This story was a step outside of my comfort zone, something that my editor Greg Herren has always encouraged me to do. He’s commented how funny it is when writers are approached to contribute to an anthology outside their usual genre, the frequent response is “oh, I don’t write mystery/noir/horror/erotica/literary clown fiction.” (I made up that last one, but it’s got potential, don’t you think? No? Just me? Let’s move on, then.)
Where was I? Oh right, stepping outside of your comfort zone. Instead of responding “I don’t write that,” Greg told me, you might consider “I’ve never tried that before.” You never know what you’re going to enjoy writing.
“Murder on the Midway” was my submission to the anthology Men of the Mean Streets, a collection of gay noir fiction that was edited by Greg and J.M. Redmann. I wrote this in 2010, and looking back, of course, there are things I’d probably change about it now, transitions that are too abrupt or things that don’t quite tie together as nicely as I’d like them to. But woulda, coulda, shoulda.
I still like Sam Page, the private investigator who’s the main character here. I thought this was going to be a one-off appearance for him, but imagine my surprise in 2014 when he came back for a visit while I was in grad school. I wrote another story featuring him, and to a person, everyone in my fiction workshop that year said this isn’t a story, it’s a book. So there’s another project I need to get around to.
Like many of the anthologies Greg has edited over the years, there are a lot of writers in that book who’ve become friends. That was another of the added benefits of stepping outside my comfort zone: all of the other people I met by doing so.
I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life in that.
Murder on the Midway
Summer in St. Louis was three months of misery. During the day, the sun tried to burn you to a crisp, and if that failed, at night the humidity tried to boil you alive. It was as if the city wanted you dead.
In Jacob Anderson’s case, the weather didn’t kill him, but he was still just as dead: face down in the middle of the carnival that had taken up residence on the parking lot of the Unitarian Church, just as they’d done for the past several years to raise money for Building Our Youth, the local gay support group that was Jacob’s primary mission.
Cause of death: blunt force trauma to the back of the head from the mallet used in the Test Your Strength booth. Whoever killed Jacob could probably have made the bell ring.
It was an undignified end for someone who was immediately trumpeted in the media as a pillar of the GLBT community, always willing to lend support and hard work for a good cause, especially if it involved helping rejected gay teens and young adults. It didn’t take long for the phrase “hate crime” to get tossed around, an accusation against the less tolerant corners of the city, which was most of them.
Sam Page was surprised when Milo Leveque came into his office two days later to discuss the case.
Milo was one of St. Louis’s A-list gays. Independently wealthy and semi-retired after making some incredible—and incredibly well-timed—real estate deals a few years earlier, he now devoted himself to civic life. He was seen at all of the right art gallery openings, served on the boards of Food Outreach and Effort for AIDS, gave money to the cultural bulwarks of the city, and helped plan A Tasteful Affair every year. He helped raise money for Pride St. Louis even though he never set foot in the park for the sweltering summer festival. Maybe he didn’t want the heat and humidity of St. Louis to kill him.
He was also blond and fit, and Sam would have paid attention to him even if he wasn’t a potential client and loaded to the gills.
“Someone is threatening me,” Milo said, incongruously sitting in Sam’s shabby office. “They think I know something about why Jacob was killed, and they want me to keep quiet about it.”
“What makes you think that?”
Milo reached into his front pocket and pulled out his phone. The gesture lengthened his torso and gave Sam a glimpse of what he might look like lying in bed. He flipped it open, pressed a few buttons, then handed it to Sam. It was a cheap phone, which surprised Sam. Milo seemed like the sort of person who would be first in line to get the latest iPhone—or rather, the sort of person who’d pay someone to stand in line for him.
It was a text message, the sender’s number blocked. “Keep your mouth shut. I’ve still got a few swings left. Just ask Jacob. Oh, wait….” Sam snapped the phone shut and handed it back.
“Any idea what they think you know?”
Milo shook his head. “I have no idea.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “If you know something and want me to help you, you’d better tell me. I don’t like it when clients only tell me half the story.”
Milo leaned forward. “So you’ll take my case?”
Sam waited long enough to instill a hint of doubt, then said, “Nicely played, Mister Leveque. And yes, I’ll take the case.”
“Do you think you can trace that text message?”
“If the sender had any sense, it’s probably from one of those pay-as-you-go phones. Or it could have been sent anonymously over the web. Hard to trace, especially if you don’t want to go to the police. Which I’m assuming you don’t.”
“You assume correctly, Mister Page.”
“Well, I’ll give it a shot anyway.” Sam picked up a pen and positioned a legal pad in front of him. He was not a note taker, but he found it helped to have props, and putting something in his hand kept him from wanting to reach for a cigarette. “So,” he asked, “do you think Jacob’s murder was a hate crime?”
Milo shook his head and smiled as if he knew something no one else did. Sam was determined to know what that something was. “Spit it out, Mister Leveque. There’s only one thing I require from my clients: complete honesty.”
“Please, call me Milo. And how often do you get complete honesty from your clients?”
“Almost never. But I require it anyway. So tell me why you think Jacob was murdered.”
Milo leaned back again and put his hands behind his head. His biceps rose like hills. Clearly, he devoted himself to civic life and to gym life. “Because Jacob got his biggest charitable donations by using his best asset: his ass.”
Sam turned on his computer and typed in a URL Milo gave him, and soon he was staring at a profile on a site called rentboy.com with a photo of a lean, muscular, and almost completely naked Jacob Anderson. In the spirit of the Internet, he’d described himself being three years younger than he really was at his time of death and a “nonstop pig bottom who’ll let you do anything you want.”
“This still doesn’t explain why someone would want to kill him,” Sam said.
Milo rolled his eyes, as if amazed that he had to spell it out. “Jacob specialized in wealthy, closeted clientele. People who had certain tastes but didn’t want them widely known. He saw to it that such tastes found expression.”
Sam had to smile at Milo’s delicate euphemism. “For a price, I assume.”
Milo nodded. “Sometimes his clients weren’t aware of this arrangement until after Jacob offered them some visual incentive.”
Blackmail. Now there, Sam thought, was a reason. “Pictures?”
“Videos. Easier to set up and more persuasive.”
“Were you one of Jacob’s clients?”
Milo paused for a moment, as if deciding how to respond, which as much as answered the question for Sam. Milo definitely had been a client, but something about the nature of their relationship must have changed in order for Milo to come to Sam.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Milo said. “I was either stupid to get involved or foolish to admit it.”
“I don’t judge.”
“Of course not. You’ll have to believe me. Jacob may have been doing a lot of things to me, but blackmail wasn’t one of them. I want you to find out who killed him because I don’t think the police will.” He leaned forward and placed his hand over Sam’s. “Please.”
Sam stared at their hands for a moment, then turned his over in Milo’s palm to end with a handshake. “I’ll do my best, Mister Leveque.”
“Please, call me Milo.”
So, that’s just the first part of the story. To read the whole thing and more like it, sign up for my mailing list.