Authors: Max Allan Collins
Max Allan Collins
MOURN THE LIVING
Perfect Crime Books
SCRATCH FEVER. Copyright © 1982, 2012 by Max Allan Collins. Introduction © 2012 by Max Allan Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored by any means without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Dominick Abel Literary Agency Inc., 146 West 82
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Cover by Christopher Mills.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters and institutions are products of the Author’s imagination and do not refer to actual persons or institutions.
Perfect Crime Books Trade Paperback Edition
Kindle Edition July 2012
holds a somewhat unique position in my Nolan series. The first five novels were written in the late sixties through the mid-’70s. But only the first two,
, were published in the seventies (both in 1973). The others, because of a merger between publishers Curtis Books and Popular Library, went into that terrible limbo called inventory. Promises of publication were made but not kept. And around 1980, I got the rights back.
With astonishing speed, Pinnacle Books picked up the five books (three of which had never seen publication, remember). I did some rewriting and updating, and suddenly Nolan was again back in business. But Pinnacle was something of a relentless publisher when it came to crime–they offered me a
Which meant that, after seven or eight years or so, I would be returning to the series, with the express instructions that the jump from ’70s book to ’80s book be seamless.
I think it is. Probably this is my favorite of that first batch of Nolan novels (even if it is, sort of, a one-book “second batch”). I was really getting the hang of writing low-life villains who retained a recognizable humanity, and both Nolan and Jon were getting nice and round, which in particular for Nolan, a genre type if ever there was one, was a good trick. But in
, you meet a Nolan with a genuine relationship going on with his girl Sherry (and to him she is a “girl”), not to mention real concern for his partner-in-crime, Jon. You also will find out what happens when somebody fucks with Nolan’s dog, and I don’t mean the terrier next door.
Two things particularly please me about this novel.
The character Julie, returned from
, is a particularly good femme fatale, I think. I can say this looking back at the novel since I hardly remember writing the thing, and can take it on its own terms. (I do remember that the two hitmen in this novel were inspired by an apparently gay pair of killers in the classic Joseph H. Lewis film,
The Big Combo
. If you are a real buff, you’ll realize that this pits Lee Van Cleef against . . . Lee Van Cleef.)
The other thing is the presence of rock music in the plot or anyway the ambience. I have played in rock bands since high school, starting around 1966. There have been occasional stretches where I haven’t been out there playing, but mostly I have, right up to the present. (The next place my band Crusin’ is appearing at is called “Ducky’s Lagoon.”)
The Barn, the venue where Jon and his band the Nodes are appearing, is based on a now-defunct joint called the Pub, where Crusin’ played every other weekend for at least two years. This is a very accurate rendition of that club. When I wrote the novel, I had just quit the band, who went on without me as a trio playing New Wave under the name the Ones. I returned before long, but in some sense, writing about Jon as a rock musician and this particular venue was a kind of valedictory. Premature as it turns out, but nonetheless
marks the most major convergence between my two worlds–writing crime novels and playing rock music–and, for that reason if no other, it holds a special place in my hardboiled heart.
All of my early novels–virtually everything that Perfect Crime has reprinted–were written when I was a working rock musician. For several years, playing rock was my major source of income . . . particularly the fallow writing period between when I wrote the Nolan, Mallory and Quarry novels, and landed the Dick Tracy comic strip. Pinnacle publishing Nolan would follow soon, and Mallory finally seeing print at Walker, and Nathan Heller coming to life at St. Martin’s Press and changing my career.
is the first book of that second, much more successful time . . . so it’s no wonder it’s my favorite of the first seven Nolan novels.
I hope you like it, too.
Max Allan Collins
JON, ON STAGE
, sweating, singing, mouth against the wire mesh ball of the microphone, hands on the black keys of the keyboard, looked out across the underlit, crowded dance floor, smoke drifting like fog, and saw somebody who was supposed to be dead.
He blinked the sweat away and looked again.
She was gone.
But he had seen her. Recognized her. He shouldn’t have been able to—her hair was different, still long, brushing her shoulders, but streaked blonde now, heavily so—and she wore tinted glasses with dark frames. He’d never seen her in glasses before, but she had the kind of face that a change of hair and the addition of glasses made no less distinctive.
It was mostly her mouth, he supposed: full lips that wore a faint, permanent pout, like Elke Sommer, but cruel, somehow. Smug. A feature that attracted and repelled, promised and threatened. As did that shape of hers—big boobs, tiny waist, wide hips, perfect ass. She was a sexual exaggeration, a Vargas girl come to life. She was Julie.
Julie, in white skirt and jacket and black cardigan, looking like a businesswoman, coldly chic, talking to Bob, the club manager, a six-four former farmer who was sitting with her over at the bar, stage right, handing her a drink.
Only that had been before Jon blinked.
Now Bob was sitting next to an empty stool, looking toward the back of the room, the drink in his hand extended toward nobody.
, Jon thought; she saw
, too, recognized me. He felt a chill, despite the heat of the stage lights, the row of alternating red/blue/yellow spots strung on a pole above him, the system the band carried with them.
No. She wouldn’t have recognized him; she wouldn’t expect to see him playing on stage with a rock band. She wouldn’t know him with his hair cut off. He was just another musician, short, muscular, curly haired; there were hundreds of people who looked like him.
The song was over, he suddenly realized (“Pump It Up,” by Elvis Costello), and he should be introducing the next one, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He glanced over at the list of songs taped to the monitor speaker next to his portable organ (an old Vox Super Continental double keyboard), but the salty sweat in his eyes kept him from being able to focus on it.
The rest of the band, Les, Roc, Mick, Toni, stood and looked at him, waiting, and there was one of those two- or three-second pauses that most audiences don’t notice but seem an eternity to the people on stage, and then his eyes focused and he saw on the typed song list “Accidents Never Happen” just below “Pump It Up.”
“We’d like to do one by Blondie,”
he heard himself saying, his voice echoing across the hall,
“featuring Toni. She isn’t blonde, but she’s more fun.”
Toni did a little Debbie Harry salute/smile at the audience, and the faces out there smiled back at her, accompanied by a few laughs, and they went into the song.
The band—which was called the Nodes—did a lot of Blondie material, because Toni did resemble Blondie’s Debbie Harry just a little, though her hair was brunette (but then again so was Debbie Harry’s, really), and she had a similar busty little figure and could mimic Ms. Harry’s voice to perfection, as well as half a dozen other women’s, from Ronnie Spector to Pat Benatar to Lene Lovich, which was no small feat. Toni was the most popular member of the band, and Jon didn’t mind. But Les, Roc, and Mick did, and that was probably the major reason this was the band’s last gig.
After seven very successful months—they’d been playing the Wisconsin/Iowa/Illinois club circuit and pulling down $1500 a week, which for a band without a hit record was good money—the Nodes were going their separate ways. Or at least Les, Roc, and Mick were going one way, staying together as a trio, while Jon and Toni went another, to a tryout in St Paul, next week, with a new band. Girl singers and keyboard players were always in demand.
Besides, there was a split in musical tastes among the band. Jon and Toni both liked new wave rock, like the Elvis Costello and Blondie numbers that dominated the song list; but the rest of the band (who had been together for years under various names, among them Eargasm, Fried Smoke and Deep Pink) were into heavy-metal rock, and it was at their insistence that material like Aerosmith and Ted Nugent stayed on the list, much to Jon and Toni’s distaste.
The club they were playing was called the Barn, and it was in the country, between two cornfields, ten miles outside Burlington, Iowa. Part of it actually was a barn, or had been
before it was turned into a restaurant, with the rough wood and red and white checkered tablecloths and barbecued ribs
you’d expect of a restaurant that used to be a barn. A huge tin shed had been erected next to the restaurant and in this, still in a rustic manner, an Old Town setting had been created, with fake storefronts lining either side of a big dance floor. Between storefronts and dance floor were more tables with red and white checked cloths, and there was a bar on either side, plus another in back, in the area that connected the restaurant and the club.
The audience here was a young one, teens to late twenties, with enough people in their thirties to make it a difficult mix for a band to please. The drinking age was twenty-one, but fake I.D.s were more common than real ones in clubs like this one. The manager, Bob Hale, insisted that the bands he booked in play “nostalgia,” which meant fifties and sixties rock, and the Nodes carried plenty of songs in that area. And the band dressed like a British sixties group: sportcoats and skinny ties and short hair. Even Toni had a Beatle haircut and wore a skinny tie with her white shirt—of course, the white shirt and tie were all Toni wore, that and pantyhose, the shirt hitting her mid-thigh, like a mini-skirt, which was Jon’s idea of “nostalgia.”
Jon knew that to exist as a band in the Midwest it was necessary to cater to slightly crazed club owners, like Bob, who wanted bands that could appeal to everybody. The Nodes’ tongue-in-cheek clean-cut look helped accomplish that, and the songs by the Stones, Kinks and Beatles, plus sixties camp like “96 Tears,” “Dirty Water,” and “Woolly Bully,” pleased the patrons in their thirties as well as the eighteen-year-olds.
At the end of “Accidents Never Happen,” tall, skinny lead guitarist Roc went into “Cat Scratch Fever.” Several male voices, out in the smoky crowd, yelped and hooted. It was a popular song. It was also Jon and Toni’s cue to step offstage for a break; neither her vocals nor his keyboards were required on that opus, and besides, they hated it.
There was a little room off to stage right, behind one of the fake storefronts, where he and Toni went to wait out the song.
He could hear Roc’s toneless voice echoing out there:
“Make her pussy purr. . . .”
“Why do they like that shit?” Jon asked.
Toni was sitting on one of the hard black flight cases a guitar amp was carried in; her short, nice legs were crossed as she unscrewed the cap of a bottle of Cutty Sark.
“You mean Les and Roc and Mick,” she asked, “or the crowd?”
“Beats the fuck out of me,” she said, and took a swig of the whiskey; her little-girl face lit up as it rolled down her throat “Then again, this is Iowa,” she added.
Out in the other room, Roc’s guitar whined; people whooped.
“If Iowa sucks so bad,” he said, “why’d you leave New Jersey?”
It was a question he’d asked many times these past months.
The answer he got he’d heard before: “1 thought maybe I’d stand out in a cornfield.”
He usually laughed at that, but this time he didn’t. He was thinking about the woman he’d seen—in the white skirt and black sweater. He was thinking about Julie.
“Something on your mind, Jonny?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Cat scratch fever . . .”
“I thought you looked like something threw you on stage there for a second—couple songs ago. Something to that?”
She smiled; she really looked like Debbie Harry when she smiled. “Bet you spotted somebody in the crowd. An old girlfriend. Am I right, Jonny?”
“Well, these are your old stomping grounds, aren’t they?”
“Cat scratch fever . . . Cat scratch fever . . .”
“Not really. I’m eighty or a hundred miles from home.”
Home was Iowa City. Or it used to be, before he and Toni had met in a music store; she’d been playing with Dagwood, a group that did nothing but Blondie material, formed by the ex-members of Smooch, a band that had imitated Kiss in full makeup and regalia till the Kiss fad faded. It was driving Toni
nuts, as they had insisted she dye her hair blonde, with a brunette patch in back, so she’d become a Debbie Harry clone. And even though she knew it was her fate, right now at least, to sing a lot of Blondie songs, enough was enough. Jon had grabbed her, had somehow got together with Les, Roc, and Mick, and had turned Deep Pink into the Nodes and hit the road.
“We got a week to kill,” Toni was saying, “before the tryout in St. Paul. We going to visit your pal? What’s his name?”
“Nolan, you mean.”
“Yeah. Nolan. I’d like to meet that guy. We going to stay with him in Iowa City this week, or what?”
“He doesn’t live there anymore. He moved.”
“Oh, yeah? What about that place of yours, that antique shop your uncle left you?”
“I leased it to an old girlfriend of mine. She sells water beds.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember her. The thirty-year-old hippie.”
“All hippies are thirty years old now. Anyway, Karen’s all right. She’s got a kid I hate, but she’s all right.”
Roc’s guitar screeched out there; guys in the audience hollered.
“Christ, his guitar playing bores me,” Toni said, making a face, swigging some more whiskey. She drank a lot, but Jon never saw it take any noticeable effect.
“I did see somebody out there, you know,” Jon said.
“Oh? If it’s a girlfriend, I’d be jealous, if you and me were still an item.”
“Two weekends ago we were an item. Kind of.”
“Yeah, well, we’re still friends, Jonny. If you don’t have anything lined up, and I don’t have anything lined up, we can still be an item anytime you feel like, far as I’m concerned. But you and I both know there’s nothing serious in it for us.”
He smiled. “You got nice tits, Toni. I’m real serious when it comes to your tits.”
She uncrossed her legs, smiled at him. Gestured at him with the bottle of Cutty Sark. “C’mere, handsome.”
He went to her. Gave her a little kiss. She draped her arms around his neck; the whiskey bottle was against his back.
“Want to be an item tonight?” she asked. “Want to be an item all next week? I got nothing better to do. How about you?”
“I got nothing planned.”
“Unless it has to do with that old girlfriend you spotted.”
He moved away from her.
“Hey,” Toni said. “Something
Roc’s guitar was screaming at the audience; the audience was screaming back.