Authors: Jim Fusilli
Crime Plus Music
TWENTY STORIES OF
THREE ROOMS PRESS
New York, NY
Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir
Â© 2016 by Three Rooms Press
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ISBN 978-1-941110-45-4(trade paperback)
ISBN 978-1-941110-46-1 (ebook)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016936895
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Three Rooms Press
New York, NY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
BY JIM FUSILLI
be much of a surprise to discover that there's a dark and deadly side to the world of popular music.
Fraud, embezzlement, and larceny. Institutional stupidity. Rampant deceit. Money vanishes, backs are stabbed, careers are crushed. Art? Er, no. The album is a product to be commercialized; the concert a chance to move drinks and merch. Better you should have gone to Wharton than Berklee. The promise of a fabulous meal at sunset on a gorgeous island turns into a bologna sandwich to eat in the back of the bus. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” What's surprising is that musicians in droves haven't taken up the simple art of murder. Yet.
Crime Plus Music
, the anthology that offers exactly what it claims: crime stories that are inspired by music, in particular rock and pop. (Though I should tell you that “The Long Lament” by the modern master of the short story, Brendan DuBois, avoids rock and pop altogether by making bagpipesâyes, bagpipesâessential to his wonderful tale.) If, as the ancient maxim goes, music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, in
Crime Plus Music
it stirs in the souls of men and women the savage beast that will awaken with murderously foul intent. You are warned: Songs familiar and not so will be brought to mind, yes, but there will be blood.
bifurcated life: I'm the author of eight mystery and crime novels; and the rock and pop critic of the
Wall Street Journal
, as well as editor and founder of
. My worlds collide when I meet other authors of crime, mystery, and suspense novels and short stories at writers' conferences, luncheons, bookstores, and social events including, but not limited to, weddings, funerals, and card games. Inevitably, the conversation turns to music. As you may have noticed, most people not only like music, they also like to talk about the kind of music they like. Given that most writers think creatively and understand the artist's mindset, they have insight into music that makes the conversations a pleasure. You'd never know that, while you're talking to them, they are scheming up ways to kill and maim characters in the stories they're working on. The spark for the idea for
Crime Plus Music
came out of these conversations with many of the writers who appear in this anthology.
I'd written a few short stories that were set in the music world and I found them a pleasure to do: As noted, bad guys abound; and you can give your tale a soundtrack. After proposing the idea for the anthology to the publishers, I set out to invite as participants many of the best crime and mystery short story writers of our time. It is our great luckâyours and mineâthat so many agreed. The crime and mystery community, comprising fans, authors, editors, publishers, critics, and bloggers, is about the most welcoming and supportive that you'll ever find. But even knowing that, I was thrilled at the response. I hope you will be too.
Some of the names in this book are stars in that community: Craig Johnson is the gifted writer who gave us Walt Longmire, the Wyoming sheriff you know not only from Craig's deeply satisfying books, but from the TV series,
; Val McDermid, whose intense novels featuring the psychologist Tony Hill were the source for the TV series,
Wire in the Blood
; and Peter Robinson, whose tales featuring Inspector Alan Banks are as delightful (and occasionally terrifying) as the TV series
that emerged from them. With Val and Peter, our relationship has as much to do with music as books: on several occasions, I played guitar as Val sang, ominously, the song that inspired her short story in this collection, “The Long Black Veil.” I once traveled to a gig in Ontario without my guitar and Peter allowed me to use his. As I said, a welcoming and supportive community.
The other writers in this anthology deserve better billing than “the other writers” in this book. I'll leave it at this: their stories will tell you why they are so admired by readers and authors alike. If you've yet to read some of them, you're in for a treatâand you may find that you'll be seeking their books in order to continue your flight with their excellence.
I want to draw your attention to two writers who haven't been associated with the crime and mystery community until now: Galadrielle Allman and Willy Vlautin. Galadrielle is the author of
Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman
, which is a miraculous combination of memoir and biography of one of rock's great musicians. As for Willy, as his work with his band Richmond Fontaine shows, he is a master storyteller, a skill that is amply evident in his novels of the hardscrabble life in the American West. Their contributions raise the level of quality in our collection.
With that, welcome again to
Crime Plus Music
. Enjoy not only the wonderful tales told by some of our best writers, but also how, every now and then, the clenched fist of fate gives some of the music world's bad guys the cosmic beating they deserve.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF FRANKIE LYMON
BY PETER BLAUNER
wearing the jacket that Sam bought for the
photo shoot last year. A mostly wool blazer with two rows of brass buttons, that must have costâwhat?âlike forty to fifty dollars at Blumstein's. He felt bad because Sam was living on about two hundred a week as food inspector in the Bronx, while trying to manage the comeback for him. But what could you do? All the star clothes he used to have in his grandmother's closet were either child-sized and long ago outgrown or had holes in them because he'd nodded off with a cigarette in his mouth.
So now the jacket felt heavy as a burden on his shoulders as he eyed his surroundings and tried to get comfortable. The bar was around the corner from his grandmother's and he half recognized some of the people from the neighborhood, where he hadn't lived since back in the day. There were mailmen and bus drivers wearing turtlenecks or open-collared shirts with jeans. Doormen and janitors in T-shirts and growing out their hair into bushy naturals as they rapped effortlessly to short-skirted former double Dutch girls from the block with sleepy eyes and soft mouths, who kept going “uh-huh, uh-huh, right on” as that Gladys Knight “Grapevine” song played on the jukebox.
He felt like a square by comparison, with his blazer, his rep tie, and the perfect part in his processed hair, but he put up a front and strutted by like he was on his way to play the London Palladium again. But from the corner of his eye, he could see the stray looks in the smoked mirror; people kind of half recognizing his squished-angel's face and dice-dot eyes from before his voice changed. Or maybe just wondering if he
he used to be someone.
He half wished he'd stayed in tonight. But it had been so long since he'd done anything worth celebrating. This afternoon in the studio, something had happened. He didn't know if it was the band or the melody or the lyrics. For one take, though, he'd found a way to get inside that song. It was just some trifle about a town called Sea Breeze where a man could see the lights and finally find peace. But for three minutes and twenty-two seconds, he was completely himself again, after all these years. For that alone, he deserved some little reward. Didn't he?
There was a Wurlitzer jukebox at the back, a lit-up mini-cathedral made of glass, walnut, grinding gears, and vinyl. He went to it and scanned the titles. They had a couple of tracks by the Supremes that even the Flintstones could have turned into hits; “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, which he literally would have killed to get his hands on; and something called “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers. Weird white people music by boys who relied on studio tricks and probably couldn't carry a tune in a bucket if their lives depended on it. And there, near the bottom of the fourth column, at P-9, was “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
The quarter was in his hand before he knew what he'd do with it. He was torn between wanting to play his own hit to remind everyone who he was, and being embarrassed about the potential for more soul-scouring humiliation.
Three songs for twenty-five cents. The coin dropped and he pictured a ball bouncing between the slots of a spinning wheel. Round and round she goes, where it stops . . . He punched in that “Dock of the Bay” song that just came out and then “Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke, who he'd envied to the point of sickness until Sam got himself shot to death by a pissed-off lady in a motel room. Which left one more choice. As the needle found the groove for his first pick, he hit the button for “Fools” and stepped away like he'd just lit a fuse on a stack of dynamite. Giving himself just enough time to make a quick exit if the shame got to be too much.
“What song you put on, Frankie?”
A woman was sitting at the end of the bar, grinning at him, with her purse on the counter, next to an empty martini glass with an olive at the bottom. She wasn't young and it didn't look like her first drink. When she opened her mouth, her front teeth were a little irregular. But when she blinked her long lashes made him think of the way a drummer's brushes softly touch the skins when the music gets slow and sad and sweet.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
She, too, looked vaguely familiar. But there had been so many. He used to brag that by the time he was twelve he'd learned everything there was to know about women, and had kept going anyway. Pimping since he was ten. Dating ladies twice his age when he was on the road with the Teenagers. Shooting skag with a woman old enough to be his mother when he should have been in high school. Married three times by the time he was twenty-five, but never formally divorced from any of them.
“Do you think you know me?” she said, as lapping waves ushered in Otis Redding sounding all mellow and elegiac over a lightly strummed guitar.
“If I don't, I'm about to get to know you.” He claimed the stool beside her.
Here it was again: the game. He only hoped it wouldn't be over too soon. The distance between “Oooh, Frankie, Frankie” and “Get out my life, you washed-up little motherfucker” seemed to be getting shorter and shorter these days.
He snapped his fingers twice to get the bartender's attention, but got nothing but a blank stare. She batted her lashes once and the man came right over.
“Give me another In and Out Martini and use the Noilly Prat gin this time.” She looked at Frankie. “He's paying.”
“I'll have a Rum and Coke,” Frankie said.
It sounded like a little kid's drink. Or worse, a drink for a junkie with a sweet tooth. “Use the Bacardi,” he said, trying to class it up. “And a lime if you got one.”
“Where you been, Frankie?”
kind of face that was mature and interesting at certain angles, and a little dissolute and scary at others. Under those long lashes, her eyes were more sunken than they first appeared and her smile had heavy brackets.
“Oh, you know. Just to the stars and back.”
“I heard you were living in Georgia.”
“I was.” He leaned against the counter. “But how you gonna keep a boy down on the farm after he's seen the farm? Know how I'm saying?”
In fact, he'd gone AWOL from the army, trying to hustle club gigs, and had gotten himself dishonorably discharged. Lucky not to be court-martialed and in the brig by now.
“Who's paying for you to be back up here?” she asked.
“I still got some bridges I haven't burned. I did a session for Roulette Records today.”
“Song called âSea Breeze.' I think it could do something.”
“Roulette? Isn't that Morris Levy?”
“What you know about Morris?”
She showed him a bit of her crooked teeth again. Apparently even people who weren't in the music business knew about Morris by now. About his office full of gold records and his bloodsucker contracts, about the songwriting royalties he got for music that he'd never heard, about the way people around him got dangled out of windows or stabbed in the stomach with shards of glass. The man was so mobbed up that the Mafia killed his brother and he kept working with them anyway. But he was pretty much the last man in the industry who would still take Frankie's calls and pay for his studio time, so why let pride set the terms?
“I know you're playing Russian Roulette by being on Roulette again,” she said.
“Baby.” He shook his head. “My whole life is Russian Roulette.”
If he wasn't taking a chance on another comeback, he was taking a chance on another woman. And if he wasn't doing that, he was putting a needle in his arm, knowing that one of these days he was probably going to hit one of those bad batches that were always going around. Just a matter of time. Like Johnny Ace putting a pistol to his head backstage on Christmas Day when he had “Pledging My Love” on the charts. Everything eventually came around.
The bartender put down their drinks and went away, as Otis Redding rolled off with the tide and Frankie started to get a little unnerved by the steady way she was looking at him.
“Hey, why you asking so many questions?” he said.
Normal people, in his experience, usually weren't that interested in anyone else. Even around celebrities, they found a way to make the conversation about themselves.
“You're still Frankie Lymon, ain't you?”
“If anybody remembers.”
He looked around at the other customers deep in conversation, bobbing their heads and swinging their legs as Sam Cooke came on, all suave and seductive.
“Who's gonna forget âWhy Do Fools Fall In Love?'” she said. “How did you write it anyway?”
“I'm an artist.” He shrugged. “I got inspired. That's what artists do.”
He took a quick sip off his drink, without taking the little red straw out first, trying to sand the edge off his growing nervousness. He'd always been a jumpy kid, eager to get out of the crowded house he grew up in and into more worldly business. Which was a fine thing when he was a teen idol in a white varsity sweater, singing to the rafters, dancing like Sammy Davis Jr.'s bop-crazed little brother, and working the lip of the stage. And less fine once his voice dropped.
“Thirteen years old.” She shook her head. “You're singing, âWhy do birds sing so gay?' That sounds like some Emily Dickinson shit, doesn't it?”
He shrugged. “Just wise before my time, I guess.”
“I read how you said it started as a poem you wrote for school and then you turned into a song.”
“Yeah. I guess I said that.”
He'd said a lot of things, to a lot of different people. And some of them were true, sometimes. He wondered if this could be some kind of lawyer set up, meant to pry his name off the song completely. When they first cut it, the producer George Goldner copped half the composer credit and put his name next to Frankie's on the label. Then George got in deep to gamblers and had to give the credit to Morris, to get out from behind the eight-ball. So maybe this lady was a plant to help Morris get the rest while he was pretending to still be Frankie's patron by paying for the studio time.
“We went down to Times Square to audition for Gee RecordsâHerman, Jimmy, Joe, Sherman, and me,” Frankie said uneasily, trying to stick to the story as he'd told it a million times before. “I wasn't even the lead singer then. I was just an annoying little kid with a high voice. So we sang them all these songs the Jacks and the Spaniels did. But they said, nah, make that little one the singer and give us a new song. So I came up with âFools.' And then it went on the radio. And then we went on tour with Alan Freed and Little Richard and the Platters, and the rest is rock and roll history.”
“You know what I think?” Something at the corner of her smile cut him more than it should have.
“What do you think?”
“I think you're a lying motherfucker, Frankie Lymon.”
He stuck his chin out. “Yeah, why is that?”
“You never could have written that song on your own.”
He looked around at the other patrons to see if they were listening. But they were all deep in their own bags, either lost in each other or listening to Sam Cooke's smooth insinuations with half-closed eyes.
“Because I wrote those words,” she said. “And you took them.”
“How could I do that? I never even met you before.”
“The letters,” she said, reaching for her purse on the counter.
“You know the damn letters I'm talking about.” She put the purse on her lap. “Before you made it big? When your friends were practicing in the hallway of that building on 165th and Edgecombe? Singing âGoodnight Sweetheart' and âWhy Don't You Write Me?' over and over? Who do you think was upstairs?”
“The answer is
.” One of her lashes stuck together. “That's where I was living. When I was in love with a man across the hall. Mr. Kenny Tyrone. Who made me feel things that no woman has ever felt before. Do you understand what I'm saying?”
He drained half his drink. “I don't know why I'd care.”
“Because I taught poetry to little punk-ass students like you and I knew how to put my feelings into words. And I put those words into letters. And I gave those letters to Mr. Kenny Tyrone. And he gave those letters to your friends because he didn't want his wife to find them and because he got sick of hearing you all sing the same damn words over and over. And then you put them in your song.”
“This is a lie.” Frankie shook his head, refusing to look at her.
“It's not a lie.” She used her fingers to peel off the misbehaving lash. “Because at dawn every day, Kenny's wife would go to work early at Presbyterian Hospital. Then I'd go across the hall. Because I had an hour and a half before the first class I had to teach at Stitt Junior High. And I lived for those mornings, because my life was so lonely the rest of the time. I'd sit by that window looking out over 165th Street, waiting for the sun to rise over Highbridge so she would go and I could live again. And I'd listen and I'd ask myself, âWhy do lovers await the break of day?'”
“That's just one line.” Frankie finished his drink.
“That's the whole damn song, Frankie. It's all about waiting for the break of day. It's not about
in love. It's about
in love. Dumb as you are, even you understand that. Otherwise you couldn't have sung it the way you did.”
He looked away from her with a sinking feeling. Of course, it was true. He was reminded of it every time he heard the song. It wasn't about the thing when it happened. It was about imagining what it would be like just before it happened. Like when he was standing backstage at the Apollo, listening to all the girls scream, like they were promising all the love in the world. Before he realized it would never be enough.