Copyright 2014, Winifred Morris, all rights reserved
If you're enjoying this story, you may purchase it from Amazon.
Annie stepped back from the microphone as Gary, her lead guitar, stretched the last chord of that song into mind-bending realms of distortion. Out beyond the stage lights, Tonka farm machinery swung from the ceiling. A huge inflated caterpillar smoked a hookah at one end of the bar. This was Moscow, Idaho in all its conflicted identity. There followed a flurry of whistles and applause from the twenty or so people scattered out there in the dark cavern of the Caterpillar Lounge, under the tractors and backhoes, many of them sneaking tokes. Annie didn’t wait for the applause to end. A quick hand signal to her band, and she ramped right into what was always the close of her set, a high speed tribute to her first car.
“Wide open highways going ninety-five! Rock ‘n’ roll music just to stay alive!” She drove the rhythm with her guitar. She stomped the down beat with her boots. She screamed the vocals, and her voice echoed back from the concrete walls charged with the power of that ’57 T-Bird she’d inherited from her folks when their plane crashed somewhere in Mexico, leaving her at the age of seventeen with a car that just wouldn’t slow down—and a family tradition of crime.
She rode the high of that song and this life she’d chosen, which had taken her and her band through Chicago, Detroit, Austin, New York—their relentless touring had brought them fans in all those cities now—until that song and the tour ended in an even more squealing climax with Buzzard thumping out a furious heartbeat on the bass and Gary crescendoing to new heights until Mercedes went totally nuts bashing every drum and cymbal she had.
“We’re Annie and the Orphans!” Annie shouted. “It’s good to be home!”
A few more whistles and a scatter of applause. It was June, between spring and summer terms. The college students had gone home. Still, it wasn’t a bad crowd for the panhandle of Idaho on a Wednesday night. Bull and Wheeler, two of her redneck fans and always the loudest and drunkest, shouted for more and beat on the bar with their beer mugs.
But the stage lights dimmed. The house lights came up. She started packing gear.
“Aw, Annie, you can’t just leave us like this!” Bull bellowed while rolling his thick, troll-like body up to the stage. “We been missin’ you all these weeks, you know.”
“One more! One more!” shouted Wheeler, who looked a lot like a garden gnome—a garden gnome in a baseball cap—curly sideburns, ski jump nose, a wad of snoose in his cheek.
“If you can’t play us another song, how ‘bout a little flash of titty,” Bull begged.
She gave him a sideways look while fitting her guitar into its case. “No way could I compete with your ample cleavage.”
She was referring, of course, to his often visible butt crack, but it didn’t faze him. “I know you’re modest, Annie. I respect that. Honest, I do. And Mercedes, she’s always generous.”
Modest? She was just realistic about what she had and what she didn’t, while Mercedes’s bouncing sweaty cleavage when she was pounding on her drums was probably the band’s main draw.
“But we’re your biggest fans,” Bull kept on. “We’d do anything for you, and I’m sure your titties are pretty too.”
Annie slipped her microphone off its stand and put it in its box.
But Bull didn’t need any encouragement. He might have kept on talking about tits until the bar closed except Wheeler then shrugged and spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the floor. Which was the signal that always brought Meg, the weary hippie who owned the place, with a bucket and mop to kick the two of them out.
“You assholes.” She swished a mopful of soapy water at their boots. “Can’t you leave on your own for once?”
“And what would be the fun of that?” Wheeler chirped, skipping away from the mop.
“Aw, Meg,” whined Bull, following Wheeler out. “I bet you got pretty titties too.”
After that less pushy fans came up to tell Annie it had been a good show. A couple of predictable guys predictably suggested she go do something with them, maybe get something to eat, and she was always hungry after a show. But none of them came on too strong, so she was able to give them just her usual glad-you-liked-the-music, sorry-not-tonight brush off.
Then when she was rolling up cords, Buzzard squatted down by her. Which was a sign in itself that he was going to ask for something he wasn’t sure he should ask for since he was too big to do much squatting. “I was thinking,” he said. “Three weeks on the road. I’m shot . . .” He shifted on his bulging legs. “But you must be too.”
“You want to leave now,” Annie said. “You’ve got a ride home, and you don’t want to wait till closing.”
“You need money.” The bars hardly ever paid before they counted the till. “It’s okay, I can cover it.”
She was still in her stage clothes, a red Little Orphan Annie dress, which did thoroughly cover her tits. So she reached for her guitar case where she kept her wallet when she was onstage and pulled out a couple of hundreds. “One for tonight and one for being fairly responsible on the tour.”
Buzzard rocked back onto his heels making him look even less comfortable. “Hey, tail on the road, that’s one of the few perks. I was on time for every show. On the bus every morning for the next day’s drive.”
“Hence the bonus.”
He looked down at the bills. “But . . . a hundred for tonight? You think Meg’s going to give us four hundred with this crowd?”
No, no way, but Annie said, “Folks here drink a lot of beer.”
Buzzard still fiddled with the bills, and she knew this was always tough, the money part of the band. Even now that they had loyal fans all across the country, it was a miracle if they made enough to pay for food and gas to get to the next town. For years she’d struggled to keep a band together, always losing musicians to more established bands as soon as they actually learned how to play their instruments.
“Guess you’ve got your rich uncle,” Buzzard said.
“Right. I don’t need my share.”
“That must be so cool.” He finally stood up and tucked the bills into his jeans. “You get to do your music and don’t have to worry about the money.”
“Yeah, it’s cool,” she said and went back to rolling up cords. Because it definitely was good to be able to keep a band together and take her music on the road and not have to give up the way she’d once thought she would have to do.
That just didn’t happen to work anything like how Buzzard thought.
After he left, a few more fans came up to talk to her, but since this was her home town, everybody here had already bought all the CD’s, LP’s, and T-shirts they could ever want, and even the goofy Orphan Annie masks she’d had made when she’d been in one of her campier moods. So she packed up the merch too. Gary and Mercedes were still dismantling the drums, but soon she was ready to make her first run to her car.
She went out the side door with her guitar, its stand, and a box of CD’s. Her shabby green Subaru Forester was parked only three cars down. She lifted the back and just tossed that stuff on top of her sleeping pad since she wouldn’t be sleeping in her car tonight. This meant she didn’t have to carefully arrange her things to leave herself a diagonal slot. She was too tall to easily fit in the Subaru’s cargo area.
So it probably seemed odd that she didn’t tour in the old school bus with the rest of the band.
She’d told them she needed time alone to compose. They seemed to accept that.
Now she grabbed her backpack of clothes, relocked the car, and started back to the bar to change into jeans and get another load. But something struck her about the guy who was standing not far from the side door, just enjoying his cigarette—at least that was what she’d first thought. Thick dark hair, Latino-sultry eyes, Zorro mustache, nothing really wrong with him, and maybe she’d become hyper-sensitive—she had to be hyper-sensitive at times—
He sprang at her.
She was ready with an outside circular block. It spun him sideways. Before he could regain his balance, she kicked in the back of his knee. He yelped in surprise but twisted back at her, reaching for her pack. She blocked him again and stomped down hard on his instep with the spike heel of her boot.
She was coming at him with her key. She was jabbing for his neck. Or even better his eyes. Except now there was another man in the game. He seemed to be grabbing for the first one, but his arm stopped hers, and he didn’t connect. The mugger fled.
“What the hell?” she said to the guy who was now standing in front of her grinning and looking proud of what he’d just done.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Always glad to help a lady in distress.”
“Do I look in distress? I would’ve disabled the creep. He would’ve never tried that again. He might’ve never walked again.”
She’d seen this joker in the bar. She’d noticed him because you couldn’t help but notice him, and clearly he knew that. He was well over six feet, taller than she, and many men weren’t. He wore a black T-shirt over broad shoulders and had light brown hair with a disheveled look that she didn’t think ever happened without a lot of gel. Plus he had just the right amount of ruggedness to his cheek bones and jaw, complete with one of those stubble beards—like I’ve been too busy skydiving or running from paparazzi to find time to shave.
He was still grinning since his type never believed you were really annoyed with them. “Okay,” he said, “but I tried. How was I to know you were a black belt?”
“I don’t like any kind of belt. Too confining.” She turned and went on past him into the bar.
But he was right behind her, of course. “Don’t I get points for trying? You might’ve been the helpless type. It would’ve been wrong to just stand there and watch.”
“Watch this.” She held her left hand up, middle finger extended.
“Okay, I get it. You’re going through some post-traumatic stress right now. So I’ll give you some private space. I won’t take this personally.”
“Take it personally.” She went back to packing her things and refused to turn to see where he’d gone. She hoped he’d ridden off into whatever sunset he’d come from.
Even though he was fun to look at. Seemed to have a sense of humor too. And for some silly reason her heart had gone into a Reggae beat.
But she knew guys like him weren’t really interested in her. It was the singer on the stage. Not only did she hardly have any boobs, she had frizzy orange hair, which was at least one of the reasons she called herself Orphan Annie. When she’d started performing and suddenly found guys weren’t ignoring her anymore, at first she’d believed some of those jerks actually cared about her—her parents had just died, all her defenses had been disabled for a while. But oddly enough every one of those guys who’d wanted the singer on the stage, as soon as they’d had her, wanted her off the stage. They turned into juvenile paranoids whenever she went on tour. Even the time she spent practicing, or composing, seemed to irritate them, as if she should never even think about anything other than them.
So, looking at thirty with all her hard-won maturity, she’d decided to give up on that sort of thing, men, sex, romance, whatever it was. She’d been on her own since she was seventeen. Her Viet Nam vet dad had drilled her in self-defense. She could take care of herself.
And now that she was beginning to slow down from that run-in with the mustached creep, she wondered what he’d thought was in her backpack. Had he thought she would carry more than clothes just slung over her shoulder like that? Did he know she sometimes carried a lot more than clothes?
No, she didn’t need a man, and there was no way she could share her life with one. Too risky for her. Too risky for him. Due to the family tradition that had rescued her music dreams.
And it wasn’t as if she didn’t have a full life. She had her music, didn’t she?
Her music and Uncle Michael.
Wes settled into a threadbare overstuffed chair, a miniature John Deere 9360R dangling over his head. Nearby at the bar sat an inflated hookah-smoking larva. This town was truly weird. He’d grown up in a farming town where some of the wealthier farmers had had tractors like the one swinging from the ceiling here, but none of them had smoked hookahs. So here he was trying to straighten these yokels out.
And okay, his team had lost the first encounter. One man wounded—which he couldn’t help but find amusing. The mission was still on.
He watched Annie pack up the rest of her gear, then slip into the green room and come out with still a mass of red curls. So that wasn’t a wig. But now she was in jeans and one of the band’s T-shirts, which was both a good and bad thing. The tight red Orphans T-shirt made it clear that as skinny as she was she still had some nice curves while the boxy Little Orphan dress hadn’t shown any of that. On the other hand, the dress had stopped barely an inch below her ass. The jeans fit nicely around that part of her, but he’d kind of liked the white tights and spike-heeled boots, especially when she was stomping on the stage. He’d even enjoyed the way she’d turned those boots into lethal weapons.
He let his thoughts drift this way, even though they were clearly unprofessional and maybe even counter-productive to this weird-assed mission, but it was too early to move in on his target again.
Annie made a couple more trips to her car, then settled onto a bar stool with her lead guitarist, her drummer, and a beer. Most everybody else was trailing out. Wes waited until fifteen minutes to last call, then brought his beer over and took the stool next to hers.
“Okay, you’re right,” he said. “If I hadn’t gotten in the way, you might’ve killed that guy. But I’m not sure that would’ve stood up in court as self-defense since it looked like he was just going for your backpack. So I saved you a lot of legal hassle and maybe a lifetime of guilt. You never know how something like that will stay with you, haunt your dreams.”
She barely glanced at him. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
“No, as it turns out. Let me introduce myself,” and he pulled out three of his cards. “Wesley Reese, booking agent. I really liked your show.”
He stood up to hand cards to the other two members of the band. “Mercedes, right?” he said to the drummer with the bouncy breasts. “And Gary?” This to the shaggy-haired kid who did seem to know his way around a guitar. The two of them looked at the cards and seemed to be impressed.
But Annie said, “So you printed up some cards. I book my own shows.”
“But maybe I could get you better ones.” He sat back down by her.
“Or worse,” she said. “I’ve had bookers. One of them just ran off with the money. The other, I’d get to a gig, they’d never even heard of me. Or never heard of the guarantee. I do my own contracts. That way I know what’s in my contracts.”
“But all you can play are small venues like this.” He did what he hoped wasn’t too insulting a gesture at the desolation of the Caterpillar Lounge. The toy tractors suspended from the ceiling were kind of unique even though he’d had enough of farming as a kid. But other than the tractors, and the definitely quirky larva balloon, it was just a concrete room about the size of a three-car garage with the stage at one end, a graffiti-gouged bar along one wall, and a few couches and chairs lined up on the others—furniture cast off from the living rooms of people who probably weren’t living anymore. He’d had to wade through an inch of piss to get to a urinal. Maybe the women’s john wasn’t quite so revolting.
“You want to get into the bigger venues, you’re going to need a booker,” he said.
“I’m not getting into the bigger ones yet.” She said this with the same cockiness she’d displayed on stage, but clearly he’d hit something here. After drawing a few circles on the bar with her mug, she added, “Maybe in a year or two.”
“What if I could get you the opener for Drive-By Truckers?”
That got her attention. That got all of them to look over at him. What with the kind of punkish alt country they did, he’d figured this would work.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “They’re looking for an opener for their next tour. Then I heard your music. It’s fresh, it’s raw. So I came here to find you.” He watched his words pull them in. They wanted to believe he was real.
“You’d be perfect,” he said. “Of course, it would be a big commitment. Several months on the road. Then probably go on with the European tour.”
“Europe?” Mercedes gasped, making her breasts bounce nicely.
“And we’d get paid?” Gary said. “Like we’d actually have money left over at the end of the tour?”
“Of course, you’d get paid. All expenses too. Nice motels and a comfortable bus, not some ratty old school bus.” Wes had seen their ratty bus parked outside.
The owner of the place joined them then and began laying bills on the bar. “This is the best I can do,” she said, and out of the corner of his eye, Wes counted maybe a hundred and fifty dollars. Less than forty per band member for the night.
“I’m talking a big change for you,” he said when the owner went on down the bar, wiping spills with a rag as she went. “You’ve worked hard for this. Don’t turn it down.”
“Wow!” Gary was looking to Annie and shaking his head, making that mop of hair flop back and forth across his eyes. “We always thought something like this might happen out on the road! We’d get noticed in Chicago or New York!”
“But I came here to find you,” said Wes. “You’re all over the Internet, you know. I knew you played the Caterpillar Lounge when you were in your home town.”
“Really?” Mercedes said with another attractive gasp. “You came all the way here just to find us?”
And that part was true.
But Annie, who had been acting like counting those bills took her full attention, said, “I’ve got your card. I’ll think about it. Now, let me pay these guys.” And somehow by some sleight of hand, she’d beefed up that money while Gary and Mercedes had been dreaming of playing to stadium crowds. She dealt out more than twice what she’d taken in.
Wes wasn’t surprised.
Enjoy the first two chapters of this romantic comic thriller
about sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and a bomb!
by Winifred Morris