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Chapter 1: The 9th Man

Cover of "The Ninth Man"

Chapter 1

It’s hard to remember, now, that there was a time not so long ago when all it took to do whatever you wanted was to find someone willing to do it with you—when the highest “wages of sin” you might have to pay was a case of clap. It was a different time, and a different world, and I miss it.

* * *

It was hotter than hell, the air conditioner hadn’t worked since the Titanic went down, and I was in no mood for the bleached-blond queen who came swishing across the room toward me after making an entrance that made me wonder whatever happened to Loretta Young. There were times when I almost wished I had a few straight clients, and this was one of those times. Still, I told myself, it isn’t the principle of the thing, it’s the money.

I stood up and extended my hand. As I expected, the proffered appendage was limp and vaguely clammy.

“Mr. Rholfing.” I made it a statement, not a question. Clients, I’ve found, expect you to be decisive. Authoritative. Butch. It’s bullshit, but it works.

“Yes, Mr. Hardesty.” Jesus, he sounded as nelly as he looked. “I’m so glad you could see me.” I felt his eyes giving my entire body a radar scan.

He was wearing one of those cloying perfumes/colognes that emanate an almost visible fog around the wearer.

“Have a chair,” I said, indicating the one that would have been upwind if there’d been any movement of air through the open window, which there wasn’t.

I sat down behind my desk and watched as Rholfing fluttered down, with considerable butt-wiggling, and immediately crossed his legs at the knee. He was dressed all in perma-starched white, with a flaming yellow ascot which missed his hair color by about eight shades. He looked like a butter-pecan ice cream cone with delusions of grandeur. After the talcum had settled, I sat back in my own chair and forced myself to stare directly at my prospective client—mentally picturing a maraschino cherry and some chopped nuts atop the carefully coifed curls.

Rholfing leaned forward, crossing his wrists on his crossed knees, and said simply: “Someone has killed my lover.”

Why me, Lord? Why do I get all the cracked marbles?

We stared at one another in silence for a moment or two until I finally managed to remind myself that that’s what I’m in business for: to solve other people’s mysteries.

“Any idea who?” I asked.

“How should I know?” he said, exasperated, his manicured hands fluttering up a short distance from his knees, only to settle back, studiedly.

“Well, at the risk of sounding a bit like a B movie,” I said, “isn’t this a matter for the police?”

Rholfing stared at me as though I’d just farted in church.

“The police all but said that he committed suicide. The police,” he said finally, “eat shit. Somebody killed him.”

The thought flashed through my mind that anyone sharing an evening, let alone a life, with the character in front of me might well be a candidate for suicide. “Exactly what makes you think he was murdered?” I asked, choosing not to get into a long discussion of the merits and flaws of law enforcement.

“Bobby was 27 years old, healthy as a horse—hung like one, too—and never had a sick day in his life, unless you count hangovers. Personally, I don’t. And all of a sudden he’s dead in some cheap, tacky hotel room without a mark on him and the police think it was suicide!”

“I assume there was an autopsy,” I said. “What did they say about that?”

“Oh, they said several things, none of which a lady cares to repeat. The gist of it was that while it was perfectly all right for a fruit like me to come down to the morgue to identify the body, since I was neither a blood relative nor his legal guardian, I had no right whatsoever to any information other than that he’s dead—which any fool could see, with him lying there on that fucking slab!”

“And that was it?”

Rholfing took a small white handkerchief from his shoulder bag and dabbed at the corners of his mouth. He then carefully folded it, returned it to the bag, zipped the bag shut, and re-creased the already razor-sharp crease in his trousers with thumb and forefinger before finally re-meeting my gaze.

“Not quite,” he said. “Two of the burly cretins took me into a small room and subtly asked me what my experience had been with poisons. Poisons! Me! I was tempted to tell them to drop by some afternoon for tea and I’d see what I could do, but I’d just had the fumigators in. Me! Lucretia Borgia! Can you imagine?”

As a matter of fact, I could.

“Now, I may be a fairy,” he continued, smoothing down the back of his hair with one hand, “but I certainly am not stupid! Their refusing to tell me how he died in one breath and asking me about poisons in the next was about as subtle as a lighted match on the Hindenburg.

“Bobby was murdered. There’s no question about it. And knowing how the police in this city feel about faggots, the only way anyone is going to find out who killed Bobby is for me to hire you. You come…” (he gave me a smile I’m sure he meant to be disarming, but came across outright lecherous) “…very highly recommended.”

“Thanks,” I said, awkwardly. I never did learn how to accept compliments very well—even those without hooks in them. “Have you spoken to Bobby’s parents about this?” I asked.

“What parents?” Rholfing asked, haughtily. “He told me he had a grandfather back in Utah somewhere, but he never mentioned parents, if he ever had any.”

“So can you tell me anything about Bobby that might help?” I asked.

“Well, he was a tramp—that much I know. He’d go home with anything in pants. I told him I was going to get him his own portable glory hole and put it out in the street in front of the apartment. At least that way I’d know where he was all the time.”

“Did the police say anything about drugs?”

Rholfing thought a moment, lips pursed, nose wrinkled, brows knit, eyes looking upward at nothing. “I don’t think so. Just poisons.”

“Did he use drugs?” I asked.

Rholfing sighed. “No, thank God. That was one of his good points—about his only one, come to think of it: he never got mixed up with drugs. Oh, he’d smoke a joint now and then, but I guess we all do, don’t we?” He gave me a conspiratorial wink—the kind you can see from the top row of the balcony—and that coy/lecherous smile again.

I didn’t say anything for a moment (that’s a bad habit I have; when I don’t have anything to say, I tend not to say anything—bugs the shit out of a lot of people), and Rholfing sat there looking more and more uncomfortable as the seconds dragged on. He pulled a monogrammed handkerchief from God knows where and began waving it gently back and forth beneath his chin. A tiny droplet of perspiration crept from his hairline and meandered its way across his left temple.

Finally, he couldn’t stand it. “Well? Will you take the case?”

“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t have much to go on.” God! Where had I heard that line before?

“Well, find something,” Rholfing blurted, revealing the rolled-steel interior behind that whipped-cream and lace facade. “You’re the big, strong detective. To the cops he’s just another dead fag, and good riddance—but nobody kills my lover and gets away with it.” He must have anticipated my next comment, because he hastened to add: “Don’t worry about the money. Daddy has five or six acres of downtown Fort Worth, and he’ll give me anything I want just for me to stay the hell away from there.”

I found myself in something of a quandary. I had—clichés aside—very little to go on. Given Rholfing’s account of the circumstances of the death, however accurate or inaccurate they may have been, and despite his denial of his lover’s drug use, the obvious assumption was that it was very likely a routine drug overdose. But that’s why people hire me in the first place; if they knew all the answers, who’d need a detective? The police were notoriously uncooperative in anything that smacked of homosexuality. And I wasn’t exactly in a position to pass up a potential client—particularly one whose Daddy had five or six acres of downtown Fort Worth.

I thought of Tim Jackson, a sometime-trick and pretty good friend of mine who works in the county coroner’s office. I’d never had the occasion to use his professional services, but maybe now was the time.

“Okay, Mr. Rholfing; I’ll check it out,” I said. “But don’t expect miracles.”

I thought he was going to leap across the desk and kiss me. Fortunately, he didn’t.

“Now, about my fee…” I began, but he cut me off by digging into his shoulder bag and coming up with a bunch of crisp, new $100 bills.

“Will this be enough? For a retinue, or whatever in hell it is you call it?”

“Retainer, and it’ll do just fine,” I said, making a conscious effort not to grab it out of his hand.

“You will call me, won’t you?” he said, rising out of his chair as graceful as a hot-air balloon and again giving me the radar scan. “Even if you don’t have anything to report, I’d appreciate your keeping in… close…touch.” He used one hand to adjust his shoulder bag while the other made an inspection of the back of his shirt, pulling and tugging at imaginary wrinkles. “Perhaps you could stop by for a drink some evening?” He sounded like Delilah asking Samson to stop by for a haircut. “You do have my name and address, don’t you?”

I assured him I had written them down when he called for the appointment, resisting the temptation to speculate that every tearoom wall in town had his number. I rose and he, eyes glued to my crotch, offered me a dead hand at the end of a limp wrist. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to kiss it or shake it, so I took the latter course, and he turned on his little ballerina feet and swished to the door.

“Oh, there is one little thing,” I called after him as his hand reached for the knob. He turned quickly, eyes sparkling coquettishly.

“Yes?”

“About your lover.”

“Who?”

“Your lover. Bobby.”

“Oh. Yes.” He looked disappointed.

“It might help if I knew his last name.”

“McDermott,” he said over his shoulder as he opened the door. “Bobby McDermott.” And with that, he was gone.

I sat back down, leaned back in my chair, and put my thumbnail between my teeth—a dumb habit, I’ll admit, but that’s the kind of thing you do when you go from three packs of cigarettes a day to nothing. I stared at the door for a minute, then pulled my thumb out of my mouth, reached for a note pad, and wrote “Bobby McDermott.”

Part of me felt slightly guilty for taking Rholfing’s money; one call to Tim Jackson should confirm that it was drugs and give me whatever other information I might need to wrap the whole matter up.

It was five thirty; too late to reach Tim at the office but, if I waited a few minutes, I could probably reach him at home. Suddenly, I was looking at my crotch, and it was reminding me of how long it had been since I’d seen Tim.

It was too hot to wait in the office, so I decided to go down the street to Hughie’s and have a drink. I could call Tim from there. Thin wisps of Rholfing’s cologne still hung in the air so, cursing the broken air conditioner and hoping it wouldn’t rain, I left the window wide open as I closed the door behind me.


* * *


Hughie’s is a hustler bar about two blocks from the office. I like to stop in every now and then to watch the hustlers and johns go through their little mating dances; the hustlers preening and strutting, or just standing around trying to out-butch one another; the johns— middle class business executives, most of them—sidling up, pretending they’ve just wandered into the bar by accident. The “casual” opening remarks (“Sure is hot today, isn’t it?” “Say, that’s a nice-looking shirt you’ve got on.” “Can I buy you a drink?”). The john buying the hustler a drink, then two; the exit with the john looking nervous but trying to act cool, the hustler sauntering casually through the door as if he were just stepping outside to see if it’s raining.

The whole place has a sort of morbid fascination, if you like living vicariously, which I don’t. I go there mainly because it’s close and because you can often learn things at Hughie’s you couldn’t learn elsewhere without a lot of hassle.

Out of curiosity, when I ordered my beer I asked Bud, the bartender, if he’d ever heard of a guy called Bobby McDermott.

“Sorry, Dick,” he said, drawing a dark into a frosty glass (that’s another reason I go to Hughie’s—it’s a dive, but they frost their beer glasses, and it’s one of the few places that has dark beer on tap). “Nobody’s much on names around here, in case you hadn’t noticed. What’s the dude look like?”

I had another slight pang of guilt when I realized I had no idea.

“I dunno,” I said, trying to sound casual. “It’s not important; just thought you might know him.”

“Huh-uh,” Bud said, taking my money. “I don’t think so. But if anybody’d know him, it’d be Tessie.” He looked around. “Not here right now. If he’s not here for happy hour, he’ll be in around ten or eleven.”

“Thanks, Bud,” I called to his back as he moved off down the bar to serve another customer. I took a couple deep draughts, fought back a belch, and rummaged through my change for a coin. I waited until there was a lull on the jukebox and went to the phone to dial Tim.

It rang four times and I was just about to hang up when Tim answered.

“’Lo?” Jesus, even his voice was sexy. I kicked myself for not having kept in closer touch with him.

“Hi, Tim,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t remember just how long it had been. “It’s Dick. Hardesty. Just get home?”

“A while ago. I was just getting ready to hop into the shower. Care to join me?”

“Only if you’ll agree to drop the soap,” I said.

Tim laughed. “They don’t call me ‘Old Slippery Fingers’ for nothing. Where the hell have you been anyway? I thought you’d given me up for lost.”

“No way. It’s just that I’ve been…ah…you know….” Always quick with an answer, that’s me.

“That’s okay,” Tim said, laughing again. “I know how it is. So when are we going to get together?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, there was something I wanted to talk over with you. You going to be home for awhile?”

“Sure; I’m in for the night. Come on over—it’ll be nice to see you again. We can talk over old times and…uh…see what comes up.”

“Still World’s Champion Prickteaser, I see,” I said. “See you in ten minutes.” I hung up, went back to the bar to chug-a-lug the rest of my beer, waved goodbye to Bud, and sauntered out the door like a hustler checking to see if it was raining.


* * *


Tim’s apartment is a ten-minute walk from Hughie’s. I made it in seven. I rang the bell, and the door opened the length of the safety- latch chain. Tim’s curly brown hair appeared first as he peered around the corner of the door, then his bright blue eyes and big, shit-eating grin.

“Hi,” he said in a sotto-voiced stage whisper and looking me over with mock seriousness. “What’s the password?”

“Necrophilia,” I whispered, and Tim leaned against the door, laughing, and closed it. I could hear the chain being released. Then the door opened again, wider this time, and Tim’s head and bare shoulders appeared from behind it.

“Come on in,” he laughed. He apparently had just gotten out of the shower and was wearing nothing but a towel and an ear-to-ear grin. He closed the door behind me and refastened the chain.

“There’s a drag queen two doors down who’s always coming by for a cup of Vaseline or something every time he knows I’m home,” Tim said, still smiling. “Actually, he’s just hot for m’bod.”

“Well, he’ll just have to take a number and stand in line like everybody else,” I said, grabbing him in a bear hug and lifting him off the floor. Tim threw his arms around my neck and returned the hug—then his eyes grew wide and he got that little-boy look that always made me melt.

“To paraphrase my good friend Mae West,” he said, staring directly into my eyes with the tip of his nose pressed against mine, “is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”

“Damn,” I said, still holding him off the floor, “and I wanted it to be a surprise.” I opened my mouth wide and, with a loud hiss, clamped my lips wetly on the base of his neck at the shoulder, applying a slow pressure with my teeth.

Tim struggled to get away. “You give me a hickey, you bastard, and your ass is grass.”

I set him down and held him at arm’s length, noticing with pleasure that I’d found his “On” button.

“You want to talk now, or later?” he asked.

“Later,” I said, unfastening his towel and letting it drop to the floor. Tim might have the face and body of a teenager, but he packed an adult’s equipment—and then some.

We made our way to the bedroom and Tim sprawled on the bed on his stomach, facing me and watching me as I stood just inside the door and undressed. It was all part of the ritual we followed on those occasions—too rare, I realized as I watched him watching me; when we got together; neither of us wasted much time in idle chit-chat. As I took off my pants and shorts, Tim’s face slowly broke into that wicked-little-kid grin and, when I stood there fully naked, he slowly crooked his index finger at me. As I walked over to the bed, straight toward him, Tim opened his mouth and slowly extended his tongue. Bull’s-eye!


* * *


“Cigarette?” he asked, leaning across me for an ashtray on the night stand.

“Gave ’em up,” I said, smugly.

“You? Liggett & Myers’ best friend?” He paused to light up. “I’m proud of you. Really. It’s a filthy habit.” And he blew a long stream of smoke into my face.

“You little…” I said, lunging out to tickle him under the arm, which always drove him up the wall. He shrieked and rolled away from me, almost falling off the bed in the process.

“Don’t! Please! I’ll be good! Honest!” he gasped between arias of laughter and frantic flailing trying to fend off my insistent tickling. Finally, fearful that the neighbors might be considering calling the police, I stopped.

Tim lay limp, catching his breath. He took a long drag from his cigarette, which had somehow come through the struggle unscathed, and carefully blew the smoke away from me. After a minute, he plumped up his pillow and scooted himself up on the bed, his back against the headboard.

“Okay, so let’s talk,” he said.

“About what?” I asked.

“About whatever it was you called me about,” he said with a grin.

I duplicated his pillow-plumping and hoisted myself up beside him. “You know I hate to mix business with pleasure, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. So ‘but’ what?”

“Your office had a case recently—you probably don’t remember it with all those stiffs you have coming and going. Mostly going. But this one was kind of different. Young guy named Bobby McDermott; 27.”

Tim muttered something under his breath—it sounded like “Fuck!” —and stared into the ashtray balanced on his stomach.

“What?” I asked.

Tim turned his head and looked at me, strangely, his eyes searching my face. He said nothing.

I felt a twinge of guilt. “Hey, Tim, I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I don’t have any right to butt into your business….”

Tim shrugged and relaxed a little. “It’s okay,” he said, finally. “Yeah, I remember Bobby McDermott. What about him?”

“The police apparently indicated to his lover that he killed himself. Probably poison. His lover swears he was murdered.”

Tim stubbed his cigarette into the ashtray, staring at it and continuing to tamp it long after it was out. “What makes him think that?”

Patience was never one of my greater virtues, and obviously Tim knew something he wasn’t too eager to share with me.

“Come on, Tim! The guy’s 27. Healthy as a horse—hung like one, too, I understand. No apparent problems—unless you count the lover, but that’s another story. Apparently the only thing he was addicted to is sex, and I’ve never heard of anyone fucking themselves to death, have you?” Tim shrugged, avoiding my eyes. “And then the cops ask the lover what he knows about poisons. That strikes me as more than a little strange; they don’t ask about drugs, but poisons.”

Tim pursed his lips, thought a moment, then turned to me with a deep sigh. “Well,” he said, shaking his head, “somebody was bound to catch on, sooner or later.”

“Catch on to what?” I asked, with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“First of all, he didn’t die of drugs; it was poison. Cyanide, to be exact. Apparently inhaled. Secondly, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t suicide.”

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Apart from the fact that cyanide is a pretty esoteric way for anybody to commit suicide, how would someone like McDermott manage to get hold of it? It’s not impossible to come by, but it’s not exactly a household product. But what really blows a hole in the suicide theory—and a little detail that the cops apparently chose to overlook—is that from what I understand, there was absolutely nothing in the room to indicate how he managed to inhale cyanide. No bottles, vials, inhalers, rags, nothing.”

“Weird,” I said, the butterflies still there.

“It gets weirder when you consider that Bobby McDermott wasn’t the first case we’ve had like it in the past couple weeks. He’s the sixth one.”

Cover of "The Ninth Man"

 

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