The Case of the Missing Drag Queen
Broke, saddled with a mountain of debt, and dependent on his Aunt Callie’s support, aspiring writer Luke Tanner has returned to Kentucky to put his life back together after a failed five-year relationship.
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Luke meets diminutive Pixie Wilder, a long-time performer at the Gilded Lily. After headliner Ruby Dubonnet doesn’t show up, Pixie takes her place as the star of the show—a motive that makes her a suspect in Ruby’s disappearance.
Luke reluctantly agrees to help his new-found friend clear her name. He and Pixie set out to find the missing drag queen, and in the process, put themselves in danger.
Thursday, October 21, 1982
The smoke-permeated Gilded Lily barely contained the standing-room-only crowd for the eleven o’clock drag show. Luke Tanner had never been so popular. Thirsty customers vying for his attention stood three- and four-deep along the bar as he quickly mixed drinks, opened bottles, and poured draft beer.
The house lights blinked several times, and Frank Marvin’s voice echoed from the loudspeakers. “Five minutes until the show begins, folks. Still plenty of time to see Charlie or Luke for a cocktail. Tip them well, y’all, because I don’t pay ’em shit.”
Luke stuck out his lower lip and put on a sad face as he fixed drinks for three different customers. Every gay man in town wanted to bartend at the Garden. The hourly rate was the same everywhere, but bartenders in any of the Garden’s four bars averaged thirty dollars an hour in tips—more upstairs in the Green Carnation disco and on busy nights.
The day Luke got back to Lexington, he’d popped into the Garden. Five years earlier, in the months between coming out of the closet and moving to Atlanta, he’d danced in the Green Carnation six nights a week. who owned the Garden, remembered him from the thousands who frequented the club, and shocked when he’d offered Luke a job.
They’d never met before. Luke would have remembered. Frank had been on a very short list of men in his desired age range—. Then and now, the age group was under-represented at the Garden.
The house lights dimmed, and Frank’s voice again filled the showroom. “Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, queens, and queers.”
The crowd responded with cheers, jeers, and whistles.
“Welcome to the Gilded Lily, home of the best motherfucking drag in the entire United States!”
Luke dropped a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of a handsome man wearing an expensive-looking patterned sweater who appeared to be in his late thirties. He cupped a hand to his ear to hear his order above the thunderous applause.
“Cape Cod,” the man shouted and held up a finger. “One, please.”
Rather than taking orders from other customers and making several drinks at once, Luke gave the well-dressed stranger his undivided attention. As he topped an ice-filled tumbler of vodka with cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime, he wondered if he was a gay visitor from out of town or a straight tourist observing homosexuals in their natural habitat. Most likely gay. A heterosexual man at the Garden who wasn’t clinging to a woman for dear life was rarer than snow in July.
“Three dollars,” Luke shouted as he placed the drink on the cocktail napkin.
The handsome, blue-eyed man gave Luke a dazzling smile, a wink, and a ten-dollar bill and said something drowned out by the din.
Luke furrowed his brow, shook his head, and leaned forward. “What?”
The man formed a megaphone with his hands again and leaned toward Luke. “Keep the change!”
“Oh.” Luke’s face grew hot. Good-looking and a big tipper. “Thank you, sir.” He shoved the ten into the register drawer and moved seven dollars to his tip jar. When he turned back around, the man was gone.
“And now,” Frank yelled through the microphone. “Please welcome to the stage, the dark and lovely Dirty Duchess of Broadway, Simone!”
The stage went dark except for a spotlight trained on the center. The music started—a dance club remix of a recent Diana Ross hit—and Simone burst through the curtain wearing a tight red cocktail dress, red spike heels, and an Afro wig that added a good eight inches to her height. She danced from one side of the stage to other, then strode quickly to the end of the catwalk and danced some more. In between wild bursts of joyous and energetic dancing, she bent to air-kiss adoring fans who clustered around the stage waving bills of various denominations to get her attention.
Russel Clark stood just offstage with his burly arms folded across his massive chest. The bodyguard-slash-bouncer was six foot seven inches tall and weighed over three hundred pounds. In the weeks that Luke had worked at the Gilded Lily, Russel’s hulking presence had prevented any unwanted interaction with the performers from even the most inebriated fans.
By Simone’s encore, the preshow rush at the bar had slowed to a trickle. In between customers Luke emptied ashtrays, cleared empties from the bar, and washed glassware. When nobody was looking, he shoved his hands into his pockets to soothe a relentless itching that he suspected was what he got for washing his underwear with cheap laundry detergent.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage, the queen of the cathouse, Miss Kitty Galore!”
Kitty Galore was an S&M queen, standing and modeling as she lip-synced. The tight-fitting Kentucky blue and silver gown she wore emphasized her fabricated curves. Matching heels and an elegant backswept bouffant embellished with pearls added to her already impressive height.
Charlie Ross, who Luke had shadowed for two weeks to learn the ropes, crossed from the other end of the bar into his section. Charlie was a good head taller than Luke with strawberry-blond hair, brown eyes, a smattering of freckles across both cheeks and the bridge of his nose, and an imposing, athletic physique. He intimidated Luke, and for essentially the same reasons, turned him on. Not that turning him on was particularly difficult. He hadn’t had sex in months.
“Hey, man,” Charlie said. “Think you can handle the bar without me?” He reached down and groped his crotch. “I’ve got some business to attend to.”
Luke gulped, struggled to maintain eye contact, and pushed thoughts of what a naked Charlie might look like from his mind. “Frank say it’s okay?”
Charlie nodded. “If it’s okay with you.” He scratched his butt. “He’ll pull somebody from elsewhere in the Garden to help if it gets too busy for you.”
“I can handle it,” Luke said, feigning confidence. This was only his fourth night with his own section. If everyone in the showroom wanted a drink at the same time or someone ordered an unfamiliar cocktail or—
He slammed the brakes on his runaway train of thought. No point giving Fate any ideas.
“Thanks, man,” Charlie said, extending his hand.
“No problem,” Luke replied. He swallowed and wiped his sweaty palms on his hips. Shaking hands was not his thing. A firm grasp had thus far in life eluded him. He reached out, and Charlie engulfed his hand with a finger-crushing grip that hurt more with each pump.
“I owe you one,” Charlie said. He let go of Luke’s throbbing hand, pulled a five-dollar bill from his pocket, and tossed it into Luke’s tip jar. “Mind shutting down for me? I really need to run.”
“Sure,” Luke replied. He’d assumed Charlie would break down the well on his end of the bar before leaving but said nothing. He’d also kept his mouth shut for two weeks when he’d done all the work and Charlie kept all the tips.
The handsome, big tipper approached. When he reached the bar, another Cape Cod awaited him. He raised his hand and saluted. “Thanks, handsome. I’m flattered you remembered.” Then he thumbed through his wallet, pulled out a bill, and slid it across the bar. “Keep the change.”
Luke gasped when he saw the twenty-dollar bill. Too stunned for words, he nodded as the gorgeous man turned and walked away. The big tip was only partially responsible for his sudden inability to speak. That some imbecile somewhere hadn’t remembered his drink was as shocking as being called handsome. Presentable yes, perhaps even interesting, but handsome? Never.
On stage, Pixie Wilder wrapped up a disco version of “Rose Garden.” Her look was classic Nashville: big hair, flashy jewelry, a vibrant turquoise dress embellished with ten or fifteen pounds of rhinestones, and high-heeled, rhinestone-studded boots. For a girl, she was short. For a guy, she was tiny.
Luke kept up with the demand for beverages as Simone, Kitty Galore, and Pixie Wilder each performed a second number. The crowd grew restless, but nobody left. Business at the bar picked up as Pixie performed her second number. Ruby Dubonnet was next, and nobody wanted to miss a second of her performance. Only a couple of customers still waited for drinks as Pixie retrieved the tips she’d dropped and exited the stage.
A church bell sounded, and two well-oiled young men stepped onto the stage wearing white bikini briefs and matching bow ties. They marched in step to the end of the catwalk and back, tossing white rose petals from large baskets into the wildly cheering crowd as the bell chimed two more times. Luke was alone at the bar when they stopped on either end of the stage.
A hush fell over the Gilded Lily. Everyone stared at the stage, waiting. On the fourth chime, the curtains parted and Ruby Dubonnet emerged in an elegant beaded wedding gown with a long veil over her head and an enormous bouquet of white lilies in her arms. She took a few steps, stopped, and looked over the enthusiastic fans who scrambled for a position next to the stage to the back of the room.
Nobody—including Jennifer Holliday—did “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” better than Ruby Dubonnet. Ignoring her adoring fans and the bills they tossed onto the stage, Ruby gave herself to the performance. As the song progressed, she flung her bouquet to the ground and stomped on it a few times, yanked off the veil, and ripped the dress from her body in pieces. For the dramatic conclusion of the Broadway showstopper, she sat in the remnants of her tattered dress with an upraised fist, mascara running down her cheeks, and the mutilated bouquet in her lap.
When the music stopped, she stood, straightened her hair with a few well-placed shoves, quickly wiped the mascara from her face with a recovered sleeve, and stripped away everything but a lacy bra, dainty white panties, a garter belt, white hose, and white spike heels. She blew kisses to the rapturous fans tossing crumpled bills at her. Then she traversed the stage touching the fingertips of her fans and blowing kisses while the flower boys picked up her tips and tossed them in the baskets they carried.
The crowd gasped when the handsome big tipper vaulted onto the stage. Russel leaped into action, moving toward Ruby with far more grace and speed than Luke would have thought possible for such a large man. Ruby stopped him with an upraised hand. Then she opened her arms to embrace the handsome big tipper. He hugged her close, kissed her right on the lips, and after a moment, stepped back to bow deeply before hopping off the stage.
Moments later Ruby and her boys slipped behind the curtain, the lights came up, and the crowd dispersed to other parts of the Garden complex until one o’clock when the bars closed. Nobody lingered in the Gilded Lily. Even Frank and Russel had left.
Luke thoroughly scratched his irritated nether regions and then counted his tips, and readied the deposit for Frank to take to the bank. Cleaning up both ends of the bar took longer than expected. Exhausted, Luke brushed his teeth when he got home, stripped to his underwear, and fell into bed.