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Chapter 1: The Bottle Ghosts

Cover of The Bottle Ghosts

Chapter 1

“When someone says ‘Life is hard, hard,’ I’m always tempted to ask: ‘Compared to what?’”

I forget who said that, but I always thought it made a good point. To be human is to have problems, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have their own little private demons running around somewhere inside. How we deal with them—and how successfully—is largely up to us. But there are people who, for whatever reason, find their demons to be a lot bigger than they can handle on their own. Luckily, for most who really want it and know where to look, help of some sort is available. And those who are lucky enough to have someone willing to stick with them through the rough times have a definite advantage.

Okay, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to follow the logic on that one, but sometimes taking a new look at the obvious can give us a different perspective on our own demons, and just how insignificant most of them really are. I hadn’t given it all that much thought, myself, until I was forced to take a good, close look at those who live with the bottle ghosts….

* * *

How were things going? Pretty well, I’m happy to say. Business was, as always, sporadic, but steady enough to keep the bills paid, and there were enough interesting cases scattered among the yawners to keep me on my toes. But it was my private life that had undergone a real sea-change. I was in a relationship, after…well…a long, long time.

I’d come across Jonathan while working on an earlier case and despite the difference in our ages (not all that much, really, but enough that I was frequently aware of it) and our being from worlds-apart backgrounds, I realize now I’d been fairly well “smitten” from the first time I set eyes on him. And of course the fact that he looked on me as his knight in shining armor certainly didn’t hurt.

I’d been single for so long I’d almost forgotten exactly how much adjusting being in a relationship really takes, and it goes one hell of a lot further than who gets to use the bathroom first in the morning. For Jonathan, this was his first real relationship, so I’m sure it was equally, if differently, confusing. It helped that several of my…our (see what I mean?)…friends had recently paired up, so we had a built-in social circle to keep us pretty busy, which in turn helped me avoid missing my Saturday night cruising ritual. While frequent tricking was lots of fun and great for the ego, it could also get pretty close to becoming an addiction. Monogamy has its own rewards: you never have to hang around bars until two in the morning and then maybe go home alone anyway. And I found that the running conversations I’d been having with my crotch over the past several years had pretty much quieted down—though it did put in its two cents worth every time a hot number crossed my field of vision.

And I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to being a little worried about that; I really didn't know if I could work the monogamy thing or not. But I knew all I could do was give it my best shot and just see what happened.


* * *


My 9:30 appointment had called the day before, sounding pretty distraught. I don’t like to go into too much detail over the phone, particularly in a first-time call from a prospective client. You can learn a lot more about what’s going on when you can sit down face to face and watch the other person’s reactions as well as listen to his voice. He did tell me, however, that his lover had apparently disappeared and, perhaps not surprisingly, he wanted me to find him. When I had asked how long the lover had been gone, he said five days. My immediate reaction was that the guy had just taken off for whatever reason, but I set up an appointment to discuss the possibilities in greater detail. I’d halfway expected the guy to call back saying the lover had shown up, but he didn’t.

Which probably accounted for the knock on my office door at 9:30 sharp the next morning. I hastily shoved the paper with its unfinished crossword puzzle in a bottom drawer of my desk and got up to open the door.

Yeah, I know I could just as easily have yelled “Come on in!” but it always pays to start things off on a more accommodating note.

I opened the door to find a nice-enough looking guy about 30-35, about my height, slightly receding hairline, wearing a brown suit, a mustard-colored tie, and a worried expression.

“Mr. Bradshaw,” I said, extending my hand, which he took. “Please, come in.”

I showed him to the chair closest to the open window, from which a pleasant breeze managed to flow over the still-not-working air conditioner, which I was seriously considering turning into a planter.

“Would you like some coffee?” I asked before attempting to sit down. That was another change in my life—a new addition to the office. Jonathan had bought me a coffee-maker with his first paycheck from the landscape nursery where he now worked.

“Thanks, no,” he said, looking mildly uncomfortable. Well, I guess if my lover had disappeared, I’d probably look mildly uncomfortable, too.

I moved quickly around the desk and sat down, turning my chair slightly to be able to face him head-on.

“So tell me how I can help you,” I said.

He cleared his throat, making a quick tracing of his lower lip with his thumb and index finger.

“My partner, Jerry, didn’t come home Friday night,” he said. His voice reminded me of an old steam locomotive just leaving the station: very slow, deliberate words at first, then a definite closing of the gap between the words as they increased in speed and power to reflect the urgency of what he was saying. “He hasn’t been home since. He hasn’t called and none of our friends have heard from him, and nobody in any of the bars he frequents when he’s drinking has seen him, and I’ve called everywhere I could think of, and even the jails and the hospitals, and…”

He was at full steam, now, and I could almost see the mental pistons, like fisted arms bent at the elbow, pumping the adrenalin through him. Well, he’d been building up all this pressure for several days now, afer all.

“Have you been to the police?” I asked as casually as possible, hoping my tone would give him a second to put on the brakes.

Apparently realizing what he’d been doing…and that he’d unconsciously been edging himself forward in his chair as he talked…he stopped abruptly and readjusted his position before continuing at a more controlled pace. But first he sighed and nodded.

“I called them after I’d checked everywhere myself,” he said. “They wouldn’t even take a report until the third day, and when they did they weren’t very encouraging. He’s an adult, he’s a drunk, and he’s a faggot: he can fend for himself—they didn’t say that in so many words, but that’s clearly what they meant.”

“Your partner’s an alcoholic?” I asked.

He looked at me oddly. “Yes. Didn’t I tell you that when I called?”

No, he hadn’t, as a matter of fact. That little bit of information put a whole new light on the situation. Drunks get drunk and disappear. They sober up and come back.

“Uh, no, I don’t think you did,” I said.

“Does that make some sort of difference?” he asked, a little defensively—and I suddenly realized I certainly couldn’t blame him. I’d never been personally involved with an alcoholic, so I had no right to make any sort of judgment.

“Not at all,” I hastened to add, rather ashamed of myself. “Please, continue what you were saying.”

He had looked there for a moment as if he were going to get up and leave, but I could see him relax slightly, and he picked up where he’d left off. “The officer who filed the report gave me the impression this sort of thing happens all the time. He asked if Jerry were suicidal, if he’d been having ‘problems at home,’ as he put it, or if he was in trouble with the law or with somebody in particular, or if he had any serious medical condition. When I told him ‘no’ on all counts, he made it pretty clear that this wasn’t exactly what they consider a top-priority case, so unless his body shows up somewhere, there really isn’t too much of an incentive to do much of anything. He said they’d put out the information, but…that’s when I decided to call you.”

“Has he disappeared before?”

“Yes, but not like this,” he said. “He’s a serious alcoholic and he goes on binges like clockwork. Usually, it’s every three months—that’s as long as he can hold out. He did go six months, once, but…I always know when they’re coming on, and I do my best to help him avoid them, but he can’t. And then he goes off for a day…sometimes two, but never more. We agreed that when he’s drinking, he can’t come home. I won’t be around him when he’s drunk. And he always calls me from wherever it is he finds himself when he sobers up and I go get him. And then we start all over again.”

“Does this fit the three-month pattern?” I asked.

Bradshaw shook his head. “No, and that’s another thing that tells me something’s wrong—well, more wrong than usual. It’s been less than a month since his last binge. And I didn’t really see this one coming.”

“How long have you been together?” I asked.

“Four years next month.”

There are some questions that cannot really be asked diplomatically, so I’ve learned just to ask them and hope for the best.

“Can I ask if…well, is your relationship monogamous?”

Bradshaw’s smile defined the word ‘rueful.’ “It is on my part, I know,” he said. “And as far as I know, Jerry is, too—when he’s sober. When he’s on one of his binges, all bets are off.”

He looked at me sadly and shook his head. “I have to wear a rubber when we have sex,” he said. “I hate that. But I’ve told him that while I love him more than anything in the world, I won’t die for him.”

Well, that told me a little bit more about penguins than I cared to know, I thought. But I could empathize with him.

He moved slightly forward in his chair again, and said: “And to make things even worse, if that were possible, I’ve got to leave town in the morning for an eight-day business trip that I can’t get out of. I’m not out at work, and there is no way I could explain this. I won’t be home if Jerry comes back, or calls, or…” I could see him getting more distraught, and again I could empathize with him completely. “He knows I have to leave tomorrow—the trip has been scheduled for weeks. I can’t comprehend how he could do this.”

“Do you have an answering machine at home?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Our old one broke and we never replaced it.”

“Well, I suggest you pick one up today. Record a simple message: ‘Jerry, please call Dick Hardesty at…’ I’ll give you my numbers before you leave. And leave a note for him inside the apartment to the same effect.”

“You will help me find him, then?” he asked, his voice reflecting his relief.

“I’ll do my best.”

I couldn’t hear him sigh, but I saw it in his body language. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Here are some recent photos, a list of the places he always goes when he’s drinking, and the addresses and phone numbers of our friends, though as I say I’ve already checked with them all.”

I took the envelope from him, lifted the flap, and quickly glanced through its contents. There was a photo of Bradshaw with his arm around a slightly shorter, stocky man with reddish-blond hair and a big smile; another photo of the same guy, close up, grinning into the camera, and a piece of paper with a list of bars and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of six or seven people. A lot more information than most new clients have with them on their first appointment. I replaced everything into the envelope and set it beside the phone.

“Could you tell me Jerry’s last name, and where he works?” I asked.

“Shea…Jerry Shea,” Bradshaw said, then sighed again. “He’s not working right now. He’s a waiter, and a damned good one. He’d worked two years at the Imperator until they fired him for coming to work drunk during his last binge. He’d never done that before! He was very conscientious about his job. And of course he was devastated when he got fired. I don’t know; that might have had something to do with his disappearing.”

Jeezus, I thought. How could he be so stupid? But then I realized that was a stupid thought in itself. The Imperator is one of the, if not the, most exclusive restaurants in the city. I’d imagine a good waiter there—and a place like that wouldn’t hire any but the best—could make a fortune in tips. How could he blow it like that?

“Did he have any friends there he might contact?”

Bradshaw shook his head slowly. “He was friendly with a couple of the other waiters, but I don’t remember their names, and they never really socialized outside of work. And I’m sure he’d be too embarrassed and ashamed to ever try to contact them. But again, when he’s drinking…who knows?”

“Was he doing anything about his problem? A.A. or anything like that?”

Bradshaw edged forward in his seat again. “Oh, yes, he goes to meetings a couple times a week. St. Agnes, the Gay/Lesbian Community Center, the M.C.C.. And we belong to a gay couple’s therapy group at Qualicare that meets every Thursday.”

Qualicare was the city’s largest and fastest-growing HMO, which had bought out the old St. Anthony’s Hospital complex and embarked on a huge expansion program. I’d heard it offered a wide range of mental as well as physical health programs. I guess alcoholism qualified in both categories, and I was pleased to know they made a specific outreach to gays.

I told him my rates and gave him a contract, which he signed. While I was Xeroxing a copy for him, he reached into the same pocket from which he’d taken the envelope and brought out his checkbook. While all this was going on, I took the opportunity to ask him a few more questions.

“What kind of car does he drive—and do you have the license plate number?”

Bradshaw looked up from writing the retainer check. “He doesn’t drive,” he said. “He lost his license right after we met and I wouldn’t let him even try to get it back. It’s a real sore spot between us, I’m afraid. I’m pretty sure he had a spare key made for my car—he denies it, of course—and uses it when I’m out of town on business. I’ve gotten so I check the odometer when I leave and when I get back and he knows it. I was gone on business during his last drinking binge, and I know damned well he had the car. We had a real blow-up over that one, and I brought it up in the group one meeting. I guess some of the others have had the same problem. Anyway, to answer your question, either I take him where he needs to go, or he takes the bus.”

Pretty inconvenient, but logical, I guess.

He tore the check out of the checkbook and handed it to me, then put the checkbook back into his pocket, and exchanged it for his wallet, from which he extracted a business card. He wrote a number on the back, and handed it to me. “This is my home phone; I’ll be there around six tonight, but I have to leave for the airport by 7:00 tomorrow morning.”

Bradshaw glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting at 10:45 across town, so I’d better get going.”

I wrote my home phone number on the back of my business card, which he slipped into his shirt pocket. Finally, he opened his briefcase and took out another sheet of paper. “Here’s my itinerary for the trip,” he said. “If you find anything…anything at all…please call and leave a message for me.”

I nodded.

He snapped his briefcase shut and stood up. “I’ll be back in town a week from Friday,” he said, then just stood there for a second, looking lost. “God, what a mess!” he said.

I didn’t say so, but I certainly agreed.

I rose and shook hands, and walked him to the door.


* * *


I had to finish my report on a just-completed case, so typed it up before going back to the envelope and business card I’d put by the phone. The front of the card said “John Bradshaw, Investment Counselor, Peabody & Dean Investments.” The address was in the same building as Glen O’Banyon’s law offices, and I’d done enough work with and for O’Banyon to recognize that any company with offices in that building had to be doing pretty well for itself.

I noted that the bars on the list covered a pretty broad spectrum, but tended toward the more sleazy end of the scale, including the Troc, which was a beer bar on Riverside Drive at the foot of the bluffs on the east side of the river. The Troc was about as sleazy as bars get, and I would imagine would be just the place an alcoholic might end up after he’d run through or been thrown out of the others. I usually avoided the place like the plague but, since Jonathan had just enrolled in a night class at the local community college and the first class was that same night, I thought I’d take advantage of that fact to make a quick tour of all the bars on the list to see what I could find while Jonathan was in class.


* * *


Jonathan usually got home earlier than I did, which worked out nicely on several levels. For one thing, he was one hell of a lot more domestic than I was, and he not only actually enjoyed cooking, but was a really good cook. I’d usually get home to find him puttering around in the kitchen, talking to Tim and Phil, the two goldfish he kept in a small aquarium on one of the kitchen counters. Jonathan liked to talk, and whereas in most people it might be a really annoying trait, I got a kick out of it in him. He had managed, as so few people do, to keep the childlike (as opposed to childish) wonder and enthusiasm that so many lose as they “grow up.” And the fact that he talked to goldfish was no more unnatural than my conversations with my crotch—though I didn’t do my talking aloud.

I got home to find Jonathan just coming out of the kitchen, my evening Manhattan in one hand and a Coke in the other. I walked over to hug him and take the drink.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” I said as he followed me to the sofa and we sat down.

When we’d first gotten together, I’d felt a little awkward about drinking around him, since he did not drink at all, but he assured me it didn’t bother him in the least, so it had remained a part of our little ritual.

Shortly after we got together, Jonathan got a job at a small nursery, thanks to the recommendation of our friends Bob and Mario who’d been landscaping the yard of their new house. Jonathan’s love of and fascination with plants had impressed his boss, who had suggested Jonathan go to a local technical college offering an Associate’s Degree in Horticulture Technology, and Jonathan was little-boy thrilled at the idea. I could tell he was really excited about starting class—his first college experience—and I was proud of him for deciding to go.

“You got a phone call just a while ago,” he said, taking a swallow of his Coke.

“Yeah?” I said. “Who.”

“Chris, your ex,” he said with a smile. “He called from New York and we had a nice long talk. He’s really nice, isn’t he?”

I nodded.

“And he said he was glad that we had gotten together and told me I should watch out for you. I’m not sure what he meant by that but I don’t think it was bad. Anyway, he and his lover Max are coming into town for a couple days at the end of next week. I didn’t know he used to work for Marston’s or that he was a window designer. That must be a really great job! But he’s got a meeting here and Max decided to come along because he’s never been here and Chris can show him around and he wants to spend some time with you—well, he said with ‘us’ which I thought was kind of nice of him. He wants you to call him back.”

Chris! Now that was a surprise, and a very nice one. Chris and I had been each other’s first relationship and we were together for five years until we made the transition from lovers to friends and he moved to New York what now seemed like centuries ago. I hadn’t seen him since, but we’d kept in regular contact, with letters and phone calls at least every couple of weeks. It would be good—really good—to see him again.

I suddenly realized that Jonathan was staring at me with a soft smile and I was rather embarrassed to realize I’d sort of wandered off.

“Sorry,” I said.

The soft smile became a grin, and he patted my leg with his free hand. “No problem,” he said, then glanced toward the kitchen.

“I started dinner already, since I’ve got class tonight,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind eating earlier on class night.”

I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said. “I’ve got to do some checking on a new case tonight, anyway. I can take you to school and pick you up after class so you won’t have to worry about the bus.”

“Thanks,” he said, laying a hand on my leg, then pushing himself up off the couch to go into the kitchen.

“Need help?” I asked with the confidence of knowing the answer would be “no.”

“Huh-uh,” he replied over his shoulder. “You want to call Chris back?”

“Good idea,” I said as I got up and moved toward the phone.


* * *


I reached Chris and talked with him for a while. He pretty much just verified what Jonathan had already told me. They’d be arriving early Thursday in time for a Thursday afternoon meeting at Marston’s, then an all day meeting on Friday, and returning to New York on a late flight Sunday. I invited them to stay with us, but Chris’ work had reserved a room for him at the Montero. I was really excited about seeing him again after what seemed like such a much longer time than it actually was, and he sounded the same. He said they’d call me at the office when they got in, and we could make plans from there, hoping to be able to spend as much time together as we could manage. I was anxious, too, to finally meet Max and I could tell Chris was very curious about Jonathan, as well.

I finished my drink as we talked and when I hung up, Jonathan announced that dinner was ready.


* * *


As Jonathan was getting ready to go to class—the new shirt I’d bought him, his best pair of black pants: all he needed was an apple for the teacher—I took out the list of the bars John Bradshaw had given me and made a rough mental map of which order to hit them.

Moxie, Pals, the Paradise, Griff’s (that one was a surprise somehow, since it was a very nice, quiet piano bar), Sketches, and the Troc. A lot to cover in one night, but I wasn’t intending on spending much time in any of them. Having a lover waiting cut down the temptation to stand around awhile and cruise. And tonic and lime only: even one beer in each place would have an effect by the time I’d reached the sixth.

Actually, since I probably wouldn’t be able to hit them all in the two-and-a-half hours that Jonathan would be in class, I thought I’d put Griff’s toward the bottom of the list. It was on the way between the college and home, and I figured Jonathan and I could stop in there for a few minutes and catch Griff’s resident pianist, Guy Prentiss, do one set. Jonathan had never heard Guy, who had always been one of my favorite entertainers.

I kept glancing at Jonathan out of the corner of my eye as we drove to the community college, and he was obviously having difficulty just sitting still, his anticipation level was so high. He sat there with his new book bag in his lap looking very much like a little boy on his first day of school. This was, as I said, his first college class, and even though it was a basic course in plant identification and care—Introduction to Horticulture 104—and directly related to his work, it was still college and it was still a thrill for him. As we drove up to the former factory which housed the college, Jonathan reached over and took my hand without looking directly at me. We pulled up to the front entrance, and he squeezed my hand, then released it.

“You’ll pick me up at 9:30, then?” he asked.

I smiled. “Count on it.”

He got out of the car and hesitated just a moment before shutting the door.

“Go get ‘em, Tiger,” I said, and he grinned, closed the door and went into the building.


* * *


The college was fairly close to the river, on the west side. I decided that the Troc was actually the closest of the bars, and that I might as well get it out of the way first. I cut down to the Rivercross Bridge (whoever named that one obviously believed in callin’ ’em as he sees ’em), then make a left on Riverside and up to the Troc.

The Troc was actually practically built into the bluff, which towered above it. It was the only building on the bluff side of the street for two blocks in either direction. To refer to it as a “dive” would be an insult to dives. The grimy windows were so dirty the neon “Beer” sign on the inside could barely be read. The original name of the place had been The Trocadero, but some act of God had broken off the last part of the sign who knows how many years ago and it had never been replaced.

There were only a few cars scattered along the curb—it was, after all, only a few minutes after seven. I locked the car, walked toward the open door, assaulted before I got within 20 feet of the place by the smell of stale beer and the maudlin twang of country-western music, and entered.

The usual coal-mine ambiance couldn’t have been more perfect if they’d hired a set designer. It made Hughie’s, the dingy hustler bar close to my office, look positively cheery. I hadn’t been aware they made light bulbs as dim as the five or six imperceptible blobs of light hanging from the ceiling. Maybe they were just as dirty as the windows. There’d have been more light if they’d put a couple jars of fireflies around the place. The strongest single source of light in the room came from one of those ubiquitous beer signs on the wall…the one with what appeared to be little bouncing balls repeating the same bounce pattern every ten seconds unto eternity.

I stepped up to the bar, completely ignored by the seven or eight patrons, two of whom were seated at facing stools, eyes closed, leaning toward each other with their foreheads touching—probably to keep from falling over. Whether they were in love or asleep was hard to tell. The rest just sat there, facing the back bar, a few with cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips or smouldering in ashtrays. The woman bartender reluctantly broke off her conversation with one of the guys at the far end of the bar and came over to me, leaning slightly forward with both hands on her edge of the bar.

“What’ll it be?” she asked, in a voice which gave me the clear impression that she really didn’t care.

“Can I just get a Coke?” I asked.

Her upper lip registered just the ghost of a sneer. “No Coke. No mixed drinks. Just beer.”

“How about a beer?” I asked. “Millers.” I chose Millers only because the sign was a Millers sign.

As she pushed herself away from the bar, I got out my billfold and Jerry Shea’s photo. I took out a ten and laid it on the bar. She came back with the bottle of beer and set it on the bar in front of me. Obviously this wasn’t one of those highfalutin’ pansy places where they bother with napkins. She took the ten, but before she had a chance to turn to the cash register, I pushed the photo toward her and said: “Do you know this guy?”

She squinted at it in the dim light and said: “I seen him around, yeah. Why?”

“Lately?” I asked, allowing myself a small flush of hope.

She shook her head. “Not for a month or so,” she said. “Why? What’d he do?”

I shook my head: “He didn’t do anything that I know of. I just want to find him. Any idea where I might look?”

“How many bars in this town?” she asked.

“Hundred or so, I’d imagine,” I said, recognizing a rhetorical question when I heard one.

“Try any one of ’em,” she said, taking the bill to the register and, not bothering to return with the change, went back to the end of the bar to resume her conversation.

I left.


* * *


I managed to hit Moxie and made it as far as Pals before running into a former trick just as I was heading out the door. Dan O’Dea, I think his name was. Dan wanted to catch up on old times and made it clear he would definitely like a rematch. My crotch, of course, was all for it, but I explained carefully to both of them that I was in a relationship now. Both expressed their disappointment, though the guy at least acted like he understood. My crotch, I’m afraid, still hadn’t gotten the picture.

The bartender at Moxie recognized Shea, but said he didn’t know him at all; he did remember that he drank Black Russians, and that he always came in and left alone. He said he never got the impression that the guy was drunk, which led me to believe that either he was good at covering it up, or that Moxie might be one of the first stops on his list. I realized that he and Bradshaw lived only about half a mile from Moxie and that it was, indeed, the closest bar to their apartment.

Pals, which is about two blocks farther down Beech but on the other side of the street, was a slightly different story. The bartender on duty did not remember ever having seen Shea, but another one of the bartenders, who was just there as a customer, looked at the photo and identified Shea. He remembered him primarily because Shea drank Black Russians followed by a shot of Peppermint Schnapps. A combination like that would be a little hard for anybody to forget. He said Shea was usually pretty high when he came in, and a lot higher when he left. He recalled Shea leaving with someone once or twice—apparently a different guy each time. Well, I didn’t have to mention that part in my report to Bradshaw.

I had just enough time for a quick stop at Sketches before having to head back to pick Jonathan up at the college. Unlike Moxie or Pals, which were in The Central, Sketches was the last bar on the far end of a four-block stretch of Arnwood that contained about seven gay bars, and it was only the concentration of bars which kept all of Arnwood from being considered Skid Row.

The bartender on duty at Sketches was a really cute number who obviously spent all his spare time in the gym. His pecs were so big they could cast shadows, and he had arms to match. But he’d just started working there and had never seen Shea. Apparently there’d been some sort of management shakeup, and all the bartenders who had worked there the last time Shea would most likely have been in had been fired. The bartender said he’d been working from opening at 4:00 p.m. until close at 2:00 a.m. for the past week

Well, that left me with just the Paradise to check out, but I wouldn’t be able to do it tonight. I knew Jonathan had to be at work in the morning—well, so did I, but—so I didn’t want to stay out too late. I did want to stop in at Griff’s. Maybe I’d hit the Paradise right after work.


* * *


There was a bunch of people milling around in front of the college entrance and several cars lined up at the curb taking on passengers. Luckily, I saw Jonathan dart out from the sidewalk and hurry to open the passenger side door before the guy in the car behind me got too impatient.

“How did it go?” I asked as we inched forward in the traffic stream.

“Wow, Dick! It’s great!” he said, all little-boy enthusiasm. “We’re going to learn all about all different kinds of trees and bushes and which ones grow best where and the kind of light and soil they need, and…I think I’m really going to like it! I thought I knew a lot about this stuff before, but wow, there’s a lot to learn!”

I reached over, grinning, and laid my hand on his leg. He grabbed it and moved it up to his crotch. “I like it better there,” he said, and it wasn’t meant as a come-on—he just liked it better there. So did I.

“I’ve got one more stop to make,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite places, and I think you’ll like it. We won’t stay too long.”

Jonathan gave me a big grin. “Sure!” he said. “I like going different places. Especially with you.”

Jonathan Quinlan: Master Violinist. Dick Hardesty: Fiddle. The thought was accompanied by an oddly pleasurable flush of warmth.

We found a parking place just a little way down from Griff’s and took our time walking the short distance to the bar. It was a really nice night, warm and quiet. I looked up the street and saw the neon sign sticking out from the front of Ruthie’s, a lesbian bar, and I couldn’t help but think of the last time I’d been in Griff’s, and the circumstances. I shoved them out of my mind and opened the door, letting Jonathan go in first.

Though it was just a little past 9:45, there were quite a few people in the bar. There was a soft spotlight on the piano, but no Guy sitting there playing, and then I remembered he didn’t start his first set until 10:00. As I looked around the room, I was surprised to see Mollie Marino, a former client who was also my contact at the Clerk of Courts office, and her lover, Barb, seated at one of the tiny tables close to the piano. They smiled and waved, and I led Jonathan over to say hello and introduce him.

After we’d exchanged greetings, they invited us to take the table beside them. While Jonathan sat down, I excused myself to go to the bar and get our drinks. I asked Mollie and Barb if they were ready for another, but they declined with thanks.

As I stepped to the bar, I noticed Guy Prentiss come out of the office area and start making his customary table-stop tour, greeting and talking with all the patrons. It was a nice tradition, and he talked briefly with everyone, whether he’d ever seen them before or not.

I took the opportunity, after ordering a bourbon and seven for me and a Coke for Jonathan, to show Shea’s photo to the bartender. Again, Shea was recognized, but again apparently hadn’t been in for several months. He couldn’t provide any other pertinent information, either. Shea just came in occasionally, had several Black Russians (no side shots), never said much, and left, alone.

Ah, well, it was worth the try.

When I returned to the table, Jonathan was telling the women all about his first night of school, and they appeared to have fallen under the charm of his innocence and enthusiasm. We small-talked for a couple of minutes until Guy appeared at our tables, which were his last stop before he sat down to play.

I hadn’t seen him since…don’t go there, Hardesty, my mind said, so I didn’t…for a long time. We exchanged greetings and, since he already apparently knew Barb and Mollie, I introduced him to Jonathan. He asked, as always, about Chris, since he remembered him from when Chris and I were a couple, and I told him that Chris and Max were coming for a visit.

“Bring them in!” Guy said. “It would be great to see him again. It’ll be like Old Home Week.”

I looked a little puzzled, and he grinned. “You remember Teddy Wilson? Better known as Tondelaya O’Tool, World’s Best Drag Queen? Moved to New Orleans a while back after Bacchus’ Lair shut down?”

Of course I remembered T/T—a huge black drag queen with a talent even bigger than he/she was, who never lip-synched and could belt out a song like nobody else.

“Sure,” I said. “Is he back in town?”

Guy nodded. “He’s flying in next Saturday, I hear. That new place on Beech, Steamroller Junction, is having its grand opening next weekend, and Teddy’s one of the headliners for the opening show.”

“That’s great!” I said, and truly meant it. “We’ll have to try to go while Chris and Max are here.”

“Do that,” Guy said. “And be sure to stop by here, too.” He glanced at his watch. “Well, time for the first set.”

I stopped him before he had a chance to walk away, taking out Shea’s photo. “Do you by any chance know this guy?” I asked. He took the photo and looked at it closely.

“Yeah. His name’s…” he paused for only a second or so “…Jerry. Never says much. Sits over there at the end of the bar. Always waits until the end of a set to leave. I get the impression he’s a pretty lonely guy.”

In light of the fact that Shea has a lover, I felt that a little strange. But then I realized that being lonely goes a lot deeper than whether or not people are around.

Guy handed the photo back to me and turned to Jonathan. “Anything you’d like to hear, Jonathan?” he asked.

Jonathan looked mildly embarrassed…I don’t think he’d been exposed to too many Broadway shows in his part of Wisconsin. “?People’?” he asked, hesitantly.

Guy grinned. “One Babs medley, comin’ right up,” he said as he stepped over to the piano.


* * *


Having really gotten nowhere with the bar rounds as far as any leads to where Jerry Shea might have gone, I thought I’d call in a small voucher from Lieutenant Mark Richman at police headquarters. I was pretty lucky in having worked with Richman on a number of cases and to have developed a nice rapport with him. He’d told me after a recent big case that I could call on him any time, but I hadn’t really felt the need. But it occurred to me that perhaps he might be able to direct me to someone in the Missing Persons’ department—if there were enough missing people to even have a department —who could tell me exactly what they did in following up on a report once it was filed. Maybe I could get some ideas on what to try or what not to bother with.

I got to the office at the usual time (Jonathan and I had fairly well worked out the morning two people/one bathroom logistics by this time), picked up a paper at the newsstand in the lobby, and made a pot of coffee the minute I got in the door. I went through my usual ritual of reading the paper, doing the crossword puzzle, and drinking my coffee (I’d stocked up on styrofoam cups to avoid having to wash out a cup every day). When I’d finished, I picked up the phone and dialed the City Building Annex and asked for Lieutenant Richman’s extension.

“Lieutenant Richman,” the familiar voice answered.

“Lieutenant, Dick Hardesty.” Okay, now what do I say? “How have you been?” Oh, that was original.

“Fine, Dick,” Richman said. “Busy but fine. What can I do for you?”

Well, he knows how to get to the point even if you don’t, I thought.

“Well, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” I said, suddenly wishing I hadn’t called, and feeling as though I were imposing on him. “I’ve got a new case involving a guy who seems to have disappeared. His lover has hired me to try to find him. He filed a missing person’s report, but I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea how the department handles missing persons cases. I was wondering if you could put me in touch with someone there at the department I might talk to to see what might be going on with it.”

“Sure, I can probably do that. Let me ask you first, though: how long has he been missing?” he asked.

“Six days, now,” I said.

“Well,” he said. “I should caution you not to expect too much in the line of activity. We get an awful lot of missing persons reports, and while I’d like to say we treat them all the same, there is in fact a sort of unwritten set of priorities in handling them. Kids come first, of course, then spouses—straight spouses, unfair as that may be. Missing unmarried adult males aren’t always given in-depth attention unless there’s strong reason to believe something’s definitely wrong. The good old ‘men can take care of themselves’ philosophy, I’d guess. There are just too many guys who drop out of sight for a while for whatever reason, then show back up again. We issue descriptions and photos of all missing persons to every patrol, and post the information in the squad rooms, but for the most part there’s really not all that much actual legwork involved.

“Tell you what…why don’t you give me the missing guy’s name and I’ll pass it down to Missing Persons to see if they have anything at all that might help you?”

“That’s really great of you,” I said. “I’d really appreciate it. The missing man is named Jerry Shea—that’s S H E A.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll pass it down and see if I can find someone down there you can talk to.”

“Thanks, Lieutenant. I really appreciate it. Later, then.”


* * *


Though I didn’t expect any of the people on the list of friends and acquaintances Bradshaw had given me to be home (and they weren’t), I called them all anyway, leaving messages with those who had machines. I’d try them again later, when I got home.

I went downstairs to the ground floor diner for lunch. I didn’t do that very much anymore, since Evolla and Eudora, the identical-twin sisters whom I swore had worked there since the torpedoing of the Lusitania, had at long last retired. Strange, really: I had never exchanged a single word with either of them that wasn’t related to a food order, but I really missed not hearing one or the other of them yelling out an order for the soup of the day to the cook: “BAW-EL.” Ah, the end of an era.

I returned to the office and was just making another pot of coffee when the phone rang.

“Hardesty Investigations.”

“Dick, it’s Mark Richman. I came across something interesting on your missing person case.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, but let me ask you something first.”

“Sure.”

“Your guy is a heavy drinker, right?”

The hook was baited. I bit. “Yeah,” I said, wondering how he knew that or why he would mention it. I know I hadn’t.

“Ah…” he said.

Ah? What the hell does ‘Ah’ mean? I wondered, but waited for him to tell me.

“Well, the duty officer at the records desk is a rookie, Marty Gresham, fresh out of the Academy, but he’s a pretty sharp kid who is also working on a master’s degree in criminology. When I mentioned Shea’s last name, he said: ‘Oh, yeah, Jerry Shea: Category Twelve.’ I asked him how he happened to remember Shea’s first name, and what he meant by ‘Category Twelve.’ He said that he’d been doing a little researching on missing persons cases, going back several years, looking for common sets of circumstances and situations to see if there were any identifiable patterns in such cases. Shea is the most recent report he’d seen, and he fit the pattern of five other cases over the past five years. His ‘Category Twelve’ cases are single males, 26 to 40 years old, reported missing by another guy, usually with the same address as the missing. All five cases had notations on their report that they were either heavy drinkers or acknowledged alcoholics. And they’re all still missing.”

“Yeah,” I said, not a little impressed that Richman had gone so far out of his way for me, “that is interesting. But five similar cases spread over five years in a town this big….”

There was a slight pause, then: “You’re right. It’s probably just coincidence, but the really interesting part is that counting Shea as number six, that makes four within the past 18 months.”

 

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