Rhapsody in Blood (Benjamin Justice Series #7)by John Morgan Wilson
Disgraced journalist Benjamin Justice, at loose ends between jobs, takes a short vacation with a friend, Los Angeles Times reporter Alexandra Templeton, to a movie set at a faded resort hotel in the California desert. The film being shot is about a star's death in the 1950's and the lynching of a local black man for the murderthe last lynching in California.
Disgraced journalist Benjamin Justice, at loose ends between jobs, takes a short vacation with a friend, Los Angeles Times reporter Alexandra Templeton, to a movie set at a faded resort hotel in the California desert. The film being shot is about a star's death in the 1950's and the lynching of a local black man for the murderthe last lynching in California. But the set is in an uproar over the appearanceand then the brutal murderof a feared Hollywood gossip journalist who had promised to reveal 'explosive' new information. Now Justice finds himself enmeshed in two old deaths and a new murder as he attempts to uncover the truth before another falls victim.
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Rhapsody in BloodA Benjamin Justice Novel
By Wilson, John Morgan
St. Martin's MinotaurCopyright © 2006 Wilson, John Morgan
All right reserved.
All I wanted when Alexandra Templeton invited me to join her for a brief getaway was a little rest and relaxation. Fresh air, a change of scenery, a few carefree days out of town, and the kind of sleep a writer doesn't get when he's on deadline with an important project.
At least not a writer like me, the type who takes his work to bed with him: tossing and turning night after night, rewriting gibberish in his troubled sleep, searching for words that don't exist, frantic to finish a story that makes no sense and has no ending. I'd just spent a couple of months like that as I'd worked feverishly to finish my autobiography and turn in my first draft on time. Now my friend Templeton was offering me a short road trip to decompress. We tended to get on each other's nerves if we spent too much time together---my fault more than hers---and the notion of several days in the same place seemed problematic. Still, I needed a diversion from West Hollywood and my life there, such as it was, and her invitation sounded tempting.
"We've never taken a trip together, Justice, not a real one," Templeton said, as we shared lunch with my elderly landlord Maurice at La Conversation, our favorite West Hollywoodcafé. "Just the two of us, on the road---think of how much fun we can have."
"I snore, you know."
"I'm not suggesting we share a room. I'm not a masochist."
Maurice slapped me lightly on the arm. "How many times have I told you to sleep on your side, Benjamin, and not on your back? I started rolling Fred over on his side thirty years ago. Trust me, it's one of the secrets to a long marriage."
"I'm not married, Maurice, like you and Fred. I've got nobody to roll me over in the middle of the night when I start snoring like an old bear."
"Only because I haven't found the right man for you, dear boy."
"Anyway," Templeton said, trying to reclaim the conversation, "we're taking separate rooms, remember?"
"I don't recall agreeing to go."
"Don't be silly, Benjamin," Maurice said. "Of course you're going. This trip is just what you need after all the hard work you put in on that wonderful manuscript of yours."
"You're jumping to conclusions, Maurice. I just mailed off the first draft two days ago. Who knows? They may reject it and refuse to pay me the rest of my advance."
"Nonsense! I don't have to read it to know that you did a fine job. You're long overdue to be published again. Those problems you had are years behind you."
"Those problems will never be behind me, Maurice."
He waved a bony finger at me, causing the bracelets on his narrow wrist to jingle. "Stop stalling and tell Alexandra that you'll be joining her on this fabulous trip!"
"You'll have another author to talk to," Templeton said, resuming her sales pitch, as her brown eyes sparkled within the lovely confines of her darker face. "Richard Pearlman---he wrote A Murder in Eternal Springs, the book I told you about. He'll be there."
"Does that mean I have to read it? Maurice says it's heavy on Hollywood trivia and lore. Not something I'm terribly interested in."
Templeton sighed, exasperated. "Not if you don't want to."
"Yes, and I'll even do all the talking. You can just nod from time to time and pretend to be listening, like you usually do."
"No alarm clocks?"
"For me," she said. "I'll be on assignment. But not for you."
A film production company was shooting a movie based on the book she'd mentioned, about the murder in 1956 of a movie actress named Rebecca Fox in the remote high desert town of Eternal Springs, and the lynching of a black man named Ed Jones that followed. Recent DNA analysis, not available fifty years ago, had concluded that Ed Jones may have been innocent of the crime. Templeton's editors at the Los Angeles Times had picked her to visit the film location and use the movie as a hook to write about the continuing impact of newly discovered DNA evidence on decades-old crimes and convictions, and the tragic lack of funding that left many police departments without access to current DNA or other modern crime lab technology. Maurice had read the book and filled me in on the highlights of the Rebecca Fox story, which included the suicide of her daughter Brandy twenty-five years after her mother's murder, in the same hotel room on the same date---March 15, the ides of March. I wasn't sure how they'd fashion a movie out of such a complicated story stretching over nearly five decades, but it certainly had the makings of a pungent script, if the writer could get a handle on it. Templeton was keen on the assignment, but not on driving alone to Eternal Springs, now known as Haunted Springs, where much of the film was being shot.
"You can sleep in every day until lunch if you want," Templeton promised me. "Take long walks in the afternoon. I'll pay for everything. What do you say, Justice?"
"Long naps sound better."
"Naps then, as many as you like."
"Do it, Benjamin!" Maurice clasped my wrist with his mottled hand. "You haven't had a genuine vacation in ever so long." He dropped his voice, looking sly. "Besides, Alexandra tells me that Christopher Oakley is among the cast members who'll be staying at the Haunted Springs Hotel. That alone should be worth the trip, if only for a fleeting glimpse of that gorgeous young man."
I didn't stay abreast of Hollywood trivia, had no idea who Maurice was talking about, and said so.
"Christopher Oakley is a gifted young actor on the brink of making it big," Templeton explained. "He has a key role in the picture."
Maurice lowered his voice yet again, ducking his head as if spies were situated at the nearby tables, instead of the usual mix of entertainment figures and neighborhood regulars. "Widely rumored to be one of us," he whispered, "though deep in the Hollywood closet." He winked. "Perhaps you can do some research, find out for sure."
I reminded Maurice that at some point almost every good-looking Hollywood actor had been rumored to be queer---in West Hollywood, it was a more important topic than politics or the weather---and that gossip like that failed to spark my interest.
Maurice sat up primly, looking hurt. "All right, forget about Christopher Oakley then, and whether he is or is not of the lavender persuasion. Still, I think this little excursion with Alexandra is a wonderful opportunity, and you'd be foolish not to go."
Maurice, who worried over me like a mother hen, appeared genuinely unhappy, and I felt a stab of guilt for not simply saying yes. I leaned back, pushed my hands through what was left of my thinning blond hair, and thought about it. I tend to find or foresee problems where many people don't; doing things the easy way has never been my first approach. I need to resist, at least long enough to cause a little friction and let others know that I won't be pushed around. Perhaps it comes from being raised by a whiskey-swilling father, an authoritarian homicide detective who used a strap with painful regularity when I didn't say or do as he wanted---and now and then his fist. But I didn't have that much fight in me anymore, not like in my younger days; my protests now were rote, largely for show.
I shrugged and said, "Why not? What could be more restful than a few days in a remote town that most of the world's forgotten?"
Nubia, our friendly and attentive waitress, brought the check. Templeton covered it with her gold card, since she was the one with the fat bank account.
When Nubia was gone to ring it up, we raised our iced teas to toast the impending trip: Maurice, a white-haired gay activist and retired dance teacher, who'd recently celebrated his fiftieth anniversary with Fred, the love of his life; Alexandra Templeton, thirty-five and single, an award-winning crime reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where I'd once worked; and me, a washed-up journalist in my late forties, ruined by a Pulitzer scandal, who'd just spent a year turning my troubled life into a memoir that promised financial solvency for awhile, if nothing more.
Naturally, that sorry episode in my life---the Pulitzer business---had been the focal point of the manuscript, as my publisher had insisted. I'd tried to be as honest as I could, relating the circumstances leading up to it: the slow and horrifying death of my lover, Jacques, from AIDS, in the late 1980s, as I cared for him; the way I'd withdrawn emotionally as he died, to blunt the pain of my impending loss; and how, in the dreadful aftermath of his death, I'd changed our names and written up a rosier version of the truth, giving myself the courage to love him as I should have in real life, never thinking my fabrication would win the big prize and come under such intense scrutiny, causing a scandal and ending my career.
I'd dredged up other personal garbage as well, at the urging of my persistent editor. The writing had left me wrung out and exhausted, but also feeling lighter and clearheaded, as if I'd finally found a way to free myself of emotional baggage that had weighed me down for decades. My memoir was also the first real writing I'd done in the sixteen years since the scandal had ruined me, reigniting a flame inside me that I thought was long dead. After finishing the manuscript, and sensing that it wasn't half bad, I was left with a glimmer of hope that I might actually find my way back to writing full-time again. Though what I might write and who might publish me on a regular basis I wasn't sure, given the rancid reputation that clung to me like a bad smell.
"You might bring along a mystery novel or two," Templeton said, as she signed the credit card receipt and tore off her copy. "I don't imagine there's much going on in Haunted Springs, except for this movie they're shooting."
"I'll grab Cinnamon Kiss by Walter Mosley, and something by Pete Dexter. That should see me through. When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow, bright and early. I'd like to get there before noon."
The happiness on Maurice's wrinkled face suddenly changed to concern. "I didn't realize you planned to leave so soon, Alexandra."
"Is that a problem?"
"It's just that---well, tomorrow's March fourteenth, isn't it? That would be the day before the ides of March."
"That's the idea, Maurice. To get up there tomorrow, so I can start my interviews the next morning."
"Exactly fifty years after the murder of Rebecca Fox," Maurice pointed out, "and twenty-five years after the suicide of her daughter, Brandy. Not to mention that horrible hanging that followed the original crime." He shuddered. "How absolutely morbid."
"We'll be staying in the same hotel where the murder and suicide took place," Templeton said. "That should lend some atmosphere to my article."
Maurice put a pale hand to each cheek. "Oh, my goodness! Alexandra, you mustn't be up there on the ides of March. Any day but that."
She laughed, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "But that's just the dateline I want, Maurice---Haunted Springs on March fifteenth. It will help me set the mood for the reader, give my piece that extra edge."
Maurice smiled weakly, looking pliant but unconvinced. "Of course---you being there on the ides of March makes complete sense. You're thinking like a journalist, Alexandra, and I'm thinking like a superstitious old ninny."
"I'll be dealing with some serious issues, Maurice. I want my story to have real impact."
"Yes, yes, I know dear." He perked up falsely and patted the back of my hand. "Finish your sandwich, Benjamin, so we can get you home and packed. You and Alexandra are going to go off and have the most wonderful time together in that nice old hotel. And then you'll both come back and tell me all about it."
Excerpted from Rhapsody in Blood by Wilson, John Morgan Copyright © 2006 by Wilson, John Morgan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
JOhn Morgan Wilson is the author of seven previous novels for which he won the Edgar Award and three Lambda Literary Awards. He lives in West Hollywood, California.
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Once Benjamin Justice was revered as a fine journalist who deservedly won a Pulitzer for his articles on nursing his lover while his beloved was dying from AIDS. When it was substantiated that Ben fabricated his story, he became despised and black balled. Sixteen years later, the only person to return a Pulitzer solves mysteries instead of writing articles. --- In 1956 in Haunted Springs on the Ides of March, Eternal Springs Hotel handyman Ed Jones allegedly killed film star, Rebecca Fox Jones was immediately lynched. Twenty-five years later on the same day in the same room, Rebecca¿s daughter Brandy committed suicide. Author Richard Pearlman writes a book on Rebecca¿s death, but his DNA testing of semen found on the victim proves not to be from Jones. A movie A Murder in Eternal Springs is about the be made at the site of the tragedies so LA Times reporter Alexandra Templeton convinces her friend Ben to accompany her as she covers the event. Also there is despised viper tabloid reporter Toni Pebbles, who plans to expose the secrets of someone involved in the project, but is killed before she can do so. With Templeton encouraging him, Ben investigates four murders five decades apart. --- People will sympathize with Benjamin Justice, who is HIV positive and not a bad person though he made a terrible mistake sixteen years ago under extenuating circumstances. He has accepted his fall from grace gracefully and since has tried to do the right thing even solving numerous homicides along the way. His latest caper is a complex tale that has its roots in the past as Benjamin seeks what happened in 1956, 1981, and now. RHAPSODY IN BLOOD is John Morgan Wilson meting out justice for the dead as only he can. --- Harriet Klausner