The Jockstrap Murder

an excerpt



One

Fashionable restaurants have long been a refuge for those who can afford to be fleeced for faux French cuisine and the privilege of seeing and being seen. These establishments, especially in New York, rise and fall with the consistency of madam's hemline. The current favorite, located on the Upper East Side a few steps off Madison Avenue, contained more seers than sights on this sweltering July afternoon.

Among those who had not fled to the Hamptons, Martha's Vineyard or Watch Hill, was Amanda Richards, self-proclaimed First Lady of the Theater. After perusing her menu, Amanda removed her glasses and rested her chin on the hand that held the black frames; it was a pose favored by the actress and could be seen on the playbill of her last hit, Oh, Promise Me. Her brown hair, parted on the left, fell in a cascade of soft waves to her shoulders. Her lips, unpainted and sensuous, smiled at her luncheon partner, Senator Sten Osgood Samuels.

Amanda was known for her liberal politics and the senator, an arch conservative, was known as a man who stood for family values and little else. But the politico was fortyish, good looking in a rugged, Midwest fashion and a widower, therefore possessing all the qualities Amanda demanded of a lover, should such an alliance follow this, their first date. If pressed on the subject, Amanda would light a cigarette, blow a stream of smoke into the air and coo, "But love, there's no such thing as a naked conservative and where it matters all men are not created equal."

Even on a slow day a Broadway leading lady and a Washington senator were scant competition for this afternoon's centerpiece, Jack Montgomery, the enfant terrible of the pro tennis circuit. The six-foot-two jock with the clean cut blond looks of Prince Charming and the temper of a spoiled two-year old was, to his delight, garnering all the attention of the star gazers. Having decided that he was more appealing in the flesh than he appeared on television, his loyal fans turned their attention to guessing who would occupy the empty chair opposite the tennis pro.

Would it be the titled lady who had rooted for Jack at Wimbledon and then tried to engage him in a private match that required balls but no net? The Hollywood producer who had offered Jack a million bucks for a five minute cameo role in the film version of last year's best-selling novel? Or would it be the CEO of the company that manufactured the tennis rackets Jack Montgomery endorsed and often flung to the ground before an audience of millions when it, not the player, failed to ace an opponent's volley?

The polite buzz along the banquettes rose by an octave when a smiling captain led Mike Gavin, the celebrity syndicated columnist, into the refrigerated room and to the chair in question.

"You're late," Jack said by way of greeting, but his boyish grin belied the rebuke.

"The town is gridlocked," Mike answered, sitting.

"From Sixty-Sixth Street? You could have walked."

"I did," Mike said.

"Cute, Gavin, cute."

"A Campari and soda, Alain." Mike addressed the captain who was still hovering about, pretending not to be listening. "And more of the same for Mr. Montgomery, whatever it may be."

"Carrot juice," Jack stated.

Mike winced. "I'd rather die young of cirrhosis."

"It's too late, Mike."

"It's never too late to die of cirrhosis," Mike countered.

"Too late to die young."

"Really? I don't think thirty - thirtyish, is so old."

"From where you're sitting you can touch forty."

"From where I'm sitting I can see Amanda Richards having lunch with Sten Samuels and that's more frightening than middle-age or cirrhosis."

The captain arrived with their drinks and looked down at them like an anxious nanny. "We'll call you when we're ready," Mike said, and Alain once again made a leisurely retreat.

"Here's to Wimbledon" Jack said, raising his glass.

"You lost, remember?"

"I was toasting the venue of our meeting."

To be precise, Mike and Jack had met, casually, in New York. It was at a fundraiser for Sun an' Surf, a charity that sent pre-teen boys from the proverbial sidewalks of New York to summer camp. Mike had plugged the affair as a favor to his friend, Commissioner Andrew Brandt of the NYPD who was the charity's main sponsor. Jack Montgomery was the keynote speaker and drawing card.

When Brandt introduced them, the columnist and the tennis pro held their firm handshake and mutual gaze perhaps a moment too long - or just long enough to establish them as members of the same fraternity. How? Some called it gaydar. Mike called it a hell of a lot of fun.

Mike flew to London for the matches on something of a busman's holiday and renewed the acquaintance, allowing him to report on the event more as an insider than an observer. Mike's daily dispatches won a wide audience and accolades from his colleagues, including seasoned sports writers. Romance wasn't on the agenda but who, Mike admitted as he succumbed, could resist the charms of Jack Montgomery? What Mike hadn't counted on was the affair continuing on this side of the Atlantic. Underestimating Jack's charms and overrating his resistance had conspired to allow Jack to move into Mike's East Sixty-Sixth Street co-op.

The spacious one bedroom flat in a landmark New York dwelling was Mike's sanctuary. The place where he could turn off his cell phone, unplug his land line, open a bottle of whatever appealed at the moment, put a Chris Conner ballad on the machine (retro chic vinyl only) and retreat from a world he found more venomous in its taking than it was generous in its giving. Why had he allowed this brash young man to cross the moat? Because the brashness was nothing more than a cover for Jack Montgomery's insecurity. An insecurity that came off as pompous in public and turned him into a lamb in the bedroom. In the most competitive of professions, Jack had made it to the top. He was a survivor and Mike liked that. Mike also liked tempering the anger and cradling the vulnerability. Never one to skirt an issue, Mike enjoyed having one of the most desirable jocks in the country at his beck and call and in his bed. Mike Gavin, defender of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was not above the sin of pride.

"Wimbledon was fun," Mike conceded.

"Fun? Is that all you can say? Shit, Gavin, I gave up a princess for you."

"Her mother is a princess, Jack. Her father was a commoner, making her a Lady with a capital L."

"If she's a Lady, I'm the Prince of Wales."

"It's rumored that the Lady is going to be in New York next weekend."

"Too bad we'll be in Washington."

"The only place hotter than New York in July is Washington," Mike protested.

"Be a sport, Mike. AIDS research benefits from the matches and we're top heavy with celebrities opposite pros. Mike Gavin will lend the event prestige."

Mike shrugged. "Which means box office sales are slow, as they say in the trade."

"Which means everyone's in the Hamptons but they'll come out of the woodwork if they know Mike Gavin will be there, plugging them in print. We can take the Metro down instead of flying. Three relaxing hours in the club car and I've been invited - Mike, are you listening?"

"With you shouting, it's hard not to."

"Then why aren't you looking at me?"

"Sorry," Mike said. "I'm still not over the shock of seeing Amanda breaking bread with Captain America."

Jack turned to look at the couple who were seated on the opposite side of the room and now being served their lunch. "Where did he get a name like Sten?" Jack wondered aloud as their waiter withdrew, allowing Amanda to see them staring and respond with a discreet wave and smile. The senator acknowledged the two men with a patronizing nod.

Mike returned the greeting with a slight bow of his head aimed purposely at Amanda. "I guess he was named after the British assault weapon," was Mike's answer. "I know for a fact he gets more money from the National Rifle Association than any senator on the hill. But what's he doing with Amanda Richards? The guy is a con artist and poor Amanda, especially if she's smitten, won't know she's been had until she reads about it in my column."

"Mandy looks gorgeous," Jack said. Wearing a black Chanel suit and white silk blouse, with a hint of blush on her prominent cheek bones and a gold barrette in her hair, Amanda Richards would have to try very hard not to look gorgeous and she'd still fail.

'If she heard you call her Mandy," Mike cautioned, "she would remove a piece of your anatomy and as a result you would be able to compete in the women's finals at Forest Hills next week."

"Speaking of tennis…" Jack tried again but was interrupted by Alain who approached their table and began, with determination, to recite the day's specials. His captive audience listened politely and then ordered their lunch without consulting the menu, a sign of their regular patronage.

"I'll be there," Mike announced, picking up his glass and sipping the last of his Campari.

The win was too easy. Jack had learned to beware opponents who looked painfully beatable because looks can be painfully deceiving. He immediately went on the offensive. "You were going to come all along but like watching me beg."

The accusation wasn't entirely untrue but Mike answered with a more concrete reason for his decision to brave Washington in July. "I had no intention of coming until I got a call from the White House. The Vice President invited me to dinner Saturday night."

"He invited all of us to dinner," Jack boasted.

"All? Us? What are you talking about?"

"Look Mike," Jack began, "don't blow your top and remember it's for a worthy cause."

"Can the rhetoric, Montgomery, and spit it out."

"I signed you up as my opponent in the opening match."

Mike stared at his tablemate as if looking for signs of insanity in the brilliant blue eyes. "You're kidding?" It was more a plea than a question.

Jack shook his head as he inched his chair away from the table as if preparing to flee should violence erupt but all Mike could manage was, "Jesus H. Christ, Montgomery!"

Mike Gavin, like most Homo sapiens, had often speculated as to what he would do if he were cast in the role of Faust. Anything he wanted, no restrictions in the fine print, in return for selling his soul to the guy with the horns, tail and basket full of goodies. The fact that he never came up with anything worth the forfeit was a testimony to his charmed life.

A crown of golden brown hair that showed no signs of abdicating, a classically handsome face and square jaw that bespoke honesty and forbearance had helped Mike earn a good living as a male model that paid his way through the Columbia School of Journalism. A good inch over six feet, lean and trim, he was still the perfect mold for a size forty-long suit of clothes. His green eyes had once looked upon the world with affection but years of reporting on the foibles and fancies of modern man had seasoned the sublime with a dash of amusement and a good dose of cynicism.

He began his career as a cub reporter for the Morning News in the crime division, chasing ambulances, police cars and fire engines. When the paper's society editor dropped dead from too many martini lunches, Mike got the job because no one else wanted it. The 'society' Mike touted could be found in the pages of the Social Register, Who's Who and telephone directories in every city, town and village of the U.S of A.

In a year, Mike Gavin's New York column was the pride of the Morning News and read in kitchens, subways, board rooms and the Oval Office. He was loved, hated, feared and respected, everything a working journalist should be. When the column went into syndication, Mike's income soared. He rejected television offers, mostly as anchor on news shows, because he believed television news was more entertaining than informative, upholding the political beliefs of the sponsor rather than the constitution of the United States.

So, how could Mephistopheles tempt Mike Gavin? Under a cloudless sky, a relentless sun and before a thousand mortals in the flesh and countless others in front of television screens, Mike would gladly barter his soul in return for beating the bejesus out of Jack Montgomery on the tennis court.