Billy Reno called me the night he died. By the next morning, I was the prime suspect in his murder. How many times since then have I wished I’d missed that call? More than I can count.
It had been two years since I’d heard from him, and it sounded like the same old drunken plea.
“Paul! Help me!”
I heard him sobbing, or maybe he had the dry heaves. He talked like he had a mouth full of cotton balls.
“You’re wasted, as usual,” I said. “Go find someplace to sleep it off.”
“No! Lood…bish…bah. Ah, shit!”
“I don’t even know what the Hell you’re saying.”
“Shasing me! Sheshus! Paul!”
“Whatever, Billy. Go vomit on somebody else.”
I hung up. I had every right to. Billy Reno did all he could to fuck up my life last time I gave him the chance. But even so I began to feel like an asshole for blowing him off; so by the time the text message came from the same number fifteen minutes later, I had started to change my mind about things.
“Please, Paul,” the message said. “Meet me at Enrique’s. Please!!!!”
My memory’s a little shaky on what happened next. I went to Enrique’s—one of those Mexican places run by white folks, with the walls painted all Pottery Barn green and gray, and neon beer signs the only decorations—but Billy didn’t show.
I couldn’t tell you how many drinks I had. I couldn’t tell you much at all. I don’t remember telling my sob story to anyone who would listen, about how I had been in Billy’s band, that we’d been going places, really going places, until Billy’s paranoid schizophrenia or whatever he had, combined with his tendency to self-medicate, had caused him to lose the last of his marbles, wander off, and literally leave me and the rest of the band standing on a stage in front of 10,000 fans right in the middle of our first big tour. About how the aftermath of that disaster had cost me my marriage and all of my professional credibility. About how after finally gaining a toehold in the Nashville music scene I was now a washed up has-been who’d slunk back to his home town, Milwaukee fucking Wisconsin, to scrounge gigs and wait for his turn on an episode of “Where Are They Now?”
Later, I heard I’d said all those things, and more. Depending on who you asked, I even had a thing or two to say about what I might do if I ever got my hands on that no-show son of a bitch. Needless to say, none of this looked so good on my record the next day when the cops started coming around.
The ringing phone nearly split my head in two. I opened eyes that were trying to stick shut and nearly got blinded by mid-morning April sunshine. For a moment, I had no idea where I was, then I realized I was in my living room, sleeping on the couch. I had a hangover that seemed to start way down in the base of my spine and extend out into somewhere in the next county.
“Hello?” I said.
“Paul? Is that you?” Through the haze of sleep and a splitting pain in my head, I recognized my ex-wife’s voice.
“Susan?” I said, “What’s going on? What time is it?”
“It’s almost noon. Where were you last night?”
I tried to remember, but in that instant I didn’t have the foggiest idea where I’d been. “I don’t know. Why the fuck would you care? It’s not like we’re married anymore.”
I heard her catch herself on the other end, as if she was about to snap at me, but got it under control. “Let me start over.” She lowered her voice. “Paul, do you know that Billy Reno was murdered last night?”
In the daze that still fogged my mind from sleep, I thought for a moment I must be dreaming. I had just talked to Billy. He had asked me meet him. Now I was dreaming he was dead.
“What?” was all I managed to say.
“Listen to me, Paul. Billy was murdered. Beat to death. Did you see him last night?”
“No. Christ, Susan, are you shitting me?”
“No. You didn’t see him?”
“He called me, asked to meet. I agreed, but he never showed up.”
There was noise on her end of the line. “I’ve got to go Paul. There’s going to be a detective coming by to question you.”
“Me? Susan, you can’t seriously think I would—”
“I don’t want to think it, Paul,” she said, “but you went to Enrique’s last night and made it known that you hated his guts. What the hell did you do that for?”
“Don’t play games with me. I’m just trying to help you.”
“I’m not playing games. I don’t really remember much about last night.”
“You think that’s going to fly with the Homicide detectives?”
“You’re not on the case?”
“Of course not. Conflict of interest.”
“Then how come you know so much about whatever I was doing last night.”
“Through the grapevine.”
Was this really happening? Billy Reno, murdered? Christ, he had called me, told me someone was after him. I had told him to leave me alone. After all, he had always thought someone was after him. Usually it was the FBI. So this time he had finally been telling the truth?
And a detective was coming here? Susan was a cop herself, Milwaukee PD, so she would know. I stood up, and realized I was still drunk. I swayed on my feet, my legs like half-cooked spaghetti. My stomach sent a shot of acid up into my throat, and I retched. How much had I had to drink last night? More than I’d had in years, it felt like. I cursed my stupidity. After forty-two years on this planet, you’d think a guy would learn when it’s time for last call.
Cops. Coming here. When? I managed to get to the bathroom. Splashed water on my face, my hair. Brushed my teeth, fighting back more heaves. I had slept in my clothes. They stunk of alcohol and cigarette smoke, but I didn’t know if there was time to change.
In that still-drunk-but-already-hungover state, the idea of making coffee seemed way too much to wrap my brain around, so I went for a packet of Starbucks instant. I had just managed to boil the water and stir the powder into a cup when the doorbell rang.
I live on the second floor of a duplex. I held tight to the railing as I made my way down the stairs, fighting to control my sodden muscles, feeling like some kid who’s gotten drunk for the first time and has to try and get past Mom and Dad. A crazy urge to giggle caught hold of me at that thought. I paused, looked at the man-shaped shadow waiting outside the door, and the urge went away.
When I opened the door the blonde man with the military style haircut standing on my porch looked more like an ex-Marine who was masquerading as a banker than a cop. His suit strained at the seams, as if he would transform into the Incredible Hulk at any minute. His smile was even tighter than his suit. “Mr. Paul Kingston?” he asked.
“Yes?” I squinted against the sun. The back of my neck throbbed like it was about to give birth to something.
“Detective Roy Everhard,” the man said, flashing me a wallet that displayed his badge, “Milwaukee PD, Homicide Division. May I ask you a few questions?”
“What’s going on?”
“Mr. Kingston, are you acquainted with a Billy Reno?”
“How do you know him?”
“We used to work together. He fronted a band. I was the bass player.”
“And where were you last night between 9:00 pm and midnight?”
“Over at Enrique’s, on Delaware Street.”
“You were there the whole time?”
“I think so. To tell you the truth, I got pretty drunk and I don’t remember much about last night.”
“That right?” Everhard looked at me thoughtfully, the way a hawk must look at a mouse right before ripping it to shreds. “You sure you didn’t go anywhere else?”
“Well, honestly, no. I don’t remember, like I said. What’s this about?”
“Mr. Kingston, Billy Reno was beaten to death last night. Now, would you happen to know anything about that?”
“Beaten to death?” I’d already heard this, of course, but I guess it hadn’t sunken in yet.
“Right. And I have witnesses who say you were in Enrique’s telling the whole world how he screwed you over, and how you’d like to get your hands on him. Did you?”
“Did I what?”
He sighed his disappointment, as if this conversation was little more than a waste of his time. “Did you get your hands on him? Did you kill him?”
“No! I didn’t kill him. I never even saw him. He asked me to meet him at Enrique’s, and he never showed.”
“And you never saw him last night?”
“Are you sure? You just got done telling me you don’t remember everything about last night.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. Suddenly it was hard to meet his eyes.
“So you really can’t be sure you didn’t kill him, am I right?”
There didn’t seem to be a good answer to that question, so I kept quiet. Everhard shifted on his feet.
“I understand you’re an avid softball player, Mr. Kingston.”
“I used to be. I stopped playing a couple of years ago.” I’d broken a finger. It was only the pinkie on my left hand, not too important as far as playing the bass guitar goes, but it had been a wake-up call that I was risking an injury that could severely mess up my music career. Or what was left of it.
“Still own the equipment? Your glove, ball, bat?”
“Mind if I have a look at that bat?” he asked.
“No. I’ll get it.”
“May I come in?”
I tried to picture my apartment. Was there anything incriminating up there? Of course there wasn’t. Unless I killed Billy and somehow don’t remember doing it, I thought.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I climbed up the stairs, holding tight to the railing. The weak feeling in my legs was now due to more than the alcohol in my system.
I went to my bedroom closet, where I remembered leaving the bat, but it wasn’t there. My Mizuno infielder’s mitt was there and a well-used looking ball, but no bat. Great. Had I lent it to someone? I had no idea. I hadn’t thought of that thing in two years.
“I seem to have misplaced it,” I told Detective Everhard when I got back down the stairs.
“You seem to?” He laughed. “That’s cute. ‘I seem to have misplaced it.’ You sure you didn’t misplace it in Billy Reno’s head?”
“I can look for it.”
“Why don’t I come in and help you look?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t think it’s here.”
“Where do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Well, you better hope you find it before I do, Mr. Kingston. Say, any idea why your business card was in Billy Reno’s pocket?”
“He called me, said he needed help. He must have gotten my number from the card.” I filled him in on the text I had received as well.
“So, you told him to go to hell, and then he sent you a text message, and you changed your mind?”
“I’ll need the number he called you from. And then what happened?”
I found the number Billy had called in my phone’s history, then we went through my story again. The witnesses he’d talked to claimed to know a lot more about what happened next than I did. Apparently I’d been asked to leave Enrique’s. The owner of the nearest liquor store said I came in for a fifth of Southern Comfort, and gave him an earful about Billy as well.
After I’d repeated what little I knew three times, Everhard seemed ready to quit.
“If I were you, I’d find that bat, Mr. Kingston.”
“You do that. I’ve got half a mind to arrest you right now. I’d say I have enough probable cause, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt since you used to be married to a member of the department.” He gave me his card.
“Call me if you ‘remember’ anything else,” he said, making the quotation marks in the air with his other hand. Then he turned and walked down the wooden stairs and out toward his car.
I stood, stunned, watching him drive away. And then I remembered I had a gig at two that day. Cursing, I ran back up the front stairs.
I made another cup of coffee, changed my clothes. Opening the fridge, I saw a bottle of Southern Comfort, unopened. I was struck again by the eerie reality that I had done things I didn’t remember, and then by the idea that I’d apparently thought booze needed refrigeration.
What the hell was happening? Billy was dead? And I’d gotten so drunk I was blacked out? That wasn’t like me. I love drinking a beer or three, but I hadn’t gotten plastered enough to black out since college. I remembered being pissed off about Billy’s call. I could imagine myself being even angrier when he didn’t show up, but angry enough to drink myself into a stupor?
I slapped together a Swiss cheese and mustard sandwich, and choked it down. After my stomach churned a time or two and sent up an angry belch, the sandwich apparently decided to stay put. Thankfully, the physical anguish I had awoken with was starting to fade, leaving only a grinding, gnawing fear. Somebody had killed Billy. And the police thought it was me. And could I be absolutely sure they were wrong?