An old club owner seeks new talent
word count: 3,675
At one a.m., a black cat streaked across downtown Houston's Caroline street in pursuit of a frightened rat. In front of the House of Blues, prey and predator disappeared, swallowed up by the shadows beneath a blood red tour bus. Stenciled in metal-flake silver on its side were the words, Johnny Fret and The Plague.
Gathered around a table in the back of the bus, unwinding as they did after every gig, the tired band discussed the evening's performance. Tonight's show had been a wild one, wilder than usual. Crowds tended to go overboard on Halloween, but by the end of the show, the band's raunchy rock and roll act paled in comparison to their audience's behavior.
Initially adorned with hay bales, pumpkins, and orange and black streamers, by the last notes of the final curtain call a blanket of bras, thongs, and bikini briefs covered the stage. The eager-to-party fans tossed away their undies and inhibitions in response to the band's anthem, "Throw Me Your Panties." What began as a concert became an out-of-control orgy as The Plague left the stage.
From the balcony to the main floor and spilling out onto the sidewalk, brawls broke out as horny drunk guys hit on other drunk's inebriated girlfriends. Empty and broken beer bottles littered the venue's concrete floor, along with crumpled witches' hats and uninhibited couples, brazenly copulating in dark corners. Understaffed and overwhelmed, the in-house security team abandoned attempts to discourage immoral behavior and concentrated instead on keeping the peace and preventing injuries.
In the bus, sandwiched between identical twins, Scarlet and Suellen, Johnny Fret set his beer down and pointed at his drummer, Bonsai Rogers. The flamboyant guitarist and band-founder spoke with a British, Liverpudlian-accent, reminiscent of John Lennon. "Did you see that old black guy, sittin' by himself in the center of the front row?"
"Yeah, creeped me out," Bonsai replied as the red-headed twins nibbled on Johnny's ears.
Keith Lord, the band's keyboard player, rubbed his shaved scalp and added his opinion. "Me too."
Pushing the twins away, Johnny added, "Dude had to be past eighty, maybe ninety." Undaunted by the guitarist's resistance, the girls giggled and resumed their efforts to commandeer their idol's attention.
Untying the rolled-up, red bandanna that kept his sweaty mop from falling into his face, Bonsai asked, "Do you think he even knew what was going on?" He looked doubtful.
Keith shook his head and turned toward Johnny. "I wonder if somebody just dumped him and ran off?"
"How should I know?" Johnny spread his arms out wide.
The doors whooshed open at the front of the bus and the band's fourth member, bass guitarist, Paul Eakin, ascended the three steps and started down the carpeted aisle.
Bonsai waved to Paul, yelled out, "Where have you been?" and went back to discussing the old codger. "Grandpa's dreadlocks freaked me out. I could've sworn they moved at times, like they were alive—like snakes. I never saw anybody that old, with hair that long, and that white."
"Me neither," Johnny agreed. "When we reach that age we probably won't even have hair. We'll all look like Keith."
Keith flipped a finger at Johnny and said, "If you're lucky."
"Yeah, right. Like we're gonna live that long," Bonsai snorted and twirled one of his drumsticks.
"I wouldn't want to," Johnny stated. "When I can't pack 'em in anymore—when people aren't willing to pay to see me, I won't want to keep living. I don't wanna wind up like that derelict from a retirement home."
Having heard the last sentence, Paul slid onto the bench on the other side of the table from Johnny. "You guys talking about that old geezer from the front row?"
"Yeah, why?" Bonsai asked.
"He's outside on the sidewalk, right now." Paul fixed Johnny with an odd stare. "Says he wants to talk to you, man."
"Talk to me? What for?"
"Are you ready for this?" Paul looked around the table. "He says he owns a big club. Says he wants to book us."
"Whaaat?" Everyone sang out in unison, even the twins who abandoned their attempts to seduce Johnny and fished their cell phones out of their purses.
"No fucking way," Johnny shook his head. "No way anybody that old owns a club where we'd play."
"You want to know what else he said?" Paul asked.
Johnny's annoyed expression made it clear, he didn't.
"He told me it's the hottest club that has ever existed."
Keith threw his bald head back and cackled.
"And," Paul went on, "he said he pays top dollar."
"Top dollar, huh?" Johnny huffed. "Hottest club, ever?"
"That's what he claimed," Paul insisted.
"Ever?" Johnny asked again.
Johnny shook his head, drained what remained of his beer, and plunked the bottle down on the table. After glancing at Paul, Keith, Bonsai, and the twins, he grinned. "Everybody in the mood for a good laugh?"
Paul shrugged. Bonsai and Keith nodded. Johnny's book-end beauties leaned forward to see each other and blinked, appearing confused.
Johnny patted Scarlet and Suellen on their creamy thighs. "Stay where you are ladies, this might be fun." He grunted with the effort it took to squeeze past Scarlet, and headed up the aisle.
~ ~ ~The old man stood on the sidewalk, beneath a street lamp. Leaning on a black cane, he wore a dark pair of Foster Grants, blue jeans, a purple silk shirt, and a black vest. His pure-white dreadlocks dangled to his waist.
Johnny pressed the button that opened the doors and stood at the top of the three steps. "Hey, Methuselah," he called out. "You wanted to talk to me about playin' at some club?"
"Only if you're ready to take the next step." The old man's hoarse voice sounded thin and strained, but cocky, and in an odd way, evil.
"Take the what?" Johnny cocked his head to one side and cupped a hand to his ear. The buss's idling diesel made it hard to hear.
"The next step up," the old man asserted. "From the 'B' to the 'A' list. Bigger crowds, better money."
"And how are you connected to this club?"
"I own the place. Didn't your bass player tell you? Let me come in and we'll talk, unless you don't feel like you're ready for the big time."
Johnny flinched at what he considered close to being an insult. "All right," he reached out. "Get your raggedy ass in here. I'm in the mood for a good laugh."
Instead of accepting the offered helping hand, the old man hopped up and into the bus without even using his cane. He moved with surprising grace, as smooth, and with as much ease, as any of the boys in the band.
"What's your name, old timer?"
"I've been called a lot of things in my time."
"What should we call you?"
"Call me whatever you like."
"Well, aren't you downright mysterious? I'm Johnny Fret." The old guy's hand felt like dried, cracked leather, his grip surprisingly firm as the two shook hands. "Come on," Johnny said. "Let me introduce you to The Plague."
Johnny's geriatric guest followed him down the aisle, matching his stride, carrying his cane at his side, cradled in his hand, similar to the way a hunter carries a rifle.
"Guys, this is, uh, the old dude who sat in the front row tonight." Johnny turned towards his guest. "Old Dude — man, I can't keep calling you that. How bout if I call you Gramps?"
"All right then, Gramps, this is Bonsai, Keith, and you met Paul outside. The ladies are...what are your names again, girls?"
"Scarlet." The nearest twin batted her lashes and waited for her sister to identify herself.
"I'm Suellen. We're sisters...identical twins." She acted as if their relation weren't obvious.
"I figured." The black man with the white dreadlocks bent and kissed the knuckles on Scarlet's extended hand. "Charmed, ladies. Simply charmed. I like the outfits, by the way. Red is my favorite color. It suits you well." That said, the visitor slid onto the bench next to Paul, across the table from Johnny and the girls, and laid his cane across his lap.
"Hey Gramps, I picked out the shorts," Suellen boasted. "I think they compliment my ass."
"Hmmm, although I've not seen it," Gramps commented, "I'm sure your sweet little ass deserves complimenting."
"I chose the color," said Scarlet, seeming jealous of the attention paid to her sister. "Suellen wanted green, but I like red much better."
Gramps gazed at the other twin. "Naturally you would, my dear, your name being Scarlet, and all."
As the twins resumed whatever they were doing on their phones, Johnny asked, "So what's this all about, Gramps?"
"As I sat in the front row and watched you boys play tonight, I said to myself, 'These guys have potential.'"
"Potential?" Johnny didn't sound as if he took that as a compliment. "Potential?"
"Yeah, potential. You might be right for my club. But our patrons are demanding. They expect top-flight talent."
"Where is this club of yours, Gramps?" Bonsai asked. "And who's played there?"
"Yes they have."
"Who?" Johnny looked confused for a moment, then annoyed.
"The Who. That's Who." Gramps smirked.
Johnny's eyes grew wide with recognition. "You mean like with Daltrey and Townsend?"
"Don't forget Keith Moon and John Entwhistle," Gramps added.
"They're dead," Paul stated. "Been dead for years. So they must'a played there a long time ago."
"Who else?" Johnny asked.
"Lynard Skynard. Not the reincarnation. I mean the original lineup before the plane crash.
"How long has your club been in business?"
"We've been open a long time," Gramps leaned forward and nodded, his white dreadlocks swinging. "A long, looong time."
"How come I never heard of it?" Keith demanded. "What do you call it? Grampa's Place?"
The old man eyeballed the keyboard player. "I just call it The Club. I'm in the process of securing bands for our New Year's show. I need one more. Would you guys like to try out?"
"Try out?" Johnny objected. "You mean audition?"
"Yeah, something like that."
"Who have you got booked, so far," Bonsai demanded. "Anyone we know?"
"The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Ever heard of 'em?" A smirk on his face, the visitor's eyes moved from one bandmenber to another as he waited for their reaction. He appeared to be dead serious.
After several moments of stunned silence, Johnny placed his hands flat on the table and pushed himself up. "Okay, I think we're done here."
Scarlet leaned forward and peered around Johnny to see her sister. "Sue, Daddy listens to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but aren't some of them dead?"
"He's talking about tribute bands, honey." Paul explained from across the table, next to Gramps. "Not the original members. Copy bands." His tone implied disrespect for artists that survive off of another band's reputation. The look on his face confirmed it.
Seeing identical expressions on each band member's face, Gramps said, "I ain't talkin' 'bout no copy bands, boys."
Johnny sucked in a deep breath, blew it out, and again squeezed past Scarlet. "C'mon, Gramps," he gestured. "Time to go back to the funny farm and rejoin your basket-weaving buddies. I'm sure they're lookin' for you." He reached out to help the old codger, but Gramps didn't budge.
"You about to piss me off, young fella." Gramps reached under his black vest, into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of folded up paper. As he unfolded it, he said "Mr. Fret, you and The Plague have a decision to make."
"A decision?" Johnny froze for a moment, a picture of perplexity.
"What are you, a fuckin' parrot, or are you deaf?" Gramps grabbed his cane and smacked it on the table. "Yes, damn it - A decision!" Surprisingly aggressive for his assumed age, Gramps scanned the shocked faces of the seated band members and the twins. Cupping a hand to his ear he asked, "Anyone else here hard of hearing?"
When nobody responded, Gramps spread the piece of paper out on the table. "This here's a contract, written in plain English, not that lawyer, gobbledy-gook shit that nobody understands. It says you get a million dollars to try out for the New Year's show at The Club."
That drew a response from Johnny. "A million dollars to try out?"
The old man picked up his cane again and poked around on Johnny's arms and his chest.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Johnny backed away.
"Checkin' for green feathers. Damn it, boy, if you can 't hear me, pick up the paper and read what it says. You can read, can't you?"
Johnny snatched the document from the table. His brow furrowed as he studied it.
"What's it say?" Keith asked.
Rather than replying, Johnny kept reading.
Gramps offered his own answer. "It says what I said it says. A million bucks just to show up for the try out. If you aren't accepted by our panel of judges you still get to keep the money."
Johnny lowered the contract and set it back on the table. Keith grabbed it and began to peruse it as Johnny asked, "Who's gonna judge us? How do I know if they like our style of music?" He turned to Paul and said, "I wish Duncan was here."
"Who's Duncan?" Gramps asked.
Our manager, Johnny replied. "He's in L.A., recuperating from a mild heart attack. He usually travels with us."
"Can't you make a decision without him?"
"We can," Johnny assured Gramps. "I'm just not sure we want to."
"Not even for a million bucks? Just to play three songs of your choosing?"
Finished reading, Keith tossed the contract back toward the center of the table. "Looks legit to me, Johnny. I say we do it."
"Yeah," Bonsai agreed and pounded the table with his fist. "Let's blow the doors off that joint."
Less enthusiastic than the others, Paul sat back and nodded, but said nothing.
Suellen and Scarlet bounced with excitement. "Can we go?" Scarlet asked.
"Now wait a minute," Johnny cautioned. "We have a tour to complete. Live Nation wouldn't understand it if we just failed to show up in New Orleans."
"How much you gonna get paid for that gig and when is it?" Gramps inquired.
"What we get paid is none of your concern," Johnny replied. "We play in New Orleans on Wednesday, and we don't break contracts."
"What if I can guarantee that Johnny Fret and The Plague will not miss any previously contracted appearances?"
"How you gonna do that?" Bonsai butted in. "Is your joint in Dallas or San Antonio?"
"No, but we can be at my place in what will seem like the blink of an eye." The old man's eyes narrowed. "Why don't you boys take a vote?"
"What about Andrew and the road crew? Paul asked. "They didn't sign on to go running off to who knows where."
"Who's Andrew?" Gramps looked around as if he had missed someone.
"Our bus driver," Johnny answered. "Paul's right. We can't ask people to put in extra work without speaking to them first, and determining how much extra they should get paid."
"Where's Andrew right now?" Gramps asked.
"Probably getting laid," Paul suggested. "He'll come dragging in around three or four - always does."
Gramps scratched the white stubble on his chin. "Could any of you drive the bus if you had to?"
"Yeah," Bonsai raised his hand. "I could."
"I could, too," Paul added.
"Okay, then," Gramps threw out an idea. "How about this? Send Andrew a text saying he can go on to New Orleans with the road crew and he'll still get paid as if he drove the bus."
"What about our equipment?" Johnny wondered.
"I thought you said you could read." Gramps pointed at the paper lying in the middle of the table. "Paragraph four. It says you have to use our equipment."
Johnny picked the contract back up and glanced at it. "What kind of gear have you got?"
"You name it. We've got it," Gramps claimed. "Any instrument, any model, any year, we can cover any request."
"I play Ludwigs," Bonsai stated. "Made in 1961. Real wood shells. Ludwigs and Zildjians, with Ludwig hardware."
"No problem," Gramps grinned. His cracked, parted lips revealed a gold, upper front tooth with a diamond in it. As Johnny laid the contract back down on the table, the tooth sparkled when it caught the overhead light. Something about that sparkle and the old man's eager expression made Johnny's skin crawl...but not enough to forfeit a million dollars.
"How do we know your check won't bounce?" Keith demanded. "We had a guy bounce a check on us a couple of years ago."
Gramps pointed a long, slightly crooked finger at Keith. "Now that's an intelligent question. I've got a number for you to verify funds." The old man leaned forward, reached into his hip pocket, and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a plastic card from the black leather and flipped it toward Keith. "Go ahead, call right now. Ask what my available amount is." Emblazoned on the Visa corporate card was the name, The Club, and a logo that said, UBS.
"Who's UBS?" Keith asked.
"Largest bank in Switzerland." The old codger's tone implied that everyone who is anyone should know that.
"Oh." Keith flipped the card over, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed the number on the back. After a few moments he turned to Gramps and said, "They want your pass code."
A hint of apprehension crept into Keith's voice. "That's like a demon's name, isn't it?"
The old goat shrugged. "Money is a powerful demon, the root of all evil."
They also want an answer to your security question, 'What's the funniest thing in the galaxy?"
"The rings around Uranus."
Everybody chuckled except the twins, who didn't get it, and Keith, who provided the pass code and security answer to the bank representative. By the time the keyboard wizard hung up, a glazed look covered his face.
"What'd they say?" Johnny asked.
"The account is good for up to..." Keith paused, took a deep breath, and blew it out. "Fifty million dollars." His eyebrows arched in unison with Johnny's.
Suellen and Scarlet's jaws dropped. Their green eyes threatened to pop out of their heads.
"Holy shit," Paul whispered.
"Way holy," Bonsai agreed. "Way fuckin' holy."
"If that's not enough," Gramps suggested, "I also have a bank card from Credit Suisse Group. That's the second largest Swiss bank. I have a larger line of credit there." Gramps pulled a cheap plastic pen from his vest pocket and offered it to Johnny.
"You're worth like a gazillion, but you carry a Bic pen?"
Gramps breathed a heavy sigh. "Lost my Mont Blanc in a bar fight last week. But ink is ink," he shrugged. "Sign the document and I'll authorize a transfer of funds."
Johnny signed and handed the Bic back to the old man.
"I want the rest of you to sign, as well," Gramps said. "I don't want anybody to say they didn't agree to this."
Bonsai took the pen and spun the contract around. Glancing up at Johnny he said, "We are putting the money into the band's account, right? Not yours?"
Johnny shot Bonsai an annoyed glance and turned to their benefactor. "Who needs a wife when you can get suspicion like that from your best friends?" He turned back to Bonsai. "I'll let you verify the transaction if you're worried about it."
"Nah, that's okay." Bonsai signed and pushed the paper across the table to Paul.
"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Paul took the pen and gave the contract a quick once-over.
"Because you're an idiot," Keith said. "Sign that thing and hand me the pen."
Paul shook his head. "I know I'm gonna regret this." He leaned forward, signed, and handed the pen and contract to Keith.
"The only thing you might regret," Keith said, "is being in a higher tax bracket and having to dream up new deductions." Keith finished signing and handed the contract to Gramps. "There you go, old-timer. Now, get the money into our account."
Sporting a satisfied grin, Gramps exposed his gold tooth again. "Gladly my boy. Happy to do it." He fished his cell phone out of his jeans and dialed the UBS number. While it rang, he asked, "Who has the number for the account I need to put the million in?"
Johnny forked over the band's blue and white Capitol One bank card. "Put the money in here," he said. Johnny Fret and The Plague appeared in raised letters below the 16 digit number.
Gramps raised the hand that held the card. "Last chance to back out." When nobody spoke, he whipped out his phone and transferred the million like it meant no more than paying for a burger and fries at Wendy's. "Done deal," he said, handing the card back to Johnny. "Let's hit the road."
"What about your car?" Bonsai asked. "You gonna leave it here, or are we supposed to follow you?"
"I got no car. Don't need no car. I'm going with you boys, or, should I say, you're coming with me?"
In the middle of reading a text, Scarlet looked up from her phone. "What about us?"
"Sorry, ladies. Only band members can make this trip."
"That's not fair," Suellen complained, wrinkles forming bridges above her baby-fine, orange eyebrows.
"Oh, it's worse than not fair. It's fatal." Gramps pointed his cane at Suellen, who's disappointment changed to horror as she disintegrated. Her rosy skin turned dry, cracked, and crumbled, leaving nothing but a skeleton dressed in red that collapsed into a nondescript pile of sand on the seat where she sat. Her sister's scream of disbelief lasted only a second as she met the same fate.
As Paul and Bonsai panicked and attempted to get up, the old man growled, "I'd stay where you are, if I were you, unless you want to end up like the twins!" He waved his cane menacingly while surveying the terrified faces around him. "Not that anyone woulda believed them, but Scarlet and Suellen didn't strike me as being good secret keepers. I don't want your clones to be detained, or to have to do any explaining to the Houston Police Department. After all, they have a gig to play in New Orleans on Wednesday, right?"
"Our clones?" Johnny wheezed.
Gramps winced. "Son, you keep parroting everything I say, and you ain't gonna get nothin' but crackers to eat at my club. Since that's where you're gonna spend the rest of your life, that could get pretty boring." With a wave of his cane, the four musicians collapsed like puppets whose strings had been cut.
Serpentine dreadlocks writhing independently about his face, the old man stared at the inert bodies. "At least you're alive... for now. Dependin' on how the audition goes, you could live for a loooong time—as long as the patrons of The Club are willing to pay to see you."
Thanks for reading The Club.
Be sure to check out my novel, The Falcon and His Desert Rose. Although you may not find it on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, this 281 page, romantic, international thriller is available online in two formats: eBook or paperback from World Castle Publishing, or Amazon.com