by Barry H. Wiley
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“John, you know why drummers always leave their sticks up front in their car?”
“So they always qualify for a handicapped parking place.”
I had to laugh. Jack Smitz (Jax Smacks as he was better known in the jazz crowd) delivered the punch line with solemn mock sincerity, accented by a suitably lifted eyebrow. He had once sat in for Shelly Manne at The Manne-Hole on North Cahueunga in Los Angeles about thirty years ago, which gave him all the privileges of the house… my house anyway at 13 August Alley in North Beach.
Jax had been an upcoming drummer with Manne’s romantic musical style … until rheumatism hit both wrists. “Drumitis,” he called it, sometimes with a smile. But it had destroyed his very promising career, sending him into periods of disappearances and survival jobs with occasional bursts of money. Some bitterness about what might have been would erupt at times, but always withdrawn with a quick apology. For various reasons, Jax and I go back at least a dozen years, crossing paths at odd places and at equally odd times. He had knocked on my door without warning about two hours ago.
Jax leaned back, slowly swallowing the last of the 18 year Macallan in his glass, looked up at the darkening skies over San Francisco, then said, “John, you do a man right with your booze.” He grinned, his white teeth shining, with one tooth missing on the upper left front; his grin lighting up our corner of my small patio. “Can’t call Scotch this fine just booze.” He rubbed the stylishly trimmed grey stubble that defined his dark heavily lined face.
I finished my own glass of 18 year, the only Scotch I keep in the cabinet. I do keep a couple of single cask bourbons for casual visitors. Jax pushed a small handout across the table. It shouted: Last Time for The Grooves! In large letters – and in blue, of course. The Grooves had been a popular small jazz club up to about fifteen or so years ago that had been tucked or wedged or pasted into a corner of a cinderblock warehouse down near the Embarcadero. It opened at 9 p.m. and closed only when the last riff had been played. Food and drink were decent and decently priced; but it was always the music that packed the place, which usually overflowed into the parking lot.
Some nights, they were open Thursday-Saturday, it was jazz heaven. But that night, the night that Miles Davis appeared out of nowhere his shoulders slumped, carrying his trumpet, to play pieces from Kind of Blue like “Freddie the Freeloader” and “So What”, backed by a local sextet … which for that one night anyway, the group played at an inspired level. Well, that night was beyond heaven.
I was lucky just being there. I was well under age, but tall, so when the guy at the door checking driver’s licenses looked the other way, I wedged my way in, and, pressed up against the cinderblock wall, listened as my jazz education elevated beyond anything I had ever dreamed of. Incredibly, at the conclusion of the first set, in that packed chanting, screaming, cheering crowd, I actually had Miles Davis to myself for almost four minutes.
So, what do you say or ask a legend?
“Miles, what do you think of Ellington?” Okay, granted … but it was the best I could do on no notice.
His sweat-polished black face lit up with a short grin, his voice a harsh rasp. “We all should put our instruments down once a year and give thanks for the Duke.” Then Davis’ expression changed, tightening, his jaw clinched. “He lifted us all up to where the white guys couldn’t tear us down no more.”
When I mentioned a saxophonist I had just heard and thought was great, Davis snapped, his voice dropping down, gruff and sharp, as if just speaking was painful. “If they act too hip, man, you know they can’t play shit!” He turned as his name was called multiple times.
People far more important than I was were pulling at him, so I thanked him for his time and put out my hand to shake his sweaty one. He looked me directly in the eyes. Davis at that time was balding, a bit bent, emaciated from some illness, but those eyes were alive with threat and with clarity. “Hey, man, always look ahead … but never look back.” Then he disappeared, stumbling back into the crush.
Yes, I remembered The Grooves. And, according to the handout, the warehouse was being destroyed for some condo development on the water. “Your last night for memories at the warehouse!” the handout barked. There was no explanation for how the promoters had gotten access to the warehouse for the one night … and the liquor license that had to go with it.
When I looked up from the handbill, I must have been smiling as Jax said, “But only the ghost of Miles Davis is going to be there, John. The live guys dig the greats, but who knows what the cat will drag in? They even asked me to sit in, as if I could even hold sticks anymore.”
We set our plans to be there.
Her forearms wedged into the padded crutch canes, she levered herself forward. Her hair a loose mop of gray, she wobbled awkwardly with people dodging and sidestepping her as she aggressively swung the canes forward. Finally reaching the warehouse door, ignoring the crowds pushing around her, she looked up at me, her manner clearly expecting me to greet her. “I am a cripple, little man, therefore genderless,” she growled, her eyes challenging me.
Jax and I had levered our way into the shifting raucous crowd. He yelled something to me about backstage and had kept pushing on. I glanced quickly around. It was a nice try in recreating the ambiance of the old Grooves, but failed completely to trigger anything inside me. I knew her name from somewhere, but couldn’t recall it. I felt more than foolish, as to close my mind reading act I often demonstrate the memorization of a paperback dictionary — 35,000 entries the publisher bragged on the cover, but it was actually only 34,366. I recalled the Anglo-Indian magician, Eddie Joseph, in his important 1952 book on setting up a memory act, called Memory of the Mind, insisting the performer should stop trying to pull up the tangled memory, instead just step back, relax, take a breath, the item will be there. Joseph was right, one more time.
“Hello, Miriam,” I said, “it has been a long while.”
Her eyes flew open in surprise … almost happy surprise. “Didn’t think you had in you, Johnnie boy.” Her strained eyes went soft, momentarily, then snapped back hard. Her deep sprawling wrinkles, deepened further in the dim lighting were not attractive in the usual elderly manner, but were just plain ugly. She slumped on her crutches, then Miriam nodded. “Yes, it has been a long while.” She glanced angrily around as the noises and anticipation gained in volume and force; as with the press of people who forced her to repeatedly shift her crutches around to maintain her balance. Her hands had grown large and ugly from gripping the crutches. She tossed a look at the people and leaned closer. “Look at them, Johnnie, a night out, a special night, and they are all dressed like they are going to clean out their garages when they get home. Not like the real times … not at all.”
I gently took her by an elbow toward a small table that somehow hadn’t yet been seized. We took possession about ten seconds before another couple appeared.
When Miriam asked what I was doing, I briefly filled in on my growing career as a professional mentalist, as a mind reader. It was not the time or place for my whole high-tech career resume, or for my past life.
Miriam stared at me for a moment, then exploded into laughter. “My God, Johnnie, I thought you had more in you … but it fits. I remember you doing some confusing card tricks one afternoon at rehearsals here.” Her smiling face vanished, turning cold, as someone came into view I didn’t see, only to melt back into the crowds. There had been a promise of a surprise performer — no instrument named.
Miriam Webster was the daughter of Jacksy Webster, Grooves owner, creator, booker, sometime chef, and fill-in piano player. A special funeral attended by hundreds commemorated Webster’s long contribution to the jazz scene in Northern California. He was only 44 when a mugger knifed him on Market Street one evening. I was getting my education in the Marine Corps at the time so couldn’t attend. I was told later that Miriam did not see her father off. Her mother had died of cancer three years earlier. That basically marked the end of The Grooves. It struggled along for a time, with a big commemorative evening one time in honor of Jacksy with top players performing, but it rapidly sank away into irrelevant silence.
“I live … I don’t live actually, Johnnie, I just endure, waiting for something … can’t move around all that much anymore. I’m down south … in Sunnyvale … long taxi ride … with some hope … tonight.”
Miriam sipped at the Jack Daniels I had gotten for her, while I held a bottle of Long Board Lager. Her crutches were propped against the cement block wall. When they shifted, almost falling, she pushed my hand away to reclaim them herself. “Not used to having handsome men look after me, Johnnie,” she tried to grin, but couldn’t, the chill across her face returning.
Miriam had had a successful dancing career until one late evening, a car hit her, ran over her legs on Ellis Street near Union Square. She was returning to her apartment from an acclaimed performance at the St. Francis Hotel. She never danced again. The driver was never caught, but Miriam had suggested she knew who it probably was. But that was years ago.
“I’m not your date, Johnnie,” Miriam said, “I’ll be fine alone. You look restless. Can’t call this clutter real jazz anyway.” She sipped the last of the Jack Daniels and began looking more closely at the crowd.
Another overhead light suddenly turned on, casting a new set of shadows.
I went out to the parking lot to get away from the phony music. It wasn’t classic, it wasn’t new, it wasn’t … it was time to leave. I laughed recalling one last remark that I heard Miles make before he disappeared that special night.
“If you play something that seems to be wrong, man, play it again, then play the thing a third time. Then they’ll think you meant it.”
The five on the stand inside never got to the second playing, but the crowd seemed to think it was jazz. It just … wasn’t.
I walked down toward the water. I had two shows, two encounters, as I call my performances, coming up, Seattle and Vancouver, both major steps toward the … I began to run through my planned routines for each venue. My work was becoming too predictable, too familiar to me. The gigs pay well, but I didn’t need the money, it was the recognition of progress that I needed, but repeating much the same routine too often … I was lost in thoughts and considered tracking down Jax and heading out. The Grooves had died years ago and so had its music. I turned back toward the warehouse. Catch Jax between sets. I saw Miriam suddenly stagger out of the moving shadows at the door to appear under one of the floods. Her eyes wide, she was desperately grasping only one crutch. Others were pushing their way out around her.
Miriam grabbed my arm, squeezed hard and just hung there. Tears ran down her cheeks. I pulled her away from the crowd pushing and shoving out of the building. There was no laughing and no music. Just a tide of frantic people pushing for their cars. The night was over it appeared.
Then I heard the SFPD sirens.
With the warehouse almost empty as the squad cars pulled up, I helped Miriam back to that small table at which we had sat earlier. She was trembling, as though chilled. When I put my sport jacket over her shoulders, she looked up, her eyes momentarily younger. “I’m fine, Johnnie, just fine. I do need to find my other crutch. Got kicked away from me when the crowd all started for the door … all at the same time.”
I set off to find her crutch — but discovered Jax first.
He was dead.
Two uniformed police stood near the body to block off the crime scene. That it was a crime scene and not an accident was evident when I heard one of the players for the night explaining to a cop taking notes: “Hey, after our first set, man, he was up here, Jax, talking up a streak … then, bam! … he was down there, right off the back of the stage. Here … there.” He snapped his fingers. “Too dark, couldn’t see nothin’ else, officer.”
When the cop started taking notes from another band member, and more of the overhead lights came on, I started to look around. The place was a shattered place of overturned and collapsed folding chairs, small tables upended, great spatters of beer and other liquids as the audience had dropped everything and ran from death.
Jax, in the brighter light, was lying on his back, blood oozing from deep cuts in the back of his head, his mouth open. Surprise? I walked closer, until a uniform stepped up with his hand extended. “Crime scene, sir, please stay away.”
I nodded, hesitated for a moment for a quick last look, then stepped back. Miriam hadn’t been clear about where she may have lost her crutch, given the chaos of the evening ignited by someone screaming: “He’s dead! He’s been killed! He’s dead!” And few of the jazz-lovers running for the door would have dodged around Meriam in the dark dash, even if they had seen her.
But now with the lights up, there had been something near the body, before I was pushed away. I explained my quest to the Inspector who came up behind me. The warehouse was now completely empty of all but the police, Meriam at the table, Jax and me.
“A crutch?” Inspector Richard Douglas said, returning his credentials to his inside jacket pocket. He glanced around. “That it over there … near the end of the bar? Excuse me, I have a body waiting.”
It was, bent slightly – with some blood trapped between the ridges of the tread of the rubber tip of the crutch. The forearm pad also had some blood smeared on one side.
The Inspector glanced up from Jax’s body to watch me walk across the now echoing warehouse to Meriam.
I showed her the crutch with the blood and waited. There was also the round dark mark I had seen, like a crutch tip, near the body, like a crutch had touched the pool of oil near a generator in back of the stage. A cop was almost standing on the mark when the lights came up.
“Ah, Johnnie boy, you always had smart eyes.” Meriam leaned back against chair. “I never thought you would be here.” She didn’t reach for the crutch. “The bastard probably told you he stopped drumming because of arthritis in his wrists … when it was really a marked lack of talent and guts. He played that one time at Shelly’s place, and that was all he had.” Miriam’s face began to relax. “When Jax couldn’t get jobs any more, with his visions of being the next Manne or Catlett or whoever up in smoke, he began to spend his time pushing drugs of one kind or another to the bands or whoever he could dig out of the sewer. Whenever the sewer was empty, he would steal from my father’s till, until that broke … everything. When he learned I was going to the police, he ran over me that night and destroyed my career. So, I had to wait until he came to me. It has been a long wait … but now worth every minute of pain.
“Right after I got you to leave me … you weren’t supposed to be here, Johnnie. I finally was able to hobble back stage. When Jax was talking standing near the edge of the platform, I just tripped him, then put the crutch on his throat and fell on it to crush his windpipe. In the darkness nobody saw me. Nobody watches a cripple anyway. I made it away from the stage and pushed toward the bar when someone knocked one of my crutches away. My luck, it was the bloody one.
“Someone started shouting about dead men which panicked the crowd. Seemed everything was working – until, Johnnie, you found my crutch, with that question in your eyes.” Her laugh was sharp and short. “Mind reader, huh?” Meriam looked up at me. “Just my luck to run into a good looking mind reader.”
As I watched Miriam being helped into the squad car, I recalled that gutsy line from the ‘29 film, Little Caesar: “The strong travel light.” Miriam caught my watching. Her quick smile was … forgiving. Then the door was closed. No one could have guessed, seeing her, how strong Miriam had been for all those years.
As Miles Davis had once said: “There is no such thing as a wrong note in jazz.”
Well … maybe.
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