THE FIRST LOCHLAN NOHR NOVEL
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
The Man Upstairs needed a monster.
What he got was a musician.
I’m a singer and sax soloist, which means I travel light. Show up to the gig, swing open a case, get a sound check or two, and presto, ready to rock. But unlike a lot of horn players—and most vocalists—I do my part and pitch in to break down gear.
I also like my bandmates. And it was my turn to buy the java that morning, so I had a good walk ahead of me from the Church of Coffee to Austin Music Hall.
All over Austin, the cafes and streets crawl with hipsters, joggers and dog walkers. Rich California transplants. If you’re expecting redneck cowboys and caballeros, you’ll be sadly disappointed. There are newer arrivals though. Headscarf-wearing women. Communist brats. Diversity so diverse it hurts.
But the toned gals pacing into the cafe in their tight shorts and yoga pants didn’t hurt my mood. Downtown Austin is flooded with gorgeous women, day and night. This morning was no exception.
I inhaled the mingled scents of feminine sweat, perfume and antiperspirant, roasting coffee and baked goods.
Bored out of my mind in the long coffee line, I tried to guess how many of the surrounding ladies were lesbians, like counting cars on a road trip. It was tricky to tell nowadays, Austin being Austin. Unfortunately, with any eye contact, I sensed which way the wind was blowing, and a rigged game isn’t much fun.
Not soon enough, I was up to a familiar hipster cashier. His name is Larry, and he comes complete with piratey, waxed beard.
“Hey, Loch. Heard you guys were playing down the street last night,” Larry said with a smile that made his mustache twitch.
“You heard right. Was a fun show, and you shoulda been there. Now I’m back to load the wagons. But not without coffee first.”
Larry laughed. “What a life, dude. What’ll it be?”
I ordered the usual rack of large roasts and a bag full of pastries and doughnuts, plopped down way too much cash for the entire haul, and then made my way over to the carafes for the pouring.
Minutes later, I was leaving the shop. There were laughs as I walked away.
Why? Well, I was wearing one of my favorite t-shirts. On the front it says Stroke a genius.
On the reverse: 200 IQ.
Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Sorry.
Practically nobody strolled that part of town so early on a Monday. A handful of cyclists and one gay-guy couple carrying a red plastic clothes bin between them passed by. The tree-lined walk up Willie Nelson Boulevard took me past swanky shops, a couple more cafes, a restaurant, Violet Crown Cinema—I’d parked behind it—and Austin Rocks on the next corner. From there, I took the side street route toward Margaret Moser Plaza and my destination.
Austin Music Hall is a sprawling, warehouse-sized building with blue and white aluminum siding and cement walls. Glass ticket windows and exits line the front.
I walked around to the rear of the Hall, coffees out in front of me in their cardboard tray and the bag of doughnuts dangling from a hand beneath.
The load-in area consisted of a rickety metal walkway about half-a-story up via some cast iron stairs, and this platform stretched behind a long series of steel loading doors. I gingerly made my way up the steps, noting again, as I did every time I played there, that the damn walkway felt like it would collapse under my weight. It was just a trick of the mind really, those planks being made of alloy and not wood, but they clicked and clanked so damn loudly as I moved over them that I cussed. I got through a door without incident though, and my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside.
Not surprisingly, I was the first band member to arrive back on the scene. Several thousand square feet in size, the interior of the Music Hall was basically a giant square with one massive stage along the south side and liquor bars directly across from that.
One cute and familiar face greeted me though, stage left. My newest friend, Lois Thelwell.
Lois closed the distance between us, then gave me a hug under my outstretched coffees. “Morning,” she murmured. I noted a sleepy tone to her voice.
Like so many Austin residents, Lois is a mishmash of weird and cool. I’d met her a few months back when my rock band first played the Music Hall, and that had been Lois’s first week as stage manager slash sound engineer. No way anyone could forget her either. A shock of long, white-dyed hair contrasted beautifully against her dark skin and mirrored her bright smile. Straight out of high school, she was tough but personable, with a run-the-ship-my-way command far beyond her years, all tucked into a five-foot-nothing frame.
This wasn’t the Keep Austin Weird stuff though. Lois sported a prosthetic right leg. It was air-brushed to a deep purple cast, sometimes even adorned with a white and black garter, like it was that morning. No, I’m not kidding. Boating accident when she was thirteen, she’d told me.
Lois was my kind of people. And she definitely made playing the Hall a helluva lot easier on me and the band.
“Hey, Lois.” I grinned down through the gap between the tray and my chest. “Please don’t make me spill these.”
“Oops!” She let out a burst of laughter, then her head bopped the doughnuts as she pulled away, making her laugh even more. “Dang! Sorry, I’m still drowsy.” Lois has a sweet Tennessee accent.
I lifted an eyebrow. “Did you even go home last night?”
“Um—no, I didn’t. No big deal. I always bring a change of clothes, in case. Classes are over.”
“Ah, this is true. Well, take one of these. We can share.” I lowered the tray so Lois could grab a cup.
“My hero,” Lois purred, popped off the plastic lid, then breathed in the hot aroma.
“Thanks for being here to open up.”
Lois looked up at me while taking her first sip, swallowed, grinned, then said, “Welcome. Cute t-shirt, genius.”
I chuckled as I looked down at the letters on my chest, then nodded my head toward the paper bag. “There’s sugar and creamer in this. And doughnuts.” I gingerly loosened my fingers so she could take the bag from me, then I searched around for a logical spot to place the tray. The drum riser looked good, so I moved to center stage, and set things in front of the kick drum.
Through a mouthful of pastry, Lois said, “You guys kicked ass last night. Again.”
I caught myself eyeing Lois in a way I hadn’t before, in part because I was still waking up, and also because some daylight was streaming into the Hall, giving me a fresh view. In Nikes, skin-tight jean shorts, and a half-T, that enticingly showed some matching ink peeking out just above her hips, she sipped coffee again. I’d never been with a black girl, as far as I knew, but I’d definitely never been with a one-legged girl. It struck me, had anyone been with her? My mind wanders to strange places sometimes.
“Huh?” I blinked, then lifted my eyes to meet Lois’s across the stage. “Oh. Yeah. Always a blast here, right? Crowd was into it. But—was it really us? Classes are out for Summer.”
“Most of the crowd was digging you, of course. I shouldn’t pump up that big head of yours some more, but you know the buzz you’ve got going on. My hand—you know, Rick—said two music producers approached him after the show, asking a ton of questions. He must’ve given them the heads up you’d be breaking down.” Lois lifted her black eyebrows at me, then put her nose into the over-sized cup again. She sat her curvy butt on the keyboard riser, swallowed another sip, then smiled wide. “They’re on their way right now.”
I snorted. “Well, damn. That’s strange.” I pulled my phone from my pocket to check the time. “I’ve had label people sniff around before, but usually half drunk or talking bullshit at South-By. Never at ten in the morning.”
“Get used to it.” Lois stood, walked over, and held out our coffee. “Drink. You gotta be awake when they get here.”
“One sec.” I lifted my phone. “Need to make a quick call.” I pressed a contact and listened to the dial.
After four rings, a groggy but richly feminine voice answered. “This better be good.”
“Sorry, Jaz. But can you get your shiny self to the Hall? ASAP? I wanna prep for a showcase. Some label reps are comin’ down, and I just got word.”
There was silence on the other end. Two breaths. “I’ll be there in twenty.” She hung up.
I slipped my phone back in a pocket. “There we go,” I said and reached for the coffee Lois still held out. “Now we’re ready.”
About five minutes ticked by before the rest of my band started trickling in.
First up was Dasan ‘Running Bear’ Workman, our talented bass player.
Lois was drinking from our shared coffee again as I stepped up to greet him.
“Morning, boss.” He glanced past me. “Hi, Lois.”
Running Bear unslung an empty guitar bag from his back, then gently tossed it onto the stage near his bass.
I told him the news about the producers.
He looked at me quizzically. “Odd place and time, but okay.” He stared at his bass. “Should I keep this handy?”
“Yeah. Let’s be ready to blow it out,” I replied.
“You got it. Any more of that?” He nodded hopefully at the cup in Lois’s hand, and she promptly handed it to me before picking up a coffee for Running Bear.
Right then, drummer Kat Hixon walked through the open stage door, so Lois got a second coffee. Kat wore a signature flatcap, the sort you’d see on British cabbies.
Running Bear nodded at her, turned to gratefully take his cup from Lois, then sat on a corner of the drum riser.
I clinched hands twice with Kat. “Mornin’.”
“Hey,” she responded, simply, and smiled at Lois. “Morning.”
Lois just handed her a coffee.
I filled Kat in on what was happening.
She glanced at the center stage drum riser. “Hmm. I’ll warm up a bit. They might actually show.” Kat’s seen her share of the bad side of the music biz.
Agreeable chuckling cracked from Running Bear. Not for the first time I huffed, “Guys. They seem pretty invested, coming out this early. We’ll find out soon enough. Try to be positive.” I sipped the coffee I’d been sharing with Lois, and she and I exchanged smirks.
Lois chimed in. “The woman on the phone didn’t come off like a bullshitter. Sounded French. And very excited to meet y’all.”
I grinned at helpful, little Lois.
Clanking of metal and more laughs came from outside the stage doors. Seconds later, in came a trio of band members—Tabor, Lindie, and Pack.
These three showing up together was standard. Half a year ago, they’d decided to roommate up in a small house and had become thick as thieves, often practicing at the place when the whole band wasn’t rehearsing out of our shared storage unit off of I-35.
“Hey! Long time no see,” shouted Tabor. He walked just ahead of Pack and Lindie as they entered the back of the stage and waved over at Kat, who smacked greetings on her snare drum with a brat-tat-tat. The band’s youngest member, eighteen-year-old lead guitarist Tabor Sergio Tamayo.
“Oh my God, tell me that’s coffee I smell,” Lindie yelled above the growing drum rumble and percussive snaps. Our keyboardist removed her sunglasses to reveal sparkling, green eyes, then searched for the source of the aroma.
Pack grinned and pointed toward the coffee cups. “Over there.” Paz ‘Pack’ Mack—say that three times quickly—is our percussionist and an old friend of mine. He’ll run around shirtless on stage, and yes, as you’ve already guessed, that’s how he got his nickname. He’s also in charge of the band when I’m not around.
Lindie bolted for the tray as Tabor and Lois exchanged a hug.
“You better leave one. Jasmine’s coming. You know the way she gets about spit,” I warned. (Lead vocalists hate germs even more than regular folks do.)
Pack shook my hand, chuckling, and moved closer so we could talk over Kat’s drum barrage. “Jaz is coming to break-down?”
“Don’t be crazy,” I told him. “She’s coming because I asked her to.” I paused for effect. “There’s a label coming to see us. I wanna be prepared, and since we’re all here…”
Tabor turned around to face me, wide-eyed, apparently having no problem eavesdropping over the drums. “What? Seriously?”
I faced him. “Yeah. Probably here any minute.”
“No! My best guitar’s at the house!”
“And none of my saxes are here. Don’t worry about it.” I pointed at a reserve guitar Tabor had left near his stage monitor. “You’ll do fine with that. These folks were here last night. If we play at all this morning, it’ll just be icing.”
“Woo!” Tabor bumped fists with Running Bear, ran over to his guitar stand, then started checking the strings and looking for his tuner. Running Bear, a smile on now, stood over his bass amp and began the same process.
Pack and Lois stood to either side of me for a moment before Lois appeared to have a thought, then said, “I’ll be right back. I think I forgot to unlock the front doors.” She hesitated. “Here.” She handed our cup back, then half-ran down the stage-left stairs, in the direction of the foyer.
Lindie returned to my spot with a coffee in-hand. She finished a sip, then said, “Sounds pretty exciting. Know anything about the label yet?”
“Nothin’,” I admitted. “Lois barely knew. But if they’re coming this early in the morning, I know one thing about ’em…they aren’t wasting time.”
Kat stopped warming up, then twirled her sticks twice before sliding them into a leather holster on the side of her drum kit.
There was a brief pause, then: “I’m not sharing this coffee,” Lindie said matter-of-factly. Our eyes met, and she gave me and Pack her trademark devilish look, with her nose in the cup, then strolled over to the keyboard riser. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Pack said, “I doubt Tabor needs any caffeine. But me, I could go for a doughnut.”
“Same,” I agreed, realizing my stomach was grumbling.
We shuffled over to the coffee tray. I set my cup down to pick up the nearby paper bag so Pack could get an easy view inside.
“Take your pick. The powdered ones are jelly.”
While Pack made his choice, I got hit by more than just hunger pangs. We needed a win. You bet Pack knew it too but wouldn’t say it.
He grabbed one of the jelly doughnuts, then a napkin, and I snagged a plain, fried one and scooped up my half-empty coffee to go with it. We sat down in front of the drums to munch down our fill.
It helped to act like it was just another day in the life.
Excerpted from SONGBIRD AT MIDNIGHT, copyright © 2020 by John McDonough