In 1934, almost everyone struggles to pay the rent, and Alex Dawson is no exception. To support his writing habit, he moonlights with his mentor Donnie as a bodyguard for the mayor. It’s dull work, until the night a handsome, golden-eyed stranger catches his eye–and both his boss and his mentor are killed when his back is turned.
Jobless and emotionally adrift, Alex vows to find the murderer before the corrupt police can pin the blame on him. But he soon discovers he’s in over his head. The golden-eyed stranger turns out to be a mob boss’s cousin, and a suspicious stack of money in Donnie’s dresser leads Alex to discover that his mentor and the mayor were involved in something more crooked than fundraising dinners and campaign speeches. As the death count rises amid corruption, mob politics, and anarchist plots, Alex realizes that the murders aren’t political or even business. This is the work of a spree killer, and Alex and his new boyfriend are the only ones who can stop them.
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MOB MONEY COULD buy a lot, but apparently it couldn't buy taste. Every single architectural detail of the Ostia struck me as garish: from the chandeliers dripping crystals to the thick wooden accent panels to the gold-painted cherubs carved into the tops of the columns. But my opinion didn't matter; I was just hired muscle.
The club had opened the previous December — about two seconds after booze turned legal again — and attracted all sorts of upper-class clientele, including my boss, Mayor Roy Carlisle. They called him the White Knight of Westwick, and he ran on the rather ironic platform of driving various ne'er-do-wells out of the city. But again, not my business. My job was to hover just behind him in case something terrible happened. Nothing ever happened though, no crazed attackers or falling pianos. The worst crisis I'd run into in the ten or so months I'd been working for him was a freak rainstorm at a garden party, and I had to hold my jacket over his wife Emma's head to protect her hair.
Still, it was a dollar a night to stand around, and that was more than other people were getting. The Depression had wiped everyone out, including me. If I hadn't taken up bodyguarding, I would've been thrown out of my room in the boardinghouse faster than I could say eviction. Writing pulp stories wasn't a lucrative day job, and even less so at the beginning of a career.
Which was why, despite my thoughts on the decor, I was pleased to be at the Ostia. Everyone said they had the best acts in town, and I couldn't disagree. That night they opened with a pretty, button-nosed redhead. She was French, or at least she had a good enough grip of the language to sing in it. I didn't know what she was singing about, but it sounded sultry enough as she made eyes at our table.
Carlisle lapped it up, ignorant or indifferent to Emma turning bright pink beside him. She didn't say anything though. Maybe she'd taken a lesson from other political wives and learned to swallow her pride or risk becoming divorced and destitute. Not that she didn't deserve to be proud. She was still pretty at thirty-five — ten years Carlisle's junior — blonde and delicate with huge blue eyes.
She must have gotten her looks from her mother, because her father had the smashed face of a bulldog and towered over even my own six feet. Seated to his daughter's left that night, Marc Logan also stewed in silence, his hand alternately crumpling the napkins and patting Emma reassuringly on the knee. His own blue eyes, the haunting color of old ice, bored a hole into the side of Carlisle's head.
Their dinner guest for the evening, Mrs. Green, likewise noticed his glare and apparently decided the best course of action was distraction. "Emma dear, did you see what Miss Kepler was wearing the other night at the Peterson soiree?" she tittered as she coiled the chain for her hanging glasses around a finger.
"Hmm?" Emma turned her head just enough to keep her husband in her peripheral vision. "I'm sorry; what were you saying about the Kepler girl?"
"Her dress!" exclaimed Mrs. Green. "It was scandalous! So low-cut. Anyone would have thought she was selling herself. Her father should never have let her out of the house like that. Don't you agree, Mr. Logan?"
Logan blinked slowly, no doubt trying to come to terms with the dullness of a conversation centered on someone else's clothing. "While I have to agree that she was ... improperly dressed for the occasion, it is quite difficult for a man to say no to his daughter once she's gotten her mind wrapped around something." He glanced at Emma, who smiled weakly.
Mrs. Green continued along the thread of scandalous attire, but I let my attention slip back to Carlisle. Oblivious to the rest of his table, he continued to stare at the French singer. While such behavior wasn't unusual for him, that night it was so obvious that even I was becoming uncomfortable. I glanced at my watch and suppressed a groan. It was only half-past ten. Donnie wouldn't be around for another hour and a half.
"Are you feeling all right, Mr. Dawson?"
My attention snapped to Emma. "Yes, ma'am," I answered, hoping she hadn't noticed my boredom.
Her mouth quirked like she was in on some joke I didn't know the punchline to, but she said nothing else. Instead she turned to her father, placed a hand on his shoulder, and whispered something in his ear. He grunted in response. Carlisle didn't notice the exchange, or maybe didn't care. Mrs. Green kept nattering away.
The song stopped, and the French girl took a bow. We all clapped, Carlisle too enthusiastically, and Emma barely at all. The girl swept off the stage to a table off the wing for a break, and she was replaced by a dark-haired woman with too much makeup. The new woman sang with a rough alto voice, occasionally throwing appraising looks at Carlisle, though he didn't return them. Once the French girl left, his attention had returned to the food. The rest of the table did the same.
With my charges occupied, I took the chance to look over the room again. Nothing out of the ordinary. Diners, waiters, a glossy bar at the back. The maître-de waving through a man who had just entered ... I realized I knew the man weaving his way between tables. Donnie was terribly noticeable with a thick, out-of-fashion beard and pocket-watch chain draped across his waistcoat. I looked at my own watch again. It was only eleven.
"How's it going, Alex?" Donnie asked as he took up a place beside me.
"What are you doing here so early?" I whispered.
"Early, you say?" He rubbed at his beard thoughtfully. Too thoughtfully. Then he winked and chuckled.
I squinted at him. Whatever Donnie was here for, it wasn't because he'd miscalculated. He was precise, so precise that he'd been a watchmaker before the stock market crashed and ruined the market for luxury goods. Then he'd taken a series of jobs burly men normally take — lumber yard, bricklaying — before landing the night bodyguarding job, where he ended up thriving. He could deal with the tedium of long stretches of nothing, but also had the brains to handle any emergency that might come up. I was flattered to hear that when Logan had asked for another guard for Carlisle with the same traits, Donnie had offered my name.
Donnie had always been too good to me. He'd been a friend of my dad's, and all but adopted me after the alcoholic bastard poisoned himself with white lightning eight years ago in '26. Kept me in school, even. I was lucky he had, because no one else would have taken on a fourteen-year-old with a police record.
"Mr. Kemp!" Carlisle exclaimed. "Is it midnight already?" He reached for his own watch. "Ah, no, not even close."
Donnie half bowed. "Forgive me, sir. I'm just very excited to be at such a fine place."
Something was going on, and I wasn't in the loop. I made a mental note to have a chat with Donnie later about how he was too old to tease people and get away with it for long.
"I don't blame you. It is very fine," Carlisle answered, throwing a look at the French girl, who was still on break at one of the nearby tables. She winked back. Emma found something on the tablecloth to study. Carlisle scanned over me and Donnie. "But I'm only paying one of you, so you and Mr. Dawson are going to have to fight it out between yourselves."
I tried to do the numbers in my head. As desperately as I wanted to leave, an hour's work was a good fifteen cents, and fifteen cents could go a long way. Food, coffee, cigarettes if I bought the cheap kind.
"Eh, just pay the boy his regular wages. He's young. Let him have some fun." Donnie smiled and nudged me in the ribs. My face flushed.
Carlisle laughed. "You're too soft-hearted, Kemp. But how does anyone say no to such solid reasoning? Here." He fished some nickels out of a pocket and handed them to me. "One night of double pay won't kill me. Just don't make it a habit. I can't be doing this for the next four years!"
"You've only just announced that you're running again, Roy," mumbled Emma.
Carlisle kept smiling. "Don't be so pessimistic. I'm a shoe-in. Their knight in shining armor, remember? You can't beat that."
"Tides turn," said Emma. "The public is fickle."
He snorted and waved a dismissive hand. Then he turned his attention back to me. "Don't listen to her. Women don't know anything about politics. Silly creatures."
Emma closed her eyes, her jaw clenched.
I took the nickels and got out of there. I never knew if Carlisle baited her on purpose or if he was just that dim, though after months of shadowing him for six hours a day, I suspected it was the latter. How he'd gotten himself through law school and then elected mayor was anyone's guess. My money was on either Emma or Logan having done all the hard work.
It would be a shame to be in the Ostia and not have at least a drink, so I took a detour to the bar in the back on my way out. I ordered a cheap beer. The bartender looked me over once before getting it. I tugged at my jacket. I knew I didn't look swanky enough for the place. My navy suit was fraying at the cuffs, and there were flecked ink stains on my tie that wouldn't come out no matter how hard I scrubbed.
In defiance of his attitude, I took my time drinking and listening to the singer belt out heartbreaking songs about lovers leaving. I couldn't see her from my seat in the back, but I could still picture her in my mind's eye. I started mentally writing a story about her, and when it got to be too long of a thread, I pulled the notepad out of my pocket. I'd scribbled about a page and a half when someone sat next to me.
I glanced at him. He wore a grayish-green suit and had brown, curly hair oiled back so tightly that it was practically smooth. He pulled out a silver cigarette case. I dropped my eyes back to my notebook.
"Would you like one?" he asked. A whisper of an accent I couldn't identify tugged at the edge of his words, deepening and rounding the vowels.
I raised my head. He held the case out to me, his own cigarette perched in a smirk. I hesitated. I didn't like handouts, and they were poorly rolled, but I'd used up the last of my own the day before, and I wasn't about to waste money on the expensive ones the girls of the Ostia were shilling.
"Yeah, okay," I said as I took one. "Thanks."
His smirk turned into a full smile, and the corners of his eyes crinkled into crows-feet. How old was he? He had at least half a dozen years on me. Thirty? Thirty-five? Though he had the air of someone older. Maybe it was the scar running vertically on his left cheek, or maybe it was something about his eyes. They were such a light brown they were almost gold. Yeah, that was it. Golden eyes like a weathered immortal. I returned to my notebook to scratch that one down before I forgot it.
"You know, it helps if you light it," he said.
"Oh, yeah. Heh." I reached for my lighter, but he already had his out. With a flick of a finger, the flame appeared against the edge of the cigarette hanging from my mouth. I blushed, unaccustomed to attention from handsome men. Women, yes, occasionally — particularly brazen one once told me I had a jawline sharp enough to cut herself on — but somehow I'd never attracted the right sort of guy. Maybe they thought I was too intimidating with my height and broad shoulders.
"Well at least I'm not barking up the wrong tree today," he said. He took a long drag on his own cigarette. "May I ask what you're writing?"
I closed my notebook. "Nothing important. Just ... ideas for stories."
"You're a writer?"
Could I call myself a writer when the only things I'd sold were a couple of pulp shorts and a dime romance that had been split apart and edited so much that it was barely mine anymore? What if he asked what I'd written and I told him and he didn't know? Or worse, he did know?
"I have aspirations," I answered.
"Those are good things to have." He leaned forward, and his smoky breath cascaded around my ear and my neck, sending lightning down my spine. "I have some too."
My thoughts raced almost as fast as my heartbeat. This had mistake written all over it. Best case scenario, I was about to be used. Worst case, some kind of set-up. I'd been caught in one of them before, and I'd sworn I would know better next time. But then, what was life without a little risk? Unable to make a decision, I stalled.
"And what are your aspirations, mister ...?"
He offered his hand. "Forgive me. My name is–"
Two pops cut off the rest. Gunfire.
I leaped up, my stomach plunging to my feet. Several women screamed. I shoved my way back to the table through the panicking and scrambling patrons.
Roy Carlisle was dead. I knew it before I even got to the table. He was sprawled out facedown, missing half his head. The other half was spattered across the surroundings. Emma sat in the chair next to him, blinking in shocked silence at the brains and blood sprayed all over her. Donnie was nowhere to be seen.
"Donnie?" I shouted as I stumbled between the last few tables.
I nearly tripped over him. He had taken a bullet to the chest, blood spilling out of his mouth into his beard. His mouth moved, but only bubbly gasps came out. The world shrank. Before I knew it, I was on the floor, trying in futile desperation to cover the wound with my hands and fallen napkins. His chest heaved once, twice, then stopped moving entirely. I looked at his face, hoping to see some kind of spark, but there was nothing. His head lolled to the side, his eyes blank.
Suddenly Logan hauled me up by the back of my jacket and shook me like a puppy. "Get a grip on yourself, man. For God's sake."
It was only then that I realized I was bawling. I went to wipe my eyes, but I stopped when I noticed that my hands were covered in blood. Donnie's blood, all over my cuffs, pooling under Logan's shoes. I gagged, and Logan shook me again.
"I said pull yourself together," he growled.
Breathe. That was what Donnie had always told me. If I was losing myself, I should just breathe. Everything else would fall into place. So I sucked in some air and let it go, over and over, while I listened to the sirens getting closer.CHAPTER 2
DETECTIVE HARLOW SHUT the door of the interview room and tossed a bunch of files onto the table before sitting across from me. My heart raced, making the pounding in my head all the worse. I had no idea why I'd been pulled in for questioning when there were literally dozens of other people who had witnessed the murder. Like I'd told the cops at least three times before Harlow showed up and dragged me into the station, I'd been oblivious on the other side of the room.
Harlow was an older man, with a beer gut and thin hair on top going from black to gray, but he still had hands like knotted oak roots. I could tell already he was one of those cops who closed cases, and not in a clever Sherlock-Holmes kind of way. I hoped I had a sufficiently neutral look on my face. If Harlow decided he didn't like me for whatever reason, I might end the night missing a tooth on top of everything else.
He flipped open one of the files. "Alexander Dawson," he read aloud. "Age, twenty-three. Occupation, writer — freelance. Bodyguard — also freelance." He looked up at me with one eyebrow cocked like he expected me to account for something.
I shrugged. "Keeps me off the breadline."
He didn't respond and instead went back to reading my police record. "Assault, 1925. Assault, 1927." He raised his head again.
I met his eyes steadily. They were both juvenile charges, more for brawling than anything really dangerous. I'd imitated my father's actions on my classmates. But Donnie had persuaded me that I was better than that. Not that I didn't still have a temper, but at least now it was constructively aimed. I braced myself for what I knew he was going to say next.
Harlow continued, "And gross indecency, 1932."
I resisted rolling my eyes. My love life, illegal or not, was unrelated to murder. "Did you pull me in just because I have a record? A record, I might add, that has nothing to do with what happened tonight."
Harlow flipped my file shut and opened another one. "Funny thing is, your old pal Donald Kemp has the same charge. Different year though. Back in the twenties. I'm almost surprised. You could practically spit in God's eye without consequence back in those days."
Same charge? He couldn't be talking about the violence; Donnie'd never have hurt a fly. But then that would mean ... Suddenly everything he'd ever done to protect me made a lot more sense. A fresh wave of grief flooded through me, but I tamped it down.
"I still don't know what any of this has to do with Mayor Carlisle's assassination," I said.
"Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. We're just asking questions right now."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Good Men"
Copyright © 2019 Thea McAlistair.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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