A Song to Die For -- a rousing tale mixing love, music, and mystery from Spur Award–winning author Mike Blakely.
It's 1975 and guitarist and singer/songwriter Creed Mason hopes to ride the new wave of Texas-style, Austin-based country music all the way back to the big time. A one-hit wonder whose Nashville career was cut short by a trip to Vietnam, Creed is desperate to get back into the business. His break arrives when a country legend, Luster Burnett, comes out of a fifteen-year retirement for one last album and tour in order to pay off a huge debt to the I.R.S. As Luster's new guitarist and band manager, Creed jumps at the chance of a lifetime.
Rosa Martini, a beautiful young mob princess from Las Vegas, is found dead just outside of Austin. Texas Ranger Captain Hooley Johnson looks into the case, only to find a second young woman murdered—a friend of Rosa's. To complicate things, Rosa's adoptive brother, mob hit man Franco Martini, is spotted nosing around Austin in the wake of the murders.
Soon it appears to Johnson, and to Creed, that the mob-related murders and the band are somehow connected. When the band wins an unexpected booking at the biggest casino in Vegas, Creed begins to
wonder what kind of contract his band is being set up for—a major-label recording deal, or a mob hit?
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
MIKE BLAKELY is the author of several novels of the West, including Comanche Dawn and Moon Medicine. His novel Summer of Pearls won the Spur Award for Best Novel in 2001. Blakely makes his home in Marble Falls, Texas.
A native of Texas, Mike Blakely grew up working on the family ranch. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force and holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the former president of Western Writers of America and has taught fiction writing at numerous workshops nationwide. His novel Summer of Pearls is the 2001 winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Novel. Also a singer/songwriter, Blakely tours all over the U.S. and in Europe with his band and records his original songs on his own independent record label. He currently lives on his horse ranch near Marble Falls, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
A Song to Die For
By Mike Blakely
Tom Doherty Associates, LLCCopyright © 2014 Mike Blakely
All rights reserved.
Creed Mason shut the guitar case on his Fender Stratocaster and secured the latches. Feeling the sweat-drenched satin plastered to his skin, he unbuttoned the flashy purple shirt, took it off, and reached for the stack of clean white towels placed there for band members.
Backstage smelled of stale beer and sweat, whiskey and perfume, smoke from store-bought cigarettes and hand-rolled joints. He could still hear the hum of the crowd filing out of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the hottest music venue in Austin, Texas. Laughter erupted among the musicians backstage, punctuated by profanity, the clinking of bottles, the squeals of starstruck women, and someone banging on an acoustic guitar.
He toweled off and reached for the spare denim shirt he had brought along with him, but before he could put it on, he heard her voice behind him.
"Damn, Creed, what happened to you there?" A well-known, oft-used Austin groupie, she called herself Shine.
He winced a little at the intrusion of her cool fingers touching the scar on his lower back. He pulled the shirt on before she could see the much-worse exit-wound scar in front. "Shot in 'Nam," he said, buttoning up the shirt as he turned to face her.
"Oh ..." She stared glassy-eyed, beautiful even if she was wasted. "Great show tonight." She smiled, long blond hair falling all over her tie-dyed tank top.
"Thanks, Shine." He was relieved to see Willie approaching. "Excuse me. Gotta get paid." He grabbed the brim of his felt Silver Belly Stetson and slapped it onto his head with familiarity, simultaneously raking his brown hair back behind his ears. The hat fit so well that he could scarcely feel it on his head. An East Texas version of the cowboy hat, he had seen its like worn by cattlemen, farmers, loggers, and deputy sheriffs when he was growing up in the Piney Woods near the Louisiana border. He sidestepped Shine to greet the night's headliner.
Willie, a respected Texas songwriter, had turned his back on Nashville and had taken Austin by storm lately. He had called and asked Creed to sit in with him tonight on the Armadillo World Headquarters stage. He handed over a wad of bills. "Wish it was more. You played my ass off."
Creed chuckled. "I appreciate the gig, Willie. Call me anytime."
"When you goin' back to Nashville?" Willie handed him a smoking joint.
Creed pretended to take a polite drag and handed it back. "Don't know. Feel like I've been blackballed there."
Willie's laughter came out in smoke. "Join the club. Hey, come on back to the bus later."
Creed held up the folding money Willie had just handed to him. "Thanks, but you just staked me to a poker game south of town. I better get down there if I want in on the action."
"Wish I could go with you, but I'm too damn popular here." He flashed a smile. "Good luck, Creed."
Someone pulled Willie aside, and Creed grabbed his guitar case handle.
Good luck, he thought. He could sure use some of that. He was overdue, in fact. Maybe, just maybe—starting with the great gig tonight—his luck was going to change.
Creed was respected among the Austin musicians as a true talent, and as a guy who had had his brush with the big time, having taken a hit record to number eight on the country music charts. That was eight years ago, and a lot had happened since. Mostly hard luck.
Born William Mason, the eldest son in a large family, he had demonstrated precocious skills with musical instruments as early as the age of five. His father, an East Texas logger and guitar picker, had encouraged him. Later, his father would be quoted in the Music City News, saying, "Bill—or Creed as y'all call him—was so good that none of his younger brothers or sisters would even try to play a musical instrument. They just couldn't keep up with him."
Young Bill Mason started his first band in the eighth grade. By the time he was in high school, he was performing at dances most Friday and Saturday nights. Playing for a high school prom at a nearby town, Bill Mason met a strikingly gorgeous senior named Jo Ann Houston. She asked if she could sing a song with the band. The song she chose was, of course, "Crazy," the Patsy Cline hit.
"You know how many chick singers it takes to sing 'Crazy'?" he had asked her.
"No, how many?" she had replied.
"Apparently every damn one of 'em."
Jo Ann Houston had placed her hands on her hips and smirked at the young band leader. "Just give me the microphone, hotshot," she said in her Piney Woods twang, "because you ain't never heard nobody sing 'Crazy' like me. Not even Patsy."
Taking the stage, Jo Ann did not disappoint Bill Mason, or the audience. After that night, she became the guest girl singer for the band, and took to the honky-tonks and dance halls as if she had been born performing. One night, coming home from a gig, she asked Bill to pull the car over on a dirt road in the woods. She didn't have to coax much to lure him into the backseat.
After that, Bill began to work in more songs for her to sing, including some duets for the two of them to sing together. They found that they had a natural charisma onstage. Mostly it was Jo Ann putting on a show, and Bill following her lead, but he liked the way she drew attention to his guitar picking. They evolved from a band that played background music for dancers, to a stage show that fans liked to watch as much as listen to. Jo Ann was definitely an eyeful onstage, and dressed the part—scantily—employing all of her assets to her best advantage. They changed the name of the act to Mason-Houston, and left for Nashville soon after they both graduated from high school, though the rest of the band members refused to go.
The competition in Music City stunned Bill, but he learned quickly from some great guitarists, and became recognized as a raw talent, especially in tandem with Jo Ann. He found employment fixing diesels, having worked summers at his uncle's diesel shop. Jo Ann tended bar. Barely able to pay the rent and buy groceries, they were nonetheless ambitious and confident. Lovemaking in the tiny apartment was raucous and almost as frequent as their nightly rehearsals.
In Nashville, Bill met some great songwriters, including a fellow Texan named Willie—the guy who had written that Patsy Cline hit "Crazy." Inspired, Bill began to write songs and came up with an upbeat duet for himself and Jo Ann called "Written in the Dust." They made a demo and shopped it around town to the artists-and-repertoire executives at the major recording labels. The year was 1966, the top act in country music was Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and there were some two dozen record labels in town. Just three weeks after cutting the demo for "Written in the Dust," after a high-energy showcase in a Printer's Alley nightclub, one of the A&R execs they had met approached Bill and Jo Ann.
"I had to make sure your live show stood up to the demo," he said. "I like what I see here. I want you two in my office at nine o'clock tomorrow morning to sign a development deal."
Bill and Jo Ann signed hastily, before they could even think about securing representation from lawyers or agents. Years later, Bill would hear rumors that Jo Ann had cinched the deal the same way she had secured her place in Bill's band in East Texas—in the A&R guy's backseat, down a dirt road outside of Nashville. There would be a lot of rumors like that about Jo Ann.
The label chose the rest of the songs for the first album and rushed the LP into production. "Written in the Dust" was slated as the single, much to Bill's gratification. Publicity photos were shot, promo material written by marketing staffers, tour dates booked. A week before the street date for the release of the single, A&R invited Bill and Jo Ann to the label office to see their new album cover.
"Wow," Bill said, truly impressed by the cover photo. "Jo Ann, you look killer, baby."
"You got a thang goin' on, too, hotshot." She always called him "hotshot."
Bill stared at the cover a little longer, now taking in the only two words of text: "Dixie Creed."
"I don't get the title," he said. "We didn't cut a song called 'Dixie Creed.' And where's 'Mason-Houston' gonna go?"
The A&R exec flashed a straight-toothed smile. "It's self-titled. The new name for the act is Dixie Creed. We changed your name to Creed Mason, and Jo Ann's name to Dixie Houston."
"Whoa, now," Bill argued. "My folks named me William Mason. Not Creed. Who names a kid Creed?"
"Be realistic," the suit said. "How are we going to market Bill and Jo Ann? We're letting you keep your last names."
"Well, what if we don't go along with it?"
The A&R man grabbed a stack of publicity photos and flipped them out across his desk like a card dealer. "Then we scrap your project and put your marketing budget into one of these acts instead. Your choice."
Bill looked at Jo Ann, who had stayed out of the argument. "What do you think, Jo Ann?"
She had shrugged. "Call me Dixie ... Creed."
On the road, promoting the album at small venues and country radio stations, Dixie began carrying a stash of marijuana whenever she could acquire the stuff from fans. Creed didn't mind. He had smoked the weed before and considered it pretty harmless. He even enjoyed it in moderation. Dixie liked it a lot more, but it never seemed to affect her performances, nor did the whiskey they typically started slamming with the onset of every show.
"Written in the Dust" began to climb on the charts, and Dixie Creed got an invitation to open a big show for none other than Buck Owens. The opener went well and led to a string of tour dates with Buck and the Buckaroos. Their album sales soared. The first pressing quickly sold through, and another twenty thousand were packaged and shipped to distributors nationwide. "Written in the Dust" peaked at number eight—not a bad start for a new band. The label started clambering for more material and a second album before Dixie Creed even got in off the road.
Reality waited back at their Nashville apartment. Creed found a stack of bills he couldn't pay, and a draft notice from Uncle Sam. His number had come up. He was to report to boot camp in three weeks.
Dixie threw a fit, as if it were his fault for getting drafted. "Why did you even register, you dipshit!"
"It's the law, and I ain't no draft dodger."
"You dumb-ass!" she wailed, pulling at her hair and raking dirty dishes off the kitchen counter like some insane woman.
The night before he left for basic training, Creed snuggled with her in bed, after making love to her for the last time. "I've been thinkin'," he said. "Maybe we should get married. If I get killed over there, you'll have benefits for life."
"Shut up," she said. "I ain't marryin' you. If you come back with your arms and legs blowed off, I don't want to have to wipe your ass." She cackled loudly as if her laughter could compensate for her lack of tact.
"Jesus, Jo Ann ..."
"It's Dixie, damn it. Hey, I's just kiddin.' You'll be fine. Come home a war hero and we'll go right back into the studio."
* * *
Willie's bass player slapped Creed on the shoulder, and his thoughts returned to backstage at the Armadillo. The bassist gave him a thumbs-up sign, and Creed shot a cocky smile back. Just for a moment, he thought he smelled Dixie's perfume. It was as if she had just been standing there. But no ... That part of his life was over ...CHAPTER 2
Headlights appeared in her rearview mirror, and her fear surged again. It had come and gone in waves since she left Las Vegas, sixteen hours ago, headed for a sorority sister's place in Austin. Her speedometer hovered around eighty miles per hour, the engine and transmission of the Corvette singing a discordant harmony. Whoever that was gaining on her from behind had to be doing ninety-five.
Was it a cop, or was it him? The Fuzzbuster radar detector on her dashboard remained silent, suggesting a civilian vehicle on her tail. Maybe it was just another Texas cowboy driving way too fast in a pickup truck, headed home from a Friday-night rodeo or a wild spree at some dance hall. She hoped against hope that might be the case. She prayed the headlights did not belong to Franco.
Her mind seemed to whir like the tires on Highway 71, thinking about the terrifying turn her life had taken in the last couple days. Rosabella Martini was twenty-five years old. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, her mother had died of heart disease when she was only six. She grew up surrounded by lavish opulence, thanks to her father, successful restaurateur, Rob Martini, whose swank eateries fared well through the booming fifties and sixties in Vegas. Rosabella knew very well that she was a spoiled only child—a daddy's girl. She had boasted about it to her friends in high school, where she became the student council president, head cheerleader, and an all-state flautist.
When she turned eighteen, she began to worry about the possibility of inheriting her mother's heart condition. Her father dropped the bombshell as gently as he could. Rosa had been adopted. The blood that ran through her veins was Italian blood, he assured her, but it was not Martini family blood. Her mother had been too frail to carry a pregnancy to term, so her parents had adopted her from an agency.
"Not even I know who your birth mother was," her father had told her. "But she must have been a beauty, because, look at you. You're the most beautiful girl in the whole world."
It explained a lot. Her uncle Paulo, known as "Papa Martini," and his son, Franco, who was Rosa's adoptive cousin, ten years older than her, had never made more than halfhearted attempts to accept her as family. Franco had always remained especially cold toward her.
At her high school graduation party, Franco had told her, "So, I hear you're going to the University of Texas."
"Yeah," she replied, shocked that he was talking to her at all.
"When you get your degree, why don't you just stay in Texas. You're not one of the family and you never will be, so don't try."
That was her mistake. She had tried. She should have taken Franco's advice.
Rosa had returned to Las Vegas to work for her father after her graduation from UT-Austin in 1972. With her degree in interior design, she began remodeling and decorating her father's four restaurants, even winning a design award at the flagship business—Il Ristorante Martini—for the Tuscan motif she created. A month later, her father died in his sleep of a massive stroke. Rosa's grief, confusion, and emptiness led her to her uncle Paulo for solace.
But Papa Martini proved a poor comforter. His embraces were stiff, and brief. Her cousin Franco was even colder. They only wanted to talk about the restaurants her father had left her. "You don't know the food trade," Papa Martini insisted. "I'll pay you a fair market price. You can put the money into your little design studio."
"What do you want with dirty dishes?" Franco had added. "Freakin' doped-up waiters, crooked health inspectors. Stick with your ruffled pillows, Rosa."
Her whole life, Rosa had laughed off rumors that Papa Martini was some kind of Las Vegas mob boss, and that all the Martinis were mafiosi. "Why, because we're Italian?" she had often scoffed to her high school friends. True, Papa Martini tended toward seedier business ventures than her father's restaurants, including nightclubs, casinos, and even a topless joint or two. True, there had been charges pressed by jealous competitors, but no indictments, except for Franco's aggravated assault arrest. That matter was dropped when the plaintiff mysteriously disappeared.
"Chickenshit didn't have the guts to face me in court," Franco had said.
Of course, the rumor was that Franco had bumped the plaintiff off, but Rosa only rolled her eyes at that kind of talk. Yes, he carried a pistol, but only for protection as he often moved large sums of cash. Franco acted like a tough guy, but he was nothing more than his father's ramrod who sternly oversaw his many business concerns. For that reason, Rosa knew that Franco would do a better job at running her late father's restaurants than she could. And she could use the cash from the sale to upgrade her interior design studio. She decided to take her uncle up on the offer to sell out.
Excerpted from A Song to Die For by Mike Blakely. Copyright © 2014 Mike Blakely. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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