Horla Fiction (November 2020)

 

THE QUANTUM SAX 

by TOMMY ELLIS

 

STEVE winced as the cold flannel touched the throbbing heat of yet another black eye. He avoided the exercise yard, tried not to be alone in the shower room and always kept his head down; figuratively and literally. Ninety nine years of daily beatings were coming his way just because he defended himself. If he lived to see 2077, he’d be one hundred and twenty eight-years-old. His entire life wasted because he didn’t know Mandy was married.

Hindsight gives you 20:20 vision, though, or so the saying went, and now he looked back on his final gig, he had to admit that she’d seemed a little off; kind of jumpy. When he’d come off stage in the break she’d said something about going early, which wasn’t like her. That was when the blow landed. He never saw it, never heard it, just felt it slam into the side of his head, which sent him, instantly punch drunk, back onto the stage. This time horizontally.

Subconscious self-preservation must have kicked in because, without thinking, he’d grabbed the microphone stand he’d knocked over in the fall and swung it sledgehammer-fashion.

Even lying flat on his back, he’d put some serious power into the manoeuvre, the round cast iron base connecting with a sickening finality.

When he’d got up, John Vine, husband of Mandy Vine, had a mic-stand-shaped crater in the top of his head, an expression of mixed rage and surprise on his face, and a snub nosed revolver lying by his side. He’d also come over with a severe case of death.

That had been a year ago, after the judge had seen to it that he never leave prison alive. Self-defence, apparently, was no defence, because he hadn’t known John was armed due to being flat on his back and unable to see the gun. So he’d gone straight to jail, where he’d met John Vine’s charming brother, Vic, who was in for shooting a cop during an armed robbery.

‘I ain’t going to kill you,’ was what he’d said. ‘I’m just going to give you the in-sen-tive to do that yourself.’

That was exactly how he’d said it, splitting the syllables in his softly spoken voice. You’d expect an armed robber to be a bit bolshie and loud. This bloke came across as a librarian on angel dust, though. A sort of studious psychopath which pushed the scaryometer into the red.

If it wasn’t for the music room, Steve was sure he’d have ended up on the Psych wing months ago. Thankfully, music therapy was one of the places Vic didn’t visit, for some reason. Although given time, he’d probably become a regular patron, and then Steve would lose the only thing keeping him sane. So long as he could have a bit of a blow, and Vic didn’t knock his teeth out or smash his fingers, he’d have a reason to keep on going.

OK, the instruments were seriously tired, and the piano was a full semitone flat, but this was prison, not some uptown New York club.

The corridors in this part of the jail were always sparsely populated for some reason. This was both a blessing and a curse. His plimsoles squeaked on the polished floor, echoing off the hard walls either side of him. In a crowd he’d have somewhere to hide, but Vic had the chance to sneak up on him. In an empty hallway, he’d see Vic coming; the downside being obvious. Escaping a beating in that situation came down to who was fastest and nothing more.

He looked over his shoulder. Nothing but an empty fluorescent-lit corridor looked back.

He closed the door to the music room behind him and let out the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.

The cluttered space was not much bigger than a tenement kitchen and crammed with, mainly broken, instruments. The lights hadn’t worked since he’d arrived twelve months earlier, but Steve didn’t mind; you played with your ears, not your eyes.

He looked around, his sight gradually getting accustomed to the mushroom soup winter half-light dribbling in through the tiny barred windows high above.

He picked his way through the musty gear towards what he called the woodwind and brass section, reached for the only serviceable sax and stopped. Most of the instruments were abused ex-schoolhouse junk, but there was something he hadn’t noticed before. Poking out of the bottom of the pile was a leatherette covered case, and if his knowledge was correct, he was looking at a 1920s Selmer alto. That was a proper pro bit of kit. Providing, of course, there was actually something in the damned box.

He rested the case on the piano stool, flipped the catches and opened the lid. Nestling amongst the crushed black velvet was a horn that would have been gleaming silver plate about a half a century back. Now, though, it was blackened with a dappled patina of copper-green. It was the real thing. Would it play, though?

He ran his fingers over the keys. Nothing seized and nothing stuck. It had been serviced before storage and was the exact model twenties jazz great, Robert “Chubby” Carter had played.

Steve had studied the Carter legend when he was a student at The Royal College of Music in London, much to the annoyance of his professor. He’d wanted him to concentrate on Mozart instead of an overweight alcoholic coke fiend. The prof didn’t have a comeback when Steve pointed out that Mozart was also a hardcore party animal. He’d grudgingly allowed him to continue his studies into the bust up between Carter and arch-rival Rudy Johnson. Johnson had shot Carter over the rights to the song Fat Bottom Jump in a New York speakeasy back in ’28. Carter had fallen backwards through a curtain behind the stage he was playing on and vanished.

Steve wet his lips, bit down on the metal mouthpiece and blew the intro to Glenn Miller’s In The Mood.

The weak shadowless daylight and smell of abandoned instruments, old sweat and cabbage blinked out. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again and stared into the blackness. He’d gone blind and had lost his sense of smell. Any chance of surviving Vic’s daily onslaughts had evaporated. He could barely defend himself when he could see.

The eternal darkness was short lived, however. The light was returning. Faint glimmers tickled the outside edges of his vision along with a sharp chemical tang redolent of aviation fuel. The music, though; that had to be his imagination. Ethereal strains echoed faintly, coalescing and solidifying as the light became stronger.

Trombones, trumpets, saxes, and a clarinet joined in sweet perfection. He knew the arrangement. He’d played it countless times in dozens of orchestras, but this… this was different. It had a freshness to it he’d never experienced, and as the room took shape around him, he knew. The beatings had finally done some serious damage. Temporary blindness, loss of smell, and now hallucinations.

Sunlight flooded in through the open hangar door, sparking off the three-storey-high silver tailfin of what looked like a brand new B17 Flying Fortress.

USAAF airmen and groundcrew crowded the huge space as the band pumped out its signature tune. When it came time for Steve’s solo, he stood up and ripped it. Dream or not, he blew a beast of a riff and nodded when Major Glenn Miller smiled at him.

As the song reached its explosive finish, and a roaring cheer went up along with whoops, whistles and shouts for more, the warmth drained from the day along with the light, and Steve was plunged into darkness once again.

The late winter half-light oozed into the musty music room. Had it really happened? Had he actually blown a solo with the greatest big band in history? It was probably, as he thought earlier, brain damage. Nonetheless, he buried the instrument in the corner of the room behind the double bass with the bullet hole in it and piled on a buckled trombone, piano stool, and guitar amp with a missing speaker. If it was real, he had a chance of escape. All he had to do was figure out a way to make the jump stick after the end of the song. Which song, though? What era?

*

He hadn’t slept. He’d laid awake staring at the underside of Chandler’s bunk listening to the sounds of the prison; men snoring, men farting, men terrorising other men. Luckily, Clarence Chandler was a lifer pushing eighty and beyond much in the way of physical violence. He’d loved to have picked Chandler’s brains about the jazz and blues scene in the twenties, though. But the old man hadn’t spoken a word since his conviction for gunning down Rudy Johnson during the legendary shootout back in ’28. He’d claimed Johnson fired first, but, as usual, the jury didn’t buy it. In their eyes he was just a scum-vermin jazz musician. He was there, though. He could clear up the mystery of Chubby Carter’s disappearance but wouldn’t even scribble a note on paper.

Steve’s research into Carter had gone down the back alleys of voodoo, the mythology of the crossroads, midnight, and the devil, but he’d never found any evidence to suggest the jazzer was anything other than a church-going coke head. He’d loved to have found out the truth, though, and that thought led to another, which terminated at an idea.

If he really had met Glenn Miller by playing his signature tune, he could find out what happened to Carter by playing Fat Bottom Jump. It’d be a risk, because if that horn really could do what he thought it could do, he could end up as dead as Johnson.

He stared at his bowl of breakfast slop, appetite nothing more than a memory. All he could think about was getting to the music room without Vic following him.

Breakfast over, he headed straight for B Block. He’d positioned himself as close to the exit as possible in order to get a head start. Strangely enough, Vic had strict rules regarding Steve’s punishment. He was to receive a single beating every day. Never two or three. Only the one. There was no definitive timetable for the beating, though, and that was the problem. It could come any time of the day and any place. That, presumably, was to keep Steve permanently on edge, and it worked.

As he slipped through the post-refectory crowd into the corridor, he could feel Vic’s gaze on him. Maybe he was paranoid, but he was sure he saw Vic’s malevolent gaze reflected in the fish-eye mirror at the corner of the junction. If he kept his head down, he might lose him in the hustle.

The crowds thinned the nearer he got to B Block. There was nowhere to hide, and if Vic was still behind him… Steve pushed the thought to one side. Besides, if he reached the music room first, he could vanish into 1928, leaving his pursuer with nothing but a cluttered, silent space in which to ponder where he’d gone wrong. At least he hoped that’s what would happen. What if it was all in his head, though? If Vic had given him an embolism, or something, then nothing he did would make any difference. He pushed on regardless and turned into the deserted hallway. He glanced back. There was nobody behind him. He’d made it.

As he started digging down behind the bullet-holed bass, he heard the door open. He hoped it was just some random con who fancied himself the guitar hero, but he knew it wasn’t. He knew Vic had become a fulltime member of The Jailhouse Music Club.

There was no point hunkering down, hoping the evil bastard would just leave. He had to assemble the horn and play the opening bars to Fat Bottom Jump before the first blow landed.

‘Hello, Steve.’ The quiet menace cut through the stale air. ‘The music room, eh?’ Steve didn’t turn around. He didn’t have time. The sax was jammed between the piano stool’s legs.

‘This is the perfect place, you know.’

Steve hauled on the case.

‘Just the spot for tuning you up.’

The stool toppled sideways, pushing the old double bass out into the already crowded room with a deep, resonating clong. He had to work fast.

‘Pushing things in my path ain’t going to stop me from handing out your daily punishment.’

Steve pulled the sax from its case and jammed on the crook.

‘What are you doing? Are you going to play me the latest Bee Gees song on that sax-o-phone?’ Vic sung a tuneless line to Stayin’ Alive before chuckling low in his throat.

A scraping of wood on concrete. Vic had pulled the bass aside. Now there was nothing between Steve and his battering. He stood up and turned around. If it was real, he wanted Vic to see him vanish. He wanted to see the nasty bastard’s expression change as he faded away…If he faded away.

Vic’s face wore its usual impassive half-smile, but this time there was a difference.

‘The usual in-sen-tives ain’t working.’ The half-smile became a full cold grin. ‘I’ve de-cid-ed to move up to stage two.’

The toothbrush in Vic’s hand had a razorblade taped to the bristle end. This wasn’t an ordinary beating anymore. This was far worse. Vic’s arm came up at the same time Steve raised the mouthpiece to his lips. Then the door crashed open.

‘Do not. In-ter-rupt. Me.’ Vic spun to face the old coloured guy who stood in the open doorway.

‘Clarence?’ Chandler stepped nimbly over the wreckage and pushed his face into Vic’s.

‘Play the Jump, Steve.’ Chandler’s thin scratchy voice was barely audible from half a century of disuse, and as Steve blew the first notes, he looked on in horror as Vic’s hand flew out across the old guy’s neck.

‘Play it!’ Chandler’s throat split open, spraying bright red in a powerful jet across the small space as Steve ripped into Fat Bottom Jump. Clarence had been murdered, and he was jamming?

The coppery smell of blood vanished along with the horror film playing out before him, and as the buried-alive-blackness enveloped him, he hoped and prayed Chandler wasn’t dead but didn’t hold out much hope.

As the light returned once more, it was far dimmer than his previous trip. Weak filament bulbs glimmered from wall sconces and candles flickered on small round tables illuminating a smoke-filled club no bigger than an oversized living room. There was a tiny dancefloor in front of an even smaller stage. It was packed with suited men and flapper-dressed women dancing to a manic coke-fuelled jazz tune that hammered along with the energy of a small nuclear explosion.

Steve tore through the melody before handing a solo off to the pianist. Well, it certainly looked like the twenties, with people drinking from teacups. As if that would do any good. He could smell the herbal gin-tang from up on stage.

He took in his new surroundings. He could see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste the jazz age. That meant this musical time travelling thing was real, and he was onstage with The Chubby Carter Trio. Arthur Hollins was laying down a blistering solo on the battered piano, trademark cigar clamped between his jaws. A younger version of Clarence Chandler leant over the upright bass, but where was Carter? He never depped the gig out and never had guest players. Steve looked down at his hands, blinked to make sure he wasn’t seeing things and looked again. They were no longer pale, and prison tanned but a rich shade of mahogany, and he’d piled on some serious weight. That meant he had every chance of discovering Robert “Chubby” Carter’s fate first-hand, and if the witness testimonies were accurate, he’d get shot in the chest before falling through the baggy brown curtain behind him.

‘Carter!’ The rage-filled yell cut through the music and stilled the chatter. From his position up on stage, Steve, or as he was right at that moment, Carter, had a clear view across the revellers’ heads to the door at the back of the room. Framed by it was Carter’s executioner. This time, though, things would turn out different. Steve knew the history. Rudy Johnson was armed with a snub nosed revolver. Before drawing it, he’d shout…

‘Fat Bottom Jump is mine, you bastard!’

Steve knew he should have dived for cover, but seeing the legendary gunfight unfold right in front of him had a grip that wouldn’t let go. The dancefloor would empty the moment Clarence Chandler yelled…

‘He’s got a gun!’

There’s never an orderly evacuation when somebody says something like that. The manic scramble for safety upturned tables, splintered chairs and filled the room with screams.

Seeing living history wasn’t as important as not dying, though, and as much as Steve would have loved to have seen the whole thing, he wasn’t exactly a fly on the wall.

His peripheral vision caught the glint from Chandler’s derringer as the bass man’s hand arced towards Johnson. The detailing was amazing as the world single-framed.

Click: The next frame flared orange. So, Johnson did let off the first shot. Splinters of wood hung in the air as the bullet struck the neck of the bass.

Click: One shot, two flashes. They’d fired at exactly the same time. Johnson, however, must have really wanted Carter dead, because he’d thrown his life away by aiming at Carter instead of Chandler. That meant death if he didn’t truck on out of there.

With no time to turn around, he launched himself backwards into the nicotine stained curtain and through the opening beyond. Luckily, he’d hit the right spot, because the stage-width covering hid a doorless dressing room he’d tumbled into. He fell and continued falling as the hysteria and gin-soaked madness blinked out.

He was still alive, but for how long? He’d only end up being given a shave by Vic Vine. Maybe he should have waited to get shot instead? It would have been less painful than a slit throat.

As he fell through the darkness, the light started squeezing into the far reaches of his consciousness, turning the world a flashing red, blue, yellow and green. No part of the prison was nightclub-lit, and as reality coalesced around him, he knew not only where he was, but when he was.

He’d landed flat on his back, hands above his head, gripping the microphone stand he’d knocked over a year previously.

Instinct told him to haul on the stand. Stop Mandy’s husband before he could do any more damage. Not this time, though. If this was a second chance, he couldn’t mess it up. He couldn’t just lie there and allow himself to get shot, though. He had to do something. Something like running away.

‘Mandy is mine, you bastard!’

This was new but also strangely familiar, and as he struggled upright, he didn’t see John Vine. Or the nightclub. He just saw the gun. It smelled of oil and was close enough to grab. If he tried, though, it might go off. What if it killed a bystander? Would he go back to prison?

The explosive blast wasn’t as loud as he’d anticipated, and he wasn’t as dead as he thought he’d be, either.

When the pistol dropped onto the stage with a dull clonk, he knew. John was every bit as dead as he was the first time around. Only, this time he hadn’t killed him, but he knew who had. It was the derringer. That little flash of nickel plate nobody else seemed to have noticed, and the face of the man he’d shared a cell with for a whole year. Explaining it to the cops, though, that was something else entirely.

‘So, run that by me again.’ The detective lit another cigarette.

‘I’ve told you already. It was Clarence Chandler.’

The cop pulled hard on the cigarette, shook his head and looked up at the yellowed ceiling tiles before responding. ‘And I’ve told you already. He died in jail this morning. Somebody cut his throat.’

 

 

***

Tommy Ellis has been published in Writers’ Forum, Horla and has two books out on Amazon – The Midas Cat: The Devil Wears Tabby and The Midas Cat: The Harrington Collection. Before lockdown, he was a full-time gigging musician playing care homes, clubland and functions. He lives in Wales. In a new development, he reports that an audio book by him has been accepted by Amazon and will be out in a few weeks. The audio of The Midas Cat: The Harrington Collection has a bonus story that’s not in the eBook.

Title photo credit – Janis Straume on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction