Come Unto These Yellow Sands
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
It was like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels.
You are primary unit commander of the Lazarian Galaxy Rapid Response Team --
Well, no. Not that adventure. This adventure started: You are a respectable college professor and the director of the prestigious Lighthouse MFA program of Casco Bay College in Southern Maine. You have had one hell of a day and you just want to go home and enjoy a glass of wine and a nice meal with your lover -- sort-of lover -- Police Chief Max Prescott. But as you approach your office in Chamberlain Hall, you spot a kid slumped in a chair outside the door. Even from this distance you can see that the kid is having a worse day than you. If you want to do the responsible, grown up thing, keep walking. If you want to make life easy on yourself, turn around and leave before he notices you.
Once upon a time, it would have been no choice at all. But Swift was older now -- against the odds -- and he took a certain pride in the fact that he no longer ducked out on his responsibilities. Besides, he recognized that tall, dark and despondent figure. Tad Corelli was one of the most gifted students in the Lighthouse program. He reminded Swift a little of himself at that age -- minus the self-importance and mile-wide self-destructive streak.
Swift found his keys as he reached the door. He glanced at Tad. “Sorry. I was held up. Have you been waiting long?”
Tad lifted his head and Swift dropped his keys. “What the hell happened to you?”
Tad was wearing a dark coat and a black knit cap. The cap framed a bruised and battered face. One eye was swollen shut, his bottom lip was split and puffy, there was a crust of blood beneath one nostril. He bent painfully and retrieved Swift’s keys.
Swift took them automatically, still staring.
“I’m okay,” Tad mumbled. He looked at the door, clearly waiting for Swift to open it, and Swift shoved the keys in the lock and pushed the door open.
His office was a comfortable clutter of books and plants and old posters. The desk was an antique. It had belonged to Carl Sandburg. The leather chair behind the desk had belonged to Swift’s own father, the poet and dramatist Norris Swift. The chair in front of the desk was a comfortable second hand club chair. Swift put a hand on Tad’s shoulder and guided him to its beige plush depths.
Tad leaned forward, head in hands, and Swift closed the office door.
“Do you need -- what do you need?” He was at a loss. Physical violence was not his area of expertise, though he’d had the shit kicked out of him on occasion. But then he’d generally had it coming.
“Nothing.” Tad looked up, met Swift’s eyes, and managed a gruesome smile. “You should see the other guy, Dr. Swift.”
Tad put cautious fingers to his split lip. “Doesn’t matter. Look, I-I have to go away for a while. Please don’t drop me from the Lighthouse program.”
“Where are you going?”
Tad shook his head.
Swift sat down on the edge of his desk, trying to read Tad’s face. “It can’t have been much of a fight. Your knuckles aren’t banged up.”
Tad said pleadingly, “I just have to get away for a little while. I’m not dropping out. I just need time to get myself together. Just a week or so.”
At Tad’s look of surprise, Swift said, “I’m not going to drop you, Tad. You’re one of the most gifted writers in the program. But why don’t you tell me what’s going on? I might be able to help.”
“No one can help.” Tad closed his eyes, struggled with his emotions.
“Is there anything you need? Do you have money? A place to stay?”
Tad’s head moved in negation.
Swift gave it some thought. Pay it forward. He was alive today because people who didn’t have to had taken a chance, had reached out to help him when he needed it most -- not just once, but several times in his misspent youth. He leaned over his desk, pulled out the top drawer and fished around for the spare key to his cabin.
He pulled out his wallet, rifled through it. He never carried a lot of cash. Not anymore. It was too dangerous. He’d got out of the habit -- one of a number of habits he’d got out of. “I can give you twenty bucks and you can stay at my place on Orson Island while you figure out what you’re doing.”
Tad opened his eyes, his expression one of disbelief. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I’ve been where you are. Just take the time you need, get your head straight, and come back ready to get to work.”
Tad stared at him, unmoving, disbelieving.
“Okay?” Swift asked gently.
Tad nodded. He reached for the keys and the cash, shoving them automatically into his coat pocket. He put both hands on the edge of Swift’s desk and pushed to his feet.
“You sure you don’t need a doctor?” Or maybe an ambulance.
Tad shook his head.
“Let me know how you’re doing, okay?”
Tad nodded. He shuffled toward the door. Hand on the knob, he stopped. “Thanks, Dr. Swift,” he said without turning around.
The next moment he was gone, the door closing softly behind him.
* * * * *
Swift lived in an old deconsecrated church in the village of Freeport. It was a comfortable and practical living space but still retained its original eccentric charm.
The original arched entrance doors, complete with stained glass panels were still there. Gothic windows offered warm eastern light in the morning. The large exposed wooden beams, floors, ceilings and walls were all of dark, burnished wood. The altar was still in place but now housed a completely modern kitchen. Swift liked to cook. He found it therapeutic. The pews had naturally been removed, but Swift had purchased a number of statues and carvings which decorated the main living area with its bookcases and fireplace. The fireplace was part of the renovation, as were the slate floors in the kitchen and entryways. But the upstairs loft with its giant master bedroom and bath was surrounded by reclaimed ornate 1940s restored cast iron railing.
Swift was not particularly religious, but he experienced good vibrations in this old house of worship. It was a peaceful place -- and he had needed peace when he’d arrived in Freeport fresh out of rehab six years earlier.
Arriving home after the meeting with Tad, Swift poured himself a glass of wine -- one -- he was careful about that, and started dinner. He wasn’t sure if Max was coming by that night or not. Max came and went as he pleased, which was how they both liked it, although Swift wouldn’t have minded more coming than going.
He blended lemon thyme and pistachio nuts in the food processor for the pesto, drizzled in the olive oil, and added freshly ground black pepper. As he worked, he thought about Tad. A smart, talented kid, but he hadn’t been in any fight. He’d been beaten. Badly beaten. And he’d been scared.
But you couldn’t force help on someone who didn’t want it. No one knew that better than Swift. So you did what you could do. And maybe time and space was all Tad needed. Swift took a sip of wine, set the pesto aside, and prepared the chicken.
Chicken with lemon thyme pesto and summer tomato salad. There would be plenty of food if Max dropped in. And if not, there would be plenty of leftovers.
* * * * *
Swift was reading Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love when he heard Max’s key in the front door just after nine that evening. His heart sped up as it always did, and he spared himself a wry smile. Yeah, he had it bad.
At one time he’d tried to convince himself that his feelings for Max were more about being one of the only two openly gay guys in a small town, but in the last year or so he’d come to accept that he cared for Max. More than Max cared for him. For Max it probably was mostly about the fact that they were two openly gay guys in a small town. And whatever Swift had once been, he was entirely respectable now. He was a good catch. Except, as Max occasionally pointed out, he wasn’t trying to catch anything. Max wasn’t into commitment.
“Something smells good,” Max said from the entryway.
Swift tossed the book aside and sat up. “Hungry?”
“Starving.” Max appeared in the doorway and Swift rose to meet him. Max was six four and broad-shouldered. His wavy hair was brown with reddish glints, his eyes were hazel. He looked a lot like Tom Selleck except for the devilish white scar through his left eyebrow courtesy of a coked up would-be carjacker who had tried to carve Max’s eye out.
Swift wrapped his arms around Max’s neck. Max pulled him closer, and as Swift’s mouth found his, he muttered, “But it’ll wait.”
He tasted like too many cups of coffee, but Swift didn’t mind. He loved the taste of Max. He kissed him more deeply, melting inside as Max responded hungrily. It probably had to do with the poetry book he’d been reading before Max showed up; he’d definitely been in the mood and getting ready to deal with it himself. But here was Max with his big, hard hands digging into Swift’s ass as he pulled him closer still, and Max’s tongue licking at Swift’s lips. Swift opened to that delicate probing touch, and Max’s hot slick tongue slipped inside.
Swift moaned deep in his throat. He wanted this -- he always wanted this -- and the best part was Max seemed to always want this too.
They continued to kiss, then Max broke for air. “I don’t know if it’s you or the fact that I haven’t eaten since breakfast, but I’m getting lightheaded.”
Swift laughed too, let his fingers tangle briefly with Max’s as he led the way past a marble angel, its sword upraised, to the kitchen. “You came to the right house, Chief. What d’you want to drink?”
“What’s on tap?”
“Casco Bay Riptide Red and Summer Ale.”
“I’ll have a Red.”
Max leaned against the door frame and sipped his beer while Swift pulled the leftovers out of the fridge and heated the chicken.
“Tough day at the office?” Swift asked when the silence had stretched. Max seemed a million miles away.
He looked up, smiled faintly. “Yeah. You could say that. We don’t get a lot of homicides. Maine’s got the third lowest violent crime rate in the nation, and we’re proud of that.”
“You had a homicide?”
Max nodded. “Local restaurant owner by the name of Mario Corelli was found shot to death on the beach at Wolfe Neck.”
Finger on the microwave start button, Swift froze. “What?”
“If you owned a TV you’d have heard all about it. Mario Corelli. Mario’s Ristorante. We’ve eaten there a couple of times.”
“I remember. The manicotti was incredible. Ricotta, mozzarella, pine nuts, herbs, and a marinara sauce I’d kill to have the recipe for.”
“Maybe that was the motive. Should I ask if you have an alibi?”
“You don’t have a suspect?”
“We’ve got a couple of suspects. Corelli fired one of his waiters last night and the guy is missing. Also missing is Corelli’s son Tad.”
“Is Tad a suspect?”
“The kid and Corelli fought like cats and dogs. We definitely want to have a talk with him. The fact that he’s missing is suspicious.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know about his father.”
“Maybe.” Max sounded skeptical.
“He could be missing for other reasons, right?”
“Sure.” Max leveled a direct look from beneath his brows. “But his disappearance is news to everyone who knows him. The kid’s been in trouble before. Substance abuse problems, that kind of thing.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Swift could feel his resistance building. “People can change.”
“Sometimes. Not usually.” As though he realized how harsh that sounded, Max added, “You’re one of the rare ones, Swift.”
Swift pressed the button and watched the microwave vibrate. He stared at his reflection in the microwave door. His face was a pale blank. There was just the gleam of his eyes, the gleam of his earring, the dark frame of his long hair.
“It sounds like you already have your mind made up.”
“I have a hunch,” Max said, and the assurance, the certainty, in his voice raised Swift’s hackles. It wasn’t logical, it probably wasn’t reasonable, but that judgmental streak was one of the things that bothered him about Max. It was one of the ways in which they didn’t mesh. Not at all.
He folded his lips against the unwise words. Watched the chicken spinning slowly on its plate in the microwave.
Max said, “Come to think of it, Corelli’s in your writing program. What can you tell me about him?”
If he was going to speak up, now was the moment. Max might be a little jaded, a little cynical, but he was a good cop. An experienced cop. And he thought Tad was guilty.
And Swift disagreed. Swift had hunches about people too, and they were usually right on the money. He knew Tad Corelli. Max didn’t. Tad Corelli hadn’t acted like someone who’d just killed his father. He had seemed afraid, but he had not acted guilty or like someone on the run. He’d been battered, bloody, emotionally exhausted…but none of that indicated he’d committed murder.
And Swift felt a bond with Tad. He had from the beginning, from the day Tad enrolled in the Lighthouse program. Tad reminded him of himself at that age -- except Tad was not nearly as screwed up.
Tad deserved a break. He deserved a chance to tell his side of the story, and it would look better if he came in on his own. That much, Swift knew just from listening to Max talk shop.
Swift turned to face him. He was thinking quickly. He could go out to the island tomorrow and talk to Tad, explain to him what was going on -- Tad probably didn’t know his father was dead yet, and that terrible news would come better from a friend. Swift remembered only too clearly the pain of his own father’s death. And the relapse into cocaine use that had followed.
He said slowly, “He’s... gifted.”
“They all are in that program, right?”
Swift nodded. “More gifted than usual. He’s the youngest student we’ve ever had enrolled in Lighthouse.”
“How’s he doing?”
“What about friends?”
Swift raised an eyebrow. “Are you interrogating me, Chief?”
The microwave pinged.
Max offered his slow, devilish grin. “Saved by the bell.”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.