CHARLIE SINCLAIR'S WATCH READ HALF-PAST MIDNIGHT. He unplugged the digital tuner from his Gibson Les Paul and put the guitar on its stand. A year earlier he had bought the guitar for a thousand dollars. The price was equal to two weeks wages at his day job at Evergreen Software but Charlie believed that a good instrument sounded and played better than an ordinary one and was worth the investment. Charlie wiped the mahogany neck with a towel and put the towel in the guitar case.
He scanned the dressing room of the Big Ditch Club. The cramped space was jammed with clothes, guitars, electric basses, and a sagging plaid sofa. On a greasy flea market table were half-eaten sandwiches on paper plates and a pitcher of flat beer.
Sitting on a metal folding chair, Matt Langston absent-mindedly tapped his drumsticks on the table. He was always a sharp dresser and tonight he was wearing a pair of narrow rectangular sunglasses, a collarless white linen shirt, and black jeans. At the age of twenty-six his hair was thinning on top, and he had recently cut it short with a flat top in front.
In one corner of the room stood a large black road case on wheels. PISTONHEAD was spray-painted in white stencil letters across the side. Standing with an electronic tuner propped up on the lid of the case, Fritz Higgins was tuning his white Fender Precision bass guitar. His shoulder-length brown hair framed his broad cheekbones and he paused every few seconds to tuck a stray strand behind one ear.
Charlie was looking for Jack "Rip" Taylor. Three years earlier, when they were both students at Emerson College in Boston, Charlie and Rip had started the band.Together with Matt and Fritz they had worked the club circuit around New England, gotten a few breaks, released two CDs, and built a loyal following. Charlie knew that in the past few months Rip was getting deeper into the drug scene and his need to score had begun to affect the band's professionalism. This was not the first time that Rip had disappeared in the moments before a show. During the past few months Rip needed drugs?cocaine, speed, heroin, anything?before every performance. When Rip needed to score, nothing else mattered. On more than one occasion Rip had abruptly vanished only to reappear an hour later appearing relaxed and acting as if everything was fine.
Tonight, Charlie was worried. Pistonhead was scheduled to be onstage ten minutes ago and the club was crowded with fans.
Charlie stepped over to Matt. "Have you seen Rip? You know we have to keep an eye on him. We can't let him get messed up. We've got a show to do."
Matt shrugged and kept tapping his sticks on the table. "I don't know where he is. Rip does what he wants. I just go with the flow. He'll show up."
Charlie sighed. He decided to go and look for Pistonhead's singer himself. He opened the dressing room door and descended the narrow wooden staircase to the bottom landing. The stairwell walls were painted forest green but the paint was chipped and flaked to reveal successive layers of grey, saffron yellow, light blue, and navy blue. A fluorescent bulb fixture with a yellowed plastic cover was loosely attached to the ceiling, casting a bluish pallor over the narrow space. Graffiti covered the walls and ceiling, most of it undecipherable. The wooden handrail, absurdly placed at a level corresponding to Charlie's knees, moved when he lightly grasped it. From behind the metal door at the bottom of the stairs Charlie could hear and feel the concussive thump of the house sound system.
He reached for the dented brass knob and pushed open the door into the nightclub. The house music hit him like a sledgehammer and he stepped forward into a dark mass of people who were standing, drinking, shouting in each other's ears, waiting for the show. Charlie glanced over to the stage, which was a four-foot high platform covered with tattered red carpet a few feet away to his immediate left. The Untouchables, the night's opening act, had cleared off their gear and were loading out the back door into the parking lot. Pistonhead's equipment was onstage and ready for their show. Dino, the road manager for Pistonhead, was adjusting one of the microphones. Charlie stepped to the side of the stage and motioned to him. The lanky road manager came over and kneeled so that his head was the same height as Charlie's.
"Have you seen Rip?"
"Yeah, a half hour ago," replied Dino. "He was with those two guys. The Dust Twins. I told him to stick around 'cause it was almost show time. They probably went out to the parking lot. I'll go get him."
"Thanks, Dino," shouted Charlie. He turned and looked out over the crowd.
There had been some rough moments during The Untouchables' set when a few guys in front had gotten into a shoving match, but the club bouncers had thrown one guy out and the others had drifted back into the crowd. Before every show Charlie took stock of the audience in order to scope out potential troublemakers, scout for attractive girls, and gauge the crowd's size and energy level. The fans in front were standing around the stage ten or twelve deep, some with their elbows resting on the stage, while a few girls had purses and drinks perched precariously near the edge. Beyond them were the customers seated at tables and chairs, and along the wall to the right was one of the club's two bars. People stood three deep at the brass-railed bar and the four bartenders were working quickly to get everyone served before the set started. Charlie could see their lips move as they leaned in to talk to the customers, but the pounding music from the speaker cabinets two feet from his head made listening, if not thinking, impossible.