Exclusive Excerpt: MURDER AT THE PAISLEY PARROT A Marshall James Novel by Mark McNease

Blurb:

Time waits for no one, including Marshall James. Now 58 and living in New York City, Marshall has outlived the expiration date he was given with a cancer diagnosis three years ago. He beat the odds but he knows he may not beat the clock. So he’s decided to tell a story or three about some murders he was involved in back in the day.

The year was 1983. The bar was the Paisley Parrot, a gay, mob-run dive where people came to drink and few of them remembered the night before. Marshall loves his job as a bartender there. But one night, among the regulars, a killer arrives. Body by body, death by death, Marshall finds himself pulled into a web of murder, deceit and crime, with a psychopath waiting at the center of it all. Marshall falls for the cop who’s investigating him, not knowing if their relationship will survive or even if he’ll come out of this alive. Find out before last call comes around, in Murder at the Paisley Parrot.

EXCERPT:

MARK McNEASE

MURDER AT THE PAISLEY PARROT

A Marshall James Novel

In memory of the Lemon Twist bar. Make mine a double.

PROGNOSIS

THERE’S A SOUND TO NEW YORK CITY that never goes away. It’s not exactly white noise—that seems too clean for a place this filthy—but a perpetual hum that matches the eternal grayness of the night sky. When you spend significant time here, if you’re the least bit conscious of your surroundings, you realize after a while that you can’t see the stars and there is no such thing as true silence. New York City, especially Manhattan, is a relentless sensual assault. You see it even when you don’t; you hear it at all times, and, in the summer, as it is now, you smell it. That is its most inescapable trait from June through August. You can forget about stars you haven’t seen since you were last off the island, and you can marvel at what passes for quiet at 3:00 a.m., but you can’t ignore the smell of the place. Ripe. Rotten. The way you imagine a body smells when maggots are halfway through their meal. The greatest city in the world.

All of it—the sounds, the sights, the smellswaft through my second-floor window like hot air in a slow updraft. This is especially true every Tuesday, also known as trash day, when the building superintendent and his helper of the week (they change almost as often as the girlfriends of the drag king next door) haul out a dozen trash bags and pile them by the curb. Clear plastic ones for the recyclables, the rest a dark brown, the kind they find torsos and arms stuffed into every now and then along the highway. No corpses in ours yet, just a week’s worth of Chinese takeout, cat litter, shitty diapers, and everything else we discard from our lives on a daily basis. There it sits, for a day and a night, basting in its own putrid juices until the garbage truck comes along in the morning waking everyone up, jamming traffic for a half hour as it crawls trash pile to trash pile. Ours seems to give off especially toxic fumes. Knowing that all odors are particulate, I keep my windows closed from Monday mid-day to Tuesday late morning. But it still seeps in, it still invades my home. Between the smell of summer waste and the exhaust from buses snaking up 40th Street to the Port Authority bus terminal across the avenue, it’s amazing my lung cancer came from smoking and not from living on this corner.

I’m a cancer survivor, not a combatant. I hate the way illness gets anthropomorphized, turned into some cognizant thing, a boxer in the ring with us. We’ve got the charity-approved pink boxing gloves on, and that cancer, that tumor, weighing in at a slim one-sixty and wearing the black trunks with the skull and crossbones, faces off against us in the title match of our lives. I never saw my cancer as an opponent or in any way conscious of what it was doing to me. I did not fight, at least not in any metaphorical sense. I just did what I was told to do, lived through the chemo and the surgery that took out a quarter of my left lung, and, to everyone’s great surprise, outlived my six-month prognosis by two and a half years.

Yes, it’s been three years since I first coughed up blood. It’s been almost that long since I enjoyed a Marlboro and a glass of bourbon—where I come from there’s no such thing as whiskey without a cigarette. And it’s been that long since I told my oncologist to take her dire prediction and shove it, in a nice way. We’re friends, so far as a man and his cancer doctor can be, but Dr. Lydia Carmello fully expected me to die when she said I would. She usually gets it right, and she’s not the sort of person to credit miracles. She’s a hard case, that one. She’s had to be. Death is the nightcap in her profession, after an evening of chemo and a meal of surgery for the ones who can be operated on. She assumed I would be one of her regulars—treated, comforted, referred to some support group where I could mourn the loss of myself while I was still around to do it—but nothing special. Then six months came and went. Nine months. A year. Two years. And finally, when I’d been in remission through the birth of Dr. Carmello’s daughter and the celebration of her first birthday, to which I was not invited, Lydia declared me an anomaly and said I just might get old after all. At fifty-eight I’m not that far from it, but she meant truly old, Social Security and Medicare old, the kind of old when saying you’re as young as you feel just makes you look foolish. Neither of us is counting on it, given the return rate of stage three lung cancer, but it’s nice to have possibility in your life.

I’ve had plenty of that, by the way: possibility. I was a kid who could have been something, given a chance. Too bad I never was. At least not early on, growing up in Indiana in a place too big to be a town and too small to be a city.

Elkhart in the 1960s and 70s was a bustling community of 30,000 or so Hoosiers. They headed to work at the Conn band instrument facility, or one of the motor home factories that gave Elkhart its claim to fame. We once had the highest concentration of millionaires in the country. It may not have lasted long, but it was something to be proud of. We were the RV Capital of the World. It still is as far as I know—who wants to compete for a title like that?—but I can’t confirm it, since I haven’t lived there in forty years. I went back to sell my father’s house twenty years ago and that was the last I saw of Elkhart.

Indiana was a place to flee when I was young. For a gay kid who came out at the age of sixteen, Elkhart was not welcoming. It didn’t matter that I was a native son, or that my family had been there for several generations. A queer is a queer is a queer, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, and I was certainly one of those. I announced my sexuality in high school, survived the hostile and sometimes violent reaction of my peers, and got the hell out two days after graduation. My mother was already dead. My father was drunk and on his way to an early grave. My sister and brother were old enough to fend for themselves, and I was ready to get as far away as I could.

I’d seen a report on 60 Minutes about homosexuals in Hollywood. Or maybe it was specifically about homosexual prostitutes. I don’t remember exactly, but I recall being transfixed—not by the segment itself, which was judgmental of the seedy, sad lives of L.A. hustlers—but by the fact they existed. What was a hustler? I wondered. Where did they come from? What exactly did they do for money? I had an idea, having some experience myself by then, although it all involved high school classmates and no money was exchanged. But this was exotic. Alluring. And exactly where I went when I packed my belongings into my orange Gremlin, put the clutch in drive and pulled out of my dad’s driveway for the last time, returning only for short visits over the years until I went back to plant a ‘For Sale’ sign on the lawn. I wouldn’t have gone then, except my sister and brother refused to deal with it and somebody had to bury the old man.

Los Angeles. Hollywood. 1977. Crazy how a world so exciting, that drew me like a promise of freedom, would turn so dark so quickly.

* * *

My name is Marshall James. There’s a Franklin in the middle, but I don’t like it and I’ve never used it. I think my old man called me Franklin a couple times when he was pissed at me. Hildren James was an angry sonofabith. It gave him an excuse to drink, or at least another one in a long list of them. I remember him saying, “Franklin James, you get over here right now!” I got over there, too, wherever that was. It usually just meant placing myself within arm’s length. It made it easier for him to slap me from a sitting position. He slapped us a lot, even my mom. He never hit her full on, as far as I recall, but being slapped across the face or on the top of the head was enough. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was sixteen and got the hell off the planet three months later. Who could blame her?

It was a long time ago. Everything at my age feels that way. Time isn’t really a thing. It doesn’t pass. It doesn’t fly, it doesn’t crawl, it doesn’t wait for anyone because it doesn’t wait at all. It’s more like something we spend our lives inside without realizing it, the way a fish spends its life in water. And, like water in a cracked fish tank, it drains away slowly.

I’ve got a manfriend who stays three nights a week with me in this crappy studio apartment within spitting distance of the bus terminal. His name is Buford McGibbon, but he goes by Boo. You would, too, if you’d been burdened with an antebellum name like that. It even sounds Confederate, but it’s not. Boo’s from upstate New York. He’s also ten years younger than me, but not in any way the object of this older man’s predation. We met when he took one of the tours I give for a living. If you spend much time in New York City you’ll see people like me, leading groups of straggling tourists and a few curious locals around Greenwich Village or the bars in Brooklyn, reciting history and color commentary. My specialty now is the Gotham Ghost Land Tour. It offers several different routes in Manhattan, since people tend to die anywhere. It’s not like the Bob Dylan Smoked a Joint Here tour—Oh look, that’s the window Joan Baez was gazing out when she wrote Diamonds and Rust—or the Edgar Allen Poe tour I did for a while that made exactly one mention of Poe.

I remember Boo very well that first time we met. It was a History of Gay New York tour (I’ve done them all). The group consisted of wide-eyed queens from faraway ghettos, dykes, a few straight couples, several German speakers, and Boo. He was thirty-eight then, alone, hot as a griddle, lingering when the others melted away at the end. He was one of the few who tipped me. I remember taking the five dollar bill from him, saying thanks, and keeping hold of his hand longer than is proper for a tour guide, unless he’s meeting the next love of his life in a moment of ridiculous serendipity.

We’re an odd couple by today’s gay standards. We’re not married and have no plans to be. We’d rather have herpes than children. We don’t live together. He has an apartment in Brooklyn and I’m in Hell’s Kitchen, and we like it this way. We still have sex, which is saying something after a decade, but mostly we love each other in a very relaxed way. He knows I could die if the cancer comes back, and I know he’ll miss me terribly. That’s enough for now.

The other entity I allow into my life is a cat named Critter. He’s four years old, which I know because I remember Justine taking him in as a kitten, as if a junkie prostitute had the wherewithal to take care of a cat. She lived across the hall from me and she asked me to feed him a few times when she was out of town. I had no idea where she went and she never told me. Then one day, about a year after she took Critter in, I got a knock at the door from Javier, our building super.

“You want a cat?” he asked me.

Javier speaking was a rare and curious thing.

“Where’s Justine?” I said, as he stood in my doorway holding an animal that wanted nothing more than to be free from his clutches.

“She died,” he said. Very matter-of-factly, as if she’d been a storefront that was open one day and closed the next.

“You know how she died?” I asked. Part of me dreaded being told she’d been strangled by a john.

“OD,” he said, then shrugged: these things happen.

“Well,” I replied, “we can’t say that’s a surprise, now, can we?”

I took the cat from his arms, and he’s been living with me ever since.

That’s my life: I’m a tour guide with no aspirations to be more. I’m a cancer survivor with one functioning lung. I’ve got a manfriend who spends a few nights a week with me and a cat that never leaves. And I’ve got stories to tell.

You see how things come around? I’m a man on borrowed time. We all are, but the debt collector announced his arrival in my case. I’ve outfoxed the bastard and outlived the expectations, and I started thinking, maybe I should tell people about those murders. The ones I was part of in Hollywood back then. Not murders I participated in, of course. This is not a deathbed confession. But I was part of it … them … and I figured I should go ahead and talk about it while I can. Some of the people involved are dead, and some of us are alive. I’m still not sure who the lucky ones are.

Now let’s head over to the time machine. Strap yourself in, it all happens very quickly. I’ll set the dial to 1977, the GPS to a town in Indiana where a lonely kid prepares his escape to Hollywood, the final destination a dive bar called the Paisley Parrot. Gay, mobbed up, a place for drunks, hustlers and dope dealers. My kind of bar.

CHAPTER THREE (FAST FORWARD)

THE PAISLEY PARROT WAS EXACTLY the kind of bar I liked to drink in, especially when my love affair with alcohol was still mutual. I’d started with vodka and gin when I was in high school, courtesy of my dad’s basement bar. It never closed, and it never ran dry. By the time I put on a cap and gown for my high school graduation and stumbled to the podium for my diploma, I’d been a hard drinker for several years. I’m not an alcoholic—I know how that sounds, most alcoholics deny what they are—but I was as close to being a lush as a teenager can be without running for the nearest rehab. For some reason my drinking didn’t get worse, and I had it fairly under control by the time I decided to work in a bar.

I’d been going to the Parrot and places like it since I’d first moved to Hollywood. I’ve always thought it was because I was an Indiana kid. My identity was well formed before I got to L.A. and was exposed to the prevailing gay archetypes of the time—muscle boys, drama queens, and older men who’d been part of the scene so long they were cultural furniture.  I’m not knocking it. I just knew who Marshall James was and I’ve stayed that way pretty much all my life.

I took pride in living in Hollywood, a neighborhood as diverse as it was seedy. There were black people in my apartment building, drag queens, straight couples, and, twice during my years living there, dead bodies. A woman on the sixth floor was found hanging from her shower curtain, self-inflicted; and a young man, a hustler I knew from my first year on the streets, was found on the fire escape with a syringe in his arm.

My haunts were close by. I liked bars where people went to drink, not to compare abs and gossip about their ex-boyfriends. Bars where they paid more attention to the glass of whiskey in front of them than to the guy who just walked through the door in torn jeans. There were several of them within walking distance: The Vine, on Vine Street, of course; LuLu’s for the dykes; the 12 O’clock Lounge, named long ago for reasons forgotten; the Red River, where the banks overflowed with booze and the tears of failed ambition, and the Paisley Parrot, located discreetly near the corner of Fountain and Las Palmas. There was a neon parrot on the door but no name. The Parrot had been around since the late 1950s, a time when bars that catered to homosexuals did not announce themselves. The front window was tinted so dark you couldn’t see inside even if all the lights were on. A recessed door opened onto a heavy curtain separating the world out there from the world in the Parrot. It served to protect them from each other: the people on the outside did not want to know what went on in there, and the patrons in the bar wanted no reminders that the world outside was waiting for them after the blackout, after the sloppy sex, after their best efforts to drink it all away.

I found the Parrot by accident. It wasn’t really a hustler bar. The mob still ran it in the 1980s, but quietly, and they didn’t want the attention cops brought with them. Being gay wasn’t illegal anymore, but prostitution and its emaciated sister, drug sales, were very much against the law. The two went hand in hand. Most of the hustlers I’d known either traded their bodies for dope or had some to sell. If not, they knew someone, who was conveniently located in a dark corner of the bar or waiting in the back alley.

The criminal enterprise then holding sway in the greater Los Angeles area was the Bianchi family, reported to be an offshoot of the Brooklyn Bianchi mafia clan. Rumor had it the Brooklyn branch had been crippled by law enforcement and had expanded—or escaped—to the West Coast.

Fat Dick Montagano, the Bianchi family lieutenant who kept the bars in line and the cash flowing, only tolerated hustlers who gave him free blowjobs, so the pros stayed away. His name was Richard Montagano. Everybody called him Fat Dick behind his back because he’d once topped off at three hundred pounds, though he’d lost a third of it by the time I met him. I assumed he’d been stuck with the name as a kid, or maybe his mob bosses gave it to him. It wasn’t a name anyone who valued their life would call him to his face, and we all knew to refer to him as Mr. Montagano when we addressed him or he was within earshot. If he overheard you, you might find a piece of piano wire embedded in your neck, so we left the name calling to people he was afraid of, who were all named Bianchi.

The mob presence in Los Angeles was once very powerful. After all, they’d founded Las Vegas, which was only four hours away in good traffic. But by the time I walked into the Parrot, they’d been reduced to pimping, moving drugs in from Mexico for domestic distribution, bookmaking, various other misadventures, and a few gay bars. Gregory Bianchi, the old guy who was the titular head of the family, had not been seen in public for several years and was rumored to be buried in the desert, his reputation used by his son and successor Anthony to instill fear in people’s hearts. Other than that, I knew nothing about  them and made no attempt to find out. It was enough just dealing with Fat Dick coming into the Parrot every Wednesday night to siphon off the Bianchis’ take from the week’s receipts. He was often accompanied by one pretty boy or another. He was married with three kids, but his taste for young male flesh was evident. It was also something you pretended not to notice. I’d been told he kept an apartment on Franklin Avenue for mob business on nights he didn’t return to his family in Encino. I imagine a few of those pretty boys spent the evening there.

I’ll admit to having the hots for the Parrot’s bartender, Phil Seaton. He was the real reason I went to the Parrot a second time. I had other choices for bars, but none of them had Phil slinging drinks. He was thirty-ish, shaved head, tattoos on biceps exposed by a vest with no shirt. He had big hands. Some myths never die, and some are even true.

It had been two years between the time I first walked into the Paisley Parrot and the time I started working there. Phil had been there for eight years or so and had no plans to improve his situation. Like me, the Parrot was his kind of bar. And it turned out I was his kind of twenty-something. We started having sex a week after I ordered my first bourbon and Coke, sitting on a stool staring at his arms. That lasted about three months. It also caused friction between me and Butch. Not because Butch was jealous, but because he believed Phil was a bad influence. I told him Phil and I only did lines of cocaine, washed down with two or three drinks. We stayed away from the crystal meth that was starting to be popular, and I would never use a syringe. But Butch worried and he warned. I ignored it, had a great run with Phil, and let it fall by the wayside. Phil met another young guy a month after we stopped playing together and neither of us made anything of it.

Those first years in L.A. flew quickly. I remember my twenty-fifth birthday, how old I felt and how fast I thought my life was passing. It’s an easy thing to think at that age. I look back now and marvel at how young twenty-five is, and how foolish.

I’d celebrated that New Year’s Eve with Butch, unaware of the darkness ahead. I’d seen him out just after midnight, then headed to the Paisley Parrot for my first drink of 1983. Phil was there with a few of the regulars. He set me up with my usual, a shot of Jim Beam in a glass of Coke. I bought the house a round, and one more time we toasted in the dying light.

CHAPTER FOUR

DAVID BOWIE’S LET’S DANCE WAS a monster hit that year. So was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, and Sting’s Every Breath You Take, a meditation on stalking that got reimagined by the public as a love song. The space shuttle Challenger made its maiden voyage with the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, among the crew, and the CDC warned blood banks of a possible problem with the blood supply.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl, the Orioles won the World Series, and the domestic AIDS death toll was a mere 2,304 for the year.

President Ronald Reagan had still not said the word ‘AIDS.’

Is it any wonder so many of us sought companionship and distraction in the bars? The worst had yet to come our way, but we’d already grown accustomed to seeing … or, rather, not seeing … friends at our favorite watering holes as they vanished like fireflies in the night. There was a nervousness to every arrival, walking into the Screw or the Gold Dust or the Paisley Parrot, looking quickly around to identify faces we knew. It brought relief to see familiar faces, another nightly reprieve from our slow, steady extinction.

I was a happy guy the first few months on the job, starting as a barback with Phil. The Parrot was a great place to learn the trade. It was a slower, drunker kind of establishment. It wasn’t like Whistles or The Omega, where a bartender could lose five pounds in a night running back and forth along the bar filling drinks for trendsetters. The Parrot was reserved and quiet, more of a gentleman’s bar, if the gentleman was inebriated and gawking at anyone under forty. We had a TV along the wall that showed muted MTV videos all night while music came from a jukebox by the bathroom. It was easy to stroll back and forth along the bar for an entire shift—no rush, no frantic calling out for cocktails. Just a couple dozen regulars whose drinks we knew as well as we knew their names. There was Bobby Bray, early 50s, who’d run his own bar for twenty years until he went bankrupt buying into a pyramid scheme. There was Quincy, a retired drag queen who always came in with a protégé or two in their 20s. There was Jude and Lester, Maryanne, Gilda and a dozen more. I knew the songs each of them would play on the jukebox and when to cut them off from the vodka or rum. Even a mob bar has standards; by the time a customer is ordering another shot from the floor, you’ve got an obligation to say no.

You could still smoke in bars then, and working there was a little grimy slice of heaven for me: I could go through a pack of Marlboros in a single shift and put back three or four shots of anything I wanted, always at the expense of an admiring customer. My drinking had picked up slightly, not surprising given the environment. It’s hard to imagine a better work life for the man I was at twenty-five. I’d even get lucky sometimes and take someone home.

One of those guys I got lucky with changed everything. His name was Bentley Wennig, an unusual name unless your father’s a car enthusiast.  He went by Ben—who wouldn’t with a name like that? He’d gotten lost and wandered into the Parrot to ask for directions. It was a Wednesday night, which meant Fat Dick was there to take the Bianchi family skim for the week. Dick’s reaction was how I knew Ben had walked in: the scary mob lieutenant couldn’t stop staring at the young man who’d just appeared through the curtain.

Even Phil did a double-take, and he was as jaded as they came. Another handsome face, even one as startling as Ben’s, did not usually merit a stare from Phil. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing someone as clean cut as Ben walking into a bar as dirty minded as the Parrot.

“Can I help you?” I said. I’d been working the bar with Phil for two weeks, having been promoted to bartender under his training. I would normally say, “What’ll you have?”, but this guy looked lost. I wasn’t even sure he was gay.

He walked up to the bar, each step increasing my heart rate. I felt myself getting hard and was glad to be behind the bar.

Ben had dark brown hair just long enough to tickle the tops of his ears. He was clean shaven, no stubble, exposing perfect skin the color of cream. His eyes were so deep and liquid brown I thought of chocolate melting in front of me. And then he smiled …

“I’m kind of lost,” he said. He looked around, trying to form an impression of the bar.

“Hmm,” I said, smiling back. “How does someone get ‘kind of’ lost?”

“Well,” he said, dipping his head in a show of embarrassment, “I was supposed to meet a friend at a bar on the corner of Santa Monica and Las Palmas. I’m new in town, like, two days.”

“It would help if you were on Santa Monica,” Phil said.

I jumped. I hadn’t noticed Phil come up behind me. He slipped a coaster and a napkin in front of the stranger. Was he poaching on my territory?

“You’re two blocks away,” said Phil. “You’re looking for LuLu’s Bar None. Is your friend a lesbian?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Best friends since high school. She’s the reason I moved here.” Then, looking at me longer than a typical customer would, he added, “Well, one of them.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m early anyway, I might as well have something. Vodka rocks?”

“Marshall here will take care of you.” Phil winked at me and headed down the bar to refill one of the regulars.

“I’m Marshall,” I said, as I set about making his drink.

“Ben,” he replied, extending his hand. Few people shake hands with bartenders, that’s not why we’re there. The gesture amused me, so I shook his hand, noticing a beautiful gold ring with a striking green stone on his right pinky.

“Jade?” I asked.

He glanced at the ring, easing his hand away. “Oh, yes, from my grandmother for my last birthday. I can always count on Granny to find perfect gifts.”

It was only later, when Ben was wiping sweat off his chest with a hand towel, that I learned his full name was Bentley. He was twenty-seven years old. He’d moved to L.A. that very week from Bellevue, Washington. The only person he knew in town was Becky Walters, his dyke friend we’d said goodbye to after a 3:00 a.m. breakfast at the Buffalo Diner before heading to my place.

Is love possible after just one orgasm? I don’t know, so to be safe we made it three. By the time Ben left my apartment, the sun was well above the horizon and I was as sure as I have ever been that happiness had called my name.

CHAPTER FIVE

WE DIDN’T HAVE SMART PHONES in 1983. When you wanted to reach someone, you used this thing called a telephone. It came with a cord stuck into a wall and numbered buttons you had to push. There were even a few rotary phones still around with confounding circular disks that had finger holes in them. When you picked up the headset you heard a dial tone, then you called the person you were trying to contact and either talked to them or left a message on another contraption called an answering machine.

I tried reaching Ben several times over the next few days. He wasn’t avoiding me, he was just very busy. Your first week in a big city is consumed with deciding what you’ll do for a living and the other thousand details of rearranging a life. I left a message on Ben’s answering machine. He left one on mine. Back and forth. We managed to speak once, on Sunday night when I was pulling my first solo shift at the Parrot. Phil’s mother had broken her leg in a fall and he’d gone to Bakersfield that weekend to help her. Normally it was just me and Phil working nights with one of the barbacks for support. If we needed help behind the bar we called Derek or Freeze.  They were the part-timers and our backup. When Phil asked if I wanted one of them to help me, I said no, I can do this, and found myself nearly overwhelmed. A dozen serious drinkers on a Sunday night can be very demanding. So when Ben called the bar around 10:00 p.m., I didn’t think anything of telling him I’d speak to him in the morning.

“I really want to see you again,” he’d said quickly. “I’ve just been so busy.”

“I get it,” I’d replied. The phone was cradled between my ear and my shoulder as I hurried to fill another drink order. “I can’t wait to see you, too. Let’s talk tomorrow and make this happen.”

I don’t remember anything from the rest of my shift. When you’re that harried, time not only flies, but blurs. I made it through. I cut off the drunks who’d had too many, which was a high percentage of the Parrot’s clientele. I’d fended off three passes made by men who wouldn’t remember making them the next day. I shared the workload with Brandon, the new barback who’d been hired to replace me in that position. And I’d made enough in tips to confirm my belief that bartending was a good career choice. It all depends on what you want in life, and at that point I didn’t have many wants: a one-bedroom apartment as soon as I could afford it, a new used car to replace the ailing Gremlin, some nice clothes and a stereo. That was pretty much my wish list … oh, and a good man. I was twenty-five. I felt time passing, and I thought I was ready to settle down for a while. The longest relationship I’d had was three months, ending in more of a shrug than a heartache. There was Butch, of course, and my short-lived fling with Phil the bartender. But nothing I would classify as a relationship. Remembering the phone call with Ben when I was cashing out for the night, I had the crazy idea he might be the one to change that. There was just something about the guy, and as I twist-tied the two big trash bags collected every night behind the bar, I found myself wishing I’d stopped what I was doing and talked to him when he’d called. I’ve never liked unfinished conversations, then or now.

There was an alley behind the Paisley Parrot. It’s still there as far as I know—alleys don’t tend to move—but the Parrot is long gone, replaced by a succession of retail shops, nail salons and, as of this writing, a pet store. I suppose the dumpsters are still there, too. Technology hasn’t done much to improve trash disposal.

I always took the bags out one at a time, since they were so heavy. Brandon had gone home with my encouragement. The kid was exhausted from working and I was used to closing the place down myself, even when Phil was on duty. I propped the back door open with a brick we used for that purpose, and lugged the giant brown plastic bag over to the dumpster.

The lids were closed in a feeble effort to keep the rats out and the smells in. I set the bag down a moment, pushed up the large metal lid of the dumpster, and found myself staring into the face of a corpse.

And not just any corpse. It was the dead, broken body of the young man I hadn’t had time to talk to that evening. The man whose smile had sent me back on my heels when he’d walked into the bar less than a week ago. The man I’d fantasized ten minutes earlier about calling my boyfriend.

Those astonishing brown eyes were open, dead and lifeless. Something was wrapped around his neck, dug so deeply into his flesh I didn’t recognize at first what it was. His right hand rested over his chest, as if pledging allegiance to a dark lord. Something about it struck me, a fleeting detail, but the thought vanished in the shock of the scene. There was no light in his beautiful gaze, only a darkness he’d seen in his final moments that was about to make its way into our lives.

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Exclusive Excerpt: The Pitiful Player by Frank W Butterfield (A Nick Williams Mystery Book 14)

Kindle: http://amzn.to/2eT0hX5

Blurb:

Friday, July 8, 1955

Ben White, a movie producer working on Nick’s dime, is ready to show off what he’s been up to, so Nick and Carter head to Hollywood to see what there is to see and, to be polite, it stinks.

Ben’s director has an idea and he says it’s gonna make Nick even richer than he already is.

But, before they can start the cameras rolling, leading man William Fraser is found murdered at the lavish Beverly Hills mansion of seductive silent screen star Juan Zane. Carlo Martinelli, Ben’s lover, is arrested and charged with murder even though everyone in town knows he’s innocent, including the District Attorney.

Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Police Chief makes sure that Nick knows that his kind of help isn’t wanted in the posh village, home to some of Hollywood’s most famous stars. The chief is running a good, clean, wholesome town, after all.

From Muscle Beach to Mulholland Drive, Nick and Carter begin to piece together the clues that point to who did it and why. Somehow they manage to do so in the sweltering heat and noxious smog of the Southland.

In the end, however, will anyone be brought to justice? It’s Hollywood, so you’ll have to wait for the final reel to find out.

Excerpt:

“Nick, wake up.”

I opened my eyes. I could see a shadow hovering above me. I reached up and felt Carter’s stubble-covered face. “What?”

“Ben just called. Greg and Micky got into a fight. Greg broke Micky’s nose and dislocated his shoulder. They’re all at the hospital. Ben wants us to come down.” He reached down and kissed me. “What were you dreaming about?”

I sighed. “Something about Liz and dessert.”

“Liz who? Liz Taylor? Are you dreaming about Hollywood?”

I laughed as he kissed me again. “No. Much bigger. Liz as in Queen Elizabeth.”

Carter nibbled on my left ear. He whispered, “She doesn’t look like a Liz. She looks like a Betty.”

I put my arms around his neck. “We need to get up. Ben needs us.”

Carter sighed and said, “I know.” He kissed my forehead.

“Why didn’t I hear the phone?”

“I was already awake when it rang.”

“You were?”

“Yes. That kid was in the swimming pool. I heard him splashing around. Buck naked, too.”

I laughed. “You know you’re not his type, right?”

Carter kissed my lips. “You saw that, huh?”

“You bet. I saw you running your eyes over his body. And I know why.”

“Why?” asked Carter as he ran his right hand along my face.

“He’s not the one you have a crush on. It’s his motorcycle.”

Carter laughed. “You’re right, Nick. When you’re right, you’re right.”

“Why haven’t you bought one since we were in Georgia?” He’d had an Indian motorcycle while we were on a case, investigating his father’s murder, in Albany, Georgia, back in the summer of ’53.

“It’s one thing to run around on a motorcycle in the backwoods of Georgia. It’s a whole other thing to go up and down California Street. Every time I’ve thought about it, all I can imagine myself doing is driving around and around Huntington Park. That would get boring after a while.”

“It’s mostly flat around here.”

“It’s not just the hills. It’s also the traffic.”

“We have to go, Carter.”

“I know,” he sighed. “Just five more minutes. They’ll wait.”

I said, “Fine,” and pulled him down on me.

Exclusive Excerpt: Ring of Silence (A Paul Turner Mystery Book 12) by Mark Zubro

Blurb:

Detectives try to save lives and protect the community and themselves.

We all saw the video of the Chicago cop who shot the kid sixteen time while his colleagues stood and watched. What would happen if Detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick in a similar scenario showed up ten seconds before the firing started. In Mark Zubro’s twelfth book in his Paul Turner, gay police detective series, they’d do the right thing and put a stop to it. But that would only be the beginning of the intrigue, danger, and death that surrounds them in a ring of silence as they try to solve a mystery and do the right thing for themselves, their families, their colleagues, the community, and the rule of law.

Excerpt:

Thursday 3:15 P.M.

“This goddamn Taser isn’t working.” Fenwick shook it, then banged it against the brick wall they were walking next to. He glared at the electronic device. “God damn technology bullshit.” He shook it again, pressed the on button. Nothing.

“Let me see it,” Paul Turner said to his partner. He was aware that Buck Fenwick’s technique of smashing at electronics seldom had the effect his partner desired. Fenwick and anything more technical than a manual typewriter had an iffy relationship at the best of times. Once, he ran over a recalcitrant phone with the tires of his car. Six times. Fenwick most often thought violence to an inanimate object would cause it to behave in ways he thought efficacious.

Turner seldom intervened when Fenwick was at war with electronics. Today, he thought he’d give it a try.

Fenwick handed him the Taser. They were at the beginning of a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on a hot June afternoon. They’d gotten a call of pursuit in progress. They’d been on foot only about a block or so away near the corner of Harrison and Canal. They chose to hurry over instead of trying to dash back to their car, parked a block in the other direction. They hustled forward. Outright running was precluded by Fenwick’s hefty bulk. They could hear sirens ahead of them and to their left. The wind of a predicted line of thunderstorms gusted in their faces.

They rounded the corner of the building. Twenty feet in front of them, Turner saw Detective Randy Carruthers, feet spread wide, gun held in both hands, pointing it directly at them.

Carruthers had recently betrayed Turner and Fenwick by providing information on a murder case to the Catholic Church. Turner had been waiting for the perfect moment to confront the squad’s most inept detective and now notorious traitor. Carruthers had been on vacation for a week after the events in question. It had only been a few hours since he’d been back on the job.

Between Carruthers and them was a young African-American male who was standing still, facing Turner and Fenwick. Maybe seven feet from them.

Carruthers screamed, “Halt, mother fucker.” In the seconds Turner had been on the scene, the kid hadn’t moved. His hands were up. The wind carried the boy’s screams of, “Don’t shoot. Don’t kill me.”

Carruthers’s bellows mingled with the kid’s. Like an LP album stuck in a ‘stupid’ groove, Carruthers kept repeating, “Stop, motherfucker!” In between screams for his life, the kid began to blubber and cry, then started to choke. Turner saw Carruthers’s gun wobble then swing wildly. For a second or so, the man’s body gave a mighty twitch, but then he renewed his stance and gripped the gun more firmly.

The kid’s body began to convulse from his own choking while trying to hold himself rigidly still so as not to be shot. In the few seconds that passed, Turner wondered where Harold Rodriguez was. He was Carruthers’s long-suffering partner. Carruthers started firing. Instead of standing around like police officers in other situations when a moronic and incompetent cop was firing pointlessly and murderously, Turner and Fenwick acted. They were not about to do an imitation of inert morons while someone committed murder. Not while they could do something about it. Pope or president, gang banger or fool, it did not matter who was fi ring. They had to be stopped.

Fenwick rushed to the kid and tackled him, attempting to get him out of range of the wildly firing Carruthers. On his knees, Fenwick tried to yank the kid behind the nearest vehicle. In his mad haste to get the kid out of the line of fire, he managed to bang the kid’s head against the fender of a car. With his last shove, he yanked so hard that part of the kid’s shirt ripped. Fenwick lost his grip, and the detective’s momentum caused his own head to bash into the car’s headlight, shattering it.

Simultaneous to Fenwick’s actions, Turner aimed the Taser at Carruthers and jammed at the on button. The thing functioned and the wires flew straight for the idiot detective. The thin, electrified cables caught him on his left shoulder. The dumb son of a bitch fell to his knees but kept firing. His gun swayed in great arcs up and down and side to side, which meant even more people could be at risk. Turner heard Fenwick grunt and begin cursing.

Then Turner saw Harold Rodriguez running up from the far end of an unmarked police car about thirty feet away. Rodriguez tackled Carruthers, whose gun skittered away. Turner noted that Rodriguez had Carruthers face down and was handcuffing the dumb shit’s hands behind his back. Turner made sure no one was near the cop’s gun which was eight feet from his left foot. Then he dropped the Taser and rushed to his partner.

 

Thursday 3:18 P.M.

In seconds, he crossed the few feet to Fenwick and the kid who was half under Fenwick. The kid was crying, blubbering, and repeating. “I didn’t do anything. Don’t kill me. I didn’t do anything. Don’t kill me.” Fenwick was holding his own left bicep with his right hand. He raged his unhappiness. “Dumb, mother-fucking son of a bitch. If he’s not dead, I’m going to kill him.” Turner saw red dampness spreading on the cloth of Fenwick’s shirt and dripping down to the pavement. Fenwick applied pressure to the spot the blood oozed from.

Turner could see no visible wounds on the kid. He got out his phone, called in, identified himself, and then said, “Shots fired. Officer down. Ambulance needed Harrison and Des Plaines Avenue.”

He knelt next to the kid and Fenwick. He placed a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. Up close, he thought the kid might be all of fourteen, short and scrawny.

Several times Turner repeated “You’re safe now.” Until he saw the kid’s eyes stop fluttering back and forth. Turner asked, “Have you been shot? Hurt?”

The kid caught his eyes. His panicky wailing and weeping became reduced to moans and hiccups. Perhaps it was Turner’s words or his calm demeanor that eased the kid’s fear. The boy whispered, “No. I think I’m okay.” He grunted and tried to wriggle out from under Fenwick. “Except this guy is kind of huge.” He gave up attempting to squirm from under the heavy-set cop and gave an abrupt shove to the part of Fenwick’s bulk that was holding the left side of his own body flush against the pavement.

Fenwick bellowed. Turner was reminded of a water buffalo in pain. The kid’s movement had caused Fenwick’s wounded arm to mush against the pavement.

Turner said to the boy, “Hang on for a second. My partner’s been shot. He probably saved your life.” Fenwick ceased roaring. Turner saw that his partner was trying to ease off his own shirt to examine his wound. Turner shifted so he was closer to his friend. Their eyes met.

Fenwick asked, “Is Carruthers dead yet?”

Turner looked over. Rodriguez and his prone partner were being surrounded by cops. Others were rushing towards them, guns still out. As Turner watched, he saw Carruthers struggle against his bonds. Rodriguez yanked on the cuffs and said, “Move again, dumb shit, and I’ll shoot you myself.” Rodriguez looked up at the assembling beat cops and said, “Make a god damn perimeter around the scene.” He pointed to Mike Sanchez and Alex Deveneaux, beat cops they’d all worked with many times. “Make sure no one touches any of the dash cams on any of the cars. Get as many guys to help you as you need. Anybody touches a dash cam, shoot them.”

Sanchez and Deveneaux hustled away to comply. Others began ushering the crowd away. Turner heard one man in the crowd whose voiced carried to him. “That cop saved that boy. He’s a hero. So is his partner. I’ve got it all.” The guy held up his cell phone in one hand while pointing at the prone threesome with the other.

Turner saw a forest of cell phones aimed at the scene from, it seemed, everyone nearby. He turned back to the kid. He asked, “What’s your name?”

“DeShawn.” He put his hands on either side of his head and said, “And my head kind of hurts.” In another few seconds, he was puking softly. Turner cradled his head. He saw shards of headlight where Fenwick must have hit and a dent in the fender lower down where the kid’s head must have banged into the car. Turner couldn’t remember the sequence of how soon after a head wound one was likely to puke, and if said vomiting was a sure sign of concussion. What he knew for sure was that it wasn’t a good sign

 

Want more Paul Turner Mysteries:?

Check out Author Mark Zubro’s website:

http://www.markzubro.com/index.htm

 

Exclusive Excerpt: The Paradoxical Parent (A Nick Williams Mystery Book 13) by Frank W Butterfield

Blurb:

Monday, March 7, 1955

It’s been a big year for Nick & Carter and they are finally back home in San Francisco, trying to take it easy after all their globe-trotting adventures.

But, there’s no rest for the weary, not yet, as Nick learns about the last place his mother lived before she died and is off again, across the country, going from the warm waters of the South Pacific to his first real-life snowstorm in New England.

As he and Carter, helped by Frankie & Maria Vasco, meet some of the people who once knew Nick’s mother and learn more about who she was and who she loved, they also encounter one of the most disturbing things to come from Nick’s own past.

After a policeman is murdered and other innocent people are threatened, Nick realizes it’s time to put a stop to a killer’s madness, even if it means that he has to pull the trigger himself.

 

Kindle: http://amzn.to/2hl3q2e

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Excerpt:
Once we were in bed and snuggled under three thick blankets, I finally felt warm for the first time since we’d landed.

Carter snuggled up against me. He rarely did that since there wasn’t much of me to snuggle with. But, every now and then, he held me like a teddy bear. A thin teddy bear. It usually meant he was upset about something.

As he put his head on my chest, I asked, “Are you OK?”

He sighed but didn’t say anything. I stroked his head for a moment. Letting them go where they wanted, I ran my fingers around the contours of his exposed right ear, down his jawline, around his lips, and up the bridge of his nose. Getting no response, not even an attempt at biting a finger, I let my hand go down his chest. I ran my fingers through his chest hair and finally got a deep breath out of him.

“I love you, Carter Woodrow Wilson Jones.”

He shifted and pulled me in tighter.

“When we get to Boston, I bet we can find a gymnasium for you to punch things in.”

That got a chuckle.

“Maybe they’ll have a heavyweight boxer who’ll go a few rounds with you.”

“Heavyweight?”

“Isn’t that the word?”

“Sure. But since when do you know boxing classes?”

“Dunno. Maybe I read it in Life Magazine.”

He snorted.

Now I knew he was feeling better.

“Those dames were something, weren’t they?” he asked.

“They were.” I laughed as I remembered what Grace had said about us having fun together.

“What?” he asked.

“Don’t you think we owe it to them to have a little fun tonight?”

I could feel him stiffen. I suddenly realized what was going on. “It’s because of whose bed we’re in, isn’t it?”

He sighed but didn’t reply.

“Look. For some reason it doesn’t bother me.” I thought about that for a moment. I realized I’d been feeling lighter ever since I’d stood in the same room earlier in the day and had realized what had likely happened.

“It bothers me. I feel like we’re violating some inner sanctum.”

“It didn’t bother you the first night we slept in my grandfather’s bed.”

“Yes, it did. Remember? We both sat on the edge of the bed and didn’t move.”

“I thought you were just humoring me.”

“I was. Humoring you is one of the ways I get through the tough moments. I can focus on you and that makes it easier for me.”

“Huh.” I thought about that for a moment. “Like with the smoking. How you were only smoking when I smoked.”

“Sure. Not really the same thing but close enough.”

I tried to figure out if I did something like that. Suddenly I had it. “I guess that’s like why I hardly carry a gun anymore.”

“What?”

“Ever since we started working together, I hardly ever think about my revolver. I’m not even sure where it is.”

“It’s in the safe in the office at home. With mine. But why?”

“Because you can handle anyone who comes along.”

Carter huffed. “That’s not true.”

“Really?” I asked. “When was the last time you couldn’t?”

He thought for a moment. “Well. OK. I guess you’re right.” He sighed. “When you’re right, Nick, you’re right.”

“You know I like it when you say that.”

I couldn’t see his face because it was turned away from me but I could swear that I felt him grin when I said that.

Very slowly, he lifted up. In the moonlight, I could see the shadow of his head over me. He sat up on his side and put his left hand lightly over my mouth and said, “Shh.”

I knew what was coming, so I started laughing before he could do it.

He giggled as he said, “Nick. Shh.”

I laughed even harder and he started laughing as well. He ran his right index finger across my ribs. As he did so, he made a noise by rolling his tongue to make it sound as if he was playing a xylophone in a cartoon. I burst out laughing with a yelp. Giggling, he fell on me, saying, “Shh!”

After about thirty seconds, someone banged on the bedroom door. I heard Frankie say, “Either let us in to watch or shut the fuck up.”

We both rolled over in the bed laughing and didn’t stop for at least five minutes.

Exclusive Excerpt: Pretty Boy Dead (A Kendall Parker Mystery Book 1) by Jon Michaelsen

Blurb:

2014 Lambda Literary Award Finalist – Gay Mystery

A murdered male stripper. A missing go-go dancer. A city councilman on the hook. It’s a race against time for veteran Atlanta Homicide Detective Kendall Parker to solve the vicious crime, but when the investigation takes a sudden, disastrous turn resulting in the death of a suspect in custody.  But when a local print reporter with ties to the beleaguered cop threatens to expose a police cover-up, Parker will be forced to make a life-changing choice; stand firm for law and justice, or betray the brotherhood of blue.

Cover Design: Elizabeth Leggett; Publisher: Lethe Press

Exclusive Excerpt

“I need to see you.” Slade had whispered loud enough so his editor could hear. Slade stopped short of entering the room.

“Not now, Calvin,” Marsh snapped, gesturing with irritation at the others at the meeting table. “Can’t you see I’m in a meeting?”

Slade disregarded the group and rushed to the editor’s side. He leaned down close and whispered a few words into the man’s ear. The two men engaged in whispered conversation and ignored the aggravated stares of the other executives. Marsh had heard enough.

“Who covered the Crater case?” Marsh blurted out to the men seated around the table. “The death of Councilman Keyes’ aide?”

“Greenfield,” said the Metro editor from the end of the table.

“Get him. Adams.” Marsh barked orders. The city deputy editor snapped his head up from his doodling on the pad. “I need two of your best junior field reporters, a couple of top-notch research assistants and throw in a few green clerks. We have a hell of a lead to authenticate before word leaks to the other networks. Have everybody meet in the war room in fifteen.”

Marsh capped his Waterman pen, picked up the papers on the table before him and shoved back from the table, signaling the end to the meeting.

The war room was a large conference room on the same floor as most of the staff clerks and journalists. Used for departmental meetings and occasionally reserved by print staff thrown into crisis where timing proved critical, it was a think tank for senior field reporters, editors, copy writers, researchers and common clerks working together at breakneck speed to draft a blistering front-page story, a scoop that required swift action and exceptional writing skills. An eight-foot table with folding metal chairs, topped with dual triangle-shaped speaker-phones for conference calls, filled the center of the room. Flat screen monitors tuned to local and national news programming were hung on the walls.

Everyone gathered as requested, poised for instruction and ready to roll up their sleeves. Young clerks were brought in to run errands for the troupe during what might become a multi-hour marathon of making photocopies, getting coffee, fresh donuts, fetching take-out, distributing afternoon snacks, everything to keep the group focused and on track.

Slade perched at one end of the table and outlined the events responsible for bringing them together. Reading from typed pages with scribbled highlights, he brought the assembled staff members up to speed on the story. Based on the facts presented, those gathered believed the victims indeed knew one another, and the video from the fundraiser proved they both had connections to the councilman. Their job now was to confirm and source all the facts, authenticate the details, and fill the gaps for tomorrow’s front page.

Slade organized his pages of notes under the managing editor’s direction, who doled out the assignments to each participant. Everyone relished the adrenaline rush associated with what might well be the hottest story of the year. Covering the city councilman had proved mundane of late, but connecting two dead bodies to the man would fire his unpopularity factor into the ozone. By 9: 00 p.m.,

Marsh approved the third draft and gave Slade the okay to contact Councilman Keyes at his home in Buckhead for a comment. The top brass listened in on extensions as Slade dialed the number. A recorder engaged before the first ring and Keyes answered.

“Councilman Keyes, this is Calvin Slade with the Journal. Can I have a moment of your time?”

“I told you before I have nothing more to say, Mr. Slade. How did you get this number? You know what this is? It’s harassment. I’ll have you thrown in jail if you don’t stop pestering me.”

“I am required to inform you, councilman, this call is being recorded. I think you’ll want to listen to what I have to say.”

“Are you serious?” “We’re running a story in the morning detailing a connection in the murders of Jason North and your office aide, Lamar Crater. We’ll be including a photo of you taken at the Fox Theatre fundraiser speaking to the Piedmont Park victim. We’ll also be running down the young man’s affiliation with the male strip club, Metroplex. It’s our assertion you have knowledge of their deaths, enabling you to be blackmailed to kill your proposed legislation banning alcohol sales in nude dancing clubs in the city.”

Silence. Slade heard a few heavy intakes of breath as what sounded like a drawer opened and closed before he spoke when it became clear that Keyes still remained stunned. “Councilman Keyes, with all due respect, you must know I am calling you out of professional courtesy. I want to give you an opportunity to share your comments with the public who elected you. We will be going to press soon—”

Keyes’s words exploded through the receiver. “Your assertion is preposterous! Who put you up to smearing my name with the primary coming up? What gives you the right to call my home with such an asinine claim? My lawyers will hear about this!”

Slade steadied himself and repeated his offer. “Councilman Keyes, with all due respect, I am calling you out of courtesy. I want to grant you an opportunity to share your comments with our readers. We will be going to press soon…”

“You can go straight to hell, Mr. Slade.”

Slade felt his face burning. “We’re going to press soon, sir. Just give us your side of the story and I’ll personally guarantee—”

“You’ll hear from my lawyers!”

 

Buy Links:

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Amazon

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Print: http://tinyurl.com/Print-Pretty-Boy-Dead

 

 

Exclusive Excerpt: The Harrowing of Hell: The Jack Elliot Series Book 2 by Dean Kutzler

Blurb:

Would you destroy humanity’s only hope in order to kill its biggest injustice?

Deep in the heart of the Congo, a dangerous secret has been hidden from humanity for its protection. A secret linked to something so unjust that it has haunted the human race from the start of religion, and still exists today. If discovered, the veil of hope humanity holds so dear will be torn down and thrown away.

Life will literally become worthless.

There is also a dangerous artifact hidden along with the secret, one that claims to hold the power of resurrection. If this power falls into the wrong hands, there will be no stopping whoever wields the ancient item.

Jack and Calvin fly into the dangerous jungles of Africa to find the dangerous artifact and soon discover their biggest adversary, the clandestine organization called the Bene Elohim, is also searching for the relic.

As they seek out an old man living somewhere along the Congo River that supposedly has knowledge that will help them find the artifact, a mysterious teenage boy abducts Jack. With a machete in each hand and only a direction to follow, Calvin runs off into the jungle in hot pursuit, both arms swinging!

Will Calvin save Jack? Do they find the artifact and face destroying the only hope mankind has left?

The Harrowing of Hell, the second adventure in The Jack Elliot Thriller Series, is sure to deliver fast paced, thrilling action and adventure that isn’t laced with guns, bombs and nuclear genocide—but loaded with mind bombs that’ll have you thinking twice! It’s brilliantly plotted, full of twists and its feet are fully submerged in suspense.

M’banza – Kongo

2:00 am

The sound of gravel skittered about the ground, and he quickly fled the nakedness of the moonlight, slipping into the shadows of the night. With a trained eye, he watched from behind the safety of the church rubble as two men plodded carelessly across the ruins like amateurs. Not many people visited the cathedral ruins of M’banza-Kongo in Angola during the day—if at all, much less at 2 o’clock in the morning. He was certain they hadn’t seen him, his skills always on point. Amateurs or not, they were here for something more than site-seeing. Their timely arrival, may just work to his advantage. For now, he’d keep watch.

“Babe,” Calvin whispered, looking around. “You sure–ah, the Intel said here…at these ruins in Angola?”

All that remained of the sixteenth-century cathedral, the first Catholic Church in Africa built back in 1549, was the four-wall, stone and mortar foundation, sans a roof. Small as a one-room schoolhouse, the foundation was spotted with moss and completely intact, except for the door. Only a perfect archway remained where the door once stood. Alongside the doorway on the left was a square, moss-covered stone structure about a foot in height from the ground and covered with dead, dried up flowers from some long-ago ceremonial ritual or holiday.

Jack sighed, heavily, letting go of his goatee. It was almost a foot in length, now, and braided because it was easier to handle. “Um, do you really think I’d charter us a private plane—fly around the world for over twenty hours, just so we could sneak around this creepy place and come up empty-handed…if I wasn’t sure what the Intel said?” He snapped, louder than he intended.

Calvin just gave him a look.

“Sorry, Cal,” he said, frowning slightly. “I guess the jet lag is workin’ my nerves–and this place…”

“I know what you mean,” Calvin said, nodding. “There’s just something about I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels…”

“Wrong?”

“Yes–it feels wrong here like we don’t belong and I can’t shake the feeling we’re being watched,” he said, stepping over the crumbling curb and onto the walkway leading up to the church.

“That’s just your paranoia. Who the hell would come out here in the middle of the night–”

Calvin gave him another look.

Jack rolled his eyes and said, “Well–you know what I mean, let’s just make it quick.”

“I’m not complaining, Babe,” he said, grabbing his arm and guiding him over the curb. “Actually, this is pretty exciting. It sure beats giving English lectures to entitled, snot-nosed freshmen at McGill.” Calvin used to be a college professor when they’d lived in Montréal.

“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying this but it’s going to take a little getting used to for me. I used to be a writer, you know–writing about the people finding the artifacts and such. Not doing the actual finding.”

“Look at this place,” Calvin said. “It’s amazing how it’s lasted all these centuries.”

“The locals called the church,” peeking at the iPad Mini in his bag, Jack pronounced, “nzo a ukisi or, get this—charm in the form of a building. They also referred to it as nkulumbimbi or built by angels overnight.

“Charm, huh? Angels? Right up our alley.”

Jack and Calvin have been together for almost six years, living in Montreal, until Jack’s uncle and father were murdered at the hands of his mother. Jack’s uncle left him a fortune, along with his brownstone in New York City. Since discovering the temple and dangerous book hidden below the brownstone last year, Jack and Calvin left Montréal and moved into the brownstone to keep the secret safe. Thanks to the financial freedom the inheritance brought, they decided to start a quest, to seek out other potentially harmful artifacts. Gaining Intel on the mysterious items had proven to be their biggest challenge. They were on their first mission, going off a tip Moe, Jack’s friend and computer genius, hacked from the United States government database.

“Are you sure no one’s been out here looking for it already?” Calvin asked as they walked down the grassy path leading up to the church.

“Moe said the Intel is fresh. Plus, it’s low priority because the government doesn’t actually believe in magical artifacts.”

“Tell that to Fox and Scully. If the government didn’t believe, why keep the Intel?”

“You’ve got a point. Which is why we’re here,” Jack said with a smile.

Suddenly, a cool wind blew down through the missing roof of the cathedral and out the archway leading inside. The sharp, pungent smell of ozone bit their nostrils as it wafted over their faces. Jack and Calvin exchanged a glance.

“The pilot said we were lucky,” Jack said, swallowing hard, “because we flew in at the tail-end of Angola’s rainy season.”

“It’s not rain I’m worried about,” Calvin said, peeking into the church.

“It’s just the wind, come on. Let’s look inside,” Jack said, visually taking in the church. “Looks so small—to have been a cathedral.”

“Don’t forget…this structure’s almost five hundred years old. I’m sure it was pretty advanced for Angola at the time.”

Jack and Calvin stepped into the foundation, and the moss-dotted stonewalls of the cathedral instantly muffled the subtle night sounds of M’banza-Kongo. The inside of the cathedral was unremarkable with nothing left inside but some sort of tall, white wooden structure positioned in the center of the back wall. It resembled three planks of stadium seating, raised up on a small platform of stone and mortar.

It was recently built, likely to accommodate candles and flowers for when special Kongo traditions or occasions arose. The interior walls were merely a mirror of the outside stone and mortar structure, no interior facade. The floor was just heavily packed dirt from centuries of worshipping-feet.

Jack pulled an iPad Mini from his bag and opened up the Intel email he downloaded from Moe on the plan. He quickly scanned the data once again, rereading the highlighted lines and notes he’d made to the documentation on the plane when he’d briefed himself.

“According to the government files, there should be a clue, here—in this church, to where the necklace was hidden.”

“A clue?” Calvin asked. “Not the necklace or what the clue is?”

“No,” shaking his head, he said. “It just says a clue was left here. The rest is background info. Didn’t you read the Intel I forwarded you?”

Calvin looked the other way, whistling to himself. He’d slept for most of the flight to Angola. He could sleep anywhere, anytime–any circumstance.

Jack rolled his eyes and went back to the iPad Mini. “Legend has it that Nzinga Mbemba, better known as King Afonso I, after his baptism and conversion to Christianity when the Portuguese arrived around 1491, had his mother buried alive,” he swallowed hard and continued, “because she refused to remove the necklace. King Afonso said that worshiping false idols angered the one true God and would bring damnation to the Kongo.”

“Whoa… I thought my relationship with my mother was strained.”

“Yeah,” Jack said, stroking his goatee, feeling the tension in the braid. “Nobody beats mine.”

Calvin nodded, looking away. “Wait a minute, hold up…are you saying the necklace is buried in a grave somewhere, here?” He shuddered. “Because we didn’t bring shovels and I’m not ready to meet Zom-bo Mom-Bo of the Kon-go.”

Jack read from the iPad Mini. “It says here that King Afonso dug up her grave and retrieved the necklace because he said…great care should be taken in hiding something so powerful and evil.” He skimmed through the file. “Right––here it is…the rumor is that King Afonso left a clue in the church because of a vision he had in a dream. In the vision, he saw himself winning a battle against his half-brother, Mpanzu a Kitima, even though Kitima’s army far outnumbered Afonso’s.

It’s alleged that he used the necklace to win the battle.”

“What a loving family member…he buries dear ole Moms alive for not taking her idol off, then digs her up to win a battle against his brother, half—no less. And the kids at McGill think they have a rough life.”

Color washed over Jack’s face in the darkness of the Kongo night as he flipped through more pages on the device. “…He wielded the necklace like a torch and a bright light erupted high, in the sky. And from this light appeared Saint James and five heavenly-armed horsemen, looming over Kitima’s army. Kitima and his men were so frightened by the divine omen that they instantly fled the battlefield… Saint James…Saint James? Hold on, I remember reading something else about him.” Jack scrolled further down. “Okay, here it is…The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches its disciples that Saint James was resurrected, along with two other apostles, Peter, and John. Together with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, they restored priesthood authority with apostolic succession unto the earth.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I haven’t a clue,” Jack said, pulling at the braided goatee.

“Wait… Did you say they were resurrected? I thought Jesus was the only one that was resurrected?”

Jack rolled his eyes, again. “You know how much I know about religion, but—”

“Ah, yeah. As much as my students know how to speak Swahili,” Calvin said, cutting him off.

“Very funny, but I can tell you with some certainty that Jesus wasn’t the only person resurrected.”

“Really?” Calvin said, genuinely surprised.

“Whaaa? You mean to tell me you never heard of all the miracles Jesus performed?”

“Sure, something about loaves and fishes being multiplied—oh—and something about water into wine? I’ve heard about him.”

Jack shook his head. “How has a highly regarded, tenured English Professor at a prominent university like McGill never heard about Jesus traveling the land, healing and raising people from the dead?”

“Judge not, lest thee be judged! Or something to that effect,” Calvin said with a shrug.

“Resurrection… Do you think this artifact could have something to do with resurrection? I guess in the wrong hands something like that could be considered dangerous.”

“I’d say the coincidence is too sharp to overlook.”

Suddenly, a loud cracking sound pierced the quiet night melody of M’banza-Kongo. Both men whipped their heads in the direction of the doorway, then back to each other. Jack quickly stuffed the iPad Mini back into his bag and nodded slightly to the right. Then they both quietly tiptoed towards the opposite walls; Calvin on the right, Jack on the left.

Slowly and as quietly as possible, they each crept towards the archway entrance, keeping pace with each other, until they were standing on each side of the doorway. Calvin held up a hand, motioning Jack to stay put as he inched his head around, far enough to sneak a peek. Nothing.

Jack went to step outside the church, and Calvin laid a hand on his chest, shaking his head. Even though they knew trouble was a good possibility on this mission, neither of them had the good sense to bring any weapons. Regardless, Calvin wasn’t about to let Jack get hurt.

He dug into his pocket and retrieved a small flashlight, but didn’t turn it on so as not to illuminate their whereabouts any further. “Stay here while I have a look around,” he whispered. “It’s probably nothing but a gecko or whatever else creeps around the Kongo.”

Jack watched Calvin disappear into the night, around the corner of the church before he had a chance to protest. A few agonizing minutes passed by before he thought about going out to find him but quickly dashed that thought because he knew it wasn’t a good idea. Calvin would be furious, and he didn’t want to risk running into him without him knowing who it was.

He couldn’t tolerate the worried-waiting and he couldn’t go look for Calvin. He glanced at his watch. Five, minutes. Five, long, agonizing minutes Calvin has been gone. Cocking his ear towards the doorway he closed his eyes, held his breath and listened, nothing but the quiet sounds of the Kongo.

When he opened his eyes a dark figure was standing just outside the doorway and he opened his mouth to yell when a hand reached out and clamped his mouth shut.

“Sssshh…it’s just me,” whispered Calvin, stepping back inside. When he felt the tension release from Jack’s body, he removed his hand.

Jack backed up and took a deep breath. Slowly exhaling, he said, “I nearly shit my pants! A little warning next time, aye?”

“Sorry, I saw your eyes closed and didn’t want to startle you. What the hell were you doing, anyway? Taking a nap?”

“No…I was worried about you. I was trying to listen for sounds.”

“I don’t know if you know this, but it works better if you use your ears,” Calvin said with a straight face.

“I know that—haven’t you ever heard that if shut off one of your senses that the others get sharper?”

Calvin’s face remained blank and unblinking.

“Like when a person goes blind and—awww, forget it!” Jack said, poking him in the gut. “Sometimes I wonder about you. If it weren’t for that handsome smile, and those dreamy eyes that day in the basilica… Well?”

“Well—well what? Wells are usually full of water.”

“I’m being serious,” Jack said. “Well…what did you find outside?”

“Oh! Nothing.”

Jack shook his head.

“I did see where some rocks may have fallen off part of the ruins, but it’s hard to say. I circled around the church twice, and I didn’t see anyone or…”

“Or what?”

“Or anything. Maybe it was just the wind. Let’s just see if we can find the clue and get the Hades outta here.”

“Agreed,” Jack said, fishing the iPad Mini back out from his bag. “Okay, let’s think about this. I guess we should’ve done that beforehand.” He gave him a knowing look.

“Spilled milk and all,” Calvin said with a smile.

“Right. Okay, think. We’re looking for a clue in a church—“

“Ah, technically a cathedral.”

Jack looked up from the iPad Mini. “I thought you didn’t read the Intel?”

“Whaaa…I never said I didn’t read it—just not all of it. Almost fifty years after it was built,” Calvin said, looking around, “it was elevated from a church––to the status of cathedral.”

Jack rolled his eyes, again. “You slept for most of the flight. I don’t recall you reading anything. I don’t recall you doing anything but sleeping, oh, and going to the bathroom on the plane.”

“I like to read on the john.”

“Wow. Alright, enough playing around.”

“Who’s playing,” he asked, surprised.

“Let’s think. What do we know so far?”

“King Afonso buried his mother alive with the artifact. Later, he dug ‘er up and used the artifact against his brother in war. He held the artifact in the air and the resurrected Saint James and friends appear in the sky and chase off the King’s brother, winning him the war. Seeing something like that would be very impactful—something you’d never forget. Let’s start with the friends. Does it mention who the five horsemen were?”

Calvin—always a bit of a prankster, but he was always on his game when it counted.

“No, but I’ll bet the farm that it was the two apostles, Peter and John and probably,” Jack scrolled down on the iPad Mini, “Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith.”

“I know my tenure is for English, but two and two only add up to four, Babe.”

Jack grabbed his goatee. “I’m just trying to think it through—looking for a connection.”

“Do we know who Cowdery and Smith were in history?” Calvin asked, nodding at the iPad Mini.

“Well, there’s no internet connection and unfortunately, the Iridium 9575

Extreme Satellite Phones I ordered for us didn’t come in before we left…we are so unprepared. But if I know Moe, he’s pretty thorough.” Jack found the information.

“Sure enough,” he said, nodding. “Moe, you are the best! There is a downloaded link attached to each name.”

Jack scanned the information while Calvin took another peek out the doorway, making sure no one was listening in. When he came back, Jack was finished reviewing the files on both men.

“Oliver Cowdery was associated with Joseph Smith and the development of the Latter Day Saint Movement in the 1800s. Joseph Smith––get this––was known for finding and translating the golden plates.”

“Golden plates? Like dinnerware at Macy’s, plates?”

“No—like actual gold plates that were etched with words like pages of a book––a book, Cal!” Jack said, barely able to contain his excitement. “It says Joseph Smith claims that in a vision, an angel named Moroni led him to the place where the plates were buried underground, in a stone box, not far from his home.”

“You’re talkin’ about the book hidden in the temple, under the brownstone—like this is another copy or something. Does it say what the book is about?” Calvin asked.

Jack read a little more to himself out loud, then said, “I knew I’d heard this story before. It’s the Book of Mormon.”

“Um, I guess you’re not referring to the show on Broadway.”

“Joseph Smith supposedly found these golden plates, like pages of a book, this angel—Moroni—led him to and gave him something to translate the plates with because it was written in what he called reformed Egyptian. The plates were the source for the Book of Mormon. It’s like their bible and it even says witnesses attest to seeing the golden plates bound together with wire in the form of a book. The original first hundred and sixteen pages were lost before being translated, but—”

He looked down and read, “The pivotal event of the Book of Mormon is an appearance of Jesus Christ in the Americas shortly after his resurrection.”

“Okay, I follow the whole resurrection angle…but getting back to King Afonso, because he’s the one that left the clue. He saw that vision back in the fifteenth century, hundreds of years before the lifetime of both Cowdery and Smith. A vision, from the future?

“Why not? Isn’t that what prophets do? Predict the future from visions? History is loaded with them. And remember, it wasn’t a vision in his head. He supposedly used this artifact to produce that image,” Jack said.

“Assuming you’re correct and King Afonso summoned Saint James and the other apostles, Peter and John, along with Cowdery and Smith…Who was the fifth horseman?”

“Good question, but there aren’t any more hidden links from Moe.”

“And I wonder what’s up with the lost hundred and sixteen golden pages? What could be the significance of  that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, pulling his goatee. “You got a good point. Maybe it was to add credibility. Like how we’re wondering about it now and what the significance would be other than to make it seem like the truth.”

“Or, maybe it is the truth. Well, I think we’ve talked enough about it. Let’s see if we can find any clue that’s relevant to what we discussed,” Calvin said, pulling the small flashlight back out from his pocket and switching it on.

The incandescent light of the small flashlight filled the small cathedral and illuminated the moss-spotted stonewalls. Shadows danced about the uneven stones, bringing eerie life to the room.

“I think I liked it better with the lights off,” Jack said, producing an identical light from his bag. “Well, one good thing—we don’t have much ground to cover.”

Calvin and Jack scaled the inside of the cathedral-like two squirrels looking for nuts; testing stones for the slightest give and searching for patterns in everything.

They moved the white, wooden structure and more of the same: nothing.

“Time to move the search outside,” Calvin said.

“Do you think it’ll be okay with these lights?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t see any other way around it. When they were passing out superhero powers I should’ve grabbed see-in-the-dark instead.”

Jack waited for an elaboration, his eyes narrowing. When none came he said, “Okay, I’ll bite. What superpower did you take?”

“Studliness..” He said, grinning from cheek to cheek.

Jack poked him in the gut. “Come on, let’s make this quick.”

The two of them searched the ruins around the church, covering their flashlights with their hands in order to minimize being seen from afar. They repeated the process of pushing on stones and searching for clues or patterns on the outside of the structure, just like on the inside. When they were finished scouring every possible place for a clue to be hidden they met back at the entrance to the cathedral.

“I’ve searched everywhere,” Jack said, pulling on his goatee. “What are we missing? Maybe someone took the clue?”

“King Afonso was smart enough to be the King for over forty years, I don’t think he’d leave a clue that could be removed so easily. Let’s put on our thinking caps,”

Calvin said, pretending to tie cap-strings below his chin. “So far, what’s the common denominator?”

“Resurrection…has to be. He buried his mother alive and dug her up to get the artifact back. That’s sorta a resurrection. Then we have all the resurrected saints and the two men known for the golden plates—which were buried and dug up. Are we gonna have to find shovels here,” he said, looking around. “Because I didn’t research Home Depots in Angola.”

“Maybe not,” Calvin said, stroking his chin through the thick beard. He moved passed Jack and knelt before the square, moss-covered structure littered with dead flowers that sat on the ground outside the entrance.

“Praying for a clue?” Jack teased.

Calvin leaned further down until he was eye-level with the structure like he was examining it with a fine-toothed comb. “Hand me your uncle’s—ah, sorry, I mean your father’s old pocketknife, would ya?”

Jack fished the knife from his pocket, snapped it open and handed it over to Calvin. He took the pocketknife and started horizontally cutting into the moss about a couple inches down from the top. Shuffling his way around the square structure on his knees, he kept cutting into the thick moss until he was back to the point at which he’d started. Wiping the dirt off in a particularly thick piece of moss, he handed the knife back to Jack and stood up.

“Gardening?”

Calvin gave Jack that brilliant smile and said, “More like weeding. Whatever this little square piece of cement was meant for, I’m betting it was important to the church because it was placed right outside the door. As you can see, the locals today still find it important,” he said, brushing the dead flowers off the structure with the back of his arm. With the fingers of both hands, Calvin grasped the corner edge of the structure and heaved.

At first, the structure didn’t budge, but when Jack realized what Calvin was doing he jumped in and grabbed a corner. “On the count of three…one…two…three!”

With the added strength the mossy lid began to rise from the structure. Clingy roots stuck to the underside as Jack and Calvin lifted the lid off like a manhole cover and gently laid it aside.

Calvin retrieved his flashlight and aimed it down into the structure. Cobwebs and ancient dust littered the hole but they could clearly see that beneath the concrete structure a stone well of sorts that led down into the ground. The flashlight wasn’t strong enough to penetrate all the way to the bottom.

“Hey look, over there,” Jack said, guiding Calvin’s hand. Light instantly cascaded down the rocky wall of the structure and illuminated two columns of staggered holes running down into the darkness. “You think those were meant to be a ladder?”

Calvin reached inside the nearest hole, testing its depth. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.” Calvin lifted his leg, planted it into the nearest hole and tested its strength with a few firm stomps.

“Wait,” Jack said, grabbing Calvin’s shoulder. “Do you think it’s safe?”

“No. Did you bring a rope in that fashionable bag of yours?”

“No.”

Calvin continued climbing down into the hole, and Jack said, “Wait!”

“Did you find rope?”

“No, but maybe it’s too dangerous. We don’t know how far down it goes—”

“And we won’t––unless we climb down and find out,” he said, placing his other foot in another hole. “It feels pretty strong. I think it’ll be fine. Are you staying up here?”

Jack could’ve kicked himself for not being more prepared. There should’ve been a list of basics they brought with them like rope, sat-phones, water, etc. He didn’t want Calvin going down into that hole alone, but he also didn’t want both of them to be stuck down there with no one to get help. They were in a foreign country, on their own except for the commissioned pilot, waiting back on the plane and no one in the states knew they were here, except for Moe. And that wasn’t saying much.

Jack shook his head and said, “No, I’m coming with you.”

“Okay, be careful. Whoever built this was smart enough to leave a stone missing from behind the front ones,” he said, reaching into one of the holes.

“Makes it perfect to hold on to. If you feel yourself slipping, just do this.” Calvin let go of the stone-rungs and pushed his back completely against the wall with his hands splayed against the sides, like a chimney sweeper shimmying his way down a chimney.

“When did you take up rock climbing?” Jack asked.

“Too much reality TV, I guess,” he said, putting the flashlight in his mouth and continuing the climb down into the structure.

“Well, let’s hope it paid off.”

Jack carefully climbed into the square hole and disappeared from sight. A few moments later, a dark figure emerged from among the shadows of the ruins and silently rushed to the opening in the earth. Once the glow of Jack and Calvin’s flashlights slowly receded into the darkness of the structure, the figure climbed into the hole and disappeared as well.

Find out more about author, Dean Kutzler:

https://www.deankutzler.com