A Dangerous Thing
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
She was young and she was lovely and she was dead. Very dead.
And this was bad. Very bad.
What had once been Lavinia was now an ungraceful sprawl of long blonde hair and long white limbs-and then Jason's horrified brain recognized what his eyes had refused to see: Lavinia's slender arms ended in two bloody stumps.
I stopped typing, read it back and winced. Poor Jason. We had been stuck discovering Lavinia's body for the past two days and we still couldn't get it right.
I hit the delete key.
Lousy as was Titus Andronicus, my second Jason Leland mystery, Death for a Deadly Deed, was even worse. I guess basing Jason's second outing on Shakespeare's infamous play was only the first of my mistakes. I was still brooding when the phone rang.
“It's me,” Jake said. “I can't make it tonight.”
“It's okay,” I said. “I wasn't expecting you.”
I let it stretch, which is not like me, being the civilized guy I am.
“Adrien?” Jake asked at last.
“I'm a cop. It's who I am. It's what I do.”
“You sound like the lead-in to a TV show.” Before he could hit back, I added, “Don't sweat it, Jake. I'll find something else to do tonight.”
I realized I'd deleted too much from my manuscript. Was I supposed to hit Edit and then Un-do? Or just Un-do? Or Control + Z? Word Perfect I am not.
“Have fun,” Jake said pleasantly, and rang off.
“See ya,” I muttered to the dial tone.
These dreary dumps I call my life.
For a moment I sat there staring at the blinking cursor on my screen. It occurred to me that I needed to make some changes-and not just in Death for a Deadly Deed.
I went downstairs to the shop where Angus my assistant (and resident warlock) was slicing open a shipment of books with a utility knife.
“Angus, I'm going out of town,” I announced as Angus gazed entranced at a best-selling cover featuring a blood-spattered ax.
I wasn't sure if I had a dial tone or not. He didn't blink. Angus is tall, rawboned and pale as a ghost. Jake has a number of unkind sobriquets for him, but the kid is smart and hardworking-I figure that's all that is my business.
“Why?” he mumbled at last.
“Because I haven't had a vacation in years. Because I can't write with all these distractions.”
At last Angus tore his bespectacled gaze from the gory dust jacket. “Why?”
After a couple of months I was becoming fluent in Anguspeak.
“The way it is, man. Can you keep an eye on things?” Keep the Black Masses to a minimum and not eat all fifty boxes of gourmet cookies in the storeroom?
Angus shrugged. “I guess. Class starts back up in two weeks though.”
I've never been able to ascertain exactly what Angus is studying at UCLA. Library Science or Demonology 101?
“I'll be back by then. I just want to get away for a few days.”
“Where are you going?” This was the most interest in my actions Angus had shown in two months.
“I own property up north in Sonora. Actually outside of Sonora, near a little town called Basking. I thought I'd drive up there.” I added, “Tonight.”
“It's four-thirty now. It shouldn't take me more than six or seven hours.”
Angus mulled this over, absently testing the point of the utility knife with his thumb.
“It's not like you to be impulsive, Adrien,” was his verdict. “What do I tell that cop of yours?”
I said peevishly, “He's not my actual personal property. He's a public servant. Anyway you won't have to tell him anything because I don't plan on seeing him anytime soon.”
“Oh.” Angus looked down at the knife with a small smile. Tiffs among the faggots were apparently the stuff of quiet merriment.
I left Angus with visions of dismemberment still dancing in his head and went to pack. It didn't take long to throw a pair of Levi's and a toothbrush in my Gladstone. I emptied the fridge into an ice chest, dug out my sleeping bag and tossed computer disks and a couple of CDs in with my clothes and laptop.
By a quarter after five I was fighting the workday traffic as I headed the Bronco out towards Magic Mountain and the 5 Freeway. Over the pass it was bumper to bumper, but what the hey, I had a thermos full of Gevalia Popayan coffee, Patty Griffin's Flaming Red rocking on the CD player, and I was heading out on an adventure.
Had I But Known, as they used to say in a certain school of mystery writing...
* * * * *
Outside Mojave I pulled in for gas at a quaint filling station surrounded by Joshua trees and stacks of old tires. An enormous purple gorilla balloon floated overhead as an advertising gimmick. I pumped gas and enjoyed an Apocalypse Now sunset while the giant balloon bobbed gently on the desert breeze. For some reason the grape ape reminded me of Jake.
Jake. If only it were as easy to leave the thought of Jake behind as it was to leave the city lights now twinkling in my rearview mirror.
Two months earlier Detective Jake Riordan had saved my life in what the papers unimaginatively called the 'Gay Slasher Killings.' When it was all over, Jake had received an official reprimand from the LAPD brass, and I had received an overture of sorts from Jake, a homosexual cop buried so deep in the closet he didn't know where to look for himself.
Riordan was tough and smart and handsome; and, other than that self-loathing hang-up, pretty much all I could have asked for in a potential mate. But gradually little things, like the fact he couldn't bear to touch me, began to take their toll.
Okay, I exaggerate. He did put an arm around my shoulders once when we were watching a PBS documentary on hate crimes against gays, and he had taken to hugging me good-bye. It wasn't that Riordan was a virgin. Far from it. He was heavily into the S/M scene. But when it came to face-to-face, eye-to-eye, mouth-to-mouth, the Master turned into a schoolboy.
Witness our first and only necking session.
Riordan's mouth was a kiss away from my own when he gave a strange laugh and pulled back.
“Shit. I can't do this.” He ran a hand through his blonde hair, looked at me sideways.
“Can't do what? Kiss me?”
He shook his head and then nodded.
“My mouthwash isn't working? What's the problem?”
Jake laughed but didn't answer.
“Why Jake?” I asked quietly.
He blurted out, “I open my eyes and I see the pores of your skin-your skin's okay, don't take this wrong-but you've got five o'clock shadow. You smell like aftershave. Your lips-” He gestured briefly and hopelessly. “It's just-you're not a chick.”
“You noticed.” I sounded flippant but I was thinking hard. “So this is a new experience for you? You have sex with guys but you don't-”
“It's nothing like this,” Jake interrupted. “This is like dating. This is...weird.”
Yeah, and whips, chains, scourges and blind folds were normal?
“I could let you tie me up and beat the shit out of me, but will you still respect me in the morning?”
“I don't want you that way,” Riordan said. “I know you. It wouldn't be the same.”
Swell. He preferred humiliating strange men in costume to kissing a man he knew.
“Let me get this straight. You don't want to have sex with me?”
“Obviously I want to have sex with you.”
Obviously. What was I thinking?
Riordan said impatiently, “I don't know! Why don't we watch a video or something.”
We watched a lot of videos. I became an expert on the films of Steven Seagal. We went out to dinner a couple of times (though Riordan fretted some of his copper pals might spot him fraternizing with a known homo). And we talked. No heart to hearts. Jake talked about his work and his family: Mom, Dad, two brothers (one in the Police Academy) all under the delusion that James Patrick Riordan was as straight as the proverbial arrow.
Mostly I listened; Jake occasionally asked me questions which I labeled under the general heading of 'gay lifestyle.' How many times a month did I have sex? When had I come out? Even though Jake was older and probably more experienced, I sometimes felt like his gay mentor or Fag Big Brother or something. A month of keeping company and then a month of excuses and canceled engagements.
It was over before it began.
“Look,” I told him one night when he arrived four hours late for dinner, “You're just going through the motions. Why bother?”
That tawny gaze lit on mine. Jake said bluntly, “I never meant to get involved with you, Adrien.”
“Rest easy; you're not.”
“Yeah, I am.” And he put his big paw over mine.
Pathetic, but this is the kind of thing that kept me holding on. I use the term 'holding on' loosely, because for the most part life went on exactly as before, with the exception of the funny flutter my heart gave when I'd hear Riordan's voice on the other end of the phone-and for all I knew that was incipient heart failure.
It sure as hell wasn't love, because I refused to do something so self-destructive as love a man who hated himself for being homosexual (which, by extension, probably meant he subconsciously hated me too). I reassured myself that although I liked Riordan, I wasn't closing any doors, wasn't missing out on any opportunities; I was still open to meeting new people, making new friends and lovers.
So why the frustration and anger, sure, even hurt, when the big guy pulled the plug as he had this evening?
* * * * *
Outside Bakersfield I made a pit stop at a rest area. I walked around and stretched my legs, bought a stale blueberry bagel from a catering truck and rechecked my Thomas Guide in the cab light of the jeep.
The full moon shone brightly, illuminating rolling hills dotted with oaks and occasional farmhouse lights. Miles of nothing but empty highway and starry skies. Miles of nothing but miles as I headed north with the big rigs once more. I was doing about seventy-five, kicked back on cruise control with nothing to do but think and remember.
It was twenty-four years since I had last seen my Grandmother Anna's ranch. That was the summer before she died. I was eight years old, and summer vacations with Granna were the happiest times of my life.
Granna was kind of a family legend. One of those Roaring Twenties gals, she had left her husband and returned to her birthplace to raise horses and hell, as the mood took her. I remember her as tall, rail thin, with a silver bob and deeply tanned skin. My granny rolled her own cigarettes, rode like a bronc buster and swore in Italian-which was the language of her childhood nanny. It must have been some childhood judging from the frequency and fluency of her swearing.
Anyway, there was no hint that particular summer that it was to be the last. But two weeks after I returned to my mother's fretting bosom, my grandmother had been killed in a fall from a horse. To my mother's chagrin Granna had bequeathed her entire estate to me. True, Granna's estate was nothing to rival the fortune left in trust to Lisa by my dear departed dad, but it was enough to ensure financial necessity would never tie me to Ma's apron strings.
I inherited half that money when I turned twenty-one, and I had spent it purchasing what was now Cloak and Dagger Books. I would inherit the balance when I turned forty, which around tax time seemed like a lifetime away. As for Pine Shadow Ranch, I'd had some furniture shipped down to me but had never gone back, preferring to remember it as it had been. There was a caretaker who kept an eye on the holdings, but for all I knew the place could have fallen to rack and ruin by the time I decided to take my 400 mile drive down memory lane.
* * * * *
It was nearly eleven by the time State Highway 49 had narrowed to pine trees and mountains. I cracked the window, and the night air was startlingly cold and clean with the bite of distant snow.
I spent about eighty miles of winding road sandwiched between one of those monster trucks (high beams trained on my rearview) and a battered pickup with the license plate URUGLY. At five-mile intervals we would come to another blind curve and the monster truck would swing out in the opposite lane in a playful gambit of vehicular Russian Roulette. And thirty seconds later he would drop back into formation in time to avoid plowing into an oncoming car.
At last he made his big play, risked his all, and roared off around a bend, just missing a head-on with a logging truck. He vanished into the diesel-scented night.
Now it was just me and the 45 mile an hour wit in the pickup. Emptying the last of the Popayan coffee into my thermos cup, I fiddled with the radio trying to find a station that varied the thematic content of tears-in-the-beer, crying-on-the-shoulder-of-the-road, and hanging-onto-nothing-but-the-wheel. Despite the caffeine overload I was beat and my eyes felt ready to drop out of my head.
Fast approaching the stage of exhaustion where I wasn't sure if I was still driving or if I was only dreaming I was still driving, I nearly missed the turn off. The next ten miles were a challenge to the Bronco's shocks as well as my own, but at last I recognized the landmark of Saddleback Mountain and knew the Pine Shadow Ranch lay right around the next bend.
I downshifted as we began our descent. The jeep rattled across a cattle guard. Ahead, the ranch lay motionless in the bright moonlight; from a distance it seemed untouched by time. Despite the dark windows and empty corrals I could almost convince myself that I was coming home, that someone waited to welcome me.
As I drew closer I discerned the sign mounted on wooden posts above the open gate. Wood-burned letters had once spelled out, Pine Shadow Ranch. I slowed; the Bronco's high beams picked out a number of forms in the darkness: the barn behind the house, a windmill, a swing hanging from one of the trees-and something on the ground.
I braked. I was so wired I was willing to believe my eyes were playing tricks, but as I waited there, the Bronco's engine idling, the thing on the ground showed no sign of disappearing.
Too tired to be cautious, I climbed out of the jeep. It was no trick of light, no play of shadows. A man lay face down in the dirt.
I walked around him, my footsteps unnaturally loud in the clear night. From across the yard I could hear a broken shutter banging. The wind rustled the tall winter grass. I knelt down beside him in the headlights.
His face was turned to the side, so I could see his eyes were wide open, but he wasn't alive. His breath didn't cloud the cold air, his shoulders didn't rise and fall. There was a neat little hole the size of a quarter between his shoulder blades.
I sucked in my breath. This wasn't my first contact with murder, but I still got that sensation of watching from a separate solar system, which usually precedes passing out cold. It was like one of those party games where you have thirty seconds to memorize a dozen objects; inevitably you see details instead of the big picture.
The dead man looked to be in his sixties maybe. His hair was thin, plastered to his head. He was grizzled, his fingernails were dirty. He wore faded jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and cowboy boots. I had never seen him before, or if I had I didn't recognize him.
Reaching out to touch his wrist, a shock rippled through me like I had not been properly grounded.
He was still warm.
I jerked my head up and stared at the silent house. I looked to the surrounding hills, the sentinel trees.
The wind whispered in the pines. Otherwise nothing moved. All was still. In fact, too still.
Staring into the windswept darkness I became convinced someone was out there watching me. The hair prickled at the nape of my neck. My heart began to give my ribs the old one-two; a left and a right and then a left left left.
I don't have time for this, I warned my uncooperative ticker as I slammed back into the Bronco. I reversed in a wide arc and put the pedal to the metal, bumping and banging down the pot hole-riddled road back the way I had come.
While I bounced along the road I felt around for my cell phone. I found it at last and dialed emergency.
It took awhile but I got through to a sleepy someone in the Sheriff's Department who finally seemed to understand what I was squawking about and promised to send help.
True to her word, the dispatcher did send the cavalry. A black and white four wheel drive met me at the mouth of Stagecoach Road twenty minutes later, lights flashing, siren blaring.
“What seems to be the trouble, sir?” The man in uniform was middle-aged, well-fed, and a different species from the cops I'd come to know in the past few months.
I explained what the trouble was.
“Okay dokey,” said Sheriff Billingsly, scratching his skunk-striped beard. “You hop in the truck and we'll go have a looksee at this alleged dead man.”
I piled in the cab with the sheriff and his waiting deputy who was introduced to me as 'Dwayne.' Dwayne looked like he had just walked off the set of Dukes of Hazzard. He shifted his chaw to his other cheek.
“Hi,” I said through teeth starting to chatter with cold and nerves.
Dwayne put the truck in gear and we headed back down the road.
“It was up here,” I said as we clattered over the cattle guard. “Just outside the gate.”
“Right along here?” the deputy asked, slowing as we approached the gate. The headlights fell on empty dirt road.
“Stop,” I ordered. “It was along here that I found him.”
The deputy braked hard and the three of us lurched forward and then back.
“Here?” the sheriff demanded.
The three of us stared at the lone tumbleweed somersaulting across the deserted yard.
“He was right there,” I said.
“Well he ain't there now,” said the sheriff.