Chapter One

 

ARTIE HAYNES put the last twist on the nut connecting the supply tube to the tailpiece under the sink in the big men’s room. Like always, he suppressed a chuckle at the double meaning in the names of the plumbing parts. He never shared the joke. The guys might be big on tail, but they sure as hell weren’t into nuts.

Martinez peered in the door. Soft music filtered through along with his tough-guy face. “Yo, Haynes. Ya done? Wanna go get a beer?”

Did he? He liked beer and he liked the guys well enough, but he only had one more day on this job. That meant one more day when he could sneak into the back of the giant auditorium and listen to those people play music—music like he’d barely ever heard before. “Nah. Thanks, man. Gotta do some family shit.”

Martinez snorted. “Tell me about it. You ain’t seen family crap till you’ve been Mexican, man. See ya tomorrow.” The door closed behind him.

Artie leaned under the sink and turned the water back on, stripped off his gloves, and stuck them in his tool bag. The damned thing weighed a ton, but he didn’t like leaving his tools behind at the job like some guys did. Hefting the bag on his shoulder, he stepped out into the wide hall beside the men’s room he and the crew had been renovating. The client had only given them three days to get the work done in there since they needed the bathroom for some big concert. He would have liked to stay twice as long.

The music filled the hall, though it stopped sometimes and then restarted. The previous day Artie had watched the guy up front of that big band click his stick and everybody’d stop. The leader would say some stuff Artie couldn’t hear from the back, and then the players would go back and do it again. Maybe that dude heard something wrong, but man, to Artie’s ears it sounded perfect.

The music began again, and real quietly Artie slipped into the back of the big auditorium, set his tool bag on the floor, and then hunkered down in a seat near the exit doors. Two or three other people were sitting in the hall listening, but they were up front.

Artie leaned his head against the back of the seat and let the music wash over him like the world’s best shower. Wonder what that music’s called? It was real complicated, with lots of instruments playing at once, but they went together so perfect. It was, like, unexpected. The horn things would play something and then the fiddles would pick it up. Wow. Imagine being able to make music like that.

In his pocket, his phone vibrated once. Text. He didn’t even look. It could wait. This was too great.

“Are you enjoying the music?”

Artie was on his feet so fast he got light-headed. A small, white-haired woman in beautiful clothes stood beside him in the aisle. She must be a damned ninja, because he hadn’t heard her coming. “Uh, yes ma’am, I am. I hope I’m not bothering anyone.”

She waved a hand sporting a diamond the size of a bagel. “Not at all. We’re always happy to know our audiences are enjoying the symphony.”

“It’s really great.” He didn’t mention that he was as likely to be a member of the audience at Sanderson Hall as he was to turn into Superman. He’d seen the prices on those tickets.

“I noticed you were here yesterday as well.” She was smiling, so she didn’t look pissed about it.

He grinned back. People always said his dimples were his best feature. “I’m part of the crew working on the renovations. I’m the plumber, although I do carpentry too. I can hear the music from across the hall, and it’s hard to resist.” He held up a hand. “I’m all done for the day, so I’m on my own time.”

She laughed. “You don’t have to punch a time clock for me. Music is at least as important as work.”

He nodded. “Yeah. It’s like food or something. You hear it and you feel—better. Sorry, I haven’t got the right words.”

“You’re doing fine.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Helen Sanderson, by the way.”

He stared like maybe some angel had descended from heaven. Damn, I hope my hands are clean. He shook her hand. It felt tiny and soft. “Artie Haynes.” Wait. “Did you say Sanderson?”

“Yes. My family built this hall.” She laughed, and it sounded pretty musical. “They paid to have it built, of course. No hammers involved. That’s your job. So please feel free to drop by anytime.”

“Uh, ma’am. Can you tell me what that music is?”

She looked a little surprised but nodded. “Yes, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. One of the most popular of Beethoven’s works. Do you like it?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes. I really like it a lot.”

“I hope you’ll come and see it performed when they’ve finished rehearsing. That won’t be until later in the year. The season doesn’t really start until fall, except for special events.”

“Oh, uh, thanks.” At least he had one more day to listen to them practice.

“It’s been a pleasure, Artie. I’m always glad to meet a fellow music lover.” She patted his arm. “Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Be sure and come in to listen, because we have an extraordinary soloist I think you’ll enjoy.”

Soloist? “Uh, like a singer?”

She smiled. “No, he’s a pianist. Truly exceptional. The only way we got him is because he’s local, so they made a small exception for us.” She lowered her voice. “Honorarium-wise.” She gave a little laugh.

He smiled back, though he had no clue what that meant.

“I hope I see you again.” She walked out the auditorium doors.

What a cool lady. He glanced toward the stage. It looked like the musicians were closing up their stuff, so Artie grabbed his tool bag and left before anybody else noticed him. It took a couple of minutes to walk through the halls to the back entrance they kept open during the day and out into the sun of a southern California afternoon.

So, something cool was going to happen tomorrow. A little shiver ran up his back. If today’s music was just your regular and tomorrow’s was special, shit, he couldn’t wait.

Oh right, the text. He stepped against the wall into the shade and brought it up.

Hey Artie. Got a job for you starting Monday if you’re free. Needs carpentry and plumbing. A little electrical. Private home. Probably a couple weeks work at least. Let me know quick. JT.

JT Morrow was one of the small contractors Artie worked for. Good guy. Honest and paid decent. Perfect timing too since this job finished the next day. That meant he could pick up a bartender gig on the weekend and maybe take a day off. Man, that’d be different.

Artie typed, I’m in. Text me the details.

Shoving the phone into his pocket, he walked to his battered truck, then drove up the on-ramp to the ridiculously crowded 405 freeway. He always wanted to say Come on, guys. It’s three in the afternoon. Give us working stiffs a break. But no such luck. After a lot of stop and start, he veered onto the even worse 55 freeway, then, when the damned cars went nowhere, pulled off the freeway onto a side street to try to outmaneuver the crush on his way to his apartment over a garage in Costa Mesa. Finally he pulled into the driveway. Don Rogers, the old man who lived in the house in front of the apartment, was out puttering in his yard.

Artie waved. “Hey, Don, need any help?”

At eighty-two Don had slowed down a little, but he kept himself fit with walks and lots of messing in his yard. He owned the house outright, so renting to Artie gave him a little income to supplement his Social Security and pension from his job as a teacher. Artie took care of his own maintenance and a lot of Don’s too, but he still insisted on paying full rent. Hell, Don needed it more than him.

“Thanks, Artie. I’m good for today. I’ll be making enough for two at dinner if you want to join.”

“Oh, thanks. I’m going to go visit the parental unit.”

Artie laughed. They’d heard that expression in a movie they’d watched together, and Don always got a kick out of it so Artie always used it.

Don said, “I can save you some.”

“Likely they’ll feed me. But thanks.”

Don nodded. “Come get it later if you’re hungry.” He knew how bad Artie’s mom’s cooking was, since Artie complained about it enough.

Artie waved and ran up the stairs to his place. Inside, he tossed his jacket on the lounger with the cracked phony leather, then crouched in front of his fucking fish tank. That’s what he called it because he’d been sucked in by a bunch of fucking fish. He smiled and ran a hand across the glass. A couple of the little fuckers came up and nibbled against the other side. Too cute.

He’d won a bowl with a goldfish in it at a fair, so he went to a store to buy some food. Bad idea. He saw these fish, like a painting in a tank—neon blue, orange and black stripes, fat little black guys. He told the person at the store he wanted a couple of those. The person told him those were tropical fish and he’d need air and filters and shit. But those little fuckers sucked him in, and he walked out of there with a two-hundred-dollar bill, six fish, and a weekend’s worth of work setting it all up. Yeah, and he never told anybody, but he loved them. Actually looked forward to coming home just to see them. Pathetic.

He rose and stepped to the table where he kept the small aquarium. He stuck his finger in, and the goldfish sucked on it and his girlfriend rushed over to do her own kissing. He gave them a little food. GG. Gateway Goldfish. Shee-it.

He hurried into the bathroom for a shower and quick change. If he got to his parents early enough, maybe he could get away and have time for a beer before he turned in. He wanted to get to the job early tomorrow.

The water running over his head felt good. He didn’t like to run up Don’s water bill, but just a couple of minutes. He sighed. It’d be nice to jerk off, but he’d wait until tonight and relax himself to sleep.

A couple of minutes later, he was dry, in clean jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt that was dark red. Yeah, it was a weird color for a guy, but it felt a little bit—he shrugged as he pulled it on—special. And it looked good with his light brown hair and brown eyes.

He made a rude razzberry noise. Give it up. You’re wading into deep water, man. You’re gonna start watching Project Runway soon.

When he ran back down his stairs, Don was inside. Artie could see him through the kitchen window. He waved and hauled ass into his truck. Get this done.

His parents’ house was only about ten minutes from his apartment, but where his place was in east-side Costa Mesa, a pleasant area that got ocean breezes and had a nice mix of old and new houses, his folks’ home was on the west side, definitely rougher and run-down. When he pulled up in front, it was like going back in time. They’d lived there since before he, his brother, and sister were born, and it never changed except to get uglier. It was like his folks figured houses were supposed to wear out like people did, and hopefully the building made it as long as the bodies.

He climbed out of his truck and eyed the roof. Roofing was no specialty of his, but if he couldn’t figure out a way to do it, they’d be lucky not to be watching TV in the rain.

The front door opened. “Yo, bro!” His brother, AB—a nickname he got since somehow the folks had gone Biblical when he showed up and named him Abraham—ran out the door, leaped through the air, and tackled Artie, sending them both careening backward toward the truck. Since AB was smaller, Artie managed to keep his feet, but it was a near thing. Not that he shouldn’t have been ready. AB greeted him someway similar every time he came to visit.

Artie grinned. “Hey, man.” AB managed to be his friend, despite their being not very much alike. Of course, AB didn’t quite know that. He gave AB a short punch on the arm. “How’s it?”

AB shrugged. “Same ol’.”

Yeah, that described their family all right.

AB snorted. “What’s with the shirt?”

“Oh, uh, haven’t done laundry.”

“Yeah. Looks like it.” He slapped Artie’s shoulder.

Artie threw an arm around AB’s neck, and they walked through the open front door directly into the living room. Until he’d started working on other people’s houses, Artie barely realized there was such a thing as an entry.

His dad sat in a recliner, feet up, paunch hanging over his belt, which Artie could clearly see in his white T-shirt. He had a beer on the side table and was gazing at the TV, where some football game played. Across the small room, in “her chair,” his mother wore her favorite tights and a T-shirt. A romance novel was held open in her left hand and her right held a Diet Coke, a drink she was more addicted to than his dad was to beer, and that was saying something. The carpet in front of both chairs, that had once been some shade of blue now looked dull gray-brown, not as much from dirt as wear. She glanced up. “Hi, honey.”

“Hi, Mom.” He leaned over and kissed the cheek she held his way.

“You staying for dinner?”

“Uh, I better not. I’ve got some work stuff to finish up.”

She pulled her glasses off. “You work too hard.”

“Nah. You know how it is. Best to take the jobs when you can get them.” His mom worked as a cook in a high school cafeteria while his dad had been night shift at a supermarket for as long as Artie could remember. He sat on the couch they’d covered with an old blanket. Junior, their ancient black lab, opened one eye at him, then sighed and returned to sleep. Artie patted him. “I just wanted to see how you are.”

“Same old, same old. What’s with the shirt?”

AB piped in, “He didn’t do laundry.”

“Looks like it.”

Artie didn’t sigh. “How’s work, Dad?”

His father dragged his eyes from the big TV, the one thing in the house they kept up to date. “Good. I mean, nothing special, but then, what’s new about that?” He laughed, but it didn’t sound funny. “How about you?”

Artie leaned back on the couch even though it made the blanket fall down behind his back. “Good. I have this job at the Sanderson Center.” Neither parental unit flickered an eyelash at that. “You know, that big place over by the Plaza shopping center where they do music and plays and shit?”

“Oh yeah, kind of.”

AB nodded. “Right. I’ve seen that place. Kind of cool.”

Artie smiled. “Yeah, well, I’ve been working in there, and they have all these musicians who play in an orchestra. Real fancy stuff like violins and giant violins and horns that are huge. Anyway, they play this amazing music, and you can hear it all over the whole building and—” His father’s eyes wandered back to the TV, AB’s leg bounced, and his mom stared at her book. Artie let out his breath real slow. “Who’s playing, Dad?”

“Rams, man. You oughta know that. You really must’ve been working too hard.” He laughed.

Artie started scratching Junior’s ear, stared at the television, and spent the next half hour commenting on every play every Ram made. He was way up to date on the team, not because he really loved football that much, but because every other person in his life did. Finally he felt like he’d done enough father/son bonding shit. He rose. “I better get going. Yell if you need anything.”

His dad glanced up, then back at the screen. “Great to see you. I’ll let you know how the game turns out.”

“Thanks.” He noogied AB’s head. “Take care, squirt.” AB was only two years younger, but he hadn’t quite gotten it together enough to move out, unlike Artie who’d rented a room at sixteen and spent the last nine years on his own. Artie leaned over and gave his mom another quick kiss.

She glanced up. “Oh, you gotta go, sweetie?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay, dear.” She patted his cheek but was looking back at the page before he even stood up. At least she liked to read.

AB walked to the truck with him. Artie said, “You okay? You need anything?”

“Yeah. Pretty much. I’ve got a few construction jobs coming up, ’cause shit, man, who can live on what I make at Taco Heaven?”

Artie dug in his pocket, grabbed some bills he had ready, and handed them to AB. “Here. This’ll tide you over until you get those jobs.”

“Oh, you don’t have to, man. I know you haven’t got much left over.” But he already had the money moving toward his pocket. “Thanks, bro. You’re great.”

“No problem. See you soon.” He gave AB a one-armed hug, then walked around the truck and slid in. Fact was, the money was to ease his guilty conscience. He’d gotten AB a job once with one of his contractors, and he’d done such a crappy job, the contractor hardly let Artie forget it. Now, Artie gave AB money—but no jobs.

With a long, easy breath, he pulled away from the curb and pointed the truck straight for his buddies’ favorite bar. After a beer maybe he’d do a little work, just so he wouldn’t have lied to his dad. Hell, he hated to add one more lie.