(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores June 2017.)
As long as Alan's fingers glided across piano keys, pain did not exist. He played the four-hand arrangement he'd written for his "Hybrid Slow Drag," testing the latest changes. A tiny smile waxed and waned at the left corner of his mouth. Occasionally, a "Yes" or "Right on" slipped unheard from his mouth. A corner of his mind gloated, It went over big as a solo, but when Tom and I hit them with this arrangement at next summer's Joplin Festival, they'll really go wild.
The old man twisted tension out of his shoulders. Probably another solicitor. Ignore it. He set himself to start again, but before he sounded the first note, the doorbell rang a second time, then a third.
"Am I the only person around here who answers the door?" he griped to the empty room. With his concentration blasted, Alan stood, a bit too energetically. He winced, groaned, and grabbed his lower back, shuffled down the hallway to the front door, and yanked it open as the bell rang again.
The mail carrier smiled. "Hi, Mr. Chandler. You've got an insured envelope that needs a signature."
Alan signed, mumbled "Thanks," and slammed the door shut.
* * *
Cancer's a lousy traveling companion, never stops reminding you that your life's been hijacked and your arrival at your final destination has been changed. Alan rubbed his lower spine as he plopped into his recliner chair, leaned back, and tossed the supermarket flyers onto the little walnut table to his right. He scanned the envelopes. Mostly bills. Water, credit card, Tom's karate lessons, another credit card. Seattle Symphony...fall fund drive. All for Miriam. Not that he was about to complain. Without her money-managing over the past sixty-four years, he might be resting his cancer-ridden bones in a doorway somewhere. He'd known pianists who'd come to that.
The insured envelope, the only piece of mail addressed to Alan, was at the bottom of the pile. No return address, but it was postmarked Sedalia, Missouri. Could be any number of people, though Alan couldn't think of anyone there likely to send him anything requiring extra insurance. The shaky hand, probably of an old person, maybe writing in a hurry, didn't narrow the possibilities much. Except for the staff at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, everyone he knew there was almost as old as he. Alan tore open the end flap, and pulled out the contents.
No letter, just a couple of pieces of cardboard sandwiching four pages of music paper filled with notes. The title at the top of page one: "Freddie." Freddie? Alan narrowed his eyes. His heart began to beat harder, faster. Even at a quick glance, there was something about the music....
But no explanation? Alan spread the envelope, peered inside, spotted a small piece of white paper. He adjusted his glasses. The message, in the same shaky writing as the address, was short. "Call me. Mickey."
Not just age affecting the handwriting, then. Only one person it could be: Mickey Potash. They'd been friends forever, played together at countless ragtime festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. If not for an unfortunately low resistance to booze, Mickey could've been with Alan, right at the top of the ragtime pianist heap. Even potted to the gills, he could outplay almost any tickler on the premises. But why did he send this music? Only one possibility. Money and booze made Mickey's world go round, and Alan couldn't see any connection to the latter.
He looked more closely at the music. The paper was yellowed, creased and crumpled at the corners. Old-looking...A diminished seventh chord in the eleventh measure, resolving to the tonic...
"Holy s hit!" A breathy whisper. "So typical, but how did Mickey ever get hold of something like this?"
Alan lowered the music, looked across the room at his Steinway grand, took a deep breath. Automatically, he reached into his shirt pocket, popped open a small metal container, extracted an oblong white pill, and gulped it down. Vicodin, his savior. Give it a little time and he'd be able to put his butt back on the piano bench without the godd amn back pain locking him down. Yes, he could read the music just fine, and utter improbability notwithstanding, he was certain of what he was holding. But he had to hear it on the piano. Had to.
* * *