Setting the scene

Jason Thrush, 17, has died under mysterious circumstances, just hours before he was to play the leading role in a local summer-theater production. Suspicion is beginning to mount against Thad Quatrain, nephew of Mark Manning, publisher of the Dumont Daily Register, because Thad had threatened Jason during a rehearsal and ended up in the starring role when Jason died. Now, on the Monday after the play’s opening, Manning and Sheriff Pierce visit the Thrush residence, where the boy’s body was found. On hand are Jason’s ailing father, Burton, and Jason’s spooky older sister, Mica.

Excerpt from the text of Boy Toy

     “Well then,” said Pierce, “it seems we all have our reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of this. Perhaps if we stopped sparring with each other, the investigation could be expedited.” He stood. “If you have no objection, Burton, we’d like to visit Jason’s bedroom.”
      Thrush flicked his hand, a smug gesture of permission and dismissal.
      As I rose, Mica offered, “I’ll take the men upstairs,” and she led us through the hall to the stairway.
      “We know the way,” Pierce told her.
      But she wouldn’t take the hint. “The cops made sort of a mess,” she said, leading us up, “but after the doctor took Jason away, things calmed down. Now everything’s back just the way it was. Except Jason, of course.” Her lips parted in a weak smile as she exhaled her breathy little laugh—she sounded like a dog panting.
      Arriving in the upstairs hall outside Jason’s room, we found the door closed, and though Mica had insisted on escorting us, she made no move to open it. “Excuse me,” said Pierce, moving past her, gripping the knob, and swinging the door wide.
      Following Pierce inside, exactly as I had on Friday evening, an eerie sense of déjà vu washed over me. The eeriness was compounded by an obvious difference: the corpse was missing from the bed. In my mind’s eye, though, I saw Jason clearly. No doubt about it, he was one handsome young man. The vision of him sprawled there would have been enticing had it not been for the tragic circumstances—and the gob of mucus hanging from his mouth.
      Mica had finally entered the room, and Pierce asked her, “That phone has more than one line, right?”
      She glanced at her brother’s desk. “Four,” she said, nodding. “Maybe only three. Daddy works at home a lot. The extra lines are for the business.”
      Pierce glanced at me. “That complicates things with Ma Bell. They can generate computer records of every call in and out, but since this isn’t a murder investigation, they’ll take their time.”
      I asked Mica, “Were you at home Friday afternoon?”
      “Most of the time. I think so.”
      “The play director, Denny Diggins, told us he tried phoning Jason repeatedly that afternoon, leaving messages.”
      She grinned, suppressing a laugh.
      “Did you notice a lot of phone calls that day? Did you find the messages?”
      She shrugged. “The phone rings a lot. There may have been messages for Jason, but we wouldn’t have saved them. I mean—he’s dead.”
      Pierce sighed. “Maybe we can recover the voice mail. I’m not sure what it would prove, though.”
      I agreed, “We’re fishing. We’re looking for any connection to Jason that could suggest a motive for foul play. He was a popular guy—in recent weeks, he may have spoken by phone to hundreds of people.”
      Again I noticed the abundance of stuff in Jason’s room—sports stuff, stereo stuff, computer stuff, and framed photos. I opened a closet door and found more of the same. Stuff was piled on shelving and on the floor. His wardrobe was extensive for a high school student. Hooks on the inside of the door held a leather varsity jacket and a cardigan-style letter sweater.
      Pierce was asking Mica about Jason’s athletic activity, taking copious notes, but I felt he was on the wrong track, and besides, the topic didn’t much interest me. So I studied the room at my leisure.
      Closing the closet door, I moved to the dresser. Its top was cluttered with more stuff—trophies, brush and comb, a dish for change, a model car, more framed photos, as well as unframed snapshots that were wedged around the mirror. Some of the pictures were of Jason alone. In others he posed with groups of guys, perhaps teammates, all frolicsome and butch; the photos could have been clipped from the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
      Leaning close to examine these photos (some of his friends were truly worth studying), I was distracted by a familiar scent. I thought of Neil. A wrinkle of curiosity pinched my brow, then my nose led my gaze to the bottle. There amidst the clutter on Jason’s dresser was a bottle of Vetiver, a pricey French men’s cologne long used by Neil. I not only recognized the bottle, but I’d know the smell anywhere—a distinctively crisp, woody, masculine scent.
      This brought to mind another scent, the fruity, flowery fragrance I had noted on Jason’s body Friday night. Kwynn Wyman had noticed it Wednesday as well, at dress rehearsal, when she accused Jason of wearing “cheap perfume.” It wasn’t Vetiver—no one could possibly confuse the two fragrances.
      So what was it? I searched the top of Jason’s dresser, but I saw no cologne other than the Vetiver; there were no other bottles, flasks, or atomizers. What’s more, the Vetiver was two-thirds empty, so Jason clearly used it; the bottle was not merely some unwanted gift displayed on his dresser. I recalled thinking at Wednesday’s rehearsal that Denny Diggins, then Jason, had oversplashed the aftershave that night. Was the fruity scent perhaps exactly that—not cologne, but aftershave?
     “Where’s Jason’s bathroom?” I asked Mica, interrupting Pierce’s questions.
     She pointed to the door, which I had assumed was another closet.
     Pierce followed as I crossed the bedroom, opened the door, and entered the bath. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
      “Aftershave. Just a hunch.”
      But my hunch didn’t pay off. Searching the countertop, drawers, and cabinets near the sink, it didn’t even seem that Jason, at seventeen, had been shaving daily; his only razor was a like-new electric, doubtless a coming-of-age birthday gift. Among all the usual toiletries, I found no second scent. In fact, I found a fresh bottle of Vetiver, still in its cellophane-wrapped forest-green box. I also found a box of condoms, half used, no cellophane.
      Returning with Pierce to the bedroom, we found that Burton Thrush had joined his daughter there. Climbing the stairs must have been a taxing excursion—he looked worse than he had earlier. “Well,” he wheezed, “what’s the verdict?”
      Pierce told him, “Nothing yet, I’m afraid.”
      Thrush wheezed again, but this time it carried a note of derision.
      Pulling out my pad and reviewing the notes I’d made, I glanced about the room again. “Mr. Thrush,” I asked, “can you help me with a few questions?”
      “Get on with it,” he snapped. “My time is valuable.”
     Valuable indeed, I mused. He seemed to be living from breath to breath. I asked him, “Do you happen to know if your son used any fragrances other than Vetiver, perhaps an aftershave?”
      He looked at me as if I were out of my mind. “How the hell would I—” His answer was interrupted by a coughing jag.
     “Mica?” I asked.
     She shrugged stupidly.
     I returned my attention to her father. “Did Jason date much?”
     With a touch of defensiveness, he answered, “Well, yes.”
     “And whom did he date?” (There’s nothing quite so off-putting as the pedantic use of the objective case when one intends to seize control of a discussion.)
      “There were . . . lots,” he sputtered. “Jason was an athlete and a scholar. On top of which, he was blessed with rugged good looks. He dated many girls.” With haughty composure, Thrush added, “I daresay Jason had the pick of the crop.”
      From behind me, I heard Mica’s tiny dog-pant of a laugh. I also heard Pierce click his pen for some notes.
      “What has me stumped,” I told Thrush, scratching behind an ear, “is all these photos. Your son had many friends, obviously, but there are no girls in these pictures. Jason was still young; I thought maybe he hadn’t started dating yet. That’s the only reason I ask.” Actually, the reason I asked was that I’d found his stash of condoms. Clearly, the kid was sexually active. Either that, or he was uncommonly tidy when it came to masturbation.
      Thrush wearily explained, “I told you: Jason was an athlete. He counted all his teammates among his friends. The pictures reflect that.”
      “That makes sense,” I conceded, striking a question from my notes. Still . . . what about those condoms? “Can you recall the names of his girlfriends?”
      Again that spooky little laugh slipped out of Mica.
      Thrush started counting on his fingers, but couldn’t seem to come up with any names. Then something clicked; he tapped his noggin. “Nicole Winkler, that was her name. They were quite thick, you know—quite thick.” He attempted, without success, to twine two fingers as a demonstration of how close they were. “In fact, Nicole was homecoming royalty with Jason at last fall’s big dance. They made a splendid couple—splendid. I’m sure you’ll find the photo here somewhere.”
      I’d studied all the photos and seen nothing of Nicole. If Jason ever had such a picture, it was stuck in a drawer, not framed in tribute to a magical evening.
      “If you have any doubts,” continued Thrush, “just ask the pretty Miss Winkler. They were truly smitten.”
      I made a note of it, but had already observed and concluded that Nicole was “smitten.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask Jason if the feeling was mutual.
      “Mr. Thrush,” I said, closing my notebook, “I never knew Jason, and unfortunately, I still don’t. In the three days since his death, I’ve thought about him a lot, but he’s still an enigma to me. How would you describe him to a total stranger? How would you describe your relationship?”
      “He was my son,” Thrush reminded me, as if I were an idiot. “What more need I tell you? He was my only son, the heir to my business. He was to carry on the family name. In recent years, I’ve had very little else to live for. I’d hoped to see him through high school, then college, so I could hand over the reins.”
      Thrush paused, resting his back against the wall, looking as if he might drop. “As a child,” he continued, letting his vacant eyes drift across the ceiling, “Jason was one of those special boys—everyone loved him, the mere sight of him. When his mother died, he was braver than I was, and he was only six or so. It was a joy, such a joy, to watch him grow out of childhood and approach maturity. There was nothing he couldn’t do or couldn’t conquer.”
      Thrush paused again, turning his head against the wall, locking his eyes on mine. “I suppose you know that he viewed your nephew, the Quatrain boy, as his rival. Even though they went to different schools, Jason saw your boy as the only other one who measured up, at least in terms of theater, for whatever that’s worth. Ironic, isn’t it, that this asinine little play should bring them together and pit them against each other, head to head. And now, of course, my Jason is dead. He was to be the father of my grandchildren.”
      Mica told him, “I can still give you grandchildren, Daddy.”
      Thrush shot her a sidelong, wild-eyed glance. The notion of Mica procreating had seemingly never crossed his mind, and he was now aghast (as I was) to consider the grim possibility.
      I had no other questions for Thrush, and neither did Pierce, so we thanked him for his cooperation (a diplomatic nicety, baldly insincere) and excused ourselves. Thrush remained in Jason’s room, looking at the empty bed as we stepped into the hall and descended the stairs.
      Mica followed us. Pierce and I didn’t speak, feeling uncomfortably tailed.
      At the front door, we turned to thank her, but she said nothing. Glancing over her shoulder, she slipped out the door with us and followed us to the street. Her behavior was downright weird—was she drugging? By the time we arrived at my car, I was sufficiently rattled by her presence that I was tempted to jump behind the wheel and floor it. Besides, it was hot. Time to go. But Pierce paused before opening his door and asked Mica, “Do you . . . need something?”
      She looked Pierce in the eye, then me, then Pierce again. Through a slit of a smile, she told him, “Jason didn’t date.”

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