Modern Musak and the Art of Innocence
A Lance Sidesaddle Saga
By Lance Sidesaddle
Sundown. End of another busy day in this Capitol of the High Plateau, Preskitt, town that I love. As evening shadows stretch across the Plaza with a faint rubbery sound, I’m having a double-wide latte with sprinkles in Saint Mike’s and thinking how’m I gonna afford myself a new set of mufflers for Ol’ Paint, my trusty truck. Cops t’other night said my beloved vehicle was unbelievably loud. I offered to make it more believable, but they weren’t having any. Absently I finger the documented evidence of my social infraction – the equipment warning in my shirt pocket. Got three days to get it fixed up and work has been scarce.
I’m just licking foam outta my moustache when a voice comes to me amid the hubbub and clatter, spoken in tones of wonderment and awe.
Yah, it’s me, Lance Sidesaddle, Ole West private detective, defender of the peace, and if I may add, the American Dream, here in Preskitt. With regal bearing I turn toward the speaker. A faint rusty-hinge sound indicates that my royal bearing needs greasing. The figure standing there in pressed jeans, riding boots, and a broad-brimmed hat is grinning fiercely, as if he’d thought of a joke and couldn’t wait to tell it. The stranger hands me a crisp white card.
hogans, cliff dwellings, custom log houses
I recognize the name at once. Surelog is the noted local builder of high-end green homes, car racer, and all-round philanthropist. Beneath his leather vest is a T-shirt that says, “The older I get, the faster I was.” But I don’t know the guy. He pulls up a chair, still grinning. He could do that for a living, he’s so good at it.
“Harlow High. Miss Biffle?”
My lock-box memory serves up a name to go with his face, and my eyebrows unite with my hatband. Grinning at each other, reaching back 25 years, we harmonize in falsetto, “That Will Go On Your Permanent Record. Buster.”
Others in the crowded restaurant are staring. When we can stop laughing, I choke out, “Gerg?” He knows I mean Greg. Greg Lightfeather.
“Shh-shh-shh,” my old new-found High School chum hisses, looking furtively about. “That’s not me anymore. Call me by my professional monniker, Surelog Homes, timber-splitting log home builder.”
“Sure, ‘Log. It’s only been about 20 years since my boots walked the dusty sidewalks of Harlowton. Last time I saw you we were hopping a freight to Vancouver.”
“Keep it down,” Greg – I mean Surelog – says. “Right after you got kicked in the head by that barrel racer, I got sent up for salvaging rails. I was sure that was the shut-down spur line. Finished a three-month stretch in two weeks flat. But that was then and this is now.”
He grins. I grin back. Kicked in the head. Once again I try to recall such a happening. Although I remember everything after, and quite a bit before, I know that event purely by the stories people told me over the years.
“But look,” Surelog goes on, “I was hoping I’d find you. I need to tell this to someone and I for sure don’t wanna talk to the cops. There’s a famous safecracker in town.”
“Safe cracker?” I make a rapid search of my lock-box memory, but produce zip, zero, zilch. “What would be dangerous about a cracker in the first place? Saltine? Wheat Thin? Euphrates?”
Surelog laughs. “You’re the same old Lance, alright. No, dent-noggin. A guy that robs safes.”
I nod wisely, knowingly. And he’s right. I do have a horseshoe-shaped indentation above my right temple. Surelog goes on. “Fingers McMullet – world famous safecracker. Superstar poster boy to the profession. Super hearing. It’s said he can hear tumblers in a lock from the next room. He can open the most complicated combinations in seconds, walk away with the loot.”
Hmmm, I methinks to myself quizzically. “I wonder if that has anything to do with the robbery at Smells Gofar?”
Surelog shakes his head. “Doubt it. Too sophisticated for him. He works on the old stuff, non-electronic. Plenty of those units still around. He’s been hanging around the Palace a few nights. They better look out.”
“Speaking of cops, I had a free ride in a police car last week.”
Surelog grimaces but says nothing.
“Strange night. Stopped for my rusted mufflers. Then I was out of gas. Detective Nabster gave me a ride to the Coneco and back to my truck.”
But Surelog is getting furtive again with all this chat about the law. He motions me outside and we say goodbye on the corner. The sky is dark but the Row is brightly-lit, groups of people stroll or stand conversing in small groups.
I turn from waving adieu to Surelog, and am nearly run over by two svelte escrow clerks in diaphanous gowns, dancing with abandon and sprinkling handfuls of rose petals along the sidewalk where they shall Sweeten the Earth Forevermore. Following those lovelies is a quartet of home appraisers decked out like English troubadors, playing zither, lute, tambourine and woodwind.
Tailgating this fragrant and musical nosh, atop a palanquin borne high on the shoulders of four stalwart buyers’ agents, rides Lady Real Estate Executive Mz. Blanche Flipwhiz. Reclining in regal splendor, her sharp business suit knifes through the air as she tosses complementary mortgage calculators to the admiring throng. From hidden speakers, angelic voices in choir proclaim the merits of fully-amortized adjustable-rate mortgages, interest-only MTAs, early lock-in, and declining principal balance.
A muscular bearer holds above his Stetson-bedecked head a 60-inch hi-def plasma monitor showing – via satellite uplink from her office – Mz. Flipwhiz’s Wall of Fame. The view pans over acres of her framed diplomas, trophies, prizes, awards, sales records, and honorary doctorate degrees. And there in the background, among her rows of business trophies – can that be Trump’s mounted head?
Following this, more cuties with rose petals. They are doing a little chicken dance behind the procession, kinda like poultry in motion. An impromptu conga line forms a loose caboose for this remarkable procession, the whole thing wiggin’ and jiggin’ on up the Row, Mz. Flipwhiz regally resplendent atop the whole thing.
This is a sight to truly lo and behold, but my eyebrows meet my hatband yet again when the assemblage sambas into the doorway leading to my hallowed office. Why this crowd of circus performers, aides, and savants?
On a hunch, I follow on up the stairs. The first person I meet is a Beefy Bouncer, who looks me up and down, down and up, and sniffs haughtily, giving me much too clear a view of his 12-guage nostrils.
“No drunks, riff-raff or ne’er-do-wells in the Royal Presence. Begone.”
“Really,” I muse. “And whom is the Royal Presence here to see?”
“As if it’s any of your business,” Beefy Bouncer sniffs, “but she has a private audience with the famous detective.”
That’s when I remember – three nights ago there was a phone call, making an appointment for this very evening. I’ll have to talk my way in. I flip Beefy Bouncer my card.
“You must mean Sir Lancelot Sidesaddle,” I say fondly, awarding myself a long-awaited knighthood. “I’m his lackey. I have to get him curry-combed before his meeting.”
Comprehension fills Beefy Bouncer’s eyes. We have become equals. Gracing me with a parting view of his cavernous nostrils and large frown on the side, he stands back.
“Sir Lancelot’s Royal Lackey comin’ through,” Beefy Bouncer bellows balefully.
I elbow my way along the corridor through a cadre of flamenco dancers attempting a paso doble in the confined space. Finally, after being patted down and passing through a portable security screener, I am allowed into my very own office.
Mz. Flipwhiz reposes in a Queen Anne chair perfectly centered on a red-bordered Persian rug beside my beat-up oaken schoolhouse desk. She turns from the documents an aide is holding for her signature, and a smile of radiant light fills the room.
“Hello, Mr. Sidesaddle, so glad you could take a few minutes to meet with me. Oops, excuse – “
She breaks off what seemed a promising conversation to speak rapidly sotto voce into her cell phone. I catch snatches such as ‘counter,’ ‘no way,’ ‘California lowball,’ and ‘those complete idiots.’ She folds up the phone and graces me with another sunshine smile.
“My sources tell me you’re a real fixture around these parts. I understand you can be very effective in your investigations. But first some polite chit-chat. Have you been in Preskitt long, Mr. Sidesaddle?”
That takes me back. W-a-a-a-y back.
“Well, about a dozen years ago, I heard Preskitt described as a wonderful modern village lacking an idiot. I made it a point to get here first. Many other hopefuls stuck around, though word had leaked out that the job was taken. But like in sports, it’s good to know you have depth at every position.”
She laughs. “Ah, Mr. Sidesaddle, I see you are a scandalous, criminal-arresting, slippery, nebulous wit.”
The twinkle in her eye brings me an instant of recognition. I grin back at her, looking for a polite yet fun rejoinder that will let her know that I, also, have a sense of humor too.
“Very nice, lady. The last time I saw a mouth like that, there was a hook in it.”
Several members of her assemblage bristle and begin to advance menacingly, but she stops them with an absent flick of her gold-encrusted fan.
“Stay,” she commands, not looking around. Everyone snaps to parade rest.
“Ha!” She goes on with a smile. “I like a truly homely man, one of cruel wit, although a witless barb, a clumsy lance.”
“Fabulous,” I rejoin amicably. “And do you open yer mouth for reasons other than to change feet?”
“Enough chit-chat, ruffian. Let’s talk biz. I am known as Queen of the Earth. I sell the ground back to those who would walk on it. I made nine billion dollars last month. I have at this time 500 phone messages waiting. I pick and choose. I may not take a party on as clients unless the signs are right.”
There’s more, and it takes a while – I can see that having a conversation with this woman will resemble controlling a runaway truck. As she yammers on, I get the impression I’m hearing a memorized script. Her face is young, but she has a somewhat slack, un-worked out body.
I feel compelled to butt in. “Ya know, you remind me of modern art.”
She tilts her head with a puzzled smile. “How so?”
“You’re fabulous to look at, but I have no idea what you’re saying.”
She laughs, a golden melodic sound. “Ha! A compliment in disguise. I’ll take it.”
Then, with the slightest flick of her golden fan, the trapeze artists, aides, bearers, caterers, and camp followers retreat into the corridor. One last assistant darts in for her signature on a contract. The door swings shut with a discreet click. She closes her eyes, and inhales deeply. When she opens them she is almost a different person.
“Well, Mr. Sidesaddle – “
Her head tilts to the side. “Lance, then. I’m so glad you could see me. Your name is legendary for several blocks in all directions. But I hear you help people find things – find things that they’ve lost. I’ve been a busy girl, Lance, though I’m not a girl anymore. I spent a billion dollars last year having work done,” she points at her too-young face.
“Plastic surgery? How do you even find the time?”
“It’s done while I sleep. Everything gets done for me. That’s just it. I don’t know who I am anymore. I started making money, then got so good at it I forgot how to do anything else.”
Now I get it. With all the wealth, power, et cetera a woman can have, she’s after the one thing she can’t buy – happiness.
“What did you used to do? I mean when life was normal.”
She takes a deep breath and smiles. “Ride horseback with my kids, make jam. My prickly pear jelly won prizes at the fair for several years. But I delegated the living part. Now I’m just this machine that makes money. Queen of the Earth. What rubbish. I feel more like a mechanical queen bee, living for the hive.”
“Well ya know,” I begin, “just having the question is enough of the answer lady. Just keep asking the question. That part’s free.”
“I’m not used to doing things gradually.”
“Yah, well instant gratification sometimes takes too gol durn long. But, I have just what you need.”
Her face shows relief. “Do you, Lance? I’ll pay you any amount of money.”
I allow myself a small, doubtful frown. “That’s the tricky thing. Cain’t be bought.” I take out a pad and sketch a rough map. “Be here ‘round four tomorrow morning. Have someone drop you. Wear hiking clothes. You’ll see a light. Walk to it, that’s where I’ll be.”
Her eyebrows arch at the four a.m. bit, but she agrees. She bids a professional yet fond farewell, snaps her fingers, and in a twinkling she is whisked atop the palanquin, and the whole assemblage exits toward the stairwell. As many feet clomp down my stairs, I hear her cell phone, fax machine, email, scanner and copier whirring in obedient chorus. I can almost hear the money pouring into her personal bank account. I sit back in my beat-up oak chair.
What she needs will take care of itself, all she has to do is show up. But my mind turns back to two things: new mufflers, and a dangerous cracker. The mufflers will be tough, thinks I, at which moment I notice the summons is gone from my shirt pocket. Blanche’s screeners neglected to return it. Yikes and carramba.
But Fingers McMullet I can manage. Hmmm. Hanging at the Palace is he? I bounce the available clues about in the hollow recesses of my lock-box memory. Super-sensitive hearing. Likes Happy Hour. Bit of a show-off. Ha! Got it.
Before long I’m enjoying the evening on Whiskey Row, lounging about the entrance to the Palace bar, listening to the detuned honky-tonk strains of Louie Lewis wafting over the sidewalk through the swingin’ doors. Sidewalk passersby in the warm night ogle me like a curio of the Old West.
Through the window, I can see Louie at the piano. He and I are dressed alike: black bowler hat, striped white shirt with red arm bands, dark jeans, boots. He plays good, but like any seasoned performer, will pace himself, eventually take a break.
The lights are dim inside the old bar room, but as I casually scan the folks at the tables I see one guy could be who I’m after. You know, the safecracker. Yeah, him. McMullet. And as I listen to the piano, I am reminded of its perpetual foul tuning. The soundboard is cracked, strings haven’t been voiced since the day it was knocked together, a couple of the keys don’t even play. Doesn’t matter much to honky-tonk tunes, in fact it helps. But every so often my suspect twitches as though poked with a hatpin and scowls at the piano, then with a slight shiver goes back to his beer.
At last, the moment I’ve been waiting for. Louie gets up, grabs a glass of sarsaparilla from the bar, and goes out back.
Craftily I sidle through the swingin’ doors, trying to mimic Louie’s walk. Nobody really notices as I plunk down on the piano bench and start to play. I don’t know the same honky-tonk Louie plays, I’m more into old blues tunes. And besides, the place is well beyond its second or third round. Conversation continues loud and carefree as I let go a few riffs from Sweet Georgia Brown. As I play, I hunt down the most wretched note on the keyboard, and finally there it is – directly between F and G-flat – a sound so painful it will make even the most tone-deaf rock guitarist twitch. I grab a chord around that nefarious note and really work it.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the guy, yah, him, jerk spasmodically and roll his eyes toward the ceiling. A table of east-coast visitors looks over and laughs – they get it – must be from Juliard. Most folks in the room just wince involuntarily and go on with their eating, drinking, conversing, and carousing. But not my guy. He’s on his feet now, staring right at me, and looks like he’s in pain. Eyeing him fiendishly, I work back to my favorite chord, an undocumented seventh, right in the middle of that ruined section of the strings.
The conversation, noise and laughter get louder in the room. A stack of dishes hits the floor. I figure this is an involuntary attempt to drown me out. But it’s killing me too, I won’t be able to put up with it for long. And neither will he.
How can I be sure? Because here he comes. Because he’s staggering like Frankenstein’s baby steps. Because he’s sweating, because his face is contorted as if someone is driving hot spikes into his ears. And someone is, figuratively speaking. And that someone is little me.
He places a delicate hand on my shoulder, clutching my shirt. I can see the sensitive, long, tapered, safecracking fingers. Just for fun, I noodle the worst-tuned notes I can find. He winces. He speaks, grating out the words that are part curse, part fervent prayer.
“Hey buddy, I’ll give you five thousand dollars just to stop.”
I look at him with a bland, innocent smile. “Stop? You mean this?”
I give him a couple more dischordant harmonies, and throw in a tormented thirteenth. He grimaces. “Ten thousand. Now.”
In his hand is a thick white envelope, extended toward me.
I stop playing. In the restaurant there is a collective sigh, blowing both sets of the swinging doors momentarily outward. I wait a beat, until hub meets bub to beget hubbub.
“Fine,” I say, reaching out my hand. His face relaxes and he begins to smile, thinking I have taken the bait. I can see it in his face – easy money, rule the world. But oh, no, not your Knight of the Realm, Sir Lancelot Sidesaddle.
Now students, watch this. I reach out as though to accept the proffered bribe, and palm the handcuffs I so recently borrowed from Detective Nabster during my free ride in the police car. With a swift click-click, I flick one cuff over his wrist, clamp the other around the sturdy leg of the old piano, and step back. McMullet’s face clouds with swarthy anger.
“You moron, what are you doing?”
I remove the white envelope from my prisoner’s astonished grip and hold it to my ear. Just as I suspected, I hear the dulcet tones of Franklins and Jacksons in mixed chorus. The more I listen, I can almost hear them harmonizing the tender lyrics: Lance, let’s blow this joint and go have some fun. But I ignore their siren song and say No To Satan.
Waving the envelope mockingly in his face, I declare, “Fingers McMullet, your game is up. All the way up. If I’m not mistaken, this loot is from the hotel safe. And you are on a one-way trip to the hoosegow.”
Leaving my captive cursing and helpless, I hand the envelope to the surprised barkeep, thus returning the loot before they found it missing. A quick word or two and he’s on the phone to the law, while I’m out the door, ignoring an admirer’s slurred request for Melancholy Baby.
No time to rest on my laurels. I make a quick visit to my office to doff the piano player duds and get my real persona back – Shady Brady, leather vest, stained chaps, snakeskin boots with one spur missing – and before you can say habeas corpus I’m heading off over the ridge.
I keep Ol’ Paint’s engine as quiet as possible, becuz the mufflers are truly unbearable. There’s a bicycle at Yakking Boulders Ranch – my spread – I gotta oil up and adjust it before I get to my spirit-calling with Mz. Flipwhiz. She doesn’t yet know that’s what it is.
So it’s a busy night, and by the time four o’clock in the morning rolls around, I have parked my noisy truck at an overlook on the dark eastern slope of Thumb Butte and walked the quarter-mile to a clearing. I switch on a little flashlight with a gold filter and hang it in a tree. Then I look at the stars a while. Doesn’t matter how many times I see the night sky, always affects me the same way. When I look up I feel like I’m falling right into it.
It’s not too long I hear footsteps coming up the path. She’s quiet, I’ll give her that. Didn’t hear any vehicles, and her footfalls are very soft. In the starlight I can tell she’s wearing jeans, a light sweater, and leather moccasins. Good. I can also make out her bright smile.
“So, Lance. What do I do?”
“Pull up a stump and watch over yonder. And be quiet.”
She follows my gaze toward the east where the sky is a brighter pale of shade. We both sit.
She’s a lucky one, she is. I sure didn’t plan it this way. Or maybe it was in her stars to ask for my help this particular night. Anyway here comes the moon, not a big bright moon but a disk of faint blue earthshine with the finest edging of pure gold around the lower arc, the side facing down toward where the sun waits below the horizon.
We’re both quiet as this grand vision moves majestically up the sky, while the dark fades from the cool morning air, the breezes stir and the birds begin to wake each other in the dark trees. Then finally it’s here, a fierce ruby on a distant mountaintop that grows from a single point to a flattened orange disk standing on the horizon, the sky full light now. We’re both staring into that flaming orb like it’s kinda hypnotic. We can still see the faint crescent moon suspended above the fireball sun.
I’m still staring, and I’ll admit I’m awestruck as usual, when I notice she has turned from the flaming majesty of a new-minted day and she’s standing there looking up at me. I look down at her. That perfect radiant face of hers has a new light now. I can see she gets it, why she’s here.
The new golden sunlight glances off her hair from behind, making a kind of halo effect.
“Mr. Sidesaddle,” she says quietly, “you are a Saint.”
That makes me think. “Hmmm, sainthood is tricky business. There’s a five-year waiting period. And I’m pretty sure you have to be a dead person before you can apply. Thanks but no thanks.”
She turns to look at the just-risen sun, the flame that still hangs reflected on the distant mountain tops.
“You have an interesting place, out there beyond the ridge.”
“Thanks. I call it Yakking Boulders State Park, or if I’m in the right mood, Yakking Boulders Ranch. It’s my therapeutic ranch for wayward grownups.”
“I wonder if you would like to lust it?”
Hmmm, I think to myself, must be a new real estate term.
But she’s turned beet red in the morning sunshine, fanning the air between us like she’s erasing a blackboard. “List it!”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing, she wants me to sell my home sweet home?
“You scoped my ranch? You want me to sell my place?”
Now she looks confused, like I said something inappropriate. “Wouldn’t life be easier if you had a little money?”
I edge around so she gets a face full of the rising sun when she looks at me. “What do you know about what I’ve got, lady? What gol durn business is that of yours? Where do I live if I give up my spread? And who the heck buys it, some developer? I think that’s way too nosy!”
Now she’s holding both hands out in a placating gesture. Her face looks like she’s preparing to calm a small berserk puppy. “No, Lance, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“What did you mean then? I brought you up here because you asked for a reality check. You got it cuz I know you got it. Then you’re right back into buying and selling, with MY LAND. I gotta go.”
Her small hand is on my arm. Her face is distraught. “No, Lance, please don’t. I am sorry. Old habits are hard to break. I’m sorry I ruined this wonderful moment you made for me.”
I look down at her. I wonder if she’s about to be arrested, because suddenly I’m getting those…
I take a deep breath and relax. “Apology accepted, but still I gotta go.”
“What do I owe you for your – therapy?” Her hand is still on my arm.
I shake my head, gesturing at the bright sky. “No charge. This can’t be bought and sold.”
“Are you sure, Lance?”
“No, Lance, I’m a single empty-nester these days.”
For a minute I just stand there and look at her. Any day now some lucky guy is going to bump into her and… wow. But such a fate is no doubt reserved for some handsome hombre with fancy cars and lotsa dough, not for a schlub who orders his lattes double-wide because that looks like up from where he hangs his hat.
I smile at her to let her know it’s all OK. “There’s a bicycle down by my truck. Get you back to town.”
I turn and walk down the dusty road, but can’t shake my last glimpse of her sun-struck face, one small tear edging its way down a smooth cheek.
I take the bike out of Ol’ Paint’s bed and set it against a rock. Get in and start up, the radio comes on loud like it’s been lately to cover up the unbearable mufflers. I’m about a mile down the road when the song ends, and what I hear is silence. I roll down the window. Ol’ Paint is purring like a big fat happy cat. Puzzled, I stop and get out.
On my knees beside my trusty truck I see two brand new glass-packs bolted underneath. All the pipes under there look new, and the sound that flows from the twin mufflers wouldn’t disturb a nest of baby bunnies. In the engine room I see brand-new headers, a new air filter, a new power steering pump, lots of fresh-looking belts, hoses and clamps. When I close the hood, it latches snug the first time.
On the seat there’s a piece of paper. My eyebrows go up yet again when I see it’s my equipment warning. There’s neat writing on it. Feminine writing.
I guessed you wouldn’t let me pay you, so I did you a little favor. Hope you don’t mind.
There should be more men like you.
I drive on down the hill in the first hour of primal daylight, thinking happy thoughts. Not a bad night. I’d clapped the cuffs on a famous saltine, and rescued a too-successful woman from her own captivity. Kind of like saving the fair maiden from the dragon. That’s a simile. Read it in Psych Today, but no matter. Simile? Maybe it’s a brick.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint my trusty truck burble softly as I make my way along Copper Basin, heading for the ridge.