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HIGH NOTES ARE MURDER
Brogino’s Bar & Grille was anything but upscale. An old redbrick building nestled between a cigar shop and a beauty salon, its thick, humid air smelled of smoke, beer and bodies. Over the years, owner Sam Brogino had been forced to install noisy smoke-eating devices, yet the odor persisted, as if the walls, carpet and furniture had absorbed so much nicotine they now simply refused to give it up.
By early evening, sixteen of the club's regulars had staked out the stools in the lounge. Late-comers who wanted to be part of the bar action had to stand three-deep around them while Rocky, the night bartender, kept them entertained with his ability to slide a mug of beer the length of the bar with enough backspin to keep it from slipping off the edge. The ten tables dotted across the dingy lounge filled up quickly as diners left the adjoining restaurant, settling in as if camping for the night. Couples with dancing on their minds usually arrived before the music started, ordered the one drink they would nurse for hours, and nabbed seats at the piano bar, waiting impatiently for the piano player to start. An old-fashioned piano bar in an area of Melrose Blvd that could definitely benefit from a facelift, still, Brogino’s had its advantages: With many nearby apartment buildings, most patrons could walk home rather than risk the infamous California DUI. Drinks were cheaper than those yuppie places, and you could still get a steak and baked potato for less than a bottle of Chardonnay.
Another perk was the live entertainment. Sam Brogino insisted on someone who could “tickle the ivories,” although Liz Hanlon—the current entertainer—winced whenever someone called her “Brogino’s piano player.” She didn't feel much like an accomplished musician when she sat at that decrepit instrument Sam called a piano. A five-year-old couldn't plunk out a version of Chopstickson it without hitting a clunker. “I have to twist my fingers into awkward positions just to form a chord,” she’d complained. “It’s impossible to sound good on this thing. It’s got four broken keys!”
Sam’s response was classic. “Use the other ones.”
When Liz took this gig, she knew she'd have to sideline her repertoire of Cole Porter and Michel LeGrand songs. Sam made it clear that his crowd wanted "regular music." Pop radio hits. No problem; she had a million of them too. It was the piano that bothered her most. No matter how well she sang, or how much she tried to relax and sink into a cloud of musical bliss, she felt awkward and clumsy trying to keep the rhythm steady, like racing for a bus wearing one five-inch high-heel, and one running shoe.
Singing and playing at the same time, a technique that requires two rhythmic patterns to be performed together, had never posed a problem for Liz, but on this piano it was damn near torture. No wonder she went home with aching muscles from neck to waist.
The piano was deceptive. It looked like a grand, but that was another joke. It was a cheap spinet pressed against a makeshift wooden table which had been cut into the shape of a full grand, and painted black. To her ear, it sounded like a bad soundtrack from an old western movie, and although she flashed her congenial smile with its distinctive dimple to encourage friendly chatter and more requests--part of the gig--she longed to be singing from the stage of The Hollywood Bowl. Four years at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and ten more on the L.A. musical roller coaster of one-nighters, but the steadiest gig she'd found so far was Brogino's Beef and Barf. Another beer joint that looked, sounded, and stunk like all the rest. Even her smile couldn't completely hide her discontent.
The room felt hot and muggy. She wore a dark red silk tee supported by delicate shoulder straps, not because she wanted to dress provocatively, but because by midnight the heat in her crawl space behind the piano was oppressive. A brass wall lamp above her threw off such intense heat the tips of her auburn hair fell against her bare shoulders in limp ringlets. The amber light created a golden glow around her full, round face, and more than one drinker had commented on her "halo."
"That's me," she joked, "Saint Liz."
An elderly man drinking brandy called out, "I surely hope not, 'cause we ain't lookin' for no saintly activity when we come here!"
Customers close by joined in the laughter.
She'd had other gigs, of course, but Brogino's kept Liz Hanlon from living in her car. Four nights a week she pounded out "drinking songs" that kept Sam's cash register ringing.
"What would you like to hear?" she asked over the microphone.
Requests bombarded her: "Snowbird!" "For The Good Times!"
"Neil Diamond!" a woman with stiff, yellow hair shouted from the dance floor. "Something slow and sexy."
Liz set the drum machine to a rhythm with a headache beat and watched the dance floor fill up, reminding herself of why she was here: she was broke. Piano bars didn't pay much, but short pay was better than no pay.
Sam Brogino sauntered out of the kitchen with a blood-stained apron tied around his potbelly and a pissed-off pout on his lips. He squeezed between two drinkers and leaned his sweaty face close to Liz's microphone.
"How come it doesn't sound like the record when you play it?" he snarled.
Her eyes snapped open. The dancers stopped.
"They're called CD's now, Sam, and did you ever think it might be your piano?" she said, noticing the hairs protruding from his nose. "Half the keys don't even work!"
"Use the other ones," he said.
"Why don't you do us both a favor and turn this thing into firewood?"
Sam waddled back to the bar, and she watched him wipe his palms on his greasy apron and shake hands with Corky, a regular who insisted on the same bar stool each night. Corky kept two beer mugs overflowing at all times. His nose and cheeks were bright red, and Liz had nicknamed him Rudolph.
"You ought'a lighten up on her, Sammy," Corky said. "She sings like an angel."
Sam laughed. "Give it up. You'll never get her in the sack."
"All's I'm saying is that it's her we come to hear every night. You give her a hard enough time, maybe she takes her music somewhere's else."
"Piano players're a dime a dozen," Sam scoffed, returning to the kitchen.
Liz finished the song just as Rocky, the bartender, picked up a white envelope from the bar and squinted to make out the writing.
"Hey, Liz!" He held up the card.
She started toward him. "What's that?"
"Got your name on it."
"Okay, who's the smart-ass?" she said, before noticing the same slanted handwriting she'd seen a few nights ago. She grew uneasy as she tore it open.
Rocky continued placing damp-dried glasses on the shelf. "I turned around and there it was."
She looked at the men inhabiting the end of the bar. "Anybody see who left this? Corky?"
They shook their heads. "Better not be from another guy," Corky said. "I hate competition."
"The world is your competition, Corky."
His friends broke up.
"Hey, you gonna play or what?" someone shouted.
Liz squeezed back behind the keyboard and slid the card out of the envelope. The cover was a glossy photo of a sleek, black grand piano with a single red rose on top. The same handwriting was inside:
Ignore Sam. I will rescue you from him soon.
A chill slithered through her. Two days ago, she'd gotten a similar card: I always get what I want. And I want you.
Someone's idea of a sick joke, she'd told herself, and she'd tossed the card in the trash. She reminded herself to have Rocky walk her to her car when she left.
"C'mon! Let's hear somethin' we can dance to," a man yelled, clicking the heels of his cowboy boots.
She dropped the card into her purse and set a drum beat. Couples bolted onto the dance floor, but Liz had a hard time concentrating. She was certain a pair of eyes watched her maliciously. Her hands trembled as they moved across the keys by rote. She stared deep into the crowd, wondering which of them might have sent the card, and why.
The smoky haze stung her eyes. She felt relieved when she spotted Danny Amata's shiny, blue-black hair. Danny was a close buddy, and a twenty-eight-year-old musical success story. He was a first-call drummer for movies and television recordings, and always the top choice of any arranger. Usually, a sexy young bod clung to his arm, but tonight he was alone. Liz watched him order a beer with the same flirtatious flip of his hair he'd perfected on pretty girls in his teens. He wore a black silk shirt that matched the sheen of his hair, and his face exuded tenderness when he smiled. No one should be born that cute.
He leaned over the piano bar and pretended to flash the seductive smile of a guy on the prowl. "Hey there, gorgeous, what time d' you get off?"
"Hey, Danny! What brings you out on a rainy Wednesday night? And dateless at that."
"Thought I'd see how you were doing," Danny said. "And to give you the news before it hits the streets--I've met someone special. I think she might be the one."
Liz looked skeptical. "With you they're all 'the one'."
Danny took a corner table, and she played for over an hour, working the crowd into a dancing frenzy as they shouted for more.
"Do Billy Ray Cyrus!"
"No! Dolly Parton!"
She sang until she was hoarse and her back ached. "Back in fifteen," she announced, and hit the taped music button. She grabbed her purse and headed for Danny's table.
He pulled out a chair for her. "This place, it's--"
"Early cave man. Good recommendation you had there, buddy."
He shrugged. "You were broke. Come on, you can slum it for a few weeks. It pays the rent."
"I've been paying the rent for ten years. When do I get to move on to health insurance?"
Danny was the most flamboyant member of her band, and Liz marveled at how well-informed he was about the city's music scene.
"Don't get a swelled head over this," he said, "but I hear people talking about you all over town. Not just about your voice, about the music you're writing, too. You're getting hot."
"Really." Trying to be supportive, sometimes Danny came off sounding like he was full of it.
"Really. It's just a matter of time. You're in that gray area."
"What's that, the ozone?"
"You know what I mean," he said. "Our group's played some good showcase nights, and now the big clubs know your name. It's going to pay off soon. Besides, don't you always say it's better to be playing than sitting around talking about it?"
"Yeah, yeah. I love singing, I love composing, but I'm over thirty and I'm working in an upholstered toilet!"
"You see upholstery in this joint?"
His good mood made her laugh at herself.
"C'mon, you're being negative," he said. "You do a damn good single."
A single. "One person struggling to do the job of three or more. I played singles in Boston. I came to L.A. to put a killer band together."
"You did!" he said. "What 'd ya call the three of us, chopped liver? What's the matter? I've never seen you so down. You ought to be glad you can accompany yourself. Lots of singers can't work unless the club can afford a group."
"I guess I'm just afraid that places like Brogino's are as far as I'll ever get in the music business."
"We're all afraid of waking up someday and finding there are no more gigs," he said. "With so much music being recorded by computers now, my studio gigs are fewer all the time."
"I didn't know that."
"Hey, you won't believe who called me awhile ago," he said. "Gina. She told me to meet her here."
"Gina?" she said, astonished. "Gina McCurdy?"
"Yeah." He frowned. "C'mon, you two aren't still giving each other the silent treatment, are you? She's your cousin, for godssake."
A year ago, Gina moved to Los Angeles, and stayed at Liz's apartment until she found a job and a place of her own. By the end of the second week, she was hitting dance clubs till dawn and sleeping all day, not even pretending to look for work. Liz asked the owner of a club called Germaine's West to give Gina a job, but soon Gina was bringing customers home and sleeping with them on Liz's hide-a-bed in the living room. One night Liz took Gina out for dinner, hoping to settle their disagreement, but after several drinks, Gina began making sexual advances toward strangers. Liz was embarrassed, then infuriated. Finally, she'd yelled "slut" across a crowded bar. Gina and her clothes were gone when Liz woke in the morning.
The next call she had from Gina was three months later from the L.A. County jail. Gina and her new boyfriend were charged with running a scam on elderly couples, bilking them out of $50,000. Liz's brother, Carl, a Los Angeles attorney, worked to get the money returned and the charges dropped to keep Gina from having a police record. Liz and Gina hadn't spoken since then, but in recent months, Liz had begun to feel badly about the way they'd left things.
"What's she coming to this dump for?" Liz asked.
Danny shrugged. "All I know is there's some good news in the works, and she wants to see the look on your face when you hear about it."
"Gina's idea of good news is a rich guy with a vasectomy."
"Hey," he said, chuckling, "she told me to meet her here, I'm here. Really, Liz, I think she's trying to patch things up with you."
Liz nodded, thoughtfully. "I'd like that, too."
Danny squinted at the puffs of smoke hanging in the air. "They could rename this place Brogino's Smoke and Choke. It's so thick, your baby-blues don't even show from back here."
"Sam's not big on fans," she said. Her allergies to smoke, dust, mold, and other unknown substances had been in high gear since her first night. She reached into her purse for a tissue. The white envelope fell to the floor.
Danny picked it up. "What's this? Fan mail from one of the toothless drunks at the bar?"
"Some weirdo," she said, looking into the crowd. "Take your pick around here."
"Really? A secret admirer from here sent you a card?" he asked, reading the inscription.
"More like a fruitcake who wears tin foil to bed to ward off invaders," she said. "Last week I found another card in my teaching room."
"Someone snuck into Walter's studio?"
She nodded. "At first I figured it was for another teacher. No name on the outside, but inside it announced that he's used to getting what he wants, and he wants me."
"That takes balls," he said. "You think this dude's here now?"
Her eyes scoped the room. "It feels like it."
"I'll keep an eye out while you're playing. Don't worry."
She tucked the card into her purse. "So who's the new sex kitten?"
His face lit up. "The new bartender at the Stop." The Midnight Stop was a local hang-out for musicians and night club workers. "Her name's Tiffany, and she works days."
"Sounds like you're dating a lamp. How long have you been seeing her?"
"About a week."
"Forsaking all others, I see. Watch out, you'll be meeting the family soon."
"Okay, be a wise-ass," he said. "It's easy for you, you've got a sure thing with Ben." As he spoke, he took his eyes off the crowd and noticed her fingers wrapped around a glass. "Hey, where's your ring?" he asked, making a quick search of her hand, then her face.
Ben Parkhurst had been the steadiest lover she'd had in years, pursuing her relentlessly, and making no secret of his desire to marry her.
"What happened?" Danny asked.
"It's hard to explain. I guess we were both wrong. For each other, I mean."
"What the hell does that mean? Ben's nuts about you."
"He was. I'll never find anyone like him, but it's about music," she said, "my career. He can't stand it."
"He decides this now? You were a musician when he met you."
"I guess he thought he could convert me to Harriet Housewife."
Danny frowned. "Or he's afraid people will call him 'Mr. Hanlon' if the spotlight's on you, and not him. What a stupid move."
"He said he wanted a 'normal' life, not one where reporters are parachuting into the backyard for a sneak photo. He wants a wife to follow his career, not the other way around."
"Macho bullshit." Danny's hand patted hers. "Don't worry, either he'll come around or he's not the right one. 'Cause you," he said, shaking his head, "you gotta make music."
"He won't come around."
His eyes narrowed. "Why? What happened?"
She sighed. "We were in a restaurant, and he explained that since I've been knocking around 'all these years' and I haven't made it yet, I should throw in the towel and marry him!"
"Uh-oh. That temper of yours. You didn't slug him or anything?"
"I thought about it. I threw the ring instead. It landed in his shrimp scampi."
"I walked out."
"I thought he understood the music business better than that," Danny said. "Some of the most accomplished names are in their forties before they're recognized. Even their fifties."
"There's a rosy picture."
"It'll never take you that long. You'll be kissing these third-rate dives goodbye soon."
She wanted to agree with him, but telling him about Ben re-ignited an old, tormenting fear. "I keep seeing myself as a feeble old woman sleeping alone in an abandoned car."
"He's nuts! So are you! Have you talked to him since?" he asked, his eyes roaming across the room.
"I started to call him a couple of times, but--"
"Hey, Liz! It's for you," Rocky called from behind the bar.
She looked up; he was holding the phone in the air. She checked her watch. "Quarter to twelve. Who's calling me now?" She pushed back her chair.
Rocky stretched the phone cord across the bar for her. "Guy says he's your manager."
She took the phone, relieved. "Hi, Marty. What's up?"
Marty Steinhauser spoke slowly and formally, starting every conversation by clearing his throat. "Forgive me for calling so late, Liz, but I got a call from the owner of Germaine's West."
"Yes. He's got some exciting news. I told him you'd stop on your way home tonight. Is that a problem?"
"What's this news that everybody in town seems to know but me?"
"He wants to tell you himself."
"At least give me a hint."
"You'll see," Marty said, merrily. "Pick up the contract, and we'll talk tomorrow."
"Contract? C'mon, Marty, don't leave me hanging."
"Have a good night." He hung up.
Germaine's West was one of L.A.'s most prestigious night spots, a room known for showcasing talent. Last year, shortly after Marty became her manager, Liz and her quartet had performed there for one week, but they'd never received the hotly desired call back.
She hurried back to Danny's table. "The owner of Germaine's wants to see me. What's going on? How come Gina knew about this?"
"Ask her yourself when she gets here."
She looked at her watch, then at the crowd. "I've got one more set to do. Why don't you two stick around and come with me?"
"He asked to see you, not me."
"Don't be ridiculous. Sonnie's not interested in me. Not that way. And besides--"
"Besides, what? Sonnie's a cool guy. And he's in a position to do you a lot of good."
Her jaw dropped. "Are you saying I should sleep with him just to get a good gig?"
Danny chuckled. "No, but he's obviously interested in you, and he's not exactly a nobody. You blow him off like he's pond scum."
"I do not," she said, starting back to the piano. "You're missing a very important point. Well, two, actually. First, Sonnie is married, and second, he's a club owner. My God, he's not even--"
"Not even my type."
"Uh huh. In that case, Gina and I'll tag along."
Back at the piano, Liz was singing about horses and old trucks while she pictured herself on the stage again at Germaine's West.
At the edge of the dance floor, two couples moved to the beat. Looking beyond them, Liz saw Gina come through the battered door. She walked up behind Danny, threw her arms around him and greeted him with a long kiss that nearly knocked him off his chair.
Gina looked different to Liz. Her dark-haired beauty was intact, but she had gray circles under her eyes, and her cheek bones were more prominent. She wore tight black jeans, black boots, a white lace shirt, and carried a handbag trimmed with tiny white faux pearls. Her cousin always did have exquisite taste, Liz thought. Liz played her last song glad she'd have a chance to clear the air between them.
She gave Gina a hug, then began packing the last of her music. "You look great, Gina," she said, nodding toward the white handbag. "What a beautiful purse."
"Thanks. I've got to admit, Liz, you're still the best singer around."
Liz smiled at her. "I'm really glad you came in. I guess I should have called you before this."
Gina waved her hand in dismissal. "Wasn't your fault. You just need to lighten up on people a little. Let'em be what they are."
Liz stopped. "Excuse me?"
"Like me, for instance. You were always on my case about how much I drank, or who I drank with."
"That's not how I remember it!"
"That's exactly how it was. Admit it, you're a great musician, but you're a tight-ass. Music's all you care about. You ought to have a little fun sometime."
Danny saw Liz's annoyance flash. "Hey, come on, you two. We've got to get to Germaine's."
"Yeah, Gina, what's all this good news stuff?" Liz said.
"You mean how come I heard about it before you?" Gina countered. "Because I'm not afraid to hang out with folks. I don't rush off after the gig like you do. I relax with people, let 'em talk if they want."
"You let 'em do plenty of other things, too," Liz said under her breath as she turned back to unplug her equipment.
"You'd kill to have my social life!"
"That's not a social life," Liz yelled, "it's a reputation!"
Gina stepped forward, starting to swing. Danny jumped between them and caught her arm in the air. He looked down and noticed Liz's fist poised to return the punch.
"Knock it off!" he cried. "What's the matter with you two? You've got the whole room staring at you."
Liz spun around. Several regulars gawked at them. She cooled down and looked at Gina, remembering the childhood secrets they'd shared and wondering what had become of them. "I'm sorry. We just see things differently."
Gina's fist unfurled. "Yeah. Come on, let's forget this crap."
Liz packed her microphone and picked up her keys. "Right. I could use some good news. I'll take my car and meet you there."
Liz waved goodbye to Rocky and they headed for the door. "You probably won't believe this, Gina, but I really am glad you came in tonight."
Liz Hanlon wanted to toss confetti from rooftops and buy a round for the entire world. It was going to be a great night. She took the turn onto Melrose Boulevard a little faster than usual and hit the brakes. Traffic was at a standstill.
“Crap,” she grumbled. “Two blocks away there’s a party in my honor and I can’t get there!”
“Relax. We’re not late.” Liz’s drummer, Frankie Langstrom, rode in the suicide seat. She was a tall, trendy blonde who managed to keep a distance in relationships by talking in short sentences. “With this traffic, the rest of the band isn’t there either.”
“Ten years in L.A. dives, I finallyget a recording contract--well, sort of--I’m on the radio all over the country, every big-wig in the business will be here tonight, and I can’t get to the damn party!”
“Hey, we’ve played Germaine’s four nights a week for months. Think of tonight as just another gig.”
“Are you crazy?” Liz glanced at Frankie, fingertips drumming the steering wheel. “Germaine’s West is the hottest club in town. Just because we’re the house band doesn’t mean tonight won’t have major ramifications.”
“Oh, ram this,” Frankie shot back. “You’ve already got the record deal--”
“It’s just for distribution. The company’s releasing it tonight under their name, but I already recorded the CD—with my own money.”
“But you got a deal. Something you didn’t have a month ago, right?”
“Sure, but if sales aren’t good, this is as far as it’ll ever go."
“But you gotit. Wasn’t that the hard part?”
The Frank had a point. Even though Liz was thirty-three and still paying her dues, she was living her dream. And with Ardor Records’ distribution deal, her CD sales should jump. How high no one could predict, but the exposure was something she’d been unable to create by Internet sales alone. If her luck stretched a little further, she just might land a realrecording contract.
Tonight’s lavish CD release party was hosted by Ardor Records, a turn of events for which she felt enormous gratitude. Every top-level executive in the business would be there, and to ensure a sell-out crowd, Ardor had been running a songwriting contest in all the trade magazines for weeks. The winning songwriter would be here tonight, and Liz’s band would perform the song live.
It would be a spectacular night! If only the idiot drivers clogging the streets would clear out of the way, she could get to Germaine’s West and start enjoying it. She gestured toward Frankie’s open window. “You mind raising that a little? Took me hours to get my hair like this.”
Frankie put the window up halfway. “Looks good. Chestnut-colored curls everywhere. How’d you get ’em up in those combs?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “You look ten pounds thinner in that dress. How much did it set you back?”
Frankie’s habit of asking how much things cost bugged her. The woman had no tact, but oddly, she was a sensitive drummer. “It was on sale.”
“Anyway, you look great. Good thing ‘cause the media will be all over you tonight.”
It was true. Record execs would be sipping champagne, their pinkies hooked just so as they judged whether her voice, music, style, and sound added up to one essential ingredient for a recording career: presence. Did she have the stage presence to draw—and hold—a solid following?
She rolled forward and hit the brakes as two girls in short black skirts, jackets and lip liner sauntered between the cars.
“Halloween in Hollywood,” she cracked. “Black clothes, tattoos, chains, flat hair. Whatever happened to individuality?”
A few drivers made illegal U-turns across lanes. Liz leaned out the window and saw brake lights all the way to the club. Then she spotted her name on the marquee and a gratifying thrill shot through her. “Ha! Look at that!”
“I can’t believe this crowd,” Frankie said. “You think they're all here to see us?”
“Get real. There’s probably a free strip show around the corner.” Then it hit her. “The songwriting contest!”
“Oh, right. Nationwide. I forget—which song’s the winner?”
“Where Hearts May Lead. Geez, Frank, how could you forget that?”
“I’m a drummer. We know rhythmic things, not song titles, and especially not that musical code you guys talk in.”
“Ninth chords, eleventh cords, a three-six-two-five. The other day I heard you describe the menu at a restaurant as ‘standard two five fare’. What the hell is that?”
“In harmony, a two five is the simplest chord pattern, so I was saying the menu was plain. You know, basic. White bread.”
Frankie sighed. “Why don’t you just say that?”
Liz squeezed past two cars moving so slowly she was sure they were parked. Near the club, pedestrians filled the intersection. She made a risky left and pulled into Germaine’s back lot.
A teenage attendant approached her. “Back door’s closed tonight so no one gets in without a ticket. Well, maybe you,” he smiled, “but Sonnie wants you to park in front. We got a spot for you.” She followed him as he directed them down a narrow lane close to the building and rolled to a stop in front.
Two young valets opened their doors. Frankie stepped out and smoothed her skin-tight blouse over chocolate brown leather pants. Liz’s dark red silk gown shimmered in the glow of neon lights.
“Whoa, you look great,” the valet said, hopping in front of them. “’Scuse us!” He cleared a path through the noisy crowd. “Coupla hotties comin’ through.”
Near the front door, the crowd closed in. Frankie moved with the flow in another direction. Liz spotted Jonathan, the night manager, standing guard at the front door. Two hundred sixty-five pounds and a booming voice that rivaled the bass frequencies of any low-rider’s sub-woofer.
“That’s her!” a voice called out.
Jonathan saw Liz, wedged himself in the doorway, grabbed her wrist, and propelled her through the tight quarters. He jumped in behind her, letting the door slam.
“What a zoo,” she cried. “I can’t believe this many people care about one CD. Of course half of them are hoping to win that contest.”
“That means the other half’s here to see you. There must be a hundred people in the lounge, and you saw that waiting line outside.”
She noticed his kind eyes and smiled her appreciation.
The front door pushed open. Jonathan’s commanding voice stopped a couple from entering. “Sorry folks, first show’s sold out.” He ushered them through the door and followed them outside.
Alone in the foyer, she heard Frankie fine-tuning her snare drum on the stage. Elliot’s bass case had been stuffed in the tiny alcove behind the stage and he was warming up. Even from here she could tell the house was packed. She went to the arched entrance of the lounge and stopped, drinking in the view, the sounds of clinking glasses and excited chatter. A cut from her CD was playing softly overhead. The night couldn’t get any more exciting.
Not much had changed since the first time she’d played this room, the same tiny lights under the liquor bottles on the bar straight ahead, the same twinkling bulbs around the dance floor that brightened the center like a night-lit swimming pool. Miles, her keyboardist, nodded to her from the stage, dimmed the lights and depressed a wall button. The curtains closed. Directly across the room, the bar lined the length of the lounge. Booths and tables, filled to capacity, made a semi-circle around the dance floor. Liz entered, greeted friends, and thanked them for coming, feeling the night’s magic.
“Liz! Over here!” Owner Sonnie Tucks waved from behind the bar. She pushed through the crowd around the bar to join him.
Sonnie’s whole demeanor screamed anxiety. “Where the hell’ve you been?” he pounced, his green eyes sliding down her form. “Ooh, lady in red. You come in here looking like that it’s okay to be late.”
She showed him her watch. “I’m not late, and there’s the little matter of that gridlock out there.”
“Your manager what’s-his-name called,” Sonnie said, hurrying into his office behind the bar.
“Grant.” She followed him into the cramped room.
“Yeah. Said he’d be here around nine.” Sonnie began rooting through a pile of papers, then hurried back to the doorway and looked into the crowded lounge.
“Sonnie, relax.” She gave him a light punch. “The cash register’s ringing, the music’ll be swinging. It’s going to be a great night.”
His fingers traced through his hair again. “It better be. You parked in front, right? Give me your keys. I need your car.”
“Are you nuts? We’re packed out there.”
“Yeah, and my idiot supplier didn’t deliver any Courvoisier. My car’s socked against the back wall.” He nodded toward the private door that led from the office to the side street. “I’ll use my door,” he said, and made a “gimme” gesture with his fingers.
“I left the keys with the valet.”
He shook his head. “When there’s a full house we gotta keep our keys with us. I’ll bring yours in when I get back.” He started to leave, then hopped back into the bar.
Liz followed, confused. “What are you doing?”
He opened the refrigerator door beneath the counter. “Making sure we got enough beer. You know what lushes you musicians are. Okay, we’re cool. I’m outta here.”
“You’re lucky I don’t change the locks while you’re gone.”
“Keep in mind I’m driving your car.” He gave her a quick kiss on her cheek. “I trust you can start the show without me?”
Liz reached for a coffee cup and filled it. “I trust you can drive my car a couple of blocks without getting into a wreck like last time?”
“Wise guy.” He snapped his fingers. “Almost forgot. There’s some famous composer here . . . Ferrini, Ferrelli?”
“Mikhail Fattani? He’s already here?” She turned and searched the room.
“Table five. He ordered the Courvoisier.” He double-timed it through his office and out the door.
Her manager, Grant, mentioned that Fattani was considering Liz for his next recording, but she figured that was just cocktail talk.
Fattani and his wife, Nicolette, were seated at a front center table just off the dance floor. He wore an impeccable cream-colored suit and a dark blue silk shirt. His black, slicked-back hair enhanced his European features. Liz had only met him once but was struck again by his air of serenity, as if everything in the world was as it should be. Even the three large rings he wore did not seem out of place. She smiled, feeling the energy of success.
“You can’t go—!” Jonathan bellowed at the front door. His voice drowned in noisy shouts and sounds of scuffling.
Some irate customer trying to bully his way past Jonathan? Good luck, buddy.
Liz folded her evening purse under her arm, topped off her coffee and stepped out from the bar as two teenage girls in black burst into the lounge, yelling. They wore outlandish make-up layered thick enough to distort their features. The taller girl had a weapon slung over one shoulder that looked like an assault rifle in a Terminator movie. She took the lead and marched to the center of the dance floor.
The shorter girl wore white plastic gloves and a stiff yellow wig with hair that stuck straight up like a porcupine. She balanced a pistol in one hand and gripped a large green trash bag in the other.
“Who the hell are these two?” Liz muttered, backing up and sliding her purse on a shelf inside the bar. Were they actors?
The leader’s authority came in part from her dark brown wig in a ‘60s style beehive that made her even taller than her six-foot height. Beehive took charge, strode to the video camera in the corner and knocked it off its tripod. It crashed to the floor. From the scattered pieces she plucked out the disk and dropped it into her jacket pocket.
Liz couldn’t imagine Ardor Records hiring actors to stage this low-class scene. Furious, she set her coffee on the bar and started toward her. “Hey, if this is a publicity stunt, you’re way out of line. You don’t break up private property as a show—”
“Yeah, bitch, the whole world’s dyin’ to be part of your show.” Beehive hooked the gun muzzle under Liz’s chin. “Clam up, you ever wanna sing again.”
A chill slithered through Liz. Set in the layers of makeup, she saw stony eyes. The girl’s arms, cradling the rifle, were heavily tattooed.
A voice from a bank of booths across the room called out, “Hey, Liz, you think you can top this?” But those who sat closer weren’t talking. The room settled into a tense hush.
“What the hell’s going on?” Liz said evenly, shoving the gun away.
Startled, Beehive slammed the barrel of the gun into Liz’s cheek. Pain shot through Liz. She grabbed the back of a chair, desperate to stay on her feet. Beehive laughed, swung away and took her combative demeanor to the middle of the room. She aimed at another camera mounted above the bar and fired a round into it. Glass and plastic rained to the floor. Conversation at the back of the room ceased.
This was no stunt. Liz stared in disbelief at the warrior-like teenager holding them hostage with an assault rifle. Her cheek throbbed as she watched the accomplice stuff her pistol into her waistband and open the large bag with both hands.
“Now listen up, folks!” Beehive called out. “This is LA so I know you all carry cell phones. Dig’em out and hold’em up!” She whirled, pointing the barrel first at one person, then another.
Customers began raising their cell phones in the air.
Liz thought of her own cell, wishing she hadn’t hidden it beneath the bar. With tiny, imperceptible steps, she moved back toward it.
“Let’s go! I want to see ‘em,” Beehive shouted. More phones went up. She zeroed in as if memorizing each face. Nodding to her accomplice, she called out, “Alright, here’s the drill. The bag gets to your table, you drop your phone inside. Then add your valuables like wallets. Let’s not forget that jewelry. Rings especially. And ladies, I don’t wanna hear about your water retention. You can’t get it off, we’ll take the finger.”
The crowd gasped. But as the blonde accomplice moved from table to table, valuables fell into the bag. Beehive, her finger on the trigger guard, remained in the center of the dance floor, her back to the stage to keep an eye on the entire room.
Each time Beehive turned away, Liz inched closer to the bar. Once there, she groped for her purse, found it, pulled it close to her body and took a step sideways. On Beehive’s next turn, Liz disappeared into the office, pulling the phone from the purse.
Beehive turned back to face the bar and stopped cold, glaring at the spot Liz had vacated, then at the open doorway behind the bar. “Stupid bitch—!” She pounded toward the bar.
In the office, Liz was punching the keypad when Beehive slammed in. Liz’s arm shot up, the phone flew overhead and landed on the floor behind Sonnie’s desk.
“You lookin’ to die?” Beehive snarled, grabbing a handful of Liz’s curls. She dragged her into the lounge.
Customers shuddered as Beehive pulled Liz to the space between the bar and the dance floor, shoved her to the floor and kicked her. “Another move and you’re dead!” She made a gruff gesture toward a man at a nearby table. “Him, too.”
Amazed and frightened, the man’s jaw dropped.