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Ben Kincaid was playing the piano and singing with such enthusiasm that he neither saw nor heard the man sitting at the foot of the stage desperately trying to get his attention.
"'I know I'm going no-oh-where ...'" Ben belted out his song in a high-pitched adenoidal voice that seemed part Bob Dylan, part Sonny Bono. "'... and anywhere's a better place to be.'"
Unfortunately, the man offstage couldn't stand it any longer. He stood up and barked, "Stop!"
Ben did not hear him. "'I come back with my pa-ay-per ba-a-ag ... to find that she was gone ...'"
The man slammed his fist down on the nearest table, rattling two beer mugs and a centerpiece candle. "Stop already!"
Ben froze. He stopped singing. He stopped playing. For a moment he even stopped breathing. "Earl? Were you talking to me?"
Earl Bonner let out a sigh of relief. "I was."
Ben nervously fingered the sheet music propped up before him on the piano. "But ... I'm not finished yet."
Earl pulled a white handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his brow. "Not finished? You've been compin' chords for somethin' like ten minutes already!"
Ben swallowed. "It's a long song."
"That ain't no song, son. That's more like an opera."
Ben scooted to the end of the piano bench. "It's a story song, Earl. It takes a while to lay out the plot, develop the characters—"
"What're you talkin' about? Plot? Characters?"
"See, it's a Harry Chapin song—"
"Harry who?" Earl ambled to the foot of the stage. "Ben, did you happen to notice on your way in what the name of this here club is?"
Ben cleared his throat. "Uh ... Uncle Earl's Jazz Emporium?"
"Right. And what do you suppose the most important word in that name is?"
Ben looked down sheepishly. "Jazz?"
"You bet your sweet mama's pajamas. Jazz." He pronounced the word as if it had about sixteen syllables. "Now what in the name of Thelonius Monk does what you were cuttin' have to do with jazz?"
"Variety is the spice of life."
"Maybe in vaudeville, but not in Uncle Earl's Jazz Emporium." He reached out. "C'mere, Ben. Walk with me."
Ben pushed himself to his feet. "Should I bring my music?"
Ben jumped off the stage and allowed himself to be swallowed up by the huge black man's right arm. Earl steered him toward the exit doors on the east side of the club. They stepped out into the sunlight of a bright April day.
The club was located on the North Side of Tulsa in the heart of Greenwood, the city's jazz district. Several clubs, studios, shops, and bars flanked Uncle Earl's on all sides. In one direction, just a few blocks away, Ben saw the time-honored Mt. Zion Church, a cherished historical icon for the black community in North Tulsa. In the opposite direction, he could see the skyline of the ultramodern, spanking fresh campus of Rogers University. Quite a contrast.
"Now you look here," Earl said, spinning Ben. around like a top. "I know you can play jazz. You've been handlin' yourself real nice these past few months, 'specially considerin' you've got the only white face in the combo. You've got a smooth two-hand rhythm style; you know how to make that piano sing like a canary. So what was that all about?"
Ben shrugged awkwardly. "I just thought if I was going to audition for a solo spot, I might try something ... different."
Earl peered at him with eyes like daggers. "You mean somethin' that means a little more to you than jazz?"
"No, no," Ben answered, a bit too hastily. "I love jazz. I do. I mean—"
"Some of your best friends are jazz players?"
"Well—yes, they are."
Earl laid his hand firmly on Ben's shoulder and squeezed hard enough to turn grapes into wine. "Look here, Ben. I like you, so I'm gonna take a minute to tell you what's what. Savvy?"
"Jazz ain't somethin' you do jus' 'cause you can, or 'cause you need work, or 'cause you like hangin' out in clubs. If you want to be a jazzman, you got to feel it deep down, in the core of your soul. In the marrow of your bones."
"I could feel that."
Earl grinned. "I don't think you're listenin' to me, son. It ain't somethin you could do. It's somethin' you do 'cause you ain't got no choice. It's a part of you, like an arm or a leg. You got to listen to that jukebox thumpin' away inside your chest. I mean, really listen!" He paused, licking his broad lips. "Look, son, I don't know what you did before you came to my club, but I bet it wasn't playin' jazz licks."
"Personally, I never thought no white boy had any business playin' jazz anyway. Some of you do a pretty nice imitation, but it ain't the same, you know? It ain't the truth. To be a real jazzman, you got to suffer. You got to hurt. You got to hurt so bad you got to work your axe just to send all the pain away for a little while."
"Maybe I should've worn a cast to the audition."
"I think I'm not makin' my point." Earl swayed when he talked, as if he was speaking to the beat of some unheard syncopated rhythm. "Let me ask you a question, Ben. Do you understand the meaning of jazz?"
"You heard me. Do you get it?"
Ben squirmed awkwardly. "Mmm ... well ... maybe you could explain it to me."
Earl held up a finger. "Now you see, that's the problem. It's like ol' Satchmo said, 'If you gots to ask, you'll never know.'"
"Not even a hint?"
"I wouldn't know where to begin. Sure, it's about sufferin', but everyone suffers. It's more than that. It's about findin' the answers, findin' some peace within yourself. It's about knowin' who to trust, who's lookin' out for you. It's about harmony, about findin' out what really matters in the cosmic scheme of things. It's about learnin' to believe." He shrugged his shoulders. "Look, it ain't somethin' I can explain. It's somethin' where you just wake one morning, and all of the sudden you know."
"Look, Earl, I can learn any piece of music you give me—"
"I know you can, Ben. Like I said, you got a real nice way with that keyboard. You remind me of some of the all-time great piano professors—Tuts Washington, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Art Tatum. But that ain't the point. If your heart tells you you'd rather be playing this ... this ... Harry ..." He wiped his brow again. "Oh, hell. What do you call that stuff anyway?"
"Folk music?" Earl began to laugh, a deep hearty bowl-full-of-jelly laugh. "Well, blow me over. That's one I ain't heard in a while." He tried to suppress his grin and get serious, although Ben could see it was a struggle. "So anyway, if your heart says you should be playin' this ... folk music, that's what you got to do."
"This isn't exactly a renaissance period for folk music."
"It don't matter, son. Listen to me. It don't matter what the other folks are doin'. It don't matter what they want you to be. You got to be who you are." He jammed his handkerchief back in his pocket and steered Ben toward the club. "Your problem, if you don't mind my sayin' so, is that you ain't figured out yet who you are."
Ben tried to smile. "Thank you, Uncle Sigmund."CHAPTER 2
By the third time he had dropped the corpse, he was ready to call it a day. Nothing could possibly be worth this much trouble. Could it?
It wasn't as easy as it looked. He had learned that the hard way. When she was still alive, even just barely, when he stripped her clothes and put her on the bed within the circle of candles, he had no trouble moving her. But something happened to bodies once that last vestige of life trickled away. Once the fonky cat played her last note and Gabriel's horn started beckoning, the body changed. It became heavy, unmanageable, all loosey-goosey. It flipped, it flopped, and it weighed a ton.
Getting her down the stairs had been the worst. He should have just rolled her down, but at the time, that had seemed a bit callous. Her natural beauty would undoubtedly have been marred by a deadweight run down two flights of stairs. Of course, now it was apparent that her natural beauty was fading fast, stairs or not. By tonight, by the time of the big show, he expected she would be something altogether gruesome.
Anyway, she was down the stairs, but he still had to get her into the van and into the club. He had to set the stage carefully to produce the desired effect. He needed some way to contain her, some way to make her more manageable.
He laughed. Not that she had ever been particularly manageable—even when she was alive. She had always had the upper hand. But now that she was dead, dead, dead, he had a distinct advantage.
He noticed the area rug in the center of the living room. Hadn't he seen that in a movie once—rolling a corpse up in a rug? It seemed like it would work. It would keep her tragic deterioration from prying eyes, and it would hold her together so he could get her where she needed to go. It would require some alteration of his cover story, but so what? With all the hustle and bustle surrounding the anniversary show, he was certain no one would take much notice.
He bent down, placed one hand against her back and the other against her buttocks, and pushed. Fortunately, the hardwood floor had been recently varnished; she scooted along smooth as Red Tyler's fingertips. Soon he had her positioned on the rug, and a few minutes after that, he had the rug wrapped tightly around her.
He stood and marveled at his work. She was completely invisible. As long as he didn't give any indication that the package was heavier than it looked, no one would ever suspect that this innocent rug was a nightmare meat enchilada. It was perfect.
Getting the package onto his shoulder was no piece of cake, but he managed it. Hell of a lot of work, but it was worth it. He had big plans for this victim.
A grin spread across his lips. This victim—and the next one.
On his drive home, Ben timed in to KVOO with Andy O'. It was, admittedly, a country music station, and he had been trying to force himself to listen to jazz, but Andy O' was a favorite, as was Steve Smith at KBEZ, who had just signed off. The antenna on his van could sometimes pick up the Oklahoma City DJs like Bob & Josh, his personal favorites, but it was too late in the day for their on-air hijinks. KWGS was great for news, of course, but there were times when Ben just wasn't in an NPR mood.
Ben loved his new car. After his Honda Accord had bitten the dust, he'd been forced to select a new means of transportation. He chose a Ford Aerostar, a minivan. Although he had no kids to tote, he'd always wanted to drive a van, to have the feeling of something big and powerful surrounding him. And it was very useful for gigs, hauling sound equipment around. He and the band were planning to tour during the summer; when that happened, the van would be invaluable.
Ben parked the van on the street and hoofed it to the rooming house where he lived. It might not be one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Tulsa, but it was close to Earl's club, barely a ten-minute drive. He just wanted to change clothes and get a bite to eat before he returned for the anniversary show.
As he approached the house, he saw his landlady, Mrs. Marmelstein, puttering in her front garden. She was facing away from him, digging up mounds of soft loamy soil with her trowel.
"Bit late for tulips, isn't it?" he said, hovering over her shoulder.
Mrs. Marmelstein glanced up at him and smiled. "Late? Why, Benjamin Kincaid, you don't know a thing about gardening, do you?" She was wearing a print dress, blue with a white blossom pattern. She had lived eighty-two years, and Ben suspected she'd had that dress for at least eighty-one of them. "They have to be planted in the fall if you want tulips come April."
"But, Mrs. Marmelstein"—he leaned closer and whispered—"it is April."
"April? But we only just had Halloween." She frowned. "Benjamin, are you playing a trick on me?"
No, he thought sadly, you're playing a trick on yourself.
It had been like this for the last six months. In September, she had suffered two heart attacks, one right after the other. Although she had recovered, she was not the person she'd been before. Sometimes the change was so profound it frightened Ben. It was like talking to an entirely different person.
Her speech gradually returned, but the blow to her health had advanced her Alzheimer's with a vengeance. Granted, she had been a bit dotty for as long as Ben had known her, but during the past few months she had become increasingly senile. Ben tried to help where he could; he ran errands, paid the bills, collected the rent. But he knew his efforts were just a tap dance against time, and it broke his heart.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Marmelstein," Ben replied. "You're the gardening expert, not me." And he could always buy blooming tulips at a nursery and plant them in the garden. She'd never know the difference.
Mrs. Marmelstein glanced at her watch. "It's a bit early for you to be home, isn't it, Benjamin? I don't think your bosses will appreciate your taking the afternoon off."
"Mrs. Marmelstein." He drew in his breath. What was the nice way to handle it? He could barely remember anymore. "I haven't worked at the law firm for years."
She sniffed. "Well, I'm not surprised. Coming home in the middle of the afternoon. Honestly." She started back at her gardening, then stopped. "By the way, you have a visitor waiting in your room. A female." She could not have put more disapproval in her voice had she been saying "she-devil from hell."
"That would be Christina, I assume?"
"Who else?" She eyed him with profound suspicion. "Benjamin, you know I don't approve of my gentlemen boarders receiving females in their rooms without a chaperone."
"Mrs. Marmelstein, we're just friends. And coworkers. Were, anyway."
"I don't care if she's your long-lost sister. I don't like it."
"Listen, what if I ask Christina if she'd like to go to the flea market with you this Saturday?" Tulsa had one of the best flea markets in the country, a weekly event at the fairgrounds. And Mrs. Marmelstein had decorated most of her building in flea-market kitsch.
"Well," the elderly woman said slowly, "I suppose that would be all right."
"Good. I'll tell you what she says." He started toward the front door. "Don't stay out in the sun too long. Remember, it's still awfully hot for—er—whatever month this is."
He bounded up the front steps to the porch and opened the mesh inner door. A glance up the stairs told him Joni Singleton, one of his fellow boarders, was not in her usual afternoon spot. He had to remind himself that she was taking classes at Tulsa Community College this semester. A child development major, if the gossip he got from her twin sister, Jami, was to be believed. Joni's brief stint as nanny for Ben's nephew, when Ben's sister had parked the kid with him, seemed to have had a profound impact on her.
He took the steps two at a time till he reached his room. He cracked open the door and peered inside.
Christina McCall was sitting on the sofa reading. Whatever it was, it was holding her attention. Her eyes were glued to the manuscript pages.
Manuscript pages? Wait a minute—
Ben burst through the door. "What do you think you're doing?"
Christina brushed her long strawberry-blonde hair back behind her shoulders. "Hi, Ben. Good to see you, too."
Ben stomped across the room. "I don't recall saying you could read this."
"That's because I didn't know it existed. Of course, if I had known it existed, and I had asked if I could read it, you would've said no."
"So I saved us both a lot of bother." She grabbed Ben by the shoulders and grinned. "Ben, you wrote a book!"
He shrugged awkwardly. "Well ... I've had a lot of spare time on my hands."
"True crime. Just like Darcy O'Brien. Very classy. And it's about one of our actual cases. This is so exciting!" She beamed. "You know, television loves these based-on-real-events things. Maybe you could get a movie of the week!"
"Well, that would be the be-all and end-all, wouldn't it?"
"I love the title. Katching the Kindergarten Killer. I think it'll sell billions."
"Only if my mother buys all the copies." He snatched the manuscript back and stuffed it in his desk. "What say I find a publisher before you negotiate the movie rights?"
"I can't help it, Ben. I think this is tremendous. Here I thought you were wasting all your time plinking on the piano and pretending you weren't going to practice law anymore—"
"—and it turns out you're writing a book! I'm so proud of you."
"Well, now my day is made." Christina was the best legal assistant he had ever worked with, but sometimes she could be downright irritating.
Excerpted from Extreme Justice by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 1998 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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