My editorial team and I are almost ready to release Autumn Leaves. The e-book version will be out by the end of June, 2014, and the print book soon after that. While you’re waiting, Here’s an excerpt.
A Paul Kingston Mystery
by Stephen L. Moss
I was sitting on the front porch when the phone rang, watching a passing airliner scar the October sky. Its leading edge was thin, razor sharp; farther back, the smoke spread and faded. I thought of how wounds begin that way: defined, angry. Then, like a trail of smoke, they blur and fade. Yet they are always there, irregular, imperfect, reminding us of the wounds we’ve endured.
The phone chirped again, playing the opening notes of Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” yanking my eyes to the table in front of me. I reached for the phone and glanced at its screen. The number was local, but I didn’t recognize it.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Paul? It’s Dante Hillman. How you doing?”
Dante. For a moment I didn’t recognize the name or the voice that had spoken it.
“Come on, man. Don’t tell me you forgot who I am already.”
“No,” I said, my head finally supplying the face that went with the name. “Of course not, Dante, how’s it going?”
“All is well. Listen, Paul. I hear Clive Peterson’s in town.”
“Oh?” Clive Peterson was a jazz trumpeter best known for his run with a late-night talk show band in the eighties. More recently he had divided his time between Hollywood session work and European tours. Born and raised here in Milwaukee, he had moved back home and was spending more time here as he got along in years and his touring schedule slowed down.
“Yeah, and I was thinking about how you promised to introduce me to him.”
“Right,” I said. I had been in a tight spot this past April, accused of murdering an old friend and bandmate. Desperate for information I’d been told Dante might have, I had promised to introduce him to Clive. Dante was a trumpet player himself, or so he had claimed.
“Oh, now don’t tell me you forgot. Damn, you do a guy a favor and what does he do? Forgets who you are and what he promised.”
“No, Dante, I remember.”
“Then what about it?”
“Look,” I said, “I haven’t heard you play. I can’t recommend you to Clive if I don’t know what kind of chops you have. Maybe we could get together and jam a little first.”
“Oh, now listen to this,” Dante said, his voice indignant. “Now I gotta prove myself to the gatekeeper? Bullshit! That’s not what you told me when you needed my help.”
I thought back to the first time I had met Dante, in a little dive of a bar near the waterfront, which he used as a base of operations for his main occupation, which was selling marijuana and perhaps other illicit products or services I didn’t know about. The information he had given me—the fact that Billy Reno, the old friend of mine who’d turned up dead, had sometimes delivered Dante’s merchandise from his anonymous supplier—hadn’t really been much help. But a promise was a promise.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call him.”
“That’s more like it,” Dante said. “Let me know how it goes.”
My name is Paul Kingston. I’m forty-three years old. I make my living playing bass guitar. Any style you want. I’m not picky. Milwaukee’s been my home most of my life, except for some time away for college and a few times when I’ve gone on tour. I’m divorced, no kids, no siblings, and both my parents died young. I live in the Bayview section of town, a small chunk of the near-South Side that stretches from Lake Michigan on the east to Howell Avenue on the west, give or take a few blocks. My home is paid for, an inheritance from a favorite aunt, and that comes in handy since my income is variable. Sometimes the living is easy, other times it’s not, but I’ve always gotten by, and I’ve never had to get a real job.
I hadn’t heard that Clive was in town, but we didn’t work together all that often. Clive had a core group of players, the Clive Peterson Quartet, that he’d kept together for at least fifteen years. Occasionally I would sub for their bassist, Smokey Mitchell. When I did, Clive would generally rag on me for playing my electric bass instead of an upright like Smokey played. I own an upright, but I haven’t taken the time to learn to play it. For jazz gigs I get by on my fretless bass. Clive has called me in quite a few times over the years, so I guess I’m a tolerable substitute.
I wasn’t sure I had enough clout with Clive to introduce him to a trumpet player I’d never heard. I regretted making that promise, but I’d been in a rough situation then, and I’d done what I had to. The worst that could happen was that Clive would say no and I’d look like a jerk. Either that or Clive would say yes and Dante would turn out to be a shitty trumpet player and I’d look like a jerk who wasn’t going to get any more sub calls from Clive Peterson anymore.
I picked up my phone and was about to search its memory for Clive’s number when it started playing “Hey Nineteen” again.
“Paul, my man,” said a deep and smiling voice, “it’s Clive Peterson.”
I felt an eerie shiver run up my spine at the coincidence. “Hello, Clive.”
“You okay, man? You sound a little shaky.”
“It’s nothing. I’m good. What can I do for you?”
“Listen, man, I need a favor. Smokey’s in the hospital. Old bastard had himself a heart attack.”
“Oh, man, is he all right?”
“They say he will be. He’s gonna need a bypass. He’ll be out of commission for a while. But he should be good as new when it’s all over.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Thing is, we’ve got six nights booked at my club starting tonight, and I need a bass. I know it’s short notice. Can you fill in?” Clive had opened his own club on the North Side about a year before, appropriately named “Clive’s.” His son Charles ran it for him, or so I’d heard. I hadn’t had the chance to stop by or play there so far.
“Not a problem. I’m free for the next four nights. I might be able to make arrangements for the other two.” This was a lie, actually. Today was a Sunday. With the exception of a lunchtime gig on Thursday, my schedule was blank until the next Saturday, when I had a wedding reception out in Brookfield. But I preferred not to admit that I had quite as much free time as I had.
“That’s great. I don’t suppose you got yourself a real bass yet, have you?” I heard him chuckle.
“No, same old toy. Still want me?”
“We’ll make do.”
“May I ask a favor in return?”
I told him about Dante. I admitted that I hadn’t heard him but that I had promised I would ask about him.
“What does he do for a living?”
I knew Clive had very negative feelings toward drugs. This could be an issue. “Why?” I asked.
“Just wondering if he has to work in the morning.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to hide my relief. “I think he has a flexible schedule. He’s in sales.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me more. Mercifully, he didn’t.
“Sure,” Clive said. “Tell him he can sit in on the late set tonight. If he’s a stinker, at least the prime-time folks won’t hear him.”
We talked a little more, settling on payment. I thanked him and we hung up. I was grateful to be able to come to Clive’s aid. It made it easier to bring up Dante. Plus now I would be there to see for myself whether Dante could play or not. It was my lucky day.
Or so it seemed.
I had a couple of hours before I’d need to head up to the club. I pulled my fretless bass out of its case and tuned it. I plugged it in and ran a few scales, both to make sure the pickups were sounding clean and to get used to playing this guitar again. I wondered when I’d played it last.
Late afternoon sunshine bathed my kitchen in light. The temperature was still in the midsixties, but my open windows carried a hint of chill from Lake Michigan, two blocks east of me. I fried a grilled cheese sandwich and opened a yogurt cup and went back out to the front porch to eat.
I live on the second floor of a duplex. My narrow front porch spans its front face, built over a corresponding front entryway on the lower floor. Above me, the airplane’s contrail had faded, and the sky was a brilliant blue once again. On Wentworth Street in front of me, the reds and oranges of the turning leaves danced in the breeze.
The sun had disappeared behind the back side of my house, leaving my porch shady but bathing the trees in light. I smelled the dry, crisp, autumn air and listened to the sounds of children playing in the street below. It was good to sit out here, and there wouldn’t be many more days as nice as this before another cold Milwaukee winter set in. It would be nice to sit out here all evening. But duty called. The coming work week had been looking a little sparse. It would be fine with me to have an unexpected wad of cash in my pocket after a few nights at Clive’s.
Repast finished, I cleared the dishes and changed into a jacket and tie. Jazz players dress better than my standard uniform of jeans and Hawaiian shirt. I’m not a big fan of neckties, but when in Rome . . .
I lugged my bass and amp down the stairs and loaded them in my car, a beige Honda Civic whose myriad scratches and dents told a sad tale of urban life. Like my house, the car was paid for, and that was a most positive quality in my opinion.
Clive’s was on North Avenue, just east of the Sherman Park area, in a neighborhood of shabby duplexes and bare dirt lawns. Among the currency exchanges and corner stores with barred front windows, there were signs of gentrification. Clive’s itself was a large storefront tavern, freshly painted black with a royal blue awning over the front door. A matching blue neon light spelling “Clive’s” shone in a front window. Across the street was a low, cream brick building with a hand-lettered sign over its front door that said “North Avenue Neighborhood Center—All Are Welcome.” A basketball court and a small playground stood next to it behind a new chain-link fence. A boisterous group of young men played basketball while a group of younger kids enjoyed the playground.
I parked on North and stepped into Clive’s, its interior dim compared to the bright sun outside. I waited a moment for my eyes to adjust. I saw a man approach me and recognized Clive’s son Charles. He was about five feet eight inches tall with mocha-colored skin and salt-and-pepper hair. A baggy shirt and slacks hung on his pudgy frame, and his face bore the sallow expression of a man who spends too much time worrying and not enough sleeping.
“Paul,” he said with a smile that looked pained. The hand that shook mine was limp. We exchanged pleasantries, and he led me to a group of three other men who were gathered around a high table near the bar.
“This is Sam. He works days for us, cleaning, stocking, and handling deliveries.” Sam was wet-eyed, tired looking. He seemed ill at ease standing around, as if he needed to be working to prove he really existed. “This is Troy Jackson, Clive’s new manager,” Charles said, gesturing to a darker man with a shaved head and a sharp-eyed expression. I recalled that Clive had let go of his longtime manager, Arnold Loepke, amidst rumors that Loepke had been accused of skimming money from the band. “And this is Stan Dombrowski,” Charles continued, pointing to a tall, slim, white man with large brown eyes and a kind expression. “Stan runs the rec center across the street, and he helps out around here when we need an extra pair of hands.”
We all shook. Sam trudged away without a word. Troy appraised me silently. Stan held my handshake with a warm smile.
“Paul Kingston. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m a big Josie Comes Home fan,” he said, referring to one of the bands I play with, a Steely Dan tribute band.
“A pleasure,” I said. I turned to Troy and asked after Smokey.
“He’s stable. They’re running some tests to make sure he’s strong enough for the bypass surgery. We’re not sure when he’ll be back. Thanks for helping us out.” He delivered this in a flat monotone, as if by rote. He had the air of someone who would rather be doing something else with his life. I wondered how much he appreciated the job of band manager.
I excused myself and headed to the stage. As I lugged my amp up the three steps on the platform’s left side, the rest of Clive’s band ambled out from backstage. Israel Thomas—Izzy to most who knew him—was five ten and wiry. His steel-gray hair was combed back so that it curled slightly around his ears. His eyes were bleary, bloodshot, the eyes of a lifelong drinker. He walked gingerly, as if he feared he would bump into some invisible object.
Behind him was Jeremiah McGhee, the piano player. Taller and stockier than Izzy, his hair was a mane of dreadlocks streaked with silver, with a wispy goatee to match. His face was set in a brooding expression. I set my bass onstage next to my amp and climbed up to greet them.
Izzy smiled and said hello, swaying as if the act of greeting me might knock him off balance. His breath carried no hint of alcohol, but his body seemed to have adapted to a state of permanent drunkenness. Jeremiah nodded silently, his angry eyes boring into mine and then glaring at the fretless bass on my shoulder. Then he turned away, muttering something about “that jazz fusion shit.”
After they’d set up, Izzy and Jeremiah climbed offstage and headed toward the bar, where Troy and Stan were talking. Charles stood behind it, slicing limes. I busied myself with plugging in and tuning. I could hear the sound of a trumpet warming up backstage.
The trumpet playing ceased a few minutes later, and then I heard heavy footsteps approaching.
“Paul, my man,” said a deep voice behind me. I turned around.
“Hey, Clive,” I said. We shook hands. Clive Peterson was six three and heavyset with close-cropped hair. Where Jeremiah’s face was dark and brooding, Clive’s was jovial, open, often smiling. Seeing him often made me think of a laughing Buddha. “I see you brought your toothpick,” he said, pointing at my fretless bass.
“Only the best for you, Mr. Peterson,” I said, giving him a mock bow. He laughed.
Noticing Clive onstage, Jeremiah and Izzy returned, and Troy moved to a mixing board on the opposite wall. I caught Jeremiah throwing a hateful stare in Clive’s direction. Trouble in paradise? We warmed up while Troy ran a sound check. At one point the screech of a microphone feeding back pierced the air and then disappeared as Troy worked sliders on the board.
“Watch yourself, boy,” Clive said into his own mic. There was a malicious edge in his voice that piqued my interest. We played a couple more numbers before Troy waved to say the mic levels were fine. Then, without a word, Clive set his trumpet on a stand and stepped offstage. Jeremiah and Izzy followed. I had a curious sense of unease. The quartet’s playing seemed stilted, out of sync. Was it me or rather the absence of Smokey, the band’s regular bassist? Was Izzy nipping at a hidden bottle after all? I wondered if the next few nights were going to seem longer than I had expected. Turns out they were, but not for any reason I could have guessed in that moment.
The first customers drifted in at about six thirty. I found my way backstage to stash the gig bag I carried my bass in. I found myself in a narrow hallway. A door at the end was marked with a lighted “Exit” sign. To my left was an electrical box on the wall and a bank of switches for the stage lights. To my right were two doors. The first stood open and led the way to a greenroom, a lounge where the evening’s players could rest before and between sets. The second door was closed. Out of curiosity I went to it and pulled it open. A darkened stairway led down to a basement below. I closed it and went back to the first door.
The greenroom was small but neat, with beat-up, upholstered furniture, a couple of scarred end tables, and a floor lamp. Outdated copies of Downbeat magazine sat in a wire rack near one of the end tables. A couple of trumpet mutes stood on one end table. Someone’s half-empty pack of Salems occupied the other. I set my gig bag down next to one of the tables and returned to the stage.
I could see the sky darkening outside. More customers had come in. A mixture of black and white faces, most of them middle-aged, the men dressed in suits and loosened ties, the women in conservative suits or dresses, as if they’d come from office jobs downtown. A few younger folks dotted the crowd, the white ones scruffy hipsters with moony expressions, the black ones harder to pin into one crowd. A Dave Brubeck album played over the PA system, and heads bobbed in time to the music.
I ambled to the bar and took an empty stool between Stan and Jeremiah. Jeremiah nursed a rum and Coke, leaning over the bar as if protecting his drink from prying eyes or would-be raiders. On his other side, Izzy sipped glumly at a plain soda water. I guessed he did his drinking outside of work, or at least pretended to. To my left, Stan sat with a glass of white wine. When Charles happened by, I ordered a Goose Island IPA. When he brought it, I inhaled its bitter aroma before taking a flavorful sip. Stan turned to me.
“I’m sorry for the circumstances that brought you here, but I’m glad to have things mixed up a bit,” he said. I noticed the trace of a Slavic accent.
“Smokey’s shoes are too big for me to fill,” I answered. I thought I heard Jeremiah snort at this. I glanced at him. His eyes were on his drink, his face fixed in a fierce expression. I decided to leave him alone.
“You’re too modest,” Stan said. “Plus it’s hard to sound bad when that gentleman is standing in front of you.” He gestured toward Clive, who bantered with a couple sitting at a table near the stage, a cocktail glass in his hand.
“No arguments there,” I said. “So you run the neighborhood center?”
He smiled. “I try too, anyway. It’s like herding cats sometimes, but I love it.”
“Charles mentioned that you help out at the club as well?”
“I pitch in when I can. Mostly setting up and running the sound system when Troy’s busy. I love jazz. I got that from my mother. She was born in Poland, barely spoke English. But she could tell you every tune Dizzy Gillespie ever recorded. She would have loved Clive.”
“She passed away?”
He nodded. “She died when I was young.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“So am I. But she lived long enough to pass on her love of this music. And every time I hear it, I think of her.”
We drank in companionable silence after that. I watched more customers trickle in to the club. The crowd wasn’t large, but it wasn’t bad for a Sunday evening. I finished my beer and thought about ordering another but then decided against it. Maybe later.
Around seven thirty, Jeremiah and Izzy rose from their stools. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Clive approaching the stage. I rose and followed.
“Break a leg,” Stan said, smiling.
“Thanks,” I said and smiled in return.
I trailed the rest of the band to the greenroom. Jeremiah grabbed the pack of cigarettes and headed down the hall, presumably to smoke one out in the alley. Izzy sank to a couch whose springs groaned despite his slight frame. Clive pulled me aside and ran through the numbers he expected to call out during the first set and the keys we would play them in. I grabbed a spiral notebook and a pencil from my gig bag and jotted the numbers down.
A few minutes later, Jeremiah returned in a haze of used tobacco smoke. Izzy pulled himself gingerly to his feet. Out in the club, the recorded music faded and stopped. Troy’s voice came from the PA, introducing the Clive Peterson Quartet to a lively round of applause. Clive nodded, and Jeremiah, Izzy, and I filed onto the stage behind him.
The house lights had dimmed, the crowd was hushed. Most of their faces had disappeared in the glare of the stage lights. Whispered conversations and stifled laughs accompanied us as we took our places onstage. It always sounds to the players like these laughs are aimed at us, but of course most of them are not. The folks in the audience were there to enjoy themselves, and that was what they were doing. I wiped my hands on a cloth I had left on my amp and then stuffed it in my back pocket. I took a breath, settled myself, and watched Clive. A moment later, he counted us into a lively version of “A Night in Tunisia,” and all the unease that had dogged me since our uninspired sound check melted away.
From the first note, we were a single unit. Even though I was a substitute, I felt as though I belonged, as if I had always played with this group. The cliché of a well-oiled machine was apt, but there was nothing mechanical about the Clive Peterson Quartet. They—we—were a living organism, a predator attuned to its environment and ready to stalk its prey. Before we began I had considered ways I would approach the music, ways I would try to fit in. I was an outsider. Jazz was a once-in-a-while thing for me, a style to fake my way through. But from the moment we started, every note seemed to come automatically. I felt the band’s energy course into me and out through my fingers. I felt as if I was really playing music for the first time in my life.
I looked around at the other players. Izzy, so off-balance offstage, seemed like a part of his drum kit now. He sat arrow-straight on his throne, his face placid, eyes closed, wrists loose, coaxing a driving and insistent beat that filled the room, though his sticks seemed merely to caress his drums and cymbals.
Jeremiah joined him, his piano chords crisp, sharp, yet understated. His face lost its seemingly-perpetual scowl, and the creases on his forehead eased. I launched into a walking bass line in a steady four-beat. Clive lit into the melody, and we were off. The audience, still raucous when the first drumbeats began to sound, was inaudible now. I could barely see them over the stage lights, but I imagined them tapping their feet and nodding their heads to our groove.
Clive played the melody, his trumpet’s voice sly, reserved, yet hinting at a power yet unleashed. Jeremiah joined him in a countermelody and then Clive let loose, improvising a solo, opening with a run that began with a low, groaning wail and quickly rose to the stratosphere.
Next, Jeremiah took a solo, his piano strident, confident. His big hands moved with unlikely precision over the keys, his mouth moving as he played, as if the piano were his own voice. Clive vamped a rhythmic chromatic figure, and I followed right along. After Clive took another turn on lead, Izzy drove into a thunderous drum solo, perfectly punctuated by Jeremiah’s piano. I watched for a nod from Clive, wondering if he would cue me for my own solo. As alive as I felt in the band’s groove, I wasn’t sure I was ready to take center stage on the first number. Mercifully, he didn’t glance at me. As Izzy finished his solo, Clive reprised the melody and then finished with a wailing, rangy cadenza that brought the audience’s applause before its last notes had died out.
The set went on like that. Mostly up-tempo numbers with a few ballads thrown in. Clive seemed to sense when I had really gotten comfortable and began cueing bass solos. The fretless can have a beautiful voice—sliding, lilting, and with a long sustain that an upright bass can’t match. Inspired by the energy around me, I set my fingers free on the fingerboard, and my bass guitar seemed to play itself.
How long since I had played with this band? Maybe a year or so, I thought. Had it been such an incredible experience the last time? I had always enjoyed playing with Clive and the guys, but I didn’t think I had ever felt energy like this. I didn’t recall ever feeling this alive playing any kind of music. People who have survived near-death experiences have reported moments of incredible clarity, of colors more vivid than they ever were before. Later I wondered if somehow I had known even then that this band, these players, would never play all together again after that night.
We took a break after the first set. After the music we had made, leaving the stage seemed like a letdown at first. I should have been thirsty or ready for a trip to the men’s room, but I felt great. There were slaps on the back, handshakes, accolades from the audience as I stepped down from the stage and strolled to the bar. I paused near Stan’s barstool again, and he raised his glass to me.
“That was one incredible set. You guys were on fire.”
“It was a doozy,” I said.
“Buy you a drink?”
“Thanks, just water for now.”
Stan spoke some more, relating some of his favorite moments. I nodded, sipping my water, until something caught my attention in the back of the room. Clive was at the mixing board, talking with Troy. Though Clive’s back was to me, the pained look on Troy’s face was visible. It was clear whatever Clive was saying was not something Troy wanted to hear. Clive walked off soon after, leaving Troy fuming. I could see the tension in his body from across the room. I excused myself from Stan and walked over to him.
“Room sounds good,” I said.
He looked at me, his eyes fiery, as if he was trying to keep a demon locked inside his body. “Sounds good to me too, but of course that ain’t good enough for the man.”
“Was he criticizing the monitors?” I asked, referring to the onstage speakers that help members of the band hear one another.
He grimaced. I noticed that his teeth were shadowed with dark stains, and one top tooth was badly chipped. “Monitors, house sound, my ancestry, my intentions—you name it, man. Mister Peterson is not impressed.” His fingers stabbed at buttons on the mixing console. Then he looked up at me again. “Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to mix you in with my troubles.”
“Not your fault, Troy,” I said. “I asked you.”
He nodded. “Well, I’m glad it sounds good to someone.”
I heard a dip in the crowd noise and looked around. Clive and the band were returning to the stage. I nodded to Troy and returned.
The second set was nearly as fantastic as the first. The audience grew louder and more appreciative, though the drinks they were enjoying probably had something to do with that. Toward the end of the set, the crowd started to thin. It was getting close to ten now, and people started leaving, though a few night owls trickled in as well. One of them, I noticed, was Dante, his trumpet case in hand. He was thin, with skin the color of milk chocolate. His tan suit was tailored. He wore a fedora. I nodded from the stage when his eyes met mine.
During the next break, I introduced Clive to Dante. Dante seemed relaxed, though I suspected he wasn’t. Clive Peterson was the closest thing Milwaukee had to a living jazz legend, but if Dante was intimidated, he did a good job of hiding it. I left them alone to chat and went to the bar.
“Another water, or something stronger?” Charles asked when he came in range.
“I’ll take another Goose Island,” I said. He nodded and went to the tap.
“Great job tonight,” he said when he brought my beer.
“Thanks. I can’t remember when I’ve had so much fun.”
“Dad’s one of a kind,” Charles said. I saw him glance in his father’s direction, his expression a peculiar mix of admiration and sadness.
“Is everything okay with him?” I asked, wondering about the look on Charles’s face.
He seemed startled by my question. “What? Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine.” He looked along the bar and nodded, as if someone over there was calling him, though I didn’t see anyone looking up. “Excuse me,” he said, and then he was out of earshot.
I got through about half my glass of beer before Jeremiah tapped me on the shoulder and I saw Clive making his way to the stage again. When we were onstage and ready, Clive introduced the band members by name. Each of us got a round of applause.
“And now,” Clive said, “we’d like to invite a special guest to join us. This gentleman was recommended to us by Paul, here, who says he is an up-and-coming trumpet player that you’ll really want to hear.” Clive looked in my direction, his eyes twinkling.
Very smooth, Clive, I thought. Attach my name to Dante’s, so if he sucks then everyone will blame me.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Clive continued, “please welcome Mr. Dante Hillman.”
Dante climbed to the stage, bowing his head to a smattering of polite applause. I said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t make me look bad. Briefly, he and Clive conversed off-mic. I heard Clive ask Dante to call the first tune and Dante answer with “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Clive looked at Jeremiah. Nodding slightly, Jeremiah began an opening piano riff similar to a famous Ellington/Coltrane recording of the same tune. Izzy traded his sticks for brushes and caressed a soft accompaniment from the snare drum. I added a spare base line. Clive stepped back, and Dante took the melody. From the moment he started, I forgot any fear that he might embarrass me. His playing was strong, soulful, melodic. I could hear a collective sigh from the audience, clearly pleased, aware that the evening’s magic would not be wiped out by the addition of an unknown player.
As Dante left the melody and began to improvise, I sensed hesitation in his playing. He was competent, pleasant to listen to, yet careful. I didn’t blame him. This was the first number in what was probably the most important set Dante had ever played. He was right to feel things out, to ease his way into the music. I sensed that as he grew more comfortable with his situation, he would have even more to offer.
Clive took a turn, and the two trumpeters traded leads for a while. I could hear Clive’s style in Dante’s playing. Clearly he had spent time with Clive Peterson recordings as he had developed his sound. I was sure Clive would notice that as well. But where Dante was hesitant, Clive went for the jugular. His own playing became even bolder, rangier than it had been for the previous two sets. In answer to his unspoken challenge, Dante took a more daring approach as well, but for every risk Dante took, Clive took two. He seemed determined to remind the audience, Dante, and perhaps himself that he was the master and Dante was merely an acolyte. It struck me as odd. I didn’t think Dante had set out to challenge him. Nor did I think Clive had anything to prove. I wondered what the audience thought, but it was hard to gauge its reaction.
It was a fine set. Not as smooth, not as blissful as the first two had been. Dante was a good player, clearly qualified to be onstage with the rest of us, but perhaps not ready to give us the best stuff he had. Clive, strangely, reacted like a cornered animal, though no one but him likely thought he was in any kind of corner.
When the set was over, and Clive invited applause again for each band member, Dante’s reception was enthusiastic, and the look on his face was pure bliss. Clive was cordial, thanking him for sitting in and telling him he was welcome back later in the week if he’d like to sit in again.
The set over, I fetched my gig bag from the greenroom, wiped the evening’s sweat off my bass, and covered it up. I congratulated Dante, who hugged me, a gesture that surprised me given his normally sarcastic demeanor.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “Thanks for this chance.”
“You deserve it,” I answered. I went to the bar to grab another beer. It had been a wonderful evening. Though I love what I do for a living, I couldn’t remember the last time everything had seemed to click the way it had tonight. Every musician lives for gigs like the one I had just played. It seems impossible to know why everything just works so well, and just as impossible to force it to happen again.
I sipped my beer, enjoying compliments from the audience members who were still at the bar. Izzy sat a few stools away, a row of shot glasses full of whiskey lined up in front of him. Apparently he had stayed sober for the gig, but now he was making up for lost time. Jeremiah arrived a few minutes later and sat down next to me, smelling of tobacco. His scowl had returned, and he stared at the bottles behind the bar. A few minutes later, a woman I recognized as Nora, Jeremiah’s wife, walked in the front door.
“Hey, Paul, how are you?” she asked when she saw me. “Long time no see.” She was striking: tall and curvy with long, wavy black hair. She wore a black leather jacket and a long, black dress beneath it. Her movements were supple, catlike. Heads turned as she approached the bar. I felt the temperature of the room suddenly rise.
“Great, Nora. Good to see you.”
She patted Jeremiah’s shoulder. “Time to go, old man.”
Jeremiah ignored her. I guessed he was the only man in the room who wasn’t staring at her.
“Mrs. McGhee, how are you this evening?” Clive said from behind me. I hadn’t heard him approach. I turned suddenly, in time to see Clive’s face as he looked at Nora. He looked eager, hungry. I looked back at her and saw that Jeremiah was throwing Clive a hateful stare.
“Hey, Clive,” Nora said neutrally. She wrapped her arms around Jeremiah, turning him in the direction of the door. “Come on now, baby,” she said. “It’s late.”
Jeremiah opened his mouth to say something, his brooding face darker than ever. But then his eyes seemed to glaze over, and he allowed Nora to lead him to the front door. They left without a further word. By the time I looked back toward Clive, he was disappearing backstage.
Izzy staggered out behind Nora and Jeremiah, and the remainder of the audience rose and left in small groups, calling their good-byes over their shoulders. I sipped my beer and let my mind wander, reveling in the joy the evening’s music had brought me. When I looked up, only Charles was left, turning the lights off from a row of switches behind the bar.
“Closing time,” he said. I roused myself off my stool and walked to the greenroom. I picked up my bass but decided to leave my amp there for the next night. Walking out, I met Charles at the back door. He was holding a vinyl money pouch, the kind business owners bring to the bank with their cash and check deposits. I watched him open the zipper and pull a wad of cash out and stuff it in his jacket pocket.
“Stealing the evening’s take?” I asked.
He smiled. “I learned the hard way that if I walk out there with this bag, I’m liable to get robbed. Hiding the cash and concealing the bag seems to help.”
“I can walk you to your car if you like,” I said.
“Thanks, I’d appreciate that. It’s just outside.”
“No problem,” I said. “You said you learned the hard way. You’ve gotten the money stolen before?”
“More than once.” Charles pulled the left side of his jacket open. “Then I wised up and learned to start carrying this.” He pulled a gun from his jacket pocket and held it high, as if he were about to shoot into the sky. I don’t know much about guns, but I recognized this one: A Smith & Wesson M&P40. The standard issue weapon of the Milwaukee PD. I used to be married to a cop, and she had been quite proud of her service weapon.
“Jeez,” I said. “And you have to carry money out every night?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t do to leave cash in the register overnight in this neighborhood.”
I nodded and watched him fold the money bag and slip it into another jacket pocket. When he was finished, he said, “Ready?”
I went through the door first, and he followed me, locking the door behind him. We were in an alley, dimly lit by a streetlight at its mouth. Charles’s Buick Riviera sat parked just outside the door. He unlocked it and got in.
“See you tomorrow,” he said. “Thanks for sticking around.”
He started the car and pulled away, leaving me alone. I thought of the gun in his waistband and felt my nerves tingle. I was wary as I walked through the narrow gangway that led to the front of the club, but I didn’t see or hear anyone and got to my car unmolested. During the drive home, my thoughts drifted once more to the music we had made. It had been a special evening, only the first of several in a row.
Or so I thought.
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