When rugged construction worker and biker Cal Hysong is killed, Dick knows the reason. Cal was widely suspected of deliberately spreading AIDS to other gay men. Like the rest of the gay community, Dick's initial reaction is “good riddance.” But when Jake Jacobson and Jared Martinson, two of Dick’s closest friends, become suspects, the case turns personal, and Dick sets out to clear them and find the real killer. His search takes him into the unfamiliar world of gay bikers and leathermen, and through a labyrinth of suspects, motivations, blind alleys and memorable characters.
The front gate was not locked and I saw no sign of a bell, so I just walked through and up to the porch of the story-and-a-half house. The front door was open behind the screen door, and I could hear music coming from somewhere inside. I was looking directly through the living room into a hallway and what I assumed to be the kitchen at the back of the house. I knocked, and a moment later a large backlit form appeared in the hall and moved toward me. As it got closer, I recognized Carl Brewer from the bar.
Tall, shaved-head bald with two large, heavy-looking silver hoop earrings, he was probably in his late fifties or early sixties, and some of the mass of his torso had moved south, but he wore tight faded jeans and a black leather vest with no shirt to display his tattooed shoulders.
Opening the screen with his left hand, he extended his right as I entered.
“Thanks for coming,” he said as we shook. “Come on back to the kitchen.”
I followed him through the house, noting that it was a lot neater than our place and obviously masculine without being overpoweringly butch. The kitchen table, I saw as we entered, was covered with newspapers on which some sort of engine was being eviscerated, with a confusing number of screws, bolts, and mysterious assortment of unrecognizable parts scattered around.
“Fixing one of my bikes,” Brewer explained, indicating the table. “Like a beer?” he asked. “Or coffee?”
I noticed a partially filled cup of coffee on one side of the table and a half-full carafe in the coffeemaker on the counter. A small radio beside it was tuned to the Big Bands station, playing Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls.”
“Coffee’d be good,” I said. “Black.”
He gave me a slightly raised eyebrow of what I took as approval then moved to the cupboard above the coffeemaker for another cup.
“Have a seat,” he said, indicating one of the large round-topped wooden spindle chairs on my side of the table. I pulled one out and sat down as he filled my cup and refilled his own, returning the carafe and taking his own seat, leaning forward to set my cup in front of me.
Resting both forearms on the table, he said, “So, I’ve got a problem.”
“So I heard,” I said. “It’s getting rough out there.”
He shrugged and took a swallow of his coffee. “No shit.”
I didn’t say anything, waiting for him to get to it at his own pace. Finally, he looked up from his coffee and directly at me.
“Look,” he said, “I’m not stupid. I know this AIDS thing is spread through sex and I know that a lot of my customers don’t come to the Male Call just for the beer. I shut down the back room to cut back on sex in the bar itself and I lost some business because of it, but I can only do so much. I’m not these guys’ mother. If they want to stick a loaded gun in their mouth or up their ass and pull the trigger, I can’t stop them. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and the only thing I can do about it is try to see they don’t do it in my bar.”
He paused. “Jeezus!” he said. “This whole thing is a fuckin’ disaster! I’ve had the Male Call for twenty years and there’s never been a problem. Guys come in, they meet friends, they drink, they shoot the shit, they use the back room if they want to get their rocks off and then they go home. But now…” He shook his head slowly. “Now these guys are dying! Guys I’ve known for years! That’s not bad enough without me hearing shit about somebody from my bar deliberately spreading AIDS? I can’t believe it!”
We each took another swallow of our coffee before he continued, again prefacing his remarks with a deep sigh.
“Like I said, I’m not stupid. I know that some of my customers must have it without knowing it and that they’re probably passing it on to their tricks. That’s one of the reasons I shut down the back room. I wish to hell there were something more I could do to prevent it, but there isn’t.
“But having AIDS and spreading it accidentally is one thing. Deliberately…” He shook his head disbelievingly. “If I can’t prove who’s behind these rumors and do something about it,” he said after a minute, “I won’t have any customers left. But I’m not about to lose my bar because of gossip that someone from the Male Call is deliberately killing people.”
I took a swallow of coffee. “Which brings me to the question of exactly how you intend to stop the rumors? Spreading rumors isn’t a crime.”
“No, but slander is, and I’ve got the best lawyer in the city, who I’ll bet can find a whole shitload of other grounds to sue the ass off whoever’s responsible.”
Being able to pin a rumor to just one source struck me as a classic case of the needle in the haystack. I was pretty sure the lawyer he was talking about was Glen O’Banyon but didn’t say anything.
“I gather you have an idea of who might be responsible?”
He nodded. “Pete Reardon. No question. But unless I get some proof…”
Reardon and Brewer, I knew, had been bitter business rivals for years. Reardon had spent two years in prison following the firebombing of his bar, the Dog Collar—the deadliest fire in the city’s history—which killed twenty-nine gay men, including a friend of mine. Reardon had been convicted of criminal negligence for violation of safety codes that contributed to the high death toll.
Though the bomber, whose identity was common knowledge in the community, had never gone to trial for reasons too complicated to go into here, Reardon refused to accept that he had acted alone, and always believed Brewer had a hand in it. When he got out of jail, he opened a new leather bar, the Spike, to try to pick up the competition with the Male Call where it had left off.
But the Spike never remotely achieved the popularity of the Dog Collar, probably because Reardon was too closely associated with the disaster. He refused to accept that and blamed Carl Brewer for the bar’s lack of success. So, I had to admit, he would probably be at the top of any list of suspects.
But I also fully knew, as I’m sure Brewer did, that there could be any number of other people who had a real or imagined grudge against the Male Call and/or its owner. The Male Call wasn’t a bar for sissies, and a lot of ultra-butch types tended to bear ultra-butch grudges.
I wasn’t quite sure how to bring up my next point, but as usual when I don’t know how to do something, I just went ahead and jumped in.
“What if it’s true?” I asked. “What if someone from the Male Call is deliberately spreading AIDS?”
“No,” Brewer said emphatically. “I can’t accept that. I won’t. The idea that somebody’s out to ruin me’s one thing. But that anybody from the Male Call could be sick enough—and I don’t mean physically—to deliberately spread AIDS…no, I won’t buy it.”
I could appreciate his position, but I learned long ago not to rule anything or anyone out.
We sat in relative silence, finishing our coffee, until Brewer said, “Well, you think you can help me?”
I drained my cup and pushed it far enough onto the table it couldn’t easily be knocked off.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.