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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 6


"On in ten."

I was sitting on the stage, immersed in sad thoughts, and watching the crowd's Brownian movement. Bill hustled up, stood close to me, but kept raking his eyes over the crowd.

"Somebody's going to kill Richard tonight."

"Beezil Terrig?"

"Don't know. I heard it on the soundcheck system." That didn't help much. We had six wireless microphones placed around the lounge to help us balance sound levels.

"Which channel?"

"Couldn't tell. When I looked over, it was scanning again."

"Recognize the voice?"

"Cold. It would fit the guy with the granite face. Second row."

Following Bill's eyes, I saw Granite nervously twisting his shoulders, as if something were crawling down his back.

I could warn Richard, but Bill was probably wrong. He was pessimistic; while some people saw the glass as half full, he saw it as empty and cracked.

"What should we do?" I said.

"If we play our wireless guitars, we can stay between Richard and Granite. But the voice I heard was talking to someone else. Watch for anyone pointing any--"

Bill's eyes had locked onto something moving behind me. I turned.

Dudley always moved like a dancer, smoothly, as though he heard music.

"Stay loose," he said. "So far our performance isn't one for the books, but at least it's a concert and not a political rally, a soccer game, or a seminar on aluminum siding. We still can hit our stride in the last set."

Dudley assumed we were suffering from our usual state of mind before going on, performance anxiety, which he never fully understood because he had talent. I suspect he could get some sort of music out of a ripe kumquat, even if he'd never played one before.

He patted our shoulders. "On in one."

Bill and I trailed close behind him, like baby ducks, to the dressing room, where we caught Ann eating Cracker Jacks. With a guilty expression she closed the box.

Richard came in and looked at his watch.

"Let's go."

He was so eager to lead us onstage that, although he ordinarily stepped aside for everybody, this time he commandeered a charge through the stage wings. Bill marched next to him, unnaturally close. I lagged behind to give Hoover a drink of water. If there was danger, I didn't want him onstage.

"Stay."

Hoover went rigid, arching his back and thrusting his head down and forward. I closed the door, inhaled deeply to calm myself, cut between two telephone-booth-sized amplifiers, and, not counting the cymbals I bumped into, slipped silently to my microphone.

I ran through my checklist: Synthesizers on? Check. Amplifiers on? Check. Escape route visible? Check. All was in order.

The curtains opened and a rush of warm air from the lounge carried the smell of damp woolen coats. While I adjusted the height of my microphone, Bill, standing to my right, inched his mike forward, parallel with mine, so we could communicate with head nods.

I grabbed my guitar off its stand and strapped it on. A snappy up-tempo brush pattern kicked off the song "Slaves" by Fetchin' Bones. Gripping my pick, I stabbed nervously at the strings. Now and then I hit one.

Slaves of the twentieth century

Of science, fashion, industry, and gourmet

Lab cats, lab rats, in pain they squeal

What do you think a monkey feels

When his brain is split by cold hard steel?

No tears shampoo, so gentle and kind

A million rabbits, each one blind.

Who draws the line

Between slaves and you and me?

Richard moved around the stage, playing different keyboards, changing MIDI settings, adjusting amplifiers. Granite paced around the lounge, from the bar to his table to the men's room, and back, the angle between him and Richard continually changing. Trying to stay between them, Bill and I shuffled around and kept bumping into each other. Twice, when Granite reached into his pockets, Bill and I leapt to occupy the exact same spot. This is not easily accomplished, not in this physical universe, but we almost made it.

Finally, Ann tapped her microphone, signaling the last song of the set.

"On bass--Bill Baker."

Bill, concentrating on staying between Richard and Granite, played in a spacey, faraway style that Van Gogh might have arranged if he'd poked out his eye instead of dicing off his ear. Bill's was a brief solo, or so it seemed to me. I was next. If Granite was planning to kill Richard tonight he'd have to make his move soon.

Usually when I play my solo I stand in one spot. This time I had to move in front of Richard. After my introduction, I stepped to the front of the stage, leaped three feet in the air and came down in an unchecked split, pulling screaming harmonics off the top of the guitar neck to mask my own screams of pain. Then I rose to my feet, twirling and wailing. Really wailing.

After I finished my solo, I stepped gingerly past Ann as she came forward to her microphone.

"On keyboards, the owner of the Lobster, Richard Tipton."

I jerked my head around to fix Richard's location. Oh no--he'd strapped on his portable keyboard. With a smooth stride he stepped all the way to the front of the stage.

Bill turned to me, blue eyes large. We both kept playing, but the sentiment "Oh, shit" came clearly through our guitars.

Richard laid a trumpet across his sound-sampling keyboard, overlaid a distorted guitar, and when he improvised fragments of random melody with his fingers, out came a riff that sounded like Miles Davis playing Jimi Hendrix.

Granite watched us with a bovine passivity. Maybe he was planning the attack for later, outside. Or maybe he was the wrong guy.

When Richard finished, Ann glided to the front of the stage.

"Thank you for coming to see us, and--" she held up the Army boot that had landed onstage "-- thank you for all the lovely gifts. You've been a great audience." She looked at me.

"Remember," I said, "when you eat meat, there's more love in your belly than in your heart."

"On your way out," Ann said, brandishing scraps of paper, "Please take our pamphlet."

Bill waved. "Godspeed." The crowd started to disperse.

"If you support animal-rights," Dudley smiled, "I hope you'll get all your friends involved. If you don't support animal-rights, I hope you don't have any friends."

The jukebox blared back on. Richard headed for his office. Chas, running his finger over the scar on his cheek, followed right behind Richard.

As the bar emptied, I caught glimpses of Granite sitting at a table, drinking, watching the crowd as though he were looking for someone. I began untangling cables, one eye on him. At certain angles the dim lighting illuminated his face such that I felt I knew him--and the context in which I knew him was disturbing.

He lifted his glass and, as if unwilling to admit it was empty, turned it upward until he was looking through the bottom of it like a telescope. Then he put it down, stood, bundled himself in his coat, and walked away without leaving a tip.

Bill popped up in front of me.

"I'll stick with Richard. You follow Granite."

Granite was walking behind one of the last couples to leave, a charming blue-haired duo, wearing matching T-shirts decorated with razor blades. As Granite neared the exit, Ann was heading in my direction.

"I'm on the case." I slipped down from the stage.

Ann angled in front of me, her hand cupping the ends of her hair and squeezing as if testing its springiness.

"Want to get something to eat. . . ."

"Yes, uh." I stepped around her. "Be right back."

Granite was outside now. I stopped just inside the door, near the pillaged nativity scene, and peered out at the parking lot. When I pushed the door open a wet blast of snow hit me in the face like a slap. Turning away, I found myself nose to nose with Ann.

I looked back at the parking lot and Ann looked with me, her head beneath my head like a totem pole.

Granite stopped beside a fancy wine-colored car, reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a cell phone. Ann started to say something. I put my finger to my lips.

Granite faced us, hunched over, shielding the phone's mouthpiece from the wind. I couldn't hear what he was saying. Nor could I move closer--no cover, our van was the only other vehicle in the parking lot.

I strained to hear. For a split second the wind died, and I clearly heard Granite say, "Fluke is finished. History."

Ann was right behind me as I charged across the parking lot, leaning forward into the wind that was slowing as well as silencing our attack.

I hit Granite with a flying tackle. We slid over the icy pavement and into the rear tires of his car. My forehead bounced off the Y in the words GOODYEAR DOUBLE EAGLE. We both scrambled to our feet. Backing away from him, I stayed on my toes. As I moved, I measured Granite as I'd measured dozens of wrestling opponents. He seemed sluggish and my confidence duly built--until he threw a punch.

We spent a while trying to hit each other. I favored one particular uppercut that never seemed to make contact with anything but air. He, on the other hand, threw some pretty snappy boxing combinations. When he jabbed with his left, I backed away on tiptoe to his right. When he swung with his right, I danced to his left. While I dazzled him with my footwork, he blinded me with his punches.

Gaining confidence, he closed in, and accidentally stepped into one of my wild uppercuts. He doubled up and moaned. I held up my hand and stared at my knuckles, now pulsing with pain.

Ann jumped on Granite's back. He reached around, trying to pull her off, spinning first one way, then twisting the other, like a dog chasing his tail.

He finally stumbled. Before he regained balance, I wrestled him to the ground and pinned him facedown with his arms behind his back.

Ann sat down on his legs. "What did he do to deserve this?"

"Didn't tip the waitress."

"Not funny," Granite said.

"Everyone's a critic. Did Terrig hire you? Why have you been following Fluke?"

When he didn't answer, I tried to reach into his trouser pockets to find a wallet. He bucked and nearly threw me off.

I leaned on him harder. "Where have I seen you before?"

"Er . . . how would I know?"

"Guess, or I'll keep sitting here, being funny, until you plead for mercy."

His eyes darted to a black object in the snow, then darted away. "That's better. See what happens when people communicate?" While straight-arming his head, I leaned over him, fished his cell phone out of the snow, and found my friend, the redial button.

I'd learned a trick while married. Whenever I found my wife gone, I'd tap the redial button to determine if she'd been talking to her friends, as she'd claimed, or to someone I hadn't met. Before long I recognized a pattern. She lied when her calls had gone to a lawyer's office. But, although I knew where she was going, I never imagined the reason.

I pushed RECALL, SEND, then waited. Two rings, then a pick-up.

"Hello?"

"Who's this?"

"Who you looking for?"

"You. We've captured your accomplice."

He hung up. I poked Granite's shoulder.

"Your partner coming?"

Granite didn't answer. I tossed the phone into the nearest snow bank. With a renewed burst of energy he twisted and struggled. Evidently I'd needed to violate his personal property to convince him that I meant business.

"Why do you want to kill Richard?"

"Kill somebody? You're crazy!" He twisted violently, rocking me. I saw Bill standing in the entranceway of the Lobster and suddenly remembered his words: the threat to kill Richard had come from someone with a cold voice. Granite's voice was deep and warm. I had the wrong guy.

Bill, yet unaware I was sitting on perhaps a completely innocent pillar of the community, slid up to us with a little snicker in his eye. Wanting him to hear Granite's voice, hoping I was wrong, I asked Granite: "Where's your accomplice?"

His answer was drowned by a nerve shattering "Phooooommmm" from the Howling Lobster.

Ann and I used Granite as a launch pad and rocketed past my stunned brother toward the noise. Its dying echo included splintering wood and cracking glass, followed by shouting from Richard's office.

Hatful of Pain     Chapter 7

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