Rock Deadly, a Lerxst Johnson Mystery

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Still available in print as Dead Barchetta.

Music tutor by day and tribute band guitarist by night, Matt “Lerxst” Johnston doesn’t have an enemy in the world…so he thinks. One night a pretty young woman tries to smother him in his sleep, and it’s not for the usual reasons a woman would have for wanting to inflict harm upon him! The dream he enjoyed at the time quickly spirals into a nightmare of mistaken identities and nosy investigators who threaten Lerxst’s freedom, to say nothing of coming close to discovering his grandmother’s secret “herb garden.”

Armed only with a guitar and endless questions, Lerxst escapes the discomfort of his beach home and hides out in New York City to learn the true identity of his would-be assailant. Instead he learns more about himself and what he needs to do to survive the next attempt on his life.

And what a long, strange trip it is…

~ * ~

Excerpt (c) Kathryn Lively

Smoke.

It certainly looked like that, anyway, as my vision slowly clouded into a swirling, opaque white mess that stung.

Maybe somebody had turned off the A/C and left us all to stifle in the heat radiating from our bodies. Or, perhaps only I sensed the temperature shift and suffered as a result. Nobody else in my diminishing line of vision appeared affected by the sudden and perplexing change of atmosphere. The band played on, obviously working around my disorientation, while the crowed rocked right along with them.

Smoke—a fire in the house, really—formed my first conscious thought when my dream took a sharp right turn toward discomfort. One minute I was standing on a lighted, hardwood stage shredding through “Back in the Saddle” while Steven Tyler screeched and preened at my left—the next, my breathing slowed and a heavy mass seeped into my lungs. A dizzying sensation overtook me, forcing me to kneel as the weight of my Gibson dragged me toward the cheering throng of fans crowding the stage’s lip.

Nobody seemed to care that I had been felled by the invisible tourniquet wrapped around my neck, which squeezed me tightly. Mr. Tyler danced and strutted, oblivious, and goaded the line of busty blondes in painted-on white shirts jiggling against the stage.

“Ya’ll here to rock?” His voice pitched close to a dog-wincing octave. Then he turned to me. “How ‘bout you, Lerxst boy? You gonna rock out for us tonight or you gonna lie there like a worthless piece of shit slug?”

I gasped for breath, but managed to squeak out an answer. The Gibson had become my albatross. “Tryin’, man. Little help? Joe?”

Where the fuck was Joe?

The dream shifted to omniscient vision, and I spied Mr. Perry standing far stage right, lost in his guitar. Christ. What good was a dream about hanging with great musicians if they wouldn’t lift a finger to ensure your safety?

Steven Tyler proved less apt to assist. A spotlight darkened by a purplish gel turned his weathered face into an eerie voodoo mask. He grinned ghoulishly at me, shouting over the music and chaos. “You gonna rock out for us, Lerxst?”

Who could say no to that? Coming from this diesel truck-faced grandpa swathed in scarves, the question held more authority here than if asked by anybody else.

“Yes, sir.” I barely heard myself.

“You gonna rawwwwwk!?”

“Yes, sir!”

He leered at me. “You gonna die? You gonna die for me, you son of a bitch?”

* * * *

Die?

In seconds the smoke turned black and scratched my face. Aerosmith and company faded into the ringing noise filling my head. They had left me onstage to die. Only seconds earlier the crowd had chanted my name and urged my fingers to speed over my Gibson’s fingerboard and guide them all toward melodious orgasm. Now, nobody cared to even help me to my feet as they apparently plummeted as one through some floor-wide trap door.

Not even the person holding the pillow to my face gave a damn that I had awakened from my dream squirming and scraping for something to grasp.

“Wha—?”

Shit.

I thought at first Grandma had let my friend Joel, also my band’s bassist and lead singer, inside to wake me. Joel, having barely passed the high school sciences, likely couldn’t make the connection between the existence of oxygen and its role in the preservation of life. Either that, or he’d decided to act like his usual dickhead self and used a free hand to record everything on his phone for a planned viral laugh among our friends and the rest of the free world.

As the pillow bore down against my face, I managed to turn my head toward a shallow pocket of air deep into the sofa’s cushions, and after a ragged inhale I kicked my attacker away with all my might.

“Shit!” came a surprised curse, then the sound of a body hitting the carpet. I might have stalled upright at the shock of hearing a female voice had not the dream transition—the lingering tang of imaginary smoke, the urgency in a leathery rock star’s evil glare—juiced me into action. I sprang to my feet, grounding myself in anticipation of another assault, then happened to glance at the lighted clock on the DVD player.

Three AM, with only the yellow glow of the streetlamps filtering in through the living room window to reveal the intruder.

“What the fuck?” I cried, looking down at her. I’d fended off a burglar, and a wispy girl one, near as I could tell from the narrow hourglass outline rising before me. A dark ponytail bobbed behind her head as she righted her jacket and raised her hands in some kind of quasi-karate pose.

“Did you just ask me if I was gonna die, bitch?” I demanded of her. She said nothing, and didn’t move. So far, I couldn’t tell if Steven Tyler’s voice would come out of that mouth.

I side-stepped toward the end table nearest the wall and switched the three-way lamp on to the highest setting. There I saw illuminated fear creasing her brow and twitching, full pink lips marred by nervous chewing from a slight overbite. Low-slung, green and brown plaid pants covered lean legs, and her dark green hoodie—pull string missing—just reached her bare midriff.

My would-be murderess looked as though she’d stepped off the set of a fad teen musical.

The expression on her face mixed confusion with anger—soft kelly eyes appraised my height, then widened. She should have finished the job when she had me unawares, she no doubt realized. Pressed harder against the pillow, or bashed in my skull with the fireplace poker. I guessed, however, that she’d chosen suffocation to make death appear more natural and less inflicted.

Then came four words I didn’t expect. Instead of hand over your wallet, I got, “How old are you?”

“What?” When another dizzying sensation attempted to topple me I grasped the sofa arm for support and pulled myself straight again, shaking away the disorientation left from the aborted suffocation. “How about I ask the questions? Like, who the hell are you and why are you in my house?”

Her hands remained high and prepared to chop, slicing into my view of her pretty, angular face. I could take her easily, being heavier and carrying more muscle. That she chose to stay put rather than try to run amused me, I had to admit.

“Is your name Matt Johnston?” she asked.

I didn’t expect that, either. What burglar checks credentials?

Anyway, I haven’t gone by my given name in years. Everybody—friends, my pupils…even my grandmother calls me Lerxst, the nickname given me in junior high. Why did this girl care? “Yes,” I said cautiously. “Would you prefer we be formally introduced before you kill me?”

That question quickly twisted her face into a kind of queasy frown, and her hands dropped to her sides. “Holy shit,” she said on a heavy breath, “I was going to kill you, wasn’t I?” Her eyes glazed over with unshed tears, shining in the lamp’s glare. “What are you, twenty?”

“Twenty-five. What does this—”

“Oh, God.” She staggered back a step and her calf caught the edge of Grandma’s rocking chair. She fell into it, leaden and morose, and the oak creaked under the force. Only then I remembered my grandmother was away with her Red Hat friends until late Saturday morning, so at least she’d been spared this drama.

I considered my next step. I saw nothing in the immediate vicinity I could use to restrain her—no electrical cord that wasn’t attached to a lamp or some other bulky appliance. My phone sat in the kitchen plugged into its charger, but I didn’t want to leave the room. She looked comfortable now, but sure enough I’d take one step out and she’d bolt for the front door.

After all, she had my name, I didn’t have hers. I envisioned the reaction of the cops when I revealed that—Why didn’t you serve her tea afterward? I’d probably hear.

I waited, and watched. The girl curled her hands over the carved ends of the chair’s arms, instinctively rocking back so that her heels rose. She held that position for what seemed like a full minute before speaking again.

“You are Matt Johnston?” she asked again, with greater uncertainty in her voice. “Not Johnson or Johannson or St. John or anything like that?”

I no longer felt threatened, and I sensed she wanted to talk, so I perched on the couch opposite her. “I said yes earlier. Now, who are you?” I asked, yet she ignored it. Instead she pulled a wrinkled envelope from her back jeans pocket and handed it to me.

“Did you write this?” she asked me.

I didn’t need to study the yellowed letter for long. Who writes letters anymore? Back in the dark ages before the Internet, the most anybody could get out of me was an illegible five- or six-word missive scribbled in a greeting card. This typewritten essay, complete with the addressee block and proper salutation I’d been taught in Mrs. Kowalski’s fourth-grade language arts class, assuredly surpassed any effort I might have undertaken.

“No.” I handed it back. “For one, we don’t have a typewriter, and I rarely used one except for school assignments. I hated them. For two, that postmark is as old as I am.” Who knew that burglars delivered, twenty years late? “Please tell me who you are and how you got in here, and why you tried to kill me.”

She fingered the faded ink address, sniffling. “I’m looking for Matt Johnston,” she said. “He killed my father.”

* * * *

I’m a sucker for a pretty face and a slender build—and dark red hair, too. I’d hit the trifecta with this one.

At any other place, on a weekend night in some club at the beach, I might have seen this pretty auburn-haired girl in her tight pants and peek-a-boo top and mustered the courage to make conversation. Left-brain logic nagged at me to pin her to the ground and scream until somebody called the cops, but somehow my inner compassion had overpowered that.

Besides, anybody checking the picture window might see me on top on her and give me the thumbs up rather than assist in her apprehension.

Now, the girl—she called herself Diane—sat across from me at the kitchen table at three in the morning.

Stop thinking with your dick and reach for the phone, Lefty cried. The fuck are you doing, sitting with her in the room with all the knives?

My dick offered nothing for rebuttal.

Diane tapped a corner of the letter against the Formica surface of the table, ignoring the soda can I’d set before her. “I am such a fucking idiot,” she said, gaze downcast.

I sipped from my own can. Sleepless nights and early mornings I could handle, but I needed the caffeine boost in order to think clearly. “How did you get in without my knowing?”

“You were zonked out on the couch,” she said, annoyed, then shrugged toward the side kitchen door. “And the door was unlocked. I’d been watching the house for a few days to get a feel for everybody coming in and out. When I saw the old lady—”

“My grandmother,” I broke in. Grandma might not have minded the “old lady” crack, but in truth she wasn’t that old. In fact, people often mistook her for my mother. It happens when the women in your family hold fast to the tradition of giving birth in their teens.

“Right.” She sighed. “I tried the side door first. Actually, I didn’t know what I’d have done if it was locked.”

“Not murder me? Go home and forget about it?”

Her lower lip quivered.

“Look,” I told her, “I don’t know you, but I don’t believe you’re an idiot. You just didn’t think this whole plan of revenge through. You managed to case the place without my knowing, and as I consider myself somewhat observant, I’d say there’s a point in your favor.”

Easier spoken than practiced. It then occurred to me that I should have checked her person for a gun or some kind of weapon. Of course, had she a gun she could have used it on me and been out of here without needing to smother me.

Unless, she truly had planned to make my death look accidental, just another hapless drunk who didn’t flip over in time. If only I’d spent the evening schnockered…

Christ. Too many thoughts flooded my brain at fucking three in the morning. I just wanted to go back to sleep and finish that set with Aerosmith.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I forget what name you go by again?”

“Lerxst.” I tried to sound it out as best I could for a guy about to drop and snore. “Lurks-st.”

She tried it on her tongue a few times, then finally shook her head. “What kind of weird name is that? Like a Dungeon and Dragons thing?”

I had to laugh. “I take it you’re not a Rush fan.”

“I’m not into talk radio, or politics,” she said.

“Not that one.” Jesus. “I meant the band.”

“Ohhh.” She nodded and pinched her face into mental research mode. “It’s a song, then?”

“The guitarist, actually. Back in junior high my hair was a bit longer and I sort of resembled him from his shaggy seventies days, so my older brother christened me Lerxst, which was the guitarist’s nickname. I guess it’s fitting, since I play and teach guitar now.”

“Really? Are you in a band?”

I nodded. Why couldn’t I be this smooth in a bar on a Friday night? “A cover band, mainly. Me and two friends and the entire Rush and Grateful Dead catalogs. We hit the local bars and sometimes the Outer Banks in the summer. We call ourselves Dead Barchetta.”

I saw it immediately, that quizzical brow displayed only by one who didn’t get the play on words. Women mostly.

“Rush has this song, ‘Red Barchetta,’” I began, and watched clarity dawn quickly, “and…we’re getting way off track here.” Much I love talking shop, this wasn’t the time for it. “What made you think I killed your father? I have never done anything like that.” Seriously. Not even a traffic ticket. I couldn’t recall refusing anybody a kidney in recent weeks, either. “I don’t even know your father, I don’t think.”

Diane pulled out a second crinkled letter, this time from the front pocket of her hoodie. “You remember this TV show from the late eighties, called Code Blue?”

“No.” How the hell could I? I was born in 1985. During the late eighties I was trying to pick out Elmo’s greatest hits by ear on the replica Stratocaster my grandfather got me. What surprised me, too, is that she somehow did recall it. “Does it rerun on Nick at Nite or something.”

Diane rolled her eyes. “It won’t rerun anywhere, and you won’t find it on DVD because there weren’t enough episodes made. It was canned halfway into its first season.”

I finished my soda and eyed hers. Sensing my need for more caffeine—I had a feeling I’d need it for this roundabout verbal odyssey—she pushed the can in my direction.

“My father was the star of that show,” she said. “His name was Alan Peterson and he was a New York-based actor. Until he got this series, he mainly did guest star work and bit parts.”

“Okay.” Relevancy, at last. Nice to meet you. “So he’s one of those ‘you probably remember me from such films as…’ fill in the blank actors.”

From the soured look on her face, it probably wasn’t the way she would have put it, but then I knew nothing about the man she initially thought I’d killed.

“He could have been much more than that,” Diane said, with an edge of irritation to her voice. “Code Blue had received all this critical acclaim during previews, and talk of awards, and there were nominations eventually…yet the show still got pulled thanks to some letters from viewers that complained about the show’s content.”

Again she handed me the letter from the other Matt Johnston, and I took care in reading it this time. Apparently this guy didn’t take kindly to issues presented on the urban cop and EMT drama, such as drug abuse and homosexuality—topics one might see on Sesame Street these days. Clearly Code Blue had been a show ahead of its time. Ahead of me, most definitely.

I looked at the return address. “This guy lives in Lynchburg,” I said. “You’re a bit off.”

“Lived,” Diane said. “He’s not at that address anymore, I checked. When I found the listing for Matt Johnston in Virginia Beach, I figured he moved. Made sense to me at the time.” She shrugged.

Entirely probable, in a mind like hers.

“I’m sorry all that happened, but we’re talking twenty years ago here.” I returned the letter. I had to admit I felt a bit insulted that Diane would mistake me for a much older man. Assuming this other Matt Johnston had been a teenager when he filed this complaint, adding twenty years would still put him close to forty. Yes, I’m a musician, but I’m fairly clean. I’m not on the Aerosmith hard-living, rapid-aging plan.

She seemed to just catch that, too, but with it being three-fifteen AM now I figured I shouldn’t fault her.

“Are you a junior, by any chance?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not that it makes a difference, since I didn’t kill your dad, but my dad’s name was George, and he’s dead, too.”

“Sorry.”

“No worries. I was a kid then, and I couldn’t tell you what he watched on TV. I still don’t get why you’re upset about a twenty-year-old letter. Didn’t your dad find more work after the cancellation?”

“He did, but Code Blue was to have been his big break. I mean, everybody was into blue-collar drama shows then. He could have worked five or six seasons, spring-boarded into feature film roles or even headlining Broadway during the summer hiatuses…” The letter crinkled and twisted in her grip. “A long first run can also mean a decent syndication package, too, and residuals from that and video sales. But, after the show was pulled, it was like somebody put a curse on him. Dad couldn’t get anything beyond walk-on parts and commercials after that. Until…”

Tears brimmed in her eyes. The second letter slid in my direction, and I pulled it from the envelope to read. Three sentences in, I realized Diane had handed me her father’s suicide note.

“I don’t think common people really are aware of how much power they leverage in the industry,” she said, her voice breaking. “Four letters of complaint took Code Blue off the air and cost a lot of people their jobs.”

Four? Hardly the avalanche of protests I’d conjured in my head earlier, but seeing Diane so distraught I elected to just read.

Alan Peterson likely had more demons than he cared to admit in his farewell, but he named one specifically. How or when the actor got a hold of the mail he blamed for torpedoing his career seemed irrelevant now, anyway. This girl broke into my house, unprovoked, and tried to kill me. I, the sympathetic dolt, gave her a soda and place to sit. She should be sitting in jail.

“When did your father ki—er, die?”

“About two years after the show went off the air. My mom discovered after that she was pregnant with me.” Diane’s gaze panned everywhere but in my direction. Searching for an escape, too guilty to face me, who knew? Apparently three-twenty in the morning had that effect on her.

“You never even knew the man and you want to exact revenge anyway?” I tossed the letter back.

“He’s still my father,” she snapped and rocked in her seat. Her mouth dropped open and I waited for words to justify her actions.

“I always felt like somebody had to pay for this, you know? For robbing me of my family.” She looked at me, pained and confused, then gazed around the kitchen again as though taking in the surreal moment. It troubled me, too, to accept this wasn’t a detour in my dream, but the kitchen remained cold for early May in Virginia Beach.

“My mother hung onto this until she died, and I keep this letter with me everywhere I go. Figured if I could get Matt Johnston to realize how many lives he’d ruined, my father could at least rest in peace. So I hopped the Chinatown bus here; it’s sixty bucks round trip.”

“There were three other letters that got your dad fired. Did you plan a spree?”

Diane twined her fingers into a knotted ball, resting them on the table. “I only found two addresses,” she said. “Matt Johnston and one other lady in New Jersey. She’s already dead.”

Lucky her.

“I’m sorry this all happened, Diane,” I said. “I’m sorry some asshole felt it was his duty to get a show cancelled when he could have just not watched it if he didn’t like it. But, I don’t see how killing me, anybody, would benefit you or your father.”

“I have to watch his stuff on YouTube, when I can find it,” she said, ignoring me, “to get an idea of what he was like. Mom said he drank a lot before he died. Said losing that show was the worst thing to happen to him, and how things could have been much better for us if they went a few seasons more. There would have been money and more work…he would have lived to see me being born.”

“Can you honestly say that, about the work?” I asked. “How many TV shows are produced in a year? It might be more now than back in the eighties, but even if Code Blue lasted ten seasons do you think film roles and the A-list were guaranteed for your dad?” Anybody know what the cast of Ally McBeal is up to these days? I sure as hell don’t. “What if he’d ended up doing commercials and bit parts afterwards regardless of the show’s run?”

Diane didn’t answer. Struck me that Alan Peterson had been the type to blame others for his misfortunes rather than work to overcome them. I’d say this to Diane, but the risk of provoking her loomed large in my head.

Besides, I was the one pissed at her. I needed to remain the angry one here.

Finally I stood. My chair nudged the linoleum underfoot. “I need to make a phone call.”

Her tear-filled eyes pleaded with me. “I don’t want to go to jail. I didn’t kill you, you’re fine.”

“Am I really? Some chick breaks into my house and tries to smother me in my sleep, and I offer her hospitality instead of tying her up so she won’t get to me again. Clearly I’ve been deprived of some oxygen to display such a lack of common sense.”

“If I’d wanted to kill you, I’d have done it by now. Please!” she cried. Her hands played with the frayed hem of her hoodie. Fidgeting usually spoke to me as a sign of planning, restlessness. Gears worked in her head that she didn’t want me to see—her silent perusal of the kitchen could have been a plan to reach for an unattended knife or corkscrew to finish the job. She had plenty of time before sunrise.

“Well, you’re obviously not all there,” I said, and reached for the phone to detach it from the charger. First mistake, I turned my head. The second she left my line of vision I heard a deep scrape of chair legs.

“Hey!”

She got to the side kitchen door—the same unlocked one she’d used to get in—before I could move, and hit the pavement running. Even though a shot of adrenaline boosted me out to the dark sidewalk in seconds, she’d had enough of a head start. Not a trace of her under the lamplights. Where the house sat, so close to the ocean, she could have quickly slipped down the public beach access walkway and started a brisk run down the shore, or else ducked through any of the fenceless yards into the thick brush dividing the neighborhoods from Shore Drive.

Whichever route she’d taken, she hadn’t looked back.

“Damn it.”

I left her to the dying night and went back into the house, setting the chain this time. What sleep I managed before my alarm went off filled my head with visions of Steven Tyler chasing me around the stage with a pillow, screeching for me to die, son of a bitch!