(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Big Mike was written by Rachel Brune.)
Big Mike stepped out on the Austin, TX, street and shielded his eyes from the glare. He had just spent the better part of his morning waiting in line at the post office to send out a bunch of demo CDs that would more than likely be ignored, tossed, or pirated by their intended recipients. This tour might be the make-or-break gig for Tamekia, but the record company wasn’t about to spend all their time shilling for an unknown. And so Mike found himself hustling just as hard–harder even, to get out the word that Tamekia had arrived on the blues scene.
He strolled up 6th Street, checking his watch, hurrying his pace when he realized he was going to be a little late. Finally, he saw the little hole-in-the-wall bar he was supposed to meet the reporter at. At least, he thought she was a reporter.
Shielding his eyes against the glare, he took in the small, open area in front of the even small stage, with cheap plastic tables lining the sides of the walls. It was almost empty, with only one or two day-drinkers bending the bartenders each with their special sorrows. He made a note to give her a copy of the demo before they left.
The only other table occupied had to be Kelly. He sighed inwardly, stuck a grin on his face, and headed over to shake her hand. “Hi, I think we’re meeting each other?” He smiled in case he was mistaken. “My name’s Gary Thibodeaux, but everyone calls me Big Mike.”
Kelly smiled as she rose to her feet and shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Big Mike. I am Kelly Blanchard. You may just call me Kelly. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Please have a seat.” She gestured to the other chair at the table as she resumed her seat. “And you’re more than welcome to get a drink. I personally don’t drink. So tell me a bit about yourself.”
Mike signaled to the bartender, who jerked her chin. Not bothering to walk over, she raised her voice.
“What’ll ya have?”
“A Shiner bock for me, water for the lady.” Mike settled in his seat. “I don’t know if you’re used to weather this warm in the winter, but I’d advise at least drinking some water.” He shrugged. “Sorry, I’m a tour manager—I sometimes can’t shed the whole overprotective parent schtick.”
“I’m from up near Dallas, so I’m totally used to this kind of weather.” Kelly smiled at his concern. “So how did you become a tour manager?”
The bartender brought over their drinks. She set the beer down in front of Mike. “You want a glass?”
“No thanks, baby, I’m good.” Mike waited until she headed back to the bar, then continued. “Well, if you’ll believe it, I wanted to be a drummer.” He took a sip of beer. “Problem was, there are a lot of good drummers out there. Lot of good guitarists. Singers, too. I just never was the best…or even that good. I knew I wanted to make a life out of music, so I decided to do something that not a lot of people could do. Or wanted to.” He took another drink of beer. “Sorry, I don’t mean to ramble. I’m not one to talk a lot about myself. It’s been a long week.”
“Perfectly fine. We’re here to talk about you, so feel free to ramble.” Kelly gave him a reassuring smile. “Do you still play the drums?”
“Nah…” Big Mike thought about the last time he’d picked up a pair of sticks. Long years of disuse had made him rusty. “I fool around on the guitar some, sing in the shower, but mostly I’m really good at collecting money from bar owners who think that just because you can watch crap on YouTube, every musician should be giving it away for free.”
“I will get back to you being a tour manager and ask you questions there, but I have other questions I want to ask first.” Kelly met his gaze. “Where do you come from? Have any family?” She raised her brows.
Mike thought for a moment. On the one hand, the question was harmless. On the other hand, he thought this reporter was from one of those indie college music magazines. Usually all they wanted to know was, what was the “big secret” to success. As if there was one. “Only child.” He shrugged. “Parents passed.”
“And how did you get to where you are now?”
Mike laughed. “As the late, great Jerry Garcia would say, it’s been a long, strange trip.” He toyed with the beer as he spoke, not even realizing he was doing it. “I managed about half a dozen bands before I hooked up with Tamekia.” Realizing how that sounded, he quickly corrected himself. “Not ‘hook up’ …I mean…we weren’t—we didn’t…” He closed his eyes, and took a breath. “Anyway, my latest band had just fallen apart. Creative differences. Like I told the lead singer—you have to be creative to have differences. But whatever. So I headed down to New Orleans for Jazzfest, stumbled drunk out of my mind into some nothing local bar, and heard this woman singing like nothing you wouldn’t believe. I popped some gum in my mouth, went to talk to her, and we’ve been working together ever since.”
“So tell me about her, the band—what each person is like.” Kelly knew he was probably expecting this question, but she was asking it for a totally different reason when he understood. Still, she was curious at the answer
“Well, Tamekia is the next biggest thing in blues,” Mike told her. “You can write that down in your article—next year, you’re going to see her singing on the Grammies. She’s got a voice like velvet thunder, and she can make you cry and laugh at the same time….” He paused, reflecting. “Sweet Mae – she’s our pianist. She’s got a classy sense of style. Some keyboard players, especially the blues guys, they just kind of mess all over the keys. But she’s so precise, and still can make the piano sing.” He smiled. “Then we’ve got Clay and Junkyard. Clay plays a mean bass. He’s like the electric mayhem underneath so it doesn’t get all too nice and sweet. Junkyard plays drums.”
Mike laughed. “So this is a funny story. Junkyard’s real name is MacArthur, after the famous general. So everyone calls him Mac. But one day, Rose shows up and she sees his whole setup. He likes to find weird stuff—like cans, or hubcaps or whatever—and hook it up to his set. Says it gives it ‘authenticity.’ I say, gives the sound guy a pain in the…excuse me. Anyway, Rose takes one look and says, ‘Nice to meetcha, Junkyard.’ And the name stuck.”
He waited for Kelly to process that. “Hey, listen, we don’t need to beat around here. If you want to know about John and Rose, just ask.”
“John and Rose?” Kelly raised her brows, trying to remember everything his Author had told her, but all the names were a blur.
Now Mike was confused. “Um…Sorry…I thought that…” Maybe this reporter wasn’t quite the predatory mooch he’d thought. “Well, if you do a Google search, you’re going to find out about the past couple of days, so I’ll just lay it on you.” He paused. “But first, I need another beer.”
He tried to catch the bartender’s eye, but she was busy with another customer, a burnt-out hippie type with wild gray hair, John Lennon shades, and an actual peace sign hanging around her? his? neck. As Mike looked, the creature turned around, peering at Mike over the tops of the shades.
“On second thought … I’m good.” Mike put the beer down and leaned back in his seat, crossing his legs. “So, we had two guitarists — Studio John, who, as the nickname implies, played the tracks on the album for the label.” He had a moment’s flashback to the room in the hotel, and quickly pushed the image out of his head. “But we also had Rose. She’s played guitar for Tamekia since they were starting out. But always only live gigs. Rose is … not good with being inside.”
He looked up at the bar again and frowned. The hippie was gone. He usually prided himself on his observational skills, but he hadn’t noticed her come in the bar, or leave. That was weird.
“Gig before last, we all crashed at the same motel,” Mike continued. “Woke up in the morning, and John was dead. Guitar strings wrapped around his neck. Rose’s guitar missing its strings. That’s all the cops told us, and that’s all we know. They arrested her, but there wasn’t enough to prosecute, and honestly, I don’t think they cared enough about a bunch of broke musicians to do more than kick us all out of town and warn us about ever coming back.
“Like I said, I’m sorry,” Mike said. “I assumed that’s what you really wanted to talk about. We’ve been getting a lot of the wrong attention—and the studio is pissed.”
Kelly had observed his respond to the hippie, and she sensed there was more here. She remembered there were Fae in this story and wondered if that had anything to do with it, but she’d have to wait to see how it played out.
Instead, she focused her attention back on Big Mike then shook her head. “I have no particular story I want to focus on. I don’t call myself a reporter even. It’s…complicated to explain, but it’s worth your while. However, since you’re on the topic, what do you think happened to John? And I mean, *really* think? Even if others might think you’re insane?”
“Um…what, exactly are you interviewing me for?” Big Mike was going to kill Rose. “Because don’t take this the wrong way, but I stay off the Internet for a reason, except for band stuff.”
Kelly smiled a warm smile. At least he realized she wasn’t who he thought she was. “Rachel sent me to get to know you—the real you, all work aside, all the past, and whatever you want to tell me. None of it will end up in an article, and you can grouch about it to her later, but hey, here’s your chance to finally speak your mind completely unhindered without concern that what you say may be used against you or the band or anything like.” Kelly raised her hands. “No judging here. I just want to hear it from you if you’re willing to talk.”
“Huh.” Mike was well and truly confused, but he wasn’t about to take it out on Kelly. He’d have a few things to say to Rachel later, things that had to do with professionalism, and not pawning off the weird ones on him, but in the meantime, he’d try to give this lady what she wanted. “Well…to be honest…” He realized he was being very obvious about avoiding her gaze, and so sought to make eye contact again with the bartender. She raised an eyebrow, he raised his bottle, and she nodded.
Mike sat up straight, settling his elbows on the table. “Okay, to be honest, there’s something weird on this tour.” He watched Kelly’s face carefully, for any sign of reaction. “Things are…off. And they all seem to be most off around Rose. I mean, I love Rose—I feel like she’s my younger sister, and she is incredibly talented and loyal, two traits you don’t find in all musicians. But this tour, she’s been late, she’s been unprofessional, she’s been distracted…and things have been happening.”
“And what do you think is going on with her?” Kelly watched his face for any signs of things he might not want to admit, and she could tell he was reading her too. She did her best to appear as honest and open as she was.
“A couple of months ago, I would have said PTSD,” Mike said. “I mean, I know that’s a cliche, but it was the only thing I could think of. But now…okay, so a couple of nights ago, we’re playing this joint. It’s pretty big, and Tamekia was working the crowd pretty well. And in the midst of one of her bigger numbers—green smoke. Like curling up to the ceiling, bad fantasy movie special effects green smoke. And we never, ever do any kind of pyro or crap like that. We’re strictly about the music. And the owner swears he didn’t set anything up. So what the hell was it?” He paused as the bartender brought over the beer, but now that he had his momentum up, he found it hard to stop. “And I know that Rose isn’t a killer. Yeah, she served in Iraq and all that, but to wrap her guitar strings around someone’s neck in cold blood? Never. I would stake my life on it. And yet, when the cops were taking her out of there, there was something in her eyes.”
Mike knew how this next part would sound, but said it anyway. “And I think her dog’s been talking to me.”
Kelly smiled. She knew he was absolutely serious, but she had to smile. “I am totally jealous. I’d love for my Doberman to talk to me.” She then lifted her hand. “I know you’re serious, and I do believe you. Trust me, with all I’ve encountered on my job, a talking dog isn’t the strangest thing I heard. Does the dog understand you?” She lifted her brows.
“Well…” Mike took a long drink. “Yeah, I think he does. The other night, I caught him out back about to lift his leg on someone’s beat up old Ford. I joked that he should go pee on the Mercedes and I swear to you that dog kind of made chuffing sound, waddled over to the Benz, and peed all over the tire.”
“And does Rose know this?”
“I don’t know…I think her boyfriend does. I’ve caught him and the dog looking at each other like something is going on. But I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me, so I have no idea. All I know is that whenever I’m around Frank—that’s the Basset hound, not the boyfriend—for too long, I want a nap and some bacon.” He paused a moment. “Although I always want a nap and some bacon, so who knows…” Mike trailed off, waiting for Kelly’s reaction.
Kelly paused as she considered him and pondered how to word her next question. Finally, she leaned in and quieted her voice. “This might sound really, really weird, but do you think any form of magic is anything to do with it.” Then she explained, “I just had a talk with a vampire not too long ago, and and before that were a bunch of kids training with magic. Trust me, my job is weird, so magic isn’t too unrealistic.”
Mike stared at her. He was going to have a long, long talk with Rachel about giving his number to the crazy ones. But yet, Kelly hadn’t batted an eye when he admitted to conversing with a hound. And he had seen…that thing…and so maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.
“Magic? I don’t know if I’d call it that …” Mike tried to put into words the feeling that he’d had, being around the smoke, and the creature — the one he still didn’t want to admit he’d seen. “I’ve been around a lot, and I wouldn’t be one to say there aren’t things out there we can’t really explain away. ESP. Smoke phenomena. That kind of thing I can see. But magic? I don’t know…” He shrugged. “And, to be completely honest, at the last gig I might have seen something… not quite human…hanging around the shadows near the stage.”
“What did you see?” She furrowed her brows, watching his face, but then she cast her gaze around. She didn’t want anyone else to hear their conversation, just because. Finding the place basically empty aside from them, she looked back at Big Mike and still spoke with a soft voice. “What did it look like?”
“At first I thought it was a kid,” Big Mike admitted. “I was going to go chase him out, because you know, it’s a bar. But it was weird—any time I got closer he kind of just…slipped aside. I couldn’t get a good look at him either. The spotlight was either too bright, or the shadows too dark, or he hid behind something. His skin was kind of like copper, and I swear he seemed to glow every time he got closer to one of the big amps.” He paused. “And now, thinking about it, I can’t even remember exactly what he looked like.”
“That is interesting,” Kelly mused. She also caught sight of the time and realized her time here was almost up, but she looked back at Big Mike. “Have you confronted Rose about any of this?”
“No way,” Mike said. “I appreciate you taking the time to listen, but there is no way I’m talking about this with any of the band. I gotta be the sane one, keeping it together. Saying it out loud…They’re going to think it’s time for me to take a nice, quiet vacation somewhere with white jackets and rooms with cushions on the walls.”
“Hey, maybe we could be neighbors.” She shrugged with a smile. “Always thought I’d end up in one of those places. But anyway, my time here has come to an end. I have to get going. Thank you for meeting with me and for telling me all this.” She rose to her feet and looked down at him with a smile. “I, for one, don’t think you’re insane, but keep your eye open. Be observant. You might not be too far off the mark, and if this…thing is dangerous for Rose and the others, you might be the only one who can protect them because you are aware of it. And talk with Rose, if you would. You don’t need to say anything, but see if she’d open up to you.” She shrugged. “Never know what’ll happen. Have a good day!” She smiled then headed for the door but before she reached the door, she winked out of existence.
Big Mike sat there, stunned. What was in that beer? He shook his head. Just one more uncanny occurrence on this long, strange trip. Finishing the bottle, he left a twenty for the tap and the tip, and headed back to the sunny reality of Sixth Street.
Rachel Brune’s story ’Steel-Toed Blues’ has no release date set yet, but you can follow her online here:
Blog/Website/Friday Writing Prompts: http://www.infamous-scribbler.com