An angelic songbird
Rick's sixth novel delves into the world of Andy Curran, a drummer in a jazz trio and someone currently with more than his share of personal problems. At an open mic night, a street person takes the stage and blows everyone away with her singing. The trio decides to take on this decidedly odd, but incredibly talented female vocalist, but things rapidly begin to go wrong.
Here's a bit of the opening of the novel to whet your appetites a bit...
"She had a voice like an angel, smooth and complex as a twenty-year-old single malt, rich as thick cream. Everyone who heard Olivia sing felt as if she could see right into their souls, that her songs were meant for them alone. This was the magic her artistry conjured. In earlier times, she would have been put to death as a witch.
The real kicker was that Olivia had no idea how the magic worked. She’d just open her mouth and the song was there, no deep thought about the meaning of lyrics, no analyzing of how she wanted to shape a phrase, bending, stretching, adding notes until everything fit the way she wanted it to. Her pitch was dead on and her innate sense of rhythm was impeccable. Stunningly artless was the only way to describe her performances.
Her voice could produce with equal ease a mental image of a smoky bar at the end of a long night of drinking to forget a lost love, to high-stepping down the sunny side of the street with a bluebird on her shoulder.
With no apparent effort, she made you believe she knew intimately everything about which she sang.
Such was the talent of Olivia Saint."
Things might have turned out very differently if the slimeball hadn't punched me in the eye.
The knee in the gut that followed hadn't helped, but my ire had already been raised by the first blow. No one appreciates getting dropped by a sucker punch.
"That really wasn't necessary," the smaller of the two, the one seemingly in charge, said as I sank to the wet pavement, gasping for air.
The big one shrugged. "The guy was annoying me." He leaned down until his face was about a foot above mine. "Sorry, bud. No hard feelings, huh?"
He didn't extend a hand to help me up off the wet sidewalk, though. Barely able to breathe, I could only watch helplessly as they pushed Olivia into the back seat of their car and the smaller one climbed in next to her.
Olivia looked at me once before the door swung shut. Her eyes seemed vacant, her expression devoid of anything that spoke of the spark I knew was there. Since they'd begun talking to her in the club, she hadn't spoken once, had given no indication that she even knew who I was when I followed them outside. It was as if she'd just switched off.
"Wait," I finally managed to force out. "Wait!"
The big brute stopped as he was getting in the driver's side and smiled over the roof of the car.
"No can do, bud. Got a plane to catch."
Struggling to my feet, I could only watch the car do a quick U-turn and drive off down King Street. As they neared the corner of Bathurst, the car stopped and the back door on the driver's side opened.
The smaller man leaned out holding the lambskin coat I'd bought for Olivia. "Hey, Mac!" he shouted. "She says this is for you."
He dropped it in the street and the car screeched around the corner into the night.
I walked as quickly as I could to where the coat lay and bent to pick it up. A greasy smear now marked the back where it had lain on the streetcar track.
Shaking my head, I went back to the club, cold, wet, sore and very confused about what had just happened.
About a month earlier, Olivia had been spinning around delightedly in front of a store's full length mirror, telling me how much she absolutely loved my gift, how she'd always wanted a coat just like this. It had certainly been worth the drive to Acton.
Just now, had she been trying to send me a signal?
By the time I stumbled back into the Sal, my eye had begun to swell shut.
Slipping into a chair next to Dom, who was carefully nursing his between-set beer, I signalled for Loraine, the waitress. I needed scotch, certainly a double.
Dom raised an eyebrow. "What the hell did you run into?"
"Olivia's gone," I said distractedly, failing to answer the question.
My comment, though, instantly galvanized Ronald who sat across the table from me. "You mean gone as in she's not doing the next set?"
"I mean gone as in I don't think she's ever going to be doing anything with us."
Loraine came over and took my order. I refused to elucidate until she returned and I had a few healthy gulps of scotch inside me. With the excitement over, the adrenaline had loosened its grip, leaving me feeling cold and decidedly shaky.
"You look like shit, Andy," Dom observed with an expression that didn't show much in the way of sympathy.
"Tell me what happened," Ronald ordered.
I took another gulp and felt the booze drop warmly into my belly, then looked across at our problematic pianist. "You didn't see those two guys talking to Olivia right after the set ended?"
Dom answered, "I did."
Ronald's response was typical. "I had some people I needed to talk to."
I signalled to Loraine to bring another scotch. At that point I didn't care if I got a bit tight. In my increasingly wobbly state, I was more worried about staying on my drum stool.
"Tell us what happened!" both my band-mates demanded in unison, causing me to at least smile.
"I was talking to Olivia about trying out those new songs we've been rehearsing in the last set, when two guys appeared from nowhere. Butting right in, they told me to get lost."
The change that came over Olivia had been quite startling. One moment she was all bubbly, obviously very happy and excited about how the first set of the night had gone, and the next it was as if someone had removed her batteries. She just went dead.
When I hadn't moved off, the bigger of the two guys pushed between Olivia and me. "Like my friend said, bud, we need to talk to the lady -- alone."
I'd peered around his bulk at Olivia, but she just stared back with that blank expression. Against my better judgement, I'd moved off, but I did stay close to make sure they weren't hassling her.
They'd taken Olivia to a back corner of the club, conversed quietly with her for a few minutes -- the men actually doing all the talking -- and then accompanied her to the closet-sized space that serves as the Green Salamander's dressing room.
Reappearing immediately with Olivia wearing her new coat, the party of three headed for the door. I'd naturally followed.
Out by the curb they'd had their car waiting and when I asked just what the hell was going on, I got bopped in the eye and kneed in the gut.
Dom whistled after I finished my story, but Ronald looked angry.
"You mean she's just left us high and dry? Walked out? Well, that's a bullshit thing to do after all we've done for her!"
In no mood to listen to his crap, I shot back, "What we've done for her? Do you think the club would be this full tonight if Olivia hadn't been singing? We couldn't attract flies on a miserable wet night like this before she came along, and you know it!"
"Andy's right, Ron," Dom added, using the shortened form of our pianist's name, fully aware how much it irritated him.
"So what are we supposed to do now?" said pianist asked stupidly.
Getting to my feet, I swallowed my second drink in one gulp. "We get up on the stage, say that Miss Olivia is indisposed and get on with it. Whether she's here or not, we still have to play three sets, unless everyone leaves, which is more than likely once they find out she isn't singing."
I was right about the audience making a bee-line for the exit. The early spring weather outside promised to become pretty beastly with wet snow forecast for later in the night. By the time our second set finished, there were about a dozen customers left, most of them pretty drunk.
"This is just swell," Dom said glumly as he took a miniscule sip of his between-set beer. "This puts us right back where we started."
Ronald looked at our bassist with disgust. "What are you moaning about? There are other chick singers out there -- if we decide to go that route again. They're all more trouble than they're worth, if you ask me."
"Come off it!" I said angrily. "None of us has ever worked with someone of Olivia's calibre. Talent like hers doesn't walk in here every night."
"What makes you think she isn't coming back?" Dom asked, guiding the discussion into less contentious waters.
It was a fair question. Neither Olivia or the two guys who carted her off has given any indication what was going on, but it was her behaviour that had really spooked me. I was more than willing to bet a week's pay we wouldn't see her again. My swollen eye throbbed a little reminder as I frowned.
"I should go to the cops," I said.
"For the roughing up you got? Good luck if you didn't have any witnesses." Dom took a bigger swig of his beer. "As for Olivia, did she say she didn't want to go with them? Did she struggle?"
"Then the cops won't be interested. She's not a kid."
"She acts like a kid a good part of the time," Ronald grumbled.
"So what can I do?" I asked, ignoring the comment.
Dom looked up. "You actually serious?"
"Sure. Olivia may be in some kind of trouble. The way those two guys behaved didn't exactly fill me with confidence, even if she didn't protest at all."
Dom nodded. "Remember when I got divorced a few years back? Well, I didn't feel like saying much at the time, but I caught my wife cheating. Actually, I hired a private investigator to find that out for me. He was loud and a little bit cocky, but seemed pretty competent. I could put you in touch with him if you are serious."
Suddenly, I realized I was. "Can you give me his phone number?"
"I don't think I have it anymore, but I can tell you how to find him."
I took out the small black gig book I carry. "Okay, shoot."
"Know that instrument rental outfit north of Steeles off Woodbine?"
"Quinn Musical Equipment? Sure."
"He's got an office at the opposite end of the same building. That's how I found him. I was renting some equipment for an out of town gig, and stopped in to see him on the spur of the moment. Thought that me not being at home might cause the little woman to figure she'd have clear sailing. It didn't take him long to come up with everything I needed: names, videos, the whole sordid shooting match."
Dom had steadfastly refused to talk about his failed marriage for the past two years, and now I couldn't shut him up long enough to get this investigator's name. "Dom! The guy's name?"
"O'Brien. Rob O'Brien. Good guy. I think the company is called O'Brien Investigates."
For the first time in many months, Dom ordered a second beer before we went on for our last set. Old wounds, when reopened before they've completely healed, often need pain killers of one kind or another.
At least that's been my experience.
After a half hour of fruitless effort, she decided that sleep would not be returning and switched on the light above her side of the bed. Grabbing the pillows, she propped them up behind herself and leaned back to check the alignment. Once comfortable, she picked up the book she was currently reading.
Five minutes later, she still hadn't read a single word.
Later that morning Shannon had to make a decision about taking on a new operative. That normally wasn't a difficult decision, but this time the mix was different. The loss of one of her longtime employees had thrown a monkey wrench the size of Cleveland into the normally smooth-running machine of her business.
Several things in the submitted documentation and subsequent follow-up on the prospective employee had raised red flags, tiny ones, true, but it's the little things that always jump up and bite you in the ass. Normally, she'd just wait for the next resumé, but at the moment the firm really needed another person.
The dismissed employee had also been a big blow to Shannon's pride. Warren Duke had been with her since the beginning, experienced and likeable. He had probably been padding his expenses that long, too, as she'd discovered the previous week. What hurt even more was that she'd only discovered his duplicity by accident.
Shannon did not like failing, but she detested being made a fool of -- and Warren had done that in spades.
"I'm getting to old for this shit," she told herself as she dropped the book to the floor, rearranged the pillows and snapped off the light.
Lying on her side, her left arm flopped out to where Michael should be. If he were here now, she'd pull herself against his warmth, and they'd hunker down together against the storm outside. She always felt so safe with him.
As four turned to five, Shannon finally dozed off, but her dreams were troubled and uneasy.
After a long night of gigging, I found myself travelling up Highway 404 that miserable Wednesday in a driving rain. It was far too early to be up.
April can be a pretty grey month in Southern Ontario, and any city, even Toronto the Good, looks grimy at the end of a long winter, especially when the rain kicks up the four-month accumulation of dirt and salt onto your windshield.
The day reflected my mood perfectly as the traffic crawled along south of Finch.
As I exited at Steeles, the traffic ground to a halt because of a collision in the intersection. By the time the traffic got moving, I seriously considered turning right around and going back home. But my swollen eye was still really throbbing, and that hardened my resolve to find out what the hell was going on -- and possibly pay back the guy who'd popped me one.
As I'd expected, I hadn't heard a thing from Olivia. I toyed with trying to get in touch with her friend Maggie to find out if she knew anything, but considering the bad blood between us, I wasn't sure what good it would do. She'd just blame me for what happened.
With all these thoughts running through my head, I pulled into the small industrial mall where this O'Brien character had his office. It felt very odd to actually be looking to consult a private investigator. Other than Dom -- and that had certainly been news to me -- the only people I knew who consulted private eyes were on TV or lived between the pages of books.
The previous evening's events had so unnerved me, I had just driven up without calling first. Pretty stupid thing to do, if you think about it. What if they'd moved or gone out of business? What if they weren't open regular hours? What were regular hours for a PI?
Luckily, though, the gods were with me that day because O'Brien Investigates was stenciled right on the glass door and lights were on inside the office.
Getting out of the car, I didn't bother locking it. A thirteen-year-old car doesn't hold much interest to a thief -- not when the only thing holding it together is paint and rust.
Sticking my head in the door, I was greeted by a bottle redhead with long fingernails to match. How she managed to type, especially so fast, with claws like that, I couldn't imagine.
"New customer?" she asked without looking up.
The woman stopped long enough to reach behind her for a clipboard with forms on it. Holding it out to me without looking up, she added, "Got a pen or pencil?"
"Good. Please fill this out. We'll be with you in a minute."
I did as I was told, sitting on a cheap plastic chair, the kind you see in high school cafeterias. Besides the chair, the whole place looked a little careworn: old filing cabinets, yellowing paint, a carpet that had seen better days and a rather shabby desk -- although the computer on it looked new. If it hadn't been for Dom's first-rate recommendation, I probably would have left. Maybe their slogan was "Investigations on a Shoe String Budget".
The woman finished her typing before I reached the bottom of the form. It was filled with the usual identity-type things, although they asked for the number of my driver's license and quite a lot of credit info, as well. It was only to be expected, I suppose. They'd want to know these things if a job got expensive. That caused me to wonder how much I'd be willing to pay to find Olivia.
When I handed the receptionist the clipboard, she immediately went through a door to what I supposed was the boss' office.
Appearing in the doorway shortly after, she said, "Step this way, please."
I walked over and entered a slightly smaller room. This one had recently been painted and the desk was large and new. In one corner there was a low circular table with four chairs, although judging by the jumble of papers and file folders on it, it probably didn't see much use. Even more filing cabinets lined the opposite wall and next to me was an aquarium full of slowly waving plants and brightly coloured fish flitting among them.
Sitting behind the desk was not the heavyset, middle-aged man with a slouch hat and ready smile that I'd been imagining. My eyes rested on a slender honey-blonde with intelligent-looking eyes and a welcoming smile. I guessed her height to be close to five-eight and her age to be somewhere around forty. She was dressed casually in jeans, a blouse and a tan jacket.
Rising, she extended a hand. "I'm Shannon O'Brien." Picking up on the fact that I'd stopped partway into the room, not because of what I saw, but what I'd expected to see, she added, "I'm the proprietor of O'Brien Investigates."
"This business used to be jointly owned by my ex-husband and me. Obviously, he's no longer here."
Her blunt words were said in a kind way, but made it perfectly clear that further illumination would not be forthcoming.
"Won't you sit down?" she asked, indicating a comfortable chair in front of the desk. She looked down at the form I'd filled out. "I see we were recommended by a friend. I don't recognize the name, so it must have been a job Rob worked on."
"Yes, it was. A divorce case."
Something flickered across her face and I assumed it had something to do with the ending of her own marriage. Being an investigator, perhaps she'd investigated her own husband.
"Is your job also a divorce case?"
"No," I answered. "It concerns a missing person. At least, I think she's missing. Actually, I'm not really sure what's going on."
Ms O'Brien smiled. "Sounds intriguing. Why don't you start at the beginning, tell your story in your own way? I find that's the best way to start any job."
ON SALE NOW!
"Rick Blechta's sixth novel establishes him as a veteran of the mystery genre. [He] has created a story with quiet passion and expressive dialogue that shapes the characters' development. The realistic finale is a challenging moment and is an impressive piece of writing. A satisfying novel that is a must-read for my 2008 list." --- Don Graves, Hamilton Spectator
"On the surface, few things could seem more different than music and murder: one is about creation, the other about destruction at its most atavistic level. Yet at the hand of a skilled writer, even these apparent opposites can flow seamlessly together, forming an imaginative tale in which each element draws from the strength of the other. This [book] is an example of how harmony and homicide can be woven into a captivating and original tale by one of Canada’s premier crime writers. ...his best novel to date."
"A Case of You is a bit of a departure for me as a writer. The two private detectives in the story share an equal portion of it with the musicians. And while music is definitely an essential part of the narrative, it's what happens off the bandstand and away from the instruments that’s most important to the plot.
"Oddly, too, the central character hardly makes an appearance until the end, and yet everyone who has read the book so far seems to identify most strongly with her.
"At its heart, A Case of You is a tale of greed and betrayal by those we should trust the most, and how, even when good people try their very hardest to help someone, bad things can still happen.
"Being a musician, I'm used to looking at the underlying emotions behind things. Good musical performances should affect listeners on an emotional level. I have no time for intellectual music. If it really doesn't say anything emotionally to me, I generally lose interest pretty quickly. A friend said recently that I must like opera so much because I write stories with music in them, and that’s exactly right, but I love opera for its emotional content. For the same reason, I love Otis Redding. Music or writing, it's all about emotion for me.
"The book's title comes from Joni Mitchell’s 'A Case of You', a song I was already very familiar with. The poetry of the lyrics is so poignant and the melody absolutely gorgeous and it just fit what I was creating so well. The version Joni recorded a few years ago, complete with a Hollywood-style orcherstra and her now very sultry singing voice is superb. It became my constant companion as I wrote this book. I also believe that Ms Mitchell is the finest song writer Canada has ever produced. She is indeed a genius. I hope she doesn't mind that I absconded with her song's title to use on my crime novel. Listen to this recording after reading the book, and see if you don't agree that it is just perfect for what I was writing about. You can find it on her album, Both Sides Now -- which, incidentally, is a terrific recording."
"I don't write a series character and for a lot of publishers, that's a bit of a knock against my novels. What I have done, though, is set all of them in the music world with the focus on the musicians who make the music.
"But I also really like a lot of my characters. They're fun to work with. What I've done on occasion is give 'walk on' roles to some of these characters. Up until now...
"In A Case of You, I've used two characters from other books and made them into major players. The first is Shannon O'Brien from When Hell Freezes Over. The other is from my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark. Jackie Goode made a lot friends in that book and the new novel gave me a perfect opportunity to bring her back. The first scene in the book that I wrote with her was like welcoming back an old friend. Even though she's a bit of a loudmouth and can be downright ornery, she's tremendous fun to work with.
"Also, watch out for a couple of other walk-ons later in the book!"
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