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FIRST CHAPTER

FINDERS, KEEPERS, LOSERS, WEEPERS

FINDERS, KEEPERS, LOSERS, WEEPERS

Chapter 1

1989

The girl was beautiful, prettier than that.

Nat couldn’t resist the way she smiled at him with her eyes, sending an incandescent stare that made them old friends even before they met, lovers before they could crawl between the sheets to share the kinds of innocent lies strangers tell so well.

She would tell stories tomorrow that none of her friends would believe. In a day or so, she would not believe them either, like Nat Axelrod was some dream too good to come true, except when she thought about the way he came up with the magic of a melody and lyrics too romantic to resist every time he came up for air.

These groupies.

How many went searching for paper and a pencil to write down the words he swore he had invented just for them, inspired by them, humming the melody to them in the off-key of life before they tucked their tits back inside their bras, checked their panties for tell-tale signs of lust and clung to one last hug immortalizing their night together?

Before slipping through the hotel door and out of his life, how many left a love note under the stained pillow, hastily written and poorly spelled, a name and a telephone number, buzz words of affection never to be shared with anyone else?

All of them.

All these scene queens.

The same way he always put one of his embossed guitar picks on a table.

Easy to steal.

A guilty souvenir to be hidden away inside some book and years from now rediscovered; fitting memorial to the eternity of rock-and-roll.

And youth.

And Nat Axelrod.

Somehow, this girl standing in the doorway of his makeshift dressing room behind the Indianapolis Speedway’s Gasoline Alley bleachers was different. She did not retreat from his stare or make any of the usual groupie shows of anxious modesty or overt seduction. This one seemed suspended in eternity, accepting the inevitability of his gaze while her own cat’s eyes appeared to coolly collect memories.

And there was the Weasel, twitching and hanging on to the girl’s elbow while he signaled a pair of straw-headed Purdue linemen busting out of their “Nat the Axe” t-shirts it was okay for her to join the crush of backstage guests.

Gasoline Alley had been specially secured and scrubbed clean for his concert tonight, but still lingering was a putrid stink they said was blended from years of gas, motor oil, burnt rubber and whatever else was still plaguing his well lubricated, white-walled nose.

Nat looked indifferently over the heads of the fifty or sixty local VIPs cramped inside the connecting garages decorated hours ago by the hometown weenies with crepe and balloons and dozens of framed posters of Indy 500 champions borrowed from the Indianapolis Hall of Fame Museum next door, before they bowed and kicked dirt and backed away like he was a goddamn king, which he was, short of goddamn Elvis.

The machers were pressing tighter and tighter against each other, devouring the catered platters of meats and cheeses; grabbing at the towering arches of fresh fruit and vegetables and shrimp set up on a makeshift buffet table, an unfinished wooden door slab resting on a pair of oil-stained, weather-beaten wooden horses; drinking red wine from cheap plastic cups.

They tried not to let him catch them staring, except one flaming redhead, maybe twenty, or a burned-out fifteen, who made certain he noticed the promise every time she pushed the hair off her sly face. He gave her the Nat The Axe Look that told her to forget it. She got the message fast, shrugged and sank into the floor without so much as a last, desperate flash of tit.

He recognized the hyped-up promoter, Hugo Waldorf, angling toward him.

He didn’t like Hugo any better now than he did at the sound check three hours ago, when Hugo showed up full of nervous predictions about box-office history being made tonight, huffing and puffing how rock stars had been banned at Indy for more than seventy-five years, even Elvis, until Nat Axelrod came along.

“Hugo, my man!” Nat said, ahead of an artificial smile. Held his breath defending against Hugo Waldorf’s death-dealing body odor and breath-defying tobacco stink, strong enough to cut through the wall of coke blocking his nasal passages, lung-powered his thanks for giving him the inspiration to go on tonight and give a great performance, and planted a wet kiss on Hugo’s lips.

The promoter laughed like he didn’t mind, answered Nat’s hug with statistics about the box-office take and an attendance record, and ran off to share the numbers with a trio of local music reviewers banging back tall-necked beers at one of the service bars. 

Nat got back to studying the girl in the doorway.

Earlier in the day, after the sound check, before splitting back to the motel for a couple joints and a catnap, he had ordered, “Weasel, you runt bastard. Be sure to find me someone for after the show.”

“Anything special, Nat?”

“One with the kind of legs I like. The kind that start at the ground and reach all the way up to the pussy.”

His roadie had twitched and covered his mouth with his hand. His stomach wobbled with the muffled sound of his laughter, like this was the first time they had traded the question and the answer, and he backed off into the errand.

Now, here was the Weasel with his best score ever, moving like a ferret, carrying on like he was trying to impress the groupie with the authority he wore like a religious medal whenever he thought nobody was looking, only it wasn’t working.

He didn’t have his tour badge on, having traded it away two days ago for a quickie blow job from a waitress at the Tiltin’ Hilton in Kansas City, who said she didn’t give free samples to anyone below the rank of personal manager.

The Purdue linemen didn’t recognize the Weasel and were getting ready to treat him and the groupie like fourth and one until Nat shouted above the noise, “Let both of ‘em through, you bozo milk shits.” The linemen recognized his voice, answered with a power salute and stepped aside. Nat gave them one of his own and answered their smiles with a stupid grin that had them laughing down to lard-ass level.

The Weasel, looking as bleak as a bad enema, tried faking a smile back to Nat, making him wonder if the Weasel was mentally milking his own bologna over the girl, figuring himself in line for sloppy seconds when Nat was through with her.

Fat porking chance.

This child was a keeper.

Nat hurried across the room, his eyes intent on her, rudely indifferent to anyone slow to clear out of his way. The Weasel grinned at him, squeezed the girl’s shoulder and backed through the doorway, turned and fled.

Not her.

The girl stood her ground and locked Nat’s eyes in combat, giving him a rush of stinging intensity like he had never experienced before. The pleasure hurt. He stopped half a foot in front of her and heard his breath make a noise somewhere between a sigh and surrender. She returned his smile, revealing two perfect rows of white teeth; a smile to inspire miracles.

Close up, she was younger than he had first guessed, nineteen or twenty tops. In open-toed sandals she stood barely a half-foot shorter than his own six-two in boots. Her pale green eyes glowing with secrets dominated an oval face set off by a cascade of light brown hair. Her model’s body, long and lean, leggy, sent hints of sensuality under a silk sheath dress that quit above her knees and sorely troubled his imagination.

Nat wanted her to say something first, but she only played with her lips, rubbing them nervously over one another while he studied her face, not quite answering his smile.

He couldn’t find the right words to use on her.

His song lyrics came easier.

Finally, he said, “Wait for me.”

She nodded.

“You’ll wait?”

She nodded again.

“Tell me your name?”

“Mae Jean.” She smiled that smile. “What’s yours?”

 * * * * *

He played the whole show for her, like he had never played before, a two-hour party fit for gods, a hundred thousand or more fans on their feet dancing in the aisles to the songs of Nat Axelrod. Clapping and chanting. Shouting out the lyrics they all knew by heart. Lips moving in perfect, effortless synchronization. Calling out the words in a wave of affection as he played and sang to the core of his heart and soul.

He sensed more than he saw, trying to stare down the blinding spots illuminating him on the massive flatbed stage built overnight on top of the historic asphalt surface, in front of steel and concrete grandstands that usually swayed with other thousands caught up in the real rock-and-roll of the raceway. He listened to the crowd and took the noise for love. It inspired him the way it always did.

He imagined he could hear her voice above the clamor.

It made him climb higher.

When he heard only her voice, he stretched again.

He had pressed after forever tonight, but knew there would come a point when another encore would be a mistake, that even forever must have an ending. He left the audience begging for more and ran from the stage, feeling his elation melting into the gloom that follows climax until he saw Mae Jean and her smile waiting for him in the shadow of the wings. She seemed to be taking his eyes for her own.

He felt better at once.

He passed off his Strat to the Weasel and held out his hands for her.

 * * * * *

The noise startled Nat awake.

He bolted upright in the king-sized bed and surveyed the suite, trying to remember where he was.

Indianapolis.

Yeah, Indianapolis.

Airport Holiday Inn on South High Drive.

He glanced at the luminous hands of the clock on the night stand. Noon coming up. The blackout curtains drawn, so you wouldn’t know it otherwise.

The noise had sounded like it came from the parlor, not quite a crash, but too loud to be mattress athletes playing Hump Your Honey in the next suite. 

What the hell was going on?

The Weasel playing one of his stupid wake-up games?

No, the little bugger had learned his lesson earlier in the tour, in Atlanta, when that kind of funny business almost cost him the gig.

The Weasel knew better than to get here a minute too soon with anything more than the coaxing nudges it took to get Nat up for a fast crap and a cold shower, maybe a gallon of black and a toasted bagel before the stretch headed for the airport and the four o’clock to Chicago, so what the—

The connecting door to the parlor kicked open.

The overhead snapped on, blinding Nat momentarily.

“Don’t even cough, you son of a bitch,” the cop said from across the room. Legs astride. Hands clamped on the service revolver he had aimed at Nat’s chest. Using the gun to punctuate every word.

A panicky confusion closed in on Nat. He felt the sweat oozing from his pores. His mind raced to comprehend the situation.

Drug bust?

It wouldn’t be the first time.

A hassle that wouldn’t last long. He was clean—hadn’t used any shit since before the show last night—and so was the suite.

Nat answered the cop with a smile. They were about the same age. Maybe an autograph in a few minutes to help him go away happy.

“Bastard,” the cop said, spitting the word. He marched over and pressed the gun hard against Nat’s forehead. “If these sheets were mine, I’d be happier than a flea on Fido to drain your brains all over them, Mr. Rock-and-Roll Star, you glass of jizz.”

Someone commanded him, “Ease up a minute, Carl.”

Carl hesitated, then got in another hard poke before he stepped aside.

The second cop was an older man with crooked teeth and a nicotine-stained mustache. Sergeant’s stripes on his powder blue uniform. His revolver still holstered.

Carl took aim again, announced over his shoulder, “Be happy to kill this long-haired, furry-faced, fag bastard.”

“Lots of time for that it comes necessary.”

“I’d say it’s already necessary, Sarge. Save the state effort and cash-money expense.”

The sergeant grunted. “Well, first things first.” Nat watched him anxiously as he turned and called into the parlor, “I would sincerely appreciate if you folks stepped in here for a look.”

After one of those minutes that last forever, a middle-aged man limped through the door dragging one leg slightly behind the other.

He stopped alongside Carl and studied Nat with the ugly look of quiet anger, covering his mouth with one hand, elbow couched in the other, accentuating a bad eye poking out from under a wide swatch of pink scar tissue.

One side of his face was a bloated mass of freshly broken veins blistered a bright red.

A small bandage barely covered a deep cut.

He toyed with the bandage as he pondered Nat and seemed to be talking to himself.

Nat said, “Will somebody please tell me what the hell this is about?”

Carl took a step forward, using the gun like a pointer. “Watch it, you shit-turd. It’s about your dying, you move another inch or fraction thereof.”

The sergeant admonished him. “Your language, Carl. Remember we got a young lady here with us, too.”

Nat turned from Carl to the sergeant.

And saw the girl.

It was her, Mae Jean.

Her pale green eyes ringed with circles of purple and black.

Other bruises on her face.

An open wound on her right cheek.

Her lips swollen closed.

“This him, miss?” the sergeant said, delicately. “You just nod your sweet little head if it’s too hard to talk some, Mae Jean.”

Mae Jean wrapped her arms around her body, clutched her shoulders trying to ward off a trembling that seemed to overcome her suddenly. Her knees buckled.

The sergeant moved in quickly and caught her. 

The limping man called out, “You answer the question now, daughter. Tell these good officers what they gotta know.”

“Jesus Christ!” Nat said, studying Mae Jean, beginning to understand.

“Not even Him gonna help you, we hear what we think we gonna hear,” Carl said. “Any way you look, He’s on our side.”

“Go on and answer,” Mae Jean’s father ordered her. “Is this the man what beat you silly and then raped you?”

“This is crazy, this is nuts,” Nat said. He heard the fright wobble in his voice and felt sweat greasing the hair in his armpits. He looked at all of them and then at Mae Jean. “Girl, you know this is crazy. Tell them this is crazy.”

Her father said, “Mae Jean?”

Mae Jean screamed. She pulled herself loose from the sergeant, took a step forward, then another, then seemed to pirouette off the ground before falling onto the pile carpeting and into a bouncing seizure.

“I been trained,” the sergeant called out. “Red Cross.” He got a ballpoint from his pocket as he moved quickly to his knees and worked to jam the pen between her teeth.

Mae Jean’s father seemed transfixed.

Nat started to move.

Carl looked at him and, without a word, pulled the trigger.

The weapon exploded.

Nat felt something cut into his chest. Its force pushed him backward onto the bed and crashing against the wall.

He watched his blood roll over his naked chest as the room became a merry-go-round and then a roller coaster.

He wondered where the thunder was coming from, tried to imagine his fingers painting magical licks on his Fender Strat while thousands of his idolizing fans thundered their approval in the brisk night air of the Indianapolis Speedway.

Carl challenged, “You survive that, you hot-shot prick. You’ll have a whole lot of years behind bars to think about what you done to this poor girl here.”

Nat didn’t hear him after that. He was listening to the adoring crowd pick up his beat with spirited clapping that contributed to the joyful rhapsody. He spied Mae Jean, a speedway full of Mae Jeans, all of them smiling for him, only him, and he began playing only for them. 

He heard the sound of rain.

Mae Jean disappeared, leaving only her smile.

The sky turned black and the music went dead.

But not her smile.


 

 

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