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: 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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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

Exclusive Excerpt: Brownstone: A Jack Elliot Thriller (The Jack Elliot Series Book 1) by Dean Kutzler

Blurb:

The key to the world’s fate discovers a devastating secret that has been divinely hidden since the days of Genesis. As the centuries passed, what was once common knowledge of our ancient origins became purposefully hidden within the lies of clergy.

Jack Elliot–a journalist, living in Montréal–returns to his hometown of New York City to pay respect to his dying uncle. Jack soon learns foul play is at hand when he finally gets to visit dear Uncle Terry. The poor man has had a severe stroke, and, is struggling to talk to his favorite nephew.

Or, at least, that, is what Jack thinks.

Uncle Terry wasn’t struggling to talk to Jack, and, what happens next, sends Jack spiraling down a web of mystery. He gets more than he bargained for, on his trip home, when he finds himself entrenched in not one, but, two, murder cases, where he’s the prime suspect.

What Jack doesn’t know is that amidst all the murder, an organization created at the beginning of time has been patiently waiting for him to…ripen! They have big plans for Jack in this mystery and suspense filled book–plans that are tied back to the very beginning of mankind–and, if they find him, the world will be immeasurably changed most certainly not for the better.

What does a clandestine organization as old as creation want with Jack Elliot? Does Jack prove his innocence? Read the first book in the exciting new thriller series, Brownstone, and discover the true facts that will shock the world!

Excerpt:

2000 B.C.E.

The Temple at Dusk…

SHE HELD IT tightly to her chest, as though her unwavering determination could fulfill her prophecy. There was a time when a mere nod of her head could send the will of men withering from her sight before the red locks of her hair fell back into place. That time has long passed; stepping aside until the day it shall reign again.

Her day.

No one saw her enter the temple, coveted under the moonless night like felt, shifting on black satin. The night breeze cool across her back as she slipped passed the entrance.

No one must see.

Once inside, she held her torch beside the iron sconce protruding from the wall and its flame burst and flickered to life. The smell of sulfur reassured her safe passage; she could not trust all the sconces to be lit. Where she needed to journey was deep within the temple and what she held was too important for her to fail.

They could not harm her, the wrongful pact had been sealed, but foul her plans they certainly could.

The passageway was dark. Her feet fell softly on the solid hewn stone, barely visible between the lengths of sconces despite her torch, as she made her way around the first turn. She stopped to relight the iron sconce there, like a beacon. The temple should be empty, but she had to be careful. It had to be done and no one could know.

Especially Him.

She hefted it closer to her chest, cradling it like a stolen newborn and thrust the torch higher as she ventured down the impossible steps. The steps her people built. The steps her people had died for, never having the privilege of their use. What He’d done to them went beyond any justification that existed in this world. Had she not been warned by the infernal source, her fate would have followed and everything would have been lost to this new world.

A world of inequality.

The steps were never-ending, like the heat of her rage. The sweat of her people has long since dried on these stones, no one left to be avenged. Their unjust fate has been hidden from the infancy of this new world. A veil of lies disguised within a deceitful beginning and set off on the heels of destruction. She could not set her plan of the ages into motion until this deed was done. She’d vowed her existence to the cause. The cause for the original beginning.

Her cause.

She finished walking down the never-ending steps, out onto a small landing made from a large block of finely hewn stone. Her face softened at the struggle her people must have had with such a quarry. The landing led down a shorter set of steps, allowing access into a room or branching off to the right, into another passageway. She gazed down that passageway and sorrow filled the perfection of her face. She no longer needed to travel down that path. She forced her gaze forward and squeezed it, yet tighter, to her chest. The memory of her people heavy with this burden she now carried. Once she’s finished, she’d never walk these corridors in this form again.

She trotted down the short set of steps with renewed purpose and entered the immense chamber. Time would be the true test for this room, but not in her time. Wasting not another second, she traversed the great expanse of the chamber to a doorway at the back. It was unfair, she thought, what she was about to do. Then rage once more bubbled up from beneath and chased the fleeting thought. How could she feel such emotion when her people had suffered such an unfair fate? Were they not innocent once, too?

She took one last look at the chamber before she drove her torch through the doorway and entered the passageway. She could not falter now. She could not blanch at the injustice she was about to serve. Sorrow may have filled her heart, but her innocence had been ripped away along with her people.

She glanced up at the hopeful seed-filled pots lining the ledge of the passage while she made her way down toward the sacred footbath. Seeds of such hope, dashed by the light of day. It wouldn’t seem possible, but darkness was their only chance. She left the pots behind along with the memories and continued down the passageway.

She could hear the trickling of the sacred footbath now. The sound as soothing on her nerves as sipping from a communal bowl filled with a strong batch of the bappir drink. She marveled at the lost ingenuity of her people in the construction of this bath. Freshwater ran continuously down from inside the temple walls, filling the stone basin at the bottom and back out, never drying up, nor ever flooding the temple.

She rested her torch alongside the clever stone chair built into the temple wall for this simple yet necessary pleasure, lest she be marked, but she would not release her charge from her grasp, not even for a mere second. For as easily as it was here it could vanish just as simply. The lengths of her struggle must not be in vain.

She gathered her Pala dress around her knees and stepped into the basin. Cool, crystal-pure water splashed over her feet, then flowed from sight beneath the stone and a purifying sensation washed over her, starting from deep within and radiated throughout each perfect pore.

She gently squeezed her eyes shut and sank down into the chair; letting the sin she was about to commit wash from her soul, along with the dirt from her unlikely feet. She no longer needed to play by His rules, but tempt fate she would not. That was beyond both of their control.

She enjoyed the silky purification for as long as time would allow, still bound by the laws of this world. Her task awaited her just in the next chamber.

Stepping over the basin of the sacred footbath, she rose from the stone seat and collected her torch. As she plunged it through the doorway, the immaculate floor shimmered from the flickering flames, shadows growing both tall and short, as she gently padded on clean feet across the room to the corner.

Using the torch like a crutch, she knelt down, keeping her charge tight in her other arm, and angled the flame over the small sprout emerging from the stone floor. Its tiny leaves quivered in time with the flickering of light, and the first true smile since before her people’s fate, bloomed upon her perfect face like a desert blossom. She stared at the little sprout until her eyes grew cold and her smile wavered, and then fell flat.

It was time.

She pulled down heavy on the torch, the weight of her burden intolerable, and lifted herself from the corner. It began to pulse and radiate beneath her tight grasp, knowing its lengthy fate, as she walked away from the hopeful little sprout.

The altar was still warm, the sickeningly sweet scent of burnt flesh hung in the air, as she walked behind it. She glanced about the room to make sure no one had followed her.

Sidestepping the huge stone mural hanging above the altar, she reached up and gently depressed one of the stone blocks in the wall. It moved inward but an inch and muffled sounds of heavy stone wheels could be heard gently rolling behind the wall.

The rolling sounds ceased and the gigantic mural shifted a few feet to the right as pressure could be heard releasing from somewhere, revealing an empty space large enough for what she needed hidden from the world. Hidden, for a very long time to come.

She checked the room once more, then carefully placed the burden inside the secret space and touched the depressed stone.

As the stone raised flush with the wall, the mural slowly shifted back in place and more pressure was released.

The deed was done.

All that was left of her plan was time.

She tossed the torch into the altar and it blazed to life, flames nearly licking the stone ceiling. Once it died to a mere roar, her form appeared between the flames as she stood beneath the mural with both arms straight out from her sides.

She swung her empty palms down in front of her with a violent clap and shen-rings appeared in each. As she slowly raised them above her head her form withered, then fell to dust and the shen-rings disappeared.

Learn more about author Dean Kutzler and his novels; 

https://www.deankutzler.com

 

Exclusive Excerpt: Idyll Threats (A Thomas Lynch Novel) by Stephanie Gayle

Blurb:

In the summer of 1997, Thomas Lynch arrives as the new chief of police in Idyll, Connecticut—a town where serious crimes can be counted on one hand. So no one is prepared when Cecilia North is found murdered on a golf course. By chance, Chief Lynch met her mere hours before she was killed. With that lead, the case should be a slam dunk. But there’s a problem. If Lynch tells his detectives about meeting the victim, he’ll reveal his greatest secret—he’s gay.

So Lynch works angles of the case on his own. Meanwhile, he must contend with pressure from the mayor to solve the crime before the town’s biggest tourist event begins, all while coping with the suspicions of his men, casual homophobia, and difficult memories of his former NYPD partner’s recent death.

As the case unfolds, Lynch realizes that small-town Idyll isn’t safe, especially for a man with secrets that threaten the thing he loves most—his job.

  Excerpt:

SATURDAY, AUGUST 9, 1997

2230 HOURS

I didn’t make small talk, didn’t ask about anyone’s evening plans or even say goodnight. I snuck out the station’s rear exit; the metal door squeaky with humidity, got into my cruiser, and drove to a secluded road. I parked and sat, watching the darkness grow, swallowing one tree at a time. I’d driven to the woods to think. Or not to think. To be alone.

I did a lot of that.

An insect symphony played, all percussions. I didn’t like so many bugs so near. I was city-bred, used to roaches and the occasional mos- quito. Something pinged against my windshield. My hand went to my gun. Reflex. The action recalled last year’s report on gun deaths that I’d read earlier today. In 1996, only 55 cops in the U.S. died on the job from gun-related incidents. I bit my lower lip. In a year less likely to end in a police funeral, my partner, Rick, had beaten the odds. Been shot dead by a dealer. I could hear Rick in my head. “What can I say, buddy? I’m exceptional.”

A bug adhered itself to the passenger window, its fat body vibrating against the glass. To hell with this. I turned the key in the ignition. Time to go home.

He sped past my cruiser, his convertible’s top down. Doing 55 miles per hour, at least. I flipped on my lights and siren and cut a U-turn. The car fishtailed before the tires bit down. The frame shuddered as I lowered my foot. The driver slowed, then stopped his car. He stared ahead at the pocked road, hands on the wheel.

I approached slowly. You never know whether the guy you’ve stopped is an upright father of four or an anxious kidnapper. If he was the former, I didn’t want to scare him.

The crescent moon turned his gray hair silver. He turned toward me when I reached his door. Blue eyes. I’ve always been a sucker for blue eyes. “Sir?”

He started when I spoke. Not unusual. I’m a big guy with a deep voice.

“License and registration, please.”

He handed over both. His watch was a TAG Heuer. A real one. I’d seen the fakes sold on Canal Street. His name was Leo Wilton. Age forty-nine. Address in Ashford, CT. Thirty minutes east of here.

I considered running his plates. Screw it. Too much to hope he was a serial killer.

I returned his papers. “The speed limit on this road is 35 miles per hour.”

“That right?”

“Lot of wildlife out here. Deer. They do nasty things to cars.” Or so I’d heard. I’d been here seven months and not seen one. I suspected the locals invented things.

“Sure. Sorry ‘bout that.” He looked directly at me. Straight men don’t stare into each other’s eyes, unless they’re about to fight. This guy wasn’t angry. My body responded. My brain fought back. I was within town limits. I could be spotted. But it had been a long time since I’d scratched this itch. Five and a half months: a long winter, a stone cold spring, and a summer with no skin in it. I craved contact.

“You see a lot of action out here?” He waved his hand at the trees, their needles pointier, ominous at night.

“Action?” He was hitting on me. I hadn’t mistaken it. “Not exactly.” In this town, with its picket-fenced homes, action was unknown. Everyone here was hetero or doing his best to pretend to be. I gave him a small smile, just a quick pull of my lips. It was enough.

“You want to go somewhere?” he asked.

I chewed the smooth skin inside my cheek. I was off duty, but in uniform. A hell of a risk, but he looked nice in the moonlight, like a foil wrapped gift.

“There’s a place not far from here,” he said.

Had I known what would result from this encounter—the secrets, the lies— I would’ve gone home and slept alone, again. But murder doesn’t call ahead; warn you that it’s coming. And if it had, I wouldn’t have believed  it. In  this sleepy  town named  Idyll, murder  seemed impossible. So I walked, light-headed with lust, unaware that each step brought me closer to death and near destruction.

He led me to a disheveled shack I’d heard of but never seen. The cabin by Hought’s Pond was condemned. In New York, to be con- demned required one of three Cs: crack house, critters, or collapse. Here in Idyll, Connecticut, public disapproval was enough. The house, a shingled box, had a sunken porch, rotted roof, and windows shot out by teens with BB guns. Jack is a dooshbag was spray painted on the front door. Above the tag, a frayed No Trespassing sign dangled. This place was a blight in its postcard-perfect town. No wonder they’d con- demned it.

He gripped my shirt and tugged me down so my face was level with his. I stiffened all over. He smelled of peppermint, his lips thin and slick. He reached under my shirt, his fingers tickling my abs. “Some- one’s been working out.”

I grunted. We stomped up the creaking stairs in unsteady lock step. My cock throbbed, halfway between pain and pleasure. Our bodies bumped. “Ah,” I said. I nipped his neck. He held me closer. We crashed through the cabin door. My foot connected with a can. It rattled across the floor.

“Hey!”

We jerked apart. A couple lay on the floor, half undressed. They reared back, as if struck. Near them, an oil lamp glowed. Too dim to warn this place was occupied. “You can’t come barging in here,” the girl said. She lifted her ass to wiggle into her jeans. Metal winked. Belly button ring. She was young. Twenty or so. Her hair a waterfall of brown. Her panties pink lace, a good girl’s version of sexy. She smelled fresh from the shower clean. But her tone and company told a different story. Even in the feeble light I saw her friend was daddy material. His hair thinning on top. He fumbled with his zipper and half-rolled to his side.

“Let’s go,” I said, but Leo crossed his arms. “Not so fast,” he said.

“Faster.” My lust had fled when I’d seen the couple. I touched his hand, but he yanked it back.

“You miss the no trespassing sign?” Leo raised his voice to fill the space.

The girl thrust her face forward. A white oval with red lips. Just kissed. Pretty, and angry. “This your cabin?” she asked. Her tone left no doubt she knew the answer.

“Stop arguing,” her friend said. He stabbed his arms into his jacket. “He could arrest you,” Leo said. He pointed to my badge.

The couple blinked. They hadn’t noticed my uniform. But now they stared, eyes on my badge. I inhaled. It hurt. A lifetime of work, burnt to ash. And for what? A quickie in a rotting cabin? The man got up from the floor and hurried past, hand to his face. Like a pedophile on a perp walk.

The girl looked smaller now, her eyes on the door. “Guess you don’t have any real criminals to chase, huh?” She shoved her feet in her sneakers, not bothering with the laces. As she stomped past I smelled coconut. The door smacked shut and bounced, the wood warped by damp.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” I said to Leo.

“What?”

“Point out my badge. I’m not looking to advertise.”

He spread his arms wide. “Now we have the place to ourselves.” He smiled. I didn’t.

“You don’t bully people because you want a fuck. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.” He saluted.

“I’ll lead you to your car.” Make sure the bastard left town, and fast.

He snorted. “I can find it. I’ve been here before. This place isn’t a

secret.” He pointed at my badge again. “Except to you, I guess. Later,

Chief.” He stepped around a discarded condom. I let him go. He knew

my rank. From the cruiser and my badge. He could report me. Ruin me. If he hadn’t already.

Broken glass littered the floor. The space smelled of pond algae,

like corpses in advanced stages of decay. Multiple people had come here

for sex? Why? And how had I almost been among them? God, I was

like Rick. My dead partner. Risking my career for a stupid fix. Moonlight

shifted through the roof ’s holes. A pattern of spotlights played

on the sprouting floor. A cracked window shivered. In it, I saw myself,

a hulking dark shape. My badge glinted, the only bright thing in that

lonely space. I bent down and blew out the oil lamp flame.

 

Exclusive Excerpt: The God Killer (Sheffield and Black Book 1) by Charles Alan Long

Blurb:

The first victim is hung in crucifixion position—a gash in his side and a wreath on his head. Homicide detectives Dylan Black and Vivienne Sheffield are baffled by strange words written in Scrabble tiles, the dead man’s discarded glass eye, and wolf hair left at the scene.

The victim’s neighbor, a college student and mythology buff named Trevor McDaniel, is convinced the victim is not meant to represent Jesus, as the detectives first concluded, but rather an ancient Viking god who was killed by a monstrous, mythical wolf.

Four months later, the second murder is even more bloody and bizarre. The killer has beheaded, speared, and partially mummified a woman. This time he has painted Egyptian hieroglyphs on the bedroom wall and left behind a man’s severed hand and seven scorpions.

Eager for publicity, the killer writes self-aggrandizing letters to reporter Aggie Rhodes and signs them Fenrir, the Wolf—naming himself after the mythical god killer. Soon Aggie realizes the madman is embedding messages about his crimes in the text, and she vows to beat the monster at his own game and end his reign of terror.

With the city’s citizens in a panic and few clues to go on, Black and Sheffield desperately search for answers with the aid of Trevor, Aggie, Chief Medical Examiner Nikolina Petkov, and friend and fellow officer Amadeo Perez. The investigation takes them from the zoo to the university to the morgue and even to a strip club. As the hunt progresses, Detective Black finds himself entangled in a secret relationship with Trevor—a relationship that just might alter the Wolf’s next move.

Can Black and Sheffield solve the Myth Murders before the Wolf kills again? Or has he already chosen one of them?

Chapter 1

While classic U2 played on the radio, Detective Dylan Black reviewed what he knew about the crime: white male, 58, lived alone, suspended in crucifixion position, gash in his side, wreath on his head, tortured. Like most U.S. cities, homicide was not uncommon in Normandy, Ohio, but ritualistic murder was a whole other game. This crime was unfamiliar territory for Black, who wasn’t entirely certain he was ready for the challenge.

Looking out from the sanctuary of his Lexus, Black surveyed the melee: three news channels vied for a story, an ambulance and four police cars were parked like flotsam at the end of the circle. Several officers stood talking rather than working, likely caught up in the gruesome details of the crime. Black didn’t see the chief medical examiner’s SUV, and he wondered if she’d even been notified yet. By now, officers should have strung yellow crime tape and started combing the crowd. This was clearly an unusual case, and the last thing the Normandy Police Department needed were accusations of carelessness and incompetence. Black wished his partner was here; but last he’d heard, the station said she couldn’t be reached. With a deep breath, he gathered his strength and stepped from the safety of the sedan into the balmy July air.

“Detective Black,” one reporter yelled, and the swarm of media turned his way. He squinted into the glare of lights. “Can you tell us about the victim?”

“Is it true he was tortured?” another asked.

“Do you have a suspect?” a third called out.

With a dismissive wave, Black continued his insistent stride toward the dead man’s apartment. Leaving reporters in his wake, he muttered, “No comment.” Then he said to Officer Ari Davis, who looked like a Scandinavian model, “Handle them. Give them the basics and no more.” Black patted the man’s chiseled cheek. “They love that face of yours.”

Black crossed the sidewalk and directed the show: He ordered two officers to string crime tape, two officers to interview neighbors, and the rest to search the nearby park. Once everyone was on task, Black entered the apartment building. Inside the entryway, he was surprised to find his partner, Vivienne Sheffield, talking with another officer.

“About time you got here,” she grumbled in jest.

“Was in the middle of washing my hair.” He ran his fingers through his short, black hair. “Thought you couldn’t be reached.”

“Yeah, well they got me, and I beat you here. Listen, this murder sounds like a real mess: bloody, violent, staged, and rife with symbolism.”

“Have you been in there?” Black asked.

She shook her head. “Was just about to enter. Ramsey was filling me in.” Officer Ramsey looked a little green around the edges, like he’d just seen his first brain surgery. “You can go, Ramsey. I’ll fill Detective Black in on the details.”

“Okay,” the officer responded, in an uncharacteristic quaver.

“Oh, and tell the techs to be ready to spend some time in there. And make sure the kid is okay.”

Ramsey nodded and then turned to flee.

“‘The kid’?” Black asked.

“Yeah. College student who found the vic. He’s pretty shaken up.”

“Where is he?”

“In Apartment C.” She gestured toward the door. “Right across from the dead guy’s.”

Sheffield’s blonde hair was styled in curls rather than harnessed into her customary ponytail, and she wore a full complement of makeup instead of her usual hint of eyeliner and lipstick. Vivienne Sheffield was an attractive woman, and tonight she looked a bit like a curvier Charlize Theron. Black animatedly looked his partner up and down, arched a brow and smiled.

“What?” Then she shook her head. “Don’t say it.” She ran her hands self-consciously down her fitted red dress. A self-confident woman in a world still dominated by testosterone, Sheffield suddenly wished her breasts weren’t so prominent and her gown didn’t accentuate her curves.

“At least you won’t be able to tell if you get blood on your dress,” he said. “You can go right back to your date.”

She socked him playfully on the arm. “Shut up.”

“I hope your date appreciates that dress. I’m jealous.”

Sheffield knew the latter statement wasn’t true, because Black had fumbled his opportunity. One night while working on a case, after long hours, some Szechuan chicken, a couple of drinks, and an unexpected touch of their hands, she had kissed her partner on the lips in the hope he would reciprocate. The kiss had felt wrong from the moment their lips touched. She apologized, he apologized, and then they talked it over briefly in clipped sentences. The discussion had ended with no closure, and the infamous kiss became their unspoken secret.

Dates were a rare commodity for Sheffield these days, but tonight’s lucky man was a manager named Bill something, who worked for the electric company, drove a Porsche, and filled out a suit nicely. Regrettably, she wanted to be here with Black more than she wanted to be at the opera with Bill something.

“Let’s go inside.” She handed Black latex gloves and paper booties.

As her partner entered the residence, Sheffield stealthily eyed him from the back. Medium height, stocky, with black hair and blue eyes, Dylan Black filled out his Levi jeans in a way that made her pulse race.

Everything in the dead man’s apartment had its place. Every line was sharp, crisp and even. Maybe a little OCD, Black thought. One wall of shelves was filled with books. Once he was close enough to read titles, whole categories were discernable: WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Civil War. A vase of dying flowers served as the centerpiece on a heavy oak dining-room table. A bundle of mail was strewn across one end of the table like it had fallen from the sky. Magazines like National  Geographic and Newsweek lay haphazardly amid white envelopes. The air was frigid, a stark contrast to the oppressive summer heat outside. No signs of struggle were apparent in the large, open living space. However, the master bedroom told a much more disturbing and macabre story. Moving in slow motion, the detectives stepped into the room, allowing the horror to hit them gradually. The only sound was their paper booties on the hardwood floor.

“Jesus!” Sheffield gasped.

“Literally,” Black replied.

Lawrence Adams was suspended in crucifix position with one arm tied to each side of the bed’s wooden canopy. His head hung forward, and a wreath adorned his white, thinning hair. The bed’s gauze canopy had been removed and wrapped around the old man like a crude diaper. Bite marks covered his bruised and battered body, and a large gash in his side exposed tissue and bones. Staring at a bloody knife at the end of the bed, Sheffield bit her lower lip and wondered how long Adams had suffered before finally succumbing to his injuries.

“The perpetrator had control,” she stated. “This wasn’t an act of unrestrained rage. He toyed with him—maybe for hours.”

“He pierced his side and suspended him like Jesus,” Black said. “Is this supposed to look like a crucifixion?”

“There’s no wooden cross.”

“Maybe the psycho couldn’t make a cross, so he opted for the closest alternative, suspending him from the wooden canopy.”

“The killer must be a religious zealot.” Sheffield leaned her head back and shook her curls away from her face.

Black groaned. “Damn, I hate when religion is involved.”

“Isn’t this guy a bit old for Jesus?”

“But an older man is easier to control than a young guy. It’s probably more about the symbolism of the act than the physical similarities.”

“Is that supposed to be a crown of thorns?” She pointed to the victim’s head.

“Looks like shrubbery to me.”

The detectives moved about the room with investigative intent—opening drawers, checking under the bed, and looking in closets. Black found a King James Bible in the top dresser drawer and wondered if Adams had been targeted because of his faith. On the nightstand lay a bloody tooth that didn’t look human. Sheffield glanced at her partner and shook her head. Both surmised the killer had left the tooth as some kind of symbol, but neither had any idea what it meant. Next to the tooth was a Scrabble board with nonsense words written in game tiles: yggdrasil, sleipnir, vegtam, mimir, and fenrir. Black jotted the words on his notepad.

“Make sure they get a photo of this,” he said, to no one in particular. “I’m not too up on my Bible trivia. Maybe they’re anagrams. I bet our guy likes to play games.”

“He has feathers in his back!”

“What?” Black looked up to see two large, ebony feathers protruding from the victim’s shoulders. “Holy hell.” Neither detective knew what to make of this. They moved closer and peered up at Adams’s face.

“I think he’s missing an eye,” Sheffield proclaimed.

“Did Jesus lose an eye, or am I missing something here?”

Sheffield gently raised the dead man’s eyelid, and bloody ooze dripped onto her latex glove.

“Let’s bring the techs in.” Black looked in the mirror and caught his own somber expression.

“Does he have a cat?” Sheffield asked, pointing. “Is that cat hair on the bed?”

The two detectives leaned over and almost bumped heads. Black poked the hairs with a gloved finger.

“Looks like pet hair,” he observed.

“I’ll tell the techs about this.”

“Sheff?”

“Yeah, Dylan?”

“This one’s gonna be ugly.”

Buy Links:

Available from both Amazon (in paperback and Kindle) and from Smashwords (in most e-formats). Here are the links:
https://www.amazon.com/God-Killer-Charles-Alan-Long/dp/0615520596/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1496026848&sr=8-3&keywords=the+god+killer

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/240895