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“In a small Virginia town still reeling from World War II, a photograph of a beautiful murdered woman propels three young people into the middle of a far-reaching mystery.
Dodging and Burning (Pegasus Crime, March 2018), by novelist and Lambda Literary Review contributor John Copenhaver, is a mystery set in 1945. One of the main characters, Jay Greenwood, a gay WWII photographer, takes a photo of a murdered woman’s body he discovers in a stretch of woods in Royal Oak, VA. The body goes missing and the photo is the only proof of her murder. When Jay shows the photo to Bunny Prescott, the debutante who’s in love with him, and Ceola, the kid sister of his lover who is missing in the Pacific, the story becomes as much about the photographer as the subject of the photo.
Through the first part of the novel, Bunny becomes increasingly suspicious of Jay. Particularly his motivations for showing her the image of the murdered woman, Lily. In this excerpt, Bunny discovers a clue that takes her to DC looking for the truth.
Many of the windows in the buildings along U Street were curtained, a preemptive measure in case of a blackout drill. The commotion on the street was a blur of gray shadows, broken only by the lighting of a cigarette, indiscreet automobile headlights, or the opening of doors as men and women flowed in and out of restaurants and bars. After finding my way to the corner of U and 11th, I combed the block, soon becoming convinced the receptionist at the Howard had given me the wrong address. I huffed and slapped my hands on my hips.
“Excuse me, miss. You look lost,” a voice said.
I turned to find a short young man in a crisp suit and fastidiously parted blond hair. His face was smooth, almost waxen, but not uncomely, and his lips thin and pursed. A vermillion kerchief plumed from his breast pocket.
I smiled, happy to see a friendly face, and stammered, “I’m looking for Croc’s.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“Are you sure you have the right place, darling?”
“I think so.”
Finger to his chin, he gave me a casual once over. “You’re the real thing, aren’t you?”
“Certainly,” I conceded, a little perplexed.
“Very well. Follow me. We’ll find out if it’s the place you’re looking for.”
We went behind the hardware store around the corner, into a dank alley, and down a flight of steps to a nondescript door. Over it hung a small sign that read “Crocodile Tears” in dark blue letters. The man knocked on the door in a distinct pattern—Morse code, I think. It happened too quickly for me to catch the rhythm.
The door flung open and a puff of smoke escaped, trailed by laughter. A tall, horsey woman, wrapped in a horrible bright purple evening gown, emerged. She recognized my new friend and rushed forward, giving him a hug. The little man disappeared into a blob of purple organza and then reappeared again, extricating himself from her gossamer cape, taking a moment to complain she had ruffled his freshly pressed blazer.
“Oh, Timmy,” she cooed. “Wrinkles make you more rugged. Too much polish on and the boys won’t want to rough you up.”
“This is my friend . . .”
“Bunny,” I supplied.
“Bunny,” Tim repeated.
“Hop! Hop!” The purple horror screamed with joy, her large mouth gaping to reveal cigarette-stained teeth.
“She’s come to see the show,” Tim said.
“Little Bunny better hop-hop on inside.”
“Indeed,” Tim said.
The purple horror stepped aside, motioning for us to enter, her diaphanous plumage rippling and fluttering with each exaggerated gesture. Mellow guitar, a Reinhardt-esque tune of some sort, drifted across the room through the haze. I followed Tim down a few stairs, dropping below the veil of smoke.
The space was a deep, buttressed basement, supported by two or three large brick pillars. The windowless walls were painted a wine red and lined with booths. Much later in my life, the Roman underground cistern of Istanbul would conjure memories of this place. The city’s cavernous architecture and lush darkness, although much grander, had a similar and equally disconcerting atmosphere, like being in the belly of a whale. In the center were round tables of odd sizes, set with mismatched chairs and lit with red votives. At the far end of the room, a thick, velvety curtain was pulled back, revealing a thin, well-dressed black man, perched on a stool and playing the guitar. His eyes were closed, deep in the moment of the music. At the back of the room stood a makeshift bar, cluttered with stools and the greatest number of patrons.
“Does this look like your sort of place?” Tim said.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“That name rings a bell. I remember hearing something about a Lily a few months ago, but I never met her.”
“What about Teddie B.?”
“Why are you looking for him?”
“I’m a friend of a friend.”
“Oh, you’ll get to meet Teddie B., all right. He’s crooning his dreadful repertoire tonight. Just hang around. I’ll bet my toes he’s the next act. God save us if he’s doing Dietrich.”
Remembering another name from Lily’s letter, I said, “Do you know a George?”
“Which one do you want? George Abernathy? George Wills? Georgie Goodbottom?—although I seriously doubt that’s his real name. George Gershwin? George Washington? You’ll have to be more specific.” I was bewildered, which he clearly saw, because he said, “Darling, why don’t you have a seat at an empty table and let Timmy find a drink for you. What do you want?”
“I’m fine. No need to—”
“Darling, name the drink.”
“Whatever your heart desires.” He clucked and left me.
I found a small table near a pillar and sat down. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the submarine blues and ruby reds of the room, and I discovered there were several groups of patrons that I could observe without seeming conspicuous. Around the table nearest me, three young men sat together, craned over their drinks, whispering and laughing and smoking. Occasionally, one of the men would extend a slender arm over the center of the table and tap ashes into an empty glass. The gesture had a certain irreverent grace about it, a feminine haughtiness I had never observed in men, except perhaps at my birthday by the lake. Jay had seemed so different that night.
At another table, a man and a woman sat across from each other. The woman wore a dark velvet dress, the color of which was difficult to discern, and she seemed angry, or at least unwilling to look the man in the face. The man was impassioned, pleading with her. I wondered if he was in love and she wasn’t—or at least not with him. At one point, she slouched and put her hands to her face. She melted into tears and the man rose and walked around the table and put his hand cautiously on her shoulder. She shook him off. He was utterly bewildered. I decided I didn’t like the woman.
The table on my right, at the edge of my peripheral vision, was half-submerged in darkness, and in that restless shadow I saw two shapes conjoined, moving against one other, in soft, uneven undulations. I stared for a moment, uncertain what I was looking at. Then the two shapes separated and assumed the more recognizable forms of two sturdy, square-shouldered men. One of the men was still leaning forward slightly, his hand gripping the other man’s thigh. My heart rate increased, and I turned away. Before I could process what I had seen, Tim was standing over me, dangling my drink precariously between his thumb and forefinger.
“Here, darling. Take your drink. I hate the condensation on my palms.”
As he sat, he nodded toward the two men. “It looks like Ben has a new boy tonight. They simply worship him. That’s only because his favorite activity doesn’t require conversation.” He took a swig of his drink. “Don’t mind me, that’s just jealousy talking.”
“I don’t understand,” I sputtered.
“Of course you don’t.” He smiled.
“Is he . . . ?”
“A fairy. Yes, darling. As am I.” He tipped his glass to me. “Cheers!” He took a deep swig, swallowed, and took a moment to absorb the alcohol. “You really don’t know where you are, do you?”
“I do. It’s just . . . I’ve never been to a place like this.”
“Are you a lessie?”
“A dyke. There are better places I can recommend if you are.”
“You look pale, darling. Have your drink. You’ll feel much better.”
I picked up the tumbler, removed the thin orange slice—which Tim snatched from my fingers and ate—and took a gulp of the tangy liquid. After the alcohol settled, I took another, more ladylike sip, and spoke: “I’m here because someone I care about has a connection to this place and to the people I mentioned to you.”
“Teddie B. and this Lily person.”
“What sort of connection?”
“I’m not sure. The more I discover the less I understand.”
“You’re beginning to intrigue me.”
“Is that a good thing?”
In a clumsy flutter, the purple monster was suddenly with us. I could see now that she was in fact a he. The liberally applied makeup, the waxy red lips, and the cockeyed wig served only as an immediate distraction from the burly man hiding underneath. I felt embarrassed for him, not to mention a little afraid of him. I moved my chair back a few inches to give him room.
“Don’t be scared little Easter Bunny,” he cooed.
I sipped my drink.
“This is her first foray into the fairyland,” Tim explained. “Be gentle with her.”
“She a dyke?” the purple monster asked.
“She says no. She says she’s looking for friends. She says Teddie may know something about these friends. It’s all very mysterious.”
The monster brought his arm across his face, his sheer purple dress veiling his nose and mouth in parody of The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”—and he mimicked the Shadow’s signature laugh. To say the least, it was odd. But it made me laugh.
“She thinks you’re funny, Henry,” Tim said dryly.
So the monster had a name.
“Henrita,” he corrected Tim.
“Why not Henrietta?” I asked.
“Henrietta is a heifer’s name. Henrita has latino-mystique. South-of-the-border spice. The clatter of castanets.”
Tim rolled his eyes, and I laughed again. I was tipsy. It felt good though. I could feel my anxiety slipping away.
“You’re the one to comment on names, Easter Bunny,” the monster said.
“It’s a nickname. My real name is Bonita.”
“Oooo, I like that. Henrita and Bonita. We’re going to be best girlfriends!” At that, he reached over, snatched up my drink, and took a gulp. I was taken aback. “Don’t worry Miss Hippity-Hop. I’ll get you another one.”
The lighting on the stage had darkened. The guitarist had disappeared, although the lilt of his music lingered in the room. There was a shift in the mood around us, a shuffling, and the stage was suddenly flooded with light.
“Here we go,” Tim said. From stage right, a tall woman surfaced, swathed in a tight black gown. Her hair was a blond bob with large sculpted curls, and she held a fur stole around her. She moved gracefully to center stage and raised a faux-diamond cuffed glove to the audience in exaggerated appreciation of the decidedly unenthusiastic applause. Her face was as white and smooth as a Japanese porcelain mask, with eyebrows like twin circumflexes and lips as dark and glossy as ink. Teddie B. was Marlene Dietrich.
An accordionist appeared out of the darkness of stage right, a still shadow in the background. The accompanying piano was in the corner of the room, lit only by the inconstant flicker of candlelight. “Lili Marlene,” her signature war song, was the first of the night.
His rendition was all camp, replacing Dietrich’s world-weary-woman-who’s-seen-it-all with pure melodrama. I glanced around at the grinning faces and rolling eyes, particularly among the men. I couldn’t tell if Teddie was making fun of Dietrich or himself or, worst of all, if he thought he was doing a passable impersonation.
As the songs rolled out of him—“The Boys in the Backroom” and “You Go to My Head” and, of course, “Falling in Love Again”—his façade began melting—literally. His sweat made the pancake makeup lose its soft, powdered surface. There were moments, though, particularly in “Falling in Love Again,” where his voice—the man’s voice, not the faux Dietrich—broke the surface with a touch of authentic emotion, part humiliation and part desperation to master the song and embrace his muse. However brief these slips were (and they were most definitely unintentional), I found myself cheering him on, hoping that at least for a chord or two he could make the transformation complete.
It never happened. As Teddie took his bows, the applause was respectful, but far from enthusiastic. A couple of sailors even booed him.
Tim said, “So you’ve seen him. What do you think?”
“I’m beyond words.”
I nodded, and he shook his head.
“Hen will escort you backstage if you want to talk to him. Won’t you, Hen?”
“Teddie loves to receive admirers,” Henrita said. “But you had better think of something nice to say about his Dietrich, or he’ll scratch your eyes out.”
“Good luck, darling.” Tim held his glass up in a mock salutation as I rose from my seat. “I’m staying here. I’m only three or four drinks from that lovely little vacation spot on the shore of Lake Oblivion.”
© John Copenhaver
Published by Pegasus Crime Books 2018