Frank Westworth tells a suitably sinister Stoner story to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve. As always, JJ Stoner’s unusual adventures as a contract killer contain adult themes and language…
The door slipped silently closed behind the last happy customer. She left singing, her departing tune humming on the condensing air, her own take on the last verse of the last song she’d heard. The last song she’d hear; the last song she’d sing.
The Chimp left his post behind the bar, took a turn towards the stage and leaned with dramatic effect against an invisible wall while the members of the band stretched, flicked amplifiers from power-on to standby, grinned at each other, wondering whether there’d be an after-hours sit-in that night. Faces drifted from the shadows, from the more intimate seats, and approached the stage. Quiet compliments filled the air, more hum, more buzz. Clicks and ticks from the amps, at least from the few which still lit heated valves to get their own tones. A cymbal or several fizzed softly. A saxophone sighed, a lady in waiting. Eyes turned to Chimp, the barkeep, the man of that moment.
He looked down at his feet. The floor looked almost clean. No layer of ash, no pools of drink or worse. A man could take pride in the state of his bar floor. He smiled slowly.
‘One for the road; one from the house, then.’
The air sang relaxation. A piano – a real natural piano with metal not electronic strings and a real natural player playing it – staggered out the opening bars to something honky-tonk. Everyone was smiling.
‘Played good, you did.’ The piano player called across the stage. A bassist smiled in reply, threw back her curls and dropped a few discordant bass notes into his honky-tonk jangle. Lights stayed low. A deep quiet voice strolled out from the darkest of the dark corners and silenced the crowd.
‘Nice. Nice evening. Nice to hear the blues played by you young white folk. Well done, y’all.’
Deep burned black American tones – noteworthy in a small English city – clear diction, quiet and calm. Bass register, whiskey and gravel. Everyone turned. Everyone stared at the shape in the gloom. A man arose. A very black man viewed against a very dark background.
‘Drinks for y’all, huh? My call.’
He towered across the room to the bar, spreading a little dark and a little quiet in his wake. Placed a nigh denomination bill on the counter. Then another. Then another.
‘No need for change.’
And across the room, through the tables. All eyes followed him as he left the bar and his banknotes, and returned, shedding a peace-filled darkness in his wake, and approached the stage.
‘Puis-je? May I?’
The room agreed that he may. He did, nodding and walking up the few steps to the stage with the gait of a heavy man, which he appeared to be in the dim heated light, and approached the piano.
‘Puis-je, ami noir?’
This time to Stretch, whose honky-tonk had fallen silent and who stepped aside, allowing the dark man to sit. He rested dark, long hands on the keyboard. Sighed.
‘So it begins…’ the open microphone caught the quiet words as long black fingers picked out the opening triplet to Goodbye Porkpie Hat. G, followed by C, followed by E-flat. The big black man, evident wearer of an old shiny pork pie hat, muted the strings; the notes cut off before they could fade, echo away. Everyone stared, glances were shared, feet shuffled. Those fingers played those notes again, somehow louder, and this time the piano did its best to sustain them. The next phrase followed, hard suddenly, and emotional. He let them drop into the hush.
As the notes faded to black there came a loud report, an impact against the main door. A hammering of hands. Followed by a scream. A loud cry. A shot. More hammering, fading in time with the piano’s notes.
Chimp flew from his bar, unlatched locks, pulled handles and flung the doors open with such violence that they broke against the walls, dislodging dust and flaking paint. That last happy customer to leave fell back through the doorway, missed Chimp’s embrace, landed face first at his feet, sighing, crying and, while he stared, bleeding around a buried blade across the floorboards. His floorboards.
‘At least it’s not the carpet. Christ!’
JJ Stoner, the night’s guitar player, sprinted into the semi-dark outside the doors to the Blue Cube, ran for the shadows along the enclosing walls and moved fast and silent to the street. Turned and returned, pausing to pick up a gun, a small gun, from the porch. Held it by the muzzle, which smoked, but only a little.
Chimp stood and stared at the woman at his feet. Motionless now, crumpling and fading before him. Stoner reached down, fingers against her neck. Stood. Looked down at her. No expression on his face. None at all.
‘Get an ambulance!’ Loud advice from within the club.
‘No rush.’ Stoner appeared at a loss.
‘Bring her here.’ An instruction more than a request. From the stage, from the black man with the suddenly huge hands and the misshapen pork pie hat. The man with the piano. Those huge hands replayed the last line from that old tune. C. E-flat. F, E-flat.
‘Do not take out the knife. Save the blade for me.’
Worried hands carried the white woman, the faded white woman, and laid her on her back at the edge of the stage. The black man did not even glance her way, but played more of the ancient tune. Slowly, developing it as a bluesman can and as a jazzman will into something greater. The stunned quiet in the club was at first diminished, then destroyed by the one-man music show at the piano.
The saxophonist raised her instrument to her lips and looked to the black man. He shook his head, eyes closed but aware of her. She silently replaced the sax on its stand. Stood still and listened, watched, like all the others.
The song reached its climax and moved to its close. The piano flowed notes under the pressure of those big hands, the broad fingers which no longer pressed the keys, floating somehow above them.
‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,’ intoned the big black man in the tall black hat. The white woman coughed. She shook. She raised a forearm and its pale hand grasped at nothing. The killing blade, the long knife was resting on the keys of the piano. The player had not moved. The white woman pulled the trigger of the pistol she no longer held. Again and again.
Chimp reached her first. Her eyes were open, staring. Her dry pale lips moved, he leaned in to her.
‘My gun. Where’s my gun?’
Her voice creaked and strained, her breathing was arrhythmic and harsh. And she held Chimp’s hand with ferocity. She pulled herself towards him, dragging the rest of her, pulled by the single hand and powered by her stare.
Stoner dangled the weapon from its trigger guard. Well away, well out of reach. She groaned.
A statement. And abruptly she sat up. Stared around her. Soaked both hands into the blood on her blouse, on her jeans, ripped apart the blouse and rubbed the blood from her side, revealing an angry red line below her left breast. A line filled with pain, but a shining dry line all the same.
‘What the fuck just happened?’ she shouted with sudden force. ‘And who the fuck are you?’ to the black man, as he left the stage, moving smoothly, silently and implacably to the door, suddenly diminished, attenuated, luminous, drifting, translucent.
Stoner stood aside, cleared his path and stared at him in sharp recognition. The pork pie had was gone, replaced by something taller, something shiny and worn – a top hat, frayed a little. The face below it was gaunt, wide-eyed, smiling through too many teeth – too many, yellow, and too long.
‘Rend-moi Samedi. Count your Saturdays, monsieur. Et puis, Dimanche.’
He’d paused by Stoner for a moment, leaned to him, spoke softly, and was gone into the strangeness of the night.
‘Who was that? What did he say?’
Stoner stood in silence for several long slow heartbeats.
‘He said he’d see me again. On a Saturday. Always on a Saturday. He is Samedi.’ His voice was lost, cold. Fading. And he followed the shade of the black man into the night. There was no one there. Only a soft darkness. Rain fell, silently.
The Blue Cube nightclub and its shady inhabitants form the backdrop for Frank Westworth’s Killing Sisters trilogy and the JJ Stoner quick thrillers. All are available at Amazon and you can follow Frank’s exploits on Facebook