Becoming Billie – Chapter Seven

Gus remained crouched on the sidewalk until he heard retreating footsteps and only then entered the drugstore.  He walked quickly to a waiting clerk, ordered a pack of cigarettes, some breath mints and three packages of antacids.  Pulling out his wallet, Gus said in a hushed voice, “Say Pal, is there a back door to this place?  I’ve got an irate girlfriend stalking me and I need to make a fast exit.”

A sly grin crossed the clerk’s face. “I feel your pain.” He chuckled and then nodded to swinging doors at the back of the store.  “They’re unloading cold drinks back there and the bay doors should be open.  There’s an alley there and just a short way to the street and cab stand.”

“Thanks!” Gus lifted the left corner of his mouth in a forced grin and stuffed his change back in his wallet.  “I’ll do the same for you some time.”  Making his way into the alley, he kept his eyes peeled as he walked to the street and hailed a cab.

“The Grotto – just off Rush Street…” Gus instructed the driver as he settled into the cab, glancing out the back window to see if he’d been followed.

“Oh, I KNOW the address!” came the cabby’s reply.  “Just a few months ago nearly every fare I had was to The Grotto.  Not so much anymore since the hot attractions moved on.  If it’s Jazz you want maybe you’d like The Blue Moon better.  There’s a trio there that’s pretty good.”

“No thanks.  The Grotto will do just fine.” Gus stated as they headed north.  Popping an antacid and glancing out the passenger window for a moment, he then continued, “What happened to change things there?”

“Well, I’m not real sure. Tony, the owner, always made The Grotto a home for good musicians, and it’s been a well-known place to hear the best in Jazz for years.  Story goes that Tony was once a well-known guitarist himself, playing with all of the greats in the 50’s and 60’ – that is until a mobster’s ‘main squeeze’ took a liking to him.  They found him in an alley with all the fingers of his left hand mangled.  He never was able to play again.  Some of the big names pitched in and bought The Grotto for him – still drop by occasionally.”

Gus grunted his acknowledgment and the two fell into silence as the car made its way toward the Near North Side. Street lights rhythmically passed and sirens sounded off in the distance. Gus grimaced and reached for the open pack of antacids. Popping another one, he pressed himself into the balding velour seat cover.

Finally, after 5 minutes of silence, the cabby pulled to the curb and announced, “Well, here we are!”

Gus paid the fare and threw in a larger than usual tip.  “Thanks for the history lesson.” Watching as the cab pulled away, he turned and stood on the curb for a moment to take in the scene.

‘The Grotto’ was located in the basement of a renovated small hotel that had been turned into trendy condos.  There were signs and pictures pointing the way down the stairs. The walls of the hallway were covered in autographed photos and reviews of artists who had appeared there.

Gus wondered where Lindy’s pictures were in the line-up.   He soon discovered them.

Smiling and full of life, Lindy stared back at him from a black frame hung midway on The Grotto’s Wall of Fame. ‘Appearing Nightly: Lindy Abrams, The Grotto’s Very Own Siren!’ Her eyes were laughing and her smile, inviting. There was no evidence of the trauma and fear Gus had come to know in her.  He found himself taken aback by her loveliness.

He continued on, stopping at the landing to survey the subterranean club.

Dark and smelling of booze, stale cigarettes and popcorn, the club was a throwback to the 60’s. Besides the rarely used coat-check room, a dice girl sat at a small table shaking dice in a cup and rolling them out aimlessly.  Not many patrons it seemed- but still it was early.

The bartender was cutting limes behind a long wooden bar, the back shelves full of bottles of booze reflected in a mirrored wall.  Above the bar, framed in a huge gold gilt frame, hung a picture of a naked woman, reclining on a beach. It was a masterpiece of bad taste and breasts. There were aquatic murals on one side of the room.  Fishing nets, fake seaweed and glass floats were attached and hung as if just off the boat.  Curved booths sat empty now, their cracked leather seats looking less than inviting in spite of the candled lanterns glowing on the tables.  More small tables were gathered around a bandstand where a lone piano player was playing softly; a tune Gus didn’t recognize. It was clear to him that only hardcore Jazz fans patronized this archaic music haven.

Gus took a seat at the bar and ordered Johnny Walker Black neat.  When the bartender poured his drink Gus asked, “Is Samantha available? She’s expecting me.”

The bartender raised his head. Narrowing his eyes, he looked at Gus.  ‘Oh yeah, she told me to watch for you.  I’ll let her know you’re here”.

Gus had the feeling several pairs of eyes were checking him out but he sipped his drink and waited calmly.

It was Tony who approached first.  Sticking out his right hand he walked toward Gus, maintaining eye contact as he did so. Tony’s left arm hung motionless by his side as he walked. Rising from the bar stool, Gus quickly glanced for the mangled fingers. Yep. There they were. Permanently crooked and useless.

“Hey, how you doin’? I’m Tony Russo.  I own this joint.” The voice was raspy from years of cheap cigars and too many Cuba Libres.

“I understand you’ve seen my missing songbird…”

Gus looked Tony squarely in the face, and for a brief moment the two men stood, sizing each other up.

Finally, Gus replied, “When Samantha comes over we can all sit down and have a little chat.”

Tony’s right eye winked slightly and he lightly pounded his fist on the bar. Gus couldn’t gauge if that was agitation, anger, agreement or an attempt to intimidate. He returned to his bar stool and what was left of his drink.

In a matter of minutes, a middle aged woman approached the two. Tall and big boned, her hair was brassy blonde, and her jaw set. It was clear she wasn’t the trusting type.  Setting her cocktail tray down on the bar, she stated matter-of-factly, “You must be Gus. I’m Samantha.  We’re very anxious to hear why you’re here and what you know about Lindy.”

Tony motioned to one of the curved booths but Gus ignored the suggestion and headed instead for a table in a dark corner. Reaching it before his companions, he selected the chair nearest the back wall and sat his drink down to mark his spot.

Once settled, Gus revealed what he knew of the case involving Lindy, being careful to leave out the most disturbing details. He then asked them to fill in the backstory as to what got Lindy from ‘The Grotto’ to NYC.

Tony nodded.

Drawing a deep breath, Samantha glanced at Tony and then began.  “This is how it came down.  I watched it from the side of the stage when it happened, and then heard it repeated over and over again during the weeks that followed, when she needed to talk…She’d just finished going over a new arrangement of ‘Stairway to the Stars’ before customers began coming in. It was a week night and slow.  Lindy was in a happy mood.  As she came off the bandstand, a young man was standing there.  He had that look that always spells bad news but hey, that’s just my experience.”

Samantha fidgeted in her chair and her fingers played with the chain around her neck—a gold crucifix.

“Anyway,” she continued, “He carried a suede satchel under his arm and from what I could hear, he asked Lindy if he could sit in and play a couple tunes with the guys.  She said it had always been the policy to listen to new talent but he would have to run it past the band.”

With this, Samantha looked at Tony for approval. He nodded his agreement.  She continued, “He told her his name was David Paige and he’d just arrived here from Texas.”

He stepped onto the bandstand, had a couple words with the band.  They nodded. I remember he played a rendition of ‘Body and Soul’ that made us catch our breath. Sheer magic!”  Again Tony nodded agreement.

“Even if you didn’t know the words to the song you could FEEL the meaning; ‘My Heart is sad and lonely, for you I sigh, for you dear only…WHY haven’t you seen it…I’m ALL for you, Body and Soul…’

Samantha’s chin quivered slightly as she spoke the words of the song and recalled the poignant scene in detail.

Sniffing and dabbing at her eyes with a cocktail napkin, she continued.

“Lindy came up to the bandstand and sang a chorus while David played a counter melody all around her.  There and then a musical marriage was born.  Before the week was out he was ‘Davey’ and she was ‘Baby’ and they were inseparable.  I hadn’t seen Lindy this happy or inspired in so long and at first I thought it was great.  In a matter of weeks they were getting rave reviews in print, on TV, and the place was packed every night.  There was talk of recordings, appearances and bookings. They were having such a ball.  She confided to me that she had hopes they’d move in together.

Then one night, a big party came in.  Everyone recognized Her – the latest big name to only need one name.  It was ‘Francesca’ and her entourage.   They took a booth, shushing each other loudly and pretended to listen to the music. They ordered a ton of drinks and really kept me hopping.  When the set was over she called David to the booth.  They talked on every break that night and then she returned alone every night after her performance for the week she was appearing at ‘The Continental Room’.  Lindy was concerned but didn’t say much.”

Tony interrupted, “Then it happened.  Lindy said she wasn’t feeling well and I could tell she was really upset- so I sent her home. She’d been cryin’ and had had a couple drinks. Lindy doesn’t drink.”

Samantha jumped in again and added, “When I returned home after closing, I found Lindy in hysterics.  David had told her that ‘Francesca’ was going on a three-month European tour and had hired him to accompany her as her featured player – his big break and a chance he just couldn’t say no to.  He was sorry of course- but hoped she’d understand.  And after all ‘they’d had a great run…’

He left the next week without seeing Lindy again. She was crushed.  For weeks she couldn’t eat, sleep– let alone sing.  Tony understood,” Samantha smiled at Tony across the table. He twisted the corner of his lip into a grimace and his good hand reached to loosen the grip his collar had on his neck.

“Tony kept her job open for her but Lindy couldn’t even step foot in the place.  For several weeks she was like a zombie and I was so worried about her. She did finally come to realize that life must go on but we both knew she needed a change of scenery.  My cousin had once toyed with the idea of entering a contest for singers and I began to check some out – behind Lindy’s back.  In a copy of ‘Jazz Times’ I found just what I was looking for.  Every two years this organization looks for a rising star to be a part of a revue that celebrates the life and talent of Billie Holiday.   Appearances and a recording contract were the top prizes, and some reasonable ones for the runners up.  It was right up her alley.

Without her knowing I sent her bio, a recording and some pictures. Lo and Behold, they called to say she’d been accepted as a contestant and were sending check in, registration times and venue information.

Lindy was upset with me at first but soon realized she had nothing to lose.  Tony and the guys at The Grotto all pitched in and presented her with some cash to get her there.

She left in her car and kept in touch along the way. When she arrived she gave me her contact information and told me how things were going.  That was almost four weeks ago.  No word since her last call, when she said she was having some concerns about a couple of the younger girls in the contest but still had confidence in the organization. I’ve tried to call her at all hours but there’s never an answer.”

Gus breathed deeply and caught the eye of the bartender. He raised his finger and then nodded to his companions. “What’ll you have?” “Nothing for me.” Samantha answered. “I gotta work the rest of my shift.” Tony raised his voice in the direction of the bar. “Hey Stan, my usual.”

“You’ve given me a lot to go on.” Gus stated. “I appreciate the trust and we’ll get to the bottom of this.” Turning to Samantha, he added, “I’ll need the information on the organization and here is my cell phone number.” She nodded hopefully. “We’ve made great strides here tonight Samantha.  Don’t worry.”

They shook hands and Gus left feeling confident in the clearer picture he now had.  Two cab rides later, back at the hotel, he felt assured he hadn’t been followed.

Too late to call home because of the time difference, Gus tossed his cell phone on the bedside table and crawled into bed. Two minutes after his head hit the pillow, he was out like a light, believing things were looking up. He slept through the tone notifying him of incoming delayed voice mail.

Gus awoke after a sound sleep and picked up his cell to call Jessie. Flipping open the phone he discovered several voice messages queued and waiting.  With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach Gus realized that he had been out of range in the grubby and dense basement of ‘The Grotto’ the night before. All that time spent with Tony and Samantha, had kept him out of reach to Jessie, Theresa and Angie.

Those frantic messages left un-answered would make the flight home more turbulent than any bad weather possibly could.

With sweat forming on his forehead and scrambling to dress with one hand, he pushed the automatic dial for Angie’s farm. The line was busy.

© copyright 2018 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved

Laurie AllynLaurie 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.

Laurie Allyn
Author: Laurie Allyn

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.

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