Christopher Lord: The Edwin Drood Murders

Full of fun, over-the-top characters and witty prose, with a touch of gay romance
that is equally pleasing to straight readers. The Edwin Drood Murders is the perfect mystery
for edumted, intelligent readers.

- Rhys Bowen, New York Times bestselling author of The Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness mysteries

DAY ONE


Illustrations by Tina Granzo

Simon Alastair pushed away the barely touched breakfast that houseboy/chef Jude Hexam had laid before him. This morning he had several things on his mind. Food wasn’t one of them.

“Sorry you didn’t like it, dude,” Jude said.

“We have a no-dude rule here,” Simon told him matter-of-factly. “I’m old-fashioned that way.”

“No worries,” Jude said, a goofy grin spreading across his handsome face. In his three days on the job, Jude had used that expression frequently, Simon noticed; maybe he really was worry-free. As Simon reasoned, at twenty-two, with his looks and talent, Jude must assume that no worries would ever line that gorgeous face and brow. “What should I call you, then?” Jude asked.

“Simon will do,” he answered.

“Okay, boss,” Jude said. He removed the leek and Camembert frittata, whole-grain toast with artisan butter, and fruit cup. Jude could cook, Simon had to give him that. Jude put the plate on the kitchen island and began cleaning up the gas cooktop.

Simon shook himself out of his reverie. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Breakfast was fine. I’m preoccupied.” He looked at the open laptop in front of him, and then closed the lid.

“Reading more about your sexy man?” Jude asked.

“That pesky Mr. Quill,” said Simon, trying to smile and clear his head. “He’s been blogging about the conference for weeks. Good for publicity, bad for my nerves. I’m glad it’s finally starting, so Mr. Quill will stop guessing and can report whatever passes for reality—as he sees it.”

Simon looked at his watch; at the same time, he heard Zach’s car outside. He should go, but he wanted to talk to Zach. And he wanted to be alone with him when he did it.

“Jude, would you please start the laundry?”

Jude washed his hands and dried them on his kitchen towel. “Sure,” he said. He left the kitchen.

Simon could hear Jude emptying the hamper and carrying the clothes to the upstairs utility room when Zach came through the back door of Gad’s Hill Place and into the kitchen.

Simon saw Zach’s beauty as if for the first time. Newly forty, Zach Benjamin was five foot eleven, 175 pounds, with jet hair beginning to gray at the temples, piercing blue eyes, and high, clean-shaven, olive cheekbones. Today, in addition to his black leather bomber jacket, Zach was wearing a maroon pullover sweater and brown narrow-wale corduroy slacks.

Zach kissed Simon, then poured himself some coffee and stood at the island. He casually began eating the remainder of Simon’s breakfast.

“You look like a college professor,” said Simon.

Zach finished a mouthful of frittata before answering. “I wanted to look academic for the Droodists.”

“Your press credentials aren’t enough?” said Simon. “You and Quilpy.”

Zach nodded his head in the direction of Simon’s computer. “I’m looking forward to meeting the little shit.”

“As Brock might say, he’s crushing on you,” said Simon.

Zach’s killer eyes sparked in Simon’s direction. “Jealous?”

Simon could tell that Zach was in a teasing mood, but Simon was not. “Maybe a little.”

Simon knew he had nothing to worry about. He and Zach had fallen into a satisfying and comfortable relationship for one so new. Zach had found an apartment in Astoria, but it was more or less an expensive place to stash the stuff he had accumulated throughout his itinerant career. He was on the road frequently for the monthly travel feature he wrote for Household Words, the J unction’s weekly paper, but most nights he was at Simon’s. Simon liked it that way.

“Well, you needn’t be jealous of a cocky young blogger,” Zach said, echoing Simon’s thoughts. He stepped away from the island, reached over, and traced a delicate fingertip along Simon’s brow, as if trying to erase the wrinkles there. “You look troubled.”

“Maybe I should Botox,” said Simon.

“Not for you,” Zach said. “Besides, I want your face to show excitement when I enter the room.”

Miss Tox, Simon’s tortie Devon rex, crossed the kitchen floor and rested on the heat register nearest Simon’s legs. As a diversion, Simon picked her up and put her on his lap. She kneaded his khaki slacks in a desultory fashion, then curled up and tucked her head underneath her paws.

He took a breath. He wasn’t quite ready for what he wanted to say.

“I’ve been thinking about Brock and Bethany,” he said instead. “What if I paid for the entire wedding?”

Brock Spurlock, Simon’s assistant at the bookstore, was getting married in July to Simon’s former housekeeper, Bethany Cruse. Brock had agreed to stay on at the bookstore until June, but Bethany had quit earlier, to start putting their new life together. Her departure had led to Jude Hexam’s hiring.

Zach moved back to the island and lowered his coffee mug. His eyes were distracting Simon from his purpose at one level, and driving him toward it at another. “Think about it, Simon. How would you describe them?”

“They’re young and in love and they’ll have beautiful children.”

Zach finished the frittata and put the plate in the dishwasher. “And independent, strong-headed, and fiercely proud. They want to do this for themselves, on their terms. You can’t come in and take that away from them by paying.”

“It would be so easy for me,” said Simon.

“But not easy for them.” Zach sat at the nook table and took Simon’s hand. “They don’t want things to come easily, Simon. They want the world on their terms and through their own efforts—and sacrifices. And if good things don’t come, then they don’t. That’s how most young people feel these days.”

“And I am no longer young, which is why I’m not getting your point?”

“Not young in their eyes,” Zach said. “Money is too easy for you. You don’t ever have to worry about it.” Although Simon didn’t live lavishly and worked as the owner of Pip’s Pages, he had never had to earn any money, only responsibly manage the estate he inherited from his grandparents.

“Then what?” Simon asked. This topic, which he had brought up to avoid the other one, suddenly wasn’t making him feel good, either.

“Here’s a thought,” Zach said. “Offer to match their savings when they get ready to buy a house, subject to some maximum amount. That way you can give them a boost, but allow them to reach their own goals, which will make them value them all the more.”

Simon wrote a number on a piece of scratch paper and pushed it to Zach.

“Whoa,” Zach said. “That’s quite a match.”

“It will give them something to work toward. Isn’t that what you suggested?”

“It is.” Zach laughed. “I think it will be a proper motivator for them both to take second—maybe third—jobs to earn their half. ”

Simon took a breath. “While we’re on the subject of living accommodations”—he continued gazing into Zach’s eyes—“move in with me. It’s time.”

“Whoa again.” Zach gently pushed himself away from Simon and sat back in his chair.

“It’s what I want,” said Simon, “for both of us. After all, it doesn’t cost me any less or any more for you to be here.”

“Food,” Zach said.

“We can split that. Everything else I already pay for whether you’re here or not, so why not be here? That way you can save some money for whatever you want.”

“Is this about money?” Zach asked.

“Not at all. But I’ve been worried you would think it was.”

Zach leaned forward. “Well, maybe, it’s about money—and the fact that I don’t have much—but it’s really about commitment, isn’t it?”

Simon could feel his body tense. He willed it away. “I want commitment. I’m tired of being by myself. I want to be in a relationship and all of the messiness that goes with it.”

“Including kids?”

Now Simon pushed himself back. “You want children?”

“I don’t know,” Zach said. His face was relaxed, alert, and still gorgeous. “I’ve never gotten far enough in a relationship to have that discussion.” He scratched his chin. “But...Yes. I want children around the house, like my sisters. Shrieking and crying and laughing. Laughing.”

Simon had never imagined the patter of any feet on the floor of Gad’s Hill Place, except those of Miss Tox.

Simon started calculating. If they had a child, Simon would be more than sixty-five when he, or she, graduated from high school. Would Simon’s tired old bones make it up the gymnasium bleachers to cheer her, or him, or them—them?—on? Diapers, and driving, and dating—oh, my.

“I’ll have to think about that.” Simon didn’t want to appear negative, but he needed time to process this more complex vision of a life with Zach than he had previously drawn in his mind. “I’ll have to think.”

“You know I love you,” Zach said. They had first used that word with one another about a month ago, during a long weekend in Ashland, while Zach was collecting material for a Household Words article about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “But I’ve never lived with another man—I mean, not like this. I’ve shacked up a lot—” He paused. “Let me rephrase that—I’ve shacked up, but never the full boat that you’re offering. So I’ve got to think about things like money...freedom...partnership. I’ve been on my own my whole life; at least you’ve been in other long-term relationships.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m any better at them than you are,” said Simon. “My two long-term relationships both left me. So I’m not perfect.”

Zach cuffed Simon’s ear, gently. “Not even close, mister.” He tried to give Simon a gentle kiss, but Simon pulled back.

“So you’re saying no?” That wasn’t quite the answer Simon had expected, not the payoff he had hoped for from the risk.

“I’m saying...not yet.” Zach stood and moved toward the door. He picked up his laptop case and slung the strap over his shoulder. “I’ll give you my answer when the conference is over. In the meantime, we’ve both got work to do.” He turned and put his hand on the doorknob.

Simon remained in place, his knees rigid. He was trying to control his words, his temper, the pain surging toward his throat. “This isn’t going the way I wanted.”

Still holding the door, Zach turned back to face him, his eyes like lasers. “Not everything does, Simon.”

Jude took this inopportune moment to return to the kitchen, whistling a tune. “How is number fourteen today?” he asked, referring to Zach’s ranking in a very popular magazine’s list of the fifty sexiest journalists. Zach’s newfound notoriety was one of the more interesting byproducts of his article about the murders Simon had solved during the Junction’s Christmas Carol festivities. The Huffington Post had picked up the article, it had gone viral, and Zach was now a poster boy for the Cougar Beat crowd.

Simon felt gentle anger give way to defeat, with maybe a hint of sadness.

“See you at the hotel,” Zach said to Simon, without even a smile for Jude, and then was gone.