Monday, April 7, 2008
The Bar Watcher excerpt by Dorien Grey
The Bar Watcher is the third of the 11-book Dick Hardesty Mystery series by Dorien Grey, and involves Dick's reluctant search for someone who is killing off cruel and obnoxious gay men..."taking out the garbage" as one character calls it.
The following excerpt is from the opening pages of the book, which is available in or on order from any bookstore, on Amazon, or any on-line bookseller. It is also available in various e-book formats from GLB Publishers (www.glbpubs.com)
The Bar Watcher
GLB Publishers (November 27, 2001)
One of the reasons I became a private investigator was because I like puzzles, and every case is like working a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. Of course, the bulk of any private investigator's cases are like the puzzles you see for kids on the little table in dentists' office waiting rooms—five pieces and there's the bunny. But every now and then you get one that is more like one of those 1,500-piece reproductions of a Bosch or Breughel painting—a real challenge. They drive me crazy sometimes, but when I finally put the last couple of pieces together, there's a sense of satisfaction that's hard to describe, or match.
And almost always the people you're looking for are right there in the picture, though you don't recognize them until the puzzle's completed. And from time to time, the picture you think you're working on isn't the one you end up seeing.
Now, take the case of the bar watcher….
* * *
It's what I refer to now as my "Slut Phase." My monogamous five year relationship with Chris had broken up some time ago, and I decided it was about time I let the other guys spend their time looking for "Mr. Right"–I'd concentrate on Mr. Right Now. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't whittle a notch in the bedpost after every trick, or I'd have ended up sleeping on a mound of wood shavings.
When I wasn't pursuing research for a book I thought about writing on "101 Fun Things to Do With a Penis," I was actually making some progress in that part of my life which did not involve lying down. I'd obtained my private investigator license late the year before, and was struggling to make ends meet.
Business was beginning to improve, though slowly, thanks to a solid working relationship I had with members of the local gay Bar Guild, for whom I'd done a couple favors prior to taking out my license. Referrals from Guild members were in fact the source of much of my business. And the fact that there weren't exactly a lot of gay private investigators to choose from also helped, I'm sure. I'd rented a small office in one of the city's older commercial buildings, with an address far more impressive than the building itself.
If I'd started out with any illusions that being a private investigator might be a pretty exciting job, reality kicked me in the ass in short order. Lots and lots of checking on possibly (and too often definitely) wandering lovers, one or two incidences of blackmail, a case of embezzlement involving the business manager of a gay resort—that sort of thing; and lots of sitting around waiting for the next client.
Oh, yeah…and I'd given up smoking. Cold turkey. That was a hell of a lot harder than any case I'd had, or was likely ever to have. So I was relieved when the phone rang just as I was trying to figure out a 10-letter word for "reclusive or brutish person" in the paper's crossword puzzle (don't bother: it's "troglodyte").
"Hardesty Investigations," I said, in my professional, half-octave-lower-than-normal voice.
"Hardesty: this is Barry Comstock. Jay Mason of the Bar Guild referred you to me."
"Well, thanks for calling, Mr. Comstock," I said, making a mental note to thank Jay as well. "How can I help you?"
"I own Rage…you're familiar with it?"
Rage was the city's hottest bathhouse. I knew it.
"Of course," I said, then waited for him to continue.
"We've got ourselves a problem, and while I think it's a bunch of bullshit, they tell me you might be able to help resolve it."
"Is it anything you can mention on the phone, or…?" I asked.
"No; definitely not."
"I understand," I said—but of course I didn't. "Did you want to come to my office, or…"
"No, you come over here. I've got a business to run and I can't just be taking off."
Like I wasn't busy. Well, okay, I wasn't, but I didn't like his 'busier than thou' attitude.
"No problem," I said. "I could be there in around an hour, if that would be all right. I have a client coming in a little later this afternoon." I lied, but he didn't have to know that.
"Good," he said. "I don't see your name on our members list, but I might have missed it.."
Actually, he hadn't—I wasn't a member. Baths are fine, but they're not my thing. I like to have a few words come out of my mouth before putting something in, and the baths aren't exactly the place guys go for complex conversations like "Hi. My name is…".
"I know how to find it," I said. "I'll see you in an hour, then."
He hung up without saying "goodbye."
Though I'd never met Barry Comstock, I'd seen him at a distance a couple of times in the more trendy bars and discos, always accompanied by two or three different good-looking guys whom he seemed to enjoy treating like dirt. He had a reputation as a wheeler-dealer in the rapidly growing gay business community. A former porn star, he'd opened Rage about eight months earlier. He was noted for having a monumental schlong, and an ego to match. I'd seen some of his movies—I think I still have a copy of one of his better ones: "Comstock's Load." He was also rumored to have the first nickel he ever made, so I imagined he would not be calling on me unless it was something pretty important.
* * *
Rage was located in what local gays were beginning to refer to as The Central—sort of an homage to San Francisco's Castro district—and about a half a block off Beech, the main gay thoroughfare. No ground floor windows; just a dark blue canopy with "Rage" in white script, over a matching blue entry door. Just as I reached for the handle, the door swung open and a drop-dead gorgeous hunk exited carrying his gym bag and a satisfied smile. Our eyes locked for a moment, and he gave me a broad wink. "Have fun," he said.
Before I had a chance to reconsider my opinion of baths, I was inside the small lobby.
A blond Adonis stood behind the registration window wearing a "Rage" tee shirt so tight I thought at first it had been spray painted on his bare chest. Yeah, I thought, maybe I should reconsider…
"Your card?" the blond said.
"I'm not a member," I said. "I've got an appointment with Barry Comstock. The name's Hardesty."
The blond picked up a phone out of sight below the window, said something I couldn't hear, then hung up the phone and nodded toward the only door leading to the interior from the lobby. "First door to your left," he said, and pressed an unseen buzzer which opened the lobby inner door.
"Thanks," I said, and passed through it into a short hallway. The first door on the left said simply "Private" and I knocked.
"Come in," a voice said, and I did.
The room was large and windowless, paneled in what appeared to be dark oak. It apparently couldn't decide whether its function was to impress or to be a working office, and therefore didn't quite fit either category. There were several small framed photos on one wall, apparently of Comstock with various celebrities, a large painting of a nude male torso—undoubtedly Comstock himself—on a side wall next to a door, a couple file cabinets, a worktable with a copy machine and a typewriter, a couple of comfortable and expensive looking leather chairs and a large, equally expensive looking desk, behind which sat Barry Comstock, slitting open a stack of mail with a very wicked looking letter opener..
I mentioned that Barry Comstock had been a porn star, but it was obvious that he was no longer in his 20s—or, despite valiant efforts on his part, even his 30s. His face had that stretched-too-tight look that indicated a plastic surgeon's handiwork. In some odd way, he was rather like the room itself. He'd have been considerably more attractive if he'd just left himself alone.
He did not get up and so I deliberately walked over to the desk and extended my hand, which he had to put down the letter opener and lean forward to take.
"Dick Hardesty, Mr. Comstock." I said. "What can I do for you?"
He motioned me to a chair and resumed opening the mail, shifting his glance back and forth between the mail and me.
"We've had some…well, what my partners consider to be threats. I think they're bullshit, but they insisted I look into it. Frankly, I don't have the time, which is why I called you."
"What kind of threats?" I asked.
Comstock finished opening the mail, set the opener aside again, and leaned back in his chair. "Oh, we've been getting bitch letters since we opened...most of them have tapered off lately."
"What kind of 'bitch letters'?" I asked.
Comstock gave a slight sneer. "About our membership policy," he said.
"And your membership policy is…?" I asked. Actually, I had a pretty good idea from what I'd been hearing on the street, but I wanted to hear him spell it out. He looked at me with a mixture of disdain and surprise.
"Which is that this is a place where hot young guys come to meet other hot young guys. We don't let fats, or old farts in. If you're fat, or bald, or old, or ugly you can go someplace else."
So much for my buying stock in the Barry Comstock School of Charm, I thought. This guy was really starting to piss me off.
"So what made this letter different…and did you keep it?" I asked.
"Nah," Comstock said with a shrug. "I pitch them all. But I remembered this one–it came in maybe four, five months ago--because the asshole made it up to look like a ransom note...you know, all cut-out words pasted together. It said that if we didn't change our membership policy we'd be hearing from him again. Fuckin' blackmail's what it boils down to, pure and simple. And I'm not the kind of guy you want to try to blackmail." He unconsciously hunched his shoulders forward as if flexing his muscles.
We sat silent for a moment, until I said: "And I gather you did hear from him again?"
Comstock gave a contemptuous snort and reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, pulling out what appeared to be a shoe box. "This came in the mail, addressed to me." He pushed it across the desk, and I leaned forward to take it. The box had no marking of any kind, and I lifted the lid to find it stuffed with tissue paper. Moving the tissue paper aside I found a 3x5 card on which someone had pasted a panel from what I assume was a comic book. It was a picture of a fireball over which was the word: "BOOM!" Turning it over, words cut from obviously various sources, in assorted sizes and typefaces said: "Last chance. Everyone plays or YOU pay." Kind of melodramatic, I thought, but it made it's point.
I put the card back, closed the lid, and pushed the box back across the desk.
"Did you save the wrapper it came in?"
"What the fuck for? I've got enough garbage around here as it is."
If he was too stupid to entertain the idea that a return address or postmark might have come in handy, I wasn't about to spell it out for him.
"It's probably just somebody with a grudge and an active imagination," I said. "But you never know; this guy could be serious. I guess you didn't consider contacting the police?"
Comstock shook his head scornfully. "Are you out of your fucking mind? I let the cops come in here scaring off the customers and I might as well shut the place down. I told you it's fucking blackmail. And I told you I don't pay blackmail."
Yeah, I heard you the first time, and I wasn't impressed then, either, I thought. Though I didn't say anything, it struck me that for anyone out to settle a grievance, real or imagined, with Rage, it would only take a couple of "concerned citizen" or "they're selling drugs" calls to the cops to effectively shut the place down. The police would love any excuse for a raid, and no gay man in his right mind would willingly put himself in a gay bath house that was subject to frequent raids. Obviously, something else was going on here.
"Exactly who determines who gets in and who doesn't?" I asked.
Comstock leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk, one hand wrapped around the other lightly clenched fist. "I'm the boss. I decide. The desk men are told in no uncertain terms who gets in and who doesn't; they do the sorting out," he said. "If there's any doubt, they buzz me. But usually it's pretty cut and dried. Ugly's ugly. Fat's fat; old is old."
"And how do they handle it when an undesirable comes in?" I used the word "undesirable" deliberately.
"The ones we want as members are given membership cards to fill out. The others are told that memberships are closed."
"And if somebody is filling out a membership card when a non-desirable comes in?" I asked. "Or worse, if somebody's getting the 'closed membership' spiel and somebody worthy of belonging comes in?"
"Same thing. They get the message pretty fast. And you can cut the fucking sarcasm. I'm running a business here, not a bleeding hearts social club. There are lots of other baths around. Let the creeps go there."
That's it, Comstock, I thought; you're definitely off my Christmas card list.