A Seattle Short Story

Some of you might know that I lived in Seattle for almost twenty years, and that I have two books set there, Emerald City and West Seattle Blues. It’s not Leeds, but the place still has a chunk of my heart.
The main character from those novels, music journalist Laura Benton, popped into my head several weeks ago with a little tale to tell. This is it…(and if you like Laura, those two novels are available as ebooks or audiobooks. Just, you know, a suggestion).

This is to the memory of Cyril/Larry Barrett, a wonderful man and a startlingly original singer and songwriter who died far too soon. And he was a real original.

‘I swear to God,’ he slurred. ‘I’m not shitting you.’
He looked at me, eyes at that point just past focusing, the words barely hitting the mark. I nodded and hoped he’d go away. But Danny had his audience; he wasn’t going to leave anytime soon.
I should have guessed there was a reason for the empty barstool in the Two Bells on a Thursday night, the time most people in Seattle started celebrating the weekend. I’d just planned on a quick beer before walking down to the OK Hotel to catch Girl Trouble.
Instead, I got Danny Hill. Over the last ten years he’d been in at least a dozen bands, none of them good, none of them original. For as long as I’d known him he’d been a drunk. And now he was saying that Nirvana had ripped off one of his songs. It was about as likely as all the Californians who’d arrived here in the last couple of years heading back home again. Especially with Nevermind just out and the whole world suddenly smelling like Teen Spirit. Hey, suddenly we were famous all over again in the Pacific Northwest.
‘I’ll prove it, man,’ Danny said and fumbled in his pocket until he brought out a cassette. ‘You listen to that, okay? Just listen to it. You’ll see.’ He half slid off the stool and vanished toward the john. Time to leave, I decided.
‘He’s ripped,’ Annie the bartender, said, shaking her head. ‘He’s been going on about this all evening. I’m going to cut him off when he comes back. If you’re heading out, do it now, Laura. He’ll be following you all night if you don’t.’
‘Good plan,’ I agreed. ‘I’m going to jet.’

I loved music. I loved writing about it. I’d been lucky enough to make a living from it. Pieces for magazines all over the country, and a lot for The Rocket here in town. The downside was people like Danny. People were always giving me demos, saying they were the shit, they were going to be huge. Most of them ended up like him, working down at Pike Place Market or for Muzak Corporation while they waited for something that was never going to happen.
I still had his cassette in my coat when I walked home later that night. I was living up on Queen Anne, a good, cheap apartment that looked over Lake Union and the downtown skyline. Crane my neck and I could see the Space Needle. Best of all, it was just five blocks from Tower Records.
Girl Trouble had been good – they were always good – a burst of energy that blew out the cobwebs. I just wasn’t ready to sleep yet. I pulled a Henry Weinhard’s from the refrigerator, stuck the tape in the deck and settled back on the couch.
For maybe the first time in his life, Danny was right. I played the song, rewound it, and played it again. Then I dug out my copy of Nevermind. The song wasn’t an exact copy, but it was close enough to make me wonder.
There was no date on the plastic cassette case. I had no idea when it had been recorded, and the whole style was different from Nirvana. Still…

Just after ten the next morning I opened the door of the old building on Fifth Avenue and climbed the stairs to the office The Rocket.
Jack was back in the editor’s ocubbyhole, going over the proofs for the next edition. I tapped on the door and waited until he finished reading the paragraph.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What’s up? Got two pieces of yours in here.’ He pointed to the byline: Laura Benton. I’d been seeing it for years but it still made me stupidly proud.
‘Got something interesting. Take a listen to this and tell me what you think.’ I put the cassette on his desk. He gave me an odd look, turned in his chair and put it in the player.
‘Shit,’ he said when it was done. ‘Who gave you that?’
‘Danny Hill. He says he wrote it.’
Jack ran a hand through his hair and gave a long sigh. He knew as well as I did that Danny was a lush.
‘Have you heard the radio this morning?’
I shook my head. I’d slept late, tumbled out of bed and into the shower, then walked downtown.
‘Why?’
‘He was killed last night. Hit and run, up in the U-District.’
‘Are you serious?’ I asked, not able to believe it. ‘I just saw him in the Two Bells about nine-thirty.’
He shrugged.
‘All I know is what I heard.’ He took out the cassette and handed it back to me. ‘Sorry.’
‘Maybe…’ I began, then shook my head. ‘No.’ No one was going to kill over a song. Not a band, not even a big record label. That was just stupid. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Look, if you want to see if you can find out about the song, go ahead,’ Jack told me. ‘I mean, it’s probably a coincidence, but…’
‘Yeah.’
‘Just bring it to me if there’s anything interesting, okay?’
I gave him a loose salute and left.

Back in the apartment, I called the Seattle Police Department’s public relations woman. She wasn’t going to give too much away, but she did confirm that a male aged twenty-nine had been struck by a vehicle the night before at a little after eleven. The victim has been taken to Harborview but was declared dead on arrival. The cops were still hunting for the car and driver.
Twenty-nine, I thought. He must have come out here for college. I tried to think where Danny was from. He’d told me once; somewhere back East, I could remember that much, but that was all. As far as I knew, he wasn’t married, and he seemed to break up his bands every six months.
The White Pages showed an address for Daniel Hill on Beacon Hill, nowhere near the U-District. So what could have taken him out that way? That was one question. Then death was another.
First of all, though, I wanted to find out about the song on that cassette. I tried to think back and come up with people who’d played in Danny’s bands. Cathy. She’d done some gigs with him the year before, I knew that. But I didn’t have a number for her.
It took five calls before I managed to find one, and then she wasn’t home. I left a message. All I could do now was wait.
The phone rang a little after six. I’d just finished writing a couple of reviews, the final drafts ready to go in the mail.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘It’s Cathy Leighton. You left a message?’
‘Yeah. I write for The Rocket. I’m calling about Danny Hill.’
‘Oh.’ There was a flat, defensive note in her voice.
‘I know, it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, a friend of mine called to tell me. I mean, I quit his band six months ago, but…’
‘This is going to sound weird,’ I said, ‘but I saw Danny last night. He was pretty wasted, but he gave me a cassette. Just one song on it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It…it sounds very much like something else. He kept saying he’d been ripped off, that someone had stolen his song.’ I paused. ‘I told you it was strange.’
‘We recorded some stuff, you know, demos.’ She sounded uncertain, as if she was dredging up memories and not sure about sharing them. ‘But it was all kind of funk back then. He was on this thing like he wanted to be Cameo or something – “Word Up” kind of stuff.’
‘That’s nothing like this,’ I assured her. ‘You didn’t do anything more rock, loud-soft-loud, Pixies-ish?’
‘No. Nothing like that.’ She seemed mystified.
‘Do you have any idea who was playing with him recently?’
‘The last I heard, he was looking for people.’ She hesitated. ‘I mean, I don’t want to say anything bad with him dead and everything, but he wasn’t very easy to get along with. And his songs weren’t so great. Not as good as he thought they were, anyway.’
‘I know that. I’ve seen him play before. Is there anyone you can think of who knew him well, a friend or anything?’
‘Have you talked to Mette?’ Cathy asked.
‘Who?’
‘Mette. She’s this Danish girl. They were really close. Not like, you know, but buds.’
‘I’ve never heard of her,’ I said.
‘Let me see what I can find out,’ she offered.

Cathy called back a little before nine. I was zoning out with some stupid TV show, debating whether I wanted to go down to the Ditto and catch Chemistry Set or just stay home.
‘This is Laura,’ I said.
‘Hey, it’s Cathy. I found Mette if you want to talk to her.’ I wrote down the number. ‘I said you’d be calling her.’
‘Thanks,’ I told her. ‘I appreciate it.’
‘If you find out about that tape, let me know. I’m curious now.’

Mette might have been Danish, but there was only the slightest trace of it in her accent, a small lilt of music in the words. She lived on Queen Anne, too, on West Galer just by the top of the hill.
‘I’m sorry about Danny,’ I told her.
‘Thank you.’ Her voice seemed empty and far away. ‘I can’t believe it. I keep thinking…I don’t even know what I’m thinking.’
‘He gave me a tape last night.’
‘Was he drunk?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ I admitted. ‘He was.’
She stayed silent for a while.
‘I’d like you to hear it,’ I said finally. ‘See if you recognize it.’
‘Okay,’ she agreed reluctantly. ‘You mean now?’
‘If that’s okay.’
‘I guess,’ Mette said.

I drove over, up Taylor and along the strip past the supermarkets and the restaurants that had blossomed up there. She showed me into a cozy studio, the kitchen with a red Formica table and vintage chairs, then through to the main room. Photographs spilled from a shoebox, all of them of Danny.
I turned and looked at her.
‘Look, if you’d rather do this another time…’
She shook her head, blonde hair swishing from side to side around a big moon face.
‘No, no,’ Mette said in quiet despair. ‘I guess now’s fine.’ She held out a hand and I gave her the cassette.
I watched her face as the song played, the intense concentration, then the way her features softened and the faint smile as Danny’s voice came out of the speakers. She let the whole piece play without saying a word.
‘I’ve never heard it before,’ Mette told me when it was done. But there was more in her tone. ‘I remember the bassline, though. He came up with that a couple of months ago, one night when I was at his apartment.’
‘Two months?’ I asked in astonishment. That was shortly before Nevermind had been released.
She nodded.
‘It wasn’t any longer than that. It can’t have been.’ She pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her sweater and dabbed at her eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I…’
A thought struck me.
‘Did Danny ever see Nirvana play?’ I asked. He must have done. It seemed as if every musician in town had been to plenty of their gigs.
‘Oh yeah.’ The small smile returned. ‘He loved those guys. I guess the last time was back in the winter. We went down together. You remember when the weather was really bad?’
I did. During February it had been surprisingly brutal, inches of snow and ice shutting down the city for a few days. Seattle was fine with rain, but we couldn’t cope with worse.
‘Yes.’
‘It was just after that. I don’t think I ever saw Danny focus as hard on anything as he did that night. It was like he was taking in every note.’
‘Was he drinking much?’
‘Not really. Just a couple beers. He was fine to drive home after.’
I nodded at the tape in the player.
‘What about the song?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds like he did it all himself. That’s his guitar playing and his bass. I’d know it anywhere. He has a four-track. Had,’ she corrected herself.
‘I see.’ It was simple enough. The riff, the idea, had lodged in his head when he’d seen the band. And it had come out later, all his own work, maybe, but so close to the original.
I didn’t know he was insisting he’d been ripped off. Very likely he’d just convinced himself it was that way. I didn’t know what went on in an alcoholic’s mind. And we’d never find out. Danny wasn’t around anymore to say.
‘Do you know why he’d go up to the U-District?’ I asked. ‘He was down in Belltown when I saw him, at the Two Bells.’
‘Sheila.’ The word came out so quietly that for a second I believed I’d imagined it.
‘Who?’
‘Sheila.’ Mette looked at me. ‘They broke up a month ago. She lives up near there. He’d get drunk and just stand across the street from her place, out of sight. No hassles,’ she added quickly. ‘He wasn’t like that. But she called the cops once. They warned him, but he kept going back.’
It was creepy. It was disturbing. Once I thought about it, I could believe it was something Danny would do. But I could see from Mette’s face that she wished Danny had loved her.
‘Thank you,’ I told her.
‘Do you mind if I keep the tape?’ she asked. ‘You know.’
I did.
‘It’s all yours.’ I didn’t need it any more.

I was awake early, struggling out of strange, dark dreams that evaporated as soon as I opened my eyes. In the kitchen I made coffee and switched on the radio, the news on KUOW.
‘Police have made an arrest in the hit-and-run killing of a man the night before last in the U-District. The deceased has been named as Daniel Hill. The driver is said to have been intoxicated at the time of the accident.’
So simple. So terrible. So fucking empty.

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Carson Mack

I’ve just spent the last few hours back in Seattle, at a show that never happened at the Tractor Tavern. It’s a scene from what I hope will be the second novel in my Seattle series, the sequel to Emerald City. Come along and have a listen…

He had the old Martin guitar in one hand, limping, but no stick. A clean shirt, a newer pair of jeans and a shine on his cowboy boots. He’d combed his hair, but whatever he did, Carson would always look grizzled, as though he’d look life square in the face. He took one of the two chairs on the stage, plugged in his instrument and gazed out at us for a moment.

“So this is what people do on a Tuesday evening in Seattle.” He smiled and the ice was broken. Without another word he began to pick out chords and the rusty, ragged voice started on ‘Idaho Sweetheart.’

I could see a few people begin to smile as they recognized the song, dredging it up from long-ago memories. Stripped-back, unsweetened by strings and backing singers, it had real depth. It ached. He didn’t try anything fancy, just let it speak for itself and it worked. Carson might look like a hick but he was a professional musician. It was easy to forget that he’d been doing this for more years than most of the audience had been alive.

He followed it up with something newer and unfamiliar, daring the crowd to follow him. And they did. Then he started on “As The Heart Falls.” He write it, but the hit had been someone else’s. This eclipsed that version, coming from some well deep inside him that held his world of pain.

For the first half of the set he alternated new and old, throwing in covers of Hank Williams’s “Mansion On The Hill” and Michael Nesmith’s “Propinquity.” After that he turned to the side and tilted his head, smiling as Jim Clark shuffled onto the stage. The poor guy looked petrified, clutching the Gibson close to his chest, eyes darting around the room.

“This is my grandson, Jim Clark,” Carson said, letting that country twang flow like warm honey. “He’s kind of bashful. I know he’s kin and all, but I reckon he’s got something. Want to show them?”

Jim Clark sang his heart out. He was better than when I’d heard him down by the water, but he was nowhere near Carson’s league. He knew, everyone in the room knew it, but he tried anyway, and we all applauded him. The silence built again. Carson licked his lips.

“I never knew Jim’s daddy. Hell, I’ve only known my grandson for a few weeks. But my son died four years ago, right downtown. Someone shot him and they never found out who did it.” He paused. Everyone was focused on him, rapt. “I don’t have much I can give him, ‘cept some justice if I ever find out who did it. But this is about him.”

He started the song he’d played me. Jim added a little guitar, but this was all Carson. His voice was quiet, almost meditative, ragged and torn over the fingerpicking lines. It was a memorial, a lament. So beautiful it hurt with its rawness. When he finished and the final note died to silence, there was a pause before the place erupted, the sound of clapping so loud it was painful. Carson looked at Jim in surprise, then sighed and embraced his grandson.

There was nothing he could do to top that, but the rest of the set was no letdown. He tore through “Call You Sunshine” and “Maybe Darlin’,” turning them into upbeat pleasures. A couple of songs tore at the fabric of broken hearts, ripping them wider. Toward the end he was simply having fun, running through some Buck Owens, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb, telling little tales of Nashville and life on the road way back when.

Then, with a goodnight and thank you, it was over. He bowed and vanished backstage. But no one was going to let him leave that easily. We were all standing, demanding more. Finally he came back, almost speechless.

“I…I don’t know what to say. You’re very kind.” He sat for a moment, hands poised over the guitar. We all knew there was only one thing that would satisfy, and he began to play the song he’d written for his son once more.

It seemed as if everyone held their breath for three minutes. Like time stood still, suspended by his words. When he finished there were no more farewells. Just a quick shake of his head and he was gone. The house lights came up and people looked around as if they were surprised to find themselves here.

Leaned against the edge of the stage, finishing my beer and smoking a cigarette. I knew exactly what I’d witnessed. It had been one of those perfect evenings. Something to remain in the memory and light it up for years to come. Something every artist wants but rarely achieves.

I was still there fifteen minutes later. The mics had been put away, the stands folded and the cords all wound. The chairs had been taken away and Dan the owner was sweeping the butts and debris off the floor. I could hear voices backstage.

It was ten thirty. Past my bedtime but I was still flying on the performance. I’d wanted him to do well but I’d never imagined anything as wonderful as this. Finally he came out, leaning on his cane, bought a bottle of Pabst at the bar then stood beside me. He looked stunned and drained.

“You did it,” I told him. “That was pretty amazing, Carson.”

He fished in his shirt pocket, took out a pack of Marlboros and lit one.

“Yeah,” he said after a long time. But the way he spoke the word held it all. “You know, I waited all my life for a night like this. I just had some guy come up to me and says he wants to write about me for a magazine called No Depression. You figure that?”

A Few Thoughts To End March

March has been an eventful month. Right at the tail end of February At the Dying of the Year came out, the fifth Richard Nottingham mystery, and a book I’m very proud to have written. It cut deep into my soul and drained me emotionally to write it.

Then, for March, my publisher scored a Kindle 100 deal in the US for The Constant Lovers. The upshot is that the book’s been featured on the Kindle 100 page and pushed by Amazon. And, to help, the publisher lowered the prices of the other ebooks in the series. Having kept track during the month (as well as pushed them on Twitter and Facebook – sorry!) it’s definitely had an effect. At one stage three out of the four books were in the Top 20 in the Kindle Historical Mystery section. I know, a small sub-genre, but it made me very, very happy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I finished the rewrite of the sixth Richard Nottingham book, Fair and Tender Ladies, and heard back from the publisher – within 48 hours, no less! – with an acceptance. The result of this is that I’ll end up with four novels out during 2013, a pair of Richard Nottinghams, The Crooked Spire, my medieval book set in Chesterfield, and the one we’re coming to next.

March 29 was the publication day for Emerald City. It’s a very different kind of book for me, and the only one to date that draws on the write what you know theory. It’s set in Seattle, where I lived for 20 years, set in the just pre-grunge (hate that word) music scene, and it’s a murder mystery featuring a music journalist (which I still am, although I’ve never actually murdered anyone. Yet). But it’s the closest to the present day that I’ve come, although the central character is female, a change suggested by the publisher for very practical reasons, as it meant that the excellent Lorelei King could narrate the audiobook, and she does a superb job of it.

There was also a week’s break in Whitby, no snow but a withering wind off the sea for most of the time. Yet it was curiously enjoyable, discovering a church with beautiful medieval wall paintings in Pickering and a day in Durham, where I’d never been before and seeing a Norman cathedral. I’m more familiar with the slightly later elegance of York and Lincoln, so airy and light. By comparison, this seemed somewhat oppressive. The city itself, however, was lovely. And, of course, a walk along the beach to Sandsend and a little time at the abbey.

Now I’m back where I should be, in the Leeds gas strike of 1890, trying to catch murderers and find a missing girl.

To any of you who bought one of these books this month, or at any time, thank you so much. It sounds trite, but I really do appreciate it.