"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner
"Drugs, murder, a little Voodoo, and the blues -a lot of blues. Troy Smith's got his mojo workin' in this fast moving, atmospheric crime novel set in the blues joints and back alleys of the 1950s. Check it out!" -Bill Crider
"If Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads, then Troy Smith must have made a deal with the ghost of Robert Johnson. He delivers a story told with the power and passion of the great Blues Man himself." -Robert J. Randisi
Without further ado: Cross Road Blues by Troy D. Smith, Chapter 1.
“He sort of puts me in mind of that one fella from up in Detroit. What the hell is his name?”
I was leaning forward on my stool, my elbows on the bar. The whiskey sour rested between my arms, still half-full, and I stared at it. There were other whiskey sours yet unpoured, waiting to take its place, and this one had not made way for them. That didn’t seem right. I breathed out a tired little sigh and nodded at the glass.
“What the hell is his name?” Willie said again.
“That one fella up in Detroit.”
“There’s a lot of fellas up in Detroit, as I understand it. I may be wrong.”
The third member of our trio chuckled. This was Malcolm, and it was his joint we were sitting in. Malcolm’s. It made more sense than a lot of things do. Willie would still pester Malcolm every once in awhile about the name -not a bright thing, since Malcolm was the only cat in Nashville who would pay money to a piss-poor piano man like Willie, but Willie wasn’t too awful bright. He wanted Malcolm to change the name to something more fitting for a blues bar. “Blues Sky” was one of his suggestions, or “Blues’n’Shoes.” Willie is a dumbass.
“No, man,” Willie said to me. “You know what I’m talkin about. That fella from Detroit, the one that stomps his feet all the damn time.”
“John Lee Hooker,” I said. I raised my glass and tossed it back. Progress, is what they call it. Put down the old and make room for some new.
“Yeah, him,” Willie said.
“Boogie Chillun,” I said absently. I was looking toward the end of the bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention.
“That’s who this Newsome boy puts me in mind of,” Willie said. “The way he stomps his feet while he plays that guitar.”
“He puts me in mind of Robert Johnson,” Malcolm said.
The bartender set another glass in front of me. “He puts me in mind of a asshole,” he said. “Punk.” Then he walked back to the far end of the bar.
“Don’t pay no mind to Rhodesia,” Malcolm said. “He hates everybody.”
“Then why’d you hire him as a bartender?” Willie said.
“Why do I pay you to play the piano? My heart is softer than my head. Besides, he’s big as a damn house.”
I was already halfway through my second whiskey sour. It occurred to me that I ought to keep the whiskey next time, but lose the sour. It had been that kind of day.
“Why he put you in mind of Robert Johnson?” Willie asked. “Robert Johnson didn’t never stomp on the floor like he had ants in his damn britches.”
“No, but Robert Johnson was a crazy-ass motherfucker. Same as this boy is. I’m hopin that, when word gets out how crazy he is, folks will come in just to see what kind of crazy shit he’s gonna do.”
“Hell,” I said, and I drained my glass again. “Is that what it’s all about. Maybe I ought to just wear women’s drawers on my head and the money would pour in. Then I wouldn’t have to pump gas all day.” I waved at Rhodesia.
“Slow down,” Malcolm said. “You gonna be too drunk to play.”
“I can blow harp, drunk or not. All’s I gotta do is remember how to breathe. Just give me a plain whiskey this time, Rho. A double.”
“Roy must be havin trouble with his old lady again,” Willie said with a grin.
“It’s what keeps me in business,” Malcolm said. The liquor was helping. I could only dimly hear Sonny Boy Williams on the jukebox. That was a sure sign everything else would fade away before long, or at least subside to a dull drone.
“Don’t get so high you can’t hear this boy play,” Malcolm said. “This is his third time here -you missed the first two.”
“I’ve been beatin myself over the head with a tire iron day and night because of it.”
“Come on, man. I want you to back Newsome up after tonight, and I want you to know how to play around what he lays down.”
“How about me?” Willie said,
“He don’t need no piano music. But he could use some harmonica stuff.”
Del Fenton walked over to the bar. My stomach turned a little when I seen him, and it wasn’t from the whiskey. Del was just like me and Willie -not a has-been, but a never-was. But unlike us, Del didn’t realize it. He went around like he thought he was some kind of star. It never fazed him that no one else bought into his fantasy, and that made him look more than a little ridiculous. He was like some of the chickenshit officers I had known back in Korea. They wouldn’t be promoted no higher than they already were, not if every officer in the United States Army got wasted, and everyone seemed to recognize that fact except them.
Del was fried and dyed. His hair was wavy-straight and a funky shade of red. He couldn’t dye away the wrinkles around his eyes, though, or make anyone forget that the zoot suit he insisted on wearing was years out of style. He had never looked like a blues singer -he wanted to cake city onto his face the way actors put on makeup.
“We about ready to go on, boys?”
“I am,” said Willie.
I looked around at the other customers. There were a couple of guys at the far end of the bar, looking about as active as me -Rhodesia Bain stood behind the counter near them, most likely because they were less talkative than Willie and Malcolm. About a dozen other people were in the smoky room. They huddled close at tables, except for the ones who were alone, and the lone ones huddled close to their drinks. Kind of like me.
I looked at Del and shrugged. “Our public is clamoring for us, man,” I said. “We can’t disappoint them.”
“Ain’t no need to get smart,” Del said. He ran a hand over his hairdo, probably without even being aware of the action. “And you better keep up -I seen how you been drinkin. You fuck me while I’m onstage and I’ll make them chinks that shot you look like your best friends.”
“You keep comparing yourself to the Chinese, Del, I’m liable to start suspecting you of communism.”
“I ain’t no communist.” The hand went over the hair again. “But I am a intellectual.”
“Bullshit,” said Willie. “You just a nigger, like the rest of us.”
“Speak for yourself, chump,” I said. I don’t like being called nigger, not even by a brother.
Someone new had walked into the joint while we were exchanging pleasantries with out fellow professional. He was a scrawny man in a bright suit only a shade removed from Del’s. A black leather hat was pulled low over his face -he had even more swagger and attitude than Del, which did not endear him to me.
“Hey man,” the newcomer said to Malcolm. “You set for my boy?”
Malcolm nodded. “Almost. These guys are gonna do a set first.”
“That’s cool,” he said, nodding. When he nodded the hat’s brim flopped over his face. “Kind of like a warm-up act. I like that.”
Malcolm saw my irritation at the remark. “This is Roy Carpenter,” he told the dude, before I had a chance to speak. Which was good, I guess. “He’s a harpist, a mean one. I want him to play with Jimmy tomorrow.”
“If he can keep up,” Leather Hat said, and he managed to sneer without moving his mouth. Neat trick.
“Roy, this is Bennie Lee. He’s Jimmy Newsome’s manager.”
I almost sprayed whiskey through my nose, I wanted to laugh so bad. “You shittin me,” I said. “Manager? Where the hell you think you are, man, Hollywood?”
“We may be someday,” Bennie Lee said. “My boy Jimmy, he gonna hit it big one day. You gonna be hearin him on the jukebox, ‘stead of a bunch of dead guys. We just got in town and I done got him lined up here and some joint called Ronnie’s.”
“Ronnie’s,” Malcolm said under his breath, and grunted in disgust. “Them dudes act like jazz is better than blues, like it don’t all come from the same place.”
“You wanna make records,” I told Bennie Lee, “you need to get on that highway headed west, for Memphis.”
Willie chuckled. “Yeah man, Only way you gonna make a record in this town is if you a ofay.”
“An ofay with a cowboy hat, who sings through his nose,” I added. “They don’t feature Negroes on the Grand Old Opry.”
“We just in town to, you know, get down the act.”
“Whatever. Del, we gonna get up there or not?”
“Yeah, man,” Del said. “Come on.” Del’s voice was lower than usual, and more serious. He seemed pleased by my exchange with Lee. I suppose he was pissed off a little by the cocky manager -maybe because Del didn’t have no cocky manager, maybe because this manager was cockier than Del was, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I could tell that Del didn’t like the dude anymore than I did. “Ronnie’s ain’t that bad,” he said to Malcolm as he passed him.
Me and Willie got up and followed Del onto the little stage. We left Bennie Lee in the care of Malcolm. Maybe the two of them could dream up a way to take us all to Hollywood and make us all rich. Maybe we could all wear one of them black leather hats.
Del commenced to plucking on his beat-up old guitar. There was an amp on the stage to plug into, but Del wouldn’t have none of that electric stuff. Del figured Les Paul to be the lowest white man since Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Willie settled himself onto his piano stool and popped his knuckles. I stood behind Del and off to one side, and opened up the little case I carried my harmonicas in -one in each key. Del whispered back to me what we were gonna play. It was more of the same old shit. Del wasn’t much of one for branching out in his routine. I could play the songs he liked in my sleep, and often as not that’s exactly what I did.
We started off with C C Rider, an old favorite, and surprisingly lively for Del. I scanned the faces in the audience while he sang in his peculiar high-pitched voice. There was only two women in the club. There was Peggy, who was always there -she would duck out the door once an hour or so with one man or another, and be back in fifteen or twenty minutes, and we would know that she got no further than the alley but that the man got a lot farther. Looks like she would take longer, since her meter was always running. I suppose the sort of clientele we got couldn’t afford to take no long trips. Peggy was a biffer -that is to say, she was not really all that pretty but she had that special sex appeal which comes with a woman who is willing to do things most pretty women would figure they didn’t have to.
Sallymae was always there, too, and we was all thankful to God for it. She was the waitress. It was rare that anybody ever ordered food, and rarer still that they liked what they got, but Sallymae was an essential part of Malcolm’s operation. She wasn’t no biffer, you see -she was fine as hell. Eyes and nose and mouth that was perfect, skin colored like coffee with just a touch of cream. Men would sit and stare in her direction like they was hypnotized -never straight at her, just like you never stare straight at the sun, only stare at the edges of her. After drinking in Sallymae’s beauty for awhile, sipping whiskey all the time to take the edge off their longings, it must have seemed easier to stumble into the alley with Peggy, face her to the wall and lift her skirt and paint her grunts with the brushstrokes of Sallymae’s soft voice. Then they would come back in and look in her direction once more, but with their cheeks warmed by an easy shame. Still they could not look completely away.
And the odd part about it all was that Sallymae rarely looked at them, or spoke to them anymore than was necessary. She smiled all the time, but she never smiled at anyone. All the men could sense that a touch of Sallymae’s flesh would cost them a far sight more than Peggy’s -it would cost them more than money, more than shame.
Lately I had caught her staring at me. Straight at me, and I would smile back. I smiled back at her from the little stage that night, caressing the harp with my mouth while Del sang about The Jailhouse Blues.
We played on -Conversation with the Blues, and then Cemetery Blues. The latter was about how old Grandpa died and old Grandma was tore up as hell about it. Del finished with Getting Older Every Day, and I’m sure he never even reflected on the irony of that song choice. Del’s repertoire was every bit as depressing as his appearance. He gave the blues a bad name.
When we finished and walked down off the stage, Sallymae brushed against me in such a way that her breast touched my bared arm. I held my breath, savoring the feel of it. In the pit of my gut I felt once more the warmth of the anger at my wife Betty, stoked up by the fight we’d had that evening. Desire for the waitress mixed with the anger and swirled it around, making it into something heady and strong and ugly, and I felt my insides crackling with the heat from it.
Willie sidled to the bar beside me, his face turned to Sallymae.
“Why don’t you come with me, darlin,” he whispered to her. I don’t know why he bothered to whisper, loud and raspy as his voice was. “I’ll show you why they call me Willie Fingers. It ain’t ‘cause of the way I play piano.”
I had a sudden urge to hit him. I know it’s crazy. Behind him I seen Del Fenton, and I read the same thought in his eyes. This surprised me, because I had never figured Del as the sort of man to even entertain the notion of violence.
“I reckon it’s because you have to tickle your own ivory,” she said. She did not look at him, or at me, but I felt the smile on her face.
Willie reached his hand out toward her. “Aw, come on now, honey,” he said.
Sallymae suddenly stiffened. At first I thought it was because of Willie’s ignorant freshness, but then I noticed that she was staring at the door. Now I felt that the smile was gone.
Lester Blackmon had walked into Malcolm’s. Lester was a mean-hearted son of a bitch, and every man in the bar hated him. He was a loafer and a bully. That’s not why we hated him, though. We hated him for the same reason Sallymae did. We hated him because he was her husband.
She hung her head and walked over to stand next to him while she took his order. Rhodesia’s hands went none-too-subtly behind the bar. No one knew what sort of weapon he kept there, but we all figured that if it was worse than his bare hands we wanted no part of it. And we all hoped this was the night Lester Blackmon did something to provoke Rhodesia into using whatever it was.
Malcolm was at my elbow. “Get your mind off that woman, pretty as she may be,” he said. “You got more important things to occupy you.”
I forced myself to look away from her and at Malcolm. “Oh yeah?” I said. “Like what?”
“Like this kid Jimmy Newsome. He’s fixin to start.”
I looked toward the stage. No one was there. Then I saw him -he was walking out of the shadows where the men’s room was. He stalked toward the stage like a hunter. Bennie Lee had already plugged in the boy’s electric guitar, one of those new Stratocasters -an outer-space looking thing with no hole in it.
I didn’t get a clear look at Newsome’s face, and he didn’t make it no easier for me to. He picked up that axe with his back to the audience. He never turned around, not even when he sat down on the stool that Bennie Lee pushed toward him. Newsome’s fingers peeled off an opening lick, and I started to wonder if he was planning to turn around and face us at all. His left hand slid up and down the neck of that guitar, making it moan with a voice truer than anything Del could ever muster up. He made it holler and whine. He hit a boogie lick on it that was as fast and hard as hail. All the while his right foot kept time, pounding the wooden stage loud as any drum.
Then he started to sing, in a deep resonant voice. It was an old Robert Johnson tune -The Me and the Devil Blues.
If I’d had any idea on that first night -any idea at all of what was going to happen, the blood that would flow and the misery that would come into my life because of that boy -I would have jumped up and killed his scrawny ass right then and there.
Instead, like everyone else, I listened to him play. And marveled.
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