunately she didn’t. I took the final drag off my cigarette and stubbed it out. Against my better judgment, I said, “Tell me what happened to Lenny.”
“Someone pushed him off the seventh floor of the atrium at Water Tower.”
That seemed pretty cut and dried. “Were there witnesses?”
“It was a little after ten in the morning.”
“No one saw him being pushed?”
She shook her head.
“So, how do you know he was pushed?”
Mrs. Borlock pursed her lips. Tears popped into her eyes and threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. “You’re going to tell me my boy killed himself, just like the police.”
“Right now, I’m not telling you anything. Right now, I’m asking questions. How do you know he was pushed?”
“I just know,” she spat. “I know Lenny. And he wouldn’t kill himself.”
“Why wouldn’t Lenny kill himself?” I was expecting a lame answer, like she’d raised him as a good Catholic, and, since it was against God’s law, he wouldn’t do it. But she didn’t say that. She said something completely different.
“Lenny was the happiest person I ever met.”
* * *
That afternoon, I hopped on the El and got off at Diversey rather than going all the way to my regular stop at Belmont. I turned away from DePaul and walked toward the lake. Mrs. Borlock had given me the address of the apartment her son shared with three roommates, one of whom was the mysterious Bobby Martin.
At first, I wasn’t sure it had been a good idea to take the case. Logic told me the kid had killed himself. Yes, his mother thought he was the happiest person she’d ever met. But suicidal tendencies are exactly the kind of thing children hide from their parents. If the police thought it was suicide, then in all likelihood it was suicide. I had my issues with the Chicago PD, but that didn’t mean they did sloppy work.
So, why’d I take the case? Mrs. Helen Borlock, that’s why. Someone needed to help her. Not to find her son’s murderer; there was no murderer. She didn’t understand why her son killed himself, and she needed to understand. She needed the reason. As I rang the bell to her son’s apartment, I promised myself I’d find it for her.
I got buzzed into the building and climbed the stairs. On the second floor, a door sprang open and a boy in his early twenties stood there looking me up and down. He had short brown hair, a heavy five o’clock shadow, a small mustache hanging out beneath his nose on what looked like a temporary basis, and a pair of impossibly large glasses. He was short, real short. About five four, which made me nearly a foot taller. He was wearing a pair of gray gym shorts with the name of some high school partially rubbed off and not much else. He had decent legs and a tight chest, both covered with lots of dark hair. In the background, the Go-Gos got the beat.
“You’re not Bobby, are you?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I’d have remembered him if he was.
“I’m Freddie. Who are you?” Without waiting to find out, he turned and went back into the apartment. I followed him in. The living room was painted an antacid pink. Over an aqua-colored vinyl sofa that looked like it was stolen from a bus station was a large painting. Globs of paint arranged themselves to form a large, erect, rainbow penis. At its base, the painter had glued several handfuls of what looked like dryer lint.
Freddie lifted the needle off the record and the Go-Gos were silenced. He gave me the once-over a second time. “You’re looking for Bobby? Why? Did someone send you as a present? He’ll be—”
“I’m Nick Nowak. I’m a private investigator. Mrs. Borlock hired me to look into Lenny’s death.”
“Oh, my.” Behind his glasses he blinked a few times. He was one of those guys with eyelashes so dark and thick it made you wonder if he was wearing mascara.
“What’s your last name, Freddie?”
“Twombly,” he said. “Isn’t it terrible? It sounds like I’m lisping. Even when I’m not.” He lit an extra-long cigarette. I decided to be sociable and pulled out my Marlboros.
“You mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Only if they’re personal,” he said playfully. He hooked a finger into the elastic band of his shorts, dragging them down over his hip. I struggled to keep my focus on lighting my cigarette.
“Why do you think Lenny killed himself?” It was the question of the hour, so I figured I’d start there.
Freddie stopped being playful and sat on the sofa. It squeaked. “I don’t think Lenny killed himself. No one thinks that.”
I had hoped it would be easier than this. “Why do you say that?”
“Jumping? At Water Tower? It’s so dramatic. Lenny wasn’t a drama queen. Actually, I’m the drama queen in the house. Everything upsets me, but nothing upset Lenny. He was always mellow.”
“So, what do you think happened?”
Freddie shrugged. “Isn’t it your job to figure that out?”
“Do you mind if I look at Lenny’s room? And then maybe ask you a few more questions?”
He picked up the ashtray and walked out of the room. “Come on. It’s this way. Lenny and I share a room.”
I followed Freddie down the hallway. Just above the waistband of his shorts, he had dimples in the small of his back, one on each side. Halfway down the hall he turned, and we were in a small bedroom crammed with two twin mattresses, a schoolhouse desk, and another penis picture with lint for pubic hair—this one was flaccid.
The walls were painted an electric blue, and the ceiling was black. One of the mattresses was stripped naked, showing its sweat stains. The other wore pink polka-dotted sheets. On the bare mattress was a box filled with odds and ends from around the apartment—a frying pan, a picture, some juice glasses from the fifties.
Freddie watched as I looked over the room. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. Hints, I suppose, little clues as to why Lenny might have killed himself: angry letters from creditors, love letters from a failed romance, the complete works of Sylvia Plath. Anything.
“Did Lenny have money problems?” I asked.
“It’s a two-bedroom apartment and there are four of us. We all have money problems.” I looked into the closet. “The left side is his,” Freddie volunteered.
“What about boyfriends? Was he involved with anyone?”
“No. Lenny had sex. He tricked and stuff, but there wasn’t anyone serious.”
I moved Lenny’s clothes around. Stuck my hand in the pockets of his coats. Freddie continued chattering. “I used to be Bobby’s boyfriend. So did Chuck, our other roommate, but only for about five minutes. Bobby tricked with Lenny, which is what broke Bobby and I up, though at this point I can’t remember why I cared.” He gasped suddenly. “Oh, my God! You’re gonna think I killed Lenny for having sex with Bobby! That’s just ridiculous. It was a year and a half ago for God’s sake. In gay years that’s like a decade. Besides I have an alibi.”
“You don’t need an alibi. Lenny killed himself.”
He was silent for a moment. “I wish people who didn’t even know Lenny would stop saying that.” He stuck out his chin. “Lenny’s mom doesn’t think he killed himself. I don’t think she’s paying you to prove something she doesn’t believe.”
“I’m sure she’ll be satisfied if I can tell her why Lenny did it.”
Freddie huffed his disagreement. I lifted the lid to the schoolhouse desk. In the drawer beneath there were Lenny’s bills, his bank statements, some time cards, and an address book. I picked up the address book and flipped through it. Mostly first names.
“I’m supposed to be getting ready for a party. It’s Bobby’s birthday. That’s why I thought you might be a present.” He paused dramatically. “You know, like in Boys in the Band.”
“Yeah, I know. It was at The Parkway two months ago.” Not that I’d particularly enjoyed it. They were a whiny bunch. But it did prompt me to ask, “How did Lenny feel about being gay?”
“I don’t think he thought about it much. He was too busy sucking cock.” I suppose it was meant to shock me, but it didn’t. “I knew you were gay the minute you walked in,” Freddie continued.
“Oh yeah? What gave me away?”
“I’m almost naked. You keep pretending not to notice. Pretend being the operative word.”
It’s embarrassing, but I’m used to guys flirting with me. I’m six foot three and weigh about two-ten. I work out a few times a week to make sure the scale doesn’t tick much higher. That month, my dark hair was just beginning to curl since I needed a haircut. I was thinking about giving a beard a try, or maybe I was just being lazy. Either way, in addition to my mustache, there was heavy stubble all over my face. Trouble, in the form of boys who look like Freddie, always seems to find me. I guess that means I’m good looking.
“Tell me more about Lenny,” I asked, ignoring his flirting.
“Lenny wrote poetry. Dreadful poetry. I can show you some if you want, but my guess is Mrs. Borlock isn’t paying you enough to actually read it.” He pointed to a stack of black and white composition books by Lenny’s mattress. I shook my head. I might have to read them sometime, but hopefully I could figure this out without them.
I picked up Lenny’s bank statements and flipped through them.
“We’re all artsy, the four of us. Bobby is an actor. I’m a painter, a primitive representationalist. I work mostly in acrylics and found objects.” He paused, waiting for me to look up at the painting over his bed and compliment it. I stuck to the bank statements, so he continued, “Chuck is in a band called The Wigs. It’s glam rock. They all wear makeup and have pretty hair, but Chuck’s the only one who’s gay. They’re touring. Well, I mean they have a gig in Bloomington.”
Contrary to what Freddie had said, Lenny wasn’t broke. His most recent bank balance was nearly four thousand dollars. I flipped back over the past few months. His previous balances were significantly smaller, usually never more than six or seven hundred at the most. He’d even overdrawn the account a few times. I went back to the most recent statement. Halfway down the page, there was a circled deposit for three thousand, five hundred, and sixty-four dollars.
“Did Lenny come into some money recently?”
“What did he do for money?”
“Oh, we’re all temps. It’s very flexible. We work for a service called Carolyn’s Crew. Carolyn’s great. She used to be an actress, so she understands.”
“She give bonuses?”
“Oh, yeah. If you stay on an assignment for two months, you get a hundred dollars. Then two hundred at six months. Lenny was about to get his second bonus.”
“Lenny had been on the assignment for a while, then?”
“He was having a rough time of it, though.”
“What do you mean a rough time?”
“Well, I’m not sure. He talked about his boss a lot, this guy named Campbell. Obviously, the guy had money. No one names their kid Campbell unless they’re also giving him a trust fund. One minute Lenny adored the guy, and the next he hated him. I think Lenny had a crush and it wasn’t going well.”
“Do you think they might have had a relationship?”
“No, if Lenny was having sex with someone he wouldn’t shut up about it. Seriously, I can tell you the size of every dick he’s touched for the last two years.” He looked at me expectantly, like I might ask him to do so. Curtly, he said, “I’m trying to seduce you, but you seem not to notice.”
Freddie watched me, waiting for me to make a move. When I didn’t, he padded over to me. Frowning, he looked up and asked, “Are you trying to hurt my feelings?” He was so short I had to practically pick him up to kiss him.
Of course, I knew I shouldn’t have sex with him. It wasn’t what you’d call a reliable interrogation technique. But he didn’t seem to know why Lenny killed himself, didn’t even think Lenny did kill himself, so it was hard to see the harm in it.
Pushing me away, Freddie flopped down on the bed and, lifting his hips, slid off his gym shorts. His dick was semi-hard in anticipation and belonged on a much bigger man. I slipped off my jacket and began to undo the underarm holster holding my 9mm Sig Sauer.
“No,” Freddie said with a devilish smile. “Leave that on.”
I threw my jacket on the floor and joined Freddie on the bed. Taking him into my arms, I kissed him long and deep. There was something sexy about his being completely naked and my having most of my clothes still on. My hard-on rubbed against his, the cotton of my jeans making it all the more exciting. He pulled away from me and looked into my eyes. “You’re a good kisser.”
I thanked him for the compliment by kissing him some more. His hands were in my jeans, working to unbutton them and set my dick free. Once he got it into the open, he gave an appreciative little growl. He jerked me a few times and then rubbed our cocks together.
“This is going to be so good,” he whispered, then rolled over and spooned his naked butt into my lap. I ran my hands across his chest, pinching his nipples. He reached behind himself, grabbing my dick and rubbing the head along the crack of his ass.
His breathing began to come faster, and, somewhat abruptly, he reached around the edge of the mattress and pulled out a small container of Vaseline. Quickly, he lubed up my dick and his pucker hole. Before I slid my dick in, he said, “Take it easy at first.”
I fucked him slowly for a bit, lying there on my side with my pants down around my knees, giving him time to relax into it. Soon, though, I became impatient and pushed him over until he was face down. I crawled on top of him and slipped my cock back into him. He groaned happily.
My hands on his hips, I had to splay my legs wide to get a good angle. I thrust into him until the muscles on the insides of my legs began to ache. I pulled my legs closer together and lifted him up with me. His knees were off the bed, his ass practically floating in front of me as I pounded into him. His moaning began to blend into one long keening sound that reminded me of a siren.
Then I flipped him over. I wanted to see the look on his face while I screwed him. When he looked up at me, he stopped moaning and grinned. I slid back into him. “Yeah, that’s it,” he whispered.
Taking his cock into my hand, I started to jack him off. Matching each stroke with a thrust. He pushed my hand away. “You’re going to make me come too soon.”
I wanted to make him come, though, so I fucked him harder and faster. My holstered gun bounced against my ribs. He arched his hips, meeting each thrust. His hard cock bounced on his belly, and then he was coming. I reached out and jerked him a few times to help him along. All the while, I kept fucking him.
When he stopped spasming, Freddie said, “Pull it out. I want to see you come.”
I pulled out of him and began to jack myself off. It only took a few pumps and I was coming all over Freddie’s reddened dick and his already sticky belly. I collapsed on top of him. He slipped his arms around me and squeezed me close.
When he’d caught his breath, he said, “I hope this means you’ll try extra hard to find out what happened to Lenny.”
I pulled away from him, “Is that what this is about? You fucked me so I’d do a good job?”
“No, I fucked you because you’re sexy. But I can still ask for special treatment, can’t I?”
“I always do a good job,” I said.
He shrugged. “You never asked for my alibi.”
“Okay, tell me your alibi.” Obviously, he was eager to do so.
“The night before Lenny died, I got drunk off my ass on Long Island Iced Teas and took the bus in the wrong direction! This big, burly black guy took pity on me. After that, all I remember is holding onto a bathroom sink in some apartment while the black guy fucked the living daylights out of me. I woke up the next morning around eleven. I had no idea where I was.” He watched me to see what kind of reaction his story might get.
I didn’t know what the big deal was with his alibi. Was he that desperate to display his sexual prowess? Did he want to present himself as some kind of slut? Was this his way of saying, “don’t take what we just did too seriously”?
I dead-panned it. “Could you find this guy again?”
“Then it’s not an alibi, is it?”
He frowned. “Oh. I guess not.”
I rolled over and looked at him. “Can you think of anything else that might be important?”
Freddie thought for a moment, then smiled. “He would have liked you. That’s for sure. You’re just his type.”
It was time for me to leave, so I got off the bed. My hands and cock were still gooey with Vaseline. “Which way is the bathroom?”
“It’s right across the hall.”
With my pants around my ankles, I had to waddle across the hall. When I got halfway to the john, the front door opened and in walked Bobby Martin. Immediately, I remembered him. I’d picked him up at The Loading Zone a couple months before. I never saw him after that. We hadn’t exchanged numbers.
He took a moment to look me up and down. My greasy shirttails, my red, sticky cock hanging out, my hairy knees. He smiled and said, “Well, nice to see you again.”
I wanted to punch someone.
Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery three times. 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.