Title: The Mad Monk and the Christmas Pie
Author: Mark Lesney
Release Date: 10/26/2021
Heat Level: 1 – No Sex
Genre: Historical Holiday, LGBTQIA+, performance arts, humor, mystery, cleric, con artist, medium, murder
Nineteenth-century New York was hardly the place for Alexander Collier, a ne’er do-well actor and ex-con, to make a living. So, teaming up with the so-called “Mad Monk” for a safe home and a little chicanery seemed a necessary compromise if he was going to survive.
Alexander joins Brother Sebastian—a renegade Trappist monk-cum-spiritualist—in his crusade to protect the religious treasures of history from private greed. Brother Sebastian uses his “powers” as a heavenly medium to trick Robber Barons and wealthy members of society into doing good and turning over priceless artifacts. But where guile does not suffice, a little housebreaking, pickpocketing, and theft by the monk’s misfit crew of servants and rogues can turn the tide—at least until treachery leads to a Christmas murder and an unexpected romance.
The Mad Monk and the Christmas Pie
Mark Lesney © 2021
All Rights Reserved
New York City, August 1897
If I had known Stephen was going to try to kill me, I might have practiced my fencing more often.
For some reason, my nemesis was now darting at me like a fiend, his sword slashing. These weren’t our choreographed moves—he was out for blood.
He’d warned me he was going to kill me if I didn’t stop smiling at his wife or talking to her beyond the confines of rehearsals and the stage. But how could I take him seriously? I knew he never loved her, not really in the manner of husband and wife, for the very same reason I was not a credible threat to what passed for their wedded bliss.
I liked Sarah, and she appreciated me. She was one of the few people with wit in the company, so why would I listen to her fool of a husband and break off our budding friendship? But my nonchalance in the face of his threats was finally going to get me killed—or at least would wind up killing my career.
I dodged and parried across the stage, nearly slipping on the smooth wooden planking in front of the floor lamps; it was too soon for me to die, both in real life and the play. Stephen’s face was wild, his eyes wide with fury, though the stark menace in his gaze was somewhat spoiled by the almost comic beard, spirit-glued beneath his real mustache.
As he thrust at me with his sword, I froze for a moment in panic, then barely dodged away. The blade was conspicuously missing the guard on its tip—the nubbed cover that was supposed to keep me from getting skewered. My blade, of course, was useless as a weapon, except for parrying. I had intended no mayhem, so I hadn’t even dreamed of removing the protective sheath.
I did my best to try to disarm him, even though he was so much better than me at swordplay, having practiced it incessantly like a little boy with a new hobby. I’d watched him in mild disdain at how seriously he took it up with our trainer. Though more likely, he wanted to gain proficiency for the chance to engage in another sort of swordplay with our German fencing teacher. Herr Heimrich admittedly had excellent form—especially in white tights.
I’d admired them both as they leaped about in the gymnasium, not realizing that all the while Stephen was practicing how to kill me.
“God, look at them. I’d almost give Karl a tumble myself,” Sarah had breathed out softly, watching her husband and the fencing instructor in action just two short days ago before our opening.
She’d held one hand to her eyes, squinting beneath her chestnut-colored bangs at their quite impressive dance. Both of us were half blinded by the rays of the early morning sun pouring through the arched windows of the fancy gymnasium. The theater management had rented it to hold both our fencing and our dancing lessons.
Sarah pursed her small, delicately pink, and slightly greasy lips. She was nibbling on a buttered crusted roll.
Karl had a nice behind. A perfectly normal, nice, masculine backside, well complemented by the muscular torso above it, the square-jawed manliness of his face, and the dark black of his close-cropped hair.
But Stephen? Greek sculptors might have been at a loss carving such a perfect set of nether quarters out of marble. And Stephen knew it, always choosing pants a size too small, consciously outlining those firm and perfectly formed buttocks. They were not too big to make them feminine, and unlike too many men, they were not so flat as to seem not there at all. He was modestly endowed from the front, as outlined by the slightly noticeable bulge. But then again, his was the perfect Greek mean in all his physical aspects. And though Greeks had gods, not angels, Stephen would have been an ideal naked subject for a Michelangelo to have brought worshipful religious beauty into light.
His golden hair in the sun’s rays through the window was a halo that put my yellow hair to straw in comparison. Had he been a slightly less flamboyant actor, there would have been no one who could have kept him from the highest temples of the stage.
But sadly for the world, and more so for his wife, that perfect ass of Stephen’s was also mounted on the perfect ass. A man whose wit was brilliant, but pointed like a surgeon’s knife, one who operated on the psyches of the people around him without the benefit of chloroform. Or perhaps he was more like a fishmonger, filleting the souls of his victims, like poor Sarah, one right after the other.
But damned that grace and beauty as he slashed and danced in whirling swordsmanship like a master. Or the lead male in a perfectly choreographed ballet, which in truth was what this was, a set of moves destined to awe and captivate an audience far more significant than his poor wife and me.
“It is a marvelous rear end, I must admit,” said Sarah. And I had the grace to blush. She must have been following my thoughts…and gaze.
“But I truly fell in love with him because of his eyes. And I still melt when he looks at me in a certain way. And I tell myself he always comes home, eventually, no matter how far he strays. To me.”
“He’d be a fool not to,” I said chivalrously.
“Yes. Especially since Stephen’s such an utter idiot with money. I hold the purse strings, after all. It’s so hard to keep up paying for his clothes, though, his port, his cigars, and his expensive gifts to agonizingly winsome younger men.”
“Men throw themselves at you all the time. Or try to,” I countered.
“And sadly, no one interests me but Stephen. The one I can’t have.”
I was slightly embarrassed and looked back down at the men in their dance below us.
It was hard not to admire the lunge and thrust between the two of them, both shining in the sunlight in their fencing uniforms. I sighed, knowing my practice bout was next. I was more sturdily built than either of them and much too tall to manage such elegance with a blade. And frankly, I was not at all motivated to exert myself to such tremendous efforts just to look good in a play. Acting was a necessity for me, not a grand ambition as it was for Stephen.
Sarah sighed. “Part of me would almost take Karl to bed for the fun of showing Stephen he couldn’t have just any handsome man he blinked his lashes at. There are still men who prefer women in this world,” she said, popping the last bite of the roll into her mouth. “Though I never seem to meet them,” she finished after a moment’s chewing. “And sometimes I wish I’d married one.”
She was staring directly into my eyes, and I had to look away. She knew full well what I was about, and this was just uncomfortable. The whole conversation was.
“It’s a wonder Stephen never took a fancy to you, Alex. Though I suppose it’s understandable. You’re too threatening to him.”
“Threatening! I’m nothing but a bit player, and he’s one of the twin lights of the modern theater. A younger Jack Gilman…”
“Don’t let Jack hear you say that or Stephen either.” She laughed. “No, you threaten him in so many ways. You’re almost as handsome as Stephen in your way. Even though your nose is a little crooked, no one can see that from the stage. And you’re a bit less pretty. But then, you don’t try to be good-looking as hard as Stephen does. Don’t you hate what he does with his mustache? That wax!
“You’ve lived a real life. A hard life. Not cushioned in a world of make-believe like Stephen. You’ve been out West. You’re an ex-Pinkerton, a former jailbird, a salesman, and everything in-between. You’ve experienced twice the life Stephen has if even half your stories are true, and it shows in everything about you. There’s no pretense. Stephen is all pretense. He’s just an actor. That’s why he hates you. Why he’s jealous.”
“Well, my stories as you call them are all true, though perhaps a tad less glamorous than I make them out to be when I’m drunk. But I’m certainly trying my damnedest to be an actor now. And surely even he can see how little a threat I am in that department!”
“Language, Alexander,” she corrected me automatically. “I love Stephen with my whole heart and soul, but at his worst, he’s a vain little coward and a bit of a bully. And sometimes a spoiled brat! And you show him up by not paying the slightest bit of attention to his boundless wealth of charm.”
I wisely laughed at what she said as if it were a joke.
I was too curious for my own good then. I asked, “Have you and Stephen ever managed to fulfill your marriage vows?” The idea was so foreign to my nature I couldn’t imagine someone like Stephen, someone like me…
“Oh yes, and that’s the terrible thing. It’s the endless chain binding me, giving me belief. And hope.
“Because I am the only woman Stephen ever managed to make love to, however rarely he manages it, and however drunk he has to be. I don’t know what makes me special in his eyes. I only know that I long for those nights when he embraces me with wild passion and then falls into misery like a frightened child clinging to me when we are through. I can’t break free. Because, I guess, at heart, I don’t really want to.”
I shuddered and wondered why she was telling me all this. I had asked without really expecting an answer, but a joking dismissal. It was a horribly private thing to bring up. But then I often wondered what it was about me that made people pour out their confidences. They’d air their dirty laundry as if I were some papist clergyman in a confessional. Perhaps it was my sympathetic face. Or maybe it was because one thing I had learned in life was one should never judge. At least not out loud.
“I’m such a fool, Alexander, a terrible fool. Because I do love him. I love him so much I—” She turned to me, smiled sadly, and reached out to squeeze my hand for comfort. I put my other hand on hers and pressed gently. Then I turned to look down and saw the fencers had paused, separated for a moment from their dance, resting and drinking water scooped up in ladles from a bucket.
Stephen was staring at me now while elegantly dabbing delicate beads of sweat from his perfect forehead with a small white towel. And if he were indeed the living sculpture of a god, I knew right then I would be dead, a lightning bolt tearing through my brain from the hatred he was beaming at me.
I quickly released Sarah’s hand, and the hatred in his gaze spread to a nasty smirk upon his lips and whispered words I couldn’t hear from where I sat, but ones I knew didn’t bode me any good.
And yet, the man was beautiful, even in his mask of jealousy and hatred as Lucifer must have been, still angelic as he fell from heaven’s heights while cursing God.
I should have heeded the warning then.
Meet the Author
Mark Lesney is a single gay man of a certain age, living with the obligatory cat. His only fiction credential before “Interview with the Kevin” is a semi-comic steampunk M/M romance novelette, “The Golden Goose,” published in the “Steamed Up” anthology, sadly now out of print.
His non-fiction writing credits, however, are extensive. Currently, he is the managing editor of two medical newspapers, for which he also writes routinely. For over 6 years, his science and history articles appeared monthly in two newsmagazines, for which he was a writer/editor at the American Chemical Society. His credits also include science articles published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. He has a PhD in plant pathology and a second PhD in the history of science.
He has worked as a research scientist and university professor. But his love has always been reading and writing fiction—with science fiction/fantasy, mystery, paranormal romance, and historicals all grappling for his affections. He is now determined to pursue that dream intensely.