Thursday, April 10, 2008
Drag Queen in the Court of Death excerpt by Caro Soles
This excerpt is from the Lambda Award finalist Drag Queen in the Court of Death by Caro Soles.
While cleaning out his dead ex-lover Ronnie's apartment, staid history professor Michael Dunn-Barten makes a grisly discovery. Suddenly Michael must travel back 25 years to find answers by revisiting everybody who knew Ronnie. Back to the 1960s, back to the realization of his sexuality and the boy he loved. Back to the troubling time when his wife threw him out and his family disowned him. Back to uncover disturbing answers amidst drag queens and murky memories—and to reveal whether or not his first real love was truly a twisted killer. Drag Queen in the Court of Death is a taut thriller about a man who needs to face his past in order to forge a future. He must unravel a mystery that's a quarter century old—no matter how painful the truth may be.
Drag Queen in the Court of Death
The Haworth Press Inc (January 1, 2007)
The last time I came up these stairs was exactly three weeks ago. I would have stayed away longer, but Ellis was insistent, pining over all those gorgeous gowns and shoes and wigs; imagining great bolts of flashing silks and glittering lengths of magical cloth that ran though your hands like a sigh.
“And the make-up,” Ellis said, behind me on the stairs. “There’s probably mountains of the stuff.”
“No doubt,” I said. “Remember, he left most of it to Wilde Nights.”
“Well, I’m in Wilde Nights,” Ellis said.
“So am I.” That was his friend. Some young thing named Jaym or Jaym. A non-name. An effort at re-creation which I might have appreciated in my younger days. Now it just annoyed me.
I paused at the landing, the key warm and moist in my hand. The air danced with dust and heat. I didn’t understand why Ronnie had stayed so long in this place, the top floor apartment of an old converted rooming house in a part of the city that was finally becoming fashionable again. When he had moved in, he was just a student. In my home room. It was the sixties and we thought anything might happen. Anything might become something else entirely. Something wonderful and engaging and strange. Like Ronnie himself. At least, to me.
“Come on, Michael.” Behind me, the heat from Ellis’s tight body radiated close to my back. “I’m dying here.”
Immediately he caught his breath and I felt the air go still. Dying. But it was Ronnie who was dead.
For a moment I rested my hand flat against the painted door. The deep purple surface was warm. I put the key in the locks, all three of them, and stepped back. The door opened outward, making it awkward for a moment, balanced on the steps. Behind me the other two muttered and shifted to make room as the plum door swung towards me and I walked into Ronnie Lipinsky’s apartment.
Hot dust-filled air hit me in the face. It was like pushing into a wall of solid heat.
Ellis coughed. “Hell on wheels! Air! Air!” He rushed towards the one full length window, that opened onto the fire escape. We used to sit out there on hot nights, Ronnie and I, wrapped safe in the darkness and liquid emotion, talking the night away. Ellis struggled with the old much-painted wooden sash and finally forced it open. He stood for a moment, panting in the heat, the sunlight dancing on the short frosted tips of his hair.
Beside me, Jaym was looking around at the eccentric decor, his dark eyes taking in every detail. “Cool.”
Some time ago, Ronnie had remodeled the top floor, which was originally three separate rooms, into a small apartment. I didn’t understand why he’d bothered, but he loved the place. It had memories, he said. Associations. It gave him back the roots he had voluntarily broken when he came here all those years ago at the age of seventeen. Technically, he was not a draft dodger, since he hadn’t been called up yet. But he would have been. Here, in this eccentric top floor of an old house in Toronto, he recreated himself over the years, til at last, when I met him again, he was a different person.
The sloping walls were a deep midnight blue, the ceiling silver. The furniture was all upholstered in white, with painted cushions on the sofa and piled on the window seat. Near the dormer window hung five or six mobiles Ronnie had made from bits of colored glass and crystals and sparkling ornaments. They moved gently, emitting a soft tinkling sound that set my teeth on edge.
“What’s that about?” Jaym asked, pointing at one wall. It was covered with pictures of angels and saints, Madonnas and plaster cherubs and dried flowers with dusty ribbons hanging from their stems. There were pictures of men, some formal, some snapshots. Some were very old. There were also antique in memoriam cards bordered in thick black, with peoples’ names in spiked gothic script. On the floor stood two large painted wooden candlesticks, with squat beeswax candles.
“It’s a memorial to friends who have died of AIDS,” I said.
“It’s creepy,” said Ellis, with a mock shiver.
I shrugged. It was just another theatrical touch in a room filled with dramatic flair. “The gowns are through here,” I said, opening the door to the room at the back of the house.
This one was painted white, with a wall of mirrors along one side. The lighting was bright, but muted, so that the effect in the mirrors was flattering. Rows of clothes hung in plastic bags along both sides of the room.
Ellis descended on the goldmine with cries of delight. Jaym merely stared, as the light bounced off the sequins and satins, the bugle beads and seed pearls. It was as if the room winked at us.
I left them to it and went into the bedroom across the hall. Here the walls were sky blue. Someone had painted clouds on the ceiling. A mobile of stars hung in the window. This closet, I knew, was filled with sober expensive suits, which Ronnie wore to work at the law firm of Strauss and Hamburg. But it was not one of these suits he had chosen to be buried in, but a gown of old rose, with beadwork on the bodice and a high, almost Victorian neckline. I knew, because I had taken it to the funeral home, as per his request.
Across the hall I could hear Ellis’s laughter, his delighted exclamations, the ohhhs of appreciation. Jaym’s low voice answered him and occasionally he would laugh, too. I pulled myself together and collected the mail form the box downstairs, took back to the living room to sort. There was the usual junk, some bills which needed attention, a few letters and notes I put aside to answer later.
My concentration kept wandering and I soon gave in. I wasn’t ready for business. I took a box of photos from the top of the desk sank into the couch to go through them. Some of the pictures I recognized, but they were mostly of people I didn’t know, taken in bars and during drag shows, at parties where Ronnie smiled and talked with wide shouldered transvestites and men holding wine glasses or cans of beer.
Ellis and Jaym were piling selected gowns on the brightly painted chest in one corner of the living room. I vaguely remembered the chest, a trunk, really. In the old days it had stood in the middle of the room, used as a coffee table. Seeing it now brought back unpleasant memories of our breakup, an abrupt and painful wrenching apart of something I had assumed solid. I was a fool, but I had never really been in love before and Ronnie’s sudden erratic behavior was incomprehensible to me.
The laughter and screams of delight from the other room had faded now, as the two became serious in their winnowing of the treasure that crammed the racks. I raised my head to watch, catching alluring glimpses of Ellis posturing and pouting in one gown after another, his short spiky blond hair almost glittering in the bright light. Occasionally Jaym would try something on, but mostly he seemed to see his role as groom, the one who puts everything away, smoothing out wrinkles and zipping up the garment bags. I was glad he had come along.
“What a bitchin’ collection,” Ellis said, arms akimbo as he looked at the gowns he had piled on top of the old trunk. “How the hell can I choose just three?”
“Find a way,” I said. Three had been an arbitrary number, but having chosen it, I felt bound by my own careless words, something that often happened to me.
“Shit,” said Ellis. He passed several of the gowns to Jaym who obediently hung them up, I was sure in the exact same place they had come from. “I’ll have to shorten them,” Ellis went on, “but other than that they fit great. What’s in the trunk?”
I shrugged. “How would I know?” I glanced pointedly at my watch.
“Okay, okay. Just let me take a look in case he was keeping some gems hidden, for some reason. Jaym, give me a hand here. It seems to be stuck or something.”
I watched the two of them struggle with the trunk for a while. Irritated that it was taking so long, I got up and went over to help. The lock had sprung open but the top refused to budge.
“What the hell has he got in here?” Jaym asked. “His tiara collection?”
“Hold on.” I went into the tiny immaculate kitchen and came back with a screw driver, and a hammer. I resented that trunk. It had always been here, changing slowly as Ronnie changed, painted, repainted, covered with pictures or draped with shawls, while I had been banished, my life broken apart.
As I tried to force the screwdriver under the lip of the top of the trunk, I realized Ronnie had sealed it with something.
“Weirdness,” murmured Ellis.
Jaym had discovered the end of the tape used as sealer, and slowly and carefully removed it. Underneath was another kind of sealant, but with three of us working on it, we chipped and pealed it off too. By now, we were all determined to find out the treasures within. I felt the faint beat of an excitement I hadn’t experienced for many years. Anticipation. Adventure. I smiled at Jaym as he handed me the hammer. It was warm from his touch.
“One more whack should do it,” he said. “Go for it.”
I did. The top swung open with a creak. They cheered. Paint chips from the hinges flaked into the deep blue rug. A heavy smell of dust and mold rose from inside.
Ellis pulled back, coughing. “I don’t think I want anything that’s been in here,” he said.
“Don’t be too hasty,” I said, pulling out the heavy green tapestry material that lay on top. It was just material, nothing else. Underneath was something that looked like old leather, cracked and brown, discolored with neglect. I tried to pull this out, too but it wouldn’t move. Jaym reached in to help and we both pulled at the bundle, finally getting it half out. It appeared to be sewn together, so that the entire bundle filled the large trunk in a mass of stiff dusty leather.
Ellis coughed again. “What it this? Bondage gear?”
“You wish,” said Jaym, his dark eyes dancing. He flashed a sudden grin. “Let’s heave it out on the floor.”
It wasn’t that heavy, no more than you would expect from a package of leather, but I was beginning to sweat. Something wasn’t right about this. I had never heard of Ronnie being into anything leather before. The thought that there was a lot about Ronnie I might not know, was surprisingly painful.
We crouched on the floor, looking at the awkward package. Whatever it was, it had been in there a long time.
“Turn it over,” Ellis said.
When we did, he pointed to a row of heavy stitches. “So where are the scissors?”
Jaym got up and went into the room where all the gowns hung. There was a sewing machine in there. He had remarked on it earlier. Now he went unerringly to the box where the scissors and such things were and came back with it triumphant.
“Piece of cake,” he said, and began to snip away with a pair of scissors. When that proved too slow he picked out a utility blade and sawed through the thick stitches.
The heavy leather pealed away from the package slowly, almost reluctantly. It took awhile, turning the bulky package around, moving it further into the room to give us more space. The dust was heavy, smelling strongly of mothballs, now. I turned away to sneeze.
Jaym dropped his side of the bundle and jumped backwards,
knocking over the telephone table.
I swung around and stared. The air rushed out of me, as if someone had hit me hard in the stomach. Staring up from the leather cocoon was a mummified face, the skin shriveled and brown, pulled back over the yellowed teeth.
Jaym rushed to the window and opened it. I thought for a moment he might crawl through to the wide ledge outside but he didn’t. Ellis had scooted back till he was against the furthest wall. He held both hands over his mouth, still staring at the corpse.
“Holy Christ,” I said, my mind whirling in confusion.
There was no rational explanation for this atrocity. All I could think of was seeing this trunk all those times over the years when I had visited Ronnie. Was this monstrosity inside while we made love on the floor beside it years ago? I felt my insides well up and rushed to the bathroom. Nothing came up.
I threw cold water on my face, went back into the living room and dialed 911.
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