Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - After the Gig by Raymond Benson
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A piano player prepares himself for his next gig in this mystery from best-selling novelist Raymond Benson.

After the Gig

The apartment smelled of stale cigarette smoke, spilt Jack Daniels, and death.

While the place always reeked of these things, her perfume also permeated the air—but that was a rare and exceptional odor in his home.

Doane Crebbins hadn't bothered cleaning up the booze—he had dropped glasses of whiskey dozens of times over the years. The carpet had liquor stains on it dating back decades. In fact, the place was old enough to be the site of some major bathtub gin bootlegging back in the twenties. Crebbins' landlord once told him that Al Capone's men used to live there when they 'went to the mattresses.' That was a fancy mob term for 'went into hiding.' Back then the building was a fleabag hotel. Now it was a fleabag apartment house for losers, ex-cons, and starving musicians.

As for the tobacco stink, well, that came with the territory. Since he'd quit, Crebbins smoked only two packs of Marlboros a day. Somehow a cigarette was the appropriate prop for a Chicago jazz and blues player. He could never gather enough gumption to fully kick the habit. Truth be told, he didn't want to.

The other fragrance, the one that reminded Crebbins of a funeral parlor or maybe a nursing home, was also a permanent fixture of the apartment. He remembered the first time he'd entered the room. It was as if someone had died inside and the corpse hadn't been discovered for a week. The landlord reassured him that the last time a person kicked the bucket in the apartment was nineteen-seventy-seven. Some punk had OD'd in the living room and didn't make his presence known until four days later, when the stench finally oozed into the hallway. Crebbins was surprised it had taken that long. The walls in the building were paper thin-noise seeped through easily enough, why not smells?

Despite its skid-row ambiance, the apartment house was cheap and convenient. Located near the Clark and Lake Streets L station, the place enabled Crebbins to find immediate transportation to any of the various venues where he might have a gig. That was all that mattered to him. Food he could pick up at any of the convenience stores or burger joints. Liquor was plentiful as long as he had the dough to pay for it. Smokes were the main necessity and he always made sure there was enough money in the piggy bank for the daily fix. That took care of his needs—everything else was gravy.

Crebbins took one last swig of whiskey, slammed the glass down on the coffee table, and leaned forward. He was dressed in boxer shorts and an undershirt, the same clothes he'd been wearing for twenty-four hours straight. A shower was a must-have and he supposed a shave wouldn't harm him none either. Judging by the fading sunlight that leaked through the broken Venetian blinds, he knew it was time to get ready for that night's gig.

He gazed at the woman lying face down on the decrepit couch. She, too, was dressed only in under garments—a bra and panties. Nice body, albeit a bit older than he preferred. Nevertheless, the flesh was smooth and the mouth was moist. The perfume was nice, too.

She'd said her name was Billie.

He'd met her at the Redhead Piano Bar on Ontario Street. She'd told him she liked his playing. He distinctly remembered he was in the middle of his arrangement of Chick Corea's "Spain" when she approached the piano. Too bad he didn't remember much else except that she'd come home with him that night. Over the course of the next day they had finished off a pizza, some scrambled eggs, and at least two bottles of Jack. Crebbins thought he was a heavy drinker, but Billie matched him one-for-one and then some. No wonder she didn't move.

"Hey," he said. "I gotta get ready."

She didn't answer.

"Fine. You stay put. I'm gonna take a shower."

He managed to stand, stretch, and crack his knuckles. Ever since he'd learned to play piano, he had cracked his knuckles. A teacher once told him he'd have problems later in life if he continued the habit. She was right, too—except the problems he had later in life had nothing to do with his knuckles.

Crebbins wandered out of the living room and into the messy bedroom. The pile of dirty laundry provided another lovely bouquet that reminded him it was time to visit Chang and his family at the corner washateria. He'd do it in the morning.

The red light on his answering machine blinked steadily. He'd forgotten to check his messages when he came home with Billie. There were four of them. Crebbins punched the button and turned up the volume.

"Doane? Are you home?"

It was his eighty-two-year-old mother. No, ma, I ain't home. I would've picked up the phone if I'd been home. On second thought, maybe I wouldn't have.

"I've been worried about you. Why haven't you called? I went to the doctor on Monday and he said those pains I've been having is just arthritis. I keep telling him I think I have cancer but he doesn't believe me. Do you think I should get a second opinion?"

No, ma, you're just a goddamned hypochondriac.

"I hope you're okay. Give me a call soon, all right? Love you."

Crebbins pushed the "erase" button and went on to message number two.

"Hey, Doane, we're setting up a rehearsal for the combo on Saturday around two o'clock. My place. Lemme know if you can make it."

That was Barney Willis, a fine jazz and blues bass player Crebbins had met a couple of weeks back. Willis was trying to put together a quartet and was waiting on Crebbins to give him an answer on whether or not he wanted to join. Crebbins thought it might be fun to play with some other guys, but he preferred to go solo most of the time. Still, he supposed it wouldn't hurt to call Barney back and sit in on the rehearsal and see how it felt. The gig at the Redhead was good but he could always use extra cash. Crebbins jotted down Barney's number off the Caller-ID, erased the message, and went on to the next message.

"Doane? Are you home?"

His mother again. Sheesh.

"Why don't you ever answer the phone? My hip is acting up again. I forgot to tell you I got a letter from the IRS. I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it. Please give me a call. Love you."

Yeah, I love you too, mom. You sick, two-bit alcoholic bitch who made me go absolutely nuts and drove dad to suicide. Why can't you just up and die so I wouldn't have to listen to your pathetic whining every time you call.

Crebbins erased that missive as well.

The fourth message was something very different. As he listened, the hairs on the back of Crebbins' neck stood on end.

"Mister Crebbins, this is Detective Jim Petrie, Chicago Police Department. You may recall our conversation the other night at the Redhead Piano Bar. Could you please give me a call? I'd like to set up a time for you to come in to the precinct and look at some mug shots. After what you told me about Miss Walker, we've made some progress on the case. It would be very helpful if you'd come in and see if you recognize any of these men. Please call at your earliest convenience."

The detective gave his phone number and hung up. Crebbins swore under his breath, played the message again, wrote down the number, and hit the erase button.

Miss Walker was a woman he had met at the Redhead two weeks earlier. Like Billie, she had expressed admiration for Crebbins' musical ability and chatted him up during his break. They had a drink together and one thing led to another. Two nights later, Detective Petrie came to the bar asking questions. Apparently Miss Walker's nude and mutilated body had been discovered in a trash dumpster not far from the bar. She had been dead forty-eight hours. Crebbins told the officer that he and Miss Walker had spoken and had a drink together, but that she had also flirted with several other men in the joint. In fact, she had spent a lot of time with a guy sporting a long grey ponytail.

Crebbins didn't particularly want to go into a police station and look at mug shots. Policemen made him nervous, and when he was nervous he couldn't play the piano very well. Still, he supposed he'd have to do it. He could put it off just so long before they came knocking at his door, and that he really didn't want.

He stripped off the underclothes, walked into the bathroom, and turned on the water. It took forever for it to get hot, especially in the winter. When the outside temperature was in the low teens with a wind chill factor, as it was that day, sometimes he couldn't step into the shower stall until five minutes after he'd turned it on.

While he waited for it, Crebbins looked in the mirror and grimaced. His eyes were bloodshot and the stubble on his face betrayed his age. The grey streaks had appeared long ago but his beard seemed to be growing thinner. Hard creases made a caricature of his weather-beaten mug and he thought it was a wonder that any woman would come home with him.

It was the piano. It had always been about the piano.

Ever since he was in high school—which seemed like centuries ago—he'd attracted the opposite sex by simply sitting at the ivories and letting it rip. He was good, too. He'd supported himself through college by playing gigs wherever he could find them—mostly in seedy dives where no one listened to him. After graduation he'd formed a jazz and blues trio and tried to emulate Keith Jarrett's band. Moderate success was quick and easy in those days and Crebbins had made good money. But the big bucks and lucrative recording contract never came and the years rolled by. Before he knew it, Crebbins was pushing sixty and he was still playing in seedy dives for peanuts.

But it was a living. And it was the only thing he could do. That and avoid his loony nag of a mother.

The voice on the tape reverberated in his head.

Love you.

Yeah, right, ma. You love me, all right. Just like you loved dad. Did you love us that night when you threw all those bottles of booze at us? There were only three of them, but since I was seven years old at the time, it seemed to me there were a hundred. I can't forget the noise they made when they crashed into the wall and that sticky bourbon streaked down to the floor. I guess that's why I like to drink the stuff so much now. It got into my system, thanks to you.

The water was finally hot enough, so he stepped into the stall and relished the harsh bite on his tired skin. The burning sensation helped perk him up and he wished he could stay there forever. But after exactly four minutes and thirty-two seconds-he had timed it—the hot water would turn cold.

And poor dad. Whenever he couldn't hold a job you really ripped into him. The poor guy had no self-esteem by the time he was forty. You'd taken it all away from him. You'd stripped him of everything that made him a man. No wonder he blew his brains out in the kitchen. I think it was some kind of statement for you, ma, because the kitchen was always your domain, wasn't it? What a mess that was. You were more annoyed at having to clean it up than with your husband's demise.

Crebbins scrubbed down, stepped out of the stall, dried himself with a towel that was in the same condition as his laundry in the other room, and then used the cloth to wipe the steam off the mirror. The blade in his razor was three days old but was still sharp. Without using lather, he scraped the stubble off his face and splashed what was left of the after-shave onto his skin.

And then there was me. I had to live through your succession of boyfriends coming in at all hours of the day and night—some of them were clients, weren't they? Even as a teenager, I wasn't stupid. I knew what was going on. Boy, was I glad to get out of the house after high school. Even then you called me nearly every day, constantly ragging on me to quit school, get a job, and send you money. I never thought it would end. Even after your stroke at age fifty-seven, you metamorphosed from harpy-bitch to whining-victim. The dialogue and character dynamics may have changed, but the scenario was still the same.

Yeah, I love you, too, ma. I do it all for you.

After a little application of deodorant, he was ready. Crebbins left the bathroom and looked in his dresser drawer for a clean pair of boxers. Luckily there were two. Perhaps he didn't have to do his laundry in the morning after all. Scratch that, there were no clean white shirts in the closet. He'd have to put on the one he wore the other night. Hopefully he hadn't perspired too badly. It was unlikely, since he rarely had to exert himself when he played piano. He liked to say this was because his touch was light, his songs flowed like butter, and his tempos were slow and easy.

Chicago jazz and blues—Doane Crebbins made it look simple.

Finally dressed in the white shirt and a fading pair of black trousers, he looked for his tie decorated with music notes, staff lines, and treble clefs. He knew it was kitsch but the ladies liked it. He owned three of them, all identical. One was in the pile of dirty laundry, a victim of a spaghetti sauce tidal wave. The second one wasn't readily seen—it was probably under or behind the bed, but he was too lazy to bend over and look for it.

He knew where the third tie was, though.

Crebbins went back into the living room and looked at the still and silent woman. She had red hair, just like the picture of the girl in front of the Redhead Piano bar.

"Can I have my tie back?" he asked her.

She said nothing.

He reached over and pulled one end of the tie from around her bare neck. It slid easily around and off of the woman without disturbing her.

"Thanks. Hope you enjoyed wearing it."

Crebbins then went to the cracked mirror that hung in the short hallway by the front door. He carefully tied the accessory—he'd always needed a mirror to do so—and searched the room for his jacket. It was where he'd dropped it an eon ago, over by the stereo system.

One last thing to do before leaving. Crebbins moved to the antique upright piano that sat in the corner of the living room and stood over the keys. There was a tricky passage that McCoy Tyner had performed during his solo in John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," and Crebbins wanted to run through it a few times before the gig. He silently hummed the bass lead-in to himself and imagined a tall, African-American saxophone player standing beside him as Crebbins launched into the riff.

For the first time, he got it right. It gave him such a rush that he turned to the woman on the couch and said, "Hey, honey, did you hear that? I finally got it!" He played the riff again perfectly. "How about that! I've been working on that for weeks."

He did it three more times to make sure it would stay with him.

Crebbins turned to the window and noted that it was fully dark outside. He glanced at his watch and said, "Okay, I gotta go. I'll be back around two in the morning. I would say don't drink all the booze but I think we already did that. Maybe I'll bring some more. After all, we have a lot more fun ahead of us after the gig, right, honey? You be a good girl, and stay warm."

As an afterthought, he pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and threw it over her nearly-naked form.

Crebbins grabbed his keys from the counter and opened the door. He stepped into the hall, shut the door, and locked it.

As he walked to the elevator, he whistled the piano riff. The best time of night was always after the gig. Indeed, that's when the fun and games began in earnest. He'd repeatedly have his way with his guest and she'd never complain. She wouldn't make a sound, especially since she'd spent the last several hours wearing his favorite tie.

And in the morning, when he was finished with her, he would dispose of the corpse just as he had done with Miss Walker and all the others.

About the Author

Among his 20 published books, Raymond Benson wrote six original James Bond novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories—all published worldwide. Three 007 titles are collected in the recent anthology The Union Trilogy. His new series of "rock 'n' roll thrillers" includes Dark Side of the Morgue and A Hard Day's Death. As "David Michaels," Raymond wrote two NY Times best-sellers in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series. Raymond is also the author of two Metal Gear Solid novelizations and the pulp adventure Hunt Through Napoleon's Web.