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February 11, 2014

Sample Chapter: Vermilion, by Nathan Aldyne

Welcome to the Way-Back Machine! It’s Boston, circa the early 1980s, and it’s a cold winter’s day. But the drinks are strong, there’s good music on the jukebox, you can smoke at the bar, and Clarisse and Valentine between them generate enough heat to melt ice – albeit not for each other. So tell the bartender what you’re drinking, kick back, and enjoy the following – Chapter 3 in Vermilion, the first in Nathan Aldyne’s swell series featuring Beantown’s grooviest, gayest sleuth, and his hip-chick sidekick.

    Daniel Valentine punched a key on the cash register. The bell pinged sharply as the “$1.00” tab popped up into the tiny glass window and the drawer slid open. He smoothed the bill out and pushed it into the proper compartment. Before closing it, Valentine reached into the back of the drawer and extracted matches and a fresh pack of Lucky’s.

    Valentine opened the cigarettes and took one out. He leaned his elbows lazily on the highly polished bar and smoked sedately, consciously enjoying this slow part of the evening. In less than an hour, Bonaparte’s regular crowd would begin its erratic but inevitable buildup. He sighed and dragged deep on the Lucky; he was weary and the 2:00 A.M. closing seemed about four days away. For the fifth time in ten minutes, he swept his eyes across the room for a head count.

    A little down from the register two men in business suits talked quietly and laughed softly as they sipped at a third round of rye. In a shadowed corner stood three other men, who were regulars at Bonaparte’s.

    In rattan chairs set among the jungle of palms in the room behind the mirrored bar two more men pursued a low-voiced serious argument, the same discussion that had occupied them in an identical manner—in the same chairs, across the same table—over the past couple of months. The walls of this back room were a dark rich green. Six more rattan chairs were grouped around three more glass-topped wicker tables. In the corner was a lacquered baby grand.

    Valentine checked his watch. Trudy, scheduled to play at the piano from ten to two, was late, but not much later than usual. Trudy maintained that she couldn’t tell the time on a digital clock.

    Valentine looked across the room, through the opened white louvered doors. The foyer was empty but for Irene at her station in the coat checkroom. Irene was a plump woman in her sixties, who wore her white hair pulled severely back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Large round rhinestone-studded bifocal glasses perched at the bridge of her thin red nose. Alert but motionless, hands resting on the lower half of the Dutch door, Irene stared ahead as if she were momentarily expecting to witness a bloody murder on the staircase that led to the dance floor above. She did not notice Valentine’s wink.

    Valentine mixed himself a tonic water and lime.

    Bonaparte’s had changed little since it was converted in 1925 from a private residence into a speakeasy. Discreetly situated on the quiet edge of Boston’s Bay Village, the bar had carefully established and perpetuated a reputation as a quiet decorous gathering place for the city’s wealthy and older gay men.

    The room in which Valentine worked had been the original parlor of the townhouse. The ornate wainscoting and ceiling medallion remained and panels of lightly tinted mirror had been placed into the four walls. From the bar Valentine was able to watch all who entered and mingled in the Mirror Room or sat in the rattan chairs in the shadowy Wicker Room behind.

    Valentine looked across the room at his reflected image. He studied himself carefully and frowned. He had lost some weight, he thought. Having worked long hours almost every night during the Christmas holidays, he had not been able to visit the gym in the past two weeks. He usually went on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sunday afternoons for a rigorous workout on the Universal gym machine, a half hour run around the track and a final few laps in the pool. He didn’t much like this exhausting exercise—in fact, he hated it—but it kept him in shape. He took a swallow of his tonic and lime and resigned himself to the resumption of the schedule on the following day.

    Valentine had begun keeping bar for Bonaparte’s five years before, as a weekend supplement to his meager salary as a prison counselor at the Charles Street Jail. However, after informing the Boston Globe that the sheriff of Suffolk County, whose house immediately adjoined the prison, had paid ten thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money for his living room draperies, Valentine had been fired from his state job. He had got this information not through his connection with the prison, but from the sales representative of the company that had provided the material, with whom he had had a brief affair. Valentine had been privately assured that he would regain his position at the prison as soon as the sheriff was out of office, and he had decided to work full-time at Bonaparte’s until then. It had been a disappointment that the man had been reelected, but now there was some hope that he would die in office.

    Tending the main bar at Bonaparte’s brought in better money than the Charles Street Jail, and the hours were more congenial, but Daniel Valentine still wished for his old post. If questioned, he always denied it, but the truth was that he had much satisfaction in helping prisoners adjust both to captivity and release. Friends had urged Valentine to take one of the positions that were open in other Massachusetts prisons, at Concord or Walpole, but Valentine met these suggestions with unfeigned horror, for it was unthinkable that he should work outside the city. “I get the shakes,” he would shudder, “just thinking about the suburbs, and I haven’t seen the open countryside in five years…”

    From beneath the bar Valentine pulled the late edition of the Boston Globe. He spread the paper out and was taken aback by the headline in the lower right-hand corner of the front page.

    Bold black letters cried, SLAIN YOUTH DISCOVERED ON STATE REP’S LAWN and in smaller print, “Rep. Scarpetti Blames ‘Homosexual Conspiracy.’” With knitted brow Valentine darted down the column of text, reading uneasily. Mario Scarpetti had led the fight in the House, just that past November, to defeat a bill, already passed in the state Senate, that would have made unlawful, discrimination against homosexuals in the matter of public housing and employment. He was an ignorant, loudmouthed, and powerful enemy of Boston’s gay community.

          “The body of a young man was discovered early this morning on the lawn of State Rep. Mario Scarpetti’s suburban home. Apparently placed there sometime during the night or early morning, the victim has been identified as William A. Golacinsky, nineteen, of Harrisburg, Pa. The young man’s father was contacted early this morning…”

    And further down:

          “Police sources revealed that Golacinsky was a known hustler, or male prostitute, in the Boston area, and had been arrested only three weeks ago on a charge of soliciting. The charges in that case were dropped…”

    “‘It’s all part of the homosexual conspiracy,’ Rep. Scarpetti angrily stated this morning at an impromptu press conference at his home. ‘The homosexual element in this city elected a human sacrifice, and put him on my lawn to crucify me. This is just an attempt to smear my good name. If they want to kill their own kind let them do it. All the better for Boston, but let them dump their garbage somewhere else.’”

    Valentine drew his fingers into a fist.

          “Police Commissioner Joseph O’Brien stated that his department has no suspects as yet but that a full and thorough investigation has been launched. Contacted by phone this morning, O’Brien said that ‘it appears to be more than coincidence that the deceased, a known homosexual, was left on Mario’s [Rep. Scarpetti’s] lawn.’”

    Valentine was about to turn the page to the continuation of the story, when a well-manicured hand reached over and pushed the paper aside. Valentine looked up.

    The man on the other side of the bar was clean shaven, with a strong prominent square jaw, and a thin hard colorless mouth. His deep-set eyes were dark but shallow-focused; his dark hair was close-cut and wavy. Beneath the open topcoat of good material and cut, he wore a gray suit, finely tailored and well-fitted to his tall muscular frame.

    Well, considered Valentine, this one must work out on Tuesdays and Thursdays too. He stared at the man, but said nothing.

    The man reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a wallet. He flipped it open in an automatic, practiced manner. Pinned to one leaf was a badge and an identification card encased in cracked clouded plastic. Valentine glanced at it and then back to the man’s face, no longer wondering why the dark eyes were shallow-focused. The policeman’s serious expression was as practiced as his movements.

    “Lieutenant Searcy,” the man said and flipped the wallet closed. “Police Lieutenant William Searcy,” he added, and dexterously the wallet disappeared. The voice was flat and uninflected, as if he feared giving something away by tone.

    “Valentine,” said Daniel, matching the flat tone. “Daniel Valentine—I’m the bartender here.”

    Searcy’s mouth creased into a frown and he seated himself to face Valentine. He took a small piece of paper from another pocket and cupped it in his hand, away from Valentine. He rested his elbows on the bar and looked briefly about.

    “Slow night,” he said.

    Valentine rolled his eyes. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

    “I need information.”

    One of the men further down raised two fingers and Valentine turned to pour another round of rye. In a moment he came back to Searcy.

    “Would you like a drink?”

    “You may not have guessed it, but I’m on duty.”

    Valentine sighed. “It’s on the house.”

    Searcy considered a moment. “Bourbon, on the rocks.”

    Valentine smiled for the first time. From beneath the bar he took a coffee cup, scooped ice into it, and poured in the liquor. He placed it on a saucer and slid it across to the detective. “You’re not the only cop who’s ever been in here ‘on duty.’ ”

    The piece of paper cupped in the policeman’s hand snapped face-up onto the bar. Valentine picked the photograph up.

    “Ever see this kid in here?”

    The picture was in high-contrast black and white: a young man with straight light hair and mottled skin. The coarse unmemorable features were slack and when Valentine looked more closely he saw that a good portion of the forehead had been airbrushed and the eyes painted open. He looked up at Searcy.

    “Who is it?”

    “You tell me.”

    Valentine glanced at the photograph again and shrugged. He placed it on the bar between them, turning it so that the blank painted eyes stared at the detective.

    “Never saw him before. Is he a desperate character?”

    “Not anymore.” Searcy took a swallow of his drink.

    Valentine blinked but said nothing for a moment. “William A. Golacinsky?” he asked finally.

    “You just said you didn’t know him.”

    “I don’t,” Valentine said as he tapped the newspaper. “But I have seen the Globe.” He lit another cigarette.

    “We’re trying to trace his movements, find out where he was last night.”

    “He wasn’t with me—not my type,” said Valentine. “Perhaps he spent the evening debating homosexual rights with Representative Scarpetti.”

    “He was a hustler.”

    “The charges got dropped,” said Valentine.

    Searcy glanced up quickly. “What do you mean?”

    “Nothing,” shrugged Valentine. “But why are you asking around here? He was killed out in the suburbs, wasn’t he? Horrible things happen to you in the suburbs—”

    “The kid was a hustler in Boston, and it’s not likely that on a blue-ass cold night in January he was out working the streets of Malden and Medford.”

    “Maybe he didn’t go to a bar at all,” suggested Valentine mildly.

    “Well, Mr. Valentine,” retorted Searcy, “we won’t know that until we’ve checked all the bars where a cheap hustler might have gone last night.”

    Valentine stabbed his cigarette out in an ashtray. “Look around you, Lieutenant. Check the place out.”

    Searcy’s dark flat eyes scanned the Mirror Room, looked briefly into the Wicker Room, and then returned to Valentine.

    “Does this look like the Greyhound station? Do you see any pimply hustlers leaning against the wall?”

    “Maybe it’s too early.”

    Valentine spoke contemptuously. “Hustlers don’t come to Bonaparte’s.”

    “The men who come here can toss away thirty, fifty dollars on a hustler like it was money for the meter,” argued Searcy.

    “Sure,” Valentine agreed, “a lot of men who come here can afford it. Some of them do—but they don’t do it here. You won’t find a hustler in here, not the kind you’re looking for anyway. The kind of women that you might pick up on a corner in the Combat Zone you won’t find in the Copley Plaza bar, and it’s the same thing here.”

    Searcy stood. “But it’s not impossible that Golacinsky stopped in here last night, just for a drink, nothing else.”

    “Maybe he did,” smiled Valentine, “I had last night off.”

    Searcy looked at Valentine for a long moment. His flat eyes glistened. “Then why in the hell didn’t you tell me that five minutes ago? Christ—well, who was working here?”

    “Jack.”

    “Where is Jack now?”

    “He works the dance floor upstairs, but when I’m off he’s down here.”

    Searcy grabbed the photograph, and glanced behind him. “Do I go up those stairs?”

    “You don’t. I’ll take the picture up and show him. Police give Jack amnesia. He’ll tell me if he knows anything.”

    Valentine took the photograph from Searcy’s hand and crossed the room. He stopped at the double doors and turned.

    “Lieutenant?”

    “Yes?”

    “No entrapments while I’m gone, OK?” He winked, and whipped up the stairs.

    Searcy rubbed his mouth and turned back to the bar. The man sitting nearest him glanced over his body with interest. Searcy returned a frigid stare, and the man looked away, but unembarrassed. Searcy eased back onto the stool. He glanced into a panel of mirror behind the bar, looking the place over in the reflection.

    His gaze went no further than the foyer, trapped by the woman he saw there. She was tall and leggy beneath a mahogany-brown fur coat. The garment was cut in the 1940s style, with padded shoulders and wide cuffs. In one gloved hand she carried a brown leather envelope, its bulging contents straining the latch. She tucked this securely under one arm and peeled off her gloves, stuffing them into one pocket. She snatched off her fur skullcap; a great mane of hair cascaded in soft black waves beneath the dull red light of the foyer. She shoved the hat into the other pocket, paused a moment and then pulled hat and gloves out and stepped over to the checkroom. Irene, her eyes still locked on the stairway, absently accepted the articles. Not waiting for her ticket, the woman moved into the bar.

    Searcy straightened as she approached. He turned from the mirror, swerving smoothly about on his stool. Midway across the room the woman stopped and looked casually about. Her cheeks were flushed with cold. She had strong even features, large dark blue eyes accented with blue eye shadow, and a full sensual mouth carefully tinted with pale coral lipstick.

    The woman noted Searcy briefly, but without discernible reaction. She dropped the heavy envelope onto the stool next to him and unhooked the large buttons on her coat. The fur fell open to reveal large breasts beneath a tailored, expensive blue work shirt, blue jeans tight-belted around a slender waist and hips. The jeans were tucked into knee-high brown leather riding boots. Seating herself, the woman did not gather the coat about her hips, but allowed the fur to dangle freely. She propped her elbows on the bar and appeared to relax. Her eyes flicking to the mirror caught and held Searcy’s gaze.

    She ran a slender hand through her luxuriant hair. Searcy noted an incongruous adhesive bandage across her knuckles.

    “Cut yourself?” Searcy asked.

    The woman glanced at her hand, then at Searcy. “I was mugged.” Then she smiled. “I’m Clarisse,” she said, and nodded in a friendly and uncoy fashion.

    Searcy laughed. “My name’s Searcy.”

    “Oh,” she laughed. “‘Circe?’ You turn men into swine, I guess—well, so do I,” she added huskily.

    “Wait a minute…” he began testily.

    She saw with some surprise that he didn’t get the joke. “Cir-ce,” she said carefully. “In The Odyssey. Circe turned men into swine. But perhaps that’s not the way you spell it.”

    He spelled his name for her.

    “Not the same,” she said, adding with a smile, “If this place had a bartender, I’d buy you a drink and apologize.”

    “Apology accepted.” Searcy relaxed again. “Call me Bill.”

    Clarisse lifted the weighty leather envelope onto the bar and flipped the latch. A bundle of legal papers poured out messily, along with three packs of cigarettes, different brands, a tube of lipstick, several dozen keys on a large ring, and a battered box of adhesive bandages. Clarisse selected the opened pack of Kools and then shoved the contents back into the envelope, struggling for a moment to close the latch. Searcy reached to help and she secured it.

    “You’re a treasure,” she said, and tapped a cigarette out of the pack.

    While Searcy beat his pockets for matches Clarisse suddenly leaned past him over the bar and snatched up a pack of matches from a basket beside the cash register. Her breasts brushed against his arm. Sitting comfortably back, she lit her cigarette, drew the smoke deep into her lungs and released it slowly from her mouth. She tossed her thick black hair and looked about the bar, noting each man in the room, evidently unconcerned whether the conversation were pursued by Searcy or not.

    “Have you ever been in here before?” asked Searcy.

    Clarisse tilted her head. An expression of boredom crept across her mouth.

    “I’ve heard better lines on the six A.M. farm report.”

    “No, what I mean is…well, you know, this is a gay bar.”

    “Oh,” she said blandly. “Is there a sign? I must have missed it.” She turned her profile to him.

    Searcy paused, trying to decide whether she was being sarcastic or not. “Listen,” he went on carefully, “I have to finish up some business here and after I’m done, would you like to go somewhere else for a drink?”

    “If this is a gay bar, Mr. Searcy,” said Clarisse with a small smile, “what are you doing here trying to pick up a woman?”

    “I told you, I have business here, with the bartender. He’s upstairs right now. After he comes back we could go over to the Howard Johnson’s 57 Club. It’s just up the street.”

    “It’s too cold for ice cream.”

    “No, I meant—”

    Before he could finish, Valentine came down the stairs and crossed back behind the bar. He dropped the photograph onto the bar between Searcy and the woman. She picked it up.

    “Jack’s never seen him.”

    Searcy shrugged. “I’ll leave the print. Show it around and call me if you hear anything.” Searcy handed Valentine a cheaply printed business card.

    Pocketing the card, Valentine took a glass, filled it halfway with chunks of ice and then poured in two fingers of good scotch. The woman wrapped a hand around it but did not drink.

    Searcy was confused by the woman’s presence in the bar and now the bartender’s evident familiarity with her—though they had not spoken. Yet he could not resist making one more attempt: “Well, I guess you don’t want to have that drink with me…”

    She looked at him. “Are you a policeman?”

    “I’m a detective.”

    Clarisse lifted the cup Searcy had been drinking from and passed it beneath her nose. She set it back in the saucer.

    “I see you’re on duty,” she said, then more softly, “Maybe some other time.”

    Searcy nodded harshly.

    “Anything else, Lieutenant?” asked Valentine.

    “No. Just call me if you get anything.”

    Valentine lit a cigarette. “You know, Lieutenant, you’re wasting your time in here. A nineteen-year-old hustler would never come in Bonaparte’s. He’d go to Nexus, or one of the bars in the Zone. If I hear anything I’ll call you, but don’t sit by the phone.”

    Searcy rested one large hand on the bar, rhythmically tapping his thumb against the wood. “Let me tell you one thing, Valentine, I don’t care if somebody knocks off a hustler every night, but when I’m assigned to a case I check everything. Scarpetti’s down our necks like—”

    Valentine cut in sharply. “What Scarpetti says is bullshit. It’s good press.”

    The policeman’s flat black eyes stared hard at Valentine.

 

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