After a successful first season of Domestic Partners chronicling the renovation of their historic Craftsman Colonial, Peter and JP are taking on a renovation of a local Tudor Revival inherited by identical twin brothers Terry and Tom Cash. But linoleum floors and a pink-tiled bathroom aren’t the only unwelcome surprises awaiting inside the house . . .
Just as the show is set to start filming, Peter and JP discover Tom Cash dead at the foot of the house's staircase. And when the police ruling changes from accidental death to homicide, the list of suspects grows fast. Could the killer be the crabby next-door-neighbor, the Realtor ex-boyfriend, the bartender ex-boyfriend, the other, much younger, ex-boyfriend, or even renovation-reluctant brother, Terry? And what's that awful smell coming from the basement? Now Peter's mystery writer skills, and JP's experience as the former star of a cop show, will be put to the test—as will their relationship while they uncover the secrets of the house and its owners. With a killer on the loose, this is one fixer upper that may prove deadly . . .
Release date: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Renovated to Death
Frank Anthony Polito
The handsome older man looked deep into my eyes. “So, what’s it feel like being famous?” Clearly, he was flirting.
I blushed and took a sip of sauvignon blanc, my favorite. “Well, I’m hardly famous.”
“You’re on a TV show. And you’ve written all those best-selling books!”
I blushed again. “They’re not all best sellers.”
Being the cohost of a popular home renovation program had indeed given my sales figures a boost. But along with a rigorous production schedule came little time for other creative outlets, like penning the next Great American YA mystery novel.
The handsome older man gave my hand a paternal pat. “You’re a modest young boy. I’m a big fan of your writing.”
“That’s very kind,” I said, draining my wineglass. “But I’m hardly a boy.”
The handsome older man grinned. “Okay, I’m fifty. How old are you?”
“The same age Jesus was when he died,” I replied coyly before coming clean. “I’ll be thirty-four in November.”
“Really? You don’t look a day over twenty-seven.”
Like a lot of gay millennial men, I suffered from self-inflicted Peter Pan Syndrome. My first name was, in fact, Peter, so it made perfect sense.
Inside, I did feel like a man in his early-late twenties. Outside, my behavior and personal style often reflected as much. I had a preference for pullovers, and wore size small everything, purchased online, of course, because who had time to go shopping?
The handsome older man looked to his left. “This one’s a keeper.”
We weren’t alone. This wasn’t a date; it was a dinner party. We were only two of a half-dozen guests in attendance.
The handsome younger man sitting opposite me shrugged. “Almost five years I’ve been stuck with this one. Huh, Pete?” My life partner, who also happened to be my reality TV show cohost, winked at me.
JP Broadway, star of screens both big and small, was by far the most beautiful man I’d ever set my eyes on. Tall, dark, and sexy didn’t begin to describe him. At thirty-five, dressed in a blue polo that hugged his baseball biceps and made his bright eyes pop, he still looked gorgeous.
“Five years!” A crass voice chimed in from the head of the antique oak dining table. “And you’re still not married? Better do it before you guys turn forty. You wanna look good in your wedding photo.” Our host, Bob, raised a glass of red wine in a jovial toast. “To PJ and JP. Mazel tov! ”
PJ and JP.
Yes, it could be confusing.
Growing up, I’d always been called Peter by family and friends. When I first met JP, for some reason, he took a liking to calling me Pete. Then, when I turned from unpaid playwright to published author, PJ Penwell sprang to life—the J standing for James, after my father.
As a lapsed Catholic, JP didn’t care much for being called John Paul. When he joined the actors’ union, he officially became known by his first two initials. Shortly after we started dating, he landed a gig on the highest-rated cop drama of the day, Brooklyn Beat. I couldn’t ask my brand-new boyfriend to adopt a brand-new stage moniker, just because my publisher felt that PJ on a dust jacket would sell more books.
“Thanks, Bob,” I said graciously to the only straight guy out of six seated around the table.
Bob turned his attention back to the handsome older man beside me. He snickered like a cartoon character. “So, Tommy . . . where’s your boy toy tonight?” And he wondered why, on more than one occasion, people had mistaken him for a member of the pink team?
“Hell if I know,” Tom Cash replied, rolling his dark eyes. “Think he’s mad at me.”
“Uh-oh. Tell Fairway Bob what you did wrong.”
Perhaps it was because he preferred the company of men who loved other men? Perhaps it was because he was the proud proprietor of an antique shop? Or perhaps it was because, at the ripe old age of fifty, Bob Kravitz still found himself a bachelor?
Being his neighbors for the past nine months, JP and I did our best not to hold his heterosexuality against him. In private, we referred to Bob as a hetmo, our preferred pet name for hetero guys who could easily pass for homo. Back in the day, in New York, folks would use the term metrosexual. Same diff, only less mainstream.
Bob’s real name, of course, was Robert. On social media, he was known to everyone as Fairway Bob, after the street on which he lived, and where JP and I also resided, in the sleepy Detroit suburb of Pleasant Woods.
Situated between upscale Royal Heights to the north and modest Fernridge to the south, a mere fifteen hundred residents made their home here. On the west side of Woodward Avenue, the main thoroughfare that bisected the community, lavish dwellings rested on oversized lots belonging to the upper middle class. The east side—affectionately dubbed Peasant Woods—gave way to smaller properties whose owners, while still well-off, earned far smaller incomes.
It was here, on the first block of Fairway Lane, that we’d found ourselves, sitting in Bob Kravitz’s beautiful Arts and Crafts style bungalow. The charming house, located at number 3, had been a favorite of ours since moving in next door. We admired the low-pitched roof and great porch, supported by two pillars on either side and a half column in the center. The avocado-colored cedar shake siding and exposed rafter tails contributed to the overall classic character.
The interior was a Craftsman aficionado’s dream come true! Dark quarter-sawn oak trimmed the windows and doorways, while tall wainscot panels covered the dining room walls, complete with a wide plate rail running along the top. On the white oak floors lay the finest of floral-patterned William Morris wool rugs, right out of a Frank Lloyd Wright catalogue.
The vintage furnishings—mostly Mission in style—came direct from the business that Fairway Bob operated, a vintage furniture store called Somewhere in Time, after a favorite movie filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Stained glass table lamps and pendant chandeliers gave off an amber glow, making the home feel extra warm and cozy, particularly on evenings spent in good company.
“What did I do wrong?” Tom Cash wondered aloud, in response to Bob’s inquiry about his young boyfriend’s whereabouts. “A big fat nothing.” He held up his large hand in innocence before blushing with guilt. “Okay, maybe I flirted a little with a cutie-pie on Lads4Dads?”
Tom took out his cell phone and opened the gay dating app. “Oh, look.” He tapped a thick finger to the screen and swiped. “There he is now! Hunter27. Only point-five miles away.”
From where he sat, opposite Fairway Bob and directly to Tom Cash’s left, Campbell Sellers took notice of the fancy mobile device. “Is that the new iPhone?”
“Only the best for my brother.” The comment, directed at Tom, came from his identically handsome—and equally gay—twin, Terry. He sat across the table, to JP’s right, sulking into his lemon-lime LaCroix, totally sober.
Both men were similarly dressed, in dark hoodies and athletic wear that showed off their fit physiques. Other than the opposing ball caps they sported, the men came off as carbon copies. Tom’s was blue with a gold M for Michigan and Terry’s white with a green S for State.
“Got mine the other day.” Cam, as I’d called him since freshman year at Madison Park High School, reached into the linen jacket he wore and pulled out his own brand-new smartphone, similar to the one Tom Cash held in his not-so-little hand.
As the top Realtor around town, Campbell Sellers had to keep abreast of all the current hi-tech trends. The guy sold more houses than any other real estate agent in Metro Detroit.
“Look at you, being all professional,” I said, complimenting Cam on his new purchase. “Hey, can I see it?”
Cam handed me the shiny gadget. “Careful. All my contacts are in that thing. I lose it, I’m up the creek.”
It felt so much lighter than the phone I’d been lugging around for as long as I could remember. The pristine glass glistened like a sheet of ice. “We need a couple of these,” I told JP, jealous of my longtime best friend’s latest find. “Tell Ursula to get us a pair for next season, okay?”
“Why do I need to tell her?” JP clapped back. “She’s your producer, too.”
“But she’s your best friend. She gave you your own TV show. She’ll get you a couple new phones if you ask her, I’m sure.”
JP shook his head, not wanting to rehash this familiar conversation.
It was almost as old as our relationship, and oh-so typical: the single straight woman, pining away for the unavailable gay man. Not that I didn’t love Ursula. Without her, there’d be no Domestic Partners on Home Design TV.
Ursula knew we’d been talking about moving to Michigan, where my aging parents and sister still lived. As part of her brilliant pitch to the network, the premise for the show involved a handy gay couple who purchase an old house and complete the renovations over the course of a ten-episode arc, all the while bickering back and forth—albeit affectionately—and providing some requisite eye candy for HDTV’s 1.1 million viewers, mostly women and gay men.
From the living room, above the natural fireplace, the mantel clock struck nine.
Terry, the other handsome gay twin, tossed his cloth napkin aside and abruptly stood up. “Sorry guys, I gotta go.”
“Come on, Ter,” Tom groaned. “You can’t take off before we seal the deal with these TV dudes, okay?”
Judging by his dominant disposition, I deemed Tom the alpha of the duo.
Terry sank back into his seat. The old wood chair crackled beneath his solid frame. “Right. The deal.”
From his lackluster tone, I got the impression that Terry Cash wasn’t nearly as eager as his identical sibling to be taking part in this negotiation.
“So, what do you guys say?” Tom Cash slyly looked my way, then over at JP. “Wanna do this with me and my brother or not?”
I glanced at JP across the table, giving him silent permission to speak on our behalf.
“We’re definitely interested,” my partner assured the handsome older man. “Aren’t we, Pete?”
“For sure. But we need to see what you’re offering before we can make up our minds.” I couldn’t help but feel anxious, becoming involved with these equally handsome strangers.
As a young gay man, I’d befriended my fair share of attractive older gay guys. The relationships had always begun out of some mutual interest: a fascinating film we’d both enjoyed, a memorable experience at the same expensive restaurant, a page-turning novel neither one of us could put down.
Despite my upfront declaration of domestic partnerdom, the mature man would inevitably cross the line and say, or God forbid, do something totally inappropriate. His unwelcome advances would cause me to feel totally uncomfortable. But being the polite person my parents raised, I’d feign feeling flattered in order to not cause him embarrassment.
In the end, I’d pretty much have to ghost the guy, hoping he’d get the hint and just go away. This would cause me to feel as if I’d done something wrong, when all I’d wanted all along was to be a decent human being.
The Cash brothers were another story altogether. Two older gay men meant double the odds for lascivious lechery. Alas, JP and I had no other choice. We both desperately needed to get in bed with these guys.
Figuratively, not literally.
“Awesome!” Tom drained his after-dinner drink—bourbon, my favorite. “Swing by the house in the morning. I’ll give you the grand tour. How’s ten o’clock?”
“Actually, we’ve got a previous appointment,” JP said, politely declining Tom’s invitation.
Cam raised a suspicious eyebrow. “What appointment would that be?” Suddenly, he gasped in horror. “You guys aren’t adopting a baby, are you?”
“God, no!” I swallowed my last bite of apple crumble, trying not to choke at Cam’s question. “But close.”
“We’re adopting a dog,” JP clarified for everyone’s benefit, sounding super excited. “Well, we’re meeting a dog that we’re hoping to adopt.”
“OMG!” Cam cheered in approval. “I wanna see a picture!”
Now that the pending new puppy was out of the bag, I couldn’t resist being braggadocios.
I pulled out my phone, opened the photo stream, and found an image that I’d saved off the dog rescue’s website. “His name is Clyde,” I humbly bragged, flashing the pic at everyone sitting around the table—JP included, who’d seen it at least a hundred times since I’d first discovered the adorable image on the Adopt-a-Pet app a few weeks ago.
The reluctant subject was a tiny white doggie with brown brindle markings on the right side of his face and in a half moon-shaped patch over his left almond-shaped eye. His head tilted to one side, ever so slightly, as he stared sadly into the camera. He had the stubbiest little legs and the tiniest pink toenails I ever did see.
We were both madly in puppy love, JP and me, with Mr. Clyde Barker, as we’d planned to christen him on his official adoption papers.
Cam squealed at the sight of the little dog, all bundled up in a tiny red puffy coat. “I love his little jacket!”
“Oh!” Fairway Bob gushed as he gazed at our would-be pup’s picture. “He looks so sad. You boys better bring Mr. Clyde home!”
“Fingers crossed,” said JP, doing just that. “We’re meeting him at the pet store in the morning.”
Cam ripped the phone right out of my hand, the better to see Clyde’s picture. “What’s the dog-rescue group called?”
“Home FurEver,” I answered, appreciative of the name’s clever wordplay, being a writer. “They’re based down in Detroit.”
Cam’s eyes lit up at my reply. “That’s where I got my Snoop! Feel free to list me as a reference, you guys.”
“Good to know. We will for sure,” JP promised.
Cam sucked down the rest of his chardonnay and promptly poured another. “Your morning sounds a lot more fun than mine. I’m hosting yet another open house, up in Royal Heights. Eleven to three. On a Saturday! If you can believe it.”
I wondered why Cam sounded so inconvenienced by this particular home showing. “Don’t you host all your open houses on weekends?”
“I do. But I’d much rather be at a pet store, playing with all the cute puppies.”
“Don’t let Snoop hear you say that,” JP teased. “He might not approve of another dog’s scent on his person.”
“Definitely not. Snoop does not like being cheated on,” Cam quipped.
At last, Tom Cash joined in our conversation. Casually, he crossed his legs at the ankle as he offered us some select words of wisdom: “Be sure to mention you’re famous. Tell the dog-rescue woman you’ll talk up her group on your TV show, if she lets you adopt . . . what’s the dog’s name, Clive?”
“Clyde,” JP corrected. “He’s got a sister named Bonnie.”
“Of course he does,” Fairway Bob said dryly.
Tom sat up straight in his chair, eager to get back to discussing business. “Speaking of your TV show . . .”
“Right!” I said, remembering the reason why Fairway Bob had invited us all to his home on that midsummer evening, after he’d offered to make the introductions and play the mediator.
“Why don’t you guys come by the house when you’re done with your dog adoption appointment?” Tom Cash suggested, bound and determined to sway us. “You’ll have a look around. We can discuss which projects you might work on . . . sound good?”
“Or . . .” Cam drunkenly drawled. “We could go over and check things out now.”
“I don’t know,” I said, realizing we’d better wrap up the evening.
JP and I were hoping to catch the latest episode of our favorite Friday night political program, before drifting off to beddie-bye, where we would dream of the day we’d finally bring our little Clyde home with us.
“I’m down if you guys are,” Tom Cash decided. “A moonlight tour of a spooky old Tudor Revival . . . too bad it’s not Devil’s Night.”
“Come on!” Cam said, offering up his encouraging approval. “It’ll be fun!” He snatched his fancy new phone from where I’d left it on the table and started for Fairway Bob’s front door. “I wanna take some pictures.”
“No posting online, okay?” Tom warned Cam, the social media maven. “I don’t wanna see any photos on Facebook. Or Instagram. Or Twitter.” He stood up purposefully and turned to address his twin. “Let’s go, Ter.”
Like sheep, brother Terry, my partner JP, and I followed Tom Cash toward the front door.
Or were we more like lambs . . . being led to slaughter?
Fairway Bob’s stellar matchmaking skills had no doubt impressed him.
“I just knew you guys would hit it off! When I found out you lost the new property for your TV show,” he explained, beaming brightly, “I immediately thought of Tom and Terry’s parents’ place, sitting vacant across the street.”
“And we’re glad you did!” I let out an overly dramatic breath. “Ursula would pitch a fit if she found out we didn’t have a house to renovate for season two.”
JP placed a hand on Bob’s sloping shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Sure you don’t wanna join us?”
“No! Been there, seen it before. Besides, I’d rather stay home and play with my Willie.” Bob clapped his hands together and gave a quick whistle through his recently whitened teeth. “Here, boy!”
A large black Lab perked up from where he lay under the pedestal table. The dog got to all fours and trotted over to his master, Fairway Bob, tail happily wagging to and fro.
Reaching down, I patted Willie’s big head. “Good boy, good boy!”
I couldn’t wait until JP and I owned our own dog—or two—something we’d been planning since moving to Michigan almost a year earlier. Fingers crossed, it would happen sooner than later.
“Terry, wanna meet for brunch in the morning?” Bob suggested, before waving us goodbye. “Ten o’clock at Chianti.”
Terry carefully considered Bob’s invitation. “I won’t get home from work till after two tonight. By the time I go to bed, it’ll be closer to three . . .”
“So, let’s make it eleven,” Bob decided. “Terry needs all the beauty sleep he can get,” he joked to the rest of us guys as he ushered us outside.
We started down the steps of the bungalow’s brick porch in a single file line, like school kids off on a nighttime field trip.
JP turned to Terry, who’d barely said a word the entire dinner party. “How long has your folks’ house been empty?”
Before Terry could answer, his twin Tom replied: “Oh, a good twenty years.”
“Twenty-five,” Terry corrected, shooting his brother the evil eye.
The click of a Zippo lighter put an end to the dispute as Tom lit a cigarette. While the pack he’d pulled it from featured the words natural and organic, it still surprised me, in this day and age, to see a man in such great physical shape smoking. But Tom had been drinking all evening. Maybe he only partook in the bad habit when he’d been under the influence of alcohol? Regardless, I wasn’t about to criticize the behavior of a man I’d only just met.
“Your parents both passed?” I asked Terry Cash, hoping I wasn’t being too personal. But really, who was I kidding? Fairway Bob had already filled in both me and JP on the entire Cash family history. Still, I chose to play dumb, out of respect for the deceased.
Terry nodded. “They were killed.”
The man definitely had a way of telling it like it was.
“Oh, my God,” JP gasped, showing off his skills as an actor. He’d heard the exact same account from Bob that I had, when he’d offered to arrange our meeting with the Cash brothers.
“Snowmobiling accident, up near Traverse City,” Tom elaborated. “They were celebrating their wedding anniversary.” He dragged hard on his cigarette before continuing his sad story. “Dad was driving, Mom riding behind him. Hit an icy patch, crashed into a telephone pole.”
Tom tilted his head back, filling the awkward pause that hung in the night air with a blue-gray plume of smoke. Suddenly, from across the street, we heard a hoarse cry: “Heeey!”
An elderly man stood on the small front porch of a canary yellow Cape Cod, circa 1920. He wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt of a similar color, along with matching plaid golf pants. Well into his eighties, he stumbled down the concrete steps and stomped his way across the freshly cut lawn of his home at 6 Fairway Lane.
“Oh, God,” Tom Cash muttered. “Here comes Mr. Hank.” Evidently he wasn’t the least bit delighted to run into his family’s former neighbor.
Hank Richards hobbled from the humble sidewalk out into the empty street. Beneath the light of the old-fashioned lamppost, he waited, arms akimbo, to accost the five of us. The waning full moon peeked through puffy clouds as old Hank began to rip into twins Tom and Terry.
“I wanna talk to you boys!” he told the brothers, all but wagging a bony finger in their identically handsome faces. Having observed the Cash twins come up in the house next door, it was clear that Hank Richards still viewed the full-grown men as a pair of prepubescent kids.
“Well, hello, Mr. Hank,” Tom said, feigning politeness. Quickly, he crushed out his cigarette, like a schoolboy caught in the act of being bad on the playground. “What would you like to talk to us about?”
Old Hank pointed toward the abandoned 1929 Tudor Revival, with its decorative half-timbering and cream-colored stucco exterior. The slate shingles that covered the steeply pitched gables were all worn and weathered from many a harsh Michigan winter. Copper gutters ripped away from the fascia, brought down by heavy ice that had formed time and again, the result of insufficient insulation. Paint cracked and peeled around windowpanes; dried mortar broke off in chunks between crumbling brick.
The structure—as a whole—was a far cry from condemnation, yet utterly uninhabitable in its present condition. With patience and the right care, the old home could painstakingly be brought back to its former glory. A few fresh coats of semigloss to the interior, a complete renovation of both the kitchen and second-floor bath, a professional refinishing of the white oak floors and dark wood trim throughout, and . . .
All would appear as it once had, on the day the happily married couple, Larry and Linda Cash, first moved into the historic house located at 4 Fairway Lane.
On the opposite side, at number 2, a two-story Queen Anne, circa 1898, bustled with Fri. . .
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