Paramusicology and Trouble

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Music and the paranormal are two of my favorite things, so it was inevitable that I eventually combine them. Paramusicology is a series a short stories, flash fiction, and novellas set at the crossroads where music and the paranormal meet. This world is explored by music journalist Nikki McGraw, who begins her unlikely journey in Vegas with a vampire hunting Elvis impersonator. The first version of Trouble was written six years ago. Nikki had a different name and the story had a different ending, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to write more in that world, give Nikki more supernatural adventures. In 2017, I started writing new Nikki stories. As of right now, I have three short stories, two pieces of flash fiction, and a novella. With more on the way. But what to do with this? A collection of stories of various lengths about one character isn’t exactly something publishers are clamoring for, ha, so when I decided to reboot my blog, I also decided to give Nikki a home here. Trouble has been online before, six years ago, but the story has been revised with a new ending and some other changes. It’s where Nikki’s journey begins.

PART ONE

The guitar case full of sharpened wooden stakes was my first clue this was no ordinary Elvis impersonator. Testing the point of one drew a tiny bead of blood to the tip of an index finger. I grabbed a tissue to staunch the bleeding and continued to paw through the case. Various items were secured by leather straps: small vials, a syringe, two flasks, a Bible with cracks running through the black leather cover, and a shiny black handgun with spare ammo clips. Over the course of working at Turntable Magazine and interviewing all kinds of musicians, I’d seen guitar cases full of drugs, condoms, a collection of groupie underwear, and other random things. The previous record holder for strangeness was a postcard collage depicting Hummel figurines taped inside the lid of a case that belonged to a guy in a speed metal band. But this, well, this took the cake and the pie too. What kind of live action role-playing was this guy into? Aside from dressing up like Elvis, of course.

I’d been sent to Vegas to cover an Elvis impersonator convention. Not quite my usual thing but after a scathing review of a teen heartthrob’s concert earned me death threats on Twitter and fangirls mailing in envelopes of baby powder caused anthrax scares in the office, I was temporarily persona non grata at Turntable headquarters. Most of the impersonators made my eyes glaze over but there was one who caught my attention. Not only did he have the moves and the looks, he had the voice. I flirted my way to an interview and now found myself waiting for him to return to his dressing room.

Why were the cute ones always crazy? With a sigh, I closed the lid then checked my throbbing finger. It hurt like hell for such a small puncture. The door opened, the impersonator probably returning from the men’s room. The tiny dressing room had only a chair, a makeup mirror and stand, and barely enough room to change clothes. Examining my blue nail polish for chips I said, “So is your name really Elvis Jones or is that just a stage name?” Had to be a stage name. I could always spot them.

Someone growled behind me. I looked up to see an unfamiliar man reflected in the mirror. Plastic fangs peeked out under a seventies porn ‘stache. Great, another role-player. “The Elvis impersonating vampire hunter stepped out for a moment.” I didn’t even try to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“Good. I’m in the mood for a snack.” Before I had time to roll my eyes he moved in a blur, whipping me around and slamming me against the mirror. Pieces of it fell to the floor.

Kicking at his shins did no good. The light bulbs that framed the mirror burned my skin as I grasped for something to use as a weapon. The man grinned, plastic fangs suddenly looking very real and shark-like. He dug his fingers into my shoulder painfully as he leaned closer, opening his mouth wider. As I flailed I brushed my hand against something cool and metallic. It was a big hefty can of Aqua-Net and I blasted the attacker’s eyes with enough to punch a new hole in the ozone layer.

He fell away screaming, clawing at his eyes. I dropped to the makeup stand, the cheap pressboard caving and sending me to the ground. The hairspray went tumbling away. Broken mirror shards sliced into my hands. I struggled to stand, feet sliding out from under me until I finally gained purchase.

Elvis Jones filled the doorway. Wearing a recreation of the famed American Eagle jumpsuit complete with cape, black hair in a pompadour and lip curled, he held a wooden stake in one hand and a flask with the top flipped open in the other. With a flick of his wrist, he splashed liquid on the attacker’s face. Fangstache howled as angry red wounds opened in his flesh. Preoccupied with his pain, he didn’t see Elvis close in with the stake until it was planted deep in his chest. Fangstache erupted in red flames that collapsed inward in moments, leaving nothing but a pile of ash behind.

The floor undulated underneath as the world tilted sideways from both physical and psychological overload. Stumbling backward, I fell into a corner.

Elvis swept forward and leaned over me. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

“You.” Words turned to dust in my throat. “He.” Eyes the color of whiskey were the last thing I saw before sliding into darkness.

The soft sound of Johnny Cash singing about a man coming around and the whirr of a window air unit woke me. My palms had been carefully bandaged. Blinking at the gloom, I sat up and examined my surroundings. A cheap motel room from the looks of it, certainly not the halfway decent place Turntable had paid for. Elvis Jones, Vampire Hunter’s cheap motel room. His guitar case full of weirdness stood propped against a rickety TV stand. The American Eagle suit hung in the open closet next to the bathroom. There was no sign of him, though. After cleaning up as best I could, I found my messenger bag on the floor by the bed, relieved to discover my laptop and other belongings were still intact.

The impersonator’s suitcase made a tempting target. Throwing out all sense of decorum and telling myself it was all in the name of journalism, I was halfway to it when the door opened. This time Elvis wore blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up and a pink and black bowling shirt. He carried an ice bucket with two sodas in glass bottles sticking out of the top. For some reason, this more innocuous appearance unnerved me.

“How you doing, Miss McGraw?” He placed the ice bucket on the table and retrieved two plastic wrapped cups. “Feeling better?”

“Call me Nikki.” I pushed a stray lock of hair out of my eyes. “Yes, thank you. You killed a vampire.”

“Yes ma’am, I did.”

“An actual vampire. I want to be clear on that. An actual fang-having, trying to bite me, vampire.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He sat at the table and opened one of the sodas, filling the cups with ice before pouring. Raising one of the cups he said, “You need a little somethin’ extra in this?”

I sat on the edge of the bed. “God, yes.”

Elvis retrieved a flask from his suitcase, pouring a generous shot in his own cup and a slightly smaller one in mine.

The whiskey cut the sweet of the soda with a nice hard burn. “What was in that other flask?”

“Holy water. It doesn’t work on all of ’em but the ones raised in church like Darnell usually hold on to enough of those old beliefs to make it effective.”

“Darnell?” Was that Fangstache? “You know the name of the vampire you, uh, slayed.”

“Oh, you bet. I’ve been looking for him and his brothers for a long time. Killin’ him made for a real good night for me.”

The world may have looked like it was right side up but surely everything was still sideways. This conversation wasn’t actually happening, was it? I took another sip, wishing for more whiskey, less soda.

Elvis said, “I can take you back to Vegas any time you’re ready. I didn’t know where you were staying or anything, that’s why I brought you here. It’s not a far drive.”

An Elvis impersonator interesting enough to do a profile on, that’s what my editor wanted. Surely one who slayed vampires fit the bill? Then after I turned in the story, I’d no doubt find myself getting fitted for a straitjacket. Better to go back to Vegas and find a nice dentist to profile.

But I was Nikki McGraw, the daredevil of Turntable Magazine. Nothing scared me. This smelled like the story of a lifetime. If I couldn’t publish it at Turntable, well, I had some contacts on the other side of the business. Trying my hand at fiction might be fun. Plus, I wanted to know.

“Yeah, I need to get my stuff. But I want to interview you.”

He paused in the act of lifting his cup for another drink. “I do know a lot about the king.”

I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. “I was thinking more about the vampire slaying.”

“You don’t want to know about that.” Abruptly he stood and left the room.

Undaunted, I followed. He sat on the hood of an early seventies gold Camaro parked on the other side of the lot from the room, facing the desert. The sun beat down with a hard relentless fist, bringing sweat to my skin as soon as I left the tepid air conditioning. “That thing wanted to kill me. I can’t just forget that happened.”

“You need to.” He took a long drink, emptying his cup. “I sure as hell wish I could.”

That was the wrong thing to say if he hoped to dissuade my curiosity. “Look, I know I can’t treat this like a regular story. Maybe I could fictionalize it, change your name, anything that could identify you. What I can’t do is walk away and pretend nothing happened. So I want to interview you, even if it never sees the light of day.” The need to understand this madness, to quantify and label it in terms that made sense, was powerful.

“I don’t get it. Most people have a run-in with monsters, they can’t run back to the normal world fast enough. They’ll lie to themselves if they have to. But you want to know more.” A boyish grin split his handsome face. “That might make you ’bout as crazy as I am.”

A gritty breeze tangled my hair. I gathered it in a handheld ponytail and shaded my eyes so I could see him better. “Sounds like we’ve got a deal then. I ask the questions and you answer them.”

Elvis stared into the distance for a long moment. “We better get your stuff and get on out of Vegas before nightfall. The Gatlin brothers got a lot of friends of the fanged variety.”

The thought of more vampires coming after us hadn’t occurred to me. A chill shook me despite the heat. “Fine by me. We can do the interview anywhere.”

On the road with a vampire slaying Elvis impersonator was not how I imagined this trip turning out, but it was way better than blowing all my money on slot machines.

I asked the first question on the way back into Vegas. “Why a gold Camaro and not a pink Cadillac?”

He shook his head. “I never agreed to an interview. I’ll get you out of Vegas but that’s it.”

“Surely you could tell me a few things.”

“It’s not a good idea. You don’t need to know more than you already do. It’s not safe.”

“I already know vampires are real. How much more unsafe can it get?”

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “This was my daddy’s car, the only thing of his I got. I call it Mojave, after the Mojave Gold paint job.”

I kept my voice even so he wouldn’t hear the journalistic triumph I was feeling. “What does your family think of what you do?”

The grin disappeared, his knuckles whitening on the steering wheel. Nerve, hit.

“I don’t have family anymore. My daddy died when I was a baby. Momma was killed when I was twelve.”

I noticed the distinction in word choice. “What happened to your mother?”

“Vampires.” He turned the knob on the stereo, bringing forth a blast of Howlin’ Wolf.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, conversation impossible with the loud music. I retrieved my belongings and checked out of the room, then went to meet Elvis in the lobby. I paused to watch him flirt with a couple of showgirls, marveling at how, well, normal he seemed. Except for being too good-looking, that is. An easy smile and Southern charm showed no hint of the barely contained rage I’d seen on his face when he’d staked that vampire.

I shook away an image of fangs snapping at my neck and checked the messages on my phone. Nothing important, much less as interesting as this.

I know what you’re thinking. How could I accept the existence of vampires so easily? The answer was simple: I saw one. I saw his fangs, the terrifying hunger in his eyes, and I saw his body burst into flames when pierced with a wooden stake. How could I refuse to accept something I’d witnessed for myself?

A cold hand grabbed my bare forearm. I tried to pull away, a protest on my lips, when that hand jerked me close to its owner. I found myself staring into flat dead eyes and knew instantly this was another vampire.

Elvis was at my side before I had a chance to call for help. “What are you doing up this time of day, Merle?” He kept his tone casual while his eyes swept the area.

The place was crawling with people. People who might be witnesses, people who might get hurt. I tamped down my fear and the revulsion at this creature’s touch and did my best to edge closer to Elvis.

“Got a message for you, boy,” Merle said. He gripped my forearm tighter and I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. “You made the biggest mistake of your miserable life last night.”

Elvis sighed. “Man, I know. I should have closed the show with American Trilogy instead of Unchained Melody. It’s always best to end on a high note.”

A hysterical giggle slipped out before I could stop it. Merle squeezed tighter and this time I did cry out in pain.

“You think this is funny, gal? Lewis and Micah know who you are. They know you were there last night. They know he killed their brother to protect you and they don’t think too kindly of that. They gonna take care of you.” He moved his dead eyes from me to Elvis. “They gonna make you watch. Just like when you were a little boy.” His sickening grin made my stomach do somersaults.

But as long as he kept running his mouth, maybe he wouldn’t notice my free hand digging through my messenger bag.

“Let her go,” Elvis said. “She’s not part of this.”

“She is if they say she is.” He favored me with his nasty grin. “Too bad. I wouldn’t mind taking care of her my own self.”

My fingers closed around what I was searching for and I raised it for them to see. Thumbing the Zippo to life I said in my sweetest voice, “Elvis, can fire kill vampires?”

He picked up my luggage. “It sure can. Must be painful too because fire always makes ’em scream.”

With a jerk of my hand, I moved the lighter closer to Merle then back again, earning a flinch. “Let me go or this casino’s gonna get one hell of a floor show.”

Elvis laughed, low and sexy. “Oh, man. I think she means business, Merle.”

Merle released me, snarling. Elvis took my hand and we ran for the door, straight out into the sunlight. As we waited for a line of limos and taxis to clear I looked back, wanting to make sure the vampire couldn’t follow us into the sun.

He’d ventured as far as he could. Pointing at Elvis he yelled, “The Gatlin boys are coming for you!”

Elvis smiled. “I’m mighty glad to hear that.”

We weaved through the crowd of people and cars. I said, “Apparently they’re coming for me, too.”

He put on his sunglasses. “Yeah. About that.”

“I think you should feel obligated to do that interview.”

He gave me a sharp look. “I feel obligated to keep you safe.”

“Great! Then you can answer all my questions while keeping me safe.”

“Don’t take this wrong but either you’re not very smart or not very sane. Two of the most murderous vampires I’ve ever run across have declared their intention to target you, and all you care about is getting an interview we both know you can’t get published.”

We reached the Camaro. He stowed my luggage in the trunk and opened the passenger door for me. I stepped close enough to smell his aftershave. “I’m not dumb or crazy. I want the interview because I want the truth. I also want a flamethrower, if you happen to have a spare.”

He rested a hand on the roof and grinned. “I believe you’d use one, too.”

I grinned back and climbed into the car. He shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side. While he couldn’t see, my smile faltered. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

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#MusicMonday – Free Fallin’

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Been a while since I blogged. (Looks at the date of my last post, cringes.) A long while. I guess not many people blog anymore, I don’t know. I don’t keep up anymore with what authors are supposed to be doing on their websites and social media. I just know that I’ve always wanted to be a music writer, maybe a music historian, so here goes. From now on, unless I have a new release (something else I haven’t done in a while, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for later this year), my blog’s going to be all about music. Posting may be a little uneven as I figure out what I’m doing, but I think I’ll put something up at least twice a week. Mondays will vary. On Fridays, I’ll serialize my paranormal music stories.

I’m going to start with a couple of favorites. One of the music books I love most is Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. This collection of writings is legendary, deservedly so, and well worth a read by anyone who loves music. Capturing the essence of music in prose is notoriously difficult. Lester brought rock and roll to vivid life in his articles for Rolling Stone, Creem, and other magazines. My favorite quote from the book is one that resonates with me deeply.

That constant search for new music, taking the long way just to blast a great song in your car, late at night when it’s just you and the headphones or the earbuds and a playlist that fits your mood or gets you out of a mood. Sometimes the music has Great Meaning. Sometimes it’s just a banger that sounds good loud. Sometimes it’s a song that was whatever you needed in a particular moment, so it stays with you forever.

Sometimes it’s a bit of all three and more.

I was in high school when Free Fallin’ introduced me to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There’s a list of songs that have worked their way not just under my skin but right into my DNA, and this is one of them. I love blasting it in the car, I love listening to it in a world of my own inside the boundaries of headphones, it makes me think and it makes me sing along and it makes me inexplicably happy. To me, that’s exactly what Lester was talking about in that quote, with his vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs, slapping on sides and feeling good.

Lester and Tom are both gone now, at rest in rock and roll. I’m thankful for what they left us.