I had a lot to do to get ready for the next Rood Boyz gig. We had rehearsals nearly every night, and even when we weren’t rehearsing, I spent a lot of time practicing. I’d been playing the bass for about six years, but had never really taken it seriously. I had never been in a band before, and up until now could amuse myself by farting around at home or “jamming” with other musically-inclined friends. Now that I actually had a band to support as one half of the rhythm section, I was trying to apply myself.
It was paying off. In the last two or three rehearsals, we really started pulling it together. Even Manny, the slack-ass trombone player, really stepped up. Rood Boyz really started to feel like a cohesive musical unit rather than a bunch of two-tone numbskulls trying to draw attention to their lack of talent. I was getting psyched for the show.
As it turned out, it didn’t look like it was really going to matter. When we piled into Big City the following Thursday, the crowd looked pretty sparse. Of course, we were pretty early; load-in for a seven member band takes some extra time. I had hoped the fact that the venue was actually advertising the show would mean that we had a bigger crowd. However, by the time Caleb counted off the time for our first number, there were barely ten people in the crowd. At least we didn’t outnumber the audience this time.
The stage at Big City was not big at all. Since I was sharing it with half a dozen other musicians, I was stationed near the back. (The rhythm section always sucks hind tit.) I couldn’t really see what was going on in the crowd, as the brass section was right in front of me. It seemed like the place had started to fill up a little more after we got started, and there were even a few hardy souls dancing by the front of the stage.
I noticed someone sitting by the bar that looked familiar. I couldn’t say for certain, but it sure as hell looked like Janet. She looked up and caught my eye, and I knew it was her. It didn’t look like she was having a good time.
I guessed that Malcolm had told her about the show, but I couldn’t see him in the crowd. That didn’t mean much; my view was pretty limited. I kept craning my head around Manny the trombone player to scope the rest of the crowd, but couldn’t see Malcolm. Or anyone else from the Portland Esoterica group either. Maybe she had just wandered in at random, but that seemed unlikely.
While I was pondering all this, my mind drifted and I fucked up a fill on “A Message To You, Rudy.” Caleb shot me a dirty look, and I knew he’d bitch at me later. I quit fretting about Janet and tried to focus on the music.
I was only partially successful. I did, however, manage to keep from screwing up again. When we finished our set, I looked around but didn’t see Janet in the bar. It wasn’t too hard to scope – the small crowd had cleared out pretty quickly. I felt a little disappointed; hoping that maybe she had come to see me. At the very least, I felt that Rood Boyz had made a decent showing onstage (apart from my minor fuckup), and that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed inviting my friends to future shows.
Caleb, the de factor leader, apparently didn’t feel that way. He spent most of the time while we were loading out berating the other band members for their shortcomings. I got my share of abuse for the fucked-up fill. I felt that Caleb was just being a pissant for the sake of being a pissant.
I had loaded my bass and amp into my car, and was helping the drummer lug his kit to the van. I was tired, up late for a weeknight, and had a semi-important meeting at work in the morning. I just wanted to get home and crash.
“Carlos?” said a soft voice from over my shoulder.
I tossed the high-hat into the van and spun around to see Janet standing there. “Oh, uh, hi, Janet,” I said. Always the smoothie, me.
“Hi,” she said. “I really enjoyed your show.” She didn’t look like she had enjoyed anything recently; she looked sad and worried.
“Really? That’s great. Uh, thanks.” Once I got rolling with my silver tongue, it was almost impossible to stop.
“Look,” she said. “I know it’s kinda late, but I was wondering if you had some time to talk.”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I said. “There’s a Jericho Coffee just down the street. I think they stay open late.”
“Do you want to meet there when you’re finished?” she asked, nodding at the van.
“Nah, I’m finished now. I just have to lock up my car and we can walk down.” I briefly thought about telling Caleb that I was taking off, but he was still acting like a butthole. Fuck it, I thought. He’ll figure it out for himself.
“Ready to rock?” I asked Janet. She just nodded. I led her the two blocks to the coffee shop, which was almost deserted.
“What would you like?” I asked when we’d arrived. “My treat.”
“No, really, that’s OK. I can . . .”
“No, I insist. As one of the few paying audience members at the gig, I think I owe you that much.”
“It was only three bucks to get in,” she said. I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, OK,” she said. “I’d like a small decaf latte.”
I got her latte and a drip coffee for me from the bored barista, and took it to the corner table where she had parked. The only other customer was a skeezy-looking guy in a torn army jacket, who was hunched over a small coffee, muttering to himself. I sat down across from Janet and handed her the latte. She accepted it with a grateful smile.
She had a pretty smile. She had a pretty everything. Her blonde hair was pulled back and clipped in place. She was dressed in a parti-colored sweater – thick, but also snug enough to accentuate her figure. Her eyes were large and liquid, dark brown. I thought I could lose myself in those eyes.
These were dangerous thoughts. I took a big swig of coffee to stifle them, and started to choke. The drink was still too damn hot. Janet hopped up and gave me a couple of hearty whacks on the back. The physical contact felt good. It had been several months since I had been physically intimate with anyone but myself.
Okay, sport, enough of that, I thought. Clearly, this was no time for romance. I needed to focus on the here and now, and try to help Janet with whatever was bothering her. Maybe later, something would develop. For now, I just had to focus on helping a friend. I took a small sip of coffee and got my coughing under control.
“Okay, that’s better,” I said as Janet sat back down. “What’s going on?”
“It’s about Malcolm,” she said. “I think he’s in trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” I asked. “I saw him last weekend. He seemed fine then. He’s a pretty cool customer.”
“I know, I know,” said Janet. “Sometimes I think he’s a little too cool. I don’t know what to do. I’m starting to get really worried about him!”
I looked into those lustrous brown eyes and saw they were swimming with tears. Normally she was very laid-back and unflappable. I’d never seen her this upset.
“That’s the thing – I don’t know! He won’t say. But he’s been acting really distracted lately, and sometimes he gets in these horrible moods. Also, he’s sometimes out really late, and won’t tell me where he’s been.”
“So, uh, you guys are like an item, right?” I asked. “Dating and all that?” I was still kinda hoping for a “no,” but that didn’t seem very likely given how worked up she was. “I’m not trying to get all up in your business, but Malcolm can be very private, especially when it comes to his love life.”
“Y-yes,” she said. “We’ve been dating pretty seriously since, oh, right after Thanksgiving.”
This floored me. When I’d seen Janet coming down the stairs from Malcolm’s apartment, I’d assumed that they had just hooked up for the first time. I thought back to the times I had been around both of them in the last couple of months, and could remember nothing that indicated that they were dating. Even at Johnny B’s blow-out, year-end Festivus party, where we had all been really lit, I couldn’t remember seeing anything between them. Malcolm Greene really knew how to play it close to the vest.
“You guys are sure keeping it quiet,” I said. “I mean, I had no idea. Even at Johnny’s party . . .”
She laughed, a little bitterly. “You weren’t paying attention,” she said. “You were too busy slobbering over that redhead that came with Cara.”
“Uh,” I said, in my most intelligent manner. To be honest, I didn’t remember a lot of specifics about that party. I had had a bunch of high-octane beer, and then taken a hit or three off a joint that had passed around. That shit went straight to my head. I wasn’t out of control or anything, but I certainly wasn’t in any condition to operate heavy machinery. I vaguely remembered talking to Cara’s friend, but then the two of them split while I was in the can. I got real bummed out about it and had gone home shortly afterward.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I admitted. “I was pretty looped. And I left early.”
“Well, it’s not like we were advertising or anything,” said Janet. “But we were hanging out, holding hands, maybe making out a little later on.”
“Huh,” I said, still intelligently. “Shows you how observant I am.”
She smiled, and this time it actually looked like she meant it. “Well, you seemed like you were having a good time.”
“Well, you don’t seem like you’re having a good time tonight,” I observed.
Her face fell. “I’m not,” she said. “Not that there was anything wrong with the music. But that’s not why I came out – I came out to see you.”
That gave me a little thrill.
“Malcolm told me you were in a band, and that you didn’t want anybody to know, so you weren’t publicizing the show. He told me the name of the band – was joking about it, actually – and I found the listing in the Willy Week. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“You coulda just called,” I said.
“I didn’t have your number. And I didn’t want to ask Malcolm.”
“Well, we maybe should swap numbers, then,” I said. I felt vaguely greasy saying it. “But first, what is it you want me to do, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know! You’re his best friend – can’t you do something?”
“About what? I’d be glad to help you, but I don’t know what’s wrong. Malcolm’s acting a little weird? Well, he does that all the time. I’ve known the guy for years and years, and I don’t know what goes on in his head any more than I do of the man in the moon.”
“He’s quirky,” agreed Janet. “That’s why I was attracted to him. But for all his quirks and weird passions, he’s always been the sweetest, most open guy. But now – he’s hiding something. Something bad. Sometimes he has nightmares, and cries out in his sleep. It’s awful! And he won’t talk about it. When I try to ask him, he just shuts up and gets all distant.”
“Well, what do you think might be causing this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he may have gotten involved with drugs or something.”
“Drugs? Malcolm?” I said. “Not a chance. I’ve never seen him have anything stronger than wine, never more than two glasses. And that’s two glasses more than he usually has. Hell, usually he just drinks iced tea all night.”
“You don’t have to take drugs to sell them,” Janet pointed out. “In fact, it’s probably a better idea if you didn’t, right?”
“I suppose,” I said doubtfully. “Still, I just can’t see Malcolm getting involved with anything like that.”
“He knows a lot of people,” she said. “A lot of them are kinda weird. Or really weird. Who knows who he’s met working at that shelter in Oldtown?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. “One time he showed up at my place with this dude who was tattooed all over his body with intersecting lines. It was kinda like that guy from ‘X-Files’ with puzzle pieces tattooed all over him. Except they were, y’know, straight lines. He’s got some weird friends. I’m one of them. It doesn’t mean he’s into dealing drugs.”
“No,” she said. “But you never know. Sometimes people get in desperate situations, and it may seem like selling drugs is the only way out. Like in ‘Breaking Bad.’”
“Maybe,” I said. “Malcolm is more closed-mouthed about his finances than he is with his love life, though.” I shot her a quick, involuntary look, and she blushed and looked away.
“Then again,” I continued, “he was in a crappy mood the other day when I saw him, and he said something about having made some bad investments.”
“Well, there you go!” exclaimed Janet. “He’s lost a lot of money in stocks, and now he’s decided to start selling drugs to make up the money.”
It was possible, I thought, but not very probable. I remembered a situation a while back – at least ten years ago – when he was first telling me how he supported himself with currency trades. He was quite animated when he was sharing something that interested him very much. He’s been explaining the online accounts and mechanisms that allowed him to earn his daily bread before he’d even finished his morning coffee. On one of the screens he’d showed me, I noticed that the account balance was well above $200,000.
That window got closed very quickly, but it stuck in my head. At that point, I didn’t have 200,000 pennies to my name, and the notion that Malcom had close to a quarter million dollars was a bit mind-bending. I’d also come away with the impression that the account that I actually saw the balance was only one of several he used in his trading. And on top of that, this had all been years ago. I had a hard time imagining that Malcolm hadn’t managed to parlay that money into an even bigger amount by now.
I told Janet all of that, but she was unconvinced. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe he’s been losing money steadily ever since then. Maybe that nest egg finally ran out. Or maybe he went all-in on some investment and it went bust.”
“That doesn’t seem like something that Malcolm would do,” I said. “He’s too methodical. Too smart.”
“Sometimes really smart people do really stupid things,” said Janet. “And the smarter they are, the more cataclysmically stupid they can be when they make a bad call.”
That was probably true, but I didn’t know what to say. Malcolm was the smartest person I had ever known. Could he get himself into a major jam like Janet was describing? I had to admit that it was possible. For all of his intelligence, he could sometimes show some stunning naivety. I remember that he believed that chem trails were real, that the government or some sinister corporation (or both) were spraying mind-control drugs over the populace. I said that the “trails” were just condensation from jet exhaust, and Malcolm had replied that, sure, most of them were; it was perfect cover – that’s what made it so insidious.I told him that the whole idea had been thoroughly debunked. He refused to even consider it, and started to get seriously pissed. Maybe it was an ego thing. Seeing how angry the argument was making him, I’d quickly dropped the subject.
It was one thing to get taken in by some dumbass rumor or hoax, and another thing entirely to fall into some shady and possibly dangerous drug-dealing scheme. Wasn’t it? I sure didn’t know.
“Okay,” I admitted after ruminating on it for a while. “Okay, it’s possible that Malcom may have inadvertently gotten mixed up in something sleazy. Maybe something dangerous, and maybe something too tricky for him to figure out how to extract himself. What do you want me to do about it?”
“I thought you could just, y’know, ask him,” said Janet. “You’re his best friend, right? He’d tell you!”
Are you kidding me? I thought. He isn’t telling you squat, and you’re sleeping with him! Instead, I said, “You should know him well enough to know that’s not the least bit true. Do you remember two weeks ago when I passed you on the stairs to his apartment?”
“Well, up until then, I had no idea that you two were going out. And when I asked him about it – hell, ‘asked’ isn’t even right – when I hinted about it, he got all pissed off at me. So if I roll up and say, ‘Yo, Malcolm, are you dealing drugs in Oldtown?’ – what do you think’s going to happen? I’d be lucky if he didn’t just haul out a gun and shoot me!”
Janet’s lower lip wobbled momentarily and her beautiful sloe-brown eyes filled with tears. Then she broke down crying, and I knew that I didn’t have a chance.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Just take it easy, now.” I debated making a grab for her hand, and after a moment I did. I squeezed, she squeezed and the sobs tapered off. After what seemed like an adequate amount of time, I withdraw my hand – even though I didn’t want to. “Tell me what happened,” I said.
“At first, things were great between us,” she said. “Then, just before Christmas, something changed. He was less available, didn’t always return my calls. He had his phone turned off a lot, especially at night.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “He’s always been leery of cell phones and social media. Calls smart phones ‘electronic leashes.’”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it wasn’t just that. At first, he seemed, well, almost smug. He would go around chuckling to himself, and when I asked why, he’d just blow my question off with some dumb comment. ‘It was a joke I saw on “Boscoville,”’ or something like that. Then he stopped seeming smug and started seeming angry. Whenever I asked him about it, he would just shut up. Or told me to shut up.”
I raised an eyebrow. In my entire association with Malcolm Greene, I had never heard him tell anyone to shut up. I’d be hard pressed to recall when he’s ever said an unkind word or raised his voice.
“Okay, maybe something is going on with Malcolm,” I said. “But what do you want me to do?”
“You can try talking to him . . .” she began.
“I think we’ve already established that won’t work.”
“Then can you just . . . sort of keep an eye on him?”
“What do you mean? Like spy on him?”
She squinched up her eyes and tears overspilled the lids. “Y-you don’t have to make it s-sound so nasty,” she said. “It’s not like we’re stealing top secrets or anything. We just want to make sure he’s okay. Right?”
Well, it wasn’t really right in my book, but I couldn’t really back out of it now without looking like a wuss. And I’ve always been a sucker for a damsel in distress.
I said, “Okay.”
Janet brightened immediately. “Oh, thank God!” she said. “I was so afraid that you’d say no. Or even worse, that you’d go and tell him that I wanted you to . . . find out what he was up to.”
“Look, I’m making no promises,” I said. “I’m willing to at least, y’know, check things out a little. If it turns out to be something perfectly innocent – which it probably will be – then we can just let the whole thing drop. No harm, no foul. He doesn’t have to know.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” she said. “It will be just between you and me.”
Was it my imagination, or did she place a slight emphasis on you and me? I decided not to spend too much time thinking about it – yet. “Sure. Just checking up on a friend, right? And if it turns out he’s mixed up in something shady or dangerous – well, we can burn that bridge when we get to it.”
She laughed a little at that lame old joke, and it made me feel glad. “We should probably swap numbers,” she said, pulling out her phone. “Just so we can keep in touch. In case something comes up with Malcolm.”
“Good idea,” I said. I figured that there was no point in mentioning that I had already gotten her number from Johnny B. We went though the requisite digits exchange, and then I said, “Well, it is way past my bedtime. We should probably get going. I’ll walk you back to your car. This section of East Broadway can get pretty scuzzy at night.”
“Thanks,” she said. “My car’s right in front of the club.”
We walked down the street, which was deserted and dirty. The glare of the street lights seemed only to highlight the graffiti and trash. It was cold, and a light rain was falling. All in all, it was a good night not to be hanging out on East Broadway.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Janet asked. “Kind of a personal question?”
“You know, when I first moved here, I was looking for people who were cool and open-minded and into the kinda geeky stuff that I liked. That’s why I decided to check out the Portland Esoterica meetup. I was a little nervous about showing up without knowing anybody.”
“That’s only natural,” I said. “You made the right choice, I think.”
“Sure I did,” she said. “I met a lot of really awesome people: Malcolm and Johnny and Derek . . . and you.”
That gave me a little shiver, but I couldn’t really think of a good response.
“I mean, it was kind of a sausage party,” she continued. “But that was okay. I grew up with four brothers, so I’m used to being around guys. Plus, you were all so sweet and welcoming.”
We all wanted to get into your pants, I thought. It didn’t seem a good idea to say so, so instead I said, “Well, what’s your question?”
“I just was kinda wondering why you never asked me out,” she said. “Just about every other guy in the group did.”
“Ah,” I said. “Uh, well, it wasn’t due to lack of interest or anything. That’s for sure. The thing was, I was dating someone at the time. It didn’t last too much longer, though. And after that, well, I figured that you were probably seeing someone regularly.” I took a breath and continued, “I figured that someone as pretty and smart and cool as you, y’know, wouldn’t stay on the shelf for too long.”
“What, you figured one of the cavemen had already bonked me over the head and dragged me back to his cave?”
“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but yeah, pretty much. Honestly, I didn’t think you’d be that interested. I mean, I’m probably ten years older than you. And let’s face it: I’m not exactly an underwear model or anything. I could maybe get gig as the ‘before’ guy for a weight-loss supplement, but that’s as far as my modeling career would go.”
She laughed. “That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Age is just a number and looks are overrated. You’re funny and you’re sweet, and that means a lot. Just so you know, I would have gone out with you in a heartbeat.”
Wow, I thought. I swallowed hard, twice. I couldn’t even come up with any ums or ohs for that one. I knew I’d be thinking over this conversation a lot in the near future, wondering if she was really interested, or was just buttering me up so I’d go along with her plan. So I asked, “Tell me – did Malcolm actually ask you out? Or did you ask him?”
“Neither,” she said. “Both. I was having problems with my computer, so I asked him to take a look at it for me. Then we started hanging out, then . . . it became more than hanging out. Y’know?”
“Yeah,” I said, and decided to take a plunge. “How do you feel about him now?”
“I . . . I don’t know. When we first, um, got together, it was great. I was over the moon. I mean, it’s always that way at first, right? Then things started getting strained – like I said. He got more and more distant. The sex was still great and all . . .”
I winced. She continued talking about her relationship with Malcolm and I tried to tune it out. Too much information.
We arrived at her car – a Kia hipster-box. “Well, this is me,” she said. “Thank you so much, Carlos. I really appreciate you doing this.”
“It’s probably nothing,” I said. I wasn’t sure, though. Malcolm could be moody sometimes, but his bad moods were usually pretty short-lived and not very intense. This sounded like something different. Something was definitely off.
“Thank you,” she said again, and wrapped me in a tight hug. It seemed to go on longer than a platonic thank-you hug should, but I wasn’t going to complain, although I had to break it off before my erection became noticeable.
I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll see what I can see and give you a call. Drive safe.”
She thanked me again and climbed into her rolling phone booth. I turned to go back to my car, limping slightly.
It was a good thing that our farewells didn’t take any longer. As I turned the corner of the side street where my car was parked, I heard the crash of breaking glass. I looked up and there were two teenaged street punks bashing out my passenger side window with a rock. I had made the mistake of leaving my bass and amp in full view in the back seat. I hadn’t thought I’d be spending so much time at the coffee shop.
“GODDAMMIT!” I roared. “YOU ROTTEN LITTLE FUCKERS!” I lowered my head and charged. I didn’t think much about it, just did it. The street punks could have just smashed my head with the rock or thrown it at my face, or even pulled a gun – I wasn’t even thinking. Fortunately, when they saw my fire-plug form rushing at them, they dropped the rock and ran.
I ran up to the car and surveyed the damage. They had taken out the window, but hadn’t been able to get their greasy mitts on my gear. I started it up and drove it home, thinking to tape some trash bags over the broken window when I got there. I was too tired to do this when I got back to the apartment, so I just hauled the gear back inside. It didn’t look like it was going to rain, and I didn’t have any other valuables in the car, so I just went to bed. But I didn’t fall asleep for a long time.