It was a Sunday morning in Chelsea. Sometime during the night, in an upstairs bedroom window overlooking West 24th Street, a plump yellow tabby cat named Mr. Bojangles opened a slit between the curtains so it could peer outside. A feral calico perched on the steps each night to look up at the much more privileged cat sitting behind the window.
Now, both cats were gone from their evening perches. A tiny bolt of sunlight had found its way through the opening between the curtains, causing the person asleep in the nearby bed to wake.
The scent of black coffee lingered in the brownstone. It meant Jackie Mezzo was awake too. Colette Birzhan slept in on Sundays, especially if she and Jackie had spent all night in the East Village. If Jackie had a show, they sometimes ended up in Hell’s Kitchen.
Last night had been different—a girls’ night at home with microwave popcorn and a bottle of red wine. Maybe two bottles. Jackie had already cleared the evidence off the coffee table. Movie night was a tradition they held themselves to at least once a month.
Last night, it was the latest Jason Momoa movie. Jackie and Colette were both obsessed with the Hawaiian hunk. Colette had a weakness for brown-skinned men with tattoos and long hair. For Jackie, it was the eyes, the hair, the arms, the butt, and the muscles. Jackie wasn’t too picky with men.
From the bed, Colette rolled over to check her cell phone. No missed calls. No missed texts. It was only 8 a.m. She pulled herself from the oasis of sheets and blankets, put on some socks, and followed the aroma of fresh java to the kitchen.
“Morning! I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” Jackie asked, sitting at the table in front of her laptop.
“No, but what are you doing up?” It was a rhetorical question. Jackie was always the first one up.
“It was an early night. I slept like a baby. You?”
“Me too. The wine helped.”
“Always does,” Jackie said, grasping her favorite hot pink “Tits Up” coffee mug in both hands. She held it up in front of her mouth to inhale the earthy aroma. “Creamer’s in the fridge.”
Jackie was picky when it came to coffee: Strong. Black. Freshly ground. No cream. No sugar. Colette, on the other hand, added enough sweetener and flavored creamer that Jackie joked and said she had turned it into hot cocoa.
“What time was it when we went to bed?”
“Just after midnight, I think.”
If they’d gone out instead, it would have been 3 or 4 a.m. before they got home.
Colette poured and flavored her coffee. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been awake before noon on a Sunday.
“We should do brunch today,” she said.
“Oh, sweetie, I always do brunch. You should join me.”
Jackie rarely missed eggs benedict and endless mimosas at The Elmo if she wasn’t working. Sometimes she performed in the drag brunch show at Lips.
“What’s that?” Colette asked, nodding at Jackie’s laptop screen.
“Just reading this morning’s Dispatch.”
The Post-Dispatch was the largest St. Louis daily newspaper in circulation. Jackie had grown up in St. Louis. She was Paxton Carter back then. Those closest to him at the time called him Pax. Jackie still was Paxton Carter—legally, anyway—but everyone in New York referred to him strictly by his stage persona. It didn’t matter if he was in or out of drag; he would always be Jackie. He wasn’t hung up on pronouns and accepted he, his, she, or her when not dolled up. But in drag, Jackie was always a lady.
She called herself Jackie Thunderpussy in the beginning. Colette had quickly persuaded her to go with a less offensive last name, so she became Jackie Mezzo, a musical term that meant medium or moderately when it came to sound.
Jackie had always been more of a Forté—strong and loud—but Mezzo had a nice ring to it. She asked emcees to introduce her as the Moderate Jackie Mezzo for a bit, a nod to Thoroughly Modern Milly, one of Jackie’s favorite old films. It starred a trio of drag icons—Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Jackie impersonated Channing on stage for a while. She could imitate Carol’s voice perfectly.
Mezzo was also an homage to Paxton’s high school band nerd days—some of the best days (and nights) in his teenage life—and the brief moment he was contemplating Juilliard. Pax played trumpet back then. He had wanted to play the oboe or piccolo, but according to his father, those were “fag instruments.”
“Gonna go blow your horn in the big city?” his father had teased when Pax informed his parents where he was going.
“Oh, I’m gonna blow something alright!”
Pax had left for New York the day after high school graduation. He’d never returned to the Midwest—not once—but keeping up with the local headlines via his online newspaper subscription was a weekly ritual, even now, twenty years later. He often joked about choosing to read the obituaries first, but Colette knew from experience that he longed for a connection to home.
Jackie and Colette had met in Saks while Colette was still at NYU. Jackie worked the cosmetics counter, and she tutored Colette with her make-up. They’d been best friends ever since. They shared a crowded apartment in Queens until Colette landed her position at the Tribune and decided to buy the townhouse in Chelsea for them.
“Can we afford this?” Jackie had asked.
“We?” Colette joked.
“Honey, I’m good at what I do, but Mama’s gonna have to start working the corners again to help pay for this place. Besides, I’ve never been a Chelsea girl.”
“You were never a Queens girl either.”
“No, but I am a queen.”
“Touché!” Colette had always loved Jackie’s sense of humor.
“And I’m a lady,” Jackie purred.
Colette had made quite a name for herself as a journalist. First, at the Village Voice, now the New York City Tribune. She was the lead investigative journalist, and her editor let her have her pick when it came to stories she wanted to chase. She’d had a list of dreams since day one in the city. It included being a big-time New York journalist. Owning a brownstone in Chelsea was also on her list.
“Any good stories this morning?” Colette said, peeking at Jackie’s screen.
“You really want to know?”
“Sure, hit me!”
“A few dead sex workers have been found near the Mississippi River in Greenway City.”
“Male or female?”
“Male. Barrett Newbern thinks it could be a serial killer.”
“Is he the reporter who went to your high school?”
“That’s the one. He played trombone in the band. Huge cock! He’s calling him the Greenway City Killer.”
“That’s a weird name for his cock.”
“Not even one cup of coffee, and now you’re the comedian?”
“Sorry. I couldn’t resist. It does seem early to be giving a killer a nickname.”
“Local press always does.”
“It’s not very helpful. If a killer keeps going, a nickname just adds to their mythology. Where’s Greenway City anyway?” Colette said, leaning over Jackie’s shoulder to read the article.
“Northside of downtown. Lots of crime there. Poverty. The people who live there are mostly African American.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. The victims are all white.”
“Could be drugs.”
“It’s odd that the paper points out they were sex workers.”
“Maybe they owed someone money.”
“Ain’t no white boys working the streets in Greenway City,” Jackie said, shaking her head.
“You did, didn’t you? Greenway City probably went downhill after you left,” Colette teased.
“No, ma’am. You know I was a Ladue girl. Ms. Jackie gotta get paid!”
Paxton had come from money. His parents still lived in the prominent St. Louis neighborhood. They were also devout Catholics, so Pax stayed in the closet until near the end of his senior year.
He never spoke to them, but birthday, Easter, and Christmas cards signed “Love, Mom and Dad” were an annual staple reminding him they were still there. Jackie pretended not to be phased by the cards when they arrived in the mail, but she still kept them. Colette had given up long ago on encouraging Jackie to call or write back.
After glancing over the article, Colette sat down across from Jackie. Her mug of coffee sat in front of her, untouched. Her eyes were blank. She was deep in thought, doing what she did best: unraveling a crime. Jackie looked at her and could see the wheels turning.
“Drink your juice, Shelby,” Jackie said, snapping a finger and doing her best Sally Field impression.
“Wha—sorry!” Colette said, shaking her head and lifting her mug to take a sip.
“I know what you’re doing. You don’t want this one.”
“C’mon! It’s the Midwest.”
“This could be the next Gacy. Or Berkowitz!”
“Nah, it’s probably what you said. Drugs or gangs or something,” Jackie said, backtracking to Colette’s immediate intuitions and hoping to change her mind.
But Jackie already knew that Colette’s foresight was better than that. Her intuition was undeniable, and trying to change her mind was a lost cause. Jackie let out a dramatic sigh and started typing.
“What are you looking up now?” Colette asked.
“Flights to St. Louis.”
“How do you know I’m going?”
“Look me in the face and tell me you don’t want to go.”
Colette’s eyes met Jackie’s, but she did not say anything. Instead, she sipped her coffee and waited.
“There’s a red eye tonight,” Jackie said.
“Book it for me.”
“I already did.”