Cover image for She came in drag
She came in drag
Wings, Mary.
Personal Author:
Berkley Prime Crime edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Berkley Prime Crime, 1999.
Physical Description:
337 pages ; 18 cm
General Note:
"An Emma Victor mystery"--Cover.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Halloween is creeping up on San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, setting the perfect stage for mischief, mayhem--and murder. Emma Victor is hired to protect a rock diva who's been a parade of drag queen lookalikes!

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, we'll turn the patriarchy into rubble." So chants PI Emma Victor, caught in a militant Lesbian Revengers demonstration on Halloween night in San Francisco. Emma is flying high after unknowingly ingesting a hallucinogenic mushroomÄnot the best state to be in while protecting research scientist Dr. Rita Huelga, whose life is in danger after outing her ex-girlfriend, the rock diva Audra L‚on, on a TV talk show. The PI can't help wondering what would motivate the fiercely private mycologist to reveal her deepest secret, and her suspicions of Huelga are heightened when L‚on's girlfriend dies after dining on pasta and poisonous mushrooms. Lambda Award-winning Wings is superb in conjuring up the atmosphere of the city's lesbian scene as well as the creepy goings-on of the holiday; there are skeletons both in and out of closets, plot twists galore and more than one corpse interfering with Emma's trick-or-treating. Mystery fans not put off by a PI who isn't above using a one-night stand to get information will be so engaged by Wings's evocative prose and vivid details that they will be forgiving if all the loose threads aren't tied up neatly in the end. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One NO BITS! "No Obits!" cried the headline of the Bay Area Reporter in sixty-point type. "No Obits!" 1998 gave us the first week that the gay and lesbian paper hadn't received any obituaries. For a decade the obituaries list only grew longer. Dead friends filled those pages. Now activism, money, research, and drug companies had changed the course of the AIDS epidemic.     Halloween seemed, once again, something to celebrate. And Halloween belonged in the Castro, where the happy havoc tangled up traffic and Muni lines in a show of anarchy that had seemed impossible to suppress. Castro clones who had never worn a dress giggled and teased each other with the newfound freedom to wear frocks. The words of the late, great Sylvester rang from the café: "You're a star, you only happen once," reminding us all of the differences in camp: the low camp that was sexist and high camp that was proud.     Unfortunately, it was to be the last Halloween in the Castro: Next year, the overwhelming street party would be moved to the Civic Center. The large, flat area with a square pond and a bureaucratic ambience was just going to be no fun at all.     Cruising through the Castro, I could feel the high holy day was nearly upon us. If October 11 gave gay people permission to come out, October 31 gave gay San Franciscans a chance to wear those size-fourteen heels, ruby slippers, or knee-high pirate boots they'd always dreamed of. Hundreds of tasteless take-offs on dead movie stars were in the making. The bars were doing a brisk business, and in between burritos and smoothies, gay men held hands and kissed, sometimes blocking the sidewalk so badly a lesbian could hardly make her way to a frozen yogurt. And Halloween would be a lot worse.     I had avoided the Halloween festivities in recent years. The traffic jams were one thing, the tourist crowds who came to gawk were something else. Already there were rumblings of discontent; ACT UP was planning a massive photo shoot, taking aim at rubbernecking heterosexuals. The bully boys just might show up later with a less benign protest of their own. A lot of the spontaneity had gone out of the annual celebration. And my life.     As a freelance people-finder, serving summonses and taking out other people's trash, I'd done pretty well. My last gig had helped me buy out my house partner. Police Officer Laura Deleuse didn't like living over a private investigator. I didn't like living under a cop, either. Our real estate relationship ended amicably, and the financial rewards from my last venture helped put the title of the old Victorian in my name. And my name only.     With less than a 1 percent vacancy rate in the city, I found just the tenants I wanted. Creole and Jessie were masseuses. While the police officer was tired, grumpy, and suspicious, my new tenants were positive, soothing, and healthful. Their tenancy would probably help my blood pressure, circulation, and flexibility. I hoped it was a relationship that would last a long time.     I moved upstairs, to the roomier apartment with the bay view. I let Jessie and Creole carry on their sensuous business in the building. It didn't create any parking problems, and all I ever heard from downstairs was the occasional blissful groan. Their business was doing great.     But detective gigs hadn't been coming my way. Suddenly, there weren't any people to find or summonses to serve. I'd been out of the loop for too long. But today was different. At nine o'clock, the phone rang with a nice, boring gig. I lifted the receiver, fingering my earlobe: a sign of trouble.     "Emma Victor, private investigator." A representative from Guaranteed All Risk wanted me to watch some guy walk away from his crutches and record it on film. It would save the company hundreds of thousands, and I expected my fair share for sitting in a car and waiting for that particular moment of truth. I would meet the client later at noon. Guaranteed All Risk hired a lot of freelance detectives--contract workers, these days. They were trying to keep as many people off the payroll as they could, just like everyone else. Cost-cutting and don't forget to catch them at the disco. Chump change, but a chance to look out my windshield for a few days.     Meanwhile, Rose called with something far more interesting and lucrative. It was time to take out the trash.     "Did you see the television program that outed Audra Léon, Emma? It was a history-making event."     "I'm getting back into the reading habit," I grumbled, reminding Rose of the past. "Twenty years ago, women crowded into women's bookstores to discuss the latest manifesto. Remember the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm?"     "Yeah, I remember vaginal orgasms, too."     "Ah, what has happened to us, Rose? Lesbian sex used to be a revolutionary act. Now the sisterhood returns to the bookstore to watch television: famous people coming out on television . And afterward we go to the Safeway and pick up an Enquirer with a lead article about Martina and Rita. Then we return to our highly mortgaged home to search for our G spots."     "What's wrong with that?"     Apparently, the outing of a famous comedian, a famous actress, a famous pop singer, a famous anyone, mattered to everyone in my circle, everyone but me. What was fame to the pioneers against patriarchy?     "So our friends have stopped reading and writing manifestos. Now they return from work and reach for the remote. What's wrong with that?" she repeated.     "Oh, nothing," I sighed. "It's just that I had a million calls and E-mails before the show, reminding me of the rebroadcast of the Johnny Lever Show . My tenants downstairs rang me up to come down and watch the spectacle. Afterward, they offered me a tape. I never watched it."     "You'll see it here, girlfriend."     Great. How could I miss the outing of Audra Léon? The tabloids screamed about her supposed homosexuality while I waited in line at the Safeway, Audra's copper pageboy and signature cat suit were displayed in Cliff's notion store; the window dresser did better than Madame Tussaud in recreating the diva of pop.     The Bay Area Reporter strung "Audra Léon OUT!" in sixty-point type on the front page. Audra Léon was one of us, they said. I found myself getting almost angry. "Maybe she's one of them , but as far as I'm concerned, Audra Léon does not belong to our tribe."     "Not to mention all her lyrics, a woman who desperately needed a man . Her wedding with Tyrone Warren, that white, wanna-be-black rap artist, doesn't make me feel particularly sisterly toward Audra Léon, either," Rose agreed. "Remember the interview with Barbara Walters? `A lesbian? Don't be silly! I am a devoted mother.' If you listened to her words, Emma, she never said that she wasn't a lesbian. Oh, hell, what do we care, eh?"     "Not a lot. What's up, Rose?"     "The producers say the woman who outed Léon is in danger. Needs security."     "Why did she go on that show in the first place?"     I guess it was the money they promised to the Women's Cancer--"     "Sounds nice, but I'm not sure that would be reason enough."     "Whatever, Emma. Are you interested? They're coming over in twenty minutes."     "It doesn't cost anything to listen to someone's problem."     "And the media is a monied medium. By the way, what are you doing for Halloween? Planned your costume yet?"     "I don't know, Rose. There's too many tourists that come to gawk."     "Come on, Emma. It's the last Halloween in the Castro. You always look good in whatever drag you cook up. Next year, they're moving to the Civic Center."     "That's progress for you."     "Page Hodel is going to DJ from the sound stage. And there's a drag king contest at the club Lex! It's always nice to dress up as a guy. All the young women are doing it at the Club Lex. You get all those boy privileges and people move out of your way on the street. Hey, why don't you do that costume you did a few years ago? The butch/femme thing."     The costume Rose meant had been ingenious but nearly impossible to wear. I had cut a dress in half and sewn it over a three-piece business suit. Half my face was done up in false eyelashes and blusher, the other half featured a mustache and five-o'clock shadow. One foot wore a high heel, the other, a lawyerly wing tip. Depending on what angle you approached me, I was a boy or a girl. From the front, I was a gender schizophrenic, unable to make up my mind. A startling effect, it was, nevertheless an awkward concept; the difference in the shoes gave me a backache, and my arms were tired, the femme side crooked at the elbow, the butch side with hand in pocket. I had even mastered giggling out of one side of my mouth, grunting out the other.     "We'll talk about Halloween later. Get in your car and get over here, Emma."     "Yes, ma'am."     "TV people, Emma. Look sharp."     What kind of drag would that be? I splashed water on my face and pinched my cheeks for color, the Victorian equivalent of blusher. I tried to thread the scroll-engraved golden hoop earring through my right earlobe. An allergy to nickel was ruining my accessory plan. First rubbing my earlobe with alcohol, I managed to thread the wire that was supposed to be gold through the inflamed skin. The earring continued to be a problem. I took a starched white shirt out of its plastic bag and threaded a silk scarf around my neck. My leather coat fit me like a second skin. I checked the mirror. White shin, shoes shined to a mirror finish, a kid leather coat, and earrings twinkling at my ears. I looked sharp enough for the media sharks.     Soon I was driving up and down the hills, my car precariously perched at stop signs and then dipping down into Eureka Valley. I passed the rows of Italianate Victorians that lesbians and gay men had painted in happy colors. They marched down the hill, glorious Gold Rush palaces, all done up in a merry-go-round of rainbow colors. The window of Cliff's Variety was showing an Audra Léon look-alike mannequin. The black cat suit and copper pageboy were unmistakable. Across her cauldron was written Last Halloween in the Castro.     Rainbow flags gave way to piñatas as I cruised down the hill toward the Mission. I rolled over the freeway to the steep-hilled district called Potrero Hill. Gilded Italianates perched on sixty-degree slopes, overlooking skyscrapers, bridges, and water. The hills gave way to the long industrial landfill of Third Street. San Francisco's shipping industry had, for the most part, moved over to Oakland. Santa Fe railway rented out the waterfront property as storage. A few boats wandered in and out of the harbor. Sometimes the Russian Navy would drop anchor. But live-work lofts, the planned Mission Bay project and the mayor's cronies would soon change all that.     Still, the real estate was relatively cheap, compared to the rest of San Francisco. Rose had rented a warehouse where you could smell the french fries and the diesel fuel. The warehouse, with the wooden storefront, could have been the meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, the initiated had to salute a video camera hidden behind a twist of blackberry bushes to gain entrance.     I walked through Rose's idea of a security gauntlet. Three more cameras and I had to press the code before I was admitted into the office park. A hive of activity, Rose's burgeoning workforce tended the phones and banks of computers. Indoor palm trees stretched toward the big industrial skylights. Secondhand oak furniture, wooden desks, and fireproof file cabinets, heavy as anchors, were massive bulwarks in the interior. No wooing the clientele with a suite of downtown offices, brocade wallpaper, leather-topped desks, and overpriced downtown lunches. Rose took her clients to little-known bistros and saved money on location and furniture. The big bucks she spent on computers and an extensive private security system guarding some of the biggest art collections in San Francisco.     I went directly into Rose's office. The place was architecturally designed to make it amenable to a wheelchair: lowered tables, nothing important over four feet from the ground. Only a half cup of coffee was present, a paper-weight on today's San Francisco Chronicle . Rose must be somewhere on the floor; the cup was still warm. The paper was turned to page four: "Shop Today, Super Halloween White Sale at Macy's!" It seemed Macy's would use any excuse for a white sale: Easter, Veterans Day, Valentine's Day, the Linen Department worked them all. Underneath the pictures of fluffy towels, a headline blared, "New Hunter Virus May Help Kill HIV ... It might take a virus to kill a virus, say researchers who think they have discovered a biological weapon that can seek out HIV-infected cells...."     "Want some coffee?" Rose wheeled into her office, glancing over at a coffeemaker. Its pot held a half-inch of black, oily substance .     "No thanks: I've had enough caffeine to power Rome this morning."     "I like the earrings, Emma." Rose wheeled up to me. I bent down as she examined the jewelry, the unique little etched pattern. Something Indonesian? Your right earlobe is a little red."     "Hard to get solid gold these days. What's up, Rose?" My sometimes employer was being evasive. "Make with the fast forward; I've got a meeting with a new client at noon."     "What's the gig? A new client?"     "Insurance gig. Guaranteed All Risk."     "I think I recommended you for that," Rose murmured.     "Trash television? What's the story?" A white label with a red border emerged. I could read the careful black printing as she came closer: the Johnny Lever Show . A date had been written underneath it in hand: October 11. National Coming Out Day.     "I've recommended you to a few insurance firms. Who did you say called?"     "Guaranteed All Risk. A Mr. Fremont. Thanks for the plug." The VCR grabbed the tape out of Rose's hand and gulped it down. We watched the plastic box disappear inside the black, rectangular mouth.     "Hmm," Rose grumbled. "As I said, Lever wants me to hire a bodyguard. The woman who had the affair--Dr., Dr.--what's her name. The one with the black hair--"     "I heard she had a great left hook. So why are you working for them?"     "The situation intrigues me. The ins and outs of being out and in kind of interest me. I like this Dr. Huelga character, Emma. And I could use some entertainment business money, diversify my clientele."     "You're going behind the Orange Curtain, Rose?"     "There's a lot-of money in Southern California. Right now I'm just guarding a whole lot of old-master paintings in Pacific Heights bedrooms. Bo-ring! I'll just show you the salient bits of this," Rose promised.     The tape began to whir. Soon we'd see a prime-time pimp outing a big pop star. I didn't care very much. Once again, I felt irritated. It didn't matter to me if Audra Léon was a lesbian or not. There were fifty thousand lesbians in the Bay Area, having children, paying off mortgages, walking their dogs, and teaching in the school system. They were in the front lines, fighting to keep the kids and keep the home fires burning. Lesbians who worked hard, had their portraits taken at Kmart, lesbians who didn't lie. Who cared about a pop singer who'd been forced out of a closet filled with satin and bodyguards? What difference could it possibly make?     "So, how exactly did you get this gig?" I asked the director of Baynetta Security Services.     "Bevin Crosswell, an old college buddy. She works for Johnny Lever. So you heard about the show--"     "Yeah, the lady with the left hook. Her high school love was--is--a closet case with golden vocal cords and more money than God. How'd Lever find Audra Léon's old girlfriend, anyway?"     "How do these people find anybody? It's their job."     "It's their job to ruin people's lives."     "Don't get moralistic, Emma. Besides, Johnny Lever made good on his promise. He donated two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the Women's Cancer Information Center, where Huelga is on the board."     "Lever got his money's worth. The Lesbian Revengers who initially supported the deal withdrew their support from Lever because of the way he treated Rita Huelga."     "Bevin will be here any minute with Dr. Rita Huelga."     "Does she really think this woman is in danger?"     "Just take their money, Emma. What's the problem?"     I let a silence crash in the room.     "Here, let me cue the tape up." Rose pushed the fast forward button and the image was divided by eight lines. Soap commercials raced by frantically. Actresses jerked their heads, playing housewives that barely existed: women who didn't need to generate a second income to keep the family afloat. The American dream: stay at home and crow about the wash. Their red mouths were frantic, chattering mutely across the screen. "Whiter than white!" Then the logo popped up: "The Johnny Lever Show!" and Rose released the fast forward button.     A big, pale blue stage showed a rear projection of the San Francisco skyline. The Transamerica pyramid looked jaunty, piercing a lone cirrus cloud that hung over downtown. The Bay Bridge twinkled with fake lights. In front of the screen, two deeply upholstered chairs waited, empty, expectant. A dapper blond man holding a microphone like the sword of Damocles stood in front of the backdrop. A shiny grin competed with the sheen of his silver suit. Applause was heard as the tape slowed to normal speed, and the camera panned across a studio audience. "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"     "Here it comes!" Rose turned up the volume.     "Welcome to the Johnny Lever Show . It's October eleventh, and we're taping here in San Francisco. But it isn't only Indian Summer that's heating up the city by the bay." Johnny's eyes twinkled and he tilted his head in mock reverence. "Today, we've got something very exciting for you! For all you fans--or soon to be former fans--of Audra L‚on!" Johnny Lever loped back and forth across the stage like a tiger, wagging the microphone at the audience. A circus atmosphere was engendered, underscored by Johnny's bright green bolo tie, which matched the lizard skin boots on his feet.     "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"     The camera came closer. Johnny Lever affected an expression of carefully cultivated compassion. His words dripped like honey into the microphone, belying the hostile excitement of the crowd as he greeted them and cut suddenly to a commercial.     Rose fast forwarded past a NyQuil commercial. An actress in a negligee fell asleep across the screen, full makeup upon the pillow. I wondered how Audra Léon was sleeping these days.     Rose paused the tape. Behind Johnny Lever, four portraits came into focus from the rear projector. Audra Léon, white teeth flashing, framed by the highly burnished copper pageboy, two wings curling around her face in parentheses. A black cat suit looked like it had been painted on her long limbs. Another square showed a different Audra emerging out of the Pacific. She was a black-headed crane, impossibly long legs, a tiny string bikini; she'd been careful to keep her pageboy dry. A third image showed Audra in a scene from her upcoming film, Wet Kisses Only . On her back, a cat suit of sequins had been pulled down off her shoulders, the sequins pooling around her waist. The camera had teased the audience with a shot that ended just above her nipples.     The fourth shot showed an Audra we never could have guessed at. Out of focus, out of the past, she must have been fourteen or fifteen. A fuzzy Afro and a tennis racket clutched under her arm, a tight T-shirt over small, adolescent breasts, this Audra was pure tomboy. The copper pageboy and clinging cat suits were something no one could have predicted.     "And now, please welcome a very special guest--" Johnny's hand extended out toward the blue curtain. He waited, and nothing happened. "Once again, please welcome--" The curtain wasn't moving, and Johnny's smile became a little fixed, when a woman was suddenly pushed from behind the curtain into the national spotlight. Perfectly polished loafers tripped onto the stage on thick soles. A large-boned but not quite heavyset woman stood still, like a deer caught in the headlights. A dark red suit with black velvet collar had been carefully tailored to her body. Her hair was smoothed back over her head, ending in a long, impressive, thick plait down her back. A white streak began at a widow's peak and made a straight line across the top of her head, a Bride of Frankenstein effect, but offset by the shy warmth of the jet eyes, which blinked in the lights. The velvet collar echoed the black hair, the black eyes. Underneath the jacket, the tiny butterfly collar was open just enough to reveal a medal that nested at the base of her brown throat. A close-up showed the dramatic heart-shaped face that was nervous to the point of desperation. The medal was revealed to be sectarian; a tiny tennis racket.     Above the medal, wide-set, coal dark eyes showed terror under a high forehead. A nearly unbroken line of black eyebrow made a thick black line over her eyes. The shiny ebony cap of hair, untouched by the people in Makeup, was brushed into a sleek helmet. On camera, the bright red lips and porcelain white teeth that bit them leapt out at the viewer. It was a beautiful face: naive, dramatic, frightened. Smiling shyly at the audience's applause, she squinted into the spotlight, her dark eyes glittering. The long-legged images of Audra Léon, hovering in the background, disappeared as she came onstage.     Johnny Lever slung a casual arm over Dr. Rita Huelga's shoulder and turned her toward the stage. The one corner of her mouth twitched, gathering her lips to the left, lopsided.     "I know its a little nerve-racking, all the wires and cords--" he whispered, sotto voce, and escorting her. "Watch the stair," he crooned. But Dr. Rita Huelga's step was careful; the loafers scuffled up the stairs to the appointed chair. He set her down gently, like a pie cooling on a windowsill. He turned and faced the audience.     "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm proud to present to you a woman who is not afraid to speak the truth and address some of the most important issues of our day. Thank you so much for coming here to share your story, Dr. Huelga."     Dr. Huelga nodded, gulped. She was sitting up so straight in her chair, she might have been waiting for electrocution. Johnny kept on with the honied exposition.     "Ladies and gentlemen, the lesbian and gay movement has made great strides in our society. Let's face it--a hundred years ago, people were burned at the stake for the love that dare not speak its name. We know now that homosexuality is completely genetically determined. Homosexuals, in fact, are born that way . There's nothing we--or they--can do about it. Isn't it time for society to change? Isn't it time to come out of hiding, for love to speak its name? Right now, our brightest stars are wrestling in their celebrity heavens with their own consciences, their own careers, their own passions--their own genetically determined impulses! And we ask ourselves the question: Why don't they come out? And what better role models can there be than those men and women in the entertainment business?"     "I can think of a few million at least," I groused.     "Shut up, Emma, just watch."     "Now, Dr. Huelga--" Johnny slowed his pace. He got out of his chair and leaned toward her, bending down on one knee, a gesture of marriage proposal. "I can't tell you how important it is that you've come here," he said softly for all to hear.     Behind Rita Huelga, the four images of Audra Léon suddenly flashed back upon the screen.     "Dr. Huelga, you live here in San Francisco, right?"     "Yes." Her voice was a rich, controlled, contralto.     "And what do you do here, in this beautiful city by the bay?"     "I'm a mycologist."     "What's that, exactly?"     "I study mushrooms."     "And why do you study mushrooms?"     "There are a lot of health benefits."     "Such as?"     The audience shifted in the background, but Johnny knew what he was doing; establishing the credibility of his witness.     "Some mushrooms, particularly the Polyporus umbullatus , actually have been shown to shrink tumors." Rita Huelga's face began to relax. "Who would have thought that fungus could be so important!" she quipped, and the audience laughed. Smiling, her eyes tilted over her high cheekbones.     "Dr. Huelga here has won an award for outstanding achievement from the Cancer Society, haven't you, Rita?"     "Yes." Rita was uncomfortable. She didn't want to mix her career into this interview. She didn't want to be there at all.      "And Rita, I know you went to high school with one of today's most important stars, didn't you?"     "Yes."     "And, if I understand this correctly, you had a passionate--a sexual relationship with someone who is well known to us all."     "Yes."     "And Dr. Huelga, that person, that star, was Audra Léon, wasn't it?"     Gasp from the audience.     "Yes." Rita Huelga's knees clamped together.     "So, let me get this straight--ha-ha-ha. You and Audra were lovers in high school, right?"     "Yes."     "And you met on the tennis team?"     "I want our audience--and Rita--to know that she is not here to talk about a brief love affair in high school. This isn't about an adolescent crush. You and Audra were together for two years. Am I correct?"     "Yes." Her sensuous mouth loosened unconsciously with the memory, the full lower lip was licked by a cautious, nervous tongue. The concreteness of their relationship. The weekend sleepovers? The discovery, the play? Dr. Huelga's moving mouth told a story without words.     "Now, Dr. Huelga, you are a very brave woman for coming here. And, ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you, this is National Coming Out Day, isn't it Rita?"     "Yes. Yes it is."     "The fact is," Johnny addressed the audience, "Audra Léon is a lesbian. Her carefully orchestrated marriage is a sham. That's true, isn't it?"     "Yes." Dr. Huelga seemed to gather some strength, her full mouth relaxed with the words of truth that passed through them. "Yes, it's true."     "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"     "And--you know that because--" The silver ball of the mike came closer to her lips, as if it were a wand that would raise the ratings.     "Because ..." Johnny's voice was so intimate, their heads might have been lying on the same pillow together.     "Because three months ago, I spent a week in a hotel with Audra. In Phoenix."     Johnny nodded, feeling the ratings rise. "She was on location, wasn't she?"     "Yes."     "For her upcoming feature, Wet Kisses Only . Am I correct?"     "Yes." (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Mary Wings. All rights reserved.

Google Preview