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Authors: Michael Nethercott

The Haunting Ballad

BOOK: The Haunting Ballad
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To my wife, daughter, and son: my little club

 

Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Part 1: O Death

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Part 2: Tangled Roots

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Part 3: Riddle Song

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

 

Also by Michael Nethercott

About the Author

Copyright

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

Many thanks to the first readers of this novel for their input: my wife, Helen Schepartz (first among firsts); mystery fan extraordinaire Cynthia Atwood; and Sir David Lampe-Wilson. David's bookstore,
Mystery on Main Street
in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been a beacon of light for me through many foggy times. And a nod to my dear old friend Crystal Huntington for harboring me on my Greenwich Village research journeys.

Waves of gratitude to my family and friends who've been a support throughout my writing life. Many thanks to my smart and conscientious literary agent, Susan Gleason, and to my sharp and steady editor, Kat Brzozowski. To all the good people of St. Martin's Press. And kudos, India Cooper, on your pugnacious copyediting.

 

PART 1

O Death

What is this that I can't see

With ice cold hands takin' hold of me?

Well, I am death, none can excel

I'll open the door to heaven or hell.

“O death, o death” someone would pray

“Could you wait to call me another day?”

—Traditional Appalachian song

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Roughly a month before her killing, I met Lorraine Cobble, the professional songcatcher, in the smoky, candlelit depths of the Café Mercutio. Actually,
met
is going too far.
Observed.
Yes, I observed her when she stormed over to our table to verbally explode all over the troubadour known as Byron Spires, a handsome young rat if ever there was one.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. I should first explain why I was perched in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse known for bohemians, beat poets, and folksingers. After all, when you think
bohemian,
five-to-one says you'd never conjure up an image of Lee Plunkett. Free-form poetry and quivering bass strings don't exactly form the backdrop of my life. Sure, as a bona fide private investigator I might be mistaken for the kind of edgy character who dwells on the fringes of society and, as such, holds a great deal of appeal for artists and other fringe-lovers. Well, that's not me, not by a country mile. I don't have the look or the grit. I'm slender as a rail with full-moon eyeglasses that might fool you into thinking I'm some scholar until I opened my mouth, and the only thing edgy is my mood when life's hobgoblins are ganging up on me.

Anyway, what brought me to the Mercutio wasn't business but pleasure. Not
my
pleasure, you understand, but my fiancée, Audrey's. She had a couple of girlfriends who had moved to Manhattan and settled in Greenwich Village. This was the spring of 1957, and the scene there was rolling along with vigor. Audrey had been invited down to partake of the Village life and figured that I should join her that evening so that I might “benefit from the experience.”

“You know I try to avoid experiences,” I remember saying. “They tend to ruin a fellow's day.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, aren't you clever.”

“I'd like to think the answer is yes. Look, do I really have to travel to beat-land and mingle with the natives?”

“You do. You're badly in need of some culture, Mr. Plunkett.”

I tried for a posh British accent. “I'm brimming with culture. Simply brimming.”

Audrey eyed me pathetically. “I've seen the extent of your culture. You read pulp novels about three-headed Martians and watch silly TV Westerns.”

“They're not silly.”

“Sorry, not silly.
Ludicrous.
Big-jawed sheriffs who do nothing but slap leather and fall in love with their horses.”

“Hey, don't knock it. There were some good-looking horses back in the Old West.”

“Should I smack you now or later?”

“By smack, do you mean kiss?”

“No, I mean slug. Punch. Pummel.”

“Then later. Definitely later.”

Audrey and I could go on like that nonstop. She was a great gal, no denying, and more than one observer had berated me for stretching our engagement period to the breaking point. We'd made the pledge nearly three years before and still hadn't gotten hitched. Closing out her twenties, Audrey still lived with her parents—pleasant, low-key, working-class folks who didn't mind me at all—whereas I split my time between my rented apartment and my minuscule office. I made a pretty reputable boyfriend and a not-too-crummy fiancé, but I just wasn't sure how I'd fare with the upgrade to husband. So, for one feeble reason or another, our wedding day kept getting consigned to the misty realm of Someday Soon.

Our bouncy little exchange eventually led to us making the ninety-minute drive from Thelmont, our modest Connecticut town, to the fabled Village. Stepping into the Café Mercutio that first time, I felt like a fish out of water. Or, more specifically, a fish yanked out of water and flung into a carnival tent. There was sawdust on the floor, wrinkled old circus posters on the walls, music in the air, and someone akin to a ringmaster—complete with curling mustachios and a long-tailed black coat—who greeted us at the door. This individual turned out to be the owner, one Tony Mazzo, or, as he said upon introducing himself:

“Mazzo—the Grand Mazzo. Welcome to my establishment.”

“Why ‘Grand'?” Audrey, always direct, asked him.

“I come from a long line of impresarios, dear lady,” our host explained. “My grandfather, for example, headed the Mazzo and Morelli Circus. He was from the old country and toured throughout Europe for thirty years, meeting nobility and royalty and all those classy cats. Oh yeah, they really dug Granddad in his day.”

This odd blend of formality and jive talk, I would eventually learn, was what made Mazzo … well, Mazzo. He looked to be not much older than me—perhaps in his midthirties—but had a premature streak of silvery hair that ran above his right temple. That feature, combined with the handlebar mustache, made for a face you weren't likely to forget. He was tall and a bit blocky but—in the phrasing of some dusty novel I was forced to read in high school—well-formed. I hadn't retained much from my schooling, but I did remember “well-formed” and “the Magna Carta was written in 1215.” That's about it.

“Go sink into the scene,
amici miei,
” Mazzo instructed, gesturing us sweepingly into the room before turning to hail his next patrons.

Entering the crowded space, Audrey and I caught sight of her two friends. (I've forgotten their names; they moved away shortly after that night.) They were seated at a corner table, the sole decoration of which was a candle jutting out of a wine bottle. As we slid in next to them, the ladies gave us the slimmest of greetings, transfixed as they were by the young man standing on the small raised stage before them. This, one of our companions whispered reverently, was none other than Byron Spires, up-and-coming folk star. Slight of frame, denim-clad, with an unruly mound of brown curls, he had a waiflike quality that seemed to rivet the young women, Audrey included. He was adequately strumming a guitar that seemed too big for him and singing in a voice both lazy and urgent. His song choice had something to do with mine disasters and obese politicians. The chorus went:

In the end, my friend, who's gonna pay? Not I, not I, the fat men say.

Having known several decent rotund men in my time, I didn't think the lyrics quite fair and tried to share this with Audrey, who
shhh
ed me loudly, her eyes glued on the singer. From cave-ins, Spires shifted to something more upbeat, a nimble tune featuring periodic yelps and yodels that seemed to spur on the audience.

Then, to seal the deal, he slid into a mournful ballad, which I have to admit was downright haunting. Phrases like
the wind that stirred our wounded dreams
and
she was the girl I should have loved were I not so young and lost
seemed to linger after Spires had strummed his last chord. His set finished, he took in the blend of applause and finger-snapping (a modern form of admiration, I was told), muttered a thanks, and sauntered off the stage.

Scanning the crowd, he seemed to take fast notice of our table, stocked as it was with its trio of comely females. My manly presence was seemingly no deterrent, and Byron Spires, guitar slung to his side, made his way to us directly. Three pairs of eyes widened at his approach. Mine—the only non-female set—narrowed behind the twin shields of my spectacles. Right off the bat, I wasn't sure that I really loved this guy.

“Noticed you out there,” Spires said to everyone but me. “Like three lovely muses lurking in a corner.”

Oh brother. Did this warbler really think he could impress with lines like that? The smiles on the women's faces said
apparently yes
.

“Can I join you all?” Not waiting for any answer, Spires dropped into an empty chair and addressed Audrey's friends. “Think I've seen you two before.” Then, turning to Audrey, “You—you're new.”

I didn't like the way he said “new.” I especially didn't like the way he stared at my fiancée when he said it. Audrey was looking particularly Audrey-ish that night: Her shortish brown hair had a nice little wave to it, accenting her hazel eyes and button nose, and the purple scarf round her neck made her seem both stylish and casually artsy at the same time.

“New … New…” Audrey rolled Spires' word around on her tongue. “Sure, I wouldn't mind being new.”

What the blazes did she mean by that?
Now, I should explain that I'm not normally the jealous type. My trust in Audrey was unwavering (at least up to that point). Besides, she was way too much her own person to tolerate an overbearing mate. No, Audrey was nothing if not rock solid. Even my father, who was never particularly impressed with my choices in general, had bestowed upon her high praise:
She's no dizzy dame, that one.
Indeed she wasn't. So her round-eyed gawk that night at the Café Mercutio struck me as uncharacteristic. Troubling, too.

Spires kept on in his lethargic, syrupy tone, his eyes probing Audrey's. “If you wanna be new, then you're in the right place. Just let the music take you.” Whatever that meant. “Let it take you and teach you, little beauty.”

BOOK: The Haunting Ballad
9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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