A Novel in Progress
By Scott L. Allen
Every now and again, when the music flowed from a place he couldn’t describe, Joshua Hooker remembered he’d once believed in God. It happened late this time, Hooker a month into his first gig in three years and finding his way back, Renaissance Club still packed as Thursday gave way to Friday.
Thelonious Joss wrapped a sax solo and handed the line off with a series of diminishing triplets that reminded Hooker of falling rain. Hooker picked it up on his guitar, bass and drums tight behind him. Reprised the melody, inverted it and touched the refrain, then tapped the magic and felt it well in a torrent of dark chords, Hooker working up the neck to fill the room with notes that ascended like prayers.
“Damn, Hooks,” Thelonious said, and Hooker emerged, neat as you please. Saw the room stretching beyond the stage lights, 50 tables, faces frozen in the moment, even the waitresses as they prepared to take final cocktail orders.
They did two more songs and wrapped it, Thelonious grinning and toweling his cheeks, skin blue-black in the harsh spots. People clapped and hooted and called for more.
Hooker set his guitar on its stand, waved to the audience, and exited through the rear curtain to take a few minutes backstage with his head bowed, wondering who people thanked when they’d lost faith.
Then he felt a spark of the anger that had nearly destroyed him. Your four-year-old daughter disappears one morning three summers ago, no witnesses, no leads, center of your life there one day and gone the next, you learn things about yourself you may not want to know.
He recognized the danger, knew how quickly his rage could ignite and where that would lead. He concentrated on breathing it away.
When he was ready, he went through a side door and headed out front, smiling and shaking hands and bumping fists, a man who’d once again managed to maintain an uneasy truce with the past.
Solomon was behind the bar, slick in a white shirt and black tie, a kid with a tycoon father and the blood of Pharaohs in his veins who wanted to play guitar more than anything. Hooker sat with him twice a week, working through scales and exercises. The guitar wasn’t going to happen for him, but Hooker would never say it.
Solomon loaded a glass with ice and Bombay Sapphire and garnished it with lime.
“We had to turn people away again tonight,” he said, English impeccable, every word enunciated. “If this keeps up, we’re going to have to raise the door charge and start taking reservations.”
“There are worse problems.”
Solomon set the drink in front of Hooker and pulled out the new issue of Guitar Player magazine. Hooker was on the cover, holding his Fender Jazzmaster. “They say you were the best guitarist of your generation before you dropped out.”
Hooker sipped his drink, savoring the first taste, juniper cut with the snap of citrus, the cold bite of the alcohol on his tongue. Solomon had talked him into doing the interview and sitting for the studio shot, and he still wasn’t sure he should have.
“If I dropped out,” he said, “what am I doing in here four nights a week?”
“It also says you’re compiling a list of the twenty best guitarists of all time for the next issue. What number is Clapton?”
“What makes you think Clapton’s on the list?”
Before Solomon could respond, a woman with a diamond in her eyebrow and cleavage that could stop a show leaned on the bar next to Hooker and said, “Make me tingle all over, the way you play that guitar.”
Hooker smiled and took a closer look. Mahogany skin, eyes big and dark in the low light, a hint of mischief in her expression, as though she knew something he didn’t. Could have been 25 or 35. Hard to tell.
“You can call me JJ,” the woman said, “for Jasmine Joss. I’m with Stella. She’s outside, wants to speak with you, you can make the time.”
“The Stella?” Solomon asked. “The singer with twelve Grammies?”
“Only one Stella, fool. Act like you never seen a girl, way you starin’ at my puppies.”
“Wait a minute,” Hooker said. “Your last name’s Joss?”
“That old man you play with? He my gramps. He’s the one raised me, responsible for all this.”
Hooker wasn’t sure what “all this” meant, but he saw it now, the echo of Thelonious’s features in the line of her nose, the angles of her eyes and cheeks, the shape of her mouth. He also sensed she was more than she appeared to be, as if she possessed something others didn’t.
“What’s Stella want with me?” he asked.
“Why you gotta take the mystery out of a thing?”
Solomon said, “Let me make sure I understand this. Stella’s outside right now, and she wants to talk to Hooks?”
JJ turned to him and cocked the eyebrow with the diamond in it.
“I’m his manager,” Solomon said.
“And your father owns this place.”
Interesting, Hooker thought. She’d done her research.
He drained half his drink, wondering why a superstar was waiting for him in the parking lot, Solomon and JJ both looking at him. No scenario he imagined made any sense.
“May as well go see what she wants,” he said.
“I’d better come with you,” Solomon said.
JJ said, “You stay put, Mr. Manager. Fix me a Cosmo, easy on the triple sec and heavy on the bitters, you and I can chat. I might even tell you a story about how love sometimes blossoms in dangerous places.”
Hooker turned for the front door, certain JJ’s last comment was directed at him, and heard Solomon say, “He looks confused.”
JJ laughed and said, “Hard not to be, winds of change about to blow up your backside,” her words trailing after him like the opening bars of a song not yet written.
Jonas Birch sat alone at a corner table for two and watched Joshua Hooker leave the bar. He stretched his legs and admired his loafers, hand-tooled in Florence, leather so supple it felt as if he were barefoot. With Hooker gone his evening’s work might be concluded, or it might be just beginning.
Around him, people were finishing their drinks and talking about Hooker. Everyone seemed eager to express an opinion on how he’d played.
Although Birch preferred the mathematical symmetry of classical compositions and was working his way through Mahler’s symphonies, he admitted Hooker possessed a rare ability to generate emotional responses in listeners, especially when he improvised. It would be interesting to discuss music with him.
Given what was likely to occur soon, Birch doubted that would happen.
The woman who’d served him, a short blond with streaked hair, had a conversation with a brunette waitress, both glancing his way as they talked. The brunette approached. She was in her late thirties, with more makeup than she needed over a good bone structure. Her countenance suggested an optimism that had endured despite life’s disappointments.
“Can I bring you another Julio Real?” she asked. “On the house?”
“A generous offer at forty-five dollars per serving, but another might invite debauchery.”
Her smile gladdened him. He wondered how it would feel to trace her lips with a finger, and whether he could give her what she needed.
She folded her empty drink tray in her arms. “So what did you think of Hooker?”
“He connects with people. When he plays, it’s almost as if a world of new possibilities opens up.”
“I’m sure he’ll be moving on soon, but we’re lucky to have him for however long he stays. He surprises me every show.”
Something she’d left unspoken suggested Hooker could take what he wanted from this woman. For reasons Birch didn’t care to consider, it made her even more desirable.
She glanced at his Borsalino fedora on the table. “Hats are fashionable again in Europe. Is that where you’re from?”
She laughed. “I usually go to the Caliente Grill for a drink after work. No Don Julio there, so it should be safe. Let me know if you feel like a nightcap.”
He assured her he would and watched her depart. Unless more was required of him this evening, it might prove illuminating to discover where her offer led.
He savored a final sip of tequila. Five years in an oak cask, distinguished and complex with moody undercurrents, a delightful finish with a peppery punch.
At the bar, Jasmine Joss was talking to a handsome young bartender. She glanced Birch’s way and paused, then continued her conversation.
Birch had received an encrypted file on Hooker, and files on Thelonious and Jasmine Joss as well. Jasmine was even more stunning than her picture. He considered what he’d read about her improbable gift, whether what had been described in the documents was even possible.
And if she possessed this remarkable ability to see things others couldn’t, had she already sensed what he was, how he earned his living and what he might soon be called upon to do? Or, more specifically, did she know he had a pair of Black Rhino bolt cutters recently purchased from Sears in the trunk of his rented Prius, and the use he might put the tool to?
Only time would tell.
The bartender said something, Jasmine laughed, and Birch’s satellite phone vibrated in the pocket of his cashmere coat, an exquisitely tailored piece from London. He didn’t need to check caller ID to know who it was. Only one man had the number.
“Yes?” he said, feeling a pleasant tingle of anticipation.
Outside, the night was like a samba, Jobim and Stan Getz, stars and a three-quarters moon, Hooker curious but cool, summoned by Stella for some mysterious purpose.
Thelonious was smoking a Camel beside the entrance awning, skin dark and almost unlined. He looked like he could have been 40, except Hooker had recently helped him celebrate number 78 at the Chart House up on the bluff, Jericho enjoying a few cognacs and talking about the old days with Monk and Miles and Bird, all of them jamming through the night in Harlem spots like Minton’s, drinking too much, shooting junk, cavorting with the ladies. All gone now, all but Jericho.
Some people win the genetic lottery, Hooker thought.
Thelonius took a drag on his cigarette and grinned. “Leave it be, son. Don’t want to live forever anyhow.”
“Then keep smoking. How many granddaughters do you have?”
“Just the one.”
“I thought she was in business school at Cornell.”
“Wharton, Hooks, five years ago. JJ’s been with Stella going on three years.”
“Did you ever tell me that?”
“I surely did, back in your dark period. Not that anything registered then, mind you.”
“Yeah,” Hooker said, “I guess I lost track.”
“It happens. Just jazz, my man.”
Hooker nodded and said, “So I hear Stella wants to see me. You have anything to do with that?”
“Let me ask you something. That solo on ‘Wizard Island?’ You know you were gone six minutes?”
Hooker hadn’t realized it was that long, time all but suspended when he went deep, music coming without thought, like breathing in a world where notes were air.
“It’s happening more,” Thelonious added, “just like it used to.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Thelonious laughed. “Go on, now. That lady, it don’t pay to keep her waiting.”
Hooker shook his head and made his way through the parking lot. A Bentley was parked against the back fence, engine a low hum, paint shimmering. A tall black man stood nearby, suit coat stretched tight across his shoulders. Had to be with Stella.
Hooker approached and said, “How you doing?”
“You Joshua Hooker?”
“My name’s Marvin. I’m gonna pat you down real quick.”
“Is that standard procedure?”
“It is lately,” Marvin said, running his hands over Hooker’s chest and sides, across his back and down his butt, Hooker less than comfortable when he worked up his legs to his crotch, sure his privates weren’t part of whatever problems “lately” implied. When Marvin was done, Hooker stepped toward the car. Marvin touched his arm, said, “This way,” and led him along a path with ground lights angled up to illuminate palm trees. They stopped where the path made a right angle, another black man in a suit standing ten feet away with his hands folded in front of him.
“She’s just finishing up on the phone,” he told Marvin.
One of the ground lights around the corner must have needed adjustment, because Hooker saw a woman’s shadow stretching two stories high on the back wall of an office building, and then he heard her.
“Listen closely,” Stella said. “We do it my way, or thunderous ruination will surely rain down upon you and yours.” Her voice, modulated almost as though she was doing a lyric, carried some of the vocal range that allowed her to touch millions.
Hooker glanced at Marvin. Face impassive, bald head gleaming.
“This conversation is over,” Stella said. “My best to your wife, and to that cute little squeeze you have stashed on the side. How old is that girl anyway?” She paused for a three-count. “Peace, brother. Your secret’s safe with me.”
The shadow on the wall moved toward them, and Stella came around the corner. She wore a black coat, pants that glittered like spun gold, and boots. Mocha skin, hair long and wavy and touched by the breeze, a couple of thin braids thrown in.
She handed the phone to Marvin and said, “Music may be love, but the business end is something else entirely.” Then she gave Hooker a smile that rocked him. “I’m Stella, Mr. Hooker, and I’m pleased to meet you.”
He took her extended hand. She was his height and slender, 15 years at the top of the charts showing just a little at the corners of her eyes. He’d seen her on TV, interviews and music videos and awards-show performances, but he wasn’t ready for her impact in person.
“I like roaming when everyone else is asleep,” she said. Her lips were glossy and her mouth was a little large for the rest of her face, the way it was with singers. “Let’s walk to the ocean.”
Hooker led her across Del Prado to a sidewalk lined with closed shops, traces of coffee and cinnamon in the air, Stella talking about the industry, the people who wanted to see you fail, the challenges of moving forward musically. Hooker still had no idea why she’d come to see him, but he loosened up as she spoke and began to enjoy her company.
“I love what you did on Azure,” she said as they crossed PCH at Violet Lantern under a humming streetlamp, “the way you played with octaves. Early George Benson is what I heard.”
She’d been listening to his music? It seemed unlikely, but he went along. “I was trying for Wes Montgomery. Benson was too, back then. Lotta years since I recorded Azure.”
“Blues for My Father was even better. More textured and intimate, a richer sound.”
“No one listens to that stuff anymore.”
“I’ve listened to every record you ever released, including your session work with Steely Dan. Donald Fagan told me you made a couple of good tracks great, and I agree. Now are you going to show me the ocean or not?”
“We’re close,” Hooker said. He glanced back and saw Marvin 30 paces behind them. The Bentley motored alongside him, cliff-side mansions on Santa Clara Street tucked behind hedges and gates, lights on here and there. Why did she need this kind of protection on a quiet night in a sleepy town?
“Three years ago,” she said, “you vanished.”
That surprised him. “It was a personal issue.”
“And you were injured.”
He remembered his daughter’s disappearance, his confusion and overwhelming fear, an attack on him later that night he still wasn’t sure was related. After he’d recovered and stopped searching for her, Hooker stayed drunk for two years, hadn’t even looked at a guitar.
“Now you’re playing again,” she said. “Thelonious says you do things with a guitar no one else ever has. Touched by God, is how he put it.”
“He talks too much,” Hooker said, even though he owed Thelonious more than he could ever repay,
“Are you still drinking?” she asked.
Hooker wasn’t, not like he had. “With all due respect, I’m not sure that’s your business.”
She met his answer with silence. He let it stretch, listening to the beat of the Bentley’s engine, smelling the salt on the breeze off the ocean, wondering where she’d go next.
“I start the Anthem Tour in three weeks,” she said. “Twenty-nine cities in forty days.”
He’d read about it. All big venues, already sold out.
“I want you to play with me.”
Hooker rewound her words, figuring he must have misheard. Nope, seven syllables, three-four time, meaning clear.
She laughed. She had a good laugh, throaty and sincere, and somehow full of promise. “When I started in this business, it was all about the music. Along the way, it became about money and fame. I have plenty of both now, so it’s about the music again. And that, Mr. Hooker, is why I want you.”
They arrived at the fence at the end of Blue Lantern, harbor and ocean spread out beneath them. How could he tell her he wasn’t ready yet and might never be again, that the music didn’t flow at will the way it once had, that there were still nights when he couldn’t find the right notes and progressions?
“The world’s full of guitarists who’d kill to play with you,” he said, “but I’m the wrong person.”
“You can’t hide in places like Renaissance forever.”
“Nothing wrong with Renaissance, and I’m not hiding.”
She was quiet a moment. “Your daughter’s name was Lily, right? How old would she be today?”
Something caught in his throat, a piece of the pain he could never drink away, what he still felt for his lost daughter suddenly threatening to overwhelm him there at the railing above the sea.
“She was four when she disappeared,” he said. “To me, she’ll always be four.”
He hoped she’d leave it there. She didn’t.
“What would you give to have her back?”
He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He’d learned all about the damage hope could do, about how you had to let it die before you could move forward. Lily was gone, a song played only once.
“We’re not doing this,” he said.
Stella didn’t respond. Hooker looked out at the Pacific, sky a dark curtain above the water, something glimmering at the horizon, something important, no telling what.
After a while, the breeze shifted. Hooker’s mood did, too. Stella glanced past him and said, “That’s a beautiful place.”
He followed her gaze to the Blue Lantern Inn.
“See the third-story room with the light on? That’s where I live.”
A shadow passed across the drawn drapes.
“It looks like you have company,” she said. “Did I just walk you home?”
“Only if I don’t walk you back.”
She laughed and raised a hand, waited until Marvin joined them and gave her a CD in a plain jewel case. “I like you, Mr. Hooker, baggage and all.” She held out the CD. “Just me and my piano. I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t think we should play together after you listen to it, I’ll leave you alone.”
The instructions Jonas Birch had received on the phone in Renaissance were concise: “Observe and report.” This had been neither invigorating nor disappointing. For him, patience was a purpose unto itself.
Now, from the shadows of an office building on Blue Lantern, he watched the bodyguard named Marvin open the Bentley’s back door. Stella glanced toward the hotel as Hooker walked up the steps and entered without looking back, and then she got into the car. Marvin closed her door and scanned the area before letting himself in to ride shotgun.
The Bentley circled the cul-de-sac and went right on PCH, probably to pick up Jasmine Joss at Renaissance before they headed back to Malibu.
Jasmine and her gift of sight, remarkable and problematic if true, a potential variable he didn’t know how to account for.
Birch entered a number on his phone and thought about the brunette waitress. She’d be at the Caliente Grill soon. Would he have time to meet her? He got a connection and said, “Stella just left. They spent thirty-three minutes together.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Escher said. Escher once told him the name paid homage to the Dutch artist, and the place where mathematics, art and perception intersected. “We’d hoped he’d drink himself to death. In spite of our best efforts, it appears that’s not going to happen.”
He paused. Birch knew he wasn’t finished with the thought and didn’t interrupt.
“Now he’s playing again,” Escher said, “and better than ever, a trend unlikely to serve our interests. He’ll have questions before long.”
“What would you like me to do?”
More labored breathing. Birch had never met Escher, but he’d heard he had an IQ of 160 and sat in a chair specially constructed to accommodate a body weight of nearly 600 pounds. The chair also allowed him to move between the banks of computer screens that contained the information and tactical feeds required to direct the organization’s field operations.
Five of those feeds came from the Blue Lantern Inn, micro-cameras trained on the front, side, and back entrances, the hallway outside Hooker’s room, the first-floor common area.
“On the other hand,” Escher said, “it might be a mistake to move without confirmation. Jacqueline has proven adept at acquiring intelligence.”
Birch gazed toward Hooker’s room on the third story. “Indeed she has,” he said, wondering which way Escher would choose to go.
He’d studied the hotel schematics and knew the location of every exit, the abrupt angles in some of the hallways, the main staircase that only went to the second floor, the back stairs that serviced all three. The fire alarm he’d use if terminal action was required on this night was located just inside the door adjacent to the path that led to Cannon’s parking lot.
He touched the gas-driven cylinder in a holster at his hip. After he’d armed the device, all he had to do was bump Hooker anywhere with the head and the needle would deliver its payload.
“Do you know what I’m doing?” Escher asked.
“Of course. Running the variables. Risk-reward analysis.”
“Exactly. You’re one of our top performers, which means you’re among the best in the world.”
One of our top performers. A criticism wrapped in a compliment. At least Escher hadn’t used his rival’s name. “If you’re the Dark Ages,” Escher had once told him, “Rembrandt is the Renaissance.”
“The current situation is manageable,” Birch said, “but far from ideal.”
“I understand. Could you complete the assignment?”
More silence on the line, punctuated by the rasp of Escher’s breathing. Birch stood statue-still as he waited. Cones of light glowed under streetlamps, airbrakes hissed out on PCH, and the damp breeze caressing his face seemed ripe with the possibility of violence.
Escher cleared his throat. “The question is, should I give you a chance to redeem yourself this evening?”
Birch stifled his irritation and considered his reply. True, he’d made the only significant mistake of his career three years ago in the aftermath of the acquisition of Hooker’s daughter. Unforeseen circumstances had required improvisation, not one of his strengths. He’d sunk a knife into Hooker’s neck and made a clean exit, but Hooker had lived.
Still, why mention the matter now?
“Redemption is for morons,” Birch said.
Escher chuckled and wheezed until he coughed.
“You and I deserve each other,” he said. “Justify my confidence in you. Proceed with the operation.”
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