An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
Cops before breakfast. Before coffee even. As if Mondays weren't bad enough.
I stumbled downstairs, unlocked the glass front doors, shoved back the ornate security gate, and let them in: two plainclothes detectives.
They identified themselves with a show of badges. Detective Chan was older, a little paunchy, a little rumpled, smelling of Old Spice and cigarettes as he brushed by me. The other one, Detective Riordan, was big and blonde, with a neo-Nazi haircut and tawny eyes. Actually I had no idea what color his eyes were, but they were intent and unblinking, as though waiting for a sign of activity from the mouse hole.
“I'm afraid we have some bad news for you, Mr. English,” Detective Chan said, as I started down the aisle of books towards my office.
I kept walking, as though I could walk away from whatever they were about to tell me.
“...Concerning an employee of yours. A Mr. Robert Hersey.”
I slowed down, stopped there in front of the Gothic section. A dozen damsels in distress (and flimsy negligees) caught my eyes. I turned to face the cops. They wore what I would describe as 'official' expressions.
“What about Robert?” There was a cold sinking in my gut. I wished I'd stopped for shoes. Barefoot and unshaven, I felt unbraced for bad news. Of course it was bad news. Anything to do with Robert was bound to be bad news.
“He's dead.” That was the big one, Riordan. He Man.
“Dead,” I repeated.
“You don't seem surprised.”
“Of course I'm surprised.” I was, wasn't I? I felt kind of numb. “What happened? How did he die?”
They continued to eye me in that assessing way.
“He was murdered,” Detective Chan said.
My heart accelerated, then began to slug against my ribs. I felt the familiar weakness wash through me. My hands felt too heavy for my arms.
“I need to sit down,” I said.
I turned and headed back towards my office, reaching out to keep myself from careening into the crowded shelves. Behind me came the measured tread of their feet, just audible over the singing in my ears.
I pushed open my office door, sat down heavily at the desk and opened a drawer, groping inside. The phone on my desk began to ring, jangling loudly in the paperback silence. I ignored it, found my pills, managed to get the top off and palmed two. Washed them down with a swallow of whatever was in the can sitting there from yesterday. Tab. Warm Tab. It had a bracing effect.
“Sorry,” I told LA's finest. “Go ahead.”
Chan glanced at Riordan.
The phone, which had stopped ringing, started up again. “Aren't you going to answer that?” Riordan inquired after the fourth ring.
I shook my head. “How did---? Do you know who--?”
The phone stopped ringing. The silence was even more jarring.
“Hersey was found stabbed to death last night in the alley behind his apartment,” Chan answered.
Riordan said, without missing a beat, “What can you tell us about Hersey? How well did you know him? How long had he worked for you?”
“I've known Robert since high school. He's worked for me for about a year.”
“Any problems there? What kind of an employee was Hersey?”
I blinked up at Chan. “He was okay,” I said, at last focusing on their questions.
“What kind of friend was he?” Riordan asked.
“Were you sleeping with him?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
“Were you lovers?” Chan asked, glancing at Riordan.
“But you are homosexual?” That was Riordan, straight as a stick figure, summing me up with those cool eyes, and finding me lacking in all the right stuff.
“I'm gay. What of it?”
“And Hersey was homosexual?”
“And two plus two equals a murder charge?” The pills kicking in, I felt stronger. Strong enough to get angry. “We were friends, that's all. I don't know who Robert was sleeping with. He slept with a lot of people.”
I didn't quite mean it that way, I thought as Chan made a note. Or did I? I still couldn't take it in. Robert murdered? Beaten up, yes. Arrested, sure. Maybe even dead in a car crash--or by some autoerotic misadventure. But murdered? It seemed so unreal. So...Film At Eleven.
I kept wanting to ask if they were sure? Probably everyone they interviewed asked the same question.
I must have been staring fixedly into space because Riordan asked abruptly, “Are you all right, Mr. English? Are you ill?”
“I'm all right.”
“Could you give us the names of Hersey's-- uh--men friends?” Chan asked. The too polite 'men friends' put my teeth on edge.
“No. Robert and I didn't socialize much.”
Riordan's ears pricked up. “I thought you were friends?”
“We were. But--”
They waited. Chan glanced at Riordan. Though Chan was older I had the impression that Riordan was the main man. The one to watch out for.
I said cautiously, “We were friends, but Robert worked for me. Sometimes that put a strain on our relationship.”
“Just that we worked together all day; we wanted to see different people at night.”
“Uh huh. When was the last time you saw Mr. Hersey?”
“We had dinner--” I paused as Chan seemed about to point out that I had just said Robert and I didn't socialize. I finished lamely, “And then Robert left to meet a friend.”
“He didn't say.”
Riordan looked skeptical. “When was this?”
“When was what?”
Patiently, long-suffering professional to civilian, he re-phrased, “When and where did you have dinner?”
“The Blue Parrot on Santa Monica Blvd. It was about six.
“And when did you leave?”
“Robert left about seven. I stayed and had a drink at the bar.”
“You have no idea who he left to meet? A first name? A nick name?”
“Do you know if he was going home first or if they were meeting somewhere?”
“I don't know.” I frowned. “They were meeting somewhere, I think. Robert looked at his watch and said he was late; it would take him ten minutes. If he had been heading back home it would have taken him half an hour.”
Chan jotted all this down in a little notebook.
“Anything else you can tell us, Mr. English? Did Mr. Hersey ever indicate he was afraid of anyone?”
“No. Of course not.” I thought this over. “What makes you think he wasn't mugged?”
“Fourteen stab wounds to his upper body and face.”
I could feel the blood drain out of my face again.
“Those kind of wounds generally indicate prior acquaintance,” Riordan drawled.
I don't remember exactly all they asked, after that. Irrelevant details, I felt at the time: Did I live alone? Where had I gone to school? How long had I owned the shop? What did I do with my spare time?
They verified the spelling of my name. “Adrien, with an 'e',” I told Chan. He almost, but not quite, smirked.
They thanked me for my cooperation, told me they would be in touch.
Before he left my office, Riordan picked up the empty can on my desk. “Tab. I didn't know they still made that.”
He crushed it in one big fist and tossed it in the trash basket.
* * * * *
The phone started ringing before I could relock the front door. For a moment I thought it was Robert calling in sick again.
“Adrien, mon cher,” fluted the high, clear voice of Claude La Pierra. Claude owns Café Noir on Hillhurst Ave. He's big and black and beautiful. I've known him about three years. I'm convinced he's a Southland native, but he affects a kind of gender-confused French like a Left Bank expatriate with severe memory loss. “I just heard. It's too ghastly. I still can't believe it. Tell me I'm dreaming.”
“The police just left.”
“The police? Mon Dieu! What did they say? Do they know who did it?”
“I don't think so.”
“What did they tell you? What did you tell them? Did you tell them about me?”
“No, of course not.”
A noisy sigh of relief down the phone line. “Certainement pas! What is there to tell? But what about you? Are you all right?”
“I don't know. I haven't had time to think.”
“You must be in shock. Come by for lunch.”
“I can't, Claude.” The thought of food made me want to vomit. “I--there's no one to cover.”
“Don't be so bourgeois. You have to eat, Adrien. Close the shop for an hour. Close it for the day!”
“I'll think about it,” I promised vaguely.
No sooner had I hung up on Claude than the phone rang again. I ignored it, padding upstairs to shower.
But once upstairs I sank down on the couch, head in my hands. Outside the kitchen window I could hear a dove cooing, the soft sound distinct over the mid-morning rush of downtown traffic.
Rob dead. It seemed both unbelievable and inevitable. A dozen images flashed through my brain in some macabre mental slide show: Robert at sixteen, in his West Valley Academy tennis whites. Robert and I, drunk and fumbling, in the Ambassador Hotel the night of the Senior Prom. Robert on his wedding day. Robert last night, his face unfamiliar and distorted by anger.
No chance now to ever make it up. No chance to say good-bye. I wiped my eyes on my shirt sleeve, listened to the muffled ring of the phone downstairs. I told myself to get up and get dressed. Told myself I had a business to run. I continued to sit there, my mind racing ahead, looking for trouble. I could see it everywhere, looming up, pointing me out of the lineup. Maybe that sounds selfish, but half a lifetime of getting myself out of shit Robert landed me in had made me wary.
For seven years I had lived above the shop in “Old” Pasadena. Cloak and Dagger Books. New, used and vintage mysteries, with the largest selection of gay and gothic whodunits in Los Angeles. We held a workshop for mystery writers on Tuesday night. My partners in crime had finally convinced me to put out a monthly newsletter. And I had just sold my own first novel, Murder Will Out, about a gay Shakespearean actor who tries to solve a murder during a production of Macbeth.
Business was good. Life was good. But especially business was good. So good that I could barely keep up with it, let alone work on my next book. That's when Robert had turned up in my life again.
His marriage to Tara, his (official) high school sweetheart, was over. Getting out of the marriage had cost what Rob laughingly called a 'queen's ransom.' After six years and two-point-five children he was back from the Heartland of America, hard up and hard on. At the time it seemed like serendipity.
On automatic pilot I rose from the sofa, went into the bathroom to finish my shower and shave, which had been interrupted by the heavy hand of the law on my door buzzer at 8:05 a.m.
In the steamy surface of the mirror I grimaced at my reflection, hearing again that condescending, 'But you are a homosexual?' As in, 'But you are a lower life form?' So what had Detective Riordan seen? What was the first clue? Blue eyes, longish dark hair, a pale bony face. What was it in my Anglo-Norman ancestry that screamed 'faggot?'
Maybe he had a gaydar anti-cloaking device. Maybe there really was a straight guy checklist. Like those “How to Recognize a Homosexual” articles circa the Swinging Sixties. Way back when I had one stuck to the fridge door with my favorite 'give-aways' highlighted:
Delicate physique (or overly muscular)
Striking unusual poses
Gushy, flowery conversation, i.e., “wild,” “mad,” etc.
What's funny about that? Mel, my former partner, had asked irritably, ripping the list down one day.
Hey, isn't that on the list? 'Queer sense of humor?' Mel, do you think I'm homosexual?
So what led Detective Riordan to (in a manner of speaking) finger me?
Still on automatic pilot I got in the shower, soaped up, rinsed off, toweled down. It took me another numb fifteen minutes to find something to wear. Finally I gave up and I dressed in jeans and a white shirt. One thing that will never give me away is any sign of above average fashion sense.
I went back downstairs. Reluctantly.
The phone had apparently never stopped ringing. I answered it. It was a reporter: Bruce Green from Boytimes. I declined an interview and hung up. I plugged in the coffee machine, unlocked the front doors again, and phoned a temp agency.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.