Gus looked at the clock. It had now been an hour since Lindy had finished recounting her ordeal and his wheels were turning. He’d worn a deep path in the faded shag brown carpet as he paced the perimeter of the small living room.
Out of cigarettes- and patience- Gus wondered where the hell Pete was. There were plans to be made –quickly- before there would be more victims, not as lucky as Lindy.
It had begun to rain when Pete’s car finally pulled into the carport. He pulled his coat over his head to protect several paper bags and dashed into the house. “Lunch!” his voice called out.
Shaking the rain from his coat, he opened the bags and produced hamburgers, French fries and sodas. The room quickly filled with the smell of onions and pickles.
Theresa and Lindy came into the kitchen and within a moment produced plates and napkins. With the still warm meal placed like a feast before them, they all sat once again at the gathering table.
Pete placed the other bags on the floor but before biting into his burger, he picked up one separate bag and handed it to Gus. Gus reached out with a quizzical look on his face.
“Jessie’s plane was delayed and she saw these in a kiosk. She thought you might get a kick out of ‘em.”
Opening the bag, Gus found a clear plastic box containing two copper mugs, embossed with the words: ‘Hot Buttered Rum – Souvenir of NYC’.
Gus managed a weak smile but said nothing.
Fifteen minutes later and with lunch pretty much finished, Pete handed an envelope to Gus. “Believe me, our friend Arlo has been a godsend…” he began. “He filled in for me while I lined up this place and took charge of Jessie’s messages until she and I could safely communicate, and he managed to get a new set of plates for the car. There’s also the necessary paperwork stating that you’re just driving the car on approval. The kid thinks of everything! Now it’s our turn to put this all into action.”
Gus and Pete stayed seated at the table, pitching theories back and forth. With deep reluctance, Gus realized there was only one way to gain the information they needed and that was to have someone go inside the Institute as an actual participant in one of the Billie Holliday contests in order to learn the Why and Wherefore of the disappearances.
The options were slim. It couldn’t be either of them, of course and Lindy would be spotted right off the bat, so that left only one possible player – Theresa. Would she, could she, be up to doing this? – a huge risk – and one that depended upon total believability. The stakes were high.
The last twenty-four hours had been full of mixed emotions for Gus and this new revelation ratcheted up his inner turmoil. Nonetheless, as he faced the fearful truth, he called the girls in to join him at the table and motioned for them to sit down.
Clearing his throat and snuffing out his cigarette, he looked at these two lovely women; one, his own flesh and blood, and the other, a complete stranger until fate had placed her in his ‘thin blue line’.
With his voice, low and steady, Gus laid out the plan. Slowly it began to dawn on Theresa just what it was he was saying.
“Dad”, Theresa began, her eyes widening. “This is a lot for me to take in and that’s an awful lot to pull off believably…” Her voice quivered and she stammered for a moment. “On one hand, I’m reluctant to see myself being very convincing.” She paused, her eyes narrowing now, “But…but… as your daughter, I’m just as dedicated to getting to the bottom of this operation… how do you see this all being done convincingly? Remember, the only singing I’ve ever done has been in the church choir!”
Theresa’s eyes widened as the weight of this plan settled on her in all its startling and unnerving reality.
Breaking the momentary silence, Lindy interrupted, “Theresa, most of the great singers began just that way – Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Sarah Vaughan…on and on…why I’m sure even Billie herself sang at church if she had had the chance to go! Listen, I realize ‘Amazing Grace’ probably isn’t on the play list of the Institute -but I can certainly teach you a few tunes that ARE– and coach you into becoming what will make you a convincing student and contestant – at least long enough to get some information! And too, I know enough about the operation to warn you of the potential danger zones.”
With that, they all sat back to let this revelation sink in.
Gus left the table and retrieved the bottle of Scotch. He poured a small amount into each of four juice glasses. “Shall we drink to Billie Holliday?”
The Scotch may have played a part in Theresa’s decision, but she didn’t waver even into the next day when she found herself under Lindy’s jazz coaching. Theresa had made up her mind to do her part and it felt good, at least for now, to step up and be that player.
For her part, Lindy was in full instructor mode as she sat Theresa in front of the bedroom dressing table. Squinting a bit, she pulled Theresa’s hair back and then letting it go said authoritatively, “Alright, the first thing we need to do is decide on your character. A new name, a new look, a new talent… You told me you sold makeup at one time, didn’t you?” Theresa nodded weakly as if trying to remember those times that seemed so very long ago. “Well then,” Lindy continued “let’s put that knowledge to good work! Now, can you see yourself as a redhead? That could make you stand out a bit from the crowd…. If Pete thinks it’s safe, we can go out and get everything we need at a drug store and surely there are some local shops or thrift stores for an outfit or two….”
Lindy cocked her head and looked off in the distance. “I’ve always liked the names Janine and Jolene. There was a set of twins in my senior year with those names and they always intrigued me… sassy, confident and SO popular! Which name do you like better? Or, maybe you have a person in mind that you could emulate? It should be one you could relate to.”
The words were coming so fast Theresa could hardly comprehend but she found herself nodding and catching a bit, at least, of Lindy’s excitement.
So, it was that they drove that afternoon to a corner drugstore, purchased a burnished red hair color, a full line of cheap makeup, some throat lozenges and some cigarettes and antacids for Gus.
The phone book had revealed a consignment shop near the drugstore that provided a couple outfits -glam and daytime- and shoes befitting a rising jazz singer – silver, vintage Springalators– just the right touch they both agreed.
Home again, Lindy and Theresa began the physical transformation. Even Gus was taken aback at the change, not only in looks but also demeanor. Theresa had blossomed.
Gus chuckled at his fatherly fear that she would never again be ‘put back in the bottle’.
And then the real work began.
Pete’s sister’s old upright piano had seemed a blessing -until they found how out of tune it was- but still, it would have to do.
Lindy went mentally through her own song list and decided on a few that might possibly be easy enough for the novice to learn and pull off: ‘Moon Glow’, ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’, ‘Body and Soul’ and for the piece de resistance– ‘It’s Like Reaching for the Moon’. All Billie standards.
Theresa would at least appear to be playing the game and showing a passing knowledge of the life and music of the legendary Billie Holliday.
It was here Lindy told Theresa of the relationship between Billie and the wonderful tenor saxophone player, Lester Young, who was Billie’s friend and confidante and whose honeyed musical tones had given Billie wings- even when she was too far down to rise on her own.
Playing with one finger, Lindy tested Theresa’s range and again with one finger – ran through the melodies for Theresa while Gus wrote out the words as Lindy sang along.
An hour or so spent on each song, Theresa tried to commit each one to memory and to memorize Lindy’s phrasing and jazz nuances. The lozenges were put to good use. One more day and it would be show time.
The next afternoon, an invitation was issued to Pete and Gus to arrive in the living room, at precisely 5:00 PM for Happy Hour and a ‘SHOW’. Pete was also instructed to ‘BRING MORE SCOTCH’.
The couch was pushed to one side, the coffee table pulled close and covered with a white tablecloth, a candle lit in a jelly glass. The ‘audience’ assembled. Theresa, teetering in the Spingalators, was waiting in the small dining room to become a ‘Billie’ she’d never even heard of until just a few days ago.
Lindy opened the new bottle of Scotch, poured a large glug into the waiting juice glasses and announced in a low and inviting voice…. “AND NOW- Please welcome, JOLENE Price! The New ‘Miss Lady Day!’”
Theresa stepped out from the double doorway and as Lindy began plunking out the intro to ‘Moon Glow’ it was indeed Show Time.
Gus and Pete sat in amazement as Theresa belted out the offerings in her newfound voice.
There was a sweetness and vulnerability to these tunes they each found appealing. This just might, MAYBE, work after all…. Gus drew a deep breath and the corner of his mouth twitched a bit.
With not much criticism, Theresa passed this acid test and as Lindy checked off a few pertinent details, all seemed to be ready for the real Show of Shows.
The next morning, with no one admitting to a restless night, Theresa picked up the phone and with an audience of three heartfelt supporters waiting breathlessly, she dialed the number to the Institute.
A woman’s businesslike voice answered, “Good Morning! Billie Holliday Institute, how may I help?”
Theresa’s voice cracked and she looked anxiously toward Lindy. “Uh…Hi,” Theresa began nervously trying to slow her shaky words, “My name is Jolene Price. I’m at the bus station, just here from Joplin, MO. Can you direct me to the Institute please? I just took a chance and came here to be in your school and contest. I’m sure prayin’ that you have an openin’ ‘cause I only bought a one-way ticket!”
Lindy gave her a thumbs-up for that improvisation.
The voice replied, providing the necessary information and the die was cast.
© copyright 2018 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.