Monday, November 3, 2008
Death of a Pirate King excerpt by Josh Lanyon
Gay bookseller and reluctant amateur sleuth Adrien English's writing career is suddenly taking off. His first novel, Murder Will Out, has been optioned by notorious Hollywood actor Paul Kane. But when murder makes an appearance at a dinner party, who should be called in but Adrien's former lover, handsome closeted detective Jake Riordan, now a Lieutenant with LAPD -- which may just drive Adrien's new boyfriend, sexy UCLA professor Guy Snowden, to commit a murder of his own!
DEATH OF A PIRATE KING: The Fourth Adrien English Mystery
MLR Press & Loose Id (September 13, 2008)
Coincidence, if traced far enough back,becomes inevitable.
It was not my kind of party.
Sure, some people might think the dead guy made it my kind of party, but that wouldn’t be a fair assessment of my entertainment needs -- or my social calendar. I mean, it had been a good two years since I’d last been involved in a murder investigation.
I sell books for a living. I write books too, but not enough to make a living at it. I did happen to sell one book I wrote to the movies, which is what I was doing at a Hollywood party, which, like I said, is not my scene. Or at least, was not my scene until Porter Jones slumped over and fell face first into his bowl of vichyssoise.
I’m sorry to say my initial reaction, as he keeled over, was relief.
I’d been nodding politely as he’d rambled on for the past ten minutes, trying not to wince as he gusted heavy alcoholic sighs my way during his infrequent pauses. My real attention was on screenwriter Al January, who was sitting on the other side of me at the long, crowded luncheon table. January was going to be working on the screen adaptation of my first novel, Murder Will Out. I wanted to hear what he had to say.
Instead I heard all about deep-sea fishing for white marlin in St. Lucia.
I pushed back from the table as the milky tide of soup spilled across the linen tablecloth. Someone snickered. The din of voices and silverware on china died.
“For God’s sake, Porter!” Mrs. Jones exclaimed from across the table.
Porter’s shoulders were twitching and I thought for a moment that he was laughing, although what was funny about breathing soup, I’d no idea -- having sort of been through it myself recently.
“Was it something you said, Adrien?” Paul Kane, our host, joked to me. He rose as though to better study Jones. He had one of those British public school accents that make insignificant comments like Would you pass the butter sound as interesting as Fire when ready!
Soup dripped off the table into my empty seat. I stared at Porter’s now motionless form: the folds on the back of his thick tanned neck, the rolls of brown flab peeping out beneath the indigo-blue Lacoste polo, his meaty, motionless arm with the gold Rolex watch. Maybe twenty seconds all told, from the moment he toppled over to the moment it finally dawned on me what had actually happened.
“Oh, hell,” I said, and hauled Porter out of his plate. He sagged right and crashed down onto the carpet taking my chair and his own with him.
“Porter!” shrieked his wife, now on her feet, bleached blonde hair spilling over her plump freckled shoulders.
“Bloody hell,” exclaimed Paul Kane staring down, his normally unshakable poise deserting him. “Is he --?”
It was hard to say what Porter was exactly. His face was shiny with soup; his silvery mustache glistened with it. His pale eyes bulged as though he were outraged to find himself in this position. His fleshy lips were open but he made no protest. He wasn’t breathing.
I knelt down, said, “Does anyone know CPR? I don’t think I can manage it.”
“Someone ring 911!” Kane ordered, looking and sounding like he did on the bridge of the brigantine in The Last Corsair.
“We can trade off,” Al January told me, crouching on the other side of Porter’s body. He was a slim and elegant sixty-something, despite the cherry-red trousers he wore. I liked his calm air; you don’t expect calm from a man wearing cherry-red trousers.
“I’m getting over pneumonia,” I told him. I shoved the fallen chairs aside, making room next to Porter.
“Uh oh,” January said and bent over Porter.
By the time the paramedics arrived, it was all over.
We had adjourned by then to the drawing room of the old Laurel Canyon mansion. There were about thirty of us, everyone, with the exception of me, involved one way or the other with movies and moviemaking.
I looked at the ormolu clock on the elegant fireplace mantel and thought I should call Natalie. She had a date that evening and had wanted to close the bookstore early. I needed to give Guy a call too. No way was I going to have the energy for dinner out tonight -- even if we did get away in the next hour or so.
Porter’s wife, who looked young enough to be his daughter, was sitting over by the piano crying. A couple of the other women were absently soothing her. I wondered why she wasn’t being allowed in there with him. If I was dying I’d sure want someone I loved with me.
Paul Kane had disappeared for a time into the dining room where the paramedics were doing whatever there was left to do.
He came back in and said, “They’ve called the police.”
There were exclamations of alarm and dismay.
Okay, so it wasn’t a natural death. I’d been afraid of that. Not because of any special training or because I had a particular knack for recognizing foul play -- no, I just had really, really bad luck.
Porter’s wife -- Ally, they were calling her -- looked up and said, “He’s dead?” I thought it was pretty clear he was a goner from the moment he landed flat on his back like a harpooned walrus, but maybe she was the optimistic kind. Or maybe I’d just had too much of the wrong kind of experience.
The women with her began doing that automatic shushing thing again.
Kane walked over to me, and said with that charming, practiced smile, “How are you holding up?”
His smile informed me that I wasn’t fooling anyone, but actually I felt all right. After nearly a week of hospital, any change of scenery was an improvement, and, unlike most of the people there, I knew what to expect once someone died a public and unexpected death.
Kane sat down on a giant chintz-covered ottoman -- the room had clearly been professionally decorated because nothing about Paul Kane suggested cabbage roses or ormolu clocks -- fastened those amazing blue eyes on me, and said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. Violent death in the dining room? Generally not a good thing.
“Did Porter say anything to you? I couldn’t help noticing that he had you pinned down.”
“He mostly talked about saltwater big game fishing.”
“Ah. His passion.”
“Passion is good,” I said.
Kane smiled into my eyes. “It can be.”
I smiled back tiredly. I didn’t imagine that he was coming on to me; it was more…an actor picking up his cue.
He patted my knee and rose. “It shouldn’t take much longer,” he said with the optimism of inexperience.
They kept us waiting for probably another forty minutes, and then the doors to the drawing room opened silently on well-oiled hinges, and two cops in suits walked in. One was about thirty, Hispanic, with the tightly coiled energy of the ambitious young dick, and the other was Jake Riordan.
It was a jolt. Jake was a lieutenant now, so I didn’t see why he’d be here at a crime scene -- except that this was a high profile crime scene.
As I stared it was like seeing him for the first time -- only this time around I had insider knowledge.
He looked older. Still ruggedly good-looking in that big, blond, take-no-prisoners way. But thinner, sharper around the edges. Harder. It had been two years since I’d last seen him. They didn’t appear to have been a blissful two years, but he still had that indefinable something. Like a young Steve McQueen or a mature Russell Crowe. Hanging around the movie crowd, you start thinking in cinema terms.
I watched his tawny eyes sweep the room and find Paul Kane. I saw the relief on Kane’s face, and I realized that they knew each other: something in the way their gazes met, linked, then broke -- not anything anyone else would have caught. I just happened to be in a position to know what that particular look of Jake’s meant.
And since I was familiar with the former Detective Riordan’s extracurricular activities, I guessed that meant the rumors about Paul Kane were true.
“Folks, can I have your attention?” the younger detective said. “This is Lieutenant Riordan and I’m Detective Alonzo.” He proceeded to explain that while the exact cause of Porter Jones’s death was as yet undetermined, they were going to ask us a few questions, starting with whoever had been seated next to the victim during the meal.
Paul Kane said, “That would be Valarie and Adrien.”
Jake’s gaze followed Paul Kane’s indication. His eyes lit on me. Just for a second his face seemed to freeze. I was glad I’d had a few seconds’ warning. I was able to look right through him, which was a small satisfaction.
“I don’t understand,” the newly widowed Ally was protesting. “Are you saying…what are you saying? That Porter was murdered?”
“Ma’am,” Detective Alonzo said in a pained way.
Jake said something quietly to Paul Kane, who answered. Jake interrupted Alonzo.
“Mrs. Jones, why don’t we move next door?” He guided her toward a side door off the lounge. He nodded for Alonzo to follow him in.
Despite Detective Alonzo’s “undetermined causes” it seemed pretty clear to me that if the police were interrogating us they had pretty much ruled out accidental or natural death.
A uniformed officer took Alonzo’s place and asked us to please be patient and refrain from speaking with each other -- and immediately everyone started speaking, mostly protesting.
After a few minutes of this, the side door opened again and everyone looked guiltily toward the doorway. Ally Porter was ushered straight out.
“The performance of a lifetime,” Al January commented next to me.
I glanced at him, and he smiled.
“Valarie Rose,” Detective Alonzo requested.
A trim forty-something brunette stood up. Rose was supposed to direct Murder Will Out, assuming we actually got to the filming stage -- which at the moment felt unlikely. She wore minimal makeup and a dark pantsuit. She looked perfectly poised as she passed Detective Alonzo and disappeared into the inner chamber.
She was in there for about fifteen minutes and then the door opened; without speaking to anyone she crossed into the main room. Detective Alonzo announced, “Adrien English?”
Kind of like when your name gets called in the doctor’s office: That’s right, Adrien. This won’t hurt a bit. I felt the silent wall of eyes as I went into the side room.
It was a comfortable room, probably Paul Kane’s study. He seemed like the kind of guy who would affect a study. Glass-fronted bookcases, a big fireplace, and a lot of leather furniture. There was a table and chairs to one side where they were conducting their questioning. Jake stood at a large bay window that looked down over the back garden. I spared one look at his stony profile before sitting down at the table across from Detective Alonzo.
“Okay…” Alonzo scratched a preliminary note on a pad.
Jake turned. “That’s Adrien with an e,” he informed his junior. His eyes met mine. “Mr. English and I are previously acquainted.”
That was one way to put it. I had a sudden, uncomfortably vivid memory of Jake whispering into my hair, “Baby, what you do to me…” An ill-timed recollection if there ever was one.
“Yeah?” If Alonzo recognized there was any tension in the air, he gave no sign of it, probably because there’s always tension in the air around cops. “So where do you live, Mr. English?”
We got the details of where I lived and what I did for a living out of the way fast. Then Alonzo asked, “So how well did you know Mr. Jones?”
“I met him for the first time this afternoon.”
“Ms. Beaton-Jones says you and the deceased had a long, long talk during the meal?”
Beaton-Jones? Oh, right. This was Hollywood. Hyphens were a fashion accessory. Ms. Beaton-Jones would be Porter’s wife, I surmised.
I replied, “He talked, I listened.” One thing I’ve learned the hard way is not to volunteer any extra information to the police.
I glanced at Jake. He was staring back out the window. There was a gold wedding band on his left hand. It kept catching the light. Like a sunspot.
“What did he talk about?”
“To be honest, I don’t remember the details. It was mostly about deep-sea fishing. For marlin. On his forty-five foot Hatteras luxury sport-fishing yacht.”
Jake’s lips twitched as he continued to gaze out the window.
“You’re interested in deep-sea fishing, Mr. English?”
“So how long did you talk?”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
“Can you tell us what happened then?”
“I turned away to take a drink. He -- Porter -- just…fell forward onto the table.”
“And what did you do?”
“When I realized he wasn’t moving, I grabbed his shoulder. He slid out of his chair and landed on the floor. Al January started CPR.”
“Do you know CPR, sir?”
“Ms. Beaton-Jones said you refused to administer CPR to her husband.”
I blinked at him. Looked at Jake. His tawny eyes were zeroed in on mine.
“Any reason for that, sir? Are you HIV-positive by any chance?”
“No.” I was a little surprised at how angry I was at the question. I said shortly, “I’m getting over pneumonia. I didn’t think I could do an adequate job of resuscitating him. If no one else had volunteered, I’d have tried.”
“Pneumonia? That’s no fun.” This also from the firm’s junior partner. “Were you hospitalized by any chance?”
“Yeah. Five fun-filled days and nights at Huntington Hospital. I’ll be happy to give you the name and number of my doctor.”
“When were you discharged?”
“And you’re already back doing the party scene?” That was Jake with pseudofriendly mockery. “How do you know Paul Kane?”
“We met once before today. He’s optioned my first book for a possible film. He thought it would be a good idea for me to meet the director and screenwriter, and he suggested this party.”
“So you’re a writer,” Detective Alonzo inquired. He checked his notes as though to emphasize that I’d failed to mention this vital point.
“Among other things,” remarked Jake.
I thought maybe he ought to curb it if he didn’t want speculation about our former friendship. But maybe marriage and a lieutenancy made him feel bulletproof. He didn’t interrupt as Detective Alonzo continued to probe.
I answered his questions, but I was thinking of the first time I’d met Paul Kane. Living in Southern California, you get used to seeing “movie stars.” Speaking from experience they are usually shorter, thinner, more freckled, and more blemished than they appear on the screen. And in real life their hair is almost never as good. Paul Kane was the exception. He was gorgeous in an old-fashioned matinee idol way. An Errol Flynn way. Tall, built like something chiseled out of marble, midnight-blue eyes, sun-streaked brown hair. Almost too handsome, really. I prefer them a little rougher around the edges. Like Jake.
“Hey, pretty exciting!” Alonzo offered, just as though it wasn’t Hollywood where everyone is writing a script on spec or has a book being optioned. “So what’s your book about?”
A little dryly I explained what my book was about.
Alonzo raised his eyebrows at the idea of a gay Shakespearean actor and amateur sleuth making it to the big screen, but kept scribbling away.
Jake came over to the table and sat down across from me. My neck muscles clenched so tight I was afraid my head would start to shake.
“But you also run this Cloak and Dagger mystery bookstore in Pasadena?” Alonzo inquired. “Was Porter Jones a customer?”
“Not that I know of. As far as I’m aware, I never saw him before today.” I made myself look at Jake. He was staring down. I looked to see if my body language was communicating homicidal mania. In the light flooding from the bay window my hands looked thin and white, a tracery of blue veins right beneath the surface.
I folded my arms and leaned back in my chair, trying to look nonchalant rather than defensive.
We’d been talking for thirty minutes, which seemed like an unreasonable time to question someone who hadn’t even known the victim. They couldn’t honestly think I was a suspect. Jake couldn’t honestly think I’d bumped this guy off. I glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. Five o’clock.
Alonzo circled back to the general background stuff that is mostly irrelevant but sometimes turns up an unexpected lead.
To his surprise and my relief, Jake said abruptly, “I think that’s about it. Thanks for your time, Mr. English. We’ll be in touch if we need anything further.”
I opened my mouth to say something automatic and polite -- but what came out was a laugh. Short and sardonic. It caught us both by surprise.