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Chapter 1: The Dirt Peddler

Cover of The Dirt Peddler

Chapter 1

If you’re like most people, whenever someone lobs a cliche into the conversation, you tend to mentally roll your eyes toward the ceiling and heave a sigh. I’m usually guilty of the same response unless I stop to remember how it is that cliches become cliches in the first place. In a way, cliches are a lot like fortune cookies—pretty bland on the outside, but more often than not with a bit of universal truth tucked in the middle.

“The pen is mightier than the sword” has always been one of my favorites because the overlooked truth in that one is that our entire culture is in fact set upon a foundation of written words. Words move us, inspire us, sooth us, anger us: they’re the building blocks of civilization.

Writers as a group tend to be pretty much aware of the power of words and use them responsibly, but some choose to indeed use words as their personal swords, which they wield either to defend or attack. But swords have double edges, and if the wielder is not careful, one of the people they hurt, even unwittingly, can be themselves.

And that’s exactly what happened to the Dirt Peddler.

* * *

“Can we get our money back?” Jonathan asked as we left the theater.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “You didn’t like it? It was your idea, you know.”

“Well, it sure wasn’t what I was expecting. The guys in the ad were really hot.”

“And the title didn’t clue you in? ‘L’amour Triste’?”

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Like I speak fluent Hungarian.”

I looked at him to verify that he was pulling my leg, and he grinned. “Okay, okay: ‘Sad Love’. But the guys in the ad were really hot. How was I to know they were just going to sit there and moon over one another for two and a half hours?”

“There was that one pretty interesting love scene at the end,” I said.

“How could you tell?” he asked. “It looked like it was being photographed through the bottom of a fish tank.”

“Live and learn,” I said.

“Gee, let me write that down,” he said, and I grabbed him by the back of the neck with one hand and squeezed until he yelped.

Actually, ‘L’amour Triste’ was part of the city’s first gay film festival playing at what was normally The Central’s gay porn house.

Jonathan and I were still at that stage of our relationship where even monthly anniversaries were special occasions, and for this one, our…uh…our “several-th,” we chose a night at the movies before going out for our “traditional” anniversary dinner.

I had also bought him a book he really wanted: An Illustrated Guide to Decorative Shrubs of North America. He’d just completed his first semester toward his Associate Degree in Horticulture Technology and really loved anything and everything that had to do with plants, trees, flowers, and shrubs—just about anything with roots.

Not surprisingly, it had to be special-ordered and I’d decided to show my support for Bennington Books’ having opened a big new store in The Central, the city’s ever-expanding gay district. That a large, established chain had chosen The Central was further evidence of how the times were changing, and how far the gay community had come. And Bennington was not in real competition with the smaller, independent community-oriented bookstores which had provided so much support for gay and lesbian authors over the years. This was just my way of saying “thanks” to a mainstream company for recognizing the buying power of the gay community.

I’d gotten a notice the day before saying the book was in, so after we left the movie and before going on to dinner, we stopped by Bennington’s. It was within walking distance of the theater, and as we approached the store I suddenly remembered that as part of its grand opening, there was a big to-do scheduled for that night: a personal appearance and book signing by Tony T. Tunderew, author of Dirty Little Minds, which had been at the top of the NY Times Best Seller List for three weeks.

I’ve always been somewhat leery of people who insist on using their middle initials as part of their name—and especially those who appear to be overly fond of alliteration.

Dirty Little Minds was Tunderew’s first book, a steamy, barely-fictionalized guided-sewer expose of Governor Harry Keene, who had recently resigned in the wake of widespread rumors involving his alleged financial ties to the operator of a prostitution ring, whose services were widely available to the state’s executive branch.

Neither Tunderew nor the book was gay, so it struck me as a little odd that he’d be doing a signing in the heart of the gay community, but then I realized again that times were changing, and it was to promote the new store, no matter where the store might have been. And that it drew people from outside of the community was yet another sign of the times.

There was a line stretching out onto the sidewalk of people clutching their copies of the book, awaiting Tunderew’s signature. Jonathan suggested we should just forget it and come back the next day, but I grabbed him by the hand and “excuse me’d” past those blocking the door. The line inside snaked its way past tables and racks of books to the rear of the store, where a crowd surrounded what I assume had to have been some sort of table. It was impossible to see either the table or whoever…uh, Tunderew, maybe?…might be sitting behind it.

There was no one behind the counter when we walked up to it, but a moment later a clerk, who had passed us headed for the front tables with an armload of Dirty Little Minds, hurried over.

“Sorry,” he said. “A real madhouse tonight.”

“So we noticed,” I said, and told him why we’d come. He smiled, glanced under the counter and, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, reached down and pulled out the book. Jonathan’s face broke into a huge grin as the clerk set it on the counter.

“Wow! This is great!” he said excitedly, immediately beginning to turn through the pages. “Thank you, Dick!”

The clerk gave us both a knowing grin.

* * *

A week or so later, as I was making out my final report on a just-completed case, the phone rang.

“Hardesty Investigations,” I answered, picking up the phone on the second ring as always.

“Dick,” the familiar voice said: “It’s Glen O’Banyon.”

O’Banyon was one of the city’s leading attorneys, for and with whom I’d worked on a number of cases. I was a little surprised to hear directly from him, since he usually went through his secretary, Donna.

“Glen, hi,” I replied. “What can I do for you?”

There was a slight pause, then: “I was wondering if you’d like to meet me for a drink this afternoon—say around 4:30 at Hughie’s?”

Now that came as something of a surprise. I almost always met him at his office when he had an assignment for me. And at Hughie’s? Hughie’s was a hustler bar about two blocks from work, and I had met him there a couple times on a much earlier case, but…

“Sure,” I said, figuring I’d find out exactly what was going on when we met. “I’ll see you then.”

“Good,” he said. Another pause, then: “Well, I’ve got to get to court. Later.”

I called the apartment to leave a message telling Jonathan I’d be a little late getting home.

* * *

Ah, Hughie’s. I hadn’t been there, I don’t think, since I met Jonathan. But it hadn’t changed. Hughie’s never changed. It was exactly the same when I walked in at 4:15—early as ever—as it had been the first time I wandered in for a beer right after I’d first opened my office.

Bud, the bartender, saw me come in and automatically reached into the cooler for a frosted mug, drew me a dark draft, and had it on the bar by the time I reached it.

“How’s it goin’, Dick?” he asked, as though I’d been in yesterday afternoon.

“Fine, Bud,” I said. “You?”

He just shrugged, took my money, and moved off to the register.

The place was starting to fill up. The hustlers—those who hadn’t already been there most of the day—were drifting in from the streets in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the johns as the local offices and businesses closed. I recognized a couple of them, but most were new: the turnover rate in hustling was always high, and I didn’t care to speculate as to the reasons.

One of the guys my crotch had been concentrating on—a really good looking, rough-around-the-edges blond started looking, then moving, in my direction.

Shit! Now what’ll you do? my mind asked.

Yeah, like this is your first time, another mind-voice responded.

Luckily, at that moment I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Glen O’Banyon standing beside me. As the other times we’d met at Hughie’s, this was not the executive tower, dressed-to-impress lawyer; this was a guy in a baseball cap, a Green Bay Packer sweatshirt, and pair of pretty threadbare Levi’s. Not one person in twenty he saw every day would readily recognize him.

“Thanks for meeting me, Dick,” he said, one hand on my shoulder while he signaled Bud with the other.

The blond number had stopped in mid-step when he saw O’Banyon come up, and looked at me with one raised eyebrow. I gave him a quick half smile and a shrug, and he turned and went back to where I’d first spotted him. My crotch was not happy, though the rest of me was guiltily relieved.

“No problem,” I said. “It’s good to see you in civvies.”

Bud had come over and O’Banyon waited until he’d ordered before turning to me with a grin. “Yeah,” he said. “I really need to get out more.”

He scooped a bill out of his pocket and exchanged it for the beer Bud had brought him.

“So what can I do for you?” I asked, knowing full well this wasn’t strictly a social get-together.

He pushed himself away from the bar, picked up his beer, and gestured for me to follow him to the far corner of the front of the bar, where no one else had gathered yet. We set our drinks on one of the tall, steering-wheel sized tables flanked by two high stools.

“I may have a case for you,” he said, immediately piquing my interest.

“Great,” I said. I didn’t have to ask or say anything else: I knew he’d tell me.

He took a long swig of his beer and pulled one of the stools closer to sit down.

“I’ve got a client with a whole shitload of problems,” he said, “most of which he brought on himself. Strictly between you and me, he’s a pain in the ass. Less than a year ago he was a very junior executive at Craylaw & Collier and today people are falling all over themselves to cozy up to him and his ego has completely run off with what little common sense he might have had to begin with.”

“And what did he do to deserve all this sudden attention?” I asked.

O’Banyon sighed, took another swig of his beer and set the bottle on the table. “He wrote a book,” he said.

He sat there watching me in silence for a moment until I said: “Not one titled Dirty Little Minds, by any chance?”

Dirty Little Minds,” he said.

Interesting, I thought. “And where might I fit into all this?” I asked.

O’Banyon smiled: “Oh, we’re just getting started,” he said. “And by the way, I know I don’t have to even mention that I’m telling you all this with the full confidence that none of it will go any farther than between the two of us.”

“Of course,” I said, and he nodded.

He stared out the window for a moment, then said: “Tunderew is currently working on a second book, which promises to be an even bigger blockbuster than his first. He’s got every major publisher in the business practically throwing advance offers at him.”

“What’s the new book about?”

O’Banyon shook his head. “He won’t say, but he’s got a lot of people very nervous. As you probably know, Craylaw & Collier is a very big outfit with its fingers in a lot of pies. It’s primarily a consulting firm but they have branches throughout the county doing public relations, financial planning, you name it. By no small coincidence, it handled the P.R. for Governor Keene’s last gubernatorial campaign. Tunderew left the company shortly before his book came out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tunderew wasn’t keeping some sort of little black book on some of C&C’s other clients.” He finished his beer and pointed to my nearly empty mug. “Want another?” he asked.

“Sure, thanks.” He got off his stool and moved to the crowd at the bar, which by now was sprinkled with business suits as well as tee shirts and tank tops. The blond I’d seen earlier was talking earnestly with a forty-something guy in a white shirt who had his back to me. Every now and then the blond would glance over the guy’s shoulder and lock eyes with me.

Hardesty! Knock it off! my mind commanded, and I pulled my eyes away and concentrated on staring out the window until O’Banyon returned. Even our relatively empty corner of the room was beginning to fill up, so O’Banyon pulled his stool closer to me when he sat down and continued our conversation in a somewhat lowered voice.

“Tunderew had originally submitted Dirty Little Minds to every single publishing house that is currently chasing after him. None of them would touch it. Finally Bernadine Press took a chance with him, published it, spent a little money on promotion, sent copies to the right reviewers and…the rest, as they say, is history. But Bernadine is a very small house, and was on the verge of going under before Dirty Little Minds came along. They had enough faith in Tunderew to offer him a two-book, no-advance contract, which he signed.”

I saw where this was going. “So now he wants out of the contract for the second book,” I said.

O’Banyon took a deep swallow of his beer, stifled a belch, and nodded. “Yep. He’s hired me to break the contract with Bernadine. So much for loyalty. Without Bernadine he’d be standing in line at the unemployment office, but as I said, the guy’s a real piece of work. Oh, and I forgot to mention, on the subject of loyalty, that as soon as the book showed signs of taking off, he filed for divorce from his wife of thirteen years. Conveniently before his first royalty check could be considered community property.”

“Why did you agree to take the case?” I asked.

O’Banyon shrugged, staring at the beer bottle in front of him. After a moment, he looked up at me.

“For one thing, weak as it may sound, because it is not up to lawyers to determine right or wrong. Lawyers present the case, the courts judge on the basis of law. And like it or not, Tunderew does have a case under law. I don’t have to like my clients: just present their case to the best of my ability.”

I took another drink of my beer before saying: “So what, exactly, is it you’d like me to do for you?”

O’Banyon sighed. “Well, it seems he’s also being blackmailed.”

Probably couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, I thought.

“Can I ask what for? Though from what you’ve said of this guy, I’d imagine it could be about just about everything.”

O’Banyon smiled. “Yeah, and that’s another interesting thing, and why I approached you. The guy’s a rabid homophobe, and the blackmailer apparently has evidence indicating that Tunderew’s gay.”

That one caught me by surprise. “Is he?” I asked.

He gave a cursory shrug. “Certainly not according to him, but the point is that he can’t afford to have his public image ‘sullied’ as he put it—an oddly Victorian word—which is rather laughable, considering. But since he writes about scandals, it wouldn’t do his reputation much good to be caught up in the middle of one of his own. So he wants to quash the whole thing before any damage can be done.”

I polished off about half my remaining beer, then said: “So he wants a gay private investigator to prove he’s not gay?”

O’Banyon’s face broke into a slow grin. “Ironic, isn’t it?” he said. “Of course I didn’t tell him you were gay…you can do that if you want to, and knowing you I’m sure you will. I just told him I knew of a very good private investigator who was uniquely qualified to do the job. He didn’t ask what I meant by ‘uniquely qualified,’ and I didn’t tell.”

“Does he know you’re gay?” I asked.

“I haven’t a clue,” he said. “Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. It’s not as if I really gave a shit. But I’ve found out one thing over the years: if you’re rich enough, or powerful enough, or if someone needs you badly enough, it doesn’t matter who you sleep with.”

I shook my head and joined him in the grin. “You’re getting a big kick out of this, aren’t you?” I asked.

He gave a raised-eyebrow shrug, still grinning. “Hey, I get so little pleasure out of some of these cases, don’t begrudge me.”

We small-talked while we finished our beers, and I noticed the blond walk out with the guy he’d been talking to. As he reached the door, he turned to me, gave a small shrug and a wink, then left. My crotch was muttering curses, but I ignored it.

As O’Banyon and I were getting ready to leave, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a business card, which he handed me.

“Here’s Tunderew’s number,” he said. “I told him to expect your call.”

I took it without looking at it, and stuck it in my shirt pocket. “If he’s as big a pain in the ass as you say he is, I just might tell him to go fuck himself,” I said.

“Yeah, you might,” O’Banyon said with a grin as we walked toward the door. “I made it clear to him that this was just a referral and you were your own man when it came to deciding what cases to take, so I’m off the hook. If you turn him down and he blames me and wants to find himself another lawyer, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it.”

We shook hands as we reached the sidewalk, and went our separate ways.

* * *

Walking back to my office, I pulled out the card and looked at it: “Tony T. Tunderew, best-selling author of Dirty Little Minds” No ego there. There wasn’t any address, but there was a phone number. I stuck the card back in my pocket, found my car in the lot across from my office building, and went home.

Jonathan was in the kitchen, talking to Phil and Tim, his two goldfish, and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, recent Tropical Something-or-Other additions to the new, larger aquarium Jonathan had conned me into getting for him as atonement for a minor argument which I obviously lost.

When he saw me, he grinned as though he hadn’t seen me in years, then quickly turned to the refrigerator from which he extracted my evening Manhattan. Apparently I was a little later getting home than I’d thought. He started to reach into the freezer for some ice cubes, but instead set the glass down and came over to give me a lung-emptying hug.

“Glad you’re home,” he said.

“Me too,” I replied as we released the hug. He started to turn back toward the refrigerator, but I stopped him. “I can get it,” I said. “You want a Coke?”

“Sure,” he said. “How did it go with Mr. O’Banyon?”

I handed him his Coke before I reached into the freezer for my ice cubes. “Fine,” I said. “I met him at Hughie’s for a beer. He referred a case to me.”

Plopping a couple ice cubes into my glass, I closed the freezer door and turned to put my free arm around Jonathan’s shoulders. “Let’s go in and sit down, and you can tell me about your day. Have a good one?”

We sat, as always, side by side on the couch, thighs touching.

“As a matter of fact, yeah,” Jonathan said. “We delivered some trees to New Eden today, and guess who I saw?”

I of course hadn’t a clue. “Who?” I asked after an appropriate pause.

“Remember when I first met you I told you one of the other hustlers from Hughie’s used to let me crash at his place every now and then?”

“Uh…yeah, I remember, sort of.” Jonathan has his own logic and his own way of getting from point A to point B. I’d learned just to go along and it would all become clear in time.

“Randy,” he said. “Randy Jacobs. You remember. Anyway, he’s at New Eden now! It sure was good to see him. I’m really glad he got off the streets. He’s doing really well out there; he’s working in the office and everything.”

New Eden was one of a number of very large, very profitable, tax exempt farms run just outside major cities across the nation, owned and operated by the Eternal Light Foundation. In turn, the Eternal Light Foundation was, when all the governing committees and advisory boards and assorted boards of directors were stripped away, two people: the Reverends Jeffrey and Barbara Dinsmore, rising stars in the Conservative skies of this great nation. The purpose of these New Edens was to take in homeless, throwaway kids; the ones no one wanted or everyone else had given up on, and put them in an environment of hope. Sort of like the local M.C.C.’s Haven House, but on a much larger scale, and it was of course not limited to gay/lesbian kids as Haven House was.

Each New Eden was as self-sufficient as possible. Eternal Light kids worked the farms, built the barns and sheds, repaired and maintained all the farm equipment in exchange for room, board, rehabilitation, education, and counseling. The profits from the farms were plowed back into the expansion of the Foundation’s good works.

Surprisingly, from all accounts the approach appeared to be actually working, and the Dinsmore’s had recently been featured on the cover of Time. While there was absolutely no doubt that Eternal Light was set in rock-solid Christian fundamentalism, the Dinsmores were smart enough to keep it very low-key. No fire-and-brimstone bible thumping; no mandatory seven-days-a-week religious services; no passing out religious tracts at the airport or selling flowers on the streets. You had to give them credit for that. And since they were able to walk such a fine line between the religious and secular aspects of their foundation, they had access to corporate funding not available to more overtly religious organizations.

“I’d like to ask him over sometime,” Jonathan said, bringing me back to the moment. “I think you’d like him.”

“Sure,” I said. “That’d be nice. Can they come and go as they please?”

He took a sip of his Coke before answering. “I think they can have one night a week, as long as they say where they’re going, and they have a ride back and forth to town…and they have to be back by midnight.”

“Whenever you want,” I said. “But I’m curious why you’d be delivering trees to New Eden. It’s a farm; you’d think they’d have enough trees of their own.”

Jonathan grinned and nudged my leg with his. “Well of course they do,” he said. “But these are for around the Dinsmores’ new house: some flowering dogwood and Japanese Cherry.”

“A new house, huh?” I asked. “A little 97-room cottage with an indoor polo field and trout pond?”

He gave me a look of mock disgust. “Jeez! What a cynic! No, no trout pond or polo field. It’s a nice house, but it’s just a house. Maybe four bedrooms?”

Now that came as quite a surprise, given the tendency to excess of some other doers-of-good-works who had been making the headlines in the past few years.

“Well, you ask Randy over whenever you want,” I said.

Jonathan beamed, as only he can. “Great!” he said. “We’ll be going out there again tomorrow. I’ll ask him then.”

* * *

At the office the next morning, I waited until about ten o’clock to call the number on Tunderew’s business card. I figured rich and famous authors probably liked to sleep-in in the morning. They could afford to.

There were two rings at the other end of the line, then a “click” and a woman’s voice: “Mr. Tunderew’s office.”

An office! I’m impressed! I made a note to remind myself to write a book someday.

“Is Mr. Tunderew in?” I asked.

“No sir, he’s not. May I take a message?” There were sounds in the background which I couldn’t quite make out, but seemed familiar.

“Could you tell me where your office is located? Perhaps I can drop Mr. Tunderew a note.”

“Ah, well, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you that, sir. I really don’t have an address. This is Mr. Tunderew’s answering service.”

Aha! The sounds in the background were other operators taking other calls for other clients. ‘Mr. Tunderew’s office!’ Right! So much for my writing a book.

I gave her my name and number and told her that I was calling in response to his conversation with his attorney, Glen O’Banyon. She thanked me, and we hung up. Well, at least he had a pretty high class service—I didn’t hear her popping gum.

While I waited, having no idea how long the wait would be, I looked in the phone book for the address and phone number of Bernadine Press. I figured I’d be needing to contact them at some point.

Somewhat to my surprise, the phone rang just as I was turning the yellow pages to “Publishers.”

“Hardesty Investigations,” I said, picking up on the second ring.

“Mr. Hardesty, this is Tony T. Tunderew…”

Gee, thanks for putting the middle initial in there, Tony, I thought. I wouldn’t have had a clue which Tony Tunderew this was without it.

“…my secretary just told me you’d called.”

Sure, Tony.

“Yes,” I said, “Glen O’Banyon tells me you’re having some sort of problem.”

He gave a dramatic sigh. “I’ll tell you, Mr. Hardesty, since Dirty Little Minds first hit the NY Times best seller list…”

Just in case I didn’t know, I thought.

“…I’ve had nothing but problems. Fame is a hard taskmaster.”

Okay, so now that we’ve firmly established the fact that you’re famous and a pompous ass, can we get on with it? my mind asked.

“So which particular problem can I help you with?” I asked, although of course I already knew. I just wanted to see how he’d handle it.

There was a slight pause and the sound of throat clearing, then: “Well, I really can’t go into it on the phone,” he said. “We should really get together to discuss it. And I like to get the measure of the people I deal with before committing myself to anything.”

Hooo, boy! Like he’s doing me a favor! “Of course,” I said. “Why don’t I come by your office and….”

“Uh, no,” he said hastily. “Why don’t we meet for lunch today? At the Brambles, say?”

The Brambles was a caviar and truffles restaurant located in the main building of the Birchwood Country Club—the city’s most exclusive. The Brambles deigned to accept reservations from non-country-club members, as long as they were rich and famous. However, it did have its own entrance to keep any non-Birchwood members from getting too close to the real members. I sincerely doubted that Tunderew was a member of the country club, but I knew damned well he’d like me to think he was.

“Well, that’s very nice of you, Mr. Tunderew,” I said, “but I’ve got a pretty full schedule today, and the Brambles is quite a distance. Could we make it at Michael’s?”

I could have, of course, just suggested he come by my office, but I suspected that he preferred to be out among his adoring public. Michael’s was one of the oldest restaurants in the city; good food, not cheap but not in the Brambles’ price range by any means. It was quite popular with the business set, so I figured Tunderew wouldn’t consider it too far beneath him.

There was another slight pause and then: “Yes, Michael’s will be fine. I’ll call for a table. Twelve or twelve thirty?”

“Twelve thirty will be fine,” I said. “I’ll look forward to it.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’m sure you won’t have any trouble spotting me. I look exactly like the photo on the dust jacket of my book.”

I did not want to burst his little bubble by admitting I’d never so much as picked up a copy of Dirty Little Minds and so hadn’t a clue what he might look like. Well, there was a bookstore two doors down from Michael’s, which I’m sure he knew. I’d take a quick run in there and check. And I was mildly bemused by the fact that he didn’t ask how he might be able to spot me. I’m sure he didn’t care.

* * *

Michael’s was within walking distance of my office, so thanks largely to a blustery wind at my back all the way, I made it in plenty of time to go into the bookstore to see if I could find a copy of Dirty Little Minds. Since fully one half of an entire display window was stacked with them, that didn’t prove to be much of a problem. I went in, idly picked a copy off the nearest table, and turned it over. Tony T. Tunderew turned out to be a rather handsome man who for some inexplicable reason reminded me of a used-Mercedes dealer or an unctuous maitre d’. He was wearing a bulky-knit turtleneck sweater of the type favored by Cape Cod fishermen and famous authors, leaning against some sort of rough-wood wall, staring intently into the camera, his arms folded across his chest.

I laid the book carefully back on the pile and left.

I paused briefly, upon catching a glimpse of myself in a window, to quickly run a comb through my hair so I didn’t look quite so much like I’d just stuck my finger in a light socket. When I entered the restaurant, I made a quick look around the crowd—Michael’s always did a good business and it was, after all, the lunch hour—but no sign of Tunderew. I noted there were two tables—one toward the far wall and one in the center of the large front window, with small “Reserved” cards, and I was pretty sure I knew, if Tunderew had called for reservations, which one was for him.

A moment later the door opened and a dapper-looking Tony T. Tunderew entered, wearing a neat blue blazer over a smoke-grey turtleneck sweater. He looked as though he had just gotten out of the barber’s chair, and despite the gale-force winds didn’t have a hair out of place. I hate people like that.

He didn’t even look at me as he headed toward the door to the dining room, until I said: “Mr. Tunderew?”

His eyes immediately went from my face to my hands, apparently to see if I was an adoring fan carrying a copy of his book. Seeing that I wasn’t, he must have made the connection, because he said: “Mr. Hardesty?”

We shook hands and exchanged the usual requisite greetings as a waiter came up with two menus.

“Mr. Tunderew’s table, please,” Tunderew said, and the waiter smiled, nodded, and gestured us into the room. We followed him to—where else?—the table in front of the window.

“I’ll have a Vodka Gimlet,” Tunderew said as soon as we were seated and as the waiter was handing us the menus. “Three onions,” he added, and the waiter nodded again, then looked at me.

“Whiskey sour,” I said. I figured if we were into slightly obscure drinks, I’d go along.

After ascertaining that we would wait a few minutes before ordering, the waiter went off to get our drinks.

“So exactly how might I be able to help you?” I asked, not seeing much point in wasting time.

Tunderew tugged at the collar of his turtleneck with an index finger, then reached for his glass of water.

“I’m being blackmailed,” he said after taking a sip of water and replacing his glass on the table.

I tried to look as if I hadn’t known all along. “Any idea who?” I asked.

He looked at me with mild disdain. “I know exactly who,” he said, which rather caught me by surprise, since O’Banyon hadn’t mentioned that part—if Tunderew had even told him.

The waiter arrived with our drinks and asked if we were ready to order. We asked for more time, and he left.

“And exactly what does the blackmailer think he has against you?” I asked.

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Totally circumstantial bullshit,” he said.

Somehow I doubted that. “If you know who it is, have you confronted him…or her?” I asked.

Tunderew shook his head strongly from side to side. “Oooh, no! I’m not going near that little piece of shit! I don’t want to give him an ounce of encouragement!”

Well, that was all pretty cryptic, I thought. “May I ask why?” I asked.

“Because I can’t afford a scandal, no matter how ridiculous, of course.”

“And this particular scandal might involve…?” I urged.

His look changed to one of total disgust: “My being a faggot,” he said.

Cover of The Dirt Peddler


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