Put to the test, Johnny Ray Black failed and got cut–a literal, skin-splitting ordeal at the hands of a killer. One minute he was mingling with producers and industry insiders, drinking Jack Daniel’s, and giving an acoustic performance of his first Top Ten single, “Tryin’ to Do Things Right.” The next he was bound to a statue and bleeding.
Still alive though. Thank God.
It was supposed to be a celebration. A party for the rising star. In a park at the north end of Nashville’s Music Row, I jostled elbows with his fans while bursting with pride. After years of honing his skills and playing small shows, my older brother had beaten the odds by signing with an independent label and charting a hit single.
He’d made a mistake, however, by admitting his weakness for redheads in an Entertainment Weekly interview.
She came to him that Friday evening in Owen Bradley Park. A test in red.
Beneath a moon turned soft and buttery by Middle Tennessee’s humidity, propped on high heels, she nudged between caterers in ruffled white shirts and bypassed the open bar. I’m told she wore a shimmering dress. She managed to evade my attention–a minor miracle, but recent experiences have made me wary of the opposite sex–and brushed up to Johnny as he finished his acoustic set.
Coy smiles. A whisper. Johnny finished another shot of Jack, then stumbled off with her beneath tree branches strung with party lights, toward the darkness of the nearby ASCAP Building.
I didn’t realize he was missing till a half hour later. Considering it was his own party, his disappearance was a bad publicity move. Where was his manager anyway? I’d seen Samantha Rosewood hurry away minutes earlier with a cell phone pressed to her ear, eyebrows knitted in worry.
My gut clenched. What kind of trouble had my brother gotten into this time? I searched the crowd, then stopped near the publicity tent and tried to recall when I’d last spotted him.
“Mr. Aramis Black.” A stubby man appeared in front of me. “You look lost.”
“Bet it’s hard on you.”
“What?” My gaze zeroed in on this slick-haired booking agent, with his goatee and ostrich boots. Every year Music City draws thousands of country music wannabes, easy prey for men such as this. Who’d invited him anyway?
“All the attention your brother’s getting. Must make you jealous.”
“Not at all. He’s worked hard for it.”
“That he has.”
“You know where he is by any chance?”
The agent chuckled. “In the stratosphere, that’s where. And still rising.”
I gave a weak smile, scanned the cluster of partygoers at his back.
“You ever think of sharing the spotlight, maybe singing as a duet?”
He tapped my chest. “You’ve got the look, my friend. Maybe we should
“Not gonna happen. Johnny’s the one with the voice and the guitar.”
“What about some harmonies? Think Montgomery Gentry or Brooks and Dunn. Those boys won’t be around forever, and we’re always looking for–”
“I’m not the type.” With a tug on my shirt sleeves, I revealed twin tattoos of banners wrapped around double-edged swords. Live by the Sword on one forearm, Die by the Sword on the other.
“Come on now.” The dude winked–actually, full-on winked at me. “These days, country fans aren’t afraid of a little ink. Why live in your brother’s shadow?”
“Go away. Please.”
“Just think of–”
“Before I hurt you.”
“Oh. I… Okay.” He swung round and bellied his way back into the crowd.
A voice from my right: “Aramis, you got a minute?”
“What now?” I turned to find myself face to face with Chigger. The man’s mouth is curled into a perpetual sneer, and we eyed each other like wary boxers. He wore a ball cap, faded jeans over thick legs, and a Lynyrd Skynyrd hoodie. With his good ol’ boy quality and electrifying stage presence, he’s been a mainstay in the country scene for the past couple of years. Come Monday morning, he’d be joining my brother as lead guitarist for the first leg of a national tour.
“Got somethin’ to show ya.”
“Show me then.”
“This your brother’s?” Chigger lifted a black Stetson into view.
“Found it lyin’ out in plain sight near a bench. Not like Johnny Ray to leave his hat behind, so I figured you might wanna hold on to it till he gets back.”
Chigger shrugged. “Ain’t seen the man since he got up and sang.”
“Me neither.” I took the hat, noted the initials JRB inside. “Appreciate it.”
Chigger nodded and moved on without another word. I wandered toward the sidewalk that edged the park, my fingers rubbing the Stetson’s brim. Jagged flaps in the material signaled to me that something was wrong. On a roundabout across the street, spotlights pointed up at a forty-foot statue, and I examined the hat against their glow.
Five slices in the brim, two letters: Through the narrow slits, my brother’s form came into sudden focus. He was tied to the statue, chin down, golden brown hair glued by sweat to his neck.
Dread tightened its grip around my stomach.
From the Trade Paperback edition.