For those anxiously awaiting a new title from the author of When You Find Me, P. J. Vernon gives us his second novel, Bath Haus. The wait is over, and expectations are exceeded! If all thrillers were as exhilarating from the first page to the last, we’d need to wear seat belts in our reading chairs.
Oliver Park, a recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they've made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn't be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it's a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it's the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life.
He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.
What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists. P. J. Vernon's Bath Haus is perfect for readers curious for their next must-read novel.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This is a fucking mistake.
My heart beats against the back of my sternum like it might knock itself still.
I kill the ignition and Nathan’s SUV sinks into silence. My wedding band slides right off, joining spare console change. Nathan and I aren’t married, but he insists we wear rings.
The iPhone buzzing in my pocket is a miniature washing machine. Nathan’s calling. I wait it out, don’t move. A simple phone call that I treat like a kidney stone. Excruciating and it needs to pass. He leaves a voicemail.
“Oliver. Dinner’s wrapped up, headed back to the hotel now. Give me a call if you can. Wondering what you’re doing. Did you remember Tilly’s heartworm medication? Don’t forget. It’s important. Call me. Love you.”
Mental note: return Nathan’s call within the hour. Thirty minutes is his typical limit. If he doesn’t hear back within half an hour, we fight. But he’s out of town, and I can stretch it to an hour. He can’t fight me from Manhattan, and it sounds like he’s been drinking anyway.
Cars jam the parking lot, bumper to bumper, nose to nose. Hidden from uninvited curiosity by a blanket of thick tree cover. No rhyme or reason or pattern ties one vehicle to another. A rust-scorched Pontiac sits beside a sleek black Mercedes. The polish on the Benz captures light from a lone streetlamp, painting itself in electric-blue waves. Countless more juxtapositions abound. Cross sections of the city. Not a single thing in common among their owners.
Except one: the desire to have sex with other men. Anonymously.
Breath fights me on the way out, clawing my windpipe like something feral. Oddly, my heartbeat slows and for a moment, I worry perhaps it has stopped altogether. One sneaker in front of the other, I make for a lone door—windowless, heavy. The building is unmarked save for the name I’d found online days earlier:
I tug the handle, and the door creaks open on one, two, five sets of metal hinges.
Low lighting, obviously. And a smell, pervasive, that soaks everything. I can almost wring it from the air. Cheap sterility. A pungent odor that’s at once recognizable. The purple bottle. Lavender, I think, and adjacent to Pine-Sol on every supermarket shelf.
“Hey.” A man greets me from behind a glassed-in desk. Not unlike a bank teller. “You a member?”
No, I say—only not aloud. A cough, then: “No.”
“You need to be one.” He pushes a clipboard through an opening and I note the thickness of his fingers. He’s large, but his sweatshirt still hangs loose. His features are drawn to the center of his face, needlessly crowding it.
“How much?” I ask, certain I’ve spoken out loud.
“Forty bucks. For the year. And I need your ID.”
Not bad, and an ID makes sense. No minors allowed. Here, a birthday is the difference between no strings attached and the sex registry. I slide him my driver’s license: Oliver Park. Twenty-six years old. Washington, DC. Organ donor.
A flare of blue Xerox light crosses his face. The abrupt flicker leaves behind a wake of blackness as my eyes readjust. For a fleeting moment, Nathan materializes in the dark and my pulse spikes. But seeing things in the dark is normal. Things that aren’t there. My thoughts return to the copy machine. Proof of my visit crowds the tip of my tongue with questions, and I tug my bottom lip.
He reads my mind: “For our records. We never share it, but we need to know our patrons. Legal shit.” A pause. “You signed?”
I nod and trade his clipboard—cash attached—for my license.
“If you’re gonna drink, you gotta leave a card.”
“You can do that here?”
“Only in the bar. Two-beer max. One if you want liquor.” I’m quiet for a beat, and he taps his finger. “Look, don’t sweat the charge. If you forget to cash out, it’ll say dry cleaning.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Regret from walking in sober—fear of whiskey dick or something stupid like that—vanishes as I slip him my credit card. Dry cleaning’s not the best cover because Nathan handles ours. But I’ll pay with cash after.
“Perfect.” He stoops beneath his desk, and for a few long seconds, I’m alone again. When he stands, he holds a cream-colored towel, folded into a neat square. Atop it: a single-use packet of lube, two condoms—fruit flavored—and a brass key on a rubber cord.
“Nine zero three.” He grins, and his narrow eyes crease. The corners of his mouth nearly touch his beady irises like a feline’s. “Have fun.”
When I’ve lingered too long, he gestures to the door on my left. I’m suddenly a bit like Alice. I’ve just met the Cheshire Cat, and Jefferson Airplane drums over which pills do what in my head.
Through door number 2, rows of lockers wait. I’m eager to leave the solvent reek of cleaners behind, but it only thickens. I’m also not alone, and my heart hiccups. Men stand and sit and linger in stages of undress, manspreading on changing benches, tiny towels intentionally parted.
None of them are particularly attractive—or if they are, the darkness is a mask—but that’s not the point, is it? What’s important is that I’ve left my life behind. I’ve abandoned its norms and its mores for Haus. Where we all play half-hidden in shadow and nakedness and thirsty eyes aren’t transgressive.
Haus caters to consequence-free expression, and I’m going to give in. An odd decision only in that I’d sworn I’d already made it. Somewhere between a heart-thumping Google query and cranking Nathan’s car, but apparently I hadn’t. Until now.
I locate the nine hundred row, find 903, and slip my key in.
What would Nathan say if he could see this? Of course, he can’t. And he won’t ever know. His conference keynote is long over. He’s left NYU Langone Medical Center for his hotel. The Millennium Hilton according to his e-confirmation. Awake or not, he’ll expect a call back soon. The longer his voicemail grows stale, the more he’ll needle later. His statement, I love you, will assume different punctuation. I love you?
I pull my T-shirt off, and gooseflesh crawls up my bare back.
Nathan’s thumbing through news on his phone. Or if not, he’s fast asleep. Glasses on the nightstand next to iced water. No, water’s not quite right; Nathan sleeps beside a hotel tumbler. It would’ve held bourbon but it won’t by now. And it won’t have been his first. One hour, timestamped, and I’ll call him from his own car in the parking lot.
My chest tightens. I draw in breath, slip khaki to my ankles, and step out from my shorts.
I’m in black briefs now. Briefs and sneakers—no socks. Nothing else. An older man, pear-shaped and lumpy, stares in obvious ways. He consumes both my flesh that’s exposed and my flesh that isn’t. When our eyes meet, he doesn’t look away and I’m embarrassed for him. Then I remember where we are.
An undeniable pleasure blooms. This man lusts for me and being objectified is an intoxicating little feeling I’ve missed terribly.
I toy with removing my underwear but opt to keep covered. At least a little bit. Don’t get ahead of yourself. I wrap the towel around my waist and hang the key from my wrist. I don’t need Nathan’s medical degree to know to keep my sneakers on. No amount of lavender solvent justifies bare feet on this tile.
The leering man’s no longer there. He’s likely vanished down a black corridor, hazy from steam, and I follow suit.
Down the rabbit hole and into a space that feels dark enough for developing photographs. Hot jungle air. Low red light touches everything but corners where shadows of men grind and thrust and bob. Moaning. Hushed words, frightening and thrilling.
“Yeah . . .”
“Don’t . . .”
“Yes . . .”
“Take . . .”
I pad down another humid hall. Stifling, door-lined, and each door is numbered. The inevitable looms on either side of me, like a sharp knuckle about to knock. A sign behind the Cheshire Cat had detailed room rates and these rent by what? The hour? The minute? The hall spills into a kind of gallery where projectors paint the walls in flickering vintage porn. Grainy cowboys smoking cigarettes and cock. No volume, but you wouldn’t need it—the space teems.
My palms are wet and itchy. Am I really prepared to do what I’ve come here for? What I only just decided I would do? I’ve come this far, and this is very far.
I find what appears to be a lounge, and drink relief like cool water. A casual refuge. Barflies. Sultry Britney belts “Toxic” on a TV over the counter, and I could be in any gay bar now. I’ll take a seat here and regroup.
“Vodka tonic?” I ask a shirtless bartender in jeans so low it’s a shame he’s off-limits.
Black light sets his teeth aflame in fluorescence when he bares them. “Locker number?”
“Nine oh three.”
He winks and slides a glass of well liquor my way. The drink has bite, and a thrumming pulse hurls alcohol through my blood-brain barrier. I’m done in two swallows.
“What are you looking for?”
The voice comes from behind, but its owner sidesteps and claims the next stool over. The accent takes me by surprise. Scandinavian maybe.
He’s in a towel too. Rubber flip-flops. He moves with intention, and his shoulder muscles tense and relax. A tightness in my gut says I’m buying whatever the hell this stranger plans to pitch. He’s muscular and svelte at the same time. Taller than me, but most men are.
His eyebrows lift and he smiles before repeating himself: “What are you looking for?”
Blond bangs frame deep eyes. Ocean deep, actually, and Alexander Skarsgård here just might drown me. I clear my throat. “I’m not sure yet.”
It’s the truth, which means I’m off-balance. In situations like this, the truth is what we offer when we don’t have anything better.
He draws closer, and I flinch. A second, knowing grin, and he reaches into my glass for ice with long fingers. He places a wet cube between full lips, where it starts to melt, before slipping it inside his mouth.
When it cracks between his teeth, my resolve—what little there is—does precisely the same. Our eyes meet, and I resist the urge to look away. Something taunting says he wouldn’t let me. His ocean-deep eyes would chase mine. Pin them down, pin me down.
Tiny hairs on my face and chest stiffen with static charge. His hand finds my thigh, travels beneath my towel. Fingers run the hem of my briefs.
“I’m Kristian.” He whispers unfettered possibility into my ear: “I have a room.”
I nod, and he stops just shy of my crotch. Dopamine—and whatever the fuck else makes a body high—rafts through my veins. I’m intoxicated and trailing him down a hall.
Everything is about the present. Nathan doesn’t exist here. Nor does the home we’ve made together. This is Wonderland, and Wonderland only exists in the now. There is only now. The door shuts behind us in a room couched in darkness. My heart pounds, and Kristian says he can feel my pulse in every part of me.
Electricity snaps, arcs from me to him. We kiss.
The towels are gone. As are my briefs. He spins me to face a sweating wall, my palms flush against it. Steam from saunas and showers and whirlpools pipes in through unseen vents. Dampness crowds the air, pools in body crevasses.
We slip against each other, but he holds me firm. His mouth on the back of my neck.
I turn long enough to say: “Condom.”
“I have,” he answers, and I swallow the softball in my throat. My thoughts barely keep pace with my heartbeat. I’m doing this. No more thinking about it. The bridge is crossed and every moment after this will exist in the light of a new truth.
I’ve pulled a trigger. I’ve cheated on Nathan, and like a gun, I can never un-fire.
He brings my wrists together behind my back. I expect he’s fumbling with the condom or the lube or both.
Only he isn’t.
Instead, his free palm pushes its way between my shoulder blades. I turn, and his grip on my wrists tightens. His fingers reach my neck, and my heart catches fire. I’m vulnerable for a moment, but soon his hand will run through my hair, gripping it for what’s to come.
That doesn’t happen either. His fist stays on my neck.
I’m vulnerable still, and something isn’t right. The knot of excitement shoots from my groin to my chest. It constricts my ribs in tandem with Kristian’s hands. I only now appreciate the length of this man’s fingers as they find their way around my neck.
Another line is crossed. I jolt, start to spin.
“No you don’t!” Like a spring trap, he catches my arms and twists them behind my spine. My body stiffens. This is wrong. Everything is wrong. Adrenaline pumps like jet fuel, and my insides swell with heat.
One hand firm on my neck, he threads the other through my back and elbows. Pinning me with his forearm and chest, his fists clamp my throat like a vise. And like a vise, they squeeze.
My arms contort. I struggle, and he pulls tighter.
Spasming, I gasp for air that isn’t there.
Eye spots bloom and grow and float, and my consciousness snaps into a single thought. It takes longer to resolve because my brain’s suddenly oxygen starved.
This man with the ocean-deep eyes. He’s killing me.