Monday, May 27, 2013

Boystown 5: Murder Book excerpt by Marshall Thornton

In Boystown 5: Murder Book by Marshall Thornton, the fifth book of the award-winning Boystown mystery series, it’s fall 1982 and Chicago is gripped by panic after five people die from poisoned Tylenol capsules. Amid the chaos, the Bughouse Slasher takes his eighth victim, this time striking close to private investigator Nick Nowak. With the Chicago Police Department stretched to its limit, Nick takes matters into his own hands. But what will he do with the Bughouse Slasher once he finds him?

Boystown 5: Murder Book
MLR Press (April 5, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1608208616


Chapter One

Former Chicago Police Detective Bertram Edgar Harker died sometime during the evening of September 28, 1982. It was a Tuesday. I wish I’d been with him when he died but that wasn’t possible. He didn’t die in a hospital or at home. My best guess is that he died in the back of a van parked in a dirty alley somewhere on the northwest side. He was the eighth victim of the Bughouse Slasher.

That night, I came home later than usual. I’d been working a case for Carolyn O’Hara, who ran a temp agency called Carolyn’s Crew. One of her clients, an advertising wunderkind who’d started his own company a year before but was now going through a vicious divorce, was trying to claim bankruptcy. Carolyn was sure the owner had the money he owed her and was just hiding assets from his wife, and by extension Carolyn.

After I followed the twenty-nine-year-old business prodigy around for a few days, I was pretty sure she was right. Irwin Meier drove a brand new Jaguar XJS, sticker price roughly thirty-two thousand, and lived in a pretty brick house in Evanston right across from Lake Michigan. On paper, the house belonged to his eighteen-year-old, live-in girlfriend, and, upon further investigation, I discovered the recent high school senior also leased the Jaguar.

Shifting through the reams of paper Carolyn’s lawyer provided, I attempted to find the path money had taken from Meier to his nubile girlfriend, where it had ended up, and exactly when the money had been moved. The closer the exchange to the bankruptcy, the more likely the creditors would be able to attach the funds. It was interesting work, something I hadn’t done before, so I’d been enjoying myself and lost track of time. 

Walking into my apartment around seven, I called out for Harker and was met by silence. I hurried down the entry hallway and into the four-room garden apartment that wound around itself. Spare room, living room, bedroom, kitchen. The rooms were dark and empty. I turned on lights and saw dust in the air, making the place seem like it had been abandoned for a very long time. Where was Harker? Lately, he hadn’t been feeling well and had been sticking close to home. Well, lately as in the last nine months, but more so in the preceding weeks. He’d had an energetic spurt at the end of summer, which had slowly faded.

That meant I had no idea where he might have gone. I thought about calling his mother, but she lived out in Edison Park and there was no way he’d have gone there unless… I considered the possibility that something had happened to her and he’d rushed to her side. But that didn’t make sense. I’d been in my office, sitting next to a telephone, only a few blocks away. If something had happened to his mother, Harker would have called me to drive him wherever he needed to go. Wouldn’t he?

I called her anyway. It took less than two seconds to find out Bert wasn’t there.

“Mrs. Harker, it’s Nick.”

“What happened? Is Bertram all right?”

“Yeah, he’s fine,” I said reflexively as I scrambled for another reason for the call. “So, did you come by today?”

“No. Bertram was tired. But he call me. We have very nice, long talk.”

“You’re coming tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Would you like me to come and get you?”

“No, I take bus like always.”

I could hear suspicion growing in her voice. Neither of us relished the possibility of being in a car together. I covered by saying, “I was going to be out that way and Bert thought I could give you a ride.”

“No. I take bus,” she said and then hung up on me.

I was relieved she hadn’t figured out something was wrong. I didn’t want her at my doorstop dogging my every move. I sat down at my desk with the phone on my lap trying to think who else to call. Harker’s life wasn’t exactly a social whirlwind. Neither was mine for that matter.

There was the tiniest chance he was with his partner from the eighteenth, Frank Connors. But that didn’t make sense. They talked on the phone or Connors came by. He knew how sick Harker was; I didn’t think Connors would ask him to go anywhere. I could call him, but decided to hold out. Connors was the last call I should make. If I couldn’t find Bert, if he were missing, I’d need Connors to pull strings and get the CPD moving as quickly as possible.  I told myself I was being paranoid and tried to think of other calls I could make.

I only came up with one call, a call I didn’t want to make. Over the summer, Harker had befriended a wannabe journalist named Christian Baylor who was interested in the Bughouse Slasher. Since the killings had originally been Bert’s cases, Christian was all over him for information in hopes of writing an article for Chicago magazine. In the process, they’d become close. Closer than I liked, actually. Biting the bullet, I dialed Christian’s number. It rang several times, and I wondered if he hadn’t gotten home from his new job out in Downer’s Grove, or if maybe he was actually with Harker. Finally, he snapped up the phone, out of breath. “Hello.”

“It’s Nick. Have you seen Bert?”

“What? No. He’s not at home?”

“No, he’s not.”

“Then where is he?” Panic already infected his voice.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All right, thanks—”

“Wait, should I come over?”

“No. Don’t.”

“But…will you have him call me when he gets home? I’m going to worry.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

I hung up and tried to think what to do next. The only constructive thing that came to mind was walking my neighborhood. It was possible he’d needed something and had gone out to the store to get it. Maybe he’d wanted aspirin or had a craving for ice cream.

I was out the door in less than a minute and heading down Roscoe. The street was quiet, my neighbors settling in for an evening of television. When I got to Broadway, I headed up to Addison to stick my head into the White Hen Pantry to see if he’d needed some…well some anything. He wasn’t there. I headed down Broadway, peeked into The Closet, knowing he wouldn’t be in there having a drink but needing to check anyway. I walked through the Melrose, Unabridged Books, and Walgreens. He wasn’t in any of those places. I walked down Belmont until I got to Halsted then did the same kind of search over there. Nothing. Then I walked the alleys in between, figuring there was only so far he could go. And if he’d had to vomit or had had a sudden bout of diarrhea…but again, nothing.

When I got back to the apartment it was just after nine. I walked by my front door and let myself into the main building. I climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor and knocked on the apartment right above mine. A young lesbian named Sue lived there and I hoped against hope that she’d seen something. She worked during the day, something to do with the big computers FirstChicago needed to keep track of their money. She probably hadn’t even been home when Harker left.

I knocked again and waited. I could smell the polish used on the wooden banister, mildew in the carpet, and a touch of charred meat from someone’s dinner. I heard a television playing on the floor above me. Sue didn’t come to the door. I gave up.

On the floor above, I discovered the television was playing in the back apartment that faced the courtyard on one side and the pass-through on the other. They were unlikely to have seen Bert coming or going so I didn’t bother knocking. In the apartment above Sue’s there didn’t seem to be anyone home. I tried to put a face on the tenant but couldn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even sure anyone lived there at the moment.

When I went back downstairs, I called three nearby hospitals and asked if Harker had been admitted. They’d never heard of him. So, finally, at nearly ten o’clock I called Connors at home, having found his number in the address book Harker kept in the top drawer of our bedroom dresser.

Connors was annoyed to be hearing from me.

“Harker’s missing,” I told him before he could cuss me out too badly. I quickly went over everything I’d done to find him.

“Stay there in case he comes home,” he said. “I’ll do some nosing around and call if I find anything.”

He hung up and I began to wait in earnest. Helpless. Alone. Time crawled like it had just been slammed in the knees with a baseball bat. I found myself glancing at the VCR every few minutes. 11:01; 11:05; 11:07; 11:08. God, it was excruciating. I knew, I just knew, something bad had happened and, sitting there, smoking cigarette after cigarette in my living room, I waited to find out exactly what it was. It was like the moment before the nurse stuck you with a needle or the one before the dentist pulled out the decayed tooth, except it went on hour after hour.

I couldn’t even wonder if he was dead. I didn’t have the nerve. I did wonder if, someday, when Harker died, would I know it? Even if I wasn’t with him? Was our bond that strong? Would he reach out across time and space and touch me, just to let me know he was no longer in this world? Probably not, I decided.

The call came at eight twenty-three the next morning. I hadn’t slept all night except for a few fuzzy minutes here and there. I snatched up the phone before the first ring finished.


“It’s bad, Nick,” I heard him say. “He’s gone.”

“What hospital?” I asked.

“He wasn’t at a hospital.”

“Where was he?”

“We found his body beside the Chicago River, near Hooker Street. His throat was slashed.”

“No,” I said. “That can’t be.”

Connors was wrong; he’d made a mistake. I knew how Harker would die. He would die in a hospital of this new disease, AIDS. That was how things were going to play out. We knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant, but the sheets would be clean, the nurses would be friendly but concerned, and I would be there next to him.

“The Bughouse Slasher got him,” Connors said.

I felt like I might puke so I walked into the bathroom; as soon as I got in there I felt an uncontrollable desire to lie on the floor, quickly. I managed to do it without hitting my head on any of the porcelain fixtures; my eyes shut of their own accord and maybe fifteen, twenty seconds later I came to staring at the phone receiver, which I’d dragged into the bathroom with me and now lay a few feet from my face. The cord straggled back to the base, sitting by the bathroom door, beyond that the phone line wiggled through the apartment.

The receiver squawked, “Nick? Nick, are you all right?”

I grabbed it. “Yeah, I’m here,” I said. “I needed a moment.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“I guess I should call his mother.”

“I already called her,” Connors said. “Legally, I had to call her first. Hell, legally I’m probably not even supposed to call you.”

He was probably right, so I kept my mouth shut. There were surprisingly few things going on in my head at that particular moment. It was as though someone had poured in a bucket of tar. Things had slowed down to a near stop.

“Well, thank you for calling me,” I said, because that’s what you say.

“We’re going to need to search your place, Nick. You know, because Bert lived there.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“I could get one,” Connors said, his voice instantly stiff and professional. “I’d rather not.”

I left a long pause. “Give me two hours.”

“What do you need two hours for?”

“I’d like to put my pants on. Or do you want me sitting around buck naked when you search the place?” I wasn’t buck naked, I was still wearing the clothes I’d worn the day before. I waited for him to say that it wouldn’t take two hours to put my pants on, since of course it wouldn’t. But he didn’t. He knew it would take at least twenty-four hours to get a warrant; he was getting a break.

“Two hours,” he said and hung up.

As much as I wanted to lie back down on the bathroom floor, I knew there was something important I had to do. Sitting on the old desk shoved into a corner of my living room was the murder book Harker had been working on since he got sick. I assumed there was one like it at the eighteenth, probably sitting on Connors desk. A three-hole binder, five inches thick, blue; it was filled with six inches of paper: autopsies, arrest reports, tip sheets, computer runs. It had been there, growing, for months and months and I’d never looked inside.

Now I did, and was surprised by what I found. I’d thought Harker had been playing at the book. I’d thought it was barely real. But there was so much more in it than I’d expected. He’d given me the impression he was reconstructing the book from his memory of the original murder book, but there were copies of…well, pretty much everything. It looked like he had every piece of paper the police had. Piece by piece, Connors had brought him copies of everything on the Bughouse Slasher cases. Things Harker never should have had as a disabled police officer.

This was what Connors was coming to get. I wasn’t entirely sure how, but the book was important. Had Harker followed the clues in the book until he got too close to the Slasher? Had it gotten him killed? At that moment, it barely made sense. I hoped it would soon.

I grabbed what I needed, the murder book, my keys, all the money I had, and walked the few blocks to Kama Copy, the Xerox place below my office. I was waiting at their front door when they opened at nine. The owner was Indian or Pakistani, I wasn’t sure which. Middle fifties, sweating, though the autumn morning was cool and the day promised to be on the chilly side. He should have been happy to see me, but seemed annoyed. Of course, the times I’d been in there he’d always seemed annoyed. He gave me a square plastic counter, which I plugged into a Buick-sized machine the same color yellow as the refrigerator my parents bought the year before I left home. Harvest Gold, I think it was called. It seemed like the wrong sort of color for the enormous machine.

The whole thing felt surreal, everything, like I’d slipped into some strange, unpleasant comedy by Woody Allen. My lover had died and I ran out to make copies on an ugly yellow copy machine. And yet it seemed impossible to do anything else. Connors wanted to take the murder book away, as fuzzy as my head was I knew that. And I knew I couldn’t let that happen. I had to have a copy of it.

I popped the binder open and began putting each page on the glass and making a copy. Page after page after page. They got copied. I couldn’t read them just then. I didn’t think about why I was copying the murder book or what I might do with it. I could barely concentrate on getting each page squarely on the glass. It was soothing and numbing at the same time. I was there for an hour and fifteen minutes. There were six hundred and twenty-four pages. Checking out, it was over fifty bucks. Relieved of most of my money, I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor, unlocked my office door, and plunked the stack of unbound pages onto my desk. I put the beige push-button phone on top of them as a paperweight.

Then I rushed home.

For excerpts from other volumes in the Boystown series, see the blog entries for April 30, 2012 and December 26, 2011.

To purchase ebook from MLR Press, click

Monday, May 20, 2013

Alma's Will excerpt by Anel Viz

In Alma’s Will by Anel Viz, an old woman’s dying wish to turn her house into a safe home for troubled gay teenagers stirs up painful memories and bitter resentments, but also leads to tearful reunions and—someday, perhaps—to healing.

Livia Redding returns to Macon, Georgia, with her husband and children after her mother’s death to settle her estate. She is shocked and offended to hear that the will stipulates that her house be used as a safe home for gay teenagers rejected by their families. Against her husband’s better judgment, Liv decides to contest it and stay on in Georgia with their children.

But her mother had a reason for making the bequest: her son, Ronnie, who disappeared a quarter-century ago, after his father threw him out of the house because he was gay.

Alma’s Will
Silver Publishing (May 18, 2013)
ISBN: 9781614959359

Excerpt (2 short consecutive chapters from Part II):
[Situation: Pending a decision on the validity of her mother’s will, the court has granted Liv’s petition and given her permission to clean her mother’s house and pack its contents. She is convinced that Alma was under the influence of the interracial gay couple next door when she decided she wanted her house made into a safe home.]


Liv poured herself a tall glass of lemonade, her third that morning. She'd forgotten how hot Macon could get in summer. Unless the heat affected adults more. The twins and Li'l Eric didn't seem to mind as much, playing out in the back yard. "Hotter'n hell and a helluva lot less comfortable," Daddy used to say. "Thank God for cold beer!" Of course she remembered about the heat; only her body had forgotten how it felt. Had July always been this hot? Maybe those activists were right about global warming.

She looked out the kitchen window to check on the children before returning to the pile of half-packed boxes in the living room. She saw that one of those men next door—the white man, Franklin—had come out to work in his garden. No harm in that other than his apparel: a sleeveless tee-shirt and one of those skimpy Speedos men like him liked to wear. He wasn't paying them any attention, and they'd been warned not to talk to those neighbors. That black cat of her mother's, the one she called Ronnie, lay curled up in the sun. How fitting that that cat had attached itself to them!

The thump-thump of Li'l Eric's ball on the back of the house blended in with the familiar sounds of a Macon summer: flies buzzing, the whirring of the ceiling fans, and the absolute quiet in the street outside on a scorching day. What other physical memories had stayed with her? The sour odor of beer on Daddy's breath and the sweat sticking to his body when he'd hug her close. "You like the feel of a strong man's arms, doncha Princess? Nothin' queer about you!" Her brother, Ronnie. No one ever mentioned his name. Had Daddy been that attentive when he was around? She only remembered wishing for a brother or sister to share in those hugs.

Now she was sweating like Daddy. Why hadn't Mama put in central air like those men next door? It wouldn't have surprised her to learn it was the heat that killed her. She'd refused an autopsy when the police called, out of consideration for the doctor who'd have to perform it. She'd been dead for a week when they found her… and in this heat!

The heat. She'd have visited more often after Daddy died except for that, she told herself, but only their summers were free since the twins had started school. Christmas was for Eric's family—dozens of people from all over the country, while in Macon there were only Daddy and Mama, and Eric loathed Daddy, loathed him from the very first, even before he got drunk at their wedding. "Thank God for cold beer."

They'd come home to ask permission to marry. She wasn't quite eighteen yet. She'd gone to Atlanta with a girlfriend to take some secretarial courses so she could land a decent job, and never really came back. She signed up for a course on investments, thinking it would come in handy, but it turned out to be corporate investments and not much use. The instructor, though, was a young man out to earn a little money on the side while he finished up his MBA. Eric—so smart, so worldly. A few weeks into the course she found herself shacked up with him. Then, towards the end of the semester he was offered a good job in Idaho. She figured she'd never see him again. She never expected him to propose. So they went to Macon and he met her father.

Now she was back home, after all this time. At the Heymers', that is. Who owned this house was up in the air; she was only allowed in to pack up the contents. That much Mama had left her, though she couldn't sell them off yet.

She remembered her surprise at seeing those two men, Mama's neighbors, there when Evan Marker read them the will. He said they'd helped her with the house after Daddy died. She thought maybe she'd left them a token something to thank them. Some token—the whole damn house, and to turn into a home for queers! What the hell had gotten into Mama? It was like a slap in the face. She'd nearly sunk through the floor.

She'd left the office fuming, but Eric shrugged it off. The house was peanuts, he'd said. He'd even laughed.

"What's so funny?" she'd asked. "People like that make me sick. You suddenly approve of homosexuals?"

"Are you kidding? You know what I think. I just wonder what made her come up with that one. Gay teenagers—what a kick in the balls to that redneck father of yours! Alma finally had the guts to spit in his face. Can't you appreciate the irony of it all?"

"No, I can't. What does Daddy have to do with it anyway? It's not your name that'll be dragged through the mud if this house thing is upheld. The local papers will have a field day." And all the time she was thinking: They'll dredge up Ronnie.

Eric had made light of it: "What the hell? You'll be far away." He only knew that she'd had an older brother who died when she was four.

They'd had the same argument two or three times before he left and since then had thrashed it out over the phone more than once.

Liv had never known Eric to be so stubborn. True to his word, he wasn't standing in her way, although he wasn't much help to her, either. At least he'd promised to come back for the hearing. "If it comes to that," he'd said. Of course it would come to that! None of them was going to back down; a settlement was out of the question.

She didn't regret her decision to contest the will. As Eric had predicted, the case showed signs of dragging on forever. She'd stay to see it through, though, with or without her husband. In the meantime she was alone.

At last there had been a glimmer they were making some progress. A glimmer—no more than that. Up till then, her lawyer had been in correspondence with their lawyer; now they had decided that everyone concerned should come together and try to reach an agreement. Pointless, of course, but still progress if you saw it as a last gasp to forestall the inevitable.

The meeting would take place in Evan Marker's office two days from now. She didn't look forward to it. Those men gave her the creeps. In spite of that, she dragged out the packing and constantly risked running into one of them by coming over for a couple of hours every day to check on the house… her mother's house. Her house. It wasn't fair that she couldn't live there but had to pay the electric bills if she wanted lights and cold drinks in the refrigerator. Thank God Eric was the big earner and he sent her money to cover her expenses. She didn't have a job anymore. Well, it couldn't be helped. She'd find another once she'd put this business behind her and gone back to Idaho.

She went back to her packing.

Li'l Eric

The lemonade was almost gone; Liv had been gulping it. Had she been this thirsty as a child? Probably. The kids kept coming in to ask for something cold to drink. Bet they'd be wanting more any minute now. What were they up to? It had been a while since she heard Li'l Eric's ball. She started back to the window to see what was up.
She wasn't really worried. Eric was right about those men—they did keep to themselves. Liv picked the vegetables now, though she couldn't use most of them and they were piling up in the fridge, and the weeds had started to take over. Those men might not come into the yard, but it would still be irresponsible not to keep an eye on the kids with people like them living next door. She wasn't too concerned for the twins. They were older and always together. One of them wouldn't go off on her own. Also, they learned about not trusting strangers in school nowadays, and girls were naturally more obedient than boys. Li'l Eric, now, had only done first grade. No telling what he might do. An overly sensitive child—sometimes willful, sometimes timid and fearful. And besides… She wished his sisters would include him in their games. She didn't feel comfortable with him playing alone.

The boy had evidently mastered bouncing his ball against the wall to his satisfaction. Either that, or he got bored doing it, because now he was throwing it as high as he could and trying to catch it. She smiled. He missed every time. He needed his father; Eric would have played catch with him, taught him, if he were here. He'd have said something to that man too, told him to put on a pair of shorts. Perhaps she ought to say something herself. No, better not to acknowledge him; he might think she was ogling him.

The sweat glistened on his body. He'd taken off his tank top and was standing in the middle of his yard, swigging down his pretentious bottled water with his head thrown back and his shock of straight blond hair hanging loose—and wearing next to nothing, no doubt to show off that indecent bulge of his. Did he have to make a display of being thirsty? People like that had become shameless, making a spectacle of themselves, flaunting their gayness as if it were something to be proud of!

As she was turning away from the window, she saw the ball go over the fence. She was about to tell Li'l Eric not to touch the allamanda—she'd warned the children several times already, but kids forget these things when there's a ball involved. The man noticed it too. He walked over, picked it up, and tossed it back to Li'l Eric, who fumbled it and had to run after it. The man smiled and said something. Liv flew to the door.

"What did you just say to my son?"

"Not much. I just said, 'You're welcome.'" He must have thought her a mother hen.

"He remembered to thank you, then. That's good."

"Not exactly. I said it as a reminder. He wasn't rude, really. I think your children are afraid of me, you know."

"It's safer when kids are a little distrustful of people they don't know. We've told them to keep their distance. That's all."

The man frowned. "Don't you think it would be better not to involve your children in this unpleasantness about the house?" As if it were any of his business how she brought up her children!

He must have caught on as soon as he said it, because a look of anger flashed across his face and his body stiffened. Liv was prepared to stare him down, but he simply turned his back on her and walked away. "And I'll thank you not to walk around like that when my children are here," she called out after him. "I don't want them staring at you."

He ignored her. His rudeness rankled. She almost wished he had answered her back so she could give him a piece of her mind. On the other hand, if they got into an argument there was no telling what he might say, and in front of the children, too! She'd said too much already. The girls had paid them no attention, absorbed in their game; Li'l Eric, of course, had taken it all in. It made her nervous. Like a sponge, he was—such an observant child, always wide-eyed, always watching.

"Come inside, sweetie," she said. "We can play a card game. Mommy needs a break."

He followed her into the house.

"My, but I'm parched! I think I'll have a glass of cold lemonade. How about you, sweetie? Would you like one too?"

He nodded.

"It's all right to thank people if they do something for you," she said while she filled their glasses. "That isn't what we meant by not talking to them. We just don't want you having a conversation with them. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Mommy." He hesitated. "Mommy?"

"What is it, sweetie?"

"The man, the one who threw me the ball… I think his name is Jay."

"How do you know that?"

Li'l Eric looked alarmed. "I heard the other man call him that," he explained.

She must have spoken curtly, with an edge to her voice. "It's not nice listening in on other people's conversations," she said gently.

"I wasn't trying to listen. They were talking loud."

"Just keep away from them, okay? Pretend they're not there. Let's forget about it now. It isn't important. What game do you want to play? Rummy? Go Fish?"

Liv handed him the lemonade while he tried to make up his mind. "That's a very full glass I gave you," she said. "You be very careful carrying it into the living room, okay? I'll go get the cards. You see what I meant about them not being nice people?"

Li'l Eric nodded gravely, but she could tell he had no idea what she was talking about.

To purchase, click

Monday, May 13, 2013

Lola Dances excerpt by Victor J Banis

Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances by Victor J Banis ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp's macho inhabitants--until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez--and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.

In this excerpt, the young street tough, Tom Finnegan, has rescued Terry from the drunken profligate pursuing him. He takes him “home,” to his living quarters in the Bowery.

Lola Dances
MLR Press (February 10, 2008)

ISBN-10: 1934531421
ISBN-13: 978-1934531426

Where Tom took him was the cellar of an abandoned tenement building. The surface of the nearby river was red with the descending sun. They climbed through a window that had been boarded up, but Tom pulled the boards easily aside and slipped through. He motioned Terry to follow him, and pulled the boards back into place when they were inside.

Although it was still daylight outside, the basement was in near darkness. Terry stood for a bit, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. What he saw, finally, were makeshift living quarters: a moldy mattress on the floor, a box for a table with a candle atop it, and some scattered tins of food and a couple of apples. The place smelled of mildew and rotted garbage and excrement.

"Is this…?" Terry started to ask, and hesitated.

"I live here," Tom said. He followed Terry's gaze about the room, seeming to see it through Terry's eyes. "It ain't much, is it? But I've lived in worse, I can tell you. Anyway, nobody'll find you here. You're safe with old Tom Finnegan, as safe as in your mother's arms. As long as you want to stay."

"But…I can't stay here," Terry said.

Tom's smile faded and he looked crestfallen, but Terry, still looking around the cellar, missed that.

"No, course not," Tom said. "I expect you're used to lots better. This ain't exactly Fifth Avenue, is it?"

"Oh, I'm not used to that either, that's not what I meant," Terry said quickly, apologetically. "It's just, well, what about my things? And I've got my lessons. Besides, my brother wouldn't like it if he knew."

"Yes. Well." Tom kind of shrugged. "Are you hungry. I've got them apples, and there's a can of beans I haven't finished, if you'd like the rest of them. Go on, sit down, why don't you?"

He motioned to the tattered mattress. A large brown rat had crept onto it and Tom gave him a swift kick. Squealing, the rat vanished into the shadows.

Terry sat a bit gingerly and raised up the next moment to look at the cards he'd sat on, several decks, maybe four or five of them.

"I'm learning to play cards. To make money," Tom said, scooping them out of the way. "I plan to be a professional."

"A card sharp, you mean?" Terry said.

"They ain't a lot of jobs open for a fellow like me," Tom said a bit defensively.

"Oh, I didn't mean to sound like a prig."

"Here," Tom said, and thrust one of the apples at him.

Terry took it and looked at it, but it looked perfectly fine, and he was hungry, now that he thought of it. He rubbed it quickly on his shirtsleeve and bit into it. "It's delicious," he said.

"I steal them," Finnegan said, looking altogether too proud of himself, Terry thought. "I'm good at it. That's how come I think I can get good enough with the cards, if I keep practicing. It's all in the hands. That's how they do it, the good ones. Look."

He took one of the decks and riffled through it, the cards flying so fast in his fingers they were no more than a blur. "Here, take a card," he said. "Any card, and look at it and remember it."

Terry did as he was instructed. It was the Ace of Hearts. "Now, stick it back in the deck, anywhere you like. And," Tom shuffled the cards again, screwed up his face in concentration, cut the deck, and turned one half over, to reveal the Ace of Hearts.

"That's…that's amazing," Terry said. "How did you do that?"

"I told you, it's all in the hands," Tom said, pouting his muscled chest like a pigeon. He looked at the card he'd revealed. "The old Ace of Hearts. Hah. That says something, me boy-o."

"What's that mean?" Terry asked.

"Love," Tom said. "Major heart stuff, real close, close enough you could just about…" he caught himself and gave his head a shake. "Oh, shoot, that's just some old gypsy blarney, reading the cards, it don't amount to a hill of beans, really."

For a moment, their eyes met, and it seemed as if something, some invisible current, passed between them. Terry had an urge, it swept through him, to lean forward, across the short distance that separated them, to come closer—but, for what? He remembered the feel of Tom's body atop his earlier in the alley, the warmth that had radiated from him, and now he saw in Tom's eyes that strange hunger he thought he had detected before.

"You're going to be a dancer, ain't that so?" Tom asked, breaking the spell. "That's what you're doing at that theater, ain't it?"

"Yes. I was going to be, anyway, before all this. Oh, I don't know, it was just a dream. I suppose they don't matter."

"We all have 'em. Least I do. Mine's gettin' rich from playing cards. I'll make it, too. And so will you, I bet."

Terry sighed. "Sometimes, at night, when I'm asleep, I have this other dream, a different kind of dream. The same one, over and over. I'm walking down this road, toward a city, a secret place, it seems like, hidden behind these great walls, and there are all these other people walking toward it too, and everyone keeps going faster and faster, and me too, until I am practically running, only, I don't know what it is I'm running to, I just know there is something waiting there for me, and I can't wait to get to it."

He had been speaking as if to himself, but now he blinked and looked at Tom. "I guess that sounds like a bunch of nonsense, doesn't it?"

"It sounds beautiful to me," Tom said, looking impressed. He gave a deprecating laugh. "All's I ever dream about when I'm sleeping is something to eat."

Terry moved his arm, and winced.

"What's wrong?" Tom asked quickly, all concern.

"Van Arndst hit me a good one back there, with his walking stick." Terry felt cautiously at his shoulder and winced again.

"Here, you better let me have a look at it, then," Tom said. "Take that shirt off, why don't you, and let's see what's what."

Terry hesitated for a moment. "Come on, then, off with it," Tom said, and he looked so serious and so concerned, Terry swallowed his shyness and did as he was told, slipping his torn shirt off.

Tom moved closer to him, put his hands on Terry's shoulder and felt it gingerly. To Terry's surprise, his big, callused hands were astonishingly gentle.

"There, is it?" Tom asked and Terry nodded mutely.

Tom felt around some more, lifted Terry's arm up and brought it back down. "Well, it's good and bruised, that's for sure," he said. "It'll hurt for a bit. Don't look like nothing's broke, though."

They sat for a moment longer. Tom had not taken his hand away. It rested lightly on Terry's shoulder, and Terry realized that Tom was looking at him that way again, only more intently than ever, as if there was something he was dying to say, and was afraid to voice it. In a way, it was how Martin Van Arndst had looked at him, but it was different, too. What had been in Van Arndst's eyes had been hard and cruel, and the light in Tom's was much softer, gentler, and Terry fancied he could see something else in it, too, like a silent, eager plea. Terry's face turned pink.

"I like it when you blush like that," Tom said. That only made the pink deepen to scarlet, which seemed to amuse Tom all the more. He grinned from ear to ear, as if Terry had just performed some clever trick for his amusement.

It was cold in the basement and without his shirt on, even colder. A gust of wind blew through a broken window. Terry gave a shiver. When he exhaled, his breath made a little cloud.

"Say, I'm forgetting my manners," Tom said, business like all of a sudden. "It's cold in this place. I ain't got nothing to start a fire, either. Here. Let me warm you up."

He pulled Terry close, against his own body, and put his arms about him. It felt to Terry as if the other boy's body had the heat of a blast furnace, it all but burned his skin, and penetrated clear through him. He couldn't remember anyone's ever holding him like this—Van Arndst, the swine, had held him when he attacked him, but not like this, tight but gentle too at the same time. Tom's hands moved caressingly up and down Terry's naked back, like he was petting him.

"You could stay for the night, anyway," Tom said, and his man's voice was suddenly a little boy's, very shy and tremulous. "Just to be safe. Ain't got no blankets and no heat, but it'll be warm enough, if we…well…we can keep one another warm, can't we? Sleep close, like? I'll bet you wouldn't be cold at all if I was to keep my arms around you, all night, even, I'd be glad to. Warm and safe, is what old Tom promises you. If you was wanting to stay."

Only, Terry didn't feel at all sure he would be safe with Tom Finnegan, the way Tom promised. He wasn't sure he understood exactly what the danger was, but the quickening of his heart told him that Tom Finnegan's arms might not be the best place for him to spend a night.

"No, I think I'd better go," he said. He struggled to get to his feet. Tom's arms fell away.

"Suit yourself, then. Only, not home, I don't advise," Tom said, in his more manly voice, standing too, brushing some dirt off the front of his still dirty pants. "I doubt that would be smart. I think you'll have to go to your brother, regardless. He'll know what to do, at least. Van Arndst is vermin, but he's a rich man, and powerful. Them kind can be dangerous, to them like us especially."

Terry sighed. Tom was right. There was nowhere else for him to turn, and even if there weren't that other thing between them that he didn't understand, he couldn't very well stay here, could he? It looked like Tom was barely taking care of himself. How could he expect Tom to take care of him?

"I couldn't ask you to take care of me," he voiced his thoughts aloud.

Tom smiled, shy again. "I'd be proud to," he said, in something of a mumble that Terry could only just hear. "I'd like it, if you was to know the truth. You look to me like someone as needs a man to take care of him."

Terry remembered of a sudden the few coins he had in his pocket, the last of Van Arndst's money.

"Oh, say, I've got some money," he said. "Let me pay you for that apple, at least."

He took the coins out of his pocket and held them in his hand, palm up, toward Tom. "If you want," he started to say, but Tom looked so offended and glowered at him so intensely that Terry dropped the coins back into his pocket and offered his empty hand instead. "I can't tell you how grateful I am, for all you did."

Tom took hold of Terry's hand, but he didn't immediately let go of it. He swallowed noisily and took a step closer, so close that Terry fancied he could again feel the heat radiating from his body. He looked suddenly determined, as if he had made up his mind to something.

"Listen, before you go, if you was of a mind…well, we could…" he stammered, "I never said nothing like this before, never to nobody, but, since I been seeing you…well, I kind of been wanting to…I mean, not just anybody, is what I mean to say…"

He lost his courage at that point, though. It was his turn to blush, something Terry would never have imagined the tough boy doing. He left unsaid what it was he wanted and let go of Terry's hand abruptly, and backed away again. "I'll take you to your brother's," he said instead in a gruff voice.

"I can find my way," Terry said, his own feelings awhirl as well, and put his torn shirt back on, but Tom gave him a derisive look.

"You need a man to look after you," he said again, firmly, "is my opinion. I think it's lots better if I was to take you. Come on."

When he put his hand on Terry's backside, to boost him out the window, Terry felt as if he had been touched with a white hot branding iron.

The hand did not linger. The memory of it did, though. Terry could still feel it all the way to Brian's, as real as if Tom still had his hand there.

The river had turned black. They said almost nothing on their way. The clatter of an elevated train on Third Street seemed unnaturally loud in their silence. Tom actually seemed to be angry about something. A couple of times, he brushed his hand surreptitiously down across the front of his trousers, but Terry was afraid to look to see what he was pushing at, and kept his eyes stubbornly away.

When he had delivered him to Brian's door, Tom said, gruffly, his eyes down on his scuffed shoes, "You know where I live, then. Just in case you should ever, you know. It ain't much, but…" He shrugged and left the rest of it unsaid, and walked quickly away.

Terry pushed his glasses up and watched him until he had disappeared around a corner, without looking back.

To read more from Lola Dances, see the excerpts from 2/11/08 and 1/14/13.

To purchase the ebook, click  (MLR Books) or (Amazon)

To purchase the paperback, click (Amazon) or
(Barnes & Noble)

and soon to be available as an audio book!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Bookstore Clerk excerpt by Mykola Dementiuk

Mick reminds us that once upon a time, bookstores were everywhere. They were very numerous in New York City, some neighborhoods even boasting ten or twenty. In Greenwich Village, the East Village, the Upper West Side, and in between, they sometimes stood side by side, and people flocked in to read and buy books. Books were a way of life to many of us, but that’s all gone now. Some claim they‘re “reading” when they read Kindles or Nooks. But is electronic reading the same as reading a real book, holding it, turning its pages, caressing the story word by word, really getting into the grit of the writer’s work? "I think not," says Mick, "we’ve lost some of the wonder that comes from a story on a printed page, giving it up to electronics, the wave of the future, the wave of the NOW! Sadly, I am a Kindle reader, as well."

The Bookstore Clerk by Mykola Dementiuk is a story of a bookstore clerk in the late 1960s, a lover of books; nothing profound or romantic about it, just one guy getting by as best he could. You could say that books saved him.

The Bookstore Clerk
JMS Books
ISBN: 9781611524437


At Doubleday’s I was the first stock boy in that morning; salesgirl Connie let me in, frowning at me as I passed though the revolving doors.

"Good morning,” I said to her.

She sneered at me.

“What’s so good about it?”

We looked at each other but I didn’t say anything and went to the basement stockroom/loading area. The hell with Connie, I thought, she’s a frustrated slut anyway. I shrugged and got her out of my thoughts.

Danny was in right after me, but he kept yawning and could hardly keep his eyes open. I knew that he’d sleep off his hangover as he’d done many times before. He collapsed into a chair and let his head drop forward.

A few times me or Danny, who finally got out of his chair, answered calls for some book that someone wanted and we sent it up on the dumbwaiter. At other times a clerk would come downstairs and get herself a book; it was an easy way to take a break from the selling floor while sneaking in a cigarette.

“You know, I’m going to be a bookstore clerk one day,” I blurted out to Danny when we were alone.

He sneered and made a face.

“What the hell for?” he said, shaking his head. “You ain’t going to get me up there. Nosirree. Anyway, what makes you think they’ll let you up there? You’re a stock boy, accept it.”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Jennings said he was going to help me,” I said, nodding my head but I knew I had already said too much.

“Mr. Jennings? That faggot, he wants only one thing, your dick. What have you got to do with him?” He grinned lecherously. “Or have you two already done it, you pussy?”

The phone rang and I reddened, grabbing it. A bookstore clerk spouted out a title and I went to get it, Danny smiling wickedly after me and shaking his head. When I sent the book upstairs, Danny still was grinning and shaking his head.

“I always knew that you were one of them, a pussy faggot.”

“Fuck you!” I spat out. But then I said, “So what if I am? I don’t want to stay in this grubby old stockroom. You want to call me a faggot for that? Good, that’s what I am, but you’ll be in this stockroom for the rest of your life. Me? I’m going where I belong, up on top.” I folded my arms and stood looking at him.

“Faggot,” he simply repeated, leering at me. “Cocksucking faggot.”

We heard heels on the steps; we both looked, it was Connie.

“Hey Connie, what you think about the new bookstore clerk? He said he’s going to work with you, you ready for another sissy up there?”

Connie scowled, staring at me.

“Stop calling people names. You’ve been warned about that.” She turned to me. “Anyway, all the positions are taken. We don’t need anyone else.”

Danny smirked.

“He said Mr. Jennings will help him. I wonder what he’s doing for Mr. Jennings,” and he winked at Connie.

I was very red-faced, as Connie shook her head.

“I only said that one day I might. What’s the point of working here in the basement if you can’t move up?”

Danny sneered.

“That’s right, get yourself an older sugar daddy like Mr. Jennings and bend over. He’ll have you in a nice position, if you know what I mean.”

“Fuck you, you idiot!” I spat.

“Faggot!” Danny responded, sneering at me.

Connie shook her head again and went back upstairs.

“Fuck you, you motherfucker!” I spat at him.

It was 5:30 in the afternoon, near closing time anyway.


Miss Terri, a short-haired, neck-tied woman in a masculine suit, stood reading some papers in the outer office. She glanced at me as I stepped out of the elevator. In her manly clothes and appearance, she made it evident that she was a bitter, unfriendly lesbian. I always dreaded running into her. She was known facetiously and quietly as “Mrs. Doubleday,” though no one dared say it aloud. She looked at me, shaking her head and sneering.

“Good,” she said to the secretary. “Just get rid of those commas.” The secretary made a disappointed face as Miss Terri turned to me and said, “come this way.” I followed her into an office overlooking Fifth Avenue.

“You wear T-shirts to work,” she said sternly, “with dungarees?”

I winced.

“For downstairs I do, they all wear them. I hardly ever come upstairs, unless I have to take something up.”

“What makes you think you’ll fit in? Do you have dress clothes, like a suit and tie, so you can look presentable?”

“Yes ma’am, they’ll be ready when I need them. I can be ready in a few days, just give the word,” and I smiled at her.

Her face remained immobile, looking at the papers on her desk.

“You worked for a short time at Scribner’s and Brentano’s, is that right?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Stop with the ma’ams!” she flared, “Just say yes or no!”

I nodded, very uneasy.

“Yes, but I’ve been here a year and a few months. I can do a very good job, I know I can. I just need a break.”

She glanced again at the paper.

“We don’t have anything right now. The economy is sluggish. But when it picks up we’ll call you. Oh, how much do you make, $1.25 an hour?” she looked at her paper. “You’re overdue for a raise, $1.30 an hour.” She wrote something down. “Thank you for stopping by. Good day.”

I was stunned. Mr. Jennings’s confidence that I could do well meant nothing to her. I looked at her, stood up and staggered from her office. I saw Connie talking with the secretary. She looked at me, smirked, and went into Miss Terri’s office.

“Stinkin’ bitch!” I muttered as I waited for the elevator doors to shut; the secretary looked up at me.


As I got out of the elevator, I saw that Mr. Jennings was waiting for me in the basement. He saw my downcast appearance. I heard Danny laughing across the room.

“Come with me,” said Timmy. He led me out of Doubleday’s and across the street to the outer waterfall lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue. It had the exclusive restaurant Top of the Sixes, with its panoramic views of New York. I stood downcast at the waterfall.

“I didn’t get it,” I sulked, shrugging like it didn’t mean anything, “The bookseller’s job, I mean.”

But Timmy shook his head, as if he knew differently.

“For now you didn’t get it, but this afternoon I have a meeting with Mr. Simmons, one of Doubleday’s top publishing people. We’ll be discussing just that, the operation and staffing of the bookstore. Don’t be upset, a good word from him will put it motion. Things are spinning right now as we speak.”

“But Miss Terri won’t let it happen. I just saw Connie going in her office. She’ll also tell her she’s against it.”

“Oh bosh, of course they’re against it. Those two lesbian creeps are always against what a man comes up with.”

I looked at him.

“Connie’s a lesbian? I didn’t know.”

“Uh huh, and she’s Terri’s lover. They live together. Down in Greenwich Village.”

“Wow, so why are they against us?” I lowered my voice, looking around at people walking by the waterfall. “Queers and lesbians who like each other just like they do?”

He sighed and rubbed his face.

“If I knew that, the world would be a better place, wouldn’t it? But that’s the way things stand between us; nothing’s any different than it ever was. You just have to stand up and fight, not let them get away with even the slightest bit, because they’ll only take and take until there’s nothing left.” He sighed again. “Let’s go back. Face the monsters, because we’re better than them.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “We’ll know for certain by this afternoon.”

I looked up at him. God, I wished we weren’t with so many people on crowded 5th Avenue. I would have kissed him. I nodded and we started across the busy, traffic-filled avenue.

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