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I'm really happy with the new story- I don't know where it's going yet, I haven't heard back from the publisher, but I wanted to share the first chapter with you! Very happy new year to you all. Hey, I made a cameo appearance in this as the nurse practitioner!


Sarah Black


Leon knew he was dreaming when Charlie sat down on the side of his bed, but he was so happy to see him he reached out and held on to his knee. “Charlie! Don’t go.”

Charlie was wearing a tee shirt that said Dharma Queen, and he leaned forward, kissed Leon lightly on the forehead. “Silly boy. Where would I go? You’ve got me locked up in your heart.” His voice was lightly mocking. “I’m a prisoner of love.”

“I miss you, Charlie.”

“Is that your excuse? You really must stop running, Leon. Have the courage to live the life you want to live.”

But I don’t know what that life is, Charlie. And he opened his eyes, awake in the darkness. Dharma Queen. A gay Buddhist angel. He grinned up at the ceiling. Charlie was picking up some cool tee shirts in heaven. 

He sat up on the side of the bed, looked out the window. It was early, the sky dull gray and heavy with clouds. He switched on the bedside lamp and stared at the two cardboard boxes that sat, unpacked, in the corner of the bedroom. He spent a moment trying to remember what was in them, but drew a blank. He was subletting his bedroom from a man he’d met through his freelance job at the Wilderness Coalition for Africa. Kelvin was gay and out, way out, nearly off the planet, and Leon had thought he could somehow hang onto his coattails a bit, let himself get dragged into the world.  

Kelvin took him to a few parties, showed him the bars and the cruising grounds, but Leon couldn’t stand the booze, the meth, the hysterical shrieks of forced gaiety from the men Kelvin played with. Leon thought they sounded like a flock of turkeys getting their feathers plucked. He started refusing invitations and hiding in his room, and Kelvin got offended, and pretty soon they managed to live in the apartment without ever seeing each other, or speaking. Leon felt like a ghost.

And he was getting ready to split. He could feel it coming, just like last time, the way he was withdrawing, the way he’d taken to carrying emergency cash and his passport and all his cameras in a backpack. He had come to DC for a three month freelance job, and he was getting definite signs they were happy with him, and wanted him to stay. He knew he should; he would be a fool to turn down the opportunity, but he couldn’t pass a bus stop without wanting to climb on and just ride, not open his eyes till they got to wherever they were going. And he didn’t know why, or how to stop it. It wasn’t the first time.

It was the Dharma Queen, he thought, then heard Charlie sniff with disapproval in his head. Don’t blame this mess on me, Leon. 

I didn’t say it was your fault. I said it had something to do with you.

Oh, please. Give me a break. Any half-baked psychology student could tell you you’re scared about what happened. You would think loving someone is a disease and you’ve put yourself in quarantine. Everything doesn’t end in disaster and death, silly boy.

Charlie, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Uh, huh


Leon got in line at the Starbucks in the lobby behind Maggie. He loved the way she dressed, some sort of Katherine Hepburn-Annie Hall hybrid of tweed pants and vests, with thick-soled boots in the winter, and heavy linen with oxfords in the summer. She turned around and gave him an up and down, her forehead creasing. “What’s the matter, Leon?”

“Nothing. Why?”

“You look like you didn’t sleep. Did you hear about Piers?”

“Piers is a prick. Whatever happened, I’m sure he deserved it. What, did he get arrested for being an asshole?”

Maggie winced. “Baby, you don’t want to say that too loud unless you want to put yourself on the suspect list. He’s dead. Killed while on assignment to the beautiful island of Zanzibar.”

“No way.”

She leaned closer, and he could hear the relish in her voice. “Run through with a Tuareg sword.” Maggie didn’t like Piers anymore than he did.

Leon stared at the young barista making espresso, thought about Piers. Well, he wasn’t happy he was dead, of course, but what he had said to Maggie was still true. Run through with a sword? Piers had a way of digging too deep, standing too close, looking over your shoulder to read whatever was in your hands. Leon sometimes felt like Piers had taken a sharp steel surgical tool, shoved it into his liver, took a little piece out and studied it. His stomach always ached when he spent too much time in his company. Piers knew he made people uncomfortable. Was he just being a good reporter, as he claimed? Leon didn’t think so. He thought Piers liked watching people try and squirm out of his fist when he squeezed tight.

“Double latte, right?” The line shifted impatiently behind him, and he realized he must have been standing there too long, not saying anything.

“Yeah, thanks.” He pulled a five out of his pocket and paid the cashier. Zanzibar? Run through with a Tuareg sword? He must have pissed somebody off. The Tuareg were armed, and they spoke with the steel in their fist. But they were further north, right? In the Sahara? He moved away to the serving counter, spoke to Maggie again. “So are they sending anyone? To finish his assignment? What was he working on?”

“They’ll probably send someone,” she said, looking at him curiously. “Leon, can I ask you something?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Why do you still dress like you’re in high school? You’re wearing jeans and a tee shirt from the Onion and a hoodie, for Christ’s sake, and you must know they’re thinking about offering you a job. You’ve got hair halfway down your back. Who wears their hair this long anymore? How old are you? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Why are you carrying a backpack around with you everywhere? A backpack, a hoodie, hair in a ponytail--you’re a little moodier than usual and people are going to start watching to see when you pop out of the men’s room with an automatic weapon.”

Leon felt his mouth drop open, and he reached for his latte without looking. “Wha…It’s cameras! There’re my cameras! I mean…”

She narrowed her eyes again. “You look like one of those guys who hops the freight trains out west. Who am I thinking of…?”

“Jack Kerouac. Cool. Well, too bad there’s not a freight train going through DC,  heading out west right now. I would hop it just to end this conversation. It’s like you’re channeling my mother.”

Maggie laughed, a big, rich laugh that had everyone in the Starbucks line looking over at them. “All I’m saying is a button down shirt wouldn’t kill you, and might even make you look a little bit more like a grown-up. Now drink your coffee and let’s get to work.”

Upstairs the photographer’s bullpen was buzzing like a beehive. Leon set the backpack down on his temporary desk. There were a couple of detectives in the editor’s office with Tim O’Brien, lean men who looked like they worked their stress out at the gym, not the bar. They had their shields tucked into the waistband of their dress slacks. One of them had an Ipad open on his knee.

Tim saw him through the window of his office, gestured for Leon to come inside. Leon resisted the urge to look behind him, hoping to see someone else being called into the boss’s office. At the door he hesitated, knocked gently on the doorframe. “Tim? Did you need me?”

“Leon, come on in.” He turned to the detectives. “Leon Davis, this is Detective Kramer and Detective Jones. You heard about Piers?”

“Just now, down in the lobby.”

One of the detectives stepped up, shook his hand, stared at him with a piercing look that seemed very familiar. “I’m Kramer. Mr. O’Brien here just told us you used to be a cop. LAPD.”

“Not for very long.”

The other cop looked up from his Ipad. “You the only one?”

“The only one what?”

“Who isn’t a cop. Looks like your entire family is LAPD.”

Tim pulled a chair around, and Leon sat down. “Yeah, well…It wasn’t for me.”

Leon felt his shoulders sink a bit. Basic cop deal, everybody knows who everybody is, and everybody gets put in their place.

Tim leaned against his desk. “The reason I told them about you being a cop is I’m thinking about sending you out there to Zanzibar to finish Pier’s assignment. But they,” he nodded toward Kramer and Jones, “they said they don’t want you getting involved in finding out what Piers was doing. I want to know if this is related to his work for the Wilderness Coalition.”

Kramer interrupted him. “That’s clearly the jurisdiction of the local cops in Zanzibar. It would be a blatant act to send your own people to investigate. The State Department is already involved, and they have a liaison at the Ministry of Justice in Tanzania. State’s responsible for making sure any Americans killed overseas have their death’s properly investigated. If you want to send another photographer, that’s fine.” Kramer gave him a frown. “As long as said photographer does not stick his nose into any international murder investigation, and just takes pictures of whatever that is. The panther.”

Tim sighed. “The leopard. The Zanzibar leopard.”

The detectives filed out of the office, both of them giving Leon a last, searching look. Leon noticed that Kramer gave a pained look at his long blond hair. Even in a ponytail, it marked him as ‘not a cop’. Leon sometimes wondered if that’s why he’d let it grow, so that no one would confuse him with a cop any longer. Tim waited till they were out of the office, then he closed the door. Leon leaned forward. “The Zanzibar leopard is extinct. What was Piers doing?”

“He was supposed to be doing a story on the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park. It’s a unique ecosystem, with a groundwater forest, saltwater marsh, and a coral rag forest. It’s a new conservation area, part of a joint Tanzania government and private coalition that’s supposed to be a model for conservation projects in Africa. A habitat protection model.”

“You said he was supposed to be? He wasn’t working for the CIA or something, was he?”

O’Brien shook his head. “I don’t know what he was doing. He was killed in Stone Town. That’s across the island from where he was supposed to be working. He used an encrypted email program and sent in some pictures via satellite direct from his camera. No story.” Tim reached for his keyboard, and the images filled the big computer screen on his desk. They were taken at night, and the leopard was angry, screaming, ears flat against her skull. It looked like she was up in a tree. The second image showed her turning away, and Leon leaned closer, studied the picture. “Was she feeding? Look how fat she is.” He sat back, thinking, and when he looked up, Tim was grinning at him. “Pregnant? No way.”

“We don’t want to screw up whatever the conservation people are doing up there in Jozani. But it looks to me like we’ve got a pregnant, rumored-to-be-extinct, Zanzibar leopard running around. I want you to go to Africa, find out what Piers was up to, and where he found the leopard. And get some pictures.”

“You don’t think he was killed because of this?” Leon gestured toward the pictures.

“Piers was an asshole. I wanted to run him through with a sword more than once myself. But nobody fucks with WCA writers and photographers on assignment. Period. End of discussion. We have to know what happened so I know how much of a stink to raise with the State Department. So despite the instructions from the two detectives that just left here, I want you to find out what happened to Piers, then find out where his story is, because that prick would sooner write than breathe. Then do whatever you have to do to get pictures of the extinct Zanzibar leopard. After that, you do the story about Jozani-Chwaka Bay.”

Maggie pulled him out to start his prep. “Okay, first stop is the clinic for your shots.” She handed him a business card. “It’s right around the corner. Make sure you get enough malaria pills for a month. I don’t want you to run out. Then your visa--you know where the embassy is?”

Leon shook his head. “I can find it.”

“No, don’t worry, I’ll have Alison drive you over. She’s our inside man for all things related to visas and passports. Where’s your passport, by the way?”

“I’ve got it with me.”

“You’ll need to check out some equipment- a sat phone and a portable internet connection- good from anywhere in the world. It’s broad enough you can send high res files. Strongly encourage you to send files as you get them. You can set up a file here and download as you need to, then do whatever editing you need after you get back. That way in case of catastrophic failure, such as somebody swipes your computer or your camera, all is not lost.”

“What about tickets?”

“Alison again. She’s going to have you go through Dar es Salam, then on to Zanzibar. You’ll stop in Stone Town, establish your credentials with the local authorities and make arrangements to go out to Jozani. Be careful about transportation. Piers complained about that.”

“What was the complaint?”

“Who knows? I didn’t listen. Piers bitched about everything and everybody. You’ll have your work cut out for you, just because you have to follow him.” Maggie got up, closed the door to her office. “Oh, by the way? Whatever bullshit Tim O’Brien gave you about investigating Pier’s murder? Forget it. You’re there for the assignment—Jozani-Chwaka Bay. Nothing more. I don’t want you to get involved in whatever crap Piers fell into. There are plenty of studly dicks in Tanzania who are perfectly capable of investigating a murder. You have a genius eye, and a slow hand with a camera. What’s going on out in Jozani is important. Important to the future of habitat conservation in Africa. This assignment, it matters a lot, Leon.” She studied him, nibbling on her lower lip. “I had no idea you had been a cop.”

“Less than a year. It wasn’t for me.”

“What in God’s name made you want to join the LAPD?”

“Oh, let’s see. My mom, dad, two older brothers, one uncle, one great uncle, and one grandfather are all LAPD. My baby blankets had little embroidered gold shields.”

“No kidding! But, Leon, couldn’t they see…couldn’t they see who you are? You’re an artist. You have one of the gentlest souls I’ve ever met. You’re kind, I mean, you’re gay, for God’s sake! What were they thinking to want you to be a cop?”

Leon grinned at her, unexpectedly touched. “I don’t think the gay part goes with the rest of that list.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. I don’t want to stereotype you or anything. All I’m saying…”

Leon stood up, gave her a hug. “I hear what you’re saying. And thanks. I’ll do a good job in Zanzibar.” He looked toward Tim’s office. “But isn’t Tim O’Brien your boss, too? I mean, can you really countermand his instructions?”

Maggie sniffed. “Okay, well, technically he is operations manager. But I am in charge of the photographers. And you are a photographer. I already told him what I thought of his trying to make you play junior detective.”

“Yeah? What did he say to that?”

Maggie waved a hand like she was trying to scatter a pesky fly. “I didn’t listen.”


“You don’t worry about anything other than Jozani. Make sure you take your malaria pills. Take some beautiful photographs. I’ve got your back.”


The travel medicine clinic was tucked into a small office next to a bookstore, and Leon promised himself a few minutes to browse the books after he’d taken care of the shots. The Nurse Practitioner was a cushiony, grandmotherly-looking woman who held his hands while she talked to him. Leon found it oddly soothing after the gloved-and-rushed medical care he was used to.

“Now, darling, some of these malaria pills have side effects you must know about. Psychiatric side effects.”

“What does that mean?”

“They make you hallucinate.” She patted his hand gently. “Some are designed to prevent, some to treat, you understand? I’m going to give you both. But if you take the Malarone and it gives you bad side effects, you switch over to the doxycycline. Okay? Now, let’s talk about diarrhea for a moment.”

Leon was in love with her by the time she brought out the slew of nasty immunizations. “Darling, the typhoid is probably going to make you feel sick as a dog tonight, but I promise you it’s necessary. I do not want you getting typhoid under any circumstances.” She massaged his upper arm gently after the shots, and just for a moment Leon wanted to lay his head down on her shoulder and close his eyes. She reminded him so much of Charlie.

“What is it?”

He realized he had tears in his eyes, and she was waiting patiently to listen to him. “I had a friend back home.”

“Tell me about him.”

“He was seventy-seven when he died. I met him when I was a teenager. He had a classic movie theater. I went to work for him selling tickets and popcorn. Some afternoons when it was quiet, he’d put Bullitt on, and we’d both watch Steve McQueen and sigh over his blue eyes. But he was more than just a boss. He was the person I could talk to about anything, you know?”

She nodded, kept his hands between hers.

“When I came out, I told him first. For a long time, he was the only person I told. He was gay, too, and he felt like my grandfather. He was the person who loved me without judgment. I must have been a pain in the ass teenager, but he always listened to me. When I fell in love for the first time, he very gently talked to me about sex, about how to be safe, about what to avoid.” Leon squeezed her hands, sat back. “The birds and bees talk isn’t much help to a gay boy. We need to know different stuff.”

“You still miss him a great deal.”

“I do.”

“Will you send me a postcard from Africa? I’ve never been. And Zanzibar sounds so lovely and exotic.”

Leon stood up, gave her a hug. “Thank you.” He tucked the malaria pills in his pocket. Hallucinations? Right. Not a chance. He would just use the mosquito netting.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
And a happy 2011 to you as well.

This is a super teaser chapter. Can't wait to read the rest of it.
Dec. 31st, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
thanks, I'm so glad you liked it
Jan. 1st, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC)
Cheeky! Writing yourself in to the story just so you could give your hero snuggly hand-holdings!

Excellent chapter - can't wait to see where the story goes!

Jan. 1st, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)
hee hee! I love my heros
Jan. 5th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)

Hi, Sarah!

From the excerpt I know this will be another excellent story.

I wish you a very successful & happy new year!


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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