Exclusive Excerpt: Beautiful Corpse: A Marshall James Thriller (Marshall James Thrillers) by Mark McNease

Excerpt:

REMISSION

TODAY DOESN’T FEEL LIKE A milestone. It feels like any other Tuesday, better than some, not as good as others. The sun’s out and the stink of a New York City summer has passed, giving way to the cool of autumn. This is the time of year when I fall in love with the city again. The surge of color on the trees in Central Park; the morning chill that has me staying under the comforter with my husband while our cat, Critter, purrs between us. The kind of morning that makes me want another, and another, just like it. In my position that’s not guaranteed, but an October morning teases me and gives me hope, something I’ve been wary of my entire life.

I have my scheduled walking tour to give this afternoon—the Haunted Greenwich Village Tour, complete with single-page maps with little Xs on them where famous people croaked from murder, suicide or heroin. It’s a seasonal tour we do for Halloween. Other than that, it’s just the day I’m supposed to celebrate being cancer-free for five years. I’m told it’s a big deal, the top of some hill from where I announce to the small world I inhabit that I’m cured for the most part. It’s a hesitant celebration—ask all those people who thought they were in the clear and got blindsided by another round with the Grim Reaper. He always wins anyway. Maybe not five years ago when I was first told those little reds spots on the Kleenex I coughed into were blood, or a month later when half a lung was removed, or six months later when I was bedridden and thinking the cancer couldn’t possibly have been worse than the chemo. But he’s a patient sonofabitch, and every single one of us is set for a cage match that’s already been decided. The crowd knows who gets the trophy, and it ain’t us.

I was supposed to be dead and turned into a box of ashes a long time ago. If not from the lung cancer, then from AIDS in my twenties, or bourbon in my forties, or at the hands of one of several sadistic killers—but I’ll get to that. Let’s focus on the positive, as my oncologist, Dr. Lydia Carmello, would say. She’s been as surprised as anyone that I’m still around, although she’d never express it. She’s still in the ‘cautiously optimistic’ stage after five years. She’s seen too many hearts broken, too much grief, to take victory laps. It’s not her style, and it’s not mine.

I have a lot to be grateful for, even though I can’t say who I’m grateful to. God and I haven’t been on speaking terms since I was sixteen years old, a gay kid in an Indiana town asking him why he wouldn’t make me attracted to girls, or why he wouldn’t get my father sober, or why he killed my mother and left us to take care of ourselves while the old man slept off another binge. By the time I was living in Los Angeles some years later and watching my friends fall like weeds ripped out of a garden, I’d decided God didn’t talk back to me because he wasn’t there and never had been. So my gratitude is the kind you feel when you smell flowers, or when you get hit with a cool breeze on a really hot day. It’s not a ‘thank you’ to anyone, just an acknowledgment that it feels good.

I’m alive, healthy in a relative way, still working, and now a married man. That last one still surprises me more than outliving a grave prognosis. My boyfriend Boo, short for Buford, convinced me two years ago that it was time for us to live together, and since we were going to live together we might as well make it official with a trip to City Hall. And that’s all we did, too. No fancy wedding, no reception, no gift registries. Just me, Buford, and two friends as witnesses for the second trip downtown. There’s a twenty-four hour waiting period in New York, instigated years ago by some do-gooder who thought too many people were getting plastered on their trips to the Big Apple and capping it off with marriages they regretted when the booze wore off. So you have to get your license one day, and either go back and have it officiated, or set up your wedding with someone else who’s qualified to sign the thing. For us, we just got on the subway with our pals, stood in line again, and did the deed. And you know what? I like being married. I like calling Boo my husband, a word that first felt as strange coming out of my mouth as it did falling on the ears of so many people who still react like it’s an odd thing for two men to call each other. I don’t care. I’m turning sixty this year—what’s with all these milestones?—and if I want to call the man I wake up with every day my husband, you can bet your ass that’s what I’m going to do.

Despite all the changes, some of the basics are the same. I live in the same Hell’s Kitchen building I’ve been in for many years. We got a deal on a one-bedroom because I’m a reliable tenant in a building full of not-so-reliable ones. It was a step up from the studio I’d been living in with its view of the Port Authority bus terminal and the sounds of Ninth Avenue as a kind of toxic white noise. Boo made the move from Brooklyn and we fixed the place up nicely. We share it with Critter, who I inherited from a dead prostitute named Justine. He outlived her after the building super found her deceased with a syringe in her arm. The neighbors had been complaining of a terrible smell coming from her apartment, and it wasn’t the cat.

The terminal is still across the street, but we’re not on the side anymore that faces all the buses coming in from New Jersey spewing their fumes up into the windows.  I still give walking tours for a living, having been a guide at one time or another for all the ones the company offers: the Gay New York Tour, the Music Icons Tour, and the haunted tour I’m doing today. There’s also the Famous Bars Tour, where I walk groups of people around and we stop at a half-dozen saloons where they can have a shot or a glass of wine where some celebrity passed out the night before. It’s fitting since I don’t drink, and, frankly, even the cheapest of these places is nicer than the bars I patronized at the end of my long, long drinking career. If people weren’t falling off ratty barstools and the place didn’t smell like puke and Pine-Sol, it was too classy for me. That included the Paisley Parrot, or maybe that’s where it really started. I told you about that dump in the first of these little confessions. 1983, Los Angeles, a mobbed-up, lowlife paradise where I became intimately acquainted with murder and the kinds of people who commit it.

I may be in the clear from cancer for now, but I’m not in the clear with my conscience. I didn’t kill anyone—don’t get me wrong—but I’ve always thought a few people might still be alive if they’d never met me, so I’m getting it out there now. And boy, is there more to get out.

It was 1984. Prince ruled the airways. The Los Angeles Olympics had come and gone, taking with it a spotlight that had shone harshly on the city’s night crawlers and left them thankful for the shadows. AIDS was spreading its dark, black, wings over us all, and I was a happy guy. At least I thought I was, until things took a sudden turn for the deadly.

CHAPTER One

David Bowie’s song 1984 was everywhere that year for obvious reasons: the song, like the George Orwell book that had inspired it, had taken on new urgency once it actually was 1984. Much like a save-the-date for the end of world, however, it proved to be less than prescient. Economies did not crumble, we had not yet been taken over by double speaking bureaucrats who called up down and in out—that would come later with the arrival of a new century.

Prince was also ubiquitous. His Purple Rain album and movie had stormed the gates of entertainment and made themselves inescapable. You couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing one of his songs, and among the fevered debates that year was who deserved the king’s crown: Prince or Michael Jackson. For some people it was a toss up, for me it was Prince.

Los Angeles had been transformed by the arrival and departure of the Olympics. The authorities had wanted the city to look respectable, so for months before that summer the police had been sweeping the hustlers, hookers and drug dealers off Santa Monica Boulevard. Prior to that, it was common to take a drive along Santa Monica and see one young man after another standing on the curb or in the street with his thumb out. I knew because I’d been one of them when I’d first arrived in L.A. seven years earlier. I was later saved from a life—or in many cases a death—on the streets by my friend Butch Reardon, who I’d met one night at the baths. The good news was that Butch was still alive, surviving what we later called a plague. The bad news was that many others were not. Eighty-four wasn’t the worst of the AIDS years by a long shot, but the death toll was high enough for us to know the bottom was a lot farther down. Every gay man I knew expected his life to be shortened by several decades. Each cough, each unexplained blemish, had us getting our things in order and dreading the awful emaciation we’d all become familiar with. Reed-thin friends gasping for breath in hospital rooms marked “Contagious.” Desperate questions without answers. Death was a guest at the party, moving so quickly among us that we could never quite identify what he looked like or which part of the room he was in at any moment.

The only thing we were sure of—that we had to believe for sanity’s sake—was that monogamy was the best way to ride out the storm. Find someone safe, someone healthy, and close ranks, hold on for dear life. That’s not why I was with Mac. It was just timing. We’d met under the strangest, most gruesome circumstances. We’d fallen into love, and as if by instinct, we’d stayed there. The virus had just been identified that year and there was no test for it yet. But we knew it was spread through sex, so the less sex you had, with the fewest people, the greater your chances of survival. You can’t catch what no one can give you, so some of us either swore off sex altogether, or we set up house and locked the door. That was Mac and me, moving in together to cement that sticky thing called love. He was still a cop, I was still a bartender. Aside from everyone living under the darkest, cruelest storm we would ever encounter, things were looking pretty good. It was October, my favorite month … until that night.

* * *

Mac McElroy was my hero, my savior, and my lover. He was an openly gay cop when you could count them on one hand. And not just a cop, he was a detective. My very first encounter with him had shown me his compassionate side, something you don’t expect in a detective who rightly considers you a possible suspect. He had to think of me that way, it was his job, but he’d been kind to me at precisely the moment I’d needed it most. I’m not a fool, I knew what the general population, let alone the police, thought of gay men back then. A lot of them still do. But Mac saw the frightened young man I was, vomiting outside the bar’s back door after seeing the obviously murdered body of a friend, and he was gentle with me. Not condescending, not fake-nice, as if he could get a confession out of me by being understanding. It had been just him, me, and some surly beat cops who’d already made up their minds I’d killed another fairy and put him in a dumpster.

Then all hell broke loose. More murders, more suspicion on me, even as I tried to beat the clock and find out who the killer really was. When I did and it almost cost my life, Mac was the one leading the charge through Richard Montagano’s door and stopping him from strangling me to death. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it was then. Within a few months we were an item. Within a year we were living together and I was sober after years of drinking like bourbon was my only form of hydration and cigarettes were my oxygen tank. Mac never smoked and rarely drank, but love gives differences like that a chance to work themselves out.

We moved in together to celebrate our one year anniversary. He’d been living in Glendale and I’d been living in Hollywood. Deciding it was best to start fresh, we settled on a two-bedroom apartment in Silverlake, the upper half of a duplex. It was far enough from the past and close enough to the future to make it the perfect choice for us.

Another choice I’d made was to leave the Paisley Parrot and everything it represented. I wasn’t ready to stop bartending since it was the only real profession I had, so I took my skills to West Hollywood. I’d been slinging drinks at the hottest bar in town, a place called Zenith, several blocks west of the French Quarter on Santa Monica, a popular gay restaurant where people sat outside being seen while they ate fried zucchini sticks and Reuben sandwiches. West Hollywood was a mecca to us then, the gayest little city in America. It was also Ground Zero for AIDS in Los Angeles, and every week, walking past the French Quarter, one of the things you noticed was who was not there, which tables were empty where a friend or acquaintance had been just days before. Still, the worst hadn’t hit us yet, and the area remained as vibrant as a street party before the cleanup. Zenith was part of that, the white-hot center of a trendy neighborhood where hope and promise would soon collide with despair.

There were clouds in the sky, but the sun still shone. There were signs of hard times to come, but days of joy in the meantime. I was twenty-six years old. Whatever I knew at that age, it wasn’t nearly as much as I was about to learn.

CHAPTER Two

IT HAD TAKEN MONTHS TO convince Mac we should live together. He’d counseled patience, and I’d believed it was going to happen eventually, as long as we stayed together. He was right to be cautious. New relationships are fragile. Mac and I knew it could go either way: we could make it to the one year mark and have a serious discussion about our future, or we could come apart at the seams. Waiting a year was a good move. It also made it difficult for him to say no when I started showing him ads for apartments.

“You work in West Hollywood,” he’d said. “Maybe we should look there.”

Mac had lived in Glendale for several years while working at LAPD’s Hollywood Station. The drive wasn’t much of a commute, given the distances people in L.A. travel on a daily basis.

We were sitting at his kitchen table. I’d taken to spending most of my nights with him by then, driving over from my apartment on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. I’ll admit there was something exciting about sleeping in a cop’s bed, with his service gun in the nightstand next to him. I guess it made me feel manly, or maybe just protected. We were wearing nothing but briefs, our usual early morning attire. He would head off to work soon, and I’d go back to bed and sleep before my night shift at Zenith. At least one of us was working days.

“It’s too expensive in West Hollywood,” I replied. “Besides, I’ve always liked diversity, and it’s kind of gay-homogenous there. Not really my thing.”

“How about the Valley?”

“God, no. And think of the drive.”

He leaned over to scan the ads with me. That’s when we saw it: a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath duplex in Silverlake. We both lived in apartment buildings, and the idea of a duplex was appealing—you only had one neighbor, above you or below you, depending on which unit was available.

“That looks interesting,” he said, resting his hand on my bare leg. It wasn’t as exciting as it sounds; we’d already had sex for breakfast.

“Should I call?” I asked.

“Sure.”

And that’s how we found our home. A together home. A place of our own, with the emphasis on ‘our.’ Mac McElroy and Marshall James were officially a couple, with all the ups and downs that come with commitment. The ups were fantastic, and the downs survivable, until one night when we both said things we shouldn’t have, a door got slammed, and our lives were upended like a table someone threw over in a fit of rage. All for a moment of petty jealousy. Maybe I had it coming.

* * *

“Where were you?” I asked.

That’s how it started. Cheap, angry, stupid.

It was a Sunday night. Mac worked weekends, and I’d spent the day with a walk in Griffith Park and a drive to the Beverly Center looking for a new answering machine. I’d brought dinner back from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants and planned to heat it up after the initial kiss hello and maybe some time in the sheets. But one hour passed, then another, and Mac had not come through the door with his usual swagger. You need a certain bearing to be a detective, maybe more so if you’re a gay one and everybody knows it. They’re looking for weakness, any sign you might not be as masculine as the job requires. Mac had it in spades: the bearing, the look, the sense that this is a man who does not back down. He didn’t need it so much for investigating murders, but he’d honed it as a beat cop in his early career and it’s the kind of thing that stays with you.

By the time the nightly news was over and he still hadn’t come home, I was slightly annoyed. Then I watched 60 Minutes, followed by Hardcastle and McCormick. My annoyance had progressed to serious irritation. We didn’t have cell phones and I’d refrained from calling the station to see if he was working late. Nobody needs an upset boyfriend calling and asking to talk to the detective in charge. Just as I was reaching the alarmed stage he walked in the door, slightly but clearly inebriated.

I forwent the usual greeting kiss, stopping him in the entryway.

“Where have you been?” I demanded, already suspicious. Smelling booze on him, I added, “Or maybe I should ask where you’ve been drinking?”

Mac seldom drank. For him to come home late with whiskey on his breath was a first.

“Relax,” he said. “I was out with an old friend. And I didn’t drive home, don’t worry. Barry brought me back. I’ll get my car in the morning.”

Barry? I’d never heard of anyone named Barry. How could he be an old friend of Mac’s if I’d never heard of him?

“You’re drunk.”

He cocked his head, staring at me as if I’d just said the most ridiculous thing.

“I’m not drunk. It doesn’t take much for me, Marshall. I’ve had maybe three drinks. We were getting caught up, that’s all, I forgot the time.”

We were gay men. It was 1984. Assumptions were made.

“Is that what you were doing? And who is this old friend, Barry?”

He walked past me, tossing his keys on the dining room table. “We were in the Academy together. He got assigned to Rampart. I hadn’t seen him in five or six years, it just happened.”

My temper flared. “What is ‘it,’ Mac? Did you fuck him?”

I’d crossed a line, as quickly and irreversibly as if I’d slapped him. He went from being pleasantly buzzed to frighteningly sober. He turned to me and said, “What is wrong with you? He’s married. He has two kids. We were close.”

“It sounds like you still are.”

By then I realized my foolishness, but I was young and unable to stop myself.

“I brought dinner home. I ate it. Yours is cold, in the refrigerator.”

I started to leave the room, to storm into the bedroom and wait for an apology.

“Don’t walk away from me.”

It was the way he said it. We’d been many things—detective and suspect, victim and lifesaver, lover and lover—but unequal had never been one of them. We were partners. Today we’d be husbands, but then, in that moment, we were accuser and denier. His tone was commanding, as if he was instructing me to stop in my tracks.

I don’t know what came over me. Pride? Stubbornness? A refusal to admit I was making something huge out of something minor? He should have called me, yes. He should have paged me. But he’d been with an old friend and the time had gotten away from him. It happens. I wish it hadn’t that night, but it did, and instead of letting it go, of making amends on the spot and acting like the adult I was, I kept walking away from him. I went into the bedroom, got my wallet and keys from the dresser drawer, and marched back past him.

“I’m going out,” I said.

Three words that ended up having as much impact as when we’d first said, “I love you.”

“Wait,” he said, knowing I wouldn’t.

He reached out, trying to grab my arm as I hurried by him. I shook his hand off. I’d been shown up, revealed as the petty, jealous, self-pitying lover I was at that moment.

The last sound we both heard was the door slamming behind me.

Some things you can’t take back.

CHAPTER Three

THE SUNSET BATHS WERE SECOND in popularity only to the Hollywood Spa. Located on Fountain Avenue near Gower, they were named after a street they weren’t on. They also had the unfortunate distinction of a name that matched the times, as the men who patronized bathhouses began to enter the abbreviated sunset of their lives. AIDS was gaining momentum, spread by sex, although we still didn’t know what kind. The baths were a place to seek comfort, and to indulge in anonymous pleasure for a few hours while Rome slowly caught fire around us.

It’s important to understand that places like the Sunset Baths were more than mazes of glory holes and stained sheets in which to lose ourselves for a few hours. They were also gathering spots where gay men of all ages could feel safe. Things like marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws were as distant in concept as WiFi and handheld computers. The world we lived in was still a very hostile place. We were outlaws, pre-assimilation quasi-criminals with our own amorphous culture. It was still acceptable to fire us from jobs, disdain us as fairies, and make very public jokes about us even as we died. Spaces provided by the baths, the bars and the community centers were vital. You could spend a night at the baths playing pool, drinking and smoking, and feeling protected from the indignities of a world that considered it open season on you. You could also have lots of sex, which is not why I went there that night. I wanted to cool off,  and hopefully to interact with a friend or two I hadn’t seen since I’d become a taken man. I was in the wrong place for the right reasons, or so I thought. By the time I’d settled into a room with my clothes hung on a door hook, wearing underwear beneath my towel as an added layer of protection against my own impulses, I’d already begun to realize my folly. Mac had not been cheating on me. He was honest enough to admit it if he had been. I’d overreacted all the way to the baths, but once I was there I decided to stay awhile. Not long, maybe an hour or two. Then I would go home and apologize for being an asshole. Mac would exhibit the patience of a saint, and all would be well again.

I locked my door behind me, slipped the key on its elastic band over my wrist, and made the familiar rounds, avoiding the hallways where a hand might reach out to size me up. There was nothing to measure that night. I wasn’t there for that. I’d have a soda or two at the bar, chat with someone I knew or strike up a conversation with someone I didn’t know, and head home before midnight.

I’d been sober for six months at the time. It might sound odd for a bartender not to drink, but there are plenty of us. Just like there are servers in restaurants who don’t eat the food, and bank tellers who would never think of slipping a twenty into their pocket. It’s a job, and I’d been able to perform it without more than an occasional desire to join my customers in a shot. Mac was proud of me, not to mention the wonders it did for our relationship. I knew he wouldn’t be proud of me that night, slinking off to a place I shouldn’t have been.

Sitting at the bar, enjoying a Diet Coke, I decided not to tell him where I’d gone. I would say I’d taken a drive, which was true. I’d tell him I had needed to clear my head and admit my ridiculous jealousy, which was also true. I would just leave out the part about the Sunset Baths. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, while telling him the truth just might. I’d even resolved to leave sooner, after I finished my soda.

“Hello,” a voice said.

I turned and saw a familiar stranger leaning on the bar next to me. It sounds like an oxymoron: familiar stranger. But that’s what he was. I didn’t know him. I’d never spoken to him. But something about him was not new to me. I’d seen him, though I wasn’t sure where.

He looked to be in his thirties, older than I was at the time. He was lean and muscular, revealing most of his body with just a white towel wrapped around his waist. He had the short chest hair of someone who used an electric razor to trim it. His eyes, even in the dim light, were the startling blue of a watercolor. His brown hair was on the long side, brushed back behind his ears, and he smiled with the brightness of a teeth whitener.

“You look lonely,” he said.

I wasn’t going to let this enter dangerous territory, and quickly replied, “I’m not lonely at all. My boyfriend’s at home. I’m just getting out for awhile.”

He smiled. “At the baths.”

“I’m not here for that.”

“And what is it you’re not here for?”

That,” I said, glancing down at his erection pressing up on his towel.

“It’s involuntary.” Looking around at the other men there, he said, “It comes with the territory. But don’t worry, I respect boundaries. Now can I buy you another drink?”

The things we do when we think we’re not doing them. I would not get physical with this man, of that I was sure. But a little harmless flirting? A little wordplay?

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a Diet Coke. I don’t drink.”

“Oh, good,” he said. “Neither do I.”

I slipped off the barstool. “I’m happy to have a drink and chat, but just one, then I’m going home. In the meantime, I need to pee.”

“You do that …”

“Marshall.”

“Marshall. I’m Steven, by the way.”

We shook hands. His grip was firm and I felt something stirring I would have to un-stir immediately. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, before heading off to the bathroom.

When I came back he was still there. A new Diet Coke was waiting for me. I hopped back on the barstool, took a long sip of my drink, and started an innocent conversation I would barely remember in the morning.

CHAPTER Four

IT TOOK ME A MINUTE after opening my eyes to realize where I was. I’d somehow gotten back to a room I assumed was the one I’d rented—there was no reason to think otherwise. My body felt stiff, my muscles and stomach tightly knotted. I was facing the wall, and as I turned slowly onto my back I realized I was not alone.

My first impulse upon touching his flesh was a need to vomit. How had this happened? I hadn’t gone there for sex, and I certainly hadn’t gone there to drink. But had I done both? Had the stranger, Steven, charmed away my defenses? Had I failed myself and my best intentions? Had I failed Mac?

“I have to leave,” I said, turning to the side of the bed before realizing I could not get out that way. The bed was flush against the wall—the only way out was over the man next to me.

He didn’t say anything, and I thought he must be sleeping. I kept talking anyway.

“This was a mistake, nothing happened. Tell me nothing happened.”

He didn’t respond. Just as well, I thought. What I couldn’t remember was better left forgotten. 

I starting crawling over him, skin brushing against skin, when I noticed how cold he was.

“Steven,” I said. “Are you okay?”

I was straddling him, trying to get to the other side, the side that would let me off the bed and out of the room, when he rolled toward me, my weight turning him on his back. And I saw it, clearly and horrifyingly. It was not Steven.

A young man stared up at me, his eyes open and dead. I knew what a corpse’s eyes looked like, I’d seen them before. Whoever he was, however beautiful he’d been in life, he was now deceased. I allowed myself just a moment to gaze at him. He was very attractive, no more than twenty, I guessed, with green eyes gone dull and lifeless. His hair was short and artificially blond, fanning back from his face. His lips, once pink and full, pouting when they’d been able to speak, were now blue and silent. I was on top of a man who’d left this life, and from the looks of the deep ligature marks on his neck, he’d had help.

* * * * *

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About Author, Mark McNease:

Mark McNease is the author of nine novels, six produced plays and dozens of short stories. Two of his Kyle Callahan Mysteries were best sellers on Kindle, and his short story ‘Stop the Car’ was selected as a Kindle Single. He won an Emmy and Telly as a co-creator and writer for the children’s program ‘Into the Outdoors’ and currently lives with his husband and two cats in rural New Jersey. You can find him at MarkMcNease.com

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