Authors: Loren D. Estleman
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
“Fleet Jackson—he’s the bass, you know, in Domino—he’s been telling me for a week I ought to come up here, check out this old dude that plays like me,” Candy said, next to my ear. “I didn’t think anything about it. He thinks all horn players sound the same. Well, tonight I got restless, it’s my night off. I get here just as the guy’s warming up, blowing a few licks. I didn’t stop to ask who he is. I don’t ask questions I know the answers to. I called you. Did I do right?”
He had some Coke in the bottom of a glass full of ice. I got the bartender’s eye and pointed at the glass and paid him for a fresh Coke and my Scotch.
“Talk to him?”
“Don’t think I didn’t want to,” Candy said. “He’s been sitting back there in a corner booth all night sucking down beers. If he started to leave I’d of nailed him. That old man taught me everything I know about the ’bone and we never even met. I got a million questions to ask. But I figure the man working for his daughter gets first crack.”
I shielded my wallet from the rest of the room with my body and got out two fifties and started to slide them across the bar toward him folded. He made a flicking-away gesture with his fingers.
“If you can get him to hang around a couple of minutes when you’re through,” he said.
I put the bills back. “I’ll tie him down if that’s what it takes.”
George Favor had brought a glass of beer with him to the platform. When he finished playing—Candy and I applauded, stirring boozily curious looks from the others at the bar—he drained it, lowering the glass twice between swallows, then set it back down on the platform and fiddled with his slide. He belched dramatically. Finally he lifted the horn again and started “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” with some fifties-style jazz variations on Tommy Dorsey. Between licks he took the mouthpiece away from his lips and breathed.
When the bartender came by I asked him who the wheezer was. Polishing a glass he glanced over to see which wheezer that might be and shrugged. “Boss took him on when the group quit. He was the only one showed for the audition. I forget his name. Maybe I never heard it. They treat us like mushrooms here: keep us in the dark and throw shit on us.”
“What’s he get, scale?”
“ ‘Gimme a Bud,’ that’s all he ever said to me. I think it’s his pay. I got orders not to ring it up.”
“He earns it, sounds like.”
He shrugged again. “That stuff’s okay. Heavy metal, that’s my meat. I had a group.”
I watched Candy watching Favor. His eyes glittered, he was leaning forward on his stool with his hands on his thighs. I didn’t have a handle on him yet. Maybe he would never be anything more than just a good musician because his hero was less than great. Or maybe he was hearing things I didn’t and never would. Music is the great divider. We’re all tied to the primal beats that celebrated victory and commemorated defeat when fire still belonged to the gods; beyond that it’s anyone’s call. Detroit has known the thumping of hollow logs by war clubs gripped in red hands and the military tattoo of British and French regiments and the four-four beat of jazz soaked in bootleg hootch, it’s known Motown and country and disco, and half the population listened and said it was good and the other half wanted to be let alone to hear the rhythm of living and not living and the long bleak bridge between. The man on the platform would belong to the second half, but he was also the part of the half that made the music. He could be dead tomorrow and the thing that would separate him from all the other old men who would be dead tomorrow would be the instrument he was playing. He knew it. It was in the way he kept returning the mouthpiece to his lips after each barely successful attempt to fill his lungs, and it was in the way his knuckles turned yellow as he worked the slide. Maybe L. C. Candy knew it too, and maybe that’s what he was hearing.
Our applause when Favor finished might have been for the clock behind the bar. The old man picked up his glass and stepped down gingerly from the platform and hobbled over to the bar and set the glass on top without once looking at us.
“Gimme a Bud.”
The bartender shot me a glance that said, “See?,” drew one, and set it in front of him, scooping up the empty mug with his other hand. Favor carried the fresh one and his instrument over to the corner booth in back and laid the trombone on one of the seats and lowered himself onto the other. I touched Candy’s arm and took my Scotch over there.
He looked up at me with no interest in his expression. The whites of his eyes were cream-colored and prickles of sweat glinted in the deep folds on his forehead, although the room was not overly heated. He was breathing heavily. “You got a subpoeny?”
I shook my head. He went on looking at me, waiting, and I realized he hadn’t seen it. I said, “No.”
“Last time someone I didn’t know come up on me in a bar he had a subpoeny. Said I seen the owner of my building fucking up the furnace. I told him go fuck yourself. He said they stick my ass in jail I didn’t testify. I said I been in jail. Well, I didn’t testify and they didn’t stick my ass in no jail. Man settled up. I didn’t get nothing, though. I already moved out.”
“My name’s Amos Walker. I’m a private investigator. I’ve been looking for you for two days. You leave a crooked trail.”
“You do one-nighters two hundred times a year when you’re young you get used to traveling light. You sure you ain’t got a subpoeny?”
“Why, did you see something again?”
“Son, I didn’t see that whitey fucking up the furnace and he was as close to me as you are. Eyes, shit. You don’t need to see to play music. Unless you in the symphony.” He said
. I asked if I could sit down.
“They your legs, how should I know? Just don’t sit on the livelihood.”
Setting down my glass I lifted the trombone gently and laid it on the table along the brick wall. The metal was cool and smelled faintly of oil. The booth was a tight fit. There was one more of them than the place could handle, and six more than it needed. I asked him what he’d been in jail for. His fallen-away face twisted wryly. “Well, now, what you think?”
I nodded, just for me. He wouldn’t see it. “Still smoking?”
“No, I gave that shit up. Emphysema.”
“Sweet Joe still is. He’s entitled. He’s dying.”
“You don’t like him?”
“I never knowed him enough to like or don’t like. We just played together for a little while. What I mean by ‘big deal,’ I know a lot more people that died than didn’t. It must not be too hard. I thought he was dead already.”
That one was wearing thin. I said, “He saw you when you were working at the pancake place four years ago. You talked. That’s how I knew you were sitting in at the Kitchen, only Drago Zelinka didn’t know where you went from there.”
“Z, that hunky prick. Union had him scared shitless. He could of hired me on, stop all that strike talk, why’d he think I was coming down there all the time, I love to play? A job, that’s all it ever was. I buried every friend I had that lived to make music. They all starved or drunk theirselves under the ground before they was forty. Playing or washing dishes, it’s all the same to me so long as I eat. And get something to wash it down.” He toasted me with his mug and drank.
“I saw you up there just now. It isn’t just to eat and swill beer.”
“Say you’re a cop?”
“Private. My client’s looking for her father.”
“She older than twelve?”
“And then some.”
“What the hell’s she at looking for him, then? Nobody needs Daddy after twelve. I was thirteen when I split. Crazy old cotton-picker, he take his hat off when the Man come around, say sir and mister like he never heard of Lincoln. You know who taught me to play tailgate? Old fart in a Atlanta whorehouse. I learned the scales and caught my first dose of clap the same night. Daddies, they don’t teach you nothing you need to know in the real world.”
“He the one gave you the horn?”
“My old man, you kidding? He didn’t know eight bars from a shit-beetle.”
“The guy in the whorehouse.”
“Oh, him. Hell, no, I cut that line when he tried to bugger me right there in the parlor. I got this one for ten bucks in a junk shop downtown. Hocked the best ’bone I ever had, fine silver-plated thing had a tone like a Rolls Royce horn. They sold it out from under me. Didn’t think I’d ever scratch together the dough to redeem it. Son, I been up and down and all around the block. They tell you that’s what makes ’em great in this gig. Don’t you believe them. If you wasn’t born that way all the empty-belly nights in the world won’t make you that way. I wasn’t.
know it.” He inclined his head in the direction of the silent drinkers at the bar. “You think they wouldn’t pay attention if I was any better than just good?”
I sipped from my glass. As a philosopher I was about three drinks behind him. “This father my client wants to find,” I said. “She says it’s you.”
“Tell her I’m broke.”
“She doesn’t want money.”
“She’s no daughter of mine, then. I’ll take as much as I can get.”
“Your name is on her birth certificate. She was born in Jamaica. Conceived there too, probably. You were playing the Piano Stool in Kingston with your band.”
“I never been in Jamaica.”
I fished out the snapshot Iris had given me of her parents and put it in front of him. After a second he picked it up and held it very close to his eyes. He got up, using the table for leverage, and hobbled over to the jukebox, studying it in the pink and green neon. The bartender had turned off the overhead spot and stuck a quarter in the machine. A slow rock instrumental was playing that sounded like an expressway pileup in slow motion. After a long time Favor came back to the booth. He was smiling. Store teeth gleamed dully in the poor light. He plunked himself down and slid the snapshot across to me. I put it back in my pocket.
“Fine-looking woman,” he said. “Daughter look anything like her?”
“They come prettier every year. That’s how you know you’re getting old.”
“Recognize the mother?”
He wasn’t listening. “This lady I knowed hit me with a paternity once. Nineteen fifty-eight it was. She give it up finally.”
“This one isn’t after money; I said that. She just wants to meet her father.”
“This lady I’m talking about give it up on account of a lab test I took. Son, you can sterilize a scalpel in my jizzum. I was to have a kid, you can call me Joseph. That’s what it’d take.”
“You might drop your voice some. I had me a reputation in this town at one time. Maybe I still do. I ain’t got it up since Nixon and the memory means something.”
I turned my glass inside its ring. “If you’d told Glen Dexter that, maybe you wouldn’t have broken up.”
“What do you hear from Glen?” He choked off a coughing fit to ask the question.
“Nothing. She’s dead. She tried having a baby too late and it killed her. A long time ago. I talked to her niece.”
He filled his cheeks from the mug and swallowed. He closed his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was remembering or waiting for the matter in his lungs to settle. He opened them finally.
“Back then you didn’t just up and tell a woman you wasn’t as much man as she thought,” he said. “I didn’t make mistakes I wouldn’t be playing this dump.”
“Your story can be checked.”
He was a moment coming back to it. “St. John’s. Those places never throw away their records. We go down together you want. Personally I’d just as soon take the credit, but like I said, Jamaica, I never been.”
“What about the picture?”
The rock tune ended. He patted my hand. His was small, like the rest of him, and calloused like Candy’s where he gripped the slide.
“I got to start playing before our friend at the bar gets grateful for the dead again. Tell the lady music’s crazy. One note looks pretty much like all the others on the sheet till you push it through the right instrument.”
He picked up the trombone and his beer and left me. The light came on over the platform and he got all the way through the first chorus of “Night Train” before I stirred. I finished my drink and got up and leaned down next to L. C. Candy at the bar, resting a hand on his shoulder. “He’s yours.”
“Great,” he said. “I don’t know what to ask him first.”
“Doesn’t matter. He won’t give you any straight answers.”
HE TROUBLE WAS
, I believed him.
An old man with no money and nothing to hang on to but a bottomless beer mug and a ten-dollar horn had no reason to lie about a thirty-year-old affair. And if you accepted that, then every step I had taken so far, beginning with the first, had led in the wrong direction. Driving back to Detroit, through blocks of houses with snow-frosted roofs and Neighborhood Watch decals like an Orwellian Disneyland, I was surrounded by the emptiness of sound detective work gone to sawdust. It was a premature orgasm of a case, a quest for a silver chalice that turned out to have
MADE IN TAIWAN
stamped across its bottom. Turn in your portable fingerprint kit, Walker. As a sleuth you’re a joke. Forget about being born great; mediocrity is past your reach. If you laid all of history’s bonehead moves end to end beginning with Moses turning toward the desert and away from the Arabian oilfields, you had a fair approximation of Amos Walker’s career as a hawkshaw. He wasn’t fit to shine the shoes on Bulldog Drummond’s flat feet.
It starts out bad, one scrap of wrong information, and gets worse, like a part cast from an imperfect die and then another die made from that part and so on, each part less accurate than the last. Iris had got some bum dope from the Piano Stool’s half-senile former owner and I’d grabbed it and run with it. I’d found the man I was looking for, only to learn I’d been looking for the wrong man. There is no success as complete as a systematic failure.
This was too big not to share. I got off the Chrysler and turned down St. Antoine, accelerating to beat a county salt truck getting set to make the swing from East Ferry, and parked in front of Mary M’s. The bell was answered by a woman I didn’t know, a tall order with brittle blonde hair blown into a lethal ridge across her forehead and a spoon-shaped face with tiny eyes and bee-stung lips and a nose that had had some work done on it so that it looked like a button in the middle of her face. She had on an orange-flowered housecoat cinched at the waist with a red plastic belt and she smelled of the kind of perfume that cost about as much as gasoline and made a similar statement. She was breathing hard.