Rain is coming. The humidity sends the odor of sage gusting into the crowded club, drafting off the ravines above the big parking lot. Chaparral oils mix with skunk and tar. Perfumes and smokes cling on the sweaty clothes of patrons returning from the patio. Drin feels like his brain is all twitching dog-nose. He holds his breath sometimes.
Audio signals are turned up high too. Customers are playing Beer Pong. Speakers shake the walls with a retro mix of piano and sax and drums.
“Yo’ mama talking trash…let me tell you what we’re gonna do… we gonna have some fun, c’mon, let the good times roll…”
While the band is on break, the bartender has no time to chat. He’s a machine chopping ripe melon, coconut, citrus peel, tomatoes, chilis. Wait staff hand out big daiquiris by the trayful; the smell of fruit is sticky sweet, acid, almost brassy. Too much on an empty stomach.
Drin sips at a chunky tumbler, retreating into the warm brown-sugar complexities of Tennessee whiskey. It’s dimly lit by the side door. Useless to sit waiting like some spoiled prince, expecting homage. But his pride kicks at sending a business card backstage.
There’s no sound. Just the smell of the man, a familiar dusty, piney odor.
Dance was looking tired when he left the Metro’s doors four nights ago. Now, he’s as sweaty as a bluesman, with dark hollows around his eyes. In that setting, the irises glow, they’re so pale.
“So sad, no yelling boo at our Mister Drin, who is too quick for us.” Dance gives a big sigh, sticking out his lower lip like a kid. Looking for the laugh.
So Drin gives it to him, but he isn’t fooled. Those pale eyes don’t blink.
“Was it a good trip?” Dance asks.
Drin offers his hand. “Oh yeah, the trip was okay, but I’m damn glad to be back.”
“We are too. So glad our Mister Drin came tonight, we were not expecting—”
The handshake Dance gives him is dry, hot, all callouses. Up close, Dance’s smell is downright medicinal, even odder than usual. Greek retsina, mushrooms, vetiver. Bay laurel thrown on a campfire. Mixed pleasure, that–the last few fishing trips had too many noisy guys from work, not enough quiet to sleep, not enough river time. Burning rabbit smells just like it did in the dry pines of Afghanistan.
“Did I miss your first set?”
“Yes, but just in time for our second, and we will have another.” Trickles of water run off Dance’s brows, down his neck.
“Something to drink?” Drin asks, rising from his seat.
The man hesitates, nods. He surveys the crowd while he rolls his shoulders in his black jacket. Then he stretches his arms, knots and unknots his hands. He arches backward, stretching his spine in the dim light, and his long hair hangs low, nearly knee-level. When he pulls up again, he tightens and loosens his abs like a dancer. The belly ripples look weird on a guy in a dress shirt.
Takes him back in time, that does. Drin sees clumsy tourists, skinny limbo dancers, somebody laughing over music, dreadlocked hair whipping around. A boat rocks under him while he is puking profound drunkenness into thorny brush. Tin drums keep panging away rhythms in memory.
He waits it out, feeling the sudden ache from a couple scars on his shins. Damn flashbacks. But at least he hasn’t picked up any new blanks since the hospital, after his motorcycle wreck. Plus, zero desire to get wasted again.
Dance has his jaw muscles clenched like a boxer. Drin follows him, watchful. The crowd clears away, eyeing Dance. A little pool of space opens around them both. Yeah, something happened tonight.
Dance thanks the bartender for a tumbler of water. He mops his jaw with a cheap bandanna, slides it down his throat into the collar of his shirt, looking up at Drin without blinking, and Drin begins to feel a smile stretch his jaw–
But there’s a stir at the main door. Somebody drops a tray.
Drin glances down, surprised. Dance the martial artist has pivoted close, right at Drin’s elbow, poised with one arm up. The man has his knees bent, the bandanna is wrapped around his knuckles on the back fist.
Drin hopes devoutly that he didn’t miss some cue.
The bartender has his head up too, searching over the crowd. After a hung moment, he flicks a sheepish gaze at Dance. Dance straightens again, nods back. “It can get rowdy. We should be alert for assault on our Mister Drin, who has money, and looks like it.”
“I do?” Drin says, untangling one hand from his loose shirt tail.
“It is no good, our getting distracted.”
“Well, I had my hand on my wallet. How about you?”
That quirked smile. “Our Mister Drin has been drinking in some rough joints?”
“Yeah. Some bad enough where I’d keep both my hands up, ready to use, and to hell with the wallet. Don’t worry about me. But thanks, I appreciate it–” he’s interrupted, there’s some loud woman shoving between them, staggering, and a crowd is following her.
Dance twists, hands up, and the musician’s back smacks solidly into Drin, slams them both into the bar with a thump. Dance shoves off again with sheer bunched force. The muscles make quite an impression on Drin’s body. Not quite the sort of contact Drin had anticipated, getting bruised by the man’s ass.
His own fault, that’s what he gets for losing track of the general surroundings.
Dance diverts the leader away from Drin. The woman’s hand is groping after Dance, flailing as if she’s about to fall down. Her flapping papers make the musician flinch, and then her car keys go flying, but Dance snatches them from the air and returns them to her. More gusting laughter. “Goodness, don’t you half smell of sawmill. Takes me right back, my daddy was a sawyer all his life– hey Rose, come meet my favorite fiddler!”
She’s everybody’s loud, laughing buddy on a mission to introduce her friends right behind her.
All that effort gets a flicker of cool performer’s decision: No. Not for you.
Engerman was right about Dance, about his peculiar anti-charisma. But it’s a choice– Drin can see it happen. Dance goes stiff as a cat in a bathtub. Nobody’s ever been quick enough to see him do it.
The ladies react to it. Only one of them shakes his hand, and briefly at that. The nearest lady refuses to get any closer, her face closed down in the multicolored bar light. The others draw back, restless. Now they want to meet somebody who’s a lot more cuddly and warm, somebody who knows how to flirt. Somebody who doesn’t… smell like that.
Ask them what that is, and the other women couldn’t tell you. Maybe something silent.
Drin thinks, something that doesn’t blink.
The crowd of women shift away to the bassist a few seats farther down the bar, who is much more laid-back and unruffled than Dance, and obviously doesn’t mind being engulfed in extravagantly bosomy hugs. It’s quite a parade.
Drin finds himself halfway humming the words of another old pop song, “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…” which certainly dates his pop references.
“Yeah, that’s all his own hair, that faggot’s a millionaire,” Dance’s voice murmurs the next verse, startling him. Jesus, sliding right up at his elbow, no warning. Blink in this crowd, and you’ve lost him.
Drin chuckles, feeling a flush starting up his hairline.
The musician glances up at Drin, murmurs an apology. Fresh lines of sweat run down the muscles jumping in his jaw. Dance looks away, shrugs heavily in his jacket, which was never made for moving like that.
“It’s hot in here. I could hold your jacket, if you like,” Drin offers, hand up.
Dance is a blur, out of reach, pure reflexes. Then he flushes dark.
Drin rests his hands flat on the bar: No grabbing, okay?
The musician looks at that, and then up at Drin. The man’s irises go warm and dark. He gives a grimace, pulls out a black elastic loop. “Some night we go looking for great big scissors,” Dance growls, shooting a look around the bar while he twists up his hair.
“Oh, that’d be a shame,” Drin says.
Dance’s gaze jerks back to him. Nervy, poised just out of reach.
“We should consult folks like Amalia, get somebody good to cut it right for you,” Drin advises.
Dance’s irises pale out again to a gold color. Oh, he hates that idea.
Well, it is a threat. Last time, Amalia scolded Dance and trimmed split ends off into an office trash can, right in front of Drin. He let her do it, too, astonishing them all. Like a cross teddybear, she thumped him. “And don’t you go weird and stubborn on me, either!”
There, in the back-bar mirror, is Dance’s blank face, sticking out his jaw like a pack mule.
Drin doesn’t dare smile. He just shrugs. “But you gotta ask her yourself. I’m not gonna tattle on you. Not my job, tattling to Amalia.”
Dance shakes his head. Then he looks up at Drin’s image in the mirror, and there’s a crinkle lifting the corners of the man’s eyes. The wry smile is almost too quick to catch. His irises are brown again when he ducks his head.
He’s pretty good at hiding that color change trick, I wonder why? Drin thinks. Maybe Dance knows that nobody really wants to see it.
The music on the speakers softens, allowing easier conversation. A woman’s voice growls a rich baritone over horns. “I never met a man anything like you in the universe… you must be from heaven…”
“Nice.” Drin nods at the speakers.
The musician cocks his head, listening. “We are hearing the blues and jazz vocalist, Annie Sampson. Our bartender likes her. We just say he has the picky ear. He gives printouts to music reps. They argue. He has no soda-pop divas, he will tell you.”
“Will Annie Sampson be the next big thing?”
A shrug. “The lady teaches.” The musician gives that wry, one-sided smile again as he looks Drin over, rumpled hair to loafers. His gaze skips around so fast it is impossible to tell what he thinks of the casual Hawaiian shirt, Drin’s faded old jeans. Then the speakers get loud again.
At the first chords, Drin starts to grin. He nods his head, tilts his body stiffly back and forth. ZZ Top. When he glances over, the bartender is grinning right back at them, and he’s tilting the same way, dancing and still chopping away at pineapple.
“…black shades, white gloves, lookin’ sharp and lookin’ for love… They come runnin’ just as fast as they can, coz every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man…”
Dance shakes his head at the bartender, who just grins. There’s a quirk to Dance’s mouth, looking up at Drin, but the line of his shoulders has relaxed.
A little trust, Drin thinks, pleased out of all proportion. Another time, Drin might have dared a touch. But no, the bartender is watching them closely enough as it is. Give the guy space in public, he’s a performer, and he needs the money. Those mutable eyes, too, that brings up alarm bells–but they’ve gone dark, smiling, nothing odd to see here.
“Some of the ladies here told me they liked the bit where you and the vocalist in red had a duet,” Drin says, rather than ask how many times Dance has stepped into somebody else’s fight here, the same way he does at the Metro. Or if he’d fended off some kind of violence tonight.
Dance nods. “Very kind.” He takes two slow steps closer, giving Drin plenty of time to respond. Apparently he wants something, in spite of muley looks.
He puts his hands flat next to Drin’s hands, stretching out his fingers, comparing his right to Drin’s left. His fingers are longer than Drin’s are. His palm spreads wider. The knuckles are scarred pale, the callouses on his fingertips are cracked, the nails ragged, as if he hasn’t had time to take care of anything.
That reinforces the stubbornness burning in the man’s tired face. He’s not going away until he talks to Drin about whatever it is. That’s irrationally flattering, too. What’s odd is how close he is, how still he stands.
It’d be so easy to rest his hand on Dance’s, but no. Not tonight. Not with Dance as jumpy as this, in an insecure location. Instead, Drin finds his glass, sips the last of his drink. “Constancia was her name?”
“Yes, I can get you her card if you like–”
Drin shakes his head. “No, no, it’s not like that, but thank you. I’m sure it was really from the way you supported her singing. The way you always do.”
Dance’s hands pull back, clench together, muscles bunch between the tendons. “Thank you.”
Drin watches the hands relax a little bit. He says, “So when do I get to have some of that legendary chilihead hot barbecue chicken?”
The hands spread open on the bar, fingers relaxing. “Oh, so people are telling our Mister Drin some stories, yes?”
“Threats, more like!”
“We give you a hint,” Dance says. A little finger taps his nose. “The pork is hotter. We are making those pans first, so it goes marinating longer. We call it galbi in Korean, I am using the sauce for dak galbi, that is chicken in hot marinade.”
“Galbi, is that how you say it? Well, I don’t qualify for chilihead, but I gotta check out both of those. Is that fundraiser next month?”
“In two weeks,” Dance says.
“If you tell me when you want to get the stuff, I’ll tag along and pay for it, help you move it into storage. Maybe get that prosciutto you like. Okay by you?”
Dance nods. The hands go into a knot, huddled. Perhaps they are consulting each other.
Just for a moment Drin’s skeptical working brain is drowned out by all the bits crowing, yes yes! But his dour auditor half surfaces long enough to say, Oh come now. Something is up. You know there’s something else. Besides the eyes. The hands. The resiny odor. What is it?
The happy bits fight back. Yeah, maybe this is a guy with things to hide. But it’s not like he gets a lot of time away from the Metro. What possible mischief could he get up to?
Drin’s stomach growls. Okay, maybe some of that dry, brushy smell is from the man’s cooking. It makes Drin curious about what he’s using for soap. Meeting those intelligent eyes, it’s too easy to see those hands sliding soap bubbles all over sleek skin… Drin can only strive to keep that out of his face.
Hastily, Drin asks, “You have a butcher you like? Good cold storage?”
Dance nods, not looking at him. The fingernails tap jittery rhythms on the bar.
Offer Dance money and hellfire, look at him scowl. The guy is syncopating to the canned music differently on each hand while he’s thinking. Men, generally, are forthright about what they want. This guy is shy, buttoned back.
“Money can’t buy me love–” Drin hums the old Beatles words over music with the same time signature, drumming his index fingers on the bar. “Caaan’t buy me luuurve–”
There’s the smile coming, coaxed out as Drin goes on.
“Money can’t buy me luuuuve–” Drin does drumrolls with his forefingers, clicking his tongue on his teeth, and finishes by chiming the water glass.
Dance is laughing. “Our Mister Drin is so bad!”
“Oh, I am. Blame it on my mispent youth. We had to put the drum kit out in the garage, drove the neighbors crazy.” He wipes off his forehead on his sleeve. It’s hot in here. “Okay, what’s bugging you about the whole deal?”
Dance taps the bar twice with a thick, rough thumbnail. “Cooking nine kilos– yes, twenty pounds of meat last year, and we ran out. Also, no big gear for cooking enough.”
Drin nods. “Need twice that much just from the membership roster. Caterer would cost more, I checked on that. Find yourself good cooking gear, make me a list. I’ll ask somebody on the Metro Board to check my donation papers. Can’t ask Bud Innes, he’s in my direct chain of supervision at work, and that’s a conflict of interest.”
Dance nods gravely. “You will have to explain it to them first.”
“Oh, hell. Ever since Jenners left, nobody on the Board has any background–”
The man’s smile widens. “We were hearing from a small bird that our newest member, Evans, has tax background. Federal law enforcement. Nobody said that in public, but he says very little, yes?”
“Wow. That’s some bird. Was it Robert who said that?”
“Ahh, Robert. Well, these days he says what Bud Innes wishes will be heard,” Dance says, with those unflinching dark eyes. “Our little bird says look for questioning from our new Mister Evans at the budget meeting next week about lost papers. Maybe making Maestro Young yell at them. At us, too.” He shrugs.
This, Drin thinks, is what makes successful concertmasters. That sliding angle of riposte that diverts you onto something more important than the original question. Here it comes. “Lost papers? What do you mean, lost?”
“Yesterday evening after performance, big fourth floor mess.”
Drin stares into the direct warning. The hair is standing up on his neck. “Oh, crap, don’t gimme that look. What happened?”
“Broken water pipe at the top of the building. Fans are now running to dry the office. After we are speaking with Metro’s insurance company, we call our nice office ladies. They are upset about their computers and puppy pictures.”
“The pictures? On the walls? Some leak!” Drin rakes his hand through his hair, trying to think. “We can get duplicate billing records from the invoicing companies. I was just making audit file copies, those files got put away safe, that’s some help. What about the storage boxes, the music scores, are those okay?”
“Only a few damages. Pipe is off at other end, above.”
He catches the man’s solemn expression. “Oh, dammit, what else?”
“Drill marks, somebody cutting the pipe. We hear the plumber reporting this for stupid unskilled vandalism.”
“And you have an idea who did it,” Drin says grimly. No wonder the guy looks tired.
“Let me guess. If you say the name, everybody will think you’re making it up. Trying to get somebody in trouble.”
Dance tips his chin up, closes his eyes. “Well, we are smelling this, but we think nobody will believe, especially if this nose is saying so.” He taps it.
Drin snaps, “I believe you. I completely believe you have a nose that tells you things like that. Tonight, it makes perfect sense. Wish I’d got back sooner. Dammit, nobody called me about that.”
Dance spreads his hands wide. “Because we know our Mister Drin is away on his trip with many meetings. Apologizing deeply–”
Drin peers at him. “Are you okay?”
Dance nods. “We are good. What did they call you about? These persons called you about something else?” Dance has a truly grim tone there, the man’s shoulders are bracing up for more bad news.
Drin rattles melting cubes in his glass. “Mid-week, Young demanded I fly back the same day. I should talk the Board into confirming that big hall for his fancy downtown concert.”
“After their management sued us for defaulting last season?” Whoever said Dance has no grasp of politics just wasn’t following the volleys fast enough.
“Him and his handshake deals. He didn’t remember the lawsuit.” Drin shrugs. “Hey, sorry, didn’t he get the rescheduling note? No quorum.”
Dance nods. “Too many Board members or their proxies are sick. So many are in their eighties, half are in the hospital.”
Drin sighs. “Well, they can get a few things done.” They both know how long it takes to get a written review of contracts by the Metro’s volunteer attorneys.
Dance nods. “Thanking you. Sadly, the nice drunk lady used all our time. We must be going. Also, we very much like leaving our jacket safe with you, Mister Drin.” He puts one finger down, ever so gently, on the back of Drin’s wrist.
Drin can’t stop the smile.
But the man is gone, retreating. A shrug of his body and he’s flinging over his cheap jacket, not even checking if Drin has caught it. Distracting, but Drin can’t miss the outline of the prick standing hard against the man’s thigh. Before he can drag his eyes off that, Dance turns away and he is vanishing into the gloom. Running away.
Drin blinks at the backstage door. Tells himself not to be silly. Hard-ons happen, set off by all kinds of things, even the threat of fighting. The flare of amusement warms his belly more than the whiskey did.
He looks at the jacket. It’s damp inside. That makes his dick throb. Forget dignity, he’s no better than the rest of the groupies. He perches on a bar stool and drapes the musician’s damp jacket open across his knee to let it dry out. Talk about physicality in performance–it’s made of cheap stain-resistant plastic fiber, grinding away in months of performances. The lining is coming apart. A big shred of it comes away in his hand. Most musicians would refuse to take it off and show it to him, afraid to reveal poverty. He knows Dance will crack a joke about it.
Kind of touching, sad and funny, like discovering that the beautiful actress is wearing pink flipflops under her fancy gown. It makes him want to drag Dance to a decent tailor, and spend indecent amounts of money on him. Which is ridiculous.
Expect nothing, he told himself sternly when he first got in the car tonight. Dance didn’t ask him to come. It was Engerman who told him the quintet would be here tonight.
Now he’s holding a wet jacket, smiling like a fool. He strokes the lining into place, finding spots of sticky sap, red clay stains. Yeah, the kind of marks you get from fighting, rolling around in the brush, ducking guns, something. Which makes his inner auditor just keep getting more wound up. It wants to find out more about those eyes, and the odd hands–do the kind of digging that can get unpleasant. His nose doesn’t care, or his balls. He sniffs a shred of lining, puts the scrap in his own shirt pocket.
If he was courting an opera diva, would he get silly over a ratty corset? Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to see what’s under Dance’s suit? Get his mouth onto all that warm skin, feel those muscles tighten. He wants to give pleasure, he wants to see extravagant things happen. Get that line of tension in the guy’s jawline to relax.
Dangerous impulse, he knows. Simpler to push Dance into a restroom wall, make things clear. Stop talking. Hell, if it was nothing but a weekend romp, he’d be happy to give the man anything he asks for. But that won’t happen. Dance might warn him, might ask for help in answering Evans. But this? No, thank you, and Dance will coolly extract himself.
Damn shame, too. He’s been wanting a calendar shot of Dance licking cream off those long fingers, with that laughing expression in his eyes. Get those shoulders into a clingy shirt that catches light on every last contour. Show how those eyes shift color when he’s provoked.
After all, what better way to hide things than right out in plain sight? And isn’t it nice to learn that Dance has a helluva method for breaking bad news?
The torn piece of lining might as well be burning a hole through his pocket. His dick is certainly trying to.
He orders another drink during the next set, while the dutiful auditor inside is tallying up more questions. Incredible that the Metro has never checked on any of their full-time employees or their tutors for the music outreach school programs. Never checked on criminal convictions. How could they fail to fulfill one of the most basic requirements for insurance?
Watching Dance play perfectly ordinary pop music is not reassuring the Doubting Thomas inside, the part of him who keeps revising the research lists. Hell, after a routine due-diligence employment workup on the man, now he suspects he hasn’t even begun.
It’s all tossed to confetti bits when the band shifts positions.
Dance rests the violin on one knee, and picks up the microphone, and sings. Something by the Pogues, nostalgic lyrics with plangent accompaniment from a penny whistle and the pianist;
“And so we walked when day was dawning
The small birds sang, the leaves were falling
Where we once watched the rowboats landing
By the broad majestic Shannon.”
Of course he doesn’t have an Irish accent, but he articulates crisply, his meter is just fine. He manages to sing tenor descants without going nasal, as if it’s no strain at all, there’s lung capacity to spare, it’s perfectly easy to hit his fast notes. Not the kind of whooping gospel pyrotechnics reportedly committed by their earlier alto soloist in a red dress. No, not a diva. Just the kind of voice you’d hear purring from the next pillow, maybe, if you were a very lucky man.
“…take my hand and dry your tears babe…”
Drin can feel the tingling down to his toes when Dance lifts his chin and looks around the room, nodding to the applause, flashing that white grin when his eyes meet Drin’s.
Then he’s handing the microphone to the pianist, who sings the next one, and passes it to the saxophone. Each musician sings something different, playing off one another’s lyrics like conversational jazz, until the crowd gets restless.
They pick up their instruments to play “Stormy Weather.” Dance’s violin goes cool and regretful, that remote voice in the fog, fading to smoke. Farewell in a film noir, perhaps. Time to take their bows.
The sight of the musicians walking away makes Drin’s chest squeeze, old aches pull sharply all across his old burn scars. Vandalism, hellfire. He should have gone to last night’s performance, he knew it at the time. Catch an earlier flight back. Something. They needed him there, picking up the pieces, helping Dance lock it up, get some damn proof what was going on. He can’t stand the idea that he wasn’t in place. He’s never been able to abide that feeling.