When a question from the past haunts you, rest is impossible until it’s tracked down and resolved. Mine involves the last night of Whips and Wands.
Memories that might bother others don’t faze me. Gauntlets of girls flay the bare asses of boys who run up long, dark stairs with the flash of photo bulbs as the only light. At the top step stands Mistress Whipwell-aka Babe Jerome – in leather g-string and black boots, mascara-lined eyes framed by a black top hat and gold curls.
What drives me is a front-page tabloid photo of Whipwell/Jerome’s bloody body in a trash-filled alley. At this late stage of my existence I need to untangle my role in that. It’s why I find myself back in New York. But when you’ve been gone a long while, it’s hard to know where to start.
After searching for what seems like years, I get lucky and more. In an exhibition of photos of 1950s Manhattan, there’s a shot of half a dozen boys jumping a fence in Madison Square Park. One looks right into the camera and I recognize the eyes. Know Jonny Keagan at any age and you remember them.
Keagan is my key. He grew up in Kips Bay, a working class neighborhood centered on Second Avenue in the East Twenties and Thirties. When Whips and Wands opened there Jonny ran the door. I need to find him.
Instinct, a hunch, something overheard, eventually leads me to a book promotion at a big Barnes and Noble on Union Square. At the microphone, a shopworn author doubling as used car salesman and used car reads from a memoir of the legendary late 1960s and early 70s.
A few of the crowd are familiar. But I’ve been gone so long I’m invisible to them. Then I spot a figure wavering like a ghost or a memory. Jon Keagan, white haired, sits tall on the aisle with a cane across his knees.
He turns his wide, almost unblinking eyes on me and whispers, “I’ve thought about you lately.” Jon stands and gestures toward the exit. As we leave the author’s saying, “An abandoned neighborhood contained a secret, dark jewel.” And I feel he’s talking about Whips and Wands.
It’s dusk as we walk uptown and turn on East 26th Street. High-rise towers look down on us. It was all five-story walkups back when Babe Jerome in guy drag and me passed this way. I was stupid, a would-be actor who rode pay-for-play sex until I hit my late ’20’s and was old. Babe Jerome was a spoiled brat who showed me S&M was where I could have a few more years of work.
Jon carries his cane like a walking stick. He says, “I’m the neighborhood historian, people always asking about some candy store that burned down fifty years ago. But with ones like you from far away and long ago I feel like a priest, a magician.”
The next couple of blocks it seems we’re back in the old New York, corner stores and bars, people sitting on stoops. But across Second Avenue where Whips and Wands stood there’s nothing I remember.
Jon points to the wall of brick and glass. “When I was a kid Bellevue and all the other hospitals were over on First Avenue with their backs to the river. Everything else was my neighborhood.
“Then one day the hospitals wanted to expand, to house their workers. A bunch of blocks got condemned, houses, stores, Mullins Hall where everybody had wedding parties, graduations. Buildings emptied fast but didn’t come down for a year. Landlords made money renting illegally. Whores, junk dealers: no one cared.
“After the army I did door work at clubs – was good at it. Someone said Mullins Hall had a new name and was hiring. This drag with five o’clock shadow, out of her skull on meth, interviewed me.”
“Whips and Wands,” I say and remember peeling paint, flooded restrooms, manacles and blue lights, glowing death heads in dark halls. “Fairies and Sadists: a little pain, a bit of magic, Mistress Whipwell aka Babe Jerome presiding.”
“She starts screaming at me. You tell her word is I run a door like I got a sixth sense of who to let in. You say I’m hired. She tries to stab you with a scissors.”
“I was her/his second banana, accomplice, sometime top and occasional bottom,” I say. “Baby Jerome inherited a chunk of money, spent it getting his girl on. What was left got put into Whips. In two months he’d break even, four months, she’d be rich again and I’d have a bankroll.”
We cross Second, walk down the block to where the club stood. It’s a playground now. Guys shoot baskets in the dark.
“The place got popular,” Jon says, “spoiled kids needing to get spanked. Then came the night I noticed unmarked cop cars all around. Mistress Whipwell and you were fighting. Instinct said to split.”
He waits for my story. I drop my eyes and say, “All I remember is waking up with scratches on my face and arms, blood on my hands and no memory of anything but the fight I’d had the night before. Jerome banged my head on a wall. Told me we were through.
“Then I saw the Daily News photo and headline, SHE-MALE IN PAIN PALACE DEATH PLUNGE. That’s when I found out about the raid and how she fell six floors head first off the roof. I got out of town. But I wondered…”
“If you pushed her?” he asks and I nod.
“You came out the door royally fucked up just before I left. I stuck you in a cab. You don’t remember?”
I shake my head.
“The lady jumped after the raid started. Maybe that was her release. Like this is yours.” I look into those eyes; realize nothing holds me. He watches me float up over the roofs of Manhattan.
-this story originally appeared in If Angels Fight-
Richard Bowes has published six novels, four story collections and over seventy short stories. He has won two World Fantasy, a Lambda, Million Writer and International Horror Guild Awards. His recent novel Dust Devil On a Quiet Street was on the World Fantasy and Lambda short lists. His novelette Sleep Walking Now and Then was on the 2015 Nebula short list.
Recent and forthcoming appearances include: Tor.com, F&SF, Lightspeed/Queers Destroy Fantasy, Interfictions, Farrago’s Wainscot, Uncanny, and the anthologies: XIII, The Doll Collection, In the Shadow of the Towers, Best Gay Stories 2015, Year’s Best Horror and Dark Fantasy 2015.