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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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“How did you feel about that?” I probed. “Were you mad when you went to see him?”

He ran his fingers through the flood of his hair in a forlorn gesture and said, “No, I was afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“I didn’t want to lose him,” he said, helplessly.

“So you went to the courthouse to see him,” I said. “What time?”

“As soon as I got off work, around eleven.”

“Which courthouse?” I asked, testing his story.

“The big white one,” he said, correctly. “I guess it’s on First Street. You go down into the garage on Olive. That’s where I parked, underneath.”

“Why did you park there?”

He looked suspiciously at me, as if I’d asked a trick question. “That’s where I always park when I go see Chris.”

“How often have you been at the courthouse?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. I have lunch with him sometimes. He likes that restaurant with the earthquake design in it. What’s it called, the Epicenter?”

I had also eaten lunch with Chris there. It was, inexplicably, a favorite place of his, and the fact that Zack knew this began to make it plausible to me that he was a part of Chris’s life.

“What happened after you parked in the garage?”

“I went inside.”

“How?”

“There’s a door from the garage that goes inside the courthouse.”

“The door was unlocked at eleven o’clock at night?”

“I guess there were people still working there,” he said. “Like Chris.”

“Did you see anyone? Did anyone see you?”

He shook his head. “No. Chris said there’re guards at night, but if anyone stopped me, to tell them I was going to see him, but I didn’t see any guards.”

“What did you do once you were inside the courthouse?”

“There’re some stairs that go up to the big lobby where the elevators are, and from there I took the elevator to the fifth floor where Chris was.”

The details were all right so far. “Okay, then what? Describe to me how you got to Chris.”

“There’s that door, not the one to the courtroom, but the one next to it, the one that goes to Chris’s office? He said he would leave it open for me. I went in and then I was in the hallway with all the bookshelves. I walked down the hall to Chris’s office and the—” his voice began to break “—the door was closed.”

And then I felt it too, the thud of grief dropping like a stone on my chest, and it all became very real. My own voice shook a little when I said, “Go on, Zack.”

“I can’t,” he said, weeping openly.

“Go on,” I repeated. “Please.”

He took a sharp breath. “I knocked on the door.”

“You knocked?”

“I didn’t just want to bust in on him,” he said, almost angrily. “I knocked a couple of times, but he didn’t say anything, so I go, ‘Chris, it’s Zack.’ I waited but he still didn’t say anything, so I opened the door and I went in and he was—he was on the floor, on his stomach. And it looked like the whole side of his head was just flat.” He raised a hand to the right side of his head. “And there was blood everywhere and this thing was still buried in his head.”

“What thing, Zack?”

He was not crying now, but remembering, his face expressionless, his eyes distant. “This thing,” he repeated. “Like a marble pyramid, but small, like this.” He held his hands about eight inches apart. “Just buried in his head. That was the worst part. I took it out. I turned him over. There were bubbles in the corner of his mouth, blood bubbles. I thought he was still alive, because they were popping, but he was dead.”

The way he described it I could feel the fog of murder in the air. I asked, “What did you do then?”

“I wiped his mouth with my shirt,” he said, “and then I got out of there.”

“How? The elevator?”

He shook his head slowly, as if reluctant to leave the remembered room. “The stairs,” he said, after a moment. “There’re stairs that go all the way to the garage. The elevator stops in the lobby. I was afraid if I got off someone would see me.”

“Why were you afraid that someone might see you?” I asked him. “Why didn’t you go for help?”

“Chris was dead,” he said. “I had his blood on my shirt, my hands. I was afraid they might think I’d hurt him.”

As gently as I could, I asked, “And did you, Zack? Did you hurt Chris? You can tell me the truth.”

His face was so raw with feeling it was hard to look at. I would not have been surprised if he’d shrieked or broken down sobbing again, but all he said was, “No. No.”

“Why did you come to me, Zack?”

“I had to tell someone,” he said. “Chris talked about you. He said you were his only gay friend.”

“Chris never mentioned you to me.”

“He was going to tell everyone,” he said. “That’s what he told me when he left his wife. He said he couldn’t live with secrets anymore.”

That was another surprise. After all these years? But then what about his career? Or was this just something he’d told Zack to keep his new lover happy…?

“But it’s strange he would keep you a secret from me,” I said.

“You think I killed him,” he said.

“I don’t know what to think. I’m having trouble taking this in.”

A low humming started up in the kitchen, the power coming back on.

“I’m going to make some proper coffee,” I said, picking up the cups. “When I get back, we’ll decide what to do. All right?”

He sagged with relief.

The kitchen was a mess and it took me a moment to remember why. The quake seemed like something that had happened a long time ago. Then I thought of Josh and automatically picked up the phone, but the line was still dead.

“Who are you calling?” Zack was standing in the doorway.

“I was checking the line,” I said. “It’s still dead.”

“You were calling the police,” he said, accusingly.

“No, I wanted to call my friend, Josh, to see if he’s okay after the quake. He has AIDS,” I continued, wanting to talk away the tension between us. “I’m worried about him.”

“I have to go now,” Zack said.

“I wasn’t calling the police, Zack.”

He spun on his heel and was out of the house before I knew what was happening. I ran after him, but by the time I got to the street, he was speeding off in an old wreck of a car. The license plate was too grimed to make out a number. I watched him round the curve and plunge down the hill.

“Damn,” I said.

This was my dilemma: I knew that Chris lay dead in his chambers where, given the fact that the quake had shut the city down, he might not be discovered for several days. If I told the police, they would go after Zack Bowen. Zack Bowen may have killed Chris, but I was not prepared to deliver him into the hands of the LAPD. This was, in part, the knee-jerk reaction of someone who’d spent his professional life defending people from the police; I didn’t trust cops and, with rare exception, I didn’t like them. I knew it was a tough job being a cop and I wouldn’t want it, but they gave as good as they got and most of the time got away with it. Then there was the matter of professional ethics. Even if I decided I couldn’t defend Zack, my job was to refer him to someone who could, not have him arrested. I would’ve felt that way even if I was certain he had killed Chris, and I wasn’t. Then there was my personal interest. Zack Bowen had come to me with a story that implicated my own past and I wanted to hear the rest of it before I drew any conclusions about his guilt or innocence.

So I thought about it for a while, and by the time the phones came up later that morning, I’d made up my mind. I called a high-ranking and deeply closeted police captain whom I’d known for several years through a mutual cop friend in San Francisco. Captain Closet and I had even had a half-hearted sort of affair after Josh and I had broken up, testing, unsuccessfully, the theory that opposites attract.

I reached him on the first try and gave him a bare-bones and relatively truthful account of Zack’s visit, without using Zack’s name.

When I finished, Captain Closet said, “Let me understand, Henry. Some guy you’ve never seen before shows up at your house and claims that Judge Chandler was murdered last night in his chambers, then disappears.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And he doesn’t give you his name and you have no idea of who he is.”

“That’s right.”

“This is total bullshit,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said, “but don’t you think you should follow it up in the event that it isn’t?”

“Don’t leave your house until I call you back,” he said.

An hour later, he did, and confirmed that there was a body in Chris Chandler’s judicial chambers.

“Is it Chris?”

“His wife’s coming down to identify the body,” Captain Closet said. “What’s going on here, Henry? Why did you call me instead of going through regular channels?”

“Judge Chandler was gay,” I said. “Not too many knew that. I figured you’d understand.”

I heard him breathing softly at the other end of the line. “You think you can feed me this line about a stranger dropping in to tell you someone’s murdered a Superior Court judge, I won’t give you a hard time because you know about me, is that it, Henry? Blackmail?”

“No,” I said, though he was exactly right. I improvised. “What I’m doing is passing along as much information as I can without waiving the attorney-client privilege, because Chris Chandler was a friend of mine and I didn’t want the janitor to find his body a week from now.”

“Some friend,” he said, with heavy cop-irony. “You’re gonna defend the guy who killed him.”

I said, “I can’t tell you anything else without getting into privileged information.”

“You’re in a shitty racket, Henry.”

“Like you’re not,” I replied, and having made the points we always made against each other, we hung up.

Then it hit me: Chris really was dead.

4

I
WAS BACK IN LAW
school, standing there in that tiny apartment. The ring glinted on Chris’s finger. I felt confused and betrayed and it made me brutal.

“Does your fiancée know you’re a fag?” I asked him.

His pale eyes flashed anger, but all he said was, “Do you think that’s any of your business?”

We were no longer two innocents on the open road, but a couple of naked and hostile strangers. I groped around the mattress for my clothes, pulled on my jeans and said, “Thanks for whatever.”

He felt the change, too, and drew the sheet to his waist. “Don’t go like this,” he said, quietly.

“Like what?” I said, tying my shoelace, my back turned to him.

I felt his hand on my shoulder. “You know what I mean, Henry. Like some hysterical, wounded…Let’s not act like all the rest of them.”

I shrugged his hand off. “You mean like all the other queers,” I said. “Well, this may be a phase for you, but not for me.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t gay,” he said. He sighed, almost inaudibly. “I should’ve stopped going to bars after I asked Bay to marry me. I knew it was a mistake.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, standing up and looking at him.

“I thought I could handle going to a bar or a bathhouse now and then, just to get some relief, but I knew that sooner or later I’d meet someone like you.”

“Oh, now you think I’m going to blackmail you.”

“Would you just stop,” he said angrily. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what?”

“Someone—some guy—I could imagine being with.”

I stood there with my shirt in my hand. “I don’t understand, Chris.”

“Come back to bed,” he said, “and I’ll explain it to you.”

He threw back the sheet. There was a spray of freckles across his chest, and when he moved, the morning light caught the flicker of muscle beneath pale skin. I dropped the shirt, kicked off my shoes and tugged out of my pants, and got into bed beside him. His body was warm and hard.

“Explanations can wait,” I said. I was twenty-two. Flesh still had that power over me.

“Do you love her?” I asked him later.

He tucked a pillow under his head and said, “I’ve spent most of my life trying not to be in love with anyone because I was afraid it would be the wrong kind of love.”

“What’s the wrong kind of love? This?”

“It’s so easy when you both want the same thing, isn’t it,” he said, touching my hair. “I want this, but there are things I want, too. A family, a career, to make a difference in the world. Those things aren’t possible between two guys.”

“You don’t know that.”

“How many happy couples did you see at the bar last night?”

“About as many as you’d see at a straight singles bar,” I said, a little heatedly. “That’s not what those places are for.”

“There aren’t any other places for us,” he said. “That’s not the life I want.”

I turned to him. “We can create a different kind of life. We can make new places.”

A faint, indulgent smile creased his lips. “You do those things, Henry. I think you can. But it’s not for me.”

“Why?”

“Listen, I’ll tell you, but don’t get mad, okay?”

“I’m listening.”

“This,” he said, squeezing my thigh, “this is about sex. I’m not knocking sex, it’s great, but that’s all it is, Henry. I can’t organize my life around it. It’s a kind of self-indulgence. You said you wouldn’t get mad.”

“I did not.” I was mad, but I couldn’t stay mad because I’d had this same conversation with myself. “How can you marry a woman if you’re not being honest with her about who you are?”

“It depends on what you mean by honest,” he said. “Should I tell her about the other girls I’ve had sex with? What would be the purpose of that? It’s the same principle with the guys I’ve been with.”

“You’ve gone out with other women?”

“Haven’t you dated women?”

“No,” I said. “It seemed dishonest. The way I define it, anyway.”

“I guess I don’t have your high standards,” he said coolly. “I was president of my fraternity at college and there was a lot of pressure to date. I did what I had to.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Come off it,” he said, annoyed. “I went to a little college in the middle of Iowa. There was no way I was gonna come out.”

“I had you pegged as an Ivy Leaguer.”

“My family broke up when I was ten and it was just me and my mom. I was lucky to be able to afford any kind of college. I’m a scholarship student here, Henry, just like you.”

BOOK: The Death of Friends
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