When Ronnie invites her friend and mentor Blackie Coogan to join her at the comeback concert of Match Margolis, the greatest tenor sax and jazz composer alive, she is not expecting a final very final performance. Match seems to owe money all round town, but some very powerful figures illogically don't seem to want to call in the debt. Much to the annoyance of Lieutenant Philly Post, Ronnie is retained by Sharon, Match's flamboyant and younger second wife, and finds herself entwined with San Francisco's shady underworld as the mystery deepens. Death strikes again, and Ronnie herself is in real danger. But from whom? And where and when will the murderer next strike?
Gloria gives an overview of the book:
It was dark and the stars were out. You couldn’t see them from inside the Riff Club, but you could feel them, twinkling along with the jolting jazz rhythm that moved the crowd.
When we had stepped inside, a warm wall of air hit us, steamy and smokey, smelling of sweat, perfume, and booze. Blackie headed for the bar but the music held me where I stood, mesmerized just inside the flimsy shack’s door. Match Margolis, the greatest tenor sax and jazz composer alive, had just started blowing his solo. Nobody in the room so much as breathed.
He was doing one of his old numbers, a song I’d memorized years ago when I was just a kid. He played it sweet and cool, just like I remembered it, with parts that were clear and so pure you could almost cry over them.
When he finished and looked up into the sudden silence, the roar and clapping that erupted drowned out whatever it was he started to say. He stood there, tall and rangy, a heroin-ravaged sixty-year-old man with more talent than a king, and drank it all in.
“Some of you probably heard this one before, too,” he said, when the noise finally died down. Then he turned his back to us and faced his band: trumpet, trombone, bass, drum and piano.
“One, a-two, a-one and TWO!”
He snapped his fingers and the room exploded with music, then with cheers of recognition. The crowd was standing room only tonight, crammed into every corner and up against the back wall.
I stood with Blackie Coogan in the back, flagging waitresses for Anchor Steams, breathing in the tight, hot air and feeling cramped and sweaty but not really noticing any of it because the music was all there was.
Then it ended. Match finished the set, hopped off the stage and headed for the bar with his band trailing after him like so many thirsty Bedouins.
I lost Blackie about midway through the crowd to a couple of coeds who didn’t look old enough to drink, much less stay out past ten, but that was okay. I was the one who wanted to talk to Match.
Weaving through the bodies seemed to take forever but when I finally reached the bar, Match appeared to be alone. His band had vanished into the sea of glowing faces around us and the fans--cool, aloof jazz fans--were letting the man breathe. Not me. I was connected.
I told him my name and he squinted at me, blue eyes peering out of the boniest face I’d ever seen. Then he beamed.
“Damn! You’re Cisco Ventana’s girl, aren’t you? Let me take a look at you.”
Everybody who ever met my father tells me I talk like him, have his brown Latin eyes and the same lopsided smile. I read it all in Match’s look.
A squat blonde had somehow materialized beside him. “Sharon, you ever meet Cisco Ventana? Cat burglar? Remember the guy? He was famous.”
The blonde pushed somebody else’s back out of the way and stepped into our circle, then eyed me up and down. She was a thick, brassy little number in her forties, loaded down with cheap jewelry and more makeup than a circus clown. She was packed into a low-cut, sequined top over jeans that fit her like sausage casing. All this tottering on a pair of four-inch stiletto heels. If anybody ever deserved to be called a broad, it was her.
“Did you say something, sweetheart?”
“Cisco Ventana, remember him? Famous cat burglar?”
She wasn’t paying attention. But when Blackie came up beside me and something flickered in her eyes.
“You remember the guy? He was cool,” Match persisted. “Ya gotta remember him, Shar. This is his little girl here, his daughter.”
She smiled vacantly right through me and fluttered her lashes at Blackie.
“Why don’t you introduce us then, honey?”
Match set his empty glass down while she draped her thick arm possessively around his skinny midsection.
“This is my wife Sharon. Ronnie Ventana. And--”
Blackie offered his hand to Match and ignored Sharon.
Match’s bony face opened up with pleasure as he pumped Blackie’s hand and slapped him on the back.
“Man, oh, man, Shar, you know who this guy is? Blackhand Coogan. He took the light heavyweight title from The Hammer, what--twenty? thirty years ago?”
“Try forty,” Blackie said.
“Great fight, man. Yeah! I made two C’s on that fight, man. That was a lot of bread back then.”
Sharon released his waist and glommed on to her husband’s arm.
“I want something to drink, honey.”
Just then, Lucius the bartender set a fresh drink on the bar in front of Match.
“Here babe, take mine.”
He picked up a glass of what looked like ginger ale and absently handed it to her, then with a sly grin turned to me and asked, “How about it? You follow in the old man’s footsteps?”
“Not exactly. I’m a private investigator. But I do burglar alarm consulting. I guess you could say that’s close.”
Blackie made a noise midway between a snicker and grunt.
I handed Match my card. He glanced at it, then passed it to his wife. Sharon narrowed her eyes, read it, then tossed it into a puddle on the bar. She was eyeing me like I was trying to steal her man.
“What about those rumors?” I asked Match. “Somebody said you’re writing again.”
“Yeah, oh, yeah. Well, I never could write much,” he said, “but I got some new tunes I’m gonna play tonight. Saved ‘em for last. We’ll see if they’re any good.”
Sharon set her empty glass on the counter and stroked his narrow arm.
“Sure they’re good, sweetheart. They’re the best you’ve written, honey. Ever.”
The man could play like an angel and improvise with the best, but what really set Match Margolis above the rest were his compositions--songs straight from heaven that made you believe.
The piano player up on the stand sprinkled the room with notes and the whole place started to get quiet. As soon as she heard the cue, Sharon said, “Come on now, sweetie. You’re up.”
She made for the stand without so much as a good-bye, dragging Match behind her like he was an old man--which I guess he was--but he didn’t act like one and she didn’t need to treat him like one.
Blackie watched them go and shook his head in disgust.
“Too bad about him.”
“What do you mean? He seems to be doing all right.”
“All right? The guy might be an ex-junkie, but fuck . . . I don’t know how he’s gonna stay clean livin’ with her. She looks like she could be a real pain in the ass.”
Sharon was helping Match up the two steps to the bandstand. Match didn’t need any help. He walked upright and took the stairs in two strong, easy strides. Sharon looked ridiculous trying to keep up with him, much less assist him.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “I guess that’s love.”
The room went dark. The murmurs died as Match mounted the lighted stage and lifted a gloriously engraved saxophone from its stand. Behind us, somebody coughed. Then, with all the gravitas of a high priest, Match spoke.
“Here’s something nobody’s heard before.”
He raised his arm and suddenly dropped it. The horns broke the silence first. The drums and piano burst in a half beat later. Then finally Match put his saxophone to his lips and blew.
It was his new stuff--sweet and easy and low--entirely different from the numbers he’d done earlier in the night. A new style. A new sound. And better. He blew out the melody while the sidemen played around him, letting Match’s awesome talent convince every soul in the room that this indeed was magic.
Every note lingered just the right beat, every song hit just the right chord, and every solo left us breathlessly aching for more. And Match gave us more. On and on he played, releasing everything he’d held back these last fifteen years. He filled us all with the sheer and simple beauty of sound as his music floated around us like a fine golden mist.
I stuck by the bar with Blackie until this last set was over. Match finished it up with a sweet, melancholy solo that brought tears to my eyes.
As the clapping and whistling and shouting died down, Match bent his ear to one of the guys in the band, listened for minute, then threw his head back and laughed. It was a fitting finish to a grand performance.
I wasn’t ready to leave and I guess neither was anybody else so I ordered another beer with the rest of the masses while Blackie went trolling for the coeds. We were all still packed in elbow to elbow, jostling and moving in the dark, charged up from the jazz and feeling good--secure in knowing we’d just witnessed the second coming of a great star.
That’s why I didn’t notice at first when somebody pushed up against my back. I figured it was just another drunk customer stumbling around. But the pressure didn’t abate. I heard a grunt. Somebody grabbed my shoulder and hung on like I was a lifeline.
“All right, all right,” I said, fumbling to get the hand off my shoulder while I turned to see who it was. I pried his fingers out of my flesh and peeled him off me. When I turned I saw his face.
Match Margolis. His eyes caught me first: sunken blue eyes, glazed and opaque. They stared right through me. Something was terribly wrong.
He clutched at me again and this time I reached out to him. But I was too late. He slid right through my hands and slumped face down on the floor at my feet. That’s when everybody finally seemed to notice what was going on.
The chatter stopped gradually. I heard something like a collective gasp. Some people were still smiling, the rest just looked confused. Sharon wasn’t anywhere in sight.
I dropped to my knee beside Match, laid a tentative hand on his neck where I figured his jugular was and tried to find a pulse. Nothing. But what did I know?
I leaned down and tried to see if he was breathing. I put my lips close to his ear. “Match! Match?”
“Call an ambulance,” I shouted.
Somebody shuffled behind the bar, probably Lucius the bartender. In the stark silence I heard a number being punched out on a touch tone phone.
“What the fuck’s wrong with him?”
I looked up. Blackie towered over me, then knelt down opposite, on Match’s right side. He felt for a pulse like I had, being careful not to move him.
“He needs a doctor,” I said. “I think it’s a heart attack.”
Then I lifted my hand--the one that had been resting lightly on Match’s back--and my fingers came away sticky. I held them up in the dim light and my heart sank.
“Shit,” I said. “Blood.”
San Francisco’s two-time EDGAR AWARD finalist GLORIA WHITE is the author of the VERONICA “RONNIE” VENTANA series which features a bicultural (Mexican/Anglo), rule-bending private eye whose deceased parents were cat burglars and who herself is a professional at compromising...