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Authors: Peter Bowen

Specimen Song

BOOK: Specimen Song
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Specimen Song
A Gabriel Du Pré Mystery
Peter Bowen

For Tim Gable, bookseller, wry raconteur, and grouch

Contents

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50

CHAPTER 1

D
U
P
RÉ HAD NEVER
sweated like he was sweating in all his life. The air flowed in and out of his lungs like honey. The strings of his fiddle were greasy.

This Washington, D.C., he thought, now I know why everything comes out of it is so fucked up. People live here too long, say a month, it poaches their brains. I feel sorry for them, where I just used to hate them. Thank you, Jesus.

He put his fiddle in the old rawhide case his grandfather had made and he walked down through the crowds flowing slowly from one stage to another of the Folk Life Festival.

Least all these pretty girls hardly wearing anything, Du Pré thought. Thank you, Jesus.

Du Pré stood at the back of a crowd watching an old black man play a battered guitar, had a neck of a wine bottle on his finger. Du Pré nodded at the rhythms, the lonesome heartbreak of the glass sliding on the high strings. Some good music this. But the man’s accent was thick and Du Pré couldn’t make out very many of the words. He didn’t have to. Bad luck and hard women.

Du Pré sucked in another lungful of honey flavored with car exhaust and city smells. He thought of how he had come to be here.

Three months ago, in a bitter Montana March, winter hanging on late and the mud yet to come, he and Madelaine had gone over to a fiddling contest in the college town of Bozeman. Du Pré hadn’t won anything at the contest, all the prizes went to youngsters, who, Du Pré had to admit, played lots more notes than he did, even if they weren’t the right or even reasonable ones. And afterward, some bearded man in a down jacket had come up to him and introduced himself as one of the directors of the Folk Life Festival at the Smithsonian, and said how he would like Du Pré to come in late June and play at it. The festival would pay his travel, put him up, and pay him five hundred dollars.

Du Pré had looked at the guy.

“Why you want me?” he said finally. “I didn’t even win a ribbon. You sure you don’t want that guy over there won the first place?”

“Hardly,” said the man in the down jacket. His name was Paul Chase.

“Washington, D.C.,” said Du Pré, “I have never been there. So I guess I would go.”

Paul Chase offered Du Pré a notebook and felt-tip pen. Du Pré scribbled his address in it.

“You’ll get a letter in a couple of weeks,” said Paul Chase.

They shook hands.

Madelaine had gone to the bar to get some of the sweet, bubbly pink wine she liked and a soda for Du Pré. The place was crowded with young people. They were forming little knots here and there and fiddling while some other young folks played guitars or banjos. One guy had a dobro strapped on, and he slid the steel expertly up and down. Du Pré took his soda and Madeline’s arm and pulled her over closer to the dobro player.

Du Pré had never been close to anyone playing one of the strange-looking guitars with the perforated tin pie plate in the top. He liked the sound. The dobro player glanced up at Du Pré briefly and then looked down to his work again. Another wailing shimmer sliding.

In the car, headed out of town, Du Pré told Madelaine about his invitation to Washington, D. C.

“All people do in Washington, D.C., is shoot each other,” said Madelaine. “I saw that on the TV.”

They stopped at an old hotel in Lewistown and then drove on home the next day.

The letter came a couple weeks later, and the days went by, and then Madelaine drove Du Pré down to Billings to take his first long air ride since he was in the army.

Du Pré looked out at the runway and the whooshing jets.

“The hell with it,” he said, “I think I won’t go.”

Madelaine laughed.

Du Pré got on the plane. He hated every minute of the trip, and now here he was in Washington, DC, sweating.

I don’t do this again, thought Du Pré. I am too old to be a rock-and-roll star.

Du Pré heard an eerie, trilling ululation. He walked toward the soundstage it came from. There were six Indians onstage, singing. Their voices were weaving in and out of one another like smoky flutes. The hair on the back of Du Pré’s neck stood up. The music spoke to his soul. It was music of ice and seal hunting, nights a month long, deserts of ice broken and twisted, and the endless, screaming polar wind.

Du Pré picked up a program from the trampled grass, looked through it. Inuit throat singers from Canada. Whew.

The Inuit trailed off. They were followed by a Cajun band. Du Pré found his foot tapping to the music, accordion, washboard, some little guitar, fiddle, and a man playing bones.

The band finished the number and the bones player talked a moment about how you had to get just these sections of two ribs on the cow. Those sections rang best, he said. He started to play a solo on them, and Du Pré took out his fiddle and played it damped at the back of the crowd.

The crowd parted, some people looking back at Du Pré.

Du Pré stopped. He felt bad, like he’d stolen the bones player’s audience. Hadn’t meant to, but there it was.

“Hey!” the bones player called. “You come on up here, play something.”

I got to, thought Du Pré. He was running sweat.

I make a fool of myself maybe.

Du Pré made his way to the stage. He clomped up the folding steps and out to a microphone. The rest of the band smiled and nodded.

The bones player laid down a rhythm and Du Pré fiddled off it, some notes here and there, little riffs, longer passages. He’d been playing the fiddle long enough, he could sometimes reach for lungs and his fingers would get them almost before his mind thought of them.

Du Pré heard a couple women scream off to his left. He looked over and saw a horse dancing with a pancake saddle off on its left side. The crowd was afraid of the horse and the horse was afraid of the crowd. They were trying to pull away from each other, but the crowd was thick and everywhere the horse turned, he saw people and it frightened him more.

Du Pré went off the stage on one hand, leaving his fiddle lying by the microphone. He threaded his way through the crowd, and when he popped out into the space the horse had made around itself, he began to talk to the horse in Coyote French, making soothing sounds.

The horse stood still, grateful that here was a human who seemed to know him. Du Pré got hold of the bridle.

Du Pré led the horse away from the crowds. He saw some ambulance lights off by a jumble of portable outhouses, and a couple of police cars there, too.

“Well,” said Du Pré to the horse, “now what about this? Huh?”

The horse whiffled. Du Pré rubbed the gelding’s soft nose.

CHAPTER 2

T
HE BIG COP HAD SWEATED
his linen sport coat dark under the arms and down his spine. He sweated so much that he messed up the notes he was trying to take.

“Fuckin’ heat,” said the cop. “So you caught this horse. You’re one a the performers here?”

“Uh-huh,” said Du Pré.

“Why you catch the horse?”

“I know horses pretty good,” said Du Pré. “This horse, he was some scared, and all he wanted was someone around who seemed to know horses. So I just walked up to him and grabbed his bridle.”  

The detective waved to a uniformed patrolman. The patrolman came over slowly.

“I need to have you hold on to this horse,” said the detective.

The cop looked at the horse, the horse looked at the cop. Neither was favorably impressed. The cop moved a hand slowly toward the bridle.

The horse’s eyes got big.

“Look,” said Du Pré, “this will not work. This horse, he needs someone who talks horse. I don’t think you can talk horse. So, I maybe hold him till you find the owner or something.”

Du Pré saw a young man in jeans and boots and a sleeveless T-shirt coming toward them. Kid had on a straw cowboy hat that had seen hard use.

“Jerry!” said the young man. He had a blond ponytail and a woven horsehair belt buckle. The horse shuffled a little and tossed his head. This was someone he knew.

“Thanks,” said the kid. He took the horse’s bridle from Du Pré and he stroked the animal’s neck. “Got to get you to some water,” he said to the horse.

“Whose horse’s this?” said the detective.

“Van Orden Stables,” said the handler. He pulled a sweated wad of business cards from the hip pocket of his jeans and offered the detective one. “Miss Price called from the hospital.”

“Lady who found the body,” said the detective.

The handler nodded.

“Christ,” said Du Pré. “A
body
?”

The detective nodded. “You’ll be here for the festival?” he said to Du Pré.

“Yeah,” said Du Pré. “You need me, the office is in that striped tent over there. They will know where I am playing. I don’t hardly go to the hotel, you know. We sit here after dark and play music. Too hot to sleep, anyway, and I hate air conditioning.”

“Thanks for catchin’ old Jerry,” said the handler. “He musta been some lonely.”

“Where you from?” said Du Pré.

“West Texas,” said the young man. “Can I please take him? He needs water real bad.”

The detective nodded; the handler led the horse away.

“What is this about now?” said Du Pré.

“If I need to talk to you, I’ll find you,” said the detective. He tucked his notebook into his sweaty linen coat. Du Pré got a glimpse of the butt of a gun under the man’s arm. He nodded to Du Pré and walked away.

Du Pré made his way back to the stage. He saw his rawhide fiddle case against the back curtain, near the cables snaking under toward the sound booth out front. There was a band playing old-time music at the microphones. Du Pré waited until they finished their piece and the applause started, then he went as quickly as he could to his fiddle, popped the case open to make sure the instrument was in it, went to the side of the stage, and dropped down to the grass. There were sandwich wrappers and empty Styrofoam cups everywhere about. The grounds had garbage cans every few yards, but some people just would not use them.

Du Pré went to the festival offices in the striped tent. It was little more than a phone-and-message bank for the performers. Three young women wearing as little as they could sat wearily on folding chairs, sipping huge glasses of iced tea.

“You know where Paul Chase is?” said Du Pré.

The women glanced at one another. “He’s…at an appointment,” she said finally.

“I know the police found a body,” said Du Pré. “Is he talking to them?”

More glances. Finally, one nodded.

“Do you know when he will be back?”

More glances. Then the women looked past Du Pré. Du Pré turned, to see Paul Chase, looking like he was making his face brave, coming toward the tent.

Chase nodded to Du Pré and went on to the three young women and spoke in a low voice. Du Pré couldn’t hear the words. They looked hot and weary and frightened.

Chase turned. His face was gray.

“I found some horse,” said Du Pré, “so I had the police talking to me, too.”

Chase nodded. “Woman who discovered the body was on a bridle path over that way”—he waved his hand—”wouldn’t have seen it if she had been walking. The extra height, you know. She got down and looked in the shrubbery, and then she screamed and the horse panicked. So did she. She had a terrible asthma attack.”

BOOK: Specimen Song
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