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

EXCERPT:

CHAPTER Ten

The Westerly Inn was not an inn at all, but a cheap, ratty motel that had catered to the hourly rate crowd for years. I’d never taken a john there, but I’d heard about the place. Its greatest asset was its anonymity. Questions weren’t asked, and answers were discouraged.

Located near the corner of Western and Franklin, the Westerly looked like all those motels you see along any highway in America, the ones you can’t tell for sure are open, with a car or two parked outside rooms with the curtains drawn across filthy windows. But the Westerly was definitely open for the business of all kinds: hookers, dope dealers, shady transactions requiring alibis. I knew I could get a room there and not worry about being caught on a surveillance camera because there wasn’t one and never would be. The customers may be cheap, but they were plentiful, and they expected to come and go sight unseen.

I pulled my ’79 Mustang into an empty spot near the last room, far from the street. I’d bought the car with savings from my bartending jobs and I was proud of it, despite its dents and dings. It was my sober car. Mac had helped me pick it out, and he’d made sure it was in good working condition. This one didn’t have any stains on the seats from exploding beer cans, or cigarette burns on the carpet. I’d promised myself someday I was going to buy a brand new car, but until then the Mustang was good enough.

The front office of the Westerly was surprisingly neat and clean. There wasn’t much to it—just a desk, a rack of faded tourist brochures to give the place the appearance of legitimacy, and a vending machine with potato chips and candy bars. No one was there when I walked in. I stepped up to the counter and slapped a lonely bell sitting there with nothing to keep it company. A few seconds later an enormous woman appeared from a small dark room behind the desk. She was wearing a tent with faded sunflowers on it. Her hair looked she’d washed it with motor oil, but her teeth were perfect. It was weird, just like the motel.

“Yeah?” she said, leaning against the counter for support. I expected it to topple forward and crush me.

“I need a room for a few days.”

She stared at me as if I’d just told her I was the King of Prussia: nobody stayed at the Westerly for days; they paid for an hour and left after twenty minutes.

“Pay in advance,” she said, almost as a challenge. I knew it was hard for her to believe anyone coming there had enough cash for more than a couple of rocks of crack and a pack of cigarettes. “Thirty-five a night.”

When I took out my wallet, I could see her salivating. I’d stopped at an ATM and taken out a hundred and twenty dollars. The machines were a recent addition to banking, and people were still getting used to making withdrawals through a car window.

“Three nights,” I said, counting out $105. It left me fifteen bucks plus some cash I had in my pocket. I’d hoped it would buy me enough time to find my way out of this nightmare before the cops or the Bianchis tracked me down. Seventy-two hours to live or die, to prove my innocence or be taken away in handcuffs or a body bag, whichever came first.

The cash disappeared into a hand that looked like a small ham with five fingers. From out of nowhere, like some magician in a dive bar, she slid a key across the counter with the number 107 on a plastic tag attached to it.

“Next to the last room,” she said. “The phone doesn’t work, so don’t bother. There’s a payphone across the street.”

I turned briefly and looked out the window, confirming there was indeed a payphone on the opposite side of Western Avenue. When I looked back she was gone.

“You need my name?” I called into the back room.

She laughed. * * *

The room was not as decrepit as I’d imagined. Maybe they wanted the clientele to feel a tiny bit better about themselves and what they were doing there, or maybe it was a way to convince the police and the occasional media presence when a celebrity OD’d that this was a respectable establishment. I don’t know, but the bedspread looked new and when I pulled it down to check for bugs the sheets were clean. There was a night stand on one side with the aforementioned useless phone on it, and a pressboard dresser against a wall. A TV sat on top of it, which meant I could watch the news and see what developments there were in the Danny Bianchi murder. I knew that depended on what information the police were willing to put out, along with any leaks from inside the department. Mostly it was a way to not feel completely alone and abandoned by any sense of fairness. Life wasn’t fair, and death didn’t give a damn.

I decided to rest for an hour or so, just to let myself breathe. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted a drink. I was not going to have either, and lying on the mattress for a while, staring at a nicotine-stained ceiling, was as close to calm as I was going to get.

CHAPTER Eleven

After pretending to sleep for an hour, I made my way across the street to a newspaper and magazine stand. They weren’t an unusual sight then; people got their information and their reading fixes from the printed word, not text on a miniature screen in their hands. If you wanted to know about the world, or about pretty much anything, you had to read words on some kind of paper, or watch television.

I bought a copy of the Los Angeles Times and a pack of gum, then asked the skinny rodent at the cash register for three bucks in quarters if he had them. I couldn’t be bothered with dimes. He said sure, with a fifty cent surcharge. I said okay and left, wondering where he kept his tail.

I was curious to see if there was anything in the paper about the murder. I didn’t think it would be front page news, given where it happened and who it happened to. Gay men dying was getting to be routine, although we were far from the worst of it, and gay men getting killed had always been ho-hum, unless it was somebody famous. But it was probably on page six, or page twenty or somewhere. The victim was part of a notorious family, and he died in a place that was disreputable, to say the least. A gay kid from a mafia clan was sensational if nothing else.

Before I went back to the room and looked through the paper, I had to make a phone call. I’d been thinking of where to start. It couldn’t be with Steven, since I had no idea who he was. And it couldn’t be with Danny Bianchi, whose dead body I’d crawled over at the Sunset Baths less then twenty-four hours ago.

I got lucky the first time when I found the phone booth empty. I got lucky the second time when the phone worked. I dropped a quarter in and dialed information.

“How may I help you?” a woman asked, somewhere on the other end of the line.

“I need the number for the Sunset Baths.”

She didn’t ask me why. She didn’t ask me if I’d heard about the guy who got killed there last night, or if I was the one who killed him. She just gave me a number and offered to connect me.

“Sure,” I said.

The phone rang on the other end. Once, twice …

“Sunset Baths, Cody speaking.”

I didn’t know Cody, from the streets or anywhere else. He sounded young.

“Is Lenny on duty?” I asked. I didn’t know what time Lenny came on shift, or even if he was working that day. Luck struck for a third time.

“Hold on …”

I heard the phone drop and imagined him tossing the receiver on the inside counter. For all I knew, Lenny was sitting next to him, although the booth at the baths didn’t look big enough for two people. A couple moments later Lenny picked up.

“Yeah?”

He didn’t introduce himself but I recognized the voice.

“Lenny, this is Marshall James. I don’t know if you remember me but we met a few times back in the day.”

“Refresh my memory.”

I took it as a good sign: he gave no indication he remembered me from last night, or if he did, he hadn’t connected me to the corpse they took out of the place.

“We got high together a few times,” I said. “Clive Daley’s place …”

Clive had been one of those rich old queens who liked having a gaggle of young men around him, especially at his pool. He was what we used to call a chicken hawk, as long as the chicken was legal or had a fake ID. One of them, or maybe Clive himself, had put an end to the fun when Clive was found face down in his pool one summer day a couple of years ago. I doubt the paramedics even made an effort.

“Did we fuck?” Lenny asked, as matter-of-factly as asking if we’d had breakfast together.

“Not that I recall,” I said. “But it wasn’t personal. I always thought you were cute.”

The truth was, I’d always thought he was contagious. Lenny was pasty. He had the kind of pallor you associate with STDs and too many drugs.

“So why are you calling me, Marshall James?”

I took a deep breath and jumped: “Because I was there last night.”

Silence.

“Fifty guys were here last night,” he said, sounding wary. “I’ll ask you again, why are you calling me? I’m at my job, dude. I can’t take personal phone calls and I don’t deal anymore.”

“I was in the room.”

I could hear him thinking about that a moment, then he asked, “Which room?”

He already knew the answer, he just wanted me to say it.

“Where Daniel Bianchi died.”

“What are you, a crime scene tech or something?”

“No, Lenny. I’m the one they’re looking for.”

I could hear him gasp. “Holy shit! Why are you telling me this? What the fuck do you want from me?”

“I just want to talk,” I said.

“We’re talking, for fucksake. Are you nuts? You told me who you are. What’s to keep me from calling the cops?”

“I didn’t do it.”

That seemed to stump him. Then he said, to no surprise at all, “What’s in it for me?”

“Knowing you helped an innocent man stay that way.”

He laughed.

“A hundred bucks,” I said. “A face-to-face, and twenty-four hours of silence. I’m guessing the cops already talked to you.”

“I made a statement this morning at the police station, on my own time. I deserve a hundred bucks just for that.”

“Fine,” I said, “I’ll give you two hundred.”

He thought about it for a nanosecond, then said, “I can meet you on break. I’ll give you a day, as long as they don’t call me in again or show up with more questions. I can’t lie for you. That’s, like, an accessory to murder or something.”

“I told you, I didn’t do it.”

“Whatever, dude. It’s three o’clock now, I’ll meet you at five at Rudy’s.”

Rudy’s was a coffee shop two blocks from the baths. For all I knew, he’d call the police as soon as we hung up and there would be three cruisers waiting to swoop in and apprehend me when I strolled into Rudy’s. It was a risk I had to take.

“I’ll see you then,” I said.

Click. Just like that, he hung up.

I stared at the street through the phone booth. I’d taken out my limit at the ATM and would have to go to the bank branch for cash. I hoped there wasn’t some all-points bulletin out on me yet. I needed every minute I could get to stay ahead of the hounds sniffing for my scent. Lenny was a start.

CHAPTER Twelve

Rudy’s was a coffee shop before coffee shops were ubiquitous. Starbucks hadn’t taken over the planet yet and the craze for local java joints was a few years away. Back then we had Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, diners, gas stations with small markets attached, and a few places like Rudy’s.

 I’d driven over with one eye on the rearview mirror. Paranoia had set in, which was not irrational for a man being framed for murder. I had no way of knowing what the police knew or how close they were to identifying me. It kept me on edge, and I almost ran two red lights on my way from the Westerly to Rudy’s, with a nerve-wracking stop at the bank where I worried the teller was going to ask me to wait a moment while she told the branch manager there was a fugitive from justice at her window. That didn’t happen, and a half hour after leaving my barely-appointed room, I was sitting in a booth at Rudy’s.

There wasn’t much of an afternoon crowd. Rudy’s had been a deli before it was a coffee shop, and it was in the midst of an identity crisis. They still sold sandwiches, with the addition of muffins, stale cookies, and coffee that tasted day-old. I got a cup from the teenage slob working the counter, took it to a small round table and waited for Lenny. He was running late.

I was starting to think he’d stood me up, or maybe set me up and any second I’d hear a voice over a bullhorn telling me to come out with my hands in the air, when Lenny walked in. He looked exactly like he’d looked the night before, except he’d changed his T-shirt—this one had the name of some band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers on it. They were just catching on at the time. It wasn’t my kind of music.

He recognized me instantly, partly because we were the only customers in the place. He hurried over and slid into the booth across from me.

“You want some coffee?” I asked. “It’s on me.”

“No, thanks, I don’t have much time.”

In the daylight I could see he hadn’t aged well, which was saying a lot for someone who wasn’t more than twenty-five or so. We were barely out of our teens when we’d met at one of Clive Daley’s pool parties. Those days had been a haze of dope and booze, essential social lubricants for boys in the life. They still are, and Lenny looked like he hadn’t had a break from them since he was twelve.

“Where’s the cash?” he asked.

I glanced around as if anyone there would see me or care, then I yanked my wallet out and pulled out two hundred dollars in twenties. He nearly leapt off his seat, leaned over and snatched the money from me, slipping it quickly into his pants pocket.

“I remember you now,” he said, relaxing a little once he got the payoff. “Last night. You were fucked up.”

I felt my anger surge, and just as quickly suppressed it. It would not serve me well to yell at him.

“I wasn’t fucked up,” I said. “Somebody dosed me.”

“With what?” He sounded disbelieving.

“I don’t know, some drug. Then he got me in a room with the dead guy. That’s where I came to and how I ended up in this mess.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Its not what I say. It’s what happened, Lenny, and I need answers.”

“I don’t have any answers!” he said. “At least I didn’t until now.”

It occurred to me that I’d just given him information he could sell. The cops wouldn’t pay him, but the Bianchis certainly would—or they’d just put a gun to his head and tell him to start talking. It was a gamble, and I had no choice at the moment but to be a gambling man.

“What did you tell the cops?” I asked, knowing he’d given them a statement.

“What I knew,” he replied, “which wasn’t much. I didn’t mention you because I didn’t connect you to Danny.”

My eyes widened. “So you knew Danny Bianchi?”

“Everybody did. He was a party boy. Sloppy, I must say. We also knew who he was. I mean, the whole Bianchi thing. You didn’t fuck with him, and if he wanted something, he got it.”

“Was he in the life?”

“Danny? Hell no. He didn’t need to sell his ass. He was on some kind of allowance, from what I heard.”

“Did his family know he was gay?” I asked.

“How would I know? Probably. Maybe that’s why they gave him money, so he’d do his gay thing and stay away. I’m speculating, I have no idea. Ask his boyfriend.”

That threw me back. Danny Bianchi had a boyfriend. So what was he doing at the baths? Ask yourself that, Marshall, I thought, before stopping myself. I didn’t need the introspection at the moment. Open relationships weren’t unusual, then or now, but maybe the boyfriend was involved somehow—or not. Maybe the boyfriend didn’t know about Danny’s little trips to the baths. Or maybe the boyfriend did know, and he didn’t like it one bit. In fact, he hated it so much he decided to stop Danny from ever going to the baths again. But if that was the case, where did I fit in? Was I just the fall guy? Had I been in the wrong place at the right time and nothing more? And who was Steven?

“What’s his name, this boyfriend?” I asked.

“Nick somebody,” Lenny said. “I really gotta go. I told you I didn’t know anything.”

“Was he there last night?”

“Who?” Lenny said, impatiently. He slid toward the edge of the booth.

“The boyfriend, asshole!” I said, unable to help myself. “Focus, Lenny. I just paid you two hundred dollars.”

“To keep my mouth shut,” he hissed, “and I will, alright? I won’t say anything to anybody.”

“Provided they don’t ask,” I qualified.

He shrugged: maybe he’d talk, maybe he wouldn’t. It depended on what was in it for him.

“Listen,” he said, “I got there, like, an hour before you stumbled out. I switched shifts with Carlos, his aunt died or something, whatever. I wasn’t working when all this shit went down, you understand? I didn’t see Danny, I didn’t see the boyfriend, and I didn’t see you until it was too fucking late. I wish I hadn’t. The Bianchis are bad news, and somebody’s gonna pay for killing their kid.” He stood up. “If I was you, I’d head to Mexico. Seriously, dude, you’re in a bad situation.”

I looked at him. “Please don’t make it worse, okay? Call out sick if you have to, have some fun with the cash you didn’t have before you walked in here. Just give me some time.”

“I’m a man of my word,” he said, then he hurried out of the coffee shop.

A man of his word whose words were for sale. I told myself it was just business, nothing personal. Lenny didn’t really know me, and I had no interest in ever knowing him. But I had more to go on than I’d had when I got there. The key was Danny Bianchi, and I was about to disturb his ghost.

About the Book:

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This is the second installment in the Marshall James Thriller limited series. It’s been over a year since Marshall first became intimately familiar with murder. He’s six months sober now and living with the love of his life, LAPD Detective Mac McElroy. Despite the coming storm of AIDS and its devastating toll on the world Marshall knows, his dark days seem to be behind him. Then one night he says the wrong thing, storms out in anger, and walks straight into a nightmare. Someone is setting him up to take the fall for a beautiful corpse. Within hours he finds himself running from the police and the mob, and running toward a killer he must apprehend before the only chance left is no chance at all.

The audiobook edition will be released this coming August, narrated by the marvelous Sean Rhead. The third and final book in the series will be out in 2021. You can find me at MarkMcNease.com, and feel free to join my email list HERE.

Beautiful Corpse is currently on Amazon only as part of Kindle Unlimited, available in July on Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books. Amazon link:

About 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.