There was a big crowd all talking at once. I noticed a look of horrified comprehension growing on Mary's face, and I decided to ease down the basement stairs. Because I was the last one in through the back door, I managed to do this without calling attention to myself. I went into my bedroom and collected my life savings. I also brought along the hard-shell electric-guitar case my parents had bought me for Christmas. It would protect my new guitar on its trip back home.
By the time I got back upstairs, the discussion had moved into the kitchen. I stood in its entrance. Mrs. Kennedy was saying, "I watched the television news at lunch time. They're still protecting the identity of the teenage girl, but the reporter said that she was adamant in claiming that a teenage boy rescued her and that she had no idea who he was."
I hope the teenage boy story sticks, remarked Ursus mentally.
"I just can't believe some random passerby happened to arrive in the nick of time," Mom said.
"It seems unlikely, but all I know is what I read in the paper this morning and saw on the news this afternoon," Mrs. Kennedy said.
"Do you think it's a cult?"
"I don't think there are any devil cults at St. Dionysius," Mike said.
Mrs. Kennedy ignored Mike's comment and answered Mom, "One occasionally hears of Satanic cults, but they've always struck me as poseurs. This girl is supposedly claiming that she was about to be made a genuine human sacrifice in propitiation of a demon."
"Drugs," said Terry.
Mrs. Kennedy didn't ignore Terry. "The reporter at noon said that they tested her for drugs in the hospital, and the results were negative."
"Not all drugs show up on tests," Mike said.
"Where did you hear that?" Pam asked.
"Danny told me," Mike replied.
"Drugs or no," Mom said, "there's a dead man who had his wife and another woman cut up in his goddamn freezer."
"Should we be getting so graphic in front of children, Agnes?" Mrs. Kennedy asked.
"I've already heard it on the news, Mom," Kirsten said.
"And Arthur read it in the newspaper," my mom said.
In a voice loud enough to carry, I asked, "Hey, guys, can I borrow your wagon?" in reference to Mike and Terry's Gyroscope Glider, which had come in diversely handy in many projects and activities over the years. To the best of my knowledge, gyroscopes had nothing to do with either its production or operation.
That put me at the center of attention. "Sure," said Terry. "I'll get it out of our garage for you."
"Let's get going, then," I said.
On our way out the door, Mrs. Kennedy said, "All of you be sure to stick together."
"Be careful crossing the street," Mom added.
Once the door was shut and we were out of earshot, Kirsten said, "Parents! They think we're all still infants."
Kirsten, Mike, Pam, Mary, and I milled in the Prestor's driveway while Terry fetched the wagon. Once he hauled it out, I put the guitar case in it. Terry seemed content to keep pulling, so I let him.
"Do you think there's a cult, Artie?" Kirsten asked me as we walked hand-in-hand (glove-in-glove) along Dewey Drive.
"I doubt it," I said. Mary was walking behind us with Terry and the wagon. I wished I could see the expression on her face. I was sure she had deduced earlier that I was the one who had killed the diabolist. Please, Mary, don't say anything to incriminate me, I thought.
"What do they hope to gain in sacrificing someone?" Terry asked.
I kept my mouth shut, but glanced behind me. Mary did look worried. Mike turned so he was partially walking backwards and said, "Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac in obeisance to God's will." He and his brother were attending Catholic school.
"But why would God, or some demon, give a care? What's in it for them?"
Mike just shrugged. Ursus said, silently, There's power in a blood sacrifice, power in death. A demon, at least, receiving a sacrifice, feeds.
It annoys the hell out of you, not being able to lecture, doesn't it? I asked Ursus.
We turned onto Bradley. "It's just really sick," said Pam.
"Well, yeah," said Kirsten. "Satanists with sex slaves aren't healthy citizens." We turned onto Cord.
"Was she really a sex slave?" Pam asked. Her voice noticeably quieted on the word sex.
"The news said he chained her up in his basement and repeatedly raped her," Kirsten replied. Rape was an even heavier topic than sex for kids Arthur's age, and everyone grew silent and remained that way until we reached the corner of Cord and Wool.
That's where Danny caught up with us. As he cut across the parking lot of the gas station on the corner, he asked, "Hey, did you guys hear about the perv murderer who just got offed over that way?" He gestured in the right direction. I suppressed a groan as the conversation resumed.
Mary and I remained silent while the others talked until we reached Hank's Music Emporium. I should have realized it was going to be busy on the first shopping day after Christmas. We left the wagon outside, of course, but I carried in the guitar case. I noticed several salespeople working.
"Hey," Hank Dunnington, the owner of the shop said in greeting. "You here for lessons?" he asked with a gesture at the case. "Hey, Kirsten," he said when he noticed her. She took saxophone and the occasional flute lessons there. Kirsten waved.
"I'm here to buy a guitar. I have a due bill," I replied. My friends scattered to look at stuff, but Mary stayed close to me.
"You can leave that behind the counter while you look, then." I handed the case over to Hank.
"I'm going to be taking piano lessons here," said Mary.
An expression of realization came on Hank's face. He said to me, "I remember now. You're the kid who bought an acoustic here a little while back. Your folks were in here telling me to fix you up with a quality electric. Thanks for putting in the good word."
"That was Mary," I said. "She knew I was happy with the acoustic."
"Thanks, Mary." He looked back at me, "How's the learning been going."
"I've been making good progress, I think."
"He's a natural," said Kirsten, who was close enough to hear.
A customer approached the counter. "I'll meet you by the guitars when I can get someone to take over here," said Hank. "Maybe we'll plug one in and see what you can do." Kirsten was looking at saxophones, and Pam was with her. Danny was in the drums. Mary and I went back to the guitars, where Mike and Terry were. The brothers already had some brand new instruments, but I understood the desire to just look at them. Guitars were almost as pretty as girls. Even the sense of guilt that Arthur had been continuously giving off diminished.
"Humbuckers or single coil?" Mike asked as I approached.
"I'm thinking humbuckers, but it's not set in stone." I started looking at prices. The standard brands of the big-name manufacturers were out of my reach. Both Curtis and Checker, though, manufactured "junior" lines in the Asian Territories that I could afford, and then there were the many used guitars and knockoffs.
I stepped around Mike when he stopped to look at a Baron Ace. Ursus checked the sustain on some of the guitars as we walked down the aisle.
I need to remind myself that I have to buy a practice amp, too, I said.
We're going to have to plug some of these in before we know for sure what's any good, Ursus observed.
Near the end of the aisle, we saw it. "It's not as ugly as my acoustic," I said to both Mary and my brain modules.
No, but it does have an appealing homeliness, Ursus said.
It looks like someone really got a lot of use out of it, Arthur said.
"Maybe it just needs a little love," Mary said.
The price was less than the junior lines of the name guitars. I wonder if it's any good. I took the guitar out of the rack. The finish wasn't battered so much as worn away.
Ursus looked it over with an experienced eye. There are no twists in the neck, and the frets aren't nearly as old as the rest of the guitar. He strummed it a few times. The sustain's good. He quickly put the guitar into tune.
I wonder who made it, I said. The guitar lacked all identifying information. It had two sets of humbucking pickups, one tone control, one volume control, and a three-way selector switch. There was a threaded hole for a whammy bar, but one wasn't screwed in. The body was a symmetric double-cutaway design, kind of an hourglass with a big bottom. The back was contoured for comfort. The instrument originally had been stained multiple shades of brown.
With the finish already damaged, Ursus said, we wouldn't feel so bad about cutting sigils into the guitar.
Before we could finish our inspection, Hank found us and said, "I see you've again discovered the best buy in the store."
"It's a homemade guitar, and I knew the man who built it. His widow sold it to me the other day. The neck is carved from a solid piece of mahogany. So is the body, and then it was given that maple cap to make it a bit prettier. The neck is glued in and fit tightly. The fret board is ebony, which feels better on your fingers than rosewood after long hours of playing. The frets are nearly new. The electronics and hardware are all good aftermarket stuff. Those are sealed, sixteen-to-one machine heads. Watch this."
He reached over and pulled on the tone and volume knobs, showing me that they had integral push-pull switches. "Pulled out, only one half of the humbucker is turned on, so the guitar sounds more like a single-coil Checker. Pushed in, both coils are on, so it sounds more like a typical Curtis.
"The guy who built it was a working musician who wanted an instrument that was durable and versatile. Unfortunately, he never got famous, or I would be able to charge a big premium for it. As it is, it doesn't even have a brand name, so I can't charge what its worth."
"What was his name?" asked Terry. He and his brother had come up to listen while Hank was talking.
"Fred Bobberts. Ever hear of him?"
"If you have some records cut in Detroit, you might find him listed in the credits. He did some session work over the years. He also played a lot in the local clubs."
"Let's plug it in," said Ursus.
Hank took the guitar, led us over to a Checker Super Reverb Combo Amplifier, jacked in, and turned on. He put a strap on the guitar, put the guitar on, and adjusted the volume and tone controls. He then played through the complex opening of "Pool Hustler" with the selector toggle in the middle and both humbuckers activated. He then did it again with only one coil of each humbucker on. He did it yet again with just the bridge pickup on, and so on through several of the available combinations.
Then he handed the guitar and a plectrum to me. Pam, Kirsten, Danny and a few other customers had joined us. Dan was carrying a used snare drum. Arthur felt nervous but undaunted. I slung the guitar, adjusted the strap, and quickly worked through several sets of scales. Then I played "Up in the Air" as a chord melody rather than sing it. A few people applauded, so I played through again, just the chords, and I sang the melody. That would show 'em. They made the mistake of applauding again, so I played them "The Shepard's Lament" and then sang "Bob Dobson."
I didn't give the guitar back to Hank. There really was no question that it was mine, now.
"What was the tune you played just before 'Bob Dobson'?" Hank asked. "It's real pretty."
"It's called 'The Shepard's Lament'," Mike said.
"Arthur learned it from a voice in his head," added Terry.
Hank gave me a skeptical look and asked, "You write?"
"Sometimes," said Ursus. "What kind of deal can you find me on an amp?"
Hank had his copy of the due bill. "I can't swing the guitar and more than a small practice amp for this much."
"I have some more, if you have something in mind that's worth it."
"Let's go count it." It was perhaps bad bargaining strategy to let a salesman know how much I had in advance, but Hank gave off the vibe of being a good guy. Plus, he was the owner. If I managed to provoke his sympathy, he had the power to give a steep discount. We went over to the counter, and I counted out the rest of my savings, including all the change.
He thought for a bit. "You seem to care more about sound than name. There might be something I can do." He went over to the amp rack and pulled out a full-size combo model. He took it back near the counter and plugged it in. The brand name said "Go Box Max Reverb."
"This is a used semi-knockoff, from our friends in Formosa, of a Checker Super Reverb, but it uses fewer valves and more solid state components. Being used, you can expect to start replacing the valves it does have sooner than otherwise, but none of them are proprietary, so you can pick replacements up everywhere. It's professional equipment, suitable for any venue up to ballroom size or so. Try it out."
Terry helpfully fetched the guitar cord from where I had left it near the Checker. I plugged in, adjusted the volume, ran through some scales, and played "The Shepard's Lament" again. Then I did it over with the reverb and vibrato turned on.
"Sounds good," said Danny.
"I agree," said Kirsten.
It sounded fine to me, too, and Ursus approved. "All right," I said. "I'll take this guitar and that amp."
"There's still a problem," said Hank. "I'll be cutting my profit to the bone, even for all the money you have." I was about to tell him that I was sorry we couldn't do business, but he continued, "Your parents mentioned something about lessons. I normally give a ten-percent discount for regular students here, and that would be enough for us to do the deal. What do you say?" Hank was a good salesman.
Ursus, I don't want to go spending my parent's money on lessons I don't need!
It often doesn't hurt to have someone critique the style of even an experienced musician, he said, and we're still working on this body's muscle memory, no matter how fast we've been progressing. Besides, he didn't say how long we had to take the lessons. We can always quit if they aren't helpful.
Sometimes, I wonder if you are evil. "When are lessons available?" I asked Hank.
"Lots of tutors work out of this place, and someone can be found at pretty much any hour. Heck, I have an old bluesman giving lessons here to the nocturnal after the bars close. It's more a matter of making sure the practice rooms don't get overbooked, but if you can come here after school during the week, I'd like to tutor you myself. The speed you've been making progress intrigues me."
"All right, I guess we have a deal."
Hank went back behind the counter and pulled out what appeared to be a schedule book. "How about Tuesdays and Fridays from 3:00 to 3:30?"
"I don't get off until 3:15. I'm still at Jewel Staid."
"See you tomorrow, then, or would you rather wait until school starts back up?"
"Mom and Dad said I could get piano lessons here," said Mary. "May I schedule the same time?"
"All right. We have several piano teachers available who can work then. Do you have any preferences? Any particular style of music you want to concentrate on?"
"I want to learn it all," Mary replied.
"We have a retired schoolteacher who likes to keep her hand in and is willing to work then. White hair. Doesn't take any crap. She'll make sure you practice."
"Is she mean?"
"Nah, just stern. She's a big marshmallow underneath, but don't tell her I said that."
"All right," said Mary.
"Mrs. Fedderstein it is." Hank made an entry in his book. "Do you want your first lesson tomorrow, too?"
Danny moved to put the snare drum and a couple sticks on the counter. I got out of his way and saw Terry and Mike look at each other. "What about us?" Terry asked.
Mike spoke up. "Do you have any more openings right after school? Our mom said she'd get us lessons. I don't see where she'd mind them being here."
"Three-thirty is now pretty well booked solid," said Hank. Danny handed some money to the salesman behind the register.
"Me and Terry go to a different school from Mary and Art. We can get here by three, if we haul ass."
"Hey, that's great. Two for 3:00. What are your last names, and do you want to start tomorrow, too?"
"Prestor," said Terry. He spelled it out. "And yes."
"Guitar players, I presume," said Hank.
"Yeah," said Mike. "Bass too. Electric, and we want to rock."
"I know just the instructors you guys need. Bring your instruments; we'll supply the amps." The front window was visible from the counter. "It's snowing. Did you guys walk over here?"
"Yeah," said Dan.
"That amp is going to get heavy if you have to go very far."
"We brought a wagon," I said.
"Foresight, ah, foresight. I wish my kid would learn some." He turned to an employee, "We need to bag their stuff up good."
I noticed Hank put a strap and guitar cord in my case with the guitar. As he was doing that and his assistant was taping a couple of big plastic bags around the amplifier, Terry asked, "Are we going to go snow shoveling again?"
"I'm in," I said, "considering that I am now busted flat."
"I need to watch Jenny," said Danny, referring to his little sister. "But if it's still coming down when my mom gets home from work, I'll catch up."
I carried my guitar. Mike carried the amplifier. When we were just about to leave, Hank said, "Thanks. And you kids be careful. There have been some weird murders going on right around here--Satanic rituals or something."
I bit back a frustrated scream while Kirsten said, "Our mothers have been warning us, too." A few more words were exchanged about the shocking news before we got outside. The amplifier and Danny's new snare filled the wagon, so I carried the guitar in its case. Mary appointed herself guardian of the amp. She walked along side with a hand on its handle as Terry pulled.
When the conversation threatened to remain on the topic of the murders, Mary, Bog bless her, changed the subject. "You know, my piano is scheduled to arrive this evening. I can hardly wait! Well, it's not really my piano; Mom and Dad are leasing…." We talked about music on the way home.