Monday, March 17, 2014

Pretty Boy Dead excerpt by Jon Michaelsen

In Jon Michaelsen's 2014 Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Gay Mystery, there's a murdered male stripper. a missing go-go dancer, a city councilman on the hook. Can Atlanta homicide detective Sergeant Kendall Parker solve the heinous crime and remain safely behind the closet door?

When the body of a young man is found in a popular midtown park, police and local media are quick to pin the brutal killing on a homeless gay kid with AIDS. But homicide detective Sgt. Kendall Parker isn't so convinced, even when the suspect is accused of assaulting another police detective with a deadly weapon.

City leaders want the murder solved yesterday and jump at the chance to pin the crime on the drug-craving teen. It's an election year, so remaining in office is their top priority, even at the sacrifice of the young man. Sgt. Parker is not persuaded and is determined to prove Hopper's innocence, despite the protest of his colleagues, and threatening the deep secret Parker has carefully hidden from his comrades for years.

In this excerpt, Homicide Detectives Kendall Parker and Vincent Perelli, and rookie Timothy Brooks check out a murder victim’s place of employment, the Metroplex, a posh, all-male nude dance club and ask to speak to the manager.

Pretty Boy Dead
Wilde City Press (November 6, 2013)
  •       ISBN-10: 1925031608
  •       ISBN-13: 978-1925031607


The manager of the establishment was a tall, dirty-blond, muscular tank who introduced himself as Callahan. The man shuffled them through the lounge area of the main floor. Smoke, sweat, and cool air filled the room. Large leather sofas and chairs accentuated mammoth artwork that cluttered the dark walls. Fresh, brightly-colored flowers calmed the darkness. Callahan led them past anterooms located on either side of a massive circular bar. They followed their host through a crowd of mostly male bodies: buff, shirtless waiters, drag queens, and transvestites. A concealed door on the right brought them to a small office tucked behind the coat check area.

Parker strained to hear Callahan’s words, so he watched the man’s arms as he directed them to take a seat in the sumptuous chairs in front of a rectangular desk. The bass pulsating through the walls thumped like an ancient warrior’s beat. Brooks chose to stand in a spot near the exit.

“To what do I owe this honor, gents?” Callahan extracted a cigar from a rosewood box on the desk without offering them one.

Parker looked around the office, noting a mobile rack of clothing holding various costumes and uniforms. “We’re investigating the suspicious death of one of your employees, Jason North,” he said, turning back to the man after studying some of photographs on the walls. If the news of the stripper’s demise came as a shock, Callahan didn’t show it. He sat stock-still and listened as Perelli whipped out a few black and whites of the crime scene and placed the photos of the victim atop the desk.

“ID’d him this afternoon,” Parker said, not explaining that confirmation was preliminary until dental records provided proof. “Can you tell us when you saw him last?”

Callahan stared at the glossies before leveling his eyes at Parker. “I guess it was about a week ago.” The man’s indifferent tone irritated Parker. “I remember because Jason should have been on stage last Thursday night, but he didn’t show up.”

“Did that concern you?” Parker didn’t recognize Callahan’s voice as the one left on North’s answering machine.

Callahan’s smirk spoke volumes. He puffed on the cigar and held the smoke in his lungs, appearing to savor its taste before releasing a bluish cloud off to the side. “Why would it? He didn’t bother to let me know that he wouldn’t be in, so why should I be concerned?” Callahan turned to Parker. “Dancers come and go around here, detective. You must know that. It’s not uncommon for them to skip out, happens all the time.”

“Sergeant,” Perelli corrected, scooting forward in his chair as if ready to pounce. Callahan ignored the jab. “How was North’s attitude lately? Any indication he felt his life might be in danger?”

“Not that I noticed. Jason wouldn’t say if he were in any trouble. Wasn’t the type and didn’t need to be. The boy could take care of himself.”

“Apparently not,” Parker said, reaching out to take a cigar from the box on the desk. Callahan cut his eyes toward him, his lips curling in a slight grin before offering Parker a lighter. Parker sat back in his chair and puffed the smoke. “Who would want him dead?”

“Jason?” The manager burst out laughing. “You’re kidding, right?” Parker noted a slight change in Callahan’s demeanor since viewing the photos. The man’s shoulders twitched. “Everybody liked the guy. He was fucking hot, man. Mighty popular with the customers.” His attempt to suppress his emotions didn’t escape Parker. “He’ll be missed.”

“Somebody wouldn’t agree,” Perelli stated. The men stood as if on cue.

Parker put the cigar in the ashtray on the desk. “You don’t mind if we have a look around, do you? Nose around a bit, talk to the staff, that sort of thing.”

The manager’s face drained of color, but he managed to remain cordial. “I have no objections, of course.” Parker shook the man’s hand. “Drinks are on the house, gentleman. If I can be of any further help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Count on it,” Parker said. He held the man’s palm a second longer than needed. “We’ll have more questions later. An officer will drop by tomorrow for a list of your employees.”

“Is that really necessary?” Callahan bristled. “I’m sure you can appreciate the privacy these men value.”

“Yeah, it’s necessary.” The men exited the office and again threaded their way through the crowd. Brooks shouted out something, but the beat carried his words away as he disappeared in the maze. Perelli peeled off and made a beeline for the bar. Parker moved about, betting Callahan knew more than the man had offered. He also figured Callahan had lied about the last time he spoke to North, which could explain the cool reaction at seeing the grisly photos. Hadn’t Callahan dismissed North’s death too quick? Odd, considering he’d just boasted of the dancer’s popularity among the club’s clientele moments earlier. What are you hiding, Callahan?

As he migrated his way through the mezzanine, Parker made a mental note to run a check on Callahan for priors. Men of varying ages shuffled through the club like cattle, pushing and shoving in a sea of sweaty, scantily clad bodies, most engaged in conversations in tight clusters throughout the room. Shirtless bartenders with bulging muscles served up cocktails and popped beer caps for guys five-deep in line around the bar. Dancers in G-strings connected to snatches of cloth danced on the elevated tabletops scattered around.

A room spilled out onto a large balcony with its own bar, framed by twin staircases on either side overlooking a dance floor the size of a basketball court. Smoke poured from the ceiling, obscuring Parker’s view, as did colored lights that spun from multiple rising and falling chrome lattices suspended overhead. Music pulsated from speakers mounted throughout the space as more men jammed onto the dance floor, thrusting to Rihanna’s latest mega-hit, bare chest to bare chest. The smell of musk and sweat permeated the room.

Parker descended the stairs and shoved past frenzied dancers along the wall toward a bar nestled in the corner, its steel counter illuminated by neon sculptures of the male torso. He ordered scotch on the rocks. At first glance, the bartender with the close-cropped peroxide blond hair seemed to recognize him. The man stood rigid, arching his shoulders back and drying his hands on a bar cloth. He looked Parker up and down as he poured the scotch.

Parker turned and watched as a thrust of dry ice fog engulfed the dancers. He spotted amber vials of liquid shoved up to their noses, heads thrown back with their eyes closed. The men danced close together, bodies pressing tightly and moving in rhythm. A young, pierced, and tattooed couple clung to each other kissing, oblivious to the world around them.

“The name’s Jake.” Parker heard over his shoulder. He took a plastic cup filled with scotch and ice from the bartender, who stared at him with ice blue eyes. “It’s on me.”

“Thanks,” Parker said with a smile. “Did you know Jason North? He was a dancer here.”

The bartender hesitated before speaking, his eyes darting around the room before leaning in closer. “Who didn’t know Jason?” he replied with a harsh tone. “The guy was a fucking jerk. Probably deserved it.”

Not the sentiment Parker expected to hear. “You two didn’t get along?”

The man scowled. “Jason was a prick, a snot-nosed rich kid who shouldn’t have been dancing here in the first place. He didn’t need the money, man, not like the rest of us. Most of these guys, the dancers here, couldn’t take his attitude.”

Parker sipped his cocktail as Jake filled requests yelled at him by a shirtless, muscled waiter who plopped a drink tray on the counter. When Muscles took off, Parker said, “I came away with the impression Jason was one of the most popular attractions.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “The customers couldn’t get enough of the guy. That’s why the other dancer’s couldn’t stand him. Most resented his talent, if that’s what you’d call it. He crowded their space, man. If a pedestal some dude was dancing on had a larger crowd, Jason butted in. He landed the prime shifts, the best dancing spots and worked on his own terms. None of the other guys received the same treatment, that’s for sure.”

“You sound angry.” Parker lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the side of his mouth. “Holding a grudge?”

“Yeah, something like that.” Jake glanced around the room. “Look man, Anthony takes care of his boys, all right? He doesn’t give shit about the rest of us.”

“You’re saying the owner and Jason were sticking it to each other?”

Jake glanced up to a figure peering down from the upper balcony. “I’ve said enough. Fuck, I’ll probably get fired for talking to you.” He rushed off to attend to other customers.

Parker looked up in time to see a tall, sharply dressed figure withdraw from the railing into the shadows of the crowd. From photos he’d seen in the paper, he recognized the club owner, Anthony Galloti, profligate nephew to one of the most lethal crime families in Chicago. He also knew that Special Investigations had tried and failed to link Galloti to racketeering indictments including prostitution, money laundering, police corruption, loan sharking, and credit card fraud, to name a few. 

A meaty hand landed on Parker’s shoulder.

“I’ve talked to a few of the bartenders,” Perelli shouted, leaning near his partner’s ear. He stuck a thumb over his shoulder as Parker turned. “None….good…say…”

Unable to understand, he motioned for them to move up the stairs and out into the main room. “What were you saying?” he asked, ignoring the ringing echo in his ears.

“No luck so far. I’ve talked to several employees, but nothing.” Perelli tipped his cup on end, licking the remnants of alcohol from the corners of his mouth. “I’m getting another. Want one?”

“Take it easy on the alcohol, Perelli.”

Perelli waved him off and shot across the carpeted floor, returning moments later with a fresh drink. “Cops carry clout in these places,” he said. “No waiting in line either.” The threat to his masculinity had abated with a few drinks. So, it seemed, had his cold shoulder to Parker. “Hell, this place ain’t so bad,” he sneered. “Despite all the fucking fags.”

Parker ignored his partner’s comment, distracted by the movement of a patron across the room. The young man was edging toward the emergency exit and kept an eye peeled in their direction.

“What’s up, partner?”

“I’m not sure yet,” said Parker. “You see the guy over there in the red tank?” Perelli followed Parker’s stare and nodded. “Since we’ve been standing here, he’s slipped through the crowd, not a word to anyone, but kept watching us. Looks like he’s headed for that exit.”

“I’d say he’s about to bolt.” Perelli tossed his cup into a nearby trash bin and leaned in close to Parker’s ear. “I’ll head out front and swing around,” he said. “He makes a run for it, I’ll be there.”

Parker studied the character over his partner’s shoulder. “Keep it cool, Perelli,” he said. “If the dude makes a break for it, detain him and that’s all. It’s probably nothing, but I want to be sure. And watch your back.”

Perelli disappeared through the squash of bodies. Parker sipped his cocktail, peering over the rim of the plastic cup as he watched the man’s eyes springboard around the room. Parker spotted Callahan and two goons moving in fast as the man rushed to make a break for it. A hand slapped onto Parker’s arm about the time he started to advance.

“Slade. What the hell are you doing here?”

The reporter smirked. Parker turned back in time to see the red shirt had moved closer to the emergency exit. A cluster of chatty men blocked his view as Slade tugged his arm again.

You’re working the park homicide, aren’t you? Why else would you be here?” Slade tried to follow Parker’s line of sight across the room. “I know the victim worked here as a dancer, a mighty popular one, I might add.”

“What’s your point?” Parker turned away and craned his neck over the crowd in front of him. He spotted the tousled blond hair of the young man within inches of freedom. “Some other time,” he said.

All eyes were on Parker as he shoved and elbowed his way through the crowd, stepping on a few toes along the way. He heard some choice words and threats in his wake. Patrons dashed out of the way and protected their drinks.

The guy threw open the emergency door and set off the alarm. Someone nearby screamed and people scattered in the opposite direction. Callahan and his men retreated as Parker reached the exit, slammed through the door and leaped into the alleyway beside the club.

Pitch black. Retrieving his gun with his right hand, he clasped the butt of the weapon with his left and waited wide-eyed for his pupils to adjust. Where was Perelli? Brooks? The smell of sewage and stale beer hung in the night air. Behind him, the heavy door shut.

An eerie silence invaded the area. 

For another excerpt from Pretty Boy Dead, see the blog entry for November 4, 2013


Victor J. Banis said...

I swear, I've been in that bar - only it was in San Francisco. Very atmospheric - nice excerpt - thanks both

AlanChinWriter said...

Great bit of writing, Jon. I can see why this is up for an award.

Jon Michaelsen said...

I thought I had responded to you guys, but thank you so much Victor and Alan!