The Seance Society introduced mystery lovers to Mr. O'Nelligan and Lee Plunkett, an unlikely pair of sleuths on an equally unlikely case with a supernatural twist. Having taken over his father's PI business, Lee enlisted O'Nelligan, a dapper Irishman with a flair for solving mysteries, to help catch a killer.
Now, in Michael Nethercott's The Haunting Ballad, this sleuthing "odd couple" are back in another witty, charming, and wonderfully written mystery, this time set in 1957 in the burgeoning music scene of New York City's Greenwich Village.
It's the spring of 1957, and O'Nelligan and Plunkett are summoned to New York to investigate the death of a controversial folk song collector. The trail leads the pair to a diverse group of suspects including an eccentric Beat coffee house owner, a family of Irish balladeers (who may be IRA), a bluesy ex-con, a hundred-and-five-year-old Civil War drummer boy, and a self-proclaimed "ghost chanter" who sings songs that she receives from the dead. To complicate matters, there's a handsome, smooth-talking young folk singer who Lee's fiancée Audrey is enthralled by. And somewhere in the Bohemian swirl of the Village, a killer waits...
About the Author
MICHAEL NETHERCOTT is the author of The Seance Society and The Haunting Ballad. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He is a past winner of The Black Orchid Novella Award and was nominated for the Shamus Award for a short story introducing O'Nelligan and Plunkett. He lives with his family in Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
The Haunting Ballad
By Michael Nethercott
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Michael Nethercott
All rights reserved.
Roughly a month before her killing, I met Lorraine Cobble, the professional songcatcher, in the smoky, candlelit depths of the Café Mercutio. Actually, met is going too far. Observed. Yes, I observed her when she stormed over to our table to verbally explode all over the troubadour known as Byron Spires, a handsome young rat if ever there was one.
But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. I should first explain why I was perched in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse known for bohemians, beat poets, and folksingers. After all, when you think bohemian, five-to-one says you'd never conjure up an image of Lee Plunkett. Free-form poetry and quivering bass strings don't exactly form the backdrop of my life. Sure, as a bona fide private investigator I might be mistaken for the kind of edgy character who dwells on the fringes of society and, as such, holds a great deal of appeal for artists and other fringe-lovers. Well, that's not me, not by a country mile. I don't have the look or the grit. I'm slender as a rail with full-moon eyeglasses that might fool you into thinking I'm some scholar until I opened my mouth, and the only thing edgy is my mood when life's hobgoblins are ganging up on me.
Anyway, what brought me to the Mercutio wasn't business but pleasure. Not my pleasure, you understand, but my fiancée, Audrey's. She had a couple of girlfriends who had moved to Manhattan and settled in Greenwich Village. This was the spring of 1957, and the scene there was rolling along with vigor. Audrey had been invited down to partake of the Village life and figured that I should join her that evening so that I might "benefit from the experience."
"You know I try to avoid experiences," I remember saying. "They tend to ruin a fellow's day."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, aren't you clever."
"I'd like to think the answer is yes. Look, do I really have to travel to beat-land and mingle with the natives?"
"You do. You're badly in need of some culture, Mr. Plunkett."
I tried for a posh British accent. "I'm brimming with culture. Simply brimming."
Audrey eyed me pathetically. "I've seen the extent of your culture. You read pulp novels about three-headed Martians and watch silly TV Westerns."
"They're not silly."
"Sorry, not silly. Ludicrous. Big-jawed sheriffs who do nothing but slap leather and fall in love with their horses."
"Hey, don't knock it. There were some good-looking horses back in the Old West."
"Should I smack you now or later?"
"By smack, do you mean kiss?"
"No, I mean slug. Punch. Pummel."
"Then later. Definitely later."
Audrey and I could go on like that nonstop. She was a great gal, no denying, and more than one observer had berated me for stretching our engagement period to the breaking point. We'd made the pledge nearly three years before and still hadn't gotten hitched. Closing out her twenties, Audrey still lived with her parents—pleasant, low-key, working-class folks who didn't mind me at all—whereas I split my time between my rented apartment and my minuscule office. I made a pretty reputable boyfriend and a not-too-crummy fiancé, but I just wasn't sure how I'd fare with the upgrade to husband. So, for one feeble reason or another, our wedding day kept getting consigned to the misty realm of Someday Soon.
Our bouncy little exchange eventually led to us making the ninety-minute drive from Thelmont, our modest Connecticut town, to the fabled Village. Stepping into the Café Mercutio that first time, I felt like a fish out of water. Or, more specifically, a fish yanked out of water and flung into a carnival tent. There was sawdust on the floor, wrinkled old circus posters on the walls, music in the air, and someone akin to a ringmaster—complete with curling mustachios and a long-tailed black coat—who greeted us at the door. This individual turned out to be the owner, one Tony Mazzo, or, as he said upon introducing himself:
"Mazzo—the Grand Mazzo. Welcome to my establishment."
"Why 'Grand'?" Audrey, always direct, asked him.
"I come from a long line of impresarios, dear lady," our host explained. "My grandfather, for example, headed the Mazzo and Morelli Circus. He was from the old country and toured throughout Europe for thirty years, meeting nobility and royalty and all those classy cats. Oh yeah, they really dug Granddad in his day."
This odd blend of formality and jive talk, I would eventually learn, was what made Mazzo ... well, Mazzo. He looked to be not much older than me—perhaps in his midthirties—but had a premature streak of silvery hair that ran above his right temple. That feature, combined with the handlebar mustache, made for a face you weren't likely to forget. He was tall and a bit blocky but—in the phrasing of some dusty novel I was forced to read in high school—well-formed. I hadn't retained much from my schooling, but I did remember "well-formed" and "the Magna Carta was written in 1215." That's about it.
"Go sink into the scene, amici miei," Mazzo instructed, gesturing us sweepingly into the room before turning to hail his next patrons.
Entering the crowded space, Audrey and I caught sight of her two friends. (I've forgotten their names; they moved away shortly after that night.) They were seated at a corner table, the sole decoration of which was a candle jutting out of a wine bottle. As we slid in next to them, the ladies gave us the slimmest of greetings, transfixed as they were by the young man standing on the small raised stage before them. This, one of our companions whispered reverently, was none other than Byron Spires, up-and-coming folk star. Slight of frame, denim-clad, with an unruly mound of brown curls, he had a waiflike quality that seemed to rivet the young women, Audrey included. He was adequately strumming a guitar that seemed too big for him and singing in a voice both lazy and urgent. His song choice had something to do with mine disasters and obese politicians. The chorus went:
In the end, my friend, who's gonna pay? Not I, not I, the fat men say.
Having known several decent rotund men in my time, I didn't think the lyrics quite fair and tried to share this with Audrey, who shhh ed me loudly, her eyes glued on the singer. From cave-ins, Spires shifted to something more upbeat, a nimble tune featuring periodic yelps and yodels that seemed to spur on the audience.
Then, to seal the deal, he slid into a mournful ballad, which I have to admit was downright haunting. Phrases like the wind that stirred our wounded dreams and she was the girl I should have loved were I not so young and lost seemed to linger after Spires had strummed his last chord. His set finished, he took in the blend of applause and finger-snapping (a modern form of admiration, I was told), muttered a thanks, and sauntered off the stage.
Scanning the crowd, he seemed to take fast notice of our table, stocked as it was with its trio of comely females. My manly presence was seemingly no deterrent, and Byron Spires, guitar slung to his side, made his way to us directly. Three pairs of eyes widened at his approach. Mine—the only non-female set—narrowed behind the twin shields of my spectacles. Right off the bat, I wasn't sure that I really loved this guy.
"Noticed you out there," Spires said to everyone but me. "Like three lovely muses lurking in a corner."
Oh brother. Did this warbler really think he could impress with lines like that? The smiles on the women's faces said apparently yes.
"Can I join you all?" Not waiting for any answer, Spires dropped into an empty chair and addressed Audrey's friends. "Think I've seen you two before." Then, turning to Audrey, "You—you're new."
I didn't like the way he said "new." I especially didn't like the way he stared at my fiancée when he said it. Audrey was looking particularly Audrey-ish that night: Her shortish brown hair had a nice little wave to it, accenting her hazel eyes and button nose, and the purple scarf round her neck made her seem both stylish and casually artsy at the same time.
"New ... New ..." Audrey rolled Spires' word around on her tongue. "Sure, I wouldn't mind being new."
What the blazes did she mean by that? Now, I should explain that I'm not normally the jealous type. My trust in Audrey was unwavering (at least up to that point). Besides, she was way too much her own person to tolerate an overbearing mate. No, Audrey was nothing if not rock solid. Even my father, who was never particularly impressed with my choices in general, had bestowed upon her high praise: She's no dizzy dame, that one. Indeed she wasn't. So her round-eyed gawk that night at the Café Mercutio struck me as uncharacteristic. Troubling, too.
Spires kept on in his lethargic, syrupy tone, his eyes probing Audrey's. "If you wanna be new, then you're in the right place. Just let the music take you." Whatever that meant. "Let it take you and teach you, little beauty."
Little beauty? Back off right there, pal! I thought but didn't say.
The next few minutes were devoted to Spires' half-mumbled reflections on music and life. He ended his monologue with this gem: "Gotta search it out—the music, the memory. Gotta follow the trail. Like a detective, y'know? Hunting the clues, the rhythms ..."
At this, one of the women (not Audrey) revealed that I was myself a detective.
Spires seemed to notice me for the first time. "Yeah? Like a police inspector or something?"
"Private eye," I stated in a voice I hoped sounded no-nonsense and robust.
"Cool," Spires said, almost interested. "Used to read Dashiell Hammett as a kid. I always dug that Sam Spade. So, are you like ol' Sam?"
Audrey laughed. It was a pretty uncharitable response, I thought—uncharitable, but not unfair. She knew and I knew that my deductive skills weren't exactly the stuff of legend. My father had been the real private eye—not just in title, but in temperament—with a tough-guy scowl, a nose for crime, and a mouthful of hard-knock tales. Buster Plunkett packed a gun (which I never have) and a punch (I have fists of clay) and knew his way around the shadowy back alleys of human nature. His death a couple of years back had dropped his sleuthing business squarely in my hesitant lap. I wasn't my father; any success I'd enjoyed as a PI was due largely to a certain clever old Irishman. But I'll get to Mr. O'Nelligan later.
"Sam Spade was fictional," I told Spires with forced dignity. "I'm the real deal." Good God, I was sounding like a fictional character myself—one from the cheesiest sort of hard-boiled thriller. Keep your mouth shut, Lee, I mentally instructed myself. No doubt, Audrey was thinking the same thing.
At this point, another young man bearing a guitar walked over to our table. Garbed in a dark green turtleneck sweater, he was slender like Spires but more substantially built. He had a pleasant, open face marked by a tumble of black hair and a slightly upturned nose. He didn't look much out of his teens.
"Hey, Byron, you doing a second set?" The accent was deeply Irish, not unlike the one I'd heard countless times from the lips of the aforementioned Mr. O'Nelligan.
"I don't need to, Tim. Not if you're ready to start. So where are your brothers?"
"Out of town. Mazzo has me going on solo. Guess I'll have to be raucous enough for three Paddies. Or die trying."
"And your delectable lady? Where's she tonight?"
Tim's brow wrinkled. I had the distinct sense that he didn't like Spires referencing his woman in such terms. I could commiserate.
"Kimla's got a gig at the Golden Hut."
"Cool." Apparently, for Spires, everything was in the lower temperatures. "Well, get working, son."
The young Irishman did just that. No sooner had he taken the stage and launched into song than a jarring cry of anger rang out across the room. Tim stopped midstrum. Through the cigarette smoke and candlelight, I saw a tall woman, fortyish, in a red dress hurling toward our table with locomotive speed. Her long blond hair flew wildly behind her, and her face, which normally might have been attractive, was twisted in a furious scowl.
"Spires!" Clearly here was one lady not presently enamored with our pretty boy. "You bastard, you!"
From a half-slouch, Spires straightened abruptly in his chair. "Jesus, Lorraine!"
Then the woman was looming over us, staring daggers, maybe even swords, down at the folksinger. I vaguely noted a second blonde—younger, shorter, less crazed-looking—standing directly behind the other. The room had gone silent.
Spires tried to sound calm. "Hey, Lorraine, you need to relax. Get peaceable, y'know?"
Lorraine's balled fists and murderous glare seemed anything but peaceable. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Spires drew in a fortifying breath and, for a moment, I thought he might reply, Why, I'm Byron Spires, as you well know—dashing young flatterer of other men's women. Of course he didn't; he said nothing.
Lorraine barreled on. "What made you think you could record 'The Wild, Weeping Heather'? That's my song!"
"Yours? It's a centuries-old Scottish ballad, last I heard."
"I'm the one who found it! Brought it into the light, nurtured it!"
"Nurtured it?" Spires smirked unwisely. "Well, guess your baby's grown up and run loose."
Lorraine let fly something between a scream and a curse and drew back her arm, fist intact. Before she could strike, her companion pulled her away from our table.
"Lorraine, stop! Just stop it!" the lesser blonde pleaded.
Lorraine shook her shadow loose and headed for Spires again.
That's when the Grand Mazzo made a timely appearance, placing his sizable self directly before the raging woman. "Enough, Lorraine."
"This is just not cool," Spires declared, unsurprisingly.
"Not cool at all," Mazzo added, making it official. "You know I don't want any aggression in this place. We're all about the tranquility here."
That earned a harsh laugh from Lorraine. "Oh really? Tranquility? So, is Byron Spires the great prince of peace?"
Not waiting for an answer, she abruptly pivoted and, companion in tow, made a beeline for the exit. The door slammed behind them like a thunderclap. For a very long moment, the room seemed to throb with a dense, awkward silence. Then Tim, forgotten onstage, called out spryly, "You folks out there should really leave the fighting to us Irish. After all, it's our national pastime."
The audience burst into grateful laughter, and Tim jumped into a rousing upbeat song about a drunken rooster. This kid I like, I thought to myself.
Mazzo gave our table a theatrical bow and moved off to resume his hosting duties. Byron Spires shrugged dismissively and said (particularly to Audrey, I noticed), "That was Lorraine Cobble. She collects songs. And enemies."
Then he, too, was up and off, his slung guitar and head of curls bouncing as he strode toward the door. I watched Audrey as she watched Spires.
* * *
ON OUR DRIVE home that night, Audrey and I exchanged a few words of review. Very few.
"Well, it's certainly an interesting world in the Café Mercutio," she said.
"Sure, if you like interesting."
Audrey looked at me for a moment before saying, "Maybe I do. Maybe I would."
"Meaning life's a strange thing, isn't it? It can call to you, beckon you, and you might end up ... Oh, I don't know ..."
Then she turned away to stare out her window. I had the unpleasant feeling that she was seeing Byron Spires' face out there in the rushing night landscape. My hands tensed on the steering wheel. We said little for the remainder of the ride home.
Of course, on that evening I couldn't have known that my connection with the Café Mercutio had only just begun. It would soon lead me down a road peopled with singers, sinners, desperate lovers, and a killer. As Mr. O'Nelligan once said to me, "You just never know what the world will want of you." Or, he could have added, what darkness you will need to pass through.
Excerpted from The Haunting Ballad by Michael Nethercott. Copyright © 2014 Michael Nethercott. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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