by Dave MacMillan
I received directions to the Blacksheare house from Chief Nixon. With my interviews with the police chief and the Baptist reverend behind me, I was looking forward to meeting the dead boy's friend. I had learnt a long time ago that young people rarely saw things through rose-coloured glasses as often as did adults. I was hoping that the young man whom the Blacksheares had promised me would prove to be honest and show me Soul, warts and all.
He caught me completely by surprise. I thought he was a girl.
He was standing before the French doors in the sunken, exposed-stone living room that took up the middle of the house as I entered the sprawling brick ranch-house. Sunlight caught his blond hair and gave him a halo.
I was still thinking he was a girl as Eleanor Blacksheare led me towards her husband and the lad.
I was paying more attention to small town opulence than I was to someone I had already dismissed as a cute, tall, and barely pubescent girl. I shook hands with Raymond Blacksheare.
"This is Ronnie Varnadore, Mr. Goodall," Mrs. Blacksheare offered. "He is - was - our Jimmy's best friend here in town."
I stared at Ronnie Varnadore then. Everything about him bespoke femininity. His heart-shaped face, his too thin eyebrows, his shoulder-length blond hair, his height, the way he held himself in the presence of us three adults. Everything. Except his voice. That was deep. And far more masculine than one expected from a teenager.
"I almost didn't come, Mr. Goodall," he confessed with a shrug and managed to not quite look at me. "But Jimmy was my friend - probably my only friend in this town - and I want you to find out who did this to him."
Girl, my bloody arse!
I resolved to have my eyes seen about as soon as I had returned to Atlanta. And start being observant like private investigators were supposed to be.
Mrs. Blacksheare said: "Ronnie here has suggested that your conversation might be freer if the two of you were alone, Mr. Goodall." She shrugged and smiled. "Our grounds are secluded and I promise that the two of you won't be disturbed if you care to take a stroll through them."
She gazed at the young man, her brow slightly arched and managed to accomplish what I had not. Ronnie's eyes met hers without a word being spoken between them. His lips twitched in what might have been a smile.
I knew then that Eleanor Blacksheare was a phenomenal teacher - any person who could, simply by her presence, command another's attention had the competition beat by a furlong before the race started.
She glanced at me then and smiled; I nodded numbly. And followed Ronnie as he stepped through the French doors onto the patio into the heated liquid air and swarms of gnats that covered south Georgia in the summer.
"I don't know how I can help you, Mr. Goodall," he said over his shoulder as we passed the bricked patio and stepped onto manicured grass. "I haven't seen Jimmy since he left last winter." There was a musical quality to the lad's voice.
"Were you - uh - familiar with Jimmy's-" My face reddened in embarrassment. "His sexual activity?"
The boy laughed then and his eyes twinkled. "Mr. Goodall, Jimmy and I are both gay. We like good-looking men - like you."
"I think you're good-looking too, Ronnie," I answered quickly, determined to put an end to this line of thought immediately. "But I'm not about to end my life in a Georgia prison for even the tastiest chicken in the world."
The boy chuckled. "Well, we both know where we stand. It's too bad you feel that way - but it's understandable too." He grinned triumphantly. "To set the record straight, though - I turned eighteen two days ago. I don't count as twinkie or, even, chicken any more. Back to Jimmy - we both liked dick and what it could do for us." He turned suddenly to me, his brows arched. "I hope I'm not surprising you?"
"No, you're not. As you've already guessed, I'm gay too - so, I can understand where you're coming from. Only, determining that he was gay isn't exactly why I'm here."
"What would you like to know?"
"Who he knew here that might have hated him enough to kill him."
"Jimmy was a bit more daring than I can imagine being. He also liked masculine older men - like the coach. But he used sissy men like my cousin and his boss, the preacher, over at the church too. Jimmy even got to where he liked to be on top." Ronnie grinned when I glanced over at him. "He sure did with me."
"Your cousin is the youth pastor at Central Baptist church? The scout leader?"
He nodded slowly.
"What about him?"
"He's the limpest wrist in Soul - even more than me. Jimmy played with him, winding him around his little finger. Cousin Jim Bob hated his guts for running around with the others - but he'd come running every time Jimmy crooked his finger at him."
"Because, as far as I know, Jimmy was one of the few boys in town who ever let Cousin Jim Bob touch him-" He grinned. "Except for me, that is. Everybody else started staying away from him by the time they turned ten or eleven. Jimmy liked to control people like my cousin and Reverend Bishop."
"What about the preacher?"
He laughed. "He was as bad as Cousin Jim Bob. I've heard he finds himself some chicken every time he goes out of town to a revival. It's a pretty good guess he and Jim Bob have something going between them when there isn't some boytoy around. Reverend Bishop, though, kept chasing after Jimmy all the time with his tongue hanging out like some bitch dog in heat."
"Yeah?" I frowned at the image the lad had painted of the preacher.
"Yeah. The preacher was probably skimming off the collection plate to help Jimmy out up in Atlanta - that's what Jimmy told me, anyway. He always spent Monday night with him - and all day Tuesday-"
"How do you know this?" I demanded.
"Jimmy called me out of the blue - about two-weeks ago."
"What did you talk about?"
"Not very much. He told me how he was doing - how the preacher was paying his way. I told him how dead this town was - and how everybody in school kept trying to get into my pants with him gone."
"What did he say about Jim Bob?"
"Not much - just that he'd called Jimmy out of the blue."
"My cousin hadn't know where Jimmy ran off to, though."
"How did he find out?"
Ronnie stopped in midstride and looked at the wood at the far edge of the grounds. "I don't know. Understand that my family's not very proud of Cousin Jim Bob. We don't see too much of each other except when I've gone sneaking out to his place for a little partying - and I never really heard from Jimmy after he left."
"Jimmy said Cousin Jim Bob was going up to see him. He didn't really want him to - but he was going to have to let him down easy or something."
"How about the coach? Was that a short-lived thing or did Jimmy control him like he did the preachers?"
"Him!" Ronnie's nose wrinkled in disgust. "That girl can't stay out of the showers, scoping all the boys out."
"He bothers the boys on the team?" I tried to imagine a football coach at a small-town high school doing something that obvious. All I could see were the locals coming after him with pitchforks raised.
"Naw." The lad who looked too much like a lass shook his head slowly. "That man's real butch around all his boys. He can't coach worth shit, but he's real macho-"
"But you said-?"
"He finds a kid like Jimmy or me in his phys ed class. He doesn't go for the big jocks much. Just the boys he thinks might have some sugar in their tanks." He stopped suddenly and stared at me as I came abreast of him. "Shit! I'll bet Cousin Jim Bob tells him who will and who won't from the scout troop." He nodded. "Yeah. Cause he does go out to Jim Bob's place now and then when the party's real small."
"He does what?"
"Coach Johnson's as thick as fleas on a hunting dog with the preachers at Central Baptist, Mr. Goodall. He's their Men's Sunday School teacher." He snorted. "That's probably how come he stays on as coach when he only wins one or two games a year. He butters up all the grownups. That and everybody knows Reverend Bishop supports him one hundred percent."
"How can the preacher do that and still hide his own-?" I stared at him incredulously.
The lad laughed. "Coach Johnson doesn't know shit about anything - including football, Mr. Goodall. But he prays real good. He can get the biggest jocks in school to fall down crying in unknown tongues. He also holds the prayer meetings at school."
What I was hearing was scary. I had signed on for a murder case - one in which a local preacher, maybe two, had used their position of trust to have sex with an underaged boy. One where the head preacher had been supporting that boy even after he'd become legal.
Now, Ronnie Varnadore was outlining an on-going paedophile ring in this small town, one that included both preachers and the football coach, to hear this lad tell it.
I knew with certainty that I would be returning to Soul soon. This coach would be the first person I interviewed on my second visit. Then, the two preachers. I wondered how they kept things in town quiet enough they could continue their paedophilia unnoticed.
"Ronnie, tell me what you know about a boy from around here named Tim Spencer. He was a couple of years older than you and Jimmy but-"
I saw the lad's jaw set. He finally looked back at me and anger grew in his eyes.
"Tim Spencer!" he spat. "He's the druggist's son - or was `til old man Spencer disinherited him a couple of years back. Jimmy was pretty sure he loved him once - way back."
"You don't seem to care for him?"
"I hate the son of a bitch. Sure, Tim Spencer had the biggest thing around these parts and he knew how to use it to good effect. But he expected it to get him anything. He got three girls pregnant the last year he was in Soul - plus fucking the shit out of Jimmy and me - and any other guy who was even the slightest bit curious."
He reddened but continued to meet my gaze. "It was hard for me to keep my mind on anything but what he had in his pants - after he got me to drop them the first time. It was only after I really got to know Jimmy Blacksheare three years ago that I found out about all the shit Tim was pulling." He snorted derisively. "They practically ran that piece of shit out of town on a rail two years ago."
Allowing myself to remember young Mr. Spencer from the night before, I could understand why this Ronnie Varnadore thought Tim's whole body was a tribute to beauty.
"Ronnie, you seem to be saying Tim didn't have any qualms about letting people know what he had in his pants - and using it where it'd be fun. But that wouldn't explain the hate I'm hearing."
"Mr. Goodall, that boy has a mean streak a mile wide and two miles deep. The reason why he left just ahead of a lynch mob was he decided he wanted to score a nice girl here in town - and her boyfriend too." He smiled. "Maybe, it was the other way around. One night he got the boy to go drinking with him - along with his girlfriend. The next day, the two of them came home with practically no clothes on and looking like they'd spent all night in a grinder. Tim had fucked them both all night long."
Ronnie Varnadore waved and started through a copse of pine trees at the edge of the property. Eleanor Blacksheare stood on the patio watching me as I bade him a farewell and turned back to her house. It didn't take much for me to guess she had been watching the two of us as we talked.
She fixed me with a whimsical smile and, as soon as I neared her, asked: "Mr. Goodall, can't this case be wrapped up quickly?"
"It's proving a bit more complicated than that, Mrs. Blacksheare," I told her in my best PI-voice. "There is a young man in Atlanta your son knew here - Tim Spencer. Circumstances seem to be spinning a web about him but I'm not ready to put a noose about his neck quite yet."
She gasped, her hand fluttering to her breast. "Tim?"
"He was living with Jimmy until a fortnight before your son was murdered. Their separation may prove to have been unpleasant-"
"A domestic thing gone violent?" Raymond Blacksheare mused as he stepped onto the patio and stood beside his wife as I reached them.
I nodded. "Probably only unpleasant. Understand, though, there's nothing to connect Tim to the murder - except for some circumstances. There are far more things suggesting one of several men here in Soul."
Eleanor Blacksheare studied me. "I'll hazard a guess that Reverend Larry Bishop is one of them."
I noticed her husband was staring at her with a shocked expression.
"That child molester is easily your best suspect," she continued, "him or little Ronnie's cousin who's the youth pastor at Central Baptist."
"Either of them has possibilities," I admitted.
"Perhaps we need to allow Mr. Goodall to handle this investigation as he sees fit, Eleanor," Raymond Blacksheare suggested.
Mrs. Blacksheare glanced at her husband then, her eyes flashing with anger. "I want this finished as quickly as possible. All we're doing is dragging our name and Jimmy's reputation through the mud both here and in Atlanta." She looked down at her hands. "I wish we'd never listened to Charlie Nixon and just left it up to the Atlanta police to do their job."
"It'd look bad for us here if we didn't make every effort to find Jimmy's murderer," he answered calmly. "Charlie was right to suggest a private investigator."
* * *
I parked in front of my motel room and opened the door of the Beastie, my thoughts swirling from my conversation with Ronnie Varnadore and the subsequent interlude with the Blacksheares.
The door slammed back against my leg. Before me and holding the car door was a bearded bear my height but outweighing me by at least eight stone. His beady eyes glared at me as if he were confronting a demon straight from hell. Pain shot through my trapped leg.
"You ain't staying here," the yokel told me. It took long moments for the words to make sense through the pain shooting up from my leg. "We don't want your likes here in Soul. This here's a god-fearing town, Yankee," he elaborated with what seemed like calm.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bloody full-sized ham coming at my face. I heard bone crunch before I saw stars burst into the space between the yokel and myself. Then I saw and heard nothing at all.
I was staring directly into the brightest sun in the galaxy, its blazing light blinding me.
"You're coming around," a voice greeted me from beyond the light. "Good."
I tried to rise and immediately felt like I was in a slow tumble out in the depths of space. I wasn't sure if I was going to be sick or faint - or both.
A hand gently pushed me back against what I had been lying on. "You've had a shock and you're going to be dizzy for a while, Mr. Goodall," the voice continued. "You've got a broken nose and lost an incisor."
"Where am I?" I managed through the vertigo.
"The hospital. Chief Nixon wants to ask you a few questions - if you think you're up to it."
I nodded, thinking to do so very, very slowly. My head didn't start spinning out of control. I opened my eyes and found myself in a small cubicle with multiple medical machines crowded about the walls.
"Who hit you?" Nixon asked as he entered my field of vision.
"Some lad the size of a small mountain."
He fought against a grin forming at his lips. "Can you be more specific?"
I gave him everything I could remember about my assailant. It wasn't much.
He shut the door and leant over me, his voice low. "You just met up with Larry Bishop's way of suggesting you leave town, Mr. Goodall. He's let you know his feelings, so you ought to be okay at the motel the rest of the night."
"Have you arrested him?" I groaned.
"How? Nobody saw anything - not even you. You can't go around arresting people in this country just because you suspect them - you've got to have evidence."
"Bloody Jesus!" I groaned.
"You'll be okay at the motel tonight. Only, I'm going to suggest you better head on back to Atlanta tomorrow."
I nodded. "They're going to let me out of hospital?"
The chief nodded. "I'll have a patrol drive by and check you out a couple of times tonight."
"When was the last time you saw Jimmy Blacksheare?" I demanded as I shoved open the door of the church study. The Reverend Larry Bishop stood beside his desk staring open mouthed at me. It was 10:15 Sunday morning.
The pot-bellied peacock began to redden, his eyes widening as he stared at the opened door behind me.
"You don't have your muscle here this morning, and I'm calling your bluff," I told him. I wanted to hit him. To beat him with my fists until I couldn't pull my arms back any more. "Talk to me or explain yourself to people here for church."
"Shut the door, Mr. Goodall," he told me, colour seeping from his face. He collapsed into the chair behind his desk.
I shut the door. "When was the last time you saw Jimmy?" I asked again as I crossed the room to a chair in front of him.
"A week ago Monday," he gulped, his voice a croak and his masquerade forgotten. His eyes fell to his hands clasped in his lap. "I couldn't stay the night-"
"That was - what - a day before somebody put two very big slugs in him? Who else do you know was seeing him?"
Fear again entered his eyes; but, this time, it was a different kind of fear than I had seen moments before.
"You aren't going to tell anybody about the people he practised his abomination with?" he asked hopefully.
"My employment is to learn the identity of the murderer - his parents aren't interested in the sordid details of his last six months or what happened before - or the men he did it with, Mr. Bishop."
The preacher sighed then and relaxed, accepting the straw I had thrown him as the full-sized life preserver he wanted it to be. Tentatively, he smiled back at me. I promised myself I'd pull him kicking and screaming out of his closet and let the people of his church do whatever they'd do to him if it was the last thing I did in this life.
"The men in his life I knew about were Jim Bob Varnadore, our youth pastor here at the church who's also our scout master, and Ralph Johnson, the football coach over at the high school."
A tentative smile played across his thick lips. "I did hear rumours about some of the other teachers over at the high school-"
He sat straighter in his chair and put the full force of his ministerial countenance behind his next words. "Of course, those are only rumours and no one, least of all me, would ever doubt the good people teaching our children."
I shook my head slowly. "Was there anybody in this town who wasn't getting a piece of the lad?"
Larry Bishop's lips twitched towards a smile but ended up in a ministerial smirk. "Mr. Goodall, Jimmy was very - uh - available and I suspect a lot of people took advantage of that fact."
"Why did you?" I asked, unable to restrain my anger.
The preacher glanced down at his hands. "It was wrong," he admitted but I sensed no deep and abiding shame in him - unless it was from fear of being found out. "It went against everything God teaches us about what he wants us to be. It was an abomination, Mr. Goodall."
I wasn't here to hear that God didn't like my lifestyle or what I did sexually. And I certainly wasn't in this rectory to learn Baptist theology from the mouth of a child molester.
"Why, preacher?" I pushed.
The man sobbed and the hurt that sprang to his eyes seemed real. "I loved Jimmy Blacksheare. God forgive me, but I loved that boy, Mr. Goodall. He made me come alive when I was with him - more alive than I've ever been."
I forced back my revulsion and said nothing.
"He came to me for counselling, Mr. Goodall four - almost five - years ago. He was searching for faith-"
"You fucked him instead?"
The man's face fell and his skin went pasty. He hung his head then, accepting he was still my captive. "He wasn't a virgin, Mr. Goodall. Another boy had already robbed him of that."
He shook his head as if to clear it. "Jimmy Blacksheare didn't know what love was. He never had it in his home. Both his parents were distant. A compassionate hand on his shoulder turned into a hug. And that other, horrible boy had already taught him where that could lead."
I wanted to get away from this man and breathe clean air again. Instead, I asked: "Who hated him enough to kill him, preacher?"
His eyes met mine then and held them. "Mr. Goodall, your question very well may be who loved him enough to kill him? Do you understand the difference I'm making?"
I nodded as I stood up. "If I have any more questions, preacher, may I call or telephone you?"
"Of course! Please do feel free to call me any time." He stuck out a hand and grabbed mine, starting to pump it before I could pull it back. It was as if the human mountain hadn't existed. I knew better. And I knew that this preacher had sent that mountain to intimidate me.
I stepped towards the door but turned back to face him. "I do have one more question, preacher."
"Ask away, Mr. Goodall."
"How much did it hurt you to know the boy you loved was seeing other men, giving them his body as he gave it to you?"
I had scored a direct hit - one that didn't do the physical damage this man's muscle yokel had done me, but one that made this snake-oil salesman's face screw up in a real semblance of pain.
"It did hurt - a lot more than I can put into words. But he was the first to remind me that I did not own him - that his body was his to share with anyone he wanted."
Larry Bishop's stricken face transformed into one of a saint achieving rapture. "Mr. Goodall, he told me just before he left for Atlanta that the sex he shared with other men was just physical - it didn't mean anything. It was just filling a momentary need, satisfying one he apparently couldn't control - but it wasn't love." His hands fluttered to his face and covered his eyes. "It was that statement, the love he expressed for me with it, that got me through the long hours when I wasn't with him and I knew someone else was holding him."
Larry Bishop sobbed then and tears ran freely down his cheeks. I retreated to the door of the church that sheltered him in whatever grief he truly felt. My hand on the doorknob, I turned back to him.
"I'm conducting a murder investigation here, preacher. I'm going to write letters to your local paper as well as to the dailies that come to Soul. They're going to be very detailed about you and Jimmy. If you don't want them posted, you need to make sure your thugs leave me alone when I'm in this town. Do you understand me?" I opened the door and left the room without seeing him nod his agreement.
The drive back to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon seemed to take forever. I'd found a lot of information in Soul and I knew from past experience to let my subconscious mind nip at its edges and make sense of it rather than trying to arrange it using logic.
The pain pills were wearing off by the time the Beastie was past Moultrie and I was heading north on the I-75 motorway. My nose and jaw hurt.
I had found far more information than I'd expected from this first trip to Soul. I was sick at the thought that three men at least were involved in paedophilia with God only knew how many young boys in town. I had ignored the underaged thing about the dead boy and Tim Spencer - and even Ronnie Varnadore. At least, I had been able to do so while still in Atlanta. But Ronnie's story changed the situation drastically.
Just how drastically was what I was unsure of as I drove back to Atlanta.
The paedophilia that young Varnadore had so carelessly laid at my feet could be completely unrelated to Jimmy Blacksheare's murder. Or it could have a lot to do with it.
The one thing I was sure of about the case was that I had come to feel that I could trust the police chief. Larry Bishop and Jim Bob Varnadore seemed to be everything I had come to expect from American preachers, and then some. The more I learnt about them, the more I became convinced that they were child molestors who would go to almost any extreme to keep their dirty lives private. They used their pulpits and fear of a revengeful god to keep the locals blind - or silent.
I would have expected somebody as expert at backbiting and slight of hand as Larry Bishop to have already made mincemeat of the youth pastor of Central Baptist. Jim Bob Varnadore's homosexuality was known by too many people in town. I couldn't work out why Larry Bishop hadn't already tackled his youth pastor. I filed that thought away for future exploration, right beside the one on finding the right approach to blow the preacher's cover in Soul.
The pastor of Central Baptist wanted me to believe young Mr. Blacksheare was his one and only lapse from the straight and narrow. It was possible but nobody had mentioned a Mrs. Bishop while I was in town. Both Tim Spencer and Ronnie Varnadore had led me to believe that the Reverend Bishop was into boys. I was certain that he had lied to me.
What had caught me and stayed with me was the vehement dislike with which at least one person in Soul held Tim Spencer. Some of that vehemence I could chalk up to Ronnie Varnadore having a youthful love affair with the lad, one that had fizzled on him. There was perhaps a lot more than that if the events Ronnie mentioned bore out.
However, even if Tim Spencer was the biggest, meanest bastard in Georgia, manipulating the hell out of everybody, I didn't see where that would necessarily tie him to Jimmy's murder.
If what I had heard about him was true, it would actually make it even harder to profile the lad into killing young Blacksheare. Manipulators sought out people they could control. They didn't kill people; they just moved on to their next victim.
Thinking about it as I drove north, I could see that Ronnie had skirted some of my questions and overloaded his answers to others. Given the vehemence of his dislike for Tim Spencer, I had to wonder at his reticence when I asked him about possible killers.
* * *
Six hours after I left Soul, I was on the exit ramp off the I-75 motorway at Georgia Tech and Fourteenth Street. The information I had from Soul left me with far too many questions and too few answers.
Larry Bishop was going to have another meeting with me, one that he was going to like even less than our last one. I liked nothing better than calling a man's bluff.
I hadn't met the high school coach. Or the scout master. Ronnie Varnadore, too, owed me some answers to questions he had avoided at our last meeting. I definitely had more business in Soul. Charlie Nixon was going to hate seeing me again for I was going to put a local paedophile ring in his lap.
And that bothered me most of all.
Paedophiles. Sick men who forced their authority, their power on the minds and bodies of children too young to understand sex and its pleasures. Men who had the same mental disease that afflicted rapists. True, most often, they manipulated their victims in sex - instead of forcing them into it at gun or knife point. But paedophiles were adults leading children who trusted them into intimacy - in order to prove themselves. In order to feel good about themselves. Paedophilia was strictly about the paedophile feeling good about himself and his perceived authority. The sick bastard used intimacy with a child to feel superior to the child, by establishing control over him.
In the case of the men from Soul, their victims were young boys. Jim Bob Varnadore, the Baptist youth pastor and boy scout leader had parties at his home where boys entertained each other and Reverend Bishop and Coach Johnson. Ronnie Varnadore had told me about it, and Larry Bishop had confirmed it. I also knew from what Ronnie had said that Jimmy Blacksheare had been involved in the sickness with which the three men were infecting Soul.
As I drove to the house, I prayed that Jimmy had only been involved peripherally. I wanted to turn over what I knew to Charlie Nixon the next time I was in Soul and forget about it. I didn't want to have to deal with it in any way.
I knew myself well - at least, I knew some of my biggest foibles well. I handled mental illness poorly. And paedophilia was one form of insanity that had me agreeing with most Americans about capital punishment. I believed rubbish like Bishop and his sort needed to die - and quickly. And I didn't need an attitude like that interfering with this case as I worked to unravel it.
The house was dark when I stepped through the kitchen door. I told myself it didn't mean anything and headed for my bedroom.
But it did mean something. I had wanted Billy Boy to be there when I arrived. I hadn't consciously thought about it, but I wanted someone to make noises about the cast covering my nose. I wanted somebody to be happy to see that I was home. Part of me had been planning things we could do together the last hundred miles; he wasn't here to do them with.
I tried to put his absence out of my thoughts. I told myself that he was a rent boy, a faithful follower of nihilistic freedom. A devotee of Narcissus. He had given himself to me for the better part of two days. I had received more of him than most men. I should be satisfied with what I had.
I had come to think of him as mine, me as his, and the two of us as us.
Bugger his bloody freedom!
I wanted him to tell me there wasn't anything there that I could hold on to. That he could care less if some mountain of a man had shoved his fist in my face. Or that I was home again.
I didn't want that, of course. But, if he was going to disappear out of my fucking life I wanted him to tell me it was going to happen.
I reckoned that I knew where he would be.
* * *
I drove down to Atlanta's meat rack.
I followed Sixth from Piedmont and crossed Peachtree, the disquiet that had ruled my stomach since leaving Ansley Park finally becoming full nausea. I turned into Cypress and started along Atlanta's hustle street.
I didn't see him.
By the time I'd reached the end of the street, I was imagining him bent over in the back seat of a car with a shadow pounding his upturned arse. I was sure that I was going to have to hang my head over the side of the Beastie and relieve my stomach. And I had a nearly overwhelming desire to drive straight home and become intimate with the bottle of Glenfiddich that I'd bought last Christmas.
I forced myself to turn back into Cypress.
And wracked my brain for where he might be. I kept seeing that image of his upturned backside being ploughed, but I refused to believe it. I didn't want to believe it. If he wasn't out earning a living however, where was he? And how was I supposed to find him?
It took a few minutes but I remembered that most of the rent boys in Atlanta found their way to The Resurrected Bird next door to my office. I decided that I could at least check it out before I returned home empty-handed.
He was sitting at the bar against the back wall. He wasn't even trying to hustle. The Sherman tank I'd come to know as Kathy was huddled with him at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped bar.
I almost convinced myself to about-face and move right back out of the bar. Unfortunately, Kathy had spotted me. "Philip," she called, "get your fucking ass back here, boy. We want to talk to you."
Billy Boy glanced over his shoulder and, spotting me, turned several shades of red. "Hi, Phil," he greeted me as I neared him. He didn't appear to be especially happy or perky. He certainly didn't look like he was for sale. I happily doubted that he had found a john while I'd been in Soul.
"I'm glad that I found you," I told him as I sat beside him.
His face broke into a sunny grin. Kathy stood back and poured a double shot of Teacher's - over ice - and placed it in front me. I wondered if she'd bite my head off if I told her to leave the ice out in future.
"What the fuck happened to you?" he demanded. Kathy instantly leant into the bar, her face moving towards mine. I didn't know if she intended to kiss me or if she was so blind that she had to be right on something to know what it was.
I sat back. "I met a lorry that I didn't see coming."
"Cut the shit, Phil!" Billy Boy growled. "I don't know what a damned lorry is, but I know a broken nose when I see one. What happened?"
"Fucking men!" Kathy snarled, standing back up and glaring at me. "You boys never grow up. Fighting at your age!"
"I asked questions about the wrong man in Soul-"
"The cop did this to you?" Billy Boy asked.
"No, the preacher."
"A fucking prissy preacher beat you up?" He sat back, his shoulder pressed against the door, and stared at me in disbelief.
"He sent a messenger."
"It's about time you got your ass down here, Philip," Kathy grumbled. "This guy can't shut up about you." She glanced from me to him and back again. "You can take care of him now that you're here - as long as you're nice to him." She moved up to the front of the bar and I glanced to see Billy Boy watching me.
"I need to talk to you," I told him, picking up my whisky and draining it.
"Talk?" He sat up and studied me closely.
"Is that all I'm good for now that you've met Tim?" he jibed, grinning, as he turned towards me, preferring a quick sting that could still be taken as friendly over something more confrontational.
"No." I took a deep breath, sensing that I was about to make commitments I couldn't even imagine. "And I would like to revisit some of the other stuff," I admitted. "But only after we've covered the mess that I've got in my head."
"I was getting a little worried there." He stared at the floor between us. "Shit! I like you, Phil Goodall - you're better to me than any guy I've met out here the past two years."
"Billy Boy, what're you saying?" I demanded. I was suddenly afraid of my growing interest in him now that it seemed joined to a reciprocal feeling on his part. Something had happened between us and I hadn't seen it when it did.
He glanced down at his hands, encircling his beer bottle. "Just that I'd like to see where we can go. That's why the other night was free - and tonight too. And any other night you want me."
I chuckled. "I hadn't thought about it that way," I said and didn't realise that I'd just put my foot in it. Deeply.
He glanced quickly over at me and, even more quickly turned his head, but I was sure I saw his eyes glistening as he looked away. "That doesn't mean that I'm not interested," I added quickly to ease his pain and remove the possibility of causing me at least as much.
He looked hopefully at me. "You mean it?"
"Let me find out who killed Jimmy Blacksheare."
"Yeah?" His voice was dubious.
"I need to be paid on the case before I can make any commitments, Billy Boy. Self-employment can prove embarrassing to the wallet." I hadn't been embarrassed in years, but I thought it best to let him think that I had to struggle sometimes - at least, until I knew if he thought of me as a free meal ticket.
"Why, Phil? I can always work."
"Sorry, love," I said taking his hand in mine and knowing I was committing myself more completely than I had in years. "I don't think I'd like anybody else having you."
"I didn't mean that kind of work." He smiled and tears definitely were glistening in his eyes. "I think that I'm falling in love with you," he mumbled. He squeezed my arm and pressed against me - and immediately pulled back, studying my face. "Can we go back to your house?"
* * *
"Tell me about Tim Spencer." I pushed the door to the house closed behind us. I wanted to know about the man who'd left Soul just ahead of a lynch mob even if it opened a few minor and self-inflicted wounds in Billy Boy Sharpe.
I had also decided that I needed to be very firm around him if I was to go anywhere but a bed. I wasn't sure I hadn't bit off more than I could chew when I showed interest in a continuing future of his kind of togetherness.
Billy Boy frowned at me. "Shit! Phil, I thought we were talking about making something work between us - why're you bringing him up?"
"I heard some interesting things down south."
He studied me for some very long moments. "What do you want to hear?"
"What's he like?"
"I don't know." He looked up at the ceiling of the kitchen, pulling thoughts other than those dealing with sex to himself. "He's a real work horse in bed." Billy Boy's face brightened at memories I knew better than to ask about. "He just keeps ploughing all night and never stops for air."
"His knowing how to use his body wasn't what I wanted to talk about. Does he have strong likes and dislikes? Is he a solid friend - or a user? Things like that."
"Can I have a drink while I'm mulling this over?"
"I doubt you've eaten today."
He nodded his head in embarrassed agreement.
"Perhaps, we should see about putting some proper food in you before you overload your bloody kidneys." I started back towards the door. "Come on."
Billy Boy grinned and said: "As we're already going out, you ought to get another box of raincoats, Phil. We used up the last one Friday night."
We went through a bucket of Popeye's spicy Famous Fried Chicken and a quart of Cajun Rice before we returned to the subject of Tim Spencer.
We were full and I suspected Billy Boy had more protein in his system than he had in months. I didn't mind his drinking on a full tummy. If I was going to acquire him as a full-time bed partner and more, however, I knew I was going to have to accept some responsibility for his well-being.
"Why're you suddenly so interested in Tim?" Billy Boy asked.
"Because somebody said he'd dance on his mother's grave if it'd help him - and he'd fuck the Virgin Mary if he thought he could get her to spread her legs."
"So I was told - a real mean streak."
"I never saw it, Phil. But-" He slipped into silence as he explored whatever thought had struck him. I had to sit by and let him pursue it to its end alone.
"Right after they met up here, Jimmy let him shack up at his place. That continued right up to a couple to three weeks ago. I sort of gathered the deal became one where Tim was Jimmy's husband during the week - but he had to bug out Monday and stay gone until Tuesday or whenever."
"Jimmy's sugar daddy came to town the first of the week," I prodded. "How did Tim feel about that?"
"How would you feel if I was your honey but I kicked you out every damned week so I1 could fill up on strange meat?" He nodded at my grimace. "I imagine that's how that boy felt about Jimmy's bedroom antics - at least, that's how I'd feel. He didn't like the arrangements. He also knew there wasn't anything he could do about them."
"Tim can make several hundred a night hustling but he doesn't. He might take a dick up the ass if he's real hard up for dough; but it ain't his usual thing - it's too nelly. So he was left to fend for himself like the rest of us. He couldn't afford to keep Jimmy - much less do it like that boy's sugar daddy did."
"Why did they break up?"
He gazed at me for long moments. "I don't know anybody who was saying anything. I sort of suspect Jimmy saw Tim trying to drag him down out of the life he was building and didn't like it - and Tim got fed up with too many men in his beau's life."
"How was their break up?"
"In what way?"
"Was it unpleasant?"
"Jimmy tried to stay above it all but Tim was sort of bitter, making comments and stuff every time he saw him or heard Jimmy's name. How about that drink?"
"You want to become a permanent fixture around here - why don't you fix us both one."
Billy Boy shrugged and stood up, crossing to the bar. "You want a cape cod?"
"Give me a shot of Glenfiddich - leave off the water and ice."
* * *
Billy Boy lay snuggled against me in the dark, his lips against my nipple. My arm across his back held him against me and my hand fit comfortably over the mound of his arse cheek. He was asleep - as I wished I was.
My image of Tim Spencer had changed drastically in a little more than twenty-four hours. He was still young masculinity personified - Apollo taking what he wanted and undenied. But I was now seeing him much as I had come to see Jimmy Blacksheare - a conniving, manipulating son of a bitch.
They had been a real team in Soul, though they didn't seem to have played in tandem once they were both in Atlanta. Jimmy had been the perfection of boyish beauty. He used it almost from the beginning to get what he wanted. And he wanted Tim's androgynousness.
While Tim had straddled the fence in Soul and used his attributes to score the cutest and the best that town had to offer regardless of gender, Jimmy came down hard as queer and proud. He spread his legs for only the male portion of Soul's youth population and set out to manipulate the town's adult powerful to his will.
The two of them had had something in Jimmy's first rush of puberty. The boy gave himself to Tim Spencer and loved him, probably unconditionally as only children could. But Tim discarded him when the sea of his sexual fulfilment got choppy.
Yet, he stayed just enough at the edges of the picture for the lad and gave him something of himself until he skipped out when his world seemed ready to tumble down on him.
For the next two years, Jimmy Blacksheare had every horny teenage boy in Soul and the surrounding county lusting for his favours and without the support he once thought he had in Tim Spencer. Those boys didn't want his friendship, they wanted the relief he could give them. They didn't give him anything in return but a public cold shoulder - except when their mothers remembered who the Blacksheares were and put themselves into the act.
In some way, Jimmy held himself together, holding on to being male and masculine unlike Ronnie Varnadore - holding his head up in public while spreading his legs. Somehow, he made the intuitive leap from town queer to a male Madame Bovary. He was queer, but he was unwilling to be docile. He was smart and he learnt how to use his sexual activities to gain what he wanted. It probably hadn't mattered to him how he got it.
I guessed the youth pastor was the first adult the lad tried his wiles on, although Bishop was a close-runner up.
Everything I heard yesterday and today indicated the scout leader was a ready subject for Jimmy's first attempt to control the adult world around him. Either Larry Bishop or the coach had come next. I didn't know, and it might not matter.
I could imagine a naked Jimmy Blacksheare in the showers at school and a horny, paedophilic coach.
I quickly pushed that thought away. I accepted that three of my suspects, at least, were paedophiles. It had been their insanity that involved them with a pubescent Jimmy Blacksheare. But there was no way that I was going to allow my investigation to become a search for sick men who ought to be in an asylum. I was investigating a murder, not a paedophile ring. I didn't need something that would pull every one of my prejudices out of me and hang it out to dry. Charlie Nixon could find the sick men in his town and put them away. Anybody else could. Anybody but me.
Exploring my prejudices, giving vent to them even, would keep me up all night. I forced my thoughts back into their earlier channel.
Reverend Bishop would have needed even less of a push than the coach where Jimmy Blacksheare was concerned. At least, that was the implication Ronnie had given me.
I wanted a lot more than implications when I returned to Soul on Wednesday. Jimmy had had three adults with respected positions under his control before he was old enough to even know what to do with them.
The lad was intelligent and resourceful. His parents tried hard to accept him and give him his freedom. I guessed their only demand was that he not be too public in his proclivities, that he keep up some sort of pretence.
He had. In Soul.
He had the power structure of Central Baptist Church and boy scouts in Soul grovelling for a piece of him. It hadn't surprised me that he also had something going with the coach. He held his head high and took what he wanted from everybody.
Yet, he'd shucked it all six months ago and walked away from Soul and the grudging, tentative acceptance he had established for himself there.
Jimmy had followed Tim Spencer to Atlanta and onto Cypress Street. APD assumed that, anyway - based on the initial officer's report. I suspected that his own prejudices had come into play once he'd called Chief Nixon and learnt that the boy was gay. From what Billy Boy said, I knew that the nihilistic freedom of street life had not suited Jimmy Blacksheare. And it took him just a week to get himself out of it.
Had he met up with Tim in that week? Or did that come later? Did it come after he called up Larry Bishop and had himself a flat, with Central Baptist Church in Soul perhaps supporting him like he wanted to be supported? How did he feel as he was undressing that first time with the boy he once loved and who had deserted him so unceremoniously?
Tim Spencer certainly wasn't living the life he knew as the son of the local chemist back in Soul. Billy Boy had suggested that the lad had had to learn to bottom - had Jimmy perhaps changed their roles once he and Tim were together again? Or even for the duration of their relationship?
Had he demanded an equality Tim Spencer had never had to accept before? Or had Tim turned his bum up back in Soul even while he was scoring everything that moved?
Did it even matter who did what with whom?
It could - if young Tim had problems with his self-image. And if he solved his problems violently.
My mind kept flitting from the possibilities inherent in Tim and Jimmy to the nebulous spectre of Jim Bob Varnadore. Ronnie had been scathing when he discussed his cousin. Charlie Nixon, too, had painted him not just in pink, but in fuchsia. Yet, the man was kept on at the church and as a scout leader.
At this point, I was willing to drop Larry Bishop from my short list - no matter my dislike for him. If he had a problem, he had a lot of money to throw at it - either directly or indirectly. I surmised that was more his style than killing the laddy who made him come alive.
Ronnie Varnadore had dropped an incongruity on me as we strolled along the Blacksheare's grounds. Jimmy had left the scout leader high and dry back in Soul when he left town. But, somehow, Jim Bob Varnadore had learnt where Jimmy was living in Atlanta and he saw him just before the lad died of those large calibre slugs passing through his chest.
I couldn't help wonder what it was like for the man who was afraid of hooty owls to find one of his scout troop willing to be alone with him and fulfil his fantasies. To give him what he wanted willingly. From the descriptions of the man I had received, I was sure Jimmy Blacksheare was giving the man what he wanted and doing it for free.
The man fainted at the sight of blood, however. That was a major problem because Jimmy Blacksheare had bled. Varnadore was also the man who had kept his hands to himself sufficiently to stay on as scout leader and youth pastor of the main church in town without a scandal.
How had he known where Jimmy was living? Who told him? It was obvious as the nose on my face the lad had stiffed him when he left Soul.
In addition, Larry Bishop hovered just beyond the horizons of my thoughts, a member of the second list. He seemed straight forward enough as the child molester/boy lover hiding in his clerical garb during my second interview with him. But he had been helping Jimmy Blacksheare maintain his lifestyle in Atlanta, possibly out of church funds. Did he know about Tim? Did he, too, take it up the ass from the lad? Did it even matter?
The next morning, I pointed the Beastie towards downtown and central police headquarters, leaving my concerns about Billy Boy Sharpe in Ansley Park.
I planned to meet the woman who headed up the investigation of the grounds at the funeral home and, afterwards, called Chief Nixon. There were some points I wanted clarified and she was the best prospect I had to do the honours. Then I needed to meet the detective assigned the case. I didn't expect much from him, but I suspected it might be jolly fun to let him know that I was looking over his shoulder.
My PI license didn't do much to get me past cud-chewing heifers paid to ignore people. I introduced myself to the homicide heifer behind her bullet-proof Plexiglas, asked for the detective assigned to the Blacksheare case, and cooled my heels as might any other citizen might.
Half an hour later a cafe-au-lait hunk I didn't recognise opened the nearest door and peered expectantly about the room.
"Mr. Goodall?" the hunk asked and gazed at me in that suspicious way American constables have of intimidating everyone within sight.
"That's me," I offered perkily and didn't allow myself to be intimidated as I rose.
He stood nervously in the open door watching me as if he expected me to rush him with uzis blazing. I nearly laughed - the man had me by a few inches and weighted a good stone more than I did. His weight looked to be all well-distributed and toned muscle and twenty years younger than mine.
"I'm Detective Ashburn, Mr. Goodall," he offered in easily understood Southern. "How may I help you?"
I walked over and shook his hand. "I'm the PI the Blacksheares brought in to help in the investigation of their son's murder." I smiled. "I'd like to learn what your scene of crime unit found Wednesday at Petersen's Funeral Home."
Ashburn permitted his door to shut behind him as he reluctantly ventured into the room with me. "Mr. Goodall, that's official police information. It's directly related to an ongoing homicide investigation."
I smiled pleasantly. "I do have a state-issued license," I offered. "There's also an indication or two that the perpetuator and motive might lie two hundred miles outside your immediate jurisdiction."
I had hit the mark.
Ashburn's eyes narrowed as he made mental calculations and quickly came up with reasons to try me out. The local media had dropped Jimmy the moment homosexuality became suspect. The detective probably had thirty more cases pending among his files and no real time to do any of them justice. I hoped also that there was an innate sense of wronged fairness that brought an intelligent man to homicide - he'd like to see the victims he represented vindicated even if he wasn't doing the honours.
The typical police suspicion was still operating at an enhanced level in him, but it was coupled with intelligence. "If you're willing to keep me up on everything you learn-?"
I nodded slowly so as not to appear too eager.
"Maybe we can work something out," he finished.
"I wouldn't want it any other way, Detective Ashburn," I offered with total sincerity, as I calculated the likelihood of being an accessory after the fact. I had information I doubted the good detective would ever know - unless I told him. Withholding evidence germane to a murder investigation wasn't exactly kosher in the eyes of the law. But I wasn't about to show my cards until I had to.
"What do you want to know, Mr. Goodall?" he asked, satisfied of his control of my good intentions.
I smiled. "What did your scene of crime unit determine at that undertaker's last Wednesday?"
"In what way?" he shot back guardedly. He watched me from hooded eyes. We were going to play cat and mouse for a while.
"Have you decided the lad wasn't killed there yet?"
The man's eyes rounded. I suspected then that he had thought me just another shyster preying on the recently bereaved.
"What gave you that impression?" he asked, gamely attempting to put me back into the mould he had fashioned.
"No blood, no gore, no clothes, no bullet casings at the scene-" I smiled, this time knowingly. "No signs of a fight, no loud noises in the middle of the night-" I arched a brow questioningly. "Should I go on?"
"We've pretty well eliminated Petersen's as the scene of crime," he admitted after only a short internal struggle.
"What did they find on the grounds - anything?"
He snorted. "Not a damned thing!"
"How did they identify the victim?" I asked quickly, unwilling to allow him to slip back within his fortifications.
Ashburn's entire mien told me I had caught him by surprise. "His driver's license, I guess," he allowed slowly. I had the impression identification was something not mentioned prominently in the investigative report any more than it had been in the patrolman's report.
"He was officially semi-nude," I told the detective. "Unofficially, the lad only had on a pair of Y-fronts when your scene of crime investigators arrived."
"Just his underwear?" He was studying me dubiously as he said the words, taking the sense of them. "Most men don't carry identification when that's all they got on-"
"Think I could get a copy of the scene of crime investigation report?" I watched as he thought that over.
"That'd be irregular as hell," he managed.
"I already have your patrolman's report," I told him, trying to nudge him past the barriers he was bringing down between us.
He grinned slowly. "So, you're the one Blacksheare got that for?"
"This is that young hustler whose daddy is a political power in nowhere?"
"There's some question as to the lad's last known employment, but you've got it. What I'd really like is to speak with the leader of that investigative team-"
"Fuck! Next, you'll be wanting the sun and the moon as well."
"With you present, of course."
"And her report in your hand?"
I grinned. "That's about it."
He grinned back. "No can do. She left for a two-week vacation Friday."
"I'd dearly love to know how they identified the body."
He stared at me for long moments and came to a decision. He turned to the door and pulled a key ring from his pocket. "Come on, Mr. Goodall. We'll call the patrolman who responded to the 911 call. Maybe he'll remember."
I followed him through the door and sat in the chair indicated as he slid behind his desk across from me and picked up the telephone.
It took a few minutes, but we learnt Jimmy Blacksheare's wallet had been folded over the elastic waistband of the front of his Y-fronts.
I left homicide with a copy of the scene of crime investigation unit's report in my hand.
* * *
Jimmy Blacksheare had died some time early Wednesday morning, give or take a few hours. It was now Monday afternoon and I had met the detective who was assigned the dead boy's case. I hadn't seen the autopsy report or been to Jimmy's flat the good folks of Central Baptist Church in Soul unknowingly provided him through their preacher. It was a place I wanted to see - alone the first time. I'd tell Ashburn where to find it - after I'd had a chance to look around.
I dug in my pocket and found a coin. Heads I went to the morgue first, tails I tried to enter Jimmy Blacksheare's flat without a police badge. I flipped the coin. Heads. I had been afraid of that.
At the Fulton County Morgue, I looked up the gentleman I'd tricked with several years before. He was still in his early thirties, had all his hair, and was as emaciated as I remembered him. And he also still reminded me of cold cadavers.
He blinked behind thick glasses. "Phil," he said. And blushed.
It was amazing what warm, living blood did to a body.
I forced a smile to my face when he looked up and saw me. And couldn't get the image of our last meeting out of my mind. Henry had tried to get me to lie down on his slab for a strictly non-professional encounter and I'd got out of there as fast as I could. It took me days to get the smell of the place out of my nostrils.
I nodded as he stood and approached me.
"Long time, no see," he said, having regained his composure.
We spent several minutes saying those things social animals say and don't mean. "I need a copy of an autopsy report," I told him, tiring of the social charade.
A calculating look formed in his eyes. "What's it worth?"
"What did you have in mind?"
He leered. "I find I'm unpleasantly free at the moment."
"I've got a lover, Henry," I said, surprising myself with my conviction. I said the words in an effort to put an end to this line of conversation, I hoped that they wouldn't also put an end to my chances of seeing the results of Jimmy Blacksheare's autopsy.
He frowned. "What cadaver you checking up on, Phil?"
"A lad named Jimmy Blacksheare. You probably have him as James."
He blushed. "That sure was a beautiful boy. I hated to release him-"
"Why?" I asked and immediately wished I had kept my question to myself.
Henry's face broke into a smile. "I was seriously considering trying out a little necrophilia - that boy was fine."
He grinned. "What do you want to know about him, Phil?"
"Anything and everything," I told him, all too happy to have something occupying my mind besides this man being alone with Jimmy Blacksheare's body. "The local constabulary doesn't seem especially perturbed by his death."
He nodded. "Yeah. I haven't seen a cop wanting to see my report either."
"Tell me the pertinent stuff," I said.
He studied me for a long moment, and I was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. "Let me get the report and let's take a walk," he mumbled as he turned to the closest file cabinets.
We sat at one of the outside tables set in the concrete that separated the building we had just left from the street beyond us. One of those oddities that supposedly made such buildings more people-friendly.
"Hit the high points," I told him when it was obvious he wasn't going to hand me the report to read.
"Cause of death-" he began.
"You can skip that. I saw the morgue photos."
"Powder burns on his chest and hollow points - nasty." He made a face as he spoke those words.
"What about the gun - could you place its calibre?"
"Not really. We didn't get any slugs. It was large calibre, though - .40 or .45, probably."
I frowned. "Go ahead."
"His stomach was full," he said as he flipped through pages. "Stomach contents were undigested beef and commercial white bread - there was a pickle or two also."
My stomach threatened to revolt. "So, he had a hamburger shortly before it happened. How about time of death?"
"Two o'clock Wednesday morning, give or take an hour."
"How about sex?"
My lad at the morgue flipped pages. "No semen in the rectal passage." He flipped another page. "Here. There were traces of semen and faecal material on his penis." He glanced up at me and grinned.
"What?" I stared at him.
"Yeah, Phil. There were only microscopic traces along the dickshaft. But it's not all that unusual to pick up some matter even that size when you're in the middle of heavy fucking. He had a little extra skin that would act to hold it in place." He sighed wistfully.
"He dicked somebody good without a rubber shortly before he died. He dislodged some shit. He shot a load up somebody's ass." He smiled tentatively at me and licked his lips like someone moments before making love.
"It's hard to tell whether he ate his hamburger before or after he porked his partner.
Anything else?" I asked, wishing that Henry Fein didn't enjoy his work so much.
"Nothing under the fingernails. He didn't get to claw his killer, but that isn't that unusual when cause of death is a gunshot. Some coarse white cotton fibres - probably a towel - on his upper back."
"Probably to staunch the blood when he was moved," I mused.
"The killer probably wasn't willing to wait until the blood clotted," he offered in agreement. "The kid was deader than dead when he appeared at Petersen's." His face darkened. "The cops really don't care what happens to us, do they?" he growled beneath his breath.
"Give me the lad's measurements," I said, deciding I needed to have as many of the specifics as I could remember because Henry wasn't going to copy the report for me.
"Phil!" he yelped but was grinning broadly when I glanced at him.
I blushed in spite of myself. "You bloody idiot! I mean his height and weight."
"Five feet, eight inches and 140 pounds-" He paused and I watched him calculate. "That translates to ten stone, doesn't it?"
"I've been here a long time," I told him quite nicely. "I work well in pounds and ounces," I added.
"There's one more thing, Phil," he said as we both stood up. I raised my right eyebrow in question. "He was HIV positive. Early latent stage, I'd guess - but definitely carrying the virus."
I had enough of the pertinent material from the autopsy report to work with. Despite my personal problems with Henry Fein, I knew he'd answer any further questions that I came up with.
It was difficult for a gay man to ignore the fact that the police were so overworked they weren't going to do a bloody thing for us unless and until the mass media started calling for heads.
The Beastie crawled through the congested traffic on Peachtree. Watching the needle rise towards overheating, I promised myself like I always did that I'd use MARTA next time I came downtown. Between the four dollars to park under the not-so-careful eye of a surly attendant and the traffic I had to put up with both coming and going, I was bloody pissed off by the time I reached North Avenue and turned right.
At Boulevard, I turned left and began to clip right along rather smartly towards midtown and Piedmont Park, the traffic of downtown a fading memory. Boulevard became Memorial when I crossed Ponce de Leon.
I headed towards Tenth Street and the building that housed the lovenest the folks at Soul's Central Baptist Church had provided Jimmy Blacksheare and their preacher.
To my surprise, the rental clerk was willing to permit me to enter the flat - as long as he was with me. Given the area of town we were in, I assumed an ulterior motive - even without my gaydar operating.
He wasn't my type. I doubted he was anybody's type, for that matter. He was a lumbering, twenty stone plus lad at least ten years older than I.
The door swung open to expose a living room that exhibited signs of recently being invaded by Atilla the Hun. I shuddered. Even given that Jimmy was a sloppy housekeeper, the room before me was beyond belief. Sudden fear of what my house might look like set my stomach lurching. I hoped that Billy Boy Sharpe was tidier than his dead friend.
"God!" the rental agent groaned beside me.
"Looks as if the lad wasn't keen on housework," I said.
"That boy had a service come in once a week," he said, his voice thick with disbelief as he stared at the room.
His comment might not have been meant for me, but it clued me nonetheless. "Don't touch anything," I told him, trying to remember where I might have placed Ashburn's card with his office number on it.
If the church was paying for a cleaning service, what I was seeing was the result of a ransacking. That hopefully meant fingerprints. Fingerprints meant a police scene of crime unit to me.
I stepped further into the room. My eyes flitted from walls to furniture to floor looking for anything that might reach out and catch my fancy.
A low glass coffee table was turned over between the two halves of a leather-covered L-shaped sectional sofa. Styrofoam food containers were scattered across the floor. Four large drink containers had fallen over, the soda dried on the parquet floor.
I wanted to make something of the drink containers but the flat had been a pig sty even before it was ransacked. I reminded myself not to jump to bloody conclusions. I told myself to keep an open mind until I had all the evidence before me; otherwise, I'd end up being seen as a bloody arse.
I turned back to the rental agent as I dug my wallet out of my back pocket. "Call the police - not 911, but homicide. Ask for Detective Ashburn." I found the man's card and handed it to the clerk. "Identify yourself and explain that the Blacksheare lad lived here in this flat."
He reached for the telephone on the end table closest him.
"Not that one!"
He took a step backward and gazed at me as if I had suddenly turned into a poisonous serpent.
"There may be fingerprints anywhere in this room," I explained. "Use the phone in your office and don't touch anything as you leave. Tell the detective it looks as if the place's been taken apart completely. Ask him to send a scene of crime unit over."
He nodded and backed slowly away from the overturned end table. He stared at it and the telephone on the floor.
The rental clerk would get a prowl car to respond to him at least. If Ashburn were in, the detective would be over soon. Under normal circumstances, this flat - just this room alone - was enough to have yellow tape strung along the entire block and fouling the upcoming evening rush hour. But, before that happened, I wanted to see what else Jimmy Blacksheare's last domicile might hold for me without the clerk's watchful eyes.
The sink in the kitchen held several days' worth of dirty dishes and the trash container held more than several days worth of fast food containers. The fridge held several six packs of soda and several more of popular American beers. A couple of hamburger wrappers had missed the trash can and lay on the floor. The dishwasher was empty and there wasn't any detergent for it in the cabinet under the sink.
It appeared Jimmy Blacksheare had left home-cooked meals behind among other things when he left Soul.
Despite its untidiness, the kitchen appeared to have escaped the destruction the living room had undergone. I returned to the living room and studied it again, my eyes moving methodically from one section to the next and looking for anything I missed before.
I had almost finished my third visual sweep of the room when I saw what initially looked to be a metal cigarette case lying on the floor between the wall and the far end table. I crossed to it and, kneeling before it, found it to be one of those cheap, hinged photo frames - the kind that held two snapshots and cost a few dollars in cheap pharmacies and less at Wal-Mart. I took a pen from my pocket and opened it.
In one frame, Tim Spencer had his arm around Jimmy's shoulders as they sat on the steps of the High Museum in midtown. Both boys smiled for the camera and the world. The two of them had on jackets and I guessed the photo had been taken back in the early spring while there was still a chill to the air. I smiled as I guessed the steps of the museum was Jimmy's idea of culture.
The opposite frame was empty, its back torn from its cheap alloy painted to look like gold.
The toilet was a disaster area but a boy-made one. A tube of toothpaste had lost its cap and dried toothpaste glued itself to the counter beside the sink. The faucet had toothpaste spray that hadn't been cleaned off since the last visit by the cleaning service. An unrinsed toothbrush lay on the counter. Several towels had simply been dropped to the floor after use.
I had the same impression about the towels that I had with the drink containers on the coffee table. Either the dead lad didn't use the same towel twice or he had one or more visitors close to the time he met a nastily large pistol that didn't like him.
I felt something was missing but couldn't put my finger on it immediately. It was only after I was again in the short hall that connected the living room to the toilet and the bedroom beyond that I figured what it was.
I opened the linen closet to confirm my guess and smiled. The younger Blacksheare hadn't felt a need for flannels. There were none in the loo or the shower stall, and there were none with the few sheets in the linen closet. There also weren't any towels there and I wondered if he only had the four I had counted. Or had his extra towels been taken from the closet and used to pack his wounds so he didn't leave too much blood on some car seat?
I entered the bedroom and turned on the overhead light. And immediately stepped back into the corridor.
The queen-sized bed was covered with dried blood and gore. The parquet floor between me and the bed had a large pool of dried blood.
Every drawer of the chest of drawers had been pulled out and dumped. Everything in the drawers of the small desk in front of the window was scattered over the bed and the floor. The telly and VCR lay smashed on the floor, pushed there when Jimmy's murderer went looking for whatever he was trying to find.
A quick search of the room produced nothing more than the rest of the flat had. I was out in the car park and standing beside the Beastie when Detective Ashburn arrived.
"What're you doing here?" he demanded, glaring at me as he pulled himself out of the unmarked car.
"Is that any way to speak to the man who had you called?" I demanded back, making sure I sounded hurt.
"You had me called?" He was trying hard not to relent but was failing.
"I thought I committed to keeping you up on anything I came across-?"
"This where the kid lived?" he asked, surrendering to his curiosity.
I nodded. "It's also where he died - the bedroom."
Ashburn grimaced. "Figures. I guess I'd better call in the scene of crime unit," he grumbled as he stepped back to his car. "You touch anything?"
I shook my head and climbed into the Beastie.
I waved and started back to Ansley Park. I just hoped that Billy Boy Sharpe wouldn't get it in his bloody head that my presence at my home meant that I was available for bedroom antics. I had a bit of thinking to do.
Billy Boy only had on a pair of worn Y-fronts when I entered the living room. He had a glass of milk in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other as he watched a videotaped segment from the university system's televised courses.
My gaze went from him to the television where a full-sized model of an amoeba was beginning to split into two and back again.
There was an incongruity in front of me that took that moment to slap me in the face. I should have known that the young I was inviting into my life was far more than just a raunchy bedmate. If I had put my mind to it at all, I would have known it. I hadn't, thought. I hadn't once talked with him about his interests or even his dreams. There was far too much about him that I had never bothered to find out - things that lovers and friends should know. Shame grew as I accepted just how shabbily I had treated Billy Boy.
At the moment, my lad was fully enmeshed in the reproductive characteristics of unicellular animals on the telly in front of him. What else didn't I know about him?
I continued to watch him and my shame grew. I knew that I did not want to lose him.
He glanced up at me after the amoeba had finished splitting into two. "Something wrong?" he asked, bringing the sandwich up to his mouth.
"No." I smiled back, forcing myself to see only his face - knowing that, if I allowed myself to see any more of him, I wouldn't get any work done. "It's just that there are layers and layers to you - and I'm only seeing them one at a time."
His lips turned upward into a quick smile as he clicked the off button on the television controls. "I hope all these layers don't turn you off."
"Actually, they turn me on." I smiled more broadly, endearingly I hoped. "I suspect I may be willing to spend the years left me getting to know each of them."
Billy Boy made a production of looking around the room, paying special attention to anything that could conceivably be behind me. "Where are they?" he asked finally.
"Who?" I yelped, looking behind me before I could control the impulse.
My eyes bulged. I could feel them drying before I forced myself to blink. "My audience?" I asked carefully.
"Lord Palmerston - or maybe it was Gladstone - would have called you on that profession, Phil."
"Called ... Profession?" I mumbled wondering how two of Queen Victoria's three strongest ministers figured into our conversation.
"Didn't you just stand there and announce that you suspected - I don't remember the exact words ... But their Lordships would stop their political adversaries in the House of Commons short by asking them to stop making speeches and to say what they really meant."
"How do you know about Palmerston and Gladstone?" I asked hesitantly.
"I'd really got into Victoriana. I just loved those boys and Disraeli - Phil, did you know that Prince Albert had a small ring surgically placed in the head of his dick so that he could strap the damned thing down and people couldn't see that he had got a hard on behind his tight pants?"
I groaned. The Royal Albert Hall would never be the same now that I understood where and how that particular surgical implant had got its name. Why couldn't Yanks keep their minds on one thing instead of careening from one point to another helter skelter?
I sat down beside him and he snuggled up against me. "Were you able to contact Tim?" I asked as his fingers slipped inside my shirt.
I felt his body stiffen against mine.
"Yeah." He pulled away, looking down into lap.
"Billy Boy," I said gently, leaning against him, "I'm conducting a murder investigation and Tim was closer to Jimmy than anyone else. We badly need the money - to feed us both and keep a roof over our heads - if you want there to be an 'us', that is." I took a deep breath, "If we're going to have any sort of future together, you're simply going to have to trust me."
The silence was deafening. I could have heard a pin drop - but none did. There was only this beautiful, nearly naked man in my arms and leaning against me.
"I'm sorry, Phil," he said finally and searched my face. "Tim was fun when I was working the streets - all I was interested in then was a good time. Now, I want to make plans for a future - a future with you. Just getting it on with a guy with a big dick isn't where it's at anymore."
"You've been around with the lad - what was he like when you two weren't getting it on?"
"I don't know, Phil." He glanced back at the television and was silent for a moment. "It was always a chance kind of thing - us getting together. There wasn't anything ever planned, you know?
"If we stopped to get something to eat, he liked to pay for it. It was almost a macho kind of thing with him. Sort of like he was feeding you; so, you owed him later on. I watched him borrow money one time so he could treat a new kid - later on, he took the guy onto a weeded lot and took him. That was one side of him.
"He'd also wring everything he could out of you. You know, he'd get you to pay him back double and then some for something he'd done for you. You'd pay until you finally got tired of his outstretched hand. He was always trying to buy friends by doing things for guys, though. It was sort of like he was trying to keep us in line by always doing things for us.
"It was pretty fun too. We all sort of lived on the street. If one of us found a daddy for a couple of days-" He grinned. "Got put up a week or had our rent paid for, everybody sort of hung around - because his success was ours too."
"Did you ever see him become violent?"
"Tim? Shit, no!" He looked at me then. "If he got mad at somebody, he did what everybody else did. He left the other guy alone until he was over it." Billy Boy thought for a moment. "If a john stiffed him, he'd get pissed off - you know, pick up a rock and throw it against a street sign or something. But beat somebody up-?" He shook his head.
"All of us were hustling, Phil - with most of us liking the sex and getting off on it, with each other if there wasn't a john to pay for it. None of us had anything. There wasn't anything for any of us to get violent about."
I wanted to know Tim Spencer's side of his break-up with Jimmy Blacksheare - and everything that happened that last fortnight of the dead lad's life. Especially anything that could have involved anybody else.
Billy Boy Sharpe looked over at me, his brows furrowing in concern, his eyes wide. "I forgot. Tim said that his daddy didn't want his buddies from the street showing up-"
"So, Tim's daddy doesn't want us to talk to him again?"
"If you and me want to come over to socialise, we could - I think he wants to show off his daddy and lord it over me a bit."
Billy Boy grinned. "Tim Spencer has a roof over his head and three squares a day now."
"Is this guy supposed to be that much better than me?"
"I didn't tell Tim we were a number or anything - he just wants to show off because he's not still on the streets. And, I guess he thinks that I am."
He slipped across the cushion I had put between us and kissed me, his fingers working the buttons of my shirt.
Much later, Billy Boy and I drove to Tim's new home on Tenth Street overlooking Piedmont Park.
"I want you to get Tim off to one side in here, preferably out of the room - and preferably as soon as possible after the introductions," I told him as I parked.
He glanced questioningly across the Beastie at me.
"I need to explain to his daddy that I'm not trying to put a noose about the lad's neck but I need full disclosure from him-" Billy Boy started to nod his understanding, thinking I was through. "You've also got to tell Tim that Jimmy was HIV-positive and that he needs to have a blood test soon."
Billy Boy stared at me in shock.
"You used condoms every time, didn't you?" I asked, aware of the fear in my voice. I held my breath until he answered.
"Yeah. Everybody. It's always been `no rubber, no play' with me - even if it mean I had to sleep under a bridge. Only, I think I'll go down to the health department Monday, anyway."
I let my breath out slowly.
Tim Spencer was dressed to the nines in leather when he opened the door. Black leather boots up to his knees and black leather chaps that covered his thighs and the fronts of his boots. A black posing cup covered the equipment I had heard so much about. His smooth, well-rounded globes were bare but highlighted by the black chaps. Capping it off was an open black leather vest which emphasised the lad's creamy smooth and developed chest. His cornsilk blond hair was incongruously fashioned in the page boy cut so popular among preppy young women in the South.
Tim Spencer's transformation was striking.
I noticed his keys were worn to indicate he was a slave and allowed myself to wonder if that translated to a bottom in the sex he had with his new daddy. That certainly would be a change from the image he liked to portray.
"Hi, honey," he said to Billy Boy and kissed his cheek. "Mr. Goodall." He smiled nervously at me. "Come on in, gentlemen."
Billy Boy and I followed him down a dark wooded foyer lined with artwork that certainly looked real. I wanted desperately to ask our guide what his daddy did for a living. Whatever it was, it sure as hell paid more than what I did. I was thankful my lad beat me to it.
"Jesus!" Billy Boy groaned softly. "What does this man do for a living?"
Tim chuckled, luxuriating in his friend's amazement. "He's a lawyer," he answered. "And a good one too."
"He's at least a successful one," I ventured. "Is he joining us?"
"He's in the den - waiting for us. I hope you don't mind, Mr. Goodall?"
"Of course not, Tim." I lowered my voice then, directing it at him. "Will you be able to speak freely?"
"Oh-" His face darkened for the briefest moment. "There are no secrets between us," he continued and smiled nervously as we neared a lighted room.
"Earl, honey," Tim offered as he stopped just inside the room and let us file past him. "This is Billy Boy, the friend of mine I told you about - and Phil Goodall. Men, this is Earl Moone, one of Atlanta's leading lawyers."
The balding, heavy-set man stood and stepped towards us. He too was in leather. His barrel-chest was heavily carpeted in salt and pepper. His chap-clad thighs had me thinking of ham hocks. His bared arsecheeks did sag, just as Billy Boy had said they did. The man's beard served to accent the heaviness of his jowls and the barrenness of his pate. I could think of no description for his bared gut other than fat.
I immediately decided it was going to be difficult for me to like Earl Moone, Esq.
He took my hand in his, clasping its back with his other hand and offering me a very sincere and warm smile I guessed was patently faked. "It's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Goodall. Timmy here has mentioned you, as well as your avocation-"
"Of course. Timmy has taken the first rule of being a good slave to heart - he tells his master everything." He chuckled deeply. "I may be able to use your services from time to time - you know, in cases that require a degree of intelligence and truth not usually forthcoming from one's adversary."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Billy Boy leading Earl Moone's leather-clad, blond slave from the room. I smiled slightly and turned to face the lawyer.
"I don't know how much Tim has told you about the case I'm working on now-?"
Moone didn't offer any information. "The young man he was seeing before you two-?"
"I believe he was murdered," Moone offered curtly.
"Two large calibre hollow-point bullets to the chest."
Moone made a face but said nothing.
"They knew each other before. They grew up together, I believe-"
"Where are you leading, Mr. Goodall?"
"I need information. Everything Tim can remember about the last month of Jimmy Blacksheare's life - whom he saw, who visited, what went down between them-"
"Parts of Timmy's history that I might not have heard yet?" the lawyer muttered, catching on immediately.
"Things that happened before you two met, Mr. Moone," I reminded him. "There aren't too many gay men who can claim not to be ashamed of at least one part of their past-"
"Very true." He nodded and chewed a fat, pouty lip. "You want me to assure Timmy that the past won't determine how I see our future?"
I nodded, appreciating his intelligence and reassessing my opinion of him.
"What would that matter to you?" he asked suddenly, catching me by surprise.
"I want to catch the man who killed the Blacksheare lad," I told him truthfully. "Tim may have the information I need, even though he probably doesn't know it - and I doubt he's going to open up if he thinks he's going to have to find a park bench someplace for a bed."
"I know he hustled down on Cypress Street for a while and that hasn't caused us trouble." His eyes became suspicious as they continued to watch me. "You wouldn't be trying to set him up for this?"
"Somebody already did that, Mr. Moone. There's enough circumstantial stuff the police would arrest him in a heartbeat if they knew it."
"But you don't believe he did it?" There was disbelief in the lawyer's voice.
"I think your lad loved the dead boy - at least, they had a close relationship. I doubt he had the money to buy a gun, much less hollow points." I frowned thoughtfully. "Almost every domestic murder I've ever heard about was with hands, knife, or axe. None ever had the perpetrator carrying the body from the scene of crime to the grounds of a funeral home."
Moone nodded slowly, accepting my explanation. "I'll tell him to answer your questions truthfully, Mr. Goodall. Just remember some of the past is going to be painful to him - he's trying to make a new life with me."
I nodded my understanding of his condition as the boys joined us from wherever they had gone. Tim Spencer was pale and it had nothing to do with all that black leather setting off his light complexion. He moved directly to Earl Moone, lowering himself on the floor at his feet. His eyes held fear but they were unblinkingly on me. From the looks of it, Billy Boy had put the fear of every god known to man in him.
"Timmy," Earl Moone told him, putting his hand on the lad's shoulder and gently kneading it. "Mr. Goodall has some hard questions for you. I want you to answer them as truthfully as you can - hold nothing back, no matter how distasteful." The lad glanced over his shoulder at him and his lip trembled.
"There seems to be a circumstantial case that well could implicate you in this young man's murder. Mr. Goodall needs anything you know to help clear you-" He smiled down at his leather-clad slave. "It's just the past, Timmy. It can't hurt you - or us - unless we let it."
Reassured, Tim Spencer turned back to face me. There was still fear in his eyes, but it was a fear Billy Boy's message had put there. There was determination there too. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Ask me anything you want," he said, ready for whatever I would throw at him. I found myself admiring the lad's resilience. And Earl Moone's strength as well.
"You lived with Jimmy Blacksheare until a fortnight or so ago," I told him, establishing for him and Moone why his memories were important. "You were able to see everything that was happening around him and how that affected him."
I allowed myself a guess, albeit a small one. "He had the preacher from Soul calling on him on Monday and leaving on Tuesday. But Bishop was older and mostly his meal ticket - Reverend Bishop wasn't really a friend he could let his hair down with.
"You're his age and I'm hoping that you were his friend in addition to being another sex partner, a person he could talk to."
Tim nodded. "What do you want to know?"
"Was there anybody here in Atlanta he was seeing?"
Tim laughed. "You mean before or after we started falling apart?"
"Jimmy wasn't about to see himself as a hustler, Mr. Goodall. He didn't like the insecurity that goes with working the street. He also liked nice things. Even though he wasn't about to be a whore, he didn't mind being a slut. He saw a nice body and he was immediately drooling. More often than not, he got the hunk into bed too."
"That must have been pretty trying," I offered.
He smiled wryly. "We had what he described as an open relationship. I was an escort. I took guys to bed for - my share - seventy an hour plus tips when I could get a call. I sold my dick on Cypress when I didn't get a call. I've even danced at the Metro when times got really rough. Jimmy invited hunks over for an afternoon's romp but was always alone and ready for some action when I got home."
"Was there anybody who rated more than just one afternoon of his favours?"
"Not any of the guys he picked up here." He grinned sheepishly. "Not any I knew about, anyway."
"How about the preacher?"
"Varnadore. Tell me how he found Jimmy here in Atlanta."
"I'm not sure, but I suspect Ronnie told him."
"Ronnie Varnadore, the preacher's cousin."
I nodded and filed another reason for my upcoming trip to Soul away among things I definitely had to do.
"Him or the other kid he was always bringing along-"
"Ronnie Varnadore came to Atlanta to see Jimmy?"0
"Yeah. Every week like clockwork for the last five months or so. Him and the other kid - they'd come up with Reverend Varnadore. Before Reverend Varnadore found out where Jimmy was, Ronnie and that other kid were up to see Jimmy almost every week. Reverend Varnadore only started coming later - like the past month or two."
"Who was this other lad?"
"Junior something-" Tim looked perplexed momentarily. "I ought to know him, damn it! He would've been a kid - maybe fourteen or fifteen, I'd guess - when I left. That's the only reason I can come up with for not being able to place him and his family."
"How old is he now?" I demanded, more forcibly than I intended. I already suspected Jim Bob Varnadore had found himself another twinkie in his scout troop with whom to replace Jimmy Blacksheare.
"I don't know - maybe seventeen. He can't be more than a newly minted eighteen now."
"Go on. Ronnie or this lad told Jim Bob where to find Jimmy-?"
"Yeah." He smiled wryly. "I opened the door about two months ago and old rub-your-dick Jim Bob was standing there big as life and madder than an old wet hen." He laughed. "The old twinkie-hound himself and madder than an old wet hen!"
"What happened?" Billy Boy demanded greedily, scenting gossip.
"Nothing would do him but that he had to see Jimmy. I told him he was out, but he was starting to make a scene so I let him inside to wait.
"When Jimmy got home, he took one look at the situation and smiled that smile of his at old Jim Bob. He had that old hen's feathers smoothed in two minutes. Fifteen minutes after that we were all three going at it."
Earl Moone grunted and Tim looked back at him, his hand touching the older man's knee. "Honey, that's the way we were then. Fun popped up with any face and we went for it-"
"Jim Bob was mollified?" I asked.
Tim turned back to face me, his lips curling into a tight grin. "He sure was satisfied with Jimmy having porked him and me down his throat. Jim Bob hadn't had that kind of shit for months, unless he was getting it off that kid I can't remember." He shook his head slowly. "Ronnie doesn't know how to mount anything."
"Did Jim Bob know about Reverend Bishop?" I asked, again cutting off the specifics.
"Yeah. That's probably what'd made him so mad. Old Larry was still getting Jimmy and him being left out in the cold."
"And being momentarily well-ploughed satisfied him?"
"Jimmy told him to come up on Wednesday mornings and he could have both of us - I swear that troll was drooling when he looked over at me for me to agree."
"So, he started coming up just like that?"
"Well-" Tim looked down at his hands, studying them with no intention of meeting my eyes. "He was supposed to pay a hundred a week - to help Jimmy over the bumps."
"And he agreed?" Moone asked surprised.
"You've got to realise his situation, man. I'm pretty good-looking and Jimmy is - was - an angel. He was beautiful. Touching him was like touching god or something. There wasn't anybody in Soul that could come close to either of us. It was pay up or lose what he wanted most."
"So, Central Baptist Church started paying for both its preachers to molest an underaged boy," I grumbled, unable to keep my anger out of my voice.
"I guess that's where they were getting their money for us. Larry Bishop always was tighter than a drum when it came to his own money."
"What about Bishop, Tim?"
"I dicked him a couple of times back in Soul - right after the Blacksheares found out about Jimmy and me. He was getting some of Jimmy around about that time, too. And I think he had something going with Jim Bob too. He used to go to Savannah or Macon for a couple of days every month or so, and I guess he found ass and dick when he went out on revivals.
"Other than that, though - nothing. I never saw the man when he was here, and Jimmy didn't talk about him after he left the apartment. I guess he just breezed in, spent the night, got humped a couple of times, and left."
"Did you ever see any other adults - teachers, maybe?"
"Naw-" Tim Spencer's face turned pensive as he followed a thought that obviously hadn't been there before. "Wait a minute!"
"What did you just think of?" Earl Moone asked before I could open my mouth.
"I usually wasn't around when that Junior and the Varnadores came up. I mean, I might be there when they showed up at the door, but I'd be on my way out on a call or going down to Cypress Street. But we still managed to get into a four-way every once in a while.
"They were Jimmy's friends, though. They'd go out shopping or cruising - doing things together that didn't include me. They also did a lot of talking about the football coach those last weeks or so I was still around - only, they'd clam up the moment I was in the house."
"Did you catch the drift?" Billy Boy asked.
"Not really. It was something about Coach Johnson being really pissed." He looked at me apologetically. "I guess something was happening in Soul that had his goat-"
"Did you get the feeling there was any real danger?"
"Naw. Not to Jimmy, anyway. He just thought it was funny as shit he knew stuff none of the grown-ups in Soul did."
"What about the Blacksheares, Tim?" I asked, digging into the one area I hadn't dared touch when I was opening him up earlier. "How did they handle Jimmy slutting about town?"
"They were pretty cool about it - especially when they found out about him and me. I wasn't invited back to their place, you understand - but they were real nice to me in public - a lot nicer than my dad was when he found out."
"You don't think maybe Mrs. Blacksheare snapped?"
"Naw-" He shook his head slowly. "At least not like they said she did when she and my daddy broke up-"
I jerked in surprise. Tim's father and Jimmy's mother? What was this all about?
"Only, I got the drift she didn't snap then either," he continued, "her daddy and Mr. Blacksheare just put her in the sanatorium over in Albany for a month to keep her away from my daddy.
"If they knew where Jimmy was, Mr. Blacksheare would've been up here paying the rent and getting his only kid into the GED program before you could bat an eye. That man worshipped the ground Mrs. Blacksheare walked on - but Jimmy was right up there with her or, maybe, higher. He'd have come close to putting the two of us up here in Atlanta if Jimmy asked him. His wife was a lot colder but she'd have been right in there helping him."
"Why didn't Jimmy ask them for help?" I asked, imagining having the parents foot the bills would have been better than selling my arse for the money to do so myself.
"Jimmy wanted to prove he could do it on his own. That was more important than eating to him. He also hated his mom's nose always being in his business. That and her ideas of what was socially acceptable."
I was a competent actor in the presence of Tim Spencer and Earl Moone. I hadn't shown surprise at Ronnie and Jim Bob Varnadore being in Atlanta. Or the lad who joined Ronnie with regularity. I'd acted as if I already knew it. It had all been a pretence so I could gather all the information I could, while I could.
In the Beastie on the way home though, I couldn't get over how bloody stupid I had been the past week. I had believed Ronnie Varnadore when he told me he hadn't seen Jimmy since he'd run away from Soul. I believed him about his cousin, the preacher. I blithely went barging into the case, making wild suppositions, and having my nose re-arranged - and all the time I was only playing with half a deck.
When we were in bed back at the house in Ansley Park, Billy Boy snuggled close in against my side. I turned and hugged him.
"I love you, Phil," he muttered contentedly.
I mumbled an endearment and he wiggled his bum against me.
"Have you decided if you want me around yet?" he asked.
"I thought you might stay a week or two and let's see how it goes. Do you need to finish high school?"
He snorted. "I graduated three years ago - back home in Arkansas. I even had a year of college behind me before I decided to throw up my hands and come to Atlanta."
I stared at his back in silence until he turned to look at me over his shoulder. "I'm proud of you for that." I smiled at him. "Now, you need to finish the other three and get a good job so you can support the two of us for the rest of my life."
"You mean you wouldn't?"
"I hope it's always a two-way street for us, Phil. But, if you were down and out, I wouldn't kick you out of my bed." He grabbed me, pressing against me along the lengths of our bodies. "Does this mean you want me to stay?"
"I think I can put up with you at least a year or two," I allowed. "As long as you don't expect it to be one long, continuous bout of sex-"
He kissed me. "I guess I'd better see about getting a real job so I can pay my fair share around here," he said when he let me breathe again.
"I want you to finish university, love. That kind of degree will mean a lot as you get older-"
He pulled back several inches and gazed into my face for the longest time. "As we get older. Together."
I smiled and touched the tip of his nose with my finger. "Together."
"We're going to need money coming in, Phil. You aren't always tracking down murderers like now."
"I've done pretty well the past thirty years. I've also got an inheritance, love. It's small, but it'll see us through the slow times these next few years."
TO BE CONTINUED...