The following are excerpts from the upcoming ‘Murder at Pride Lodge,’ the first in the Kyle Callahan Mystery Series (www.kcallahanmysteries.com). The book is set to launch just around Halloween, which is when the murder takes place. How’s that for timing? – Mark McNease
Prologue – Los Angeles
Sam Tatum was found flat on his back in a parking garage three blocks from the Glendale Galleria at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. Had it not started raining that day he would have parked on the street and died in a puddle, his face wet with drizzle and his eyes staring up, unblinking, as rain flushed the life from them. The garage had been fate’s one courtesy, saving him the embarrassment of dying even more publicly than he did, insofar as corpses can be embarrassed. It was an ignominious death: while he’d expected to die from one too many lines of cocaine up his old man’s nose, or murdered, even, in a fit of pique by one of the hustlers he’d been too fond of for too many years, ending his life on the concrete floor of a parking garage, his head in an oil stain, was too seedy even for Sam. Had he been able to think once he was dead, he would have found it a tawdry end to a tawdry life and been glad it was over.
The witnesses assumed it was cardiac arrest. The woman who found him, walking with her 12-year old daughter to their newly purchased Prius parked three cars to the left of Sam’s Camry, had worked as a nurse before marrying well and was familiar enough with dead bodies to make the call. The poor guy was old, out of shape, uncommonly pale, and obviously lived an unhealthy life. He was lucky to make it this far, she thought, more disturbed that her child had seen a corpse than that he was actually dead. She didn’t know him, what was it to her? Mostly it was an inconvenience, since she had the decency to call an ambulance, knowing it was much too late to save the poor slob, and stay around to speak to the police. She’d considered making it an anonymous 911 call, since her daughter’s ballet class started at 3:30 and this would mean missing it for sure. But something in her, that old nurse calling, that instinct to do the right thing, made her give her name and location and wait patiently for the paramedics who would try to resuscitate a man she knew was dead. His eyes were open, for godsake, and what life had been in them had slipped away some time ago. Anyone could see that.
She’d told her daughter Kelly to get into the car the moment she saw the man’s feet come into view. Kelly, being a precocious, ballet-class-taking 12-year-old, wanted the full view and instead of doing what she was told rushed around ahead of her mother to get a good look. She’d never seen a dead body before and she could tell by her mother’s lack of urgency that the guy was probably beyond help. After an inappropriate but predictable, “Cool!”, she obeyed her mother and skipped ahead to their car. Once inside, she tweeted that she and her mother had found a dead guy, and waited for her friends’ texts to start flooding in.
Sam’s death was twelfth-page news, not more than a brief item for the curious, a paragraph about a man found dead near the Glendale Galleria. The reporter for the Glendale News-Press gave it a quick once-over, not bothering to call the coroner’s office or find out any significant details about Sam Tatum’s life and death. News had to flow constantly these days, and most of that was from wire services and Google alerts. Real reporting was a dying profession, and the News-Press hack was happy not to expend too much energy on dead old fat men in parking garages. If the death wasn’t important enough to make the L.A. Times, why the hell should he bother with it? So it ran as a sidebar, a snippet, given about as much notice as Sam Tatum had been given most of his life.
There was one website, however, that specialized in unusual deaths, which Sam’s turned out to be. DeathWatchLA.com had begun in the 1970s as a sort of gossip rag for the morbidly obsessed. Back then it was just a couple pages offering lurid details of murders both sensational and obscure, so long as they were noteworthy for their gruesomeness or peculiarity. An accidental decapitation could sell an extra thousand copies. Run of the mill heart attacks didn’t make the grade; as it turned out, Sam Tatum’s death was not run of the mill.
With the arrival of the internet the creepy little paper became a big attractive website, and even though its founder had died in a way befitting a banner headline – found stuffed in the trunk of a Lincoln town car – his sons knew a gold mine when they had one and turned the site into a million-hits-a-month bonanza. They expanded with sister sites (DeathWatchNYC, DeathWatchCHI, even a DeathWatchMinneapolis), death tours, both walking and by hearse, and planned to launch their own malt liquor in a few months. Meanwhile, they had content to keep up and readers to satisfy, and as much as one might not expect it, there were fans of the ordinary who found a parking lot death-by-ice pick as fascinating as a decomposed celebrity. For that is how Sam Tatum had really died: an ice pick (as close as the coroner could guess on a murder weapon) slipped quickly, almost expertly, into the base of his skull, shoved at an upward angle to ensure instant death and very little blood loss. It seems someone had wanted Sam dead and had found the perfect opportunity – the third floor of a parking garage with no more than a dozen cars parked in it and no witnesses. How they came upon him was anyone’s guess. There appeared to be no signs of conflict, not even a sign of alarm. Had it been someone he knew? Or simply someone he felt unthreatened by? No one would ever know, but DeathWatchLA certainly posed the questions.
Thus it was that someone on the other side of the country who happened to read DeathWatchLA took notice and knew that the email he’d gotten from Sam two weeks earlier was not the panic of a man who’d used too many drugs and bought too many young men. Sam Tatum was dead. He had not been paranoid, but convinced someone was after them, and he had been right. Three months earlier there had been another death, a man named Frank Grandy, this one in Detroit. Neither of them had spoken to Frank in years, and it was only when Frank had left Sam $5000 in his will as a very belated repayment of a loan, that Sam knew their old partner in crime was dead. No suspects had been named, no one identified, but the report mentioned an antique pocket watch Frank was selling on an internet auction site. The watch case was there, but the watch was gone. Robbery, they assumed, but the investigation had gone nowhere. That was what rang the alarm bell for Sam, the watch. He was surprised Frank had kept it all these years, but not surprised it had led to his death. The past, it seems, had been waiting patiently to find them, and it had.
The two deaths spoke not of coincidence, but of a plan, with a planner and only one target left. The DeathWatchLA reader logged off his computer, swiveled around in his desk chair and cheerfully took a cup of coffee from his partner, smiling as if nothing had changed and they were simply beginning another gorgeous day. Time to get started.
Chapter One – Pride Lodge
Halloween weekend was the busiest of the year at Pride Lodge, with the Fourth of July a close second. Gay people like a party, and the Halloween parties at the Lodge had been legendary for twenty-five years. Rooms in the main lodge and the six adjoining cabins were sold out by mid-summer, all in anticipation of a fiendishly good time in the Pennsylvania countryside not quite like anything the guests would find elsewhere. It was city meets country in a unique and intimate setting far from the streets of New York or Philadelphia. Everybody knew everybody here, and among the delights for guests was seeing friends they hadn’t hugged or shared a drink with since last Halloween.
Pride Lodge sits on ten acres along Pennsylvania’s Highway 32, just 20 minutes from New Hope and a short walk from the Delaware River. Originally an old farmhouse, the Lodge had been converted into an inn in the early 1950s. Bed and breakfasts weren’t all the rage then, and the idea of having an inn along a country road, surrounded by woods and farmland and catering to people who wanted something out of their way, was a novelty. So much of a novelty that the business failed and the original owners, well-intended but bankrupt, sold it to new owners, who sold it to newer owners. Finally, in the mid-1980s, the inn was dilapidated, its windows boarded up for longer than anyone could remember, and the last owner was selling the land. That was when Pucky Green and Stu Patterson, partners in life and whatever business venture they’d cooked up at the time, decided it was a perfect place for a gay resort. It proved to be the one stroke of genius and the one true success they ever had, aside from deciding to spend their lives together.
They renovated the old inn and re-christened it Pride Lodge. They added on to the main two-story building until it had eight guest rooms on the first floor and six on the second, along with what they called the Master Suite, where the two of them lived. The Lodge boasted a functioning restaurant and bar adjoining the main room, which everyone call the “great room”, complete with fireplace, wide-screen television, three mahogany book shelves to give the space a library feel, and a check-in desk where you could buy the usual rainbow paraphernalia, along with a Pride Lodge sweatshirt and baseball cap, should you be in the market for souvenirs. Three years into the venture, when they realized it was going to succeed, they added a swimming pool, and two years after that they had six cabins built, each with two spacious “luxury” rooms that included kitchenettes and private baths. They had the inn’s cavernous basement sound-proofed and converted half into a piano bar called Clyde’s and half into a karaoke room. The combined entertainment had the effect of bringing in locals for dinner and a night out, helping to swell the numbers without having to add more rooms.
The whole undertaking took five years, but once it was completed it was a sight to behold: a resort for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and more than a few transgender visitors, well before the term had been officially coined. Back then everyone just called it a gay resort, with the knowledge that all were welcome, including the occasional, confused heterosexual couple who pulled into the driveway because they liked the name of the place. Most of them politely drove on once they got to the desk and realized there was something different going on here. Maybe it was the two slightly masculine women sitting by the fireplace, or the restaurant hostess with the Adam’s apple, but now and then they stayed and were made to feel as much at home as any other guest.
Pucky was the ringmaster, the chatty, gregarious captain of this strange and colorful ship. A diminutive man at five-five, he had a habit of keeping his hair dyed strawberry blond and wearing a collection of eyeglasses to rival a young Elton John’s. Pucky loved his glasses, all of them prescription and required for him to see three feet beyond his nose, and he would wear a different pair each week, starting over every six weeks for the six pairs he owned. He wore Hawaiian shirts in the summer and high-end casual short-sleeved shirts the rest of the year, always with long pants. Pucky didn’t like his legs; he thought they were too chickeny, as he called them, and he never exposed them in public, which meant he never used the swimming pool. He was the face of Pride Lodge, the official greeter, taskmaster of a ragtag staff, and the table floater at dinner who went from guest to guest asking how their food was, if their rooms were up to snuff, and if there was anything at all he could help them with, excluding the sexual encounters some of the guests hoped for after an hour or two at the bar. That, Pucky discreetly let them know, was up to them. He was many things, with many hats, but a pimp was not one of them.
Stu had met Pucky when they were both in the United States Navy stationed at the Naval Air Station in Key West. Had it been up to Stu they would still be living there. He much preferred the tropical climate of the Florida Keys, but even more important to him was the man he’d fallen in love with and to whom he’d committed his life way back in 1972. A world away, a time removed, when Vietnam was still unresolved and an American president had yet to resign in disgrace.
Stu was silence to Pucky’s noise, calm to Pucky’s chaos. He stayed in the background, even though everyone knew who he was. Stu did the Lodge’s books and looked after the financial end of things. He liked that. He was a thinker, a lover of novels and quiet. Running Pride Lodge might seem like an odd choice for a man who preferred the company of only one person, but it worked well for Stu. He had life in the country. He had Pucky to look after the guests and keep the occasional madness away from him. And he had a companion for life, his one great treasure. It made aging, going bald, feeling his knees begin to buckle and the weight slowly add to his once tall, slender frame, not quite so discomfiting.
One morning three years ago Stu was taking his dawn constitutional, as he called it, walking around the grounds as the sun was just beginning to rise. He would have a single cup of de-caffeinated coffee in the Suite’s kitchen while it was still dark out; then he would put on his coat if the weather was chill, as it had been that September, and he would walk slowly around the cabins, along the periphery of the property and back up past the pool, climbing the stairs that led to the Lodge just as the sun was climbing the morning sky. That was where they found him, on the stairs, almost at the top, as if, had he made it three more steps, he would still be alive. His heart had stopped, outlasted by his knees and every other part of him, as he made his way slowly up the stairs. The one small mercy was that Ricki, the long-time desk manager, night time restaurant hostess and summer pool boy, if you can call a 50-year-old man a boy, was the one who found him. Ricki slept very little, which helped explain how he managed to be so many things to so many people, and it was his habit to drive in from his home in Lambertville, across the river in New Jersey, and clean the bars first thing in the morning. When he parked his car that day he noticed what looked like a red jacket on the steps leading up to the Lodge. At first he assumed someone had had too much to drink the night before and lost their jacket, but then he noticed a pair of beige pants running below the jacket and an arm stuck straight out to the side and he suddenly realized it was a person, lying face down and motionless. He rushed over to find Stu, dead with his glasses cracked on his face from where he’d hit the step, those stupid old black horn-rims Pucky had been on him for years to replace. He rolled Stu over and, not knowing the first thing about CPR, tried to save him anyway, stopping in the frantic effort to shout, “Help! Help! Somebody help!”
Pucky tried to carry on without Stu but everyone could tell it wasn’t going to work. He stopped greeting people, he stopped paying attention to detail, and within a few months he stopped caring altogether. He decided to sell Pride Lodge and retire to Key West, the one other place he knew Stu loved. He would sell the Lodge, where his heart had stopped on those steps as surely as Stu’s had, and he would go to the southernmost end of the country, buy a small condo, and live out his life with his memories.
Word spread quickly that Pucky was selling. Fear set in among the regulars that the famed and beloved Pride Lodge would end up in the hands of a developer who cared not a whit for its history, and the collective memory of all the friends and guests who had stayed there would quickly fade, blown away as easily and dismissively as ash.
That was when Sid Stanhope and Dylan Tremblay stepped in. Ten years apart in age, with Sid the older at sixty-two that year, they were long-time guests of the Lodge who drove in from their home in Long Branch, New Jersey, several times a year to spend long weekends. Sid was about ready to retire from his job as an assistant bank manager, having hoped the past five years not to be laid off; he saw this as a golden opportunity to get out before he was pushed out, despite the tragic circumstances that had the Lodge on the market. Dylan had never been content to begin with, job hopping his entire adult life until he found his job of the last six years selling men’s clothes in a store whose only claim to fame was having survived in Long Branch. The boardwalk there had been built up over the last decade, with high-end condos along the shore. Life in Long Branch wasn’t quite the depressing reality it had been, but the chance to get out? To buy Pride Lodge and live out their lives there, as Pucky and Stu had? It was just the sort of stroke of luck, that accident of timing, you could wait most of your life for. When it happened you had to act. Sid and Dylan acted, and two years later, as they decorated the Lodge for another Halloween, they still thought it was the best move they’d ever made.