Rock Til You Drop, a Lerxst Johnston Mystery

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Just when Matt “Lerxst” Johnston has settled back into a normal routine of strumming chords and squabbling with family, something happens to once again turn his life upside down. Betrayed by his best friends, Lerxst seeks to rebuild his tribute band Dead Barchetta and his career, but murder stalls his plans.

Though he swore never to get involved in another mystery, everybody wants his help to find the killer. Once again, Lerxst sets aside his ES-335 and searches for clues to catch a murderer before another unsuspecting victim faces the music.

~*~

Excerpt (c) Kathryn Lively

A familiar mop of light hair bobbed in the front door window. Jack Kline played drums in our Rush/Grateful Dead tribute band, Dead Barchetta, and was also a partner in the music studio I co-owned with our bassist. Why he picked this formal route baffled me; he’d spent most of his life barging into our home unannounced. “Come on in,” I invited him, but he hung back and shook his head.

“I need to talk to you for a second,” he said, hands in jacket pockets and bouncing on his heels. “I know you have a full house tonight, and I’d rather not be heard by anybody else.”

Que? Jack looked shifty and nervous, like he had a dead body stuffed in the cab of his truck. I’d seen enough of those this year. “Sure,” I said, and closed the front door for good measure. “Let’s talk.” I gestured to the stoop and sat down next to him.

Jack wouldn’t look at me. He fixed on a spot of gravel on the pathway leading to the house. “Joel and I have been talking,” he said, referring to our third musketeer, “and we’re sort of on the same wavelength about a lot of things. The band, the business, stuff like that.”

“Okay, what about them?” I couldn’t follow if I didn’t know where to turn. Business peaked for us now, with enrollment for music lessons higher than it had been in years. As far as the band went, we were in the envious position of turning away offers for gigs because we nearly had a full calendar. I’d like to think that many local venues finally came to acknowledge the genius of my three favorite Canadian musicians and our ability to emulate them so well, but surely my recent celebrity played a part in the uptick of offerings. Few locally based musicians could claim to have escaped certain death in a situation worthy of a TV movie.

Not that I play up the fact for my benefit. I’m happy to have my life return to the bizarre level of normal to which I’m accustomed.

Jack seemed to struggle for words. He wrung his hands and sighed a lot. Whatever he had to say, he probably expected me to explode. It worried me, to be honest. Business was good, but we were by no means millionaires. In this questionable economy, we all knew parents viewed music lessons as a luxury more than a necessity, so we were prepared for a sudden downturn any time. It hadn’t happened yet, but the look on Jack’s face had me thinking of other disastrous scenarios.

“Jack, what is it?” I asked. “Is there a problem with the studio? Do you need money?” Please say no, I thought. Instant wealth didn’t come with the type of celebrity I’d earned.

He shook his head. “It’s not easy for me to say. I’ve known you forever.” His eyes glassed over, scaring me shitless now. This sounded more like an “I have cancer and it’s terminal” announcement.

“Lerxst,” he said, “Joel and I want to take the band in a different direction.”

“Oh.” This necessitated tears? “What does that mean, less Dead and more Barchetta or the other way around?” Our last few gigs had us doing more from our Grateful Dead playlist—not our strength, but we play what the person writing the check wants.

“It means less of both and more of…well, Jack and Joel,” Jack said. “We’ve been working on some original songs, and they’re good. They should be heard.”

“Okay.” I had to admit it sort of hurt to think my two band mates were writing songs without my knowledge. It’s no secret I prefer to play than compose, but I’m sure I could have offered some input on writing the music I’d eventually play. “Well, I’ve never had a problem with that. You know me, I’m always up for whatever you two want to try out. So, you want to bring some of these songs to our next rehearsal?”

Jack sighed again. Any minute, I expected him to slap the back of his hand against his forehead and emit a woeful wail. What the hell?

“We were thinking, Lerxst, of playing them ourselves. In our own band, independent of Dead Barchetta. In fact, we want to leave the group.”

The pound cake I’d eaten churned with the bile in my stomach and threatened to resurface. “Go on hiatus, or just go?”

Jack only looked at me. I wanted to believe I didn’t hear him right, because truthfully this conversation made little sense. Only last weekend we’d played to a packed crowd at an Oceanfront club, and Jack and Joel had neither said nor did anything to indicate they were unhappy with me or the band. I couldn’t figure this out at all.

“Why?” I wanted to know. “It sounds like you want me out of the picture altogether. What the fuck did I do to you guys to deserve this?”

“Lerxst, it’s not you. It’s us.”

“Jesus H.—”

“You’re not making this easy on me. Neither of you are.” Jack shot up and paced the gravel walkway. “Joel was supposed to come with me, but he chickened out. Said he thought it’d hurt less with just one of us here, and I’ve known you longer.”

Yes, I was supposed to feel bad for Jack because he drew the short straw and had to come alone to wrench a knife in my heart. “It was my idea to form a band,” I told him, trying to keep my voice from cracking, “and now you’re dumping me for no reason.”

“It’s not like that, guy. You got a good thing going with Diane now, and you’re going to want to see more of her. That means more trips to Jersey—”

“Which has not interfered with my work or the band,” I was quick to point out. “She is not a Yoko, so don’t even think of pegging her like that.”

“I never said she was, Lerxst. I like Diane, she’s great for you. Me,” Jack rocked on his heels again, eyes skyward and blinking away tears, “I want something like that, too. I don’t think I’m going to get it playing Rush songs fifteen to twenty nights a month.”

“Jack, I don’t care what we perform onstage. I do this because I love the band and you and Joel are my closest friends.” I stood now. I wanted to shake some sense into my friend. “I don’t understand why you feel it’s necessary to eject me from the group or leave it, whatever. The quality of my guitar playing hasn’t declined…is this because of what happened earlier this year?” Seriously, I didn’t ask to become involved in a cult-directed murder-suicide. At least it ended well for me, until this point.

“That’s not the issue. I’m glad you found your dad and sister and all that. We’ve just grown apart and want to do something else.”

“Grown apart? Fuck, Jack!” He looked genuinely frightened by how my voice carried in the night, but I didn’t care. Let them hear me in Williamsburg—I wanted the world to know how my heart broke to hear this.

I did oblige him by adding more softly, “If you’re leaving the group, I’m keeping the name. I came up with it, and you have no business using it if you’re not doing Rush covers.”

“That’s fine, man. We were going to let you have it.”

Well, fuck you very much for tossing me that bone, I almost said.

Jack reached into his jacket for a large manila envelope, which he handed to me. Inside I found a thick sheaf of papers and a check made out to me for twenty-five thousand dollars. “What the hell?” I cried, and thumbed through the thick contract of legalese. My heart numbed with every sentence I read.

They wanted to buy my share of the business. The fuckers might as well have sat shivah for me; they obviously considered me dead to them.

“You’ll find that’s a fair amount,” Jack was saying. “It covers your share of the studio and the equipment. Also, the PA system and all shared rigs. We…” he faltered and continued after swallowing, “we figured we could use them more quickly.”

“I don’t believe this.” I flipped to the end of the dissolution agreement and saw that Jack and Joel had already signed it. “You’re taking all the equipment and leaving me with nothing?”

“You’re getting twenty-five grand, Lerxst. It’s not like we’re taking your stuff away. You have plenty there to start over.”

I didn’t want to start over! I was happy with the status quo. “How long have you two been planning this?” I asked.

Jack looked down. “For a while now. You’ve been so busy with Diane lately, I don’t blame you if you haven’t noticed.”

“I notice plenty, Jack. You and Joel really know how to keep things quiet.” I rolled up the sheaf and batted it into my hand. “So, what? You found another guitar teacher? You’re going to take my students, too?” I’ve had some kids coming to me for lessons since they literally learned to walk. What were they going to think when they showed up at the studio to find a stranger in my chair?

“We’re going to let people know to call you if they still want lessons from you, Lerxst. We’re not trying to ruin your livelihood, we’re just…we’re making some changes.”

“Funny way of showing it. I still have some personal effects at the studio,” I said, thanking Ged I hadn’t left behind my Alex Lifeson signature ES-355. “Can I least come by tomorrow and pack up?”

“Uh, you know,” he scratched behind his ear, “we can drop it off later…”

“Fine. You know what? Fuck you, and fuck Joel. Both of you, up the ass with red hot pokers by a Dominatrix with bad eyesight. Give me a pen.” Of course he’d have one at the ready, and when he pulled it from his jeans pocket I snatched it and signed the damn thing on a raised thigh. Shoving the check in my pocket, I threw the agreement at Jack and turned without saying goodbye. Jack, my best friend since elementary school, wanted nothing more to do with me, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t see the sense in asking again, or saying anything more.

“Lerxst?” he called after me, but I kept walking.

“Matt?” he tried again. I couldn’t remember the last time he used my given name. Just as well he went back to using it. Everybody calls me Lerxst, except for strangers who don’t know any better.

I pulled the front door behind me so hard the foundation rattled. It did the trick, though. I couldn’t hear Jack’s voice anymore.