Gay activist and accused murderer Billy Blount's missing, but Albany PI Donald Strachey doubts Billy's guilt. The 1981 book that launched Richard Stevenson's pioneering series is a cracking mystery and a fascinating trip into bygone gay culture - before HIV, in the bad old days of bath houses and gay disco, police corruption and tacit policies of harassment.
(Originally published 1981.)
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The woman's voice was full of the music of business.
"Mr. Stuart Blount is calling. One moment, please."
I hung up.
Cars were double-parked on both sides of Central Avenue, and I watched an Albany police cruiser negotiate the course like a Conestoga wagon up the Donner Pass. By Thanksgiving, it could be in Schenectady.
Again. "Donald Strachey?"
"We were ... disconnected, sir. Stuart Blount will be with you in just a moment."
I hung up.
The sky over Jimmy's Lounge was slate gray and a cold wind chewed at the crumbling caulking around the windowpane next to me. Five weeks after Labor Day and already winter was sliding across the state from Buffalo like a new Ice Age. I found some masking tape in the back of my desk drawer. I ripped off a long strip and pressed it against the grime where the pane met the frame.
"Mr. Strachey, this is Stuart Blount. I've been trying to reach you."
"The damn line's been tied up. What can I do for you, Mr. Blount?"
"My attorney, Jay Tarbell, tells me you've handled missing-person-type situations, and I seem to be, ah, saddled with one. Perhaps you've seen it on the media."
I said, yes, I had.
"I'd much appreciate your getting together with Mrs. Blount and me to discuss the situation. You probably understand that the matter could develop into an extended time frame. Are you available?"
I pitched the Gay Community News I'd been reading for the past hour onto the sooty stack of Advocates and GCNs below the windowsill. Down on Central an old blue Pinto was stalledsideways in the middle of the street, and the midday traffic was backing up on both sides. A foot patrolman glanced over his shoulder and ambled into Jimmy's.
I said, "I'll do what I can to clear out a block of time. How does next Thursday look?"
"In point of fact, Mr. Strachey, I was thinking hopefully we could do business sooner than that. I could work something out for this afternoon. As you know, we've got one hell of a problem situation over here."
It was that, though Blount spoke in the tones of a man who hadn't exactly been unhinged by it--if when all about you are losing theirs, grace under pressure, or whatever.
"I'll make some arrangements," I told him. "Where's your office?"
"Twin Towers, but why don't we make it at my residence? Mrs. Blount will, ah, wish to be present." He gave me the address. "Say, one thirty?"
"I'll be there."
There were two banks within close walking distance of Twin Towers on Washington Avenue. I phoned my lover's ex-roommate's ex-lover, who worked at the Mechanics Exchange Bank. He called back five minutes later with the information that there was no danger of my depleting Stuart Blount's checking account anytime in the current century.
I walked down to Elmo's at Central and Lexington and ordered a diet Pepsi and a roast beef sub with extra meat. I wrote Elmo a check for the $2.93 and made sure I had a State Bank deposit slip with me for after I'd paid my call at the Blounts'.
They lived in a three-story neo-Romanesque brownstone on State Street overlooking Washington Park. The place was in the middle of "the block," which I knew well enough, if only from the street. The buildings had a solid Edwardian propriety about them, the sort of neighborhood Lady Bellamy might have visited if the Titanic had made it across. Those houses which hadn't been carved up into roomy high-ceilinged apartments for professional people and upper echelon state bureaucrats were still occupied by families who were rich and, by and large, straight. In recent years my close contact with both groups had been relegated to mainly business.
The heavy oak door had a big oval of glass in it, beveled at the edges, with the name "Blount" engraved in the center in a fancy script. The Blount family was not new to State Street.
I rang the bell and stood shivering on the stoop, wishing I'd worn a sweater under my corduroy jacket. I looked at my reflection in the polished glass and checked my tie, a pricey tan suede job that had been a gift from Brigit's mother back when she still referred to me as "our Donald" and not "that sneaking fairy." I'd once tossed the tie in a Goodwill box, then bought it back a month later for thirty-five cents; it was the only one I owned, and it helped clients like the Blounts meet their need to take me seriously.
A muscular brown woman in a black dress and white apron led me through the foyer, past a ticking grandfather clock into a pale yellow room with a crystal chandelier. Over a walnut sideboard with silver candlesticks were portraits of two early nineteenth-century types, a man and a woman, who looked as though they'd absorbed their Cotton Mather. The oriental scatter rugs on the polished oak floor had held their color, and my fee went up as I crossed the room.
The brown woman recited, "Mr. and Mrs. Blount will be with you in just a moment," and left. Big Michael Korda fans, the Blounts. I seated myself on a winged mahogany-trimmed Empire sofa upholstered in deep-blue and off-white stripes of silk. Not a piece of furniture to take off your shoes and curl up on. I sat like a debutante with a teacup on her knee and looked out the bay window to my right and saw the exact tree in the park under which I had met Timmy Callahan. I smiled.
"Mr. Strachey--Hello! I'm Stuart Blount, and this is Mrs. Blount." He strode toward me from the foyer, moving like a clipper ship, an elegant hand coming out of the sleeve of a gray, chalk-striped business suit. He had a full head of wavy gray hair and a nicely chiseled face with the lines of age in the most flattering places, as if he'd picked up the design during a February golfing jaunt to the Algarve.
Mrs. Blount, a handsome, slim woman who could have been her husband's sister, wore a mauve dress of a style and cut that would not go out of fashion. Her movements had a calculatedly loose, finishing-school cockiness about them that came across as a kind of stiffness. She carried a small glass ashtray in her right hand and offered me her left. Her tanned and braceleted, jingly-jangly arm raised up like a drawbridge, and she said "Hello" in a voice that once must have been musical.
I declined Mrs. Blount's offer of "refreshment"--the bank would be closing at three--and resumed my perch on the sofa. The Blounts faced me from twin Chippendale chairs with lion's-claw feet across a glass-topped coffee table. My stained desert boots with the frazzled stitching were visible through the glass.
"You come very well recommended," Stuart Blount said, nodding and trying to convince himself of something. "Jay Tarbell tells me you have quite a reputation around, ah, Albany, and Jane and I are grateful that you could rearrange your affairs and consider our son's rather problematical situation on such short notice.",
I said, "Luckily a hole opened up in my schedule." I was ready to join them if they clutched their sides and shrieked with laughter.
"Well, we're very fortunate then," Blount said, feigning credulity like a man who knew what was important, "because you've certainly got your work cut out for you. The police have been searching for William for nearly a week now, Mr. Strachey, and they haven't so much as turned up a trace of the boy. However, it's my understanding that you'll have access to resources that the police are, ah, unfamiliar with, relatively speaking." He gave me a strained smile. "We're certainly hoping that you can help us out, Mr. Strachey. Can you?"
They leaned toward me, just perceptibly. I said, "What is it you want me to do?"
"Why ... find our son. Wasn't that clear? And bring him home to us."
Maybe there had been a misunderstanding. "Let me get this straight. Your son is William Blount--the William Blount who was charged this week with second-degree murder. He's the 'missing person' we're talking about here? Or am I confused?"
Jane Blount shot her husband an impatient look and removed a Silva Thin from a gold box on the coffee table. Blount shifted in his chair and said, "Why, yes, William Blount is our son. I thought you understood that--from the media coverage. Do you think you can locate the boy?"
"I might. And then what?"
"Then what? I don't follow."
"I mean, do you want me to gather evidence that will clear your son of the charge? That's what I'm usually hired to do in these cases. I've done it."
"Oh, we'll handle the legal end of it," Blount said, waving the matter away. "You'll simply find William and bring him to Jane and me. You won't need to concern yourself with the, ah, judicial processes, Mr. Strachey. That's all being taken care of."
Jane Blount lit her cigarette, which dangled from one corner of her mouth, and from the other corner she spoke to me with a pained earnestness. "Jay Tarbell is helping us out--he's a dear man. Do you know Jay? And hopefully this ugly business can be cleared up with a minimum of upset for all concerned. It's been such a ghastly experience for Stuart and me, and we're terribly anxious for it to be over with just as soon as possible. But Billy, naturally, must take the first step by coming home and facing up to his responsibilities."
She sounded like a mother whose son had knocked up the trashman's daughter and a settlement was in the offing. She dragged on the cigarette and blew a stream of smoke up toward a humming little vent in the ceiling, which inhaled the cloud.
I said, "I know Tarbell by reputation. If anyone in Albany can get your son out of this, he's the one. I take it you believe your son is innocent."
They looked irritated. Not injured, not offended, just irritated. "Well, we certainly hope so," Blount said. "My God, I'd hate to think William was even capable of such a thing. But let me emphasize, Mr. Strachey, that the question of William's guilt or innocence is a matter to be dealt with elsewhere. That end of it would be outside your purview, as I see it. Disposition of the case would be a matter for the courts to concern themselves with, wouldn't you agree? By way of preparation for that eventuality, however, perhaps you could give us an estimate on how long it might take you to locate William."
Something was screwy here, but I didn't know what. I'd had clients in similar situations, but none so chipper and optimistic as the Blounts. I studied them for a moment, with no result. I said, "No, I can't. Two days, a week, a month--it's hard to say. I'd have an idea in a couple of days of what I'd be up against. I'd need a good bit of help from you two."
"You'll have it," Blount said. "Will you take the case?"
"You understand that once I locate your son and he agrees to come home, you and Tarbell could meet with him and then he'd have to go straight to the police. That's the law. If he didn't, I'd have to report it. There'd be no funny stuff, right? Flying down to Rio or whatever."
I doubted this was what the Blounts had in mind, though it had happened to me once before. I'd rounded up a client's embezzler-husband, who, instead of turning himself in, flashed his three hundred thou to my client and the happy couple left together on the first flight for Brazil. I'd lost my fee and barely escaped an abetting-a-felony charge and sometimes regretted I hadn't followed on the next plane.
"Mr. Strachey," Blount said, "Jay Tarbell is an officer of the court. He has a reputation to uphold in this community, as do Jane and I. We're hardly about to jeopardize our good names by participating in a conspiracy to circumvent justice. As I say, we are confident that some formal resolution to the matter can be arrived at that will satisfy all the interested parties. I'm afraid you'll just have to accept my word on that." He gave me a sickly smile.
"I just thank God," Jane Blount put in, "that we live in modern times."
What were they up to? Stuart Blount had a reputation around town as a high-toned wheeler-dealer--suburban real estate, shopping malls, cozy connections with the politically well placed. And while I supposed there were jurisdictions in the state of New York where you could still get a murder fixed, I doubted Albany County was one of them. In the 1930s, I guessed, but not in 1979. Maybe the Blounts held a genuine abiding faith in their son's innocence and were confident that, with a nudge from them here and there up the line, justice would triumph. It was a topic they didn't seem to want to go into.
I said, "Have you already done a deal with the DA, or what? I like to know what I'm getting into. I've got a license to keep."
Jane Blount's eyes flashed and she sucked furiously on her cigarette. Her husband sighed deeply. They were taking some unaccustomed abuse from me, and I guessed I knew why.
"Mr. Strachey, it's all being worked out with the appropriate authorities, believe me it is. What we're counting on, you see, is that a, ah, prison sentence can be avoided--that some alternative approach to William's rehabilitation can be worked out--if you get my drift."
I didn't. "Are you talking about a tour in the Peace Corps, or what? Fill me in. What's new on the correctional front?"
"I can tell you this much, Mr. Strachey. Judge Feeney has already been consulted, and he has given his blessing to the program we have in mind, as has the district attorney. Does that reassure you?"
Killer Feeney. Maybe he was going to allow the Blounts to have their son hanged at home, from the family chandelier.
I said, "If your son is innocent, isn't all this dealing a little premature?"
Blount squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment. Then, deciding I was probably worth all of this, he opened them and gazed at me wearily. "Let me explain. I'm a realist, Mr. Strachey. In my business, I have to be. I know what the evidence against William is. It's all been laid out for me. No, I don't believe that my son killed a man. William is troubled, yes, but I can't accept for a minute the notion that William would take a human life. It's just that the situation is ... rather an intractable one, wouldn't you say? Jay Tarbell has gone over the evidence with me, and he's given his opinion, which is not favorable. Jane and I have been over it and over it, and we're simply doing what we think we must do."
"Making the best of a sorry state of affairs," Jane Blount added.
I said, "My fee is a hundred fifty dollars a day plus expenses. If you agree to that, and to giving me your full cooperation, I'll take the case."
They relaxed. "Thank you," Blount said. "Thank you, Mr. Strachey, for placing your trust in us."
I didn't trust them any farther than I could toss their walnut sideboard. But there were aspects of the case that interested me--for one, both the accused and his alleged victim were gay--and there was the additional incentive of my needing at least $2.93 to cover the check I'd written after lunch at Elmo's. I decided to risk becoming involved with these people I neither liked nor understood and then figure them out as I went along. It wasn't going to be the first time.
I said, "Tell me about your son. When did you last see him?"
I'd done it again. They looked at me as if I'd just said, "Up above the world you fly / Like a tea-tray in the sky." Except this time my irrelevant gibberish had them squirming in their Chippendale seats.
"We haven't seen William since before the, ah, crime," Blount finally said. "I believe it was some weeks ago--back in the latter part of the summer, if I recall precisely."
"That's not very precise."
"Billy has a lot of growing up to do," Jane Blount said. She flushed under her terrific tan.
"What happened the last time you saw Billy? Tell me; maybe that will help me begin to understand your son." And his parents.
Blount sucked in the corner of his mouth and sat looking droll. His wife gave me a full frontal of her nostrils, sighed deeply, and spoke. "On the morning of August the eighteenth, Stuart and I drove down from our cottage in Saratoga. When we arrived, Billy was here in our house with ... a man."
"Uh-huh. Then what?"
"If you've read between the lines of the newspaper accounts, Mr. Strachey, you must have deduced that our son has ... homosexual tendencies. Billy is easily influenced, and he had spent the night on that sofa you're sitting on, Mr. Strachey, with a ... a gay individual."
Tact. She went on. "Of course we had words with Billy about his behavior, and he ... he simply walked out on us. Billy refused even to turn over his keys to the house, and Stuart was forced into having the locks changed. We haven't seen or heard from Billy since that day, despite our repeated messages offering to help him--as we've tried to help our son find his way on so many occasions in the past. We love Billy, you see, and we are not going to give up on him."
Tendencies. I remembered seeing Billy Blount's byline on articles and editorials in the local gay community news bulletin a couple of years earlier--though not, I thought, recently--and I doubted he shared this assessment of his sexual makeup. Also, I tried to remember whether I'd ever run into him myself; I glanced down at the sofa, but it didn't ring a bell.
I said, "Billy was living here?"
"He has his own apartment," Stuart Blount said. "Billy has been on his own for several years now, but of course he's always been welcome here. However, you have to draw the line somewhere, am I right? I'm convinced I did the right thing."
I supposed he had, though the family dynamics here were starting to betray a certain complexity.
Jane Blount stabbed out her cigarette in the little dish in her palm. She gazed down at the butt and warbled, "Jay Tarbell tells us you may have--could we call it a 'special entree'--with Billy's circle of acquaintances, Mr. Strachey?" She looked up at me with a clammy expectancy.
"We could call it that."
Blount pulled himself forward in a herky-jerky way and spoke the words. "Jay has mentioned to us that you are an, ah, avowed homosexual, Mr. Strachey, and that you can be counted on to be familiar with the, ah, gay lifestyle and, ah, milieu here in Albany."
"Yes, I'm gay."
"We're broad-minded," Blount said. He assumed a facial expression that resembled the work of an early cubist. "How you live your life, Mr. Strachey, is none of our business. How William lives his life is very much our business. He's our only child, you see. He has no sisters or brothers."
Or siblings. "How old is your son?" I asked. "Midtwenties?"
"He sounds old enough to make his own decisions."
"Despite our disagreements with Billy," Jane Blount said serenely, "he's always considered Stuart's and my opinions important. There's always been a kind of bond."
Scanty as the evidence was so far, I figured she had something there.
"You said you had words with Billy the last time you saw him. What did he say when he left?"
"Well, in point of fact," Blount said, shifting again, "Jane and I did the actual speaking. I did get a little hot under the collar, I have to admit. Billy did not express his feelings verbally. He simply walked out the door. With his houseguest."
Who probably never even sent a thank-you note. "Is that what Billy ordinarily does when he's angry? Walks away?"
Blount took on a martyred look. "Ah, if only he would! William's silence in August was hardly characteristic of our son, Mr. Strachey. When William becomes angry, he generally makes a speech--gives us all his propaganda." Or does a desecration number on the Blounts' Phyfe sofa. "But of course we've never bought it, all the slogans and so forth. Don't get me wrong, Mr. Strachey," Blount said, giving me his Picasso face again, "we respect the activists' positions, and we do not support legal discrimination against sodomites. But for William, it isn't the thing, you see? Not the road to the fulfilling type of life that is available to our son."
If Billy Blount was not an extremely angry young man, then he had to be a turnip. "What happens when I locate Billy and he refuses to drop by and hash things over with you two? That sounds to me like a distinct possibility. Bond or no bond, he's not likely to expect a sympathetic hearing from his family. Especially given the circumstances of the crime he's accused of."
Jane Blount went for another cigarette. Her husband removed a sealed business-size envelope from his inside breast pocket and handed it to me. The printed return address was for Blount and Hackett, Investment Counselors, Twin Towers, Washington Avenue, Albany. "Give Billy this," he said. "It should make a difference."
I slid the envelope into my own breast pocket and could feel it find the rip at the bottom and begin to edge down into the lining. I asked what was in the envelope.
"That is private," Jane Blount said. "Private and personal. If Billy wants to tell you about it, that's his business. I doubt that he will. You just give it to him. He'll come home." She gave me a look that said, Understood?
Maybe he'd come home or maybe he wouldn't, but I didn't doubt that whatever was in the envelope was going to make an impression on Billy Blount.
I asked them to fill me in on their son's whereabouts, activities, and acquaintances over the past ten years, and for half an hour they rambled around the surface of Billy's social, educational, and occupational landscape. They offered little to go on.
Billy Blount had graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in political science and then had taken a series of menial jobs. Currently, he worked in a record shop. He hadn't lived at home since college, though his addresses were never more than eight or ten blocks from the family abode on State Street. This latter may or may not have meant something; Albany gays tended to live within walking distance of the bars and discos on nearby Central Avenue, and Billy Blount's unbroken proximity to his parents could have been coincidental. I'd find out.
The Blounts knew no names of their son's friends. They said his social circle was, they were certain, made up of "gay individuals," and they thought I might be acquainted with some of them. This was possible; gay Albany, though populous enough, was not so vast as San Francisco.
The Blounts gave me a photograph of their son. He was good-looking in a lean-jawed sort of way, with a broad, vaguely impudent smile, shortish dark hair, deep black eyes, and the obligatory clipped British military mustache. I thought, in fact, that I had seen him around in the bars and discos. Given my habits and his, it would have been odd if I hadn't.
They provided me with Billy's current address on Madison Avenue, and a check for $1000, which I stuffed deep in my pants pocket. I said I'd report back to them within a week but that I had a few fiscal loose ends to tie up in midafternoon before I began work on their case. Stuart Blount walked with me to the door, shook my hand, made a point of squeezing my shoulder as he did so, and wished me "all the best of luck."
I had the feeling I was being used by these people in a way I wasn't going to like once I figured out what it was. Outside, the cold wind felt good. I ambled down State, turned the corner away from the park, and made for the bank.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This first story really set the tone for the books. I love Richard Stevenson's voice!