Thursday, December 24, 2009

Original Ace Atkins short story (part 3 of 3)

Busted Flush Press's new reprint of Ace Atkins's first novel featuring blues historian Nick Travers, Crossroad Blues, also features an original, never-before-published Nick short story, set at Christmas! As an early Christmas gift to fans, BFP is serializing the story in three posts... Here's the third & final part... Enjoy! (Read part one here and part two here.)

An original Nick Travers story.
© Ace Atkins, 2009


SOMETIMES I LIKE to hear Dixieland Jazz after several drinks. Sometimes I like to hear my boots as they clunk across a hardwood floor. Sometimes I even like to cover the tall windows of my warehouse with bed sheets and watch old movies all day. But most of all, I like to sit in JoJo’s and listen to Loretta Jackson sing. Her voice can rattle the exposed brick walls and break a man’s heart.

It was Christmas Eve, a week after Jay picked up Blackie. I was nursing a beer and watching Loretta rehearse a few new numbers. Old blues Christmas songs that she always mixed in with her set during the season. Growling the words to “Merry Christmas, Baby” and making my neck hairs stand on end.

“You keep babyin’ that beer and it’s gonna fall in love with ya,” JoJo said, as he washed out a couple shot glasses in the sink.

“Everybody needs a friend.”

“Mmhmm.” He dried the inside of the glasses with a white towel and then hung it over his shoulder. “Why you down here today, anyway?”

“Sam’s been wanting to go Christmas shopping in the Quarter all week. And I promised.”

“You hear anymore from Medeaux ’bout that pimp?”

“Nah. Blackie’s still in jail far as I know.”

“You let me know if somethin’s different.”

Loretta finished the song with a great sigh into her microphone and a quick turnaround from the band. The guitar player made his instrument give a wolf whistle as Loretta stepped off stage. Running a forearm over her brow, she walked over and sat next to me.

“My boy Nicholas,” she said as she rubbed my back. “My boy.”

“Your boy Nicholas sittin’ on his ass drinking while his new woman trudging round these old French streets looking for gifts.”

“My boy deserves it.”


“Y’all talkin’ ’bout Fats, weren’t cha?”

JoJo nodded and walked back into the kitchen.

“Man had a sad life, Nick. Cain’t believe he sold his sax for that girl.”

“Guess he loved her.”

“Hell, she was just a two-bit whore.”


“Naw, I’m serious. She was fuckin’ half the band.”


“Sure she was. Saw her almost get her cheap ass beat by Fats’ drummer out back. Havin’ some kind of lover’s quarrel, I guess.”

“When was this?”

“Few days before he died.”

I took a deep breath, and my fist tightened on top of the bar.


TOM CAT WAS passed out on his sofa when I kicked in the door to his apartment. Little multi-colored Christmas lights had fallen on his body and face, and it gave him a festive, embalmed look. I grabbed him by a dirty Converse high top and yanked him off the sofa. His eyes sprung awake.

“Who killed him?”

“Nick, man. Merry Christmas to you, too. Hey, I—”

“Who killed him?”

“You trippin’, man.”

I yanked him to his knees and punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over weakly.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were sleeping with her?”

“I wasn’t.”

“The pimp didn’t kill Sarah, did he? He had no reason. You did. You loved her.”

“Fuck you.”

I kicked him hard in the side with my boot. I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t make me feel like a man. I just did it.

“It was a mistake. Fats shouldn’t been a part of it.”

“Part of what?”

He rolled to his side and wiped his tears with a ragged flannel shirt sleeve. Pushing his long greasy hair, he told me.

I did not interrupt.


IT WAS BLACKMAIL. Sarah and Tom Cat had worked out a scam on a local trial lawyer. But he wasn’t just any lawyer. He was Spencer Faircloth, lawyer to the New Orleans mob. An all-star backslapper among criminals.

Their plan included a sick little videotape. Maybe it included a burro. I don’t know what was on it, didn’t want to know, but I took it with me.

I let Tom Cat go, drove to a nearby K&B drugstore, and looked through a water-logged phone book. Some of the pages were so stuck together that the book felt like papier-mâché.

There was no listing. I called information and was told he had an unpublished number.

I called a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound bail bondsman I know named Tiny. He asked for the payphone’s number.

He called me back in five minutes with the address.

Faircloth lived in an ivy-covered brick mansion with a spiked iron fence and stained glass windows. When I pulled up near the address on St. Charles, dozens of finely dressed men and women were drinking in Faircloth’s hospitality.

I could see them all, like fish in an aquarium, through the tall windows.

I lit a cigarette, smoked it into a nub, and then decided to go in.

Most of the men I passed were in winter wool suits, accented with the occasional silly holiday tie. Candy canes, reindeer, and elves.

I was dressed in blue jeans, boots, and a jean jacket.

I wasn’t accepted.

“Sir?” a large black man asked me.


“Can I have your invitation?”

“I’m here to see Mr. Faircloth.”

“Mr. Faircloth is spending time with his guests. Can I help you?”

The man’s hair was Jheri-curled, and he wore a finely trimmed mustache.

“Aren’t you Billy Dee Williams?”

He made a move toward me.

“Tell him that a friend of Sarah’s is here.”

He looked down at me, and then left.

I walked over to the buffet line and ate three very tiny turkey sandwiches. I didn’t see any tiny quiches.

A few minutes later, a young man in his twenties walked over to me. I didn’t recognize him at first. His hair seemed slicker tonight. His movements were more polished.

“Can I help you?”

“Are you Spencer Faircloth?”


“Then you can’t. I’ll just stay here, continue to eat, and thumb my nose at the conventions of the rich.”

“I’ll have you removed.”

“You do and I’ll propose a toast to Sarah. The finest whore that Faircloth ever had killed.”

“You’re insane.”


Then I remembered him, the younger man from the hotel where I first met Sarah. The one who’d backed up the older man. I looked for him.

I saw the gray-headed gent laughing it up with a group of his ilk near the French doors.

I jumped upon the top of the linen buffet table, my dirty buckskin boots soiling the whiteness. I grabbed a glass and spoon and clinked the two together loudly.

“I would like to propose a toast to the host with the most. Spence Faircloth.”

The party hesitatingly clapped. A drunk elderly man hooted his approval.

“Thank you, grandpa,” I announced to the old man. “But right now, I would like to offer Mr. Faircloth a deal.”

They were silent.

The two men were whispering to Faircloth, who had his arms tightly wrapped around himself.

“You might call it the last fair deal gone down, like my old friend Fats used to say. The deal, Mr. Faircloth, is that you join me on this table and announce to the party that you are a gutless turd who had a friend of mine killed.”

The crowd stayed silent. A wrinkled old woman with huge breasts shook her head and blew breath out her nose.

“But where is the deal, you ask?” I said, reaching deep into the inner layer of my denim jacket and pulling out the videotape.

I held it high over my head like a Bourbon Street preacher does a Bible. I mimed my hands to pretend I was weighing the two.

Billy Dee Williams was trying to approach me from behind.

“What’ll it be, Spence?”

Faircloth shook his head, turned on his heel like a spoiled child, and walked away.

I put the videotape back in my jacket and hopped off the table.

Just like any other unwanted guest, no one tried to stop me as I left. I think they were waiting for me to pull a red bandana up over my nose and ask for their jewels.

I got in my Jeep and headed back to the Warehouse District, my hands shaking on the wheel.


I RETURNED TO my warehouse only long enough to grab a fresh set of clothes, binoculars, a six-pack of Abita beer, a frozen quart of Loretta’s jambalaya, my Browning, and Sam’s Christmas present—a 1930s Art Deco watch that I bought on Royal Street a few weeks ago.

It was so silent in my darkened space that I could hear the watch’s soft ticks as late-day orange light retreated through the industrial windows.

I tucked everything in a tattered army duffle bag and put it outside my door.

I used only the small lock near the doorknob, leaving the deadbolt open.

Walking across Julia Street, I felt a cold December wind coming from the Mississippi. It smelled stagnant and stale. I could almost taste its polluted, muddy water.

In the warehouse opposite mine, Sam slid back the door with a scowl on her face. Her short blonde hair was tousled, and she was wearing an old gray Tulane sweatshirt of mine that hung below her knees.

“You’re scowling.”

“You left me wandering around the Quarter. What the hell is the matter with you?”

“I’m sorry.”

She let me in and I followed her to the second floor of her warehouse that looked down on a dance studio. The lights were dimmed on the floor below, and a stereo softly played Otis Redding.

“I’m still mad.”

“I know.”

She reheated the jambalaya in a black skillet, and we shared the six-pack of Abita. I told her about Tom Cat and about Spencer Faircloth’s dinner party. She shook her head and tried not to laugh. When I told her I had my gun, she didn’t like that at all, and walked out of the kitchen. One of her cats trailed her.

But she warmed up after a few more of Otis’ ballads and a few more Abitas.

Later, we made love in her antique iron bed, Christmas lights strung over her headboard. The beer, food, and music blended into a fine holiday mood.

The next day, we opened our gifts. She gave me an old Earl King record I’d wanted for years, a gunmetal cigarette lighter, a first edition of Franny and Zooey, and a framed picture of Tom Mix.

She loved the watch.

We returned to bed a few more times that day, only leaving the mattress for the kitchen and something to eat. It was one of the best Christmases I can remember.


THEY CAME AROUND midnight, Sam still cradled in my arms asleep. Two cats were curled in balls at the foot of the bed. I could hear the sound of the engine and two doors closing while I carefully unentwined myself from Sam and peeked through her blinds. The car, a black sedan, was still running. Two men were at my front door with a crowbar.

I walked into the kitchen, pulled on my jeans, boots, and the Tulane sweatshirt. I inserted a clip into the Browning and pulled a black watch cap over my ears.

Before clanking down the steps to the street level, I called 911, reported a burglary and shooting at my address, and hung up.

Outside, it was cold enough to see my breath.

I could see someone seated in the back of the sedan smoking a cigarette. A tiny prick of orange light and then a smoky exhaling that clouded the windows. Without stopping, I bent at the waist and jogged behind the car. I opened the back door and climbed inside.

I was seated right next to Spencer Faircloth.

I’ll never understand why he came. He was far too smart to put himself anywhere near something as dirty as this. I’m pretty sure it was just ego. The gutless turd remark must have gotten to him.

I poked him in the ribs with my Browning.

“Spencer, you old dog.”

I reached over the driver’s seat and pulled the keys from the ignition while I kept the gun pointed at him. I then motioned him outside, found the key for the trunk, and pushed him in with the flat of my palm.

My face felt cold and wind-bitten when I smiled.

They had made a real mess of my turn-of-the-century door, which had scrolled patterns around the mail slot. Splintered wood and muddy boot tracks led up my side staircase.

This time I did not run. I crept.

But I had the advantage. I knew every weakness in that staircase. Each creak. Every loose board.

I heard crashes and thuds. They were throwing my shit all around. And they must have enjoyed making a mess because they were laughing the whole time.

At the top of the landing, I straightened my right arm and fired a slug into the shoulder of the black man with curly, greasy hair. As he spun, one of my old books flew out of his hands, pages fluttering like a wounded bird before it crashed to the floor.

The young preppy white guy I’d encountered twice wasn’t ready either. It took him a full four seconds before he tried to reach inside his raincoat. His eyes were wide with fear when I fired, hitting him in the thigh.

His gun slid along the floor, several feet away from him.

He was no bodyguard or the trigger man. He was just the guy fetching laundry and coffee for Faircloth.

But ole Billy Dee was the real deal.

I walked over to him, slowly. My boots clanking hard in my warehouse, the place where I slept, ate, and read.

The book he’d been tearing pages from was Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues. The dog-eared pages littered the floor around him, some misted with blood from the bullet’s impact.

He had his gun still in hand. A revolver.

“You’re not a blues fan, are you?”

He looked up at me and laughed.

“You remember that old man who you shot in the head?”

“Should have been you, motherfucker.”

“That old man could play ‘Blue Monday’ and break your heart.”

“You’re crazy.”


With my gun pressed flat against his nose, I took his revolver.

“I’ll find you,” he said. “I promise you that.”

The police arrived a short time later, and with the coaxed testimony of Tom Cat, all three were charged with murder.


ON NEW YEAR’S Eve, I played “Auld Lang Syne” on Fats’ tarnished sax while Loretta sang. Everyone made toasts and kissed while I placed the battered instrument in a dusty glass case where it still remains today.

Sam came over, put an arm around my neck, and kissed me hard. I stood back and looked at Fats’ picture on top of the wooden case.

She kissed me again, and I turned away.

JoJo told me I did a “real nice job” playing harp that night and handed me another Dixie. Drunk, JoJo ambled up on stage and professed his love for his wife. She watched him and smiled, then gave him a kiss, too.

I wish I could’ve kept the moment, everything the way it was right then. But that was the year I met Cracker and went looking for the lost recordings of Robert Johnson in the Mississippi Delta. And my life was never the same.


We hope everyone has a wonderful New Year! Please take a moment to Ace Atkins's blog & website.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pre-holiday BFP news!

This has been a busy week for Busted Flush Press, and we have much to share...

Reed Farrel Coleman

NPR's Maureen Corrigan
discusses her favorite books of 2009 today on Fresh Air, including "a terrific new mystery series... a wise independent bookseller recommended that I read"... that would be Reed Farrel Coleman's Moe Prager series. Read the story & hear the podcast here.

For those who are already fans of Moe, there is imminent good news on the horizon. Busted Flush Press is on the verge of acquiring the reprint rights for the 4th & 5th books in the series: the Edgar, Macavity nominated and Shamus Award-winning Soul Patch and the Shamus Award-winning Empty Ever After. If all things go as planned, both books will be out just in time for the release of Moe #6, Innocent Monster, due out in October 2010. Please stay tuned for more updates.

Margaret Maron

Check out the news on BFP acquiring Edgar/Agatha/Anthony/Macavity Award winner Margaret Maron's 1985 stand-alone Southern crime novel, Bloody Kin, reported on the blog last week.

Don Winslow

Busted Flush Press will be reprinting Don Winslow's incredibly hard-to-find, Edgar Award-nominated crime series featuring private investigator Neal Carey. Winslow has recently attained bestsellerdom & critical acclaim for his later novels, including The Power of the Dog, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, California Fire and Life, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and one of my favorite books of 2008, The Dawn Patrol. But for years fans have been looking for his early, wonderful Carey novels... and now they'll be available again, beginning fall 2010, when the first, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, is published. To follow: The Trail to Buddha's Mirror, Way Down on the High Lonely, A Long Walk up the Water Slide, and While Drowning in the Desert.

I asked Don what he thinks about seeing these books back in print for the first time in over a decade...

"I'm absolutely delighted that the Neal Carey series is coming back into print. I don't think I've made a public appearance in ten years when I wasn't asked about these books. A Cool Breeze on the Underground holds a special place for me -- it was my first book, and I wrote it literally all over the world -- in tents in Africa, Buddhist monasteries in China, college rooms in Oxford. I think it was rejected by the first fourteen publishers who saw it -- including the publisher I'm with now, Simon & Schuster. Then it was nominated for an Edgar. Anyway, it's great to see these books coming back into print, and I'm really excited to be working with good friends at Busted Flush. The last time I saw David, we shared a candlelit (by necessity) dinner -- burgers with bags of chips -- al fresco in just-post-hurricane Houston, and it's my favorite meal ever on a book tour. This is going to be genuine fun."

Daniel Woodrell

Busted Flush Press will reprint Daniel Woodrell's stand-alone novels, Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister, with new forewords for each. Edgar Award-winning crime writer Megan Abbott (Bury Me Deep) will pen the foreword to Tomato Red (to be published in fall 2010), and best-selling novelist Dennis Lehane (The Given Day) will provide the foreword to The Death of Sweet Mister (to be published in spring 2011). I'll be posting another blog entry later this week about Woodrell, "an amazing genius" (Ken Bruen), but it's safe to say he's one of today's finest novelists (of any genre) that most people just don't know about... yet. Check back later this week to see what some of his peers think of his work (including Megan Abbott, Joe R. Lansdale, Allan Guthrie, Reed Farrel Coleman, and more). In the meantime, rush out and buy his novel, Winter's Bone (Back Bay Books), which was my wife's favorite novel of 2006 (and which will be in next month's Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition). More to come...

Later this week on the BFP blog: Daniel Woodrell; the conclusion to Ace Atkin's Christmas-set short story, "Last Fair Deal Gone Down"; and more!

Happy holidays from Busted Flush Press!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Catch Reed Farrel Coleman on XM/Sirius!

Reed Farrel Coleman, the 2009 Shamus Award-winning author of Empty Ever After, will be interviewed on XM/Sirius Book Radio's "Cover to Cover Live!", tomorrow, Tuesday, December 22, 3-4 p.m. EST. He will be interviewed about Tower (co-written with Ken Bruen) and his Moe Prager novels. Catch it on XM 163 & Sirius 117.

Reed will also be featured on NPR's Fresh Air this week, as part of Maureen Corrigan's year-end round-up of favorite mysteries. We'd thought it was to be today, but it looks like it'll run later in the week. As soon as we know, it'll be posted here.

To coincide with Reed's NPR appearance, Busted Flush Press has some great news to announce about new acquisitions. Well...... we'll hold off until the NPR piece runs, but we can say it involves Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) and Don Winslow (The Dawn Patrol)... please check back later in the week. (We're such teases!)

In other BFP news...

Donna Moore (Go to Helena Handbasket...) appears to be excited about her galleys of Old Dogs. But it looks as though she's attacking her parents with a copy! Chuffed, indeed. Visit her blog here... you could win an Old Dogs galley!

Thriller writer Zoë Sharp (Third Strike) is interviewed on MrEdit's blog. Her first introduction to crime fiction? Leslie Charteris's The Misfortune of Mr. Teal.

L.A.'s The Mystery Bookstore picks their favorite mysteries of 2009... and Ken Bruen & Reed Farrel Coleman's Tower makes Linda's & Pam's lists! Big thanks to Linda & Pam (& Bobby, too)!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

BFP to reprint Margaret Maron's BLOODY KIN!

Busted Flush Press is very excited to announce that it will reprint Margaret Maron's acclaimed 1985 Southern crime novel, Bloody Kin, in spring 2011, in time for the Malice Domestic 23 mystery convention!

Margaret earned a rare feat with her first Deborah Knott novel, Bootlegger's Daughter (1992), when the book won nearly every major award for that year: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity & Agatha. Bloody Kin (out of print for about a decade) was originally published by Doubleday in 1985 and is widely considered a prequel to the best-selling Knott series, introducing the region & several characters that would later appear in Bootlegger's Daughter. In Bloody Kin, after Jake Honeycutt dies in a hunting accident, his pregnant wife Kate moves to his family farm in North Carolina and soon discovers that she is a Yankee outsider and that Jake's death was no accident.

"Margaret Maron is one of the best writers in the business. Read her. That's an order." -- Elizabeth Peters

"A hundred years ago, Margaret Maron might well have been classified with that group of writers called 'local colorists.'... From Sarah Orne Jewett's vignettes of life in rural Maine to Kate Chopin's stories of Louisiana's bayous... Maron continues the tradition of quick, perceptive sketches of local life in the framework of a modern murder mystery." -- Houston Chronicle

Go out and pick up Margaret's Bootlegger's Daughter, work your way through the Deborah Knott series (there are fifteen, with the latest, Sand Sharks, published from Grand Central earlier this year), and look forward to BFP's Bloody Kin in 2011!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Original Ace Atkins short story (part 2 of 3)

Busted Flush Press's new reprint of Ace Atkins's first novel featuring blues historian Nick Travers, Crossroad Blues, also features an original, never-before-published Nick short story, set at Christmas! As an early Christmas gift to fans, BFP is serializing the story in three posts... Here's part two... Enjoy! (Read part one here.)

An original Nick Travers story.
© Ace Atkins, 2009


HER NAME WAS Sarah. Petite hands, delicate face, soft brown skin. She probably was in her late twenties, going on fifty. Her lips quivered when she blew cigarette smoke over her head, and she liked to drink. Crushed ice, Jim Beam, and cherries. The closer I sat to her at the hotel bar, the more I smelled the cherries. The more I smelled her perfume. I see, Fats. I see.

On her third drink, she looked over at me and grinned fully into the left corner of her mouth. Her lips were full and thick. Her small body tight and exposed in black hot pants and black shirt tied above her stomach.

“You sure are big. You a Saint?” she said.

“No, I’m a dancer. Jazz, modern, and some tap. I used to breakdance, but I never could spin on my head.”

She laughed. And even from the six feet that separated us, I could tell she had been crying. Dry streaks through her makeup.

She kept wiping her nose and eyes. She turned her eyes back to a book placed in front of her drink.

“How is it?” I asked.

She cocked her head at me and a thin strap fell from her shoulder.

“The book.”

“Oh,” she said and closed it and showed me the cover. Lady Sings the Blues. “A friend gave it to me.”

As I was about to pursue the thought, two guffawing men walked into the deserted bar. Laughing, smirking. Drunk, with slow moving eyes and aggressive swaggers. One nodded at the bartender. He nodded back.

“Ready?” the bartender asked Sarah.

“Oh. Yes.”

I put my hand over hers, which were cold and shaking. “You don’t have to do this.”

She smiled at me with her eyes. “It’s gonna be just fine. Just gonna be fine.”

I kept my hand over hers.

One of the businessmen approached me. Maybe I was generalizing, but he sure fit the description. Brooks Brothers suit and a wedding ring. His hair was silver, and his expensive cologne clashed with his hundred-buck-meal onion breath. Big fun on the bayou in the Big Easy.

"We already paid,” he said. “You’ll have to do it yourself, son.” He made a yanking motion with one hand.

The younger businessman snorted. The bartender was wise enough to shut up.

I looked for a long time at the older man. He probably had everyone in his company scared of him. Everyone called him “sir” and catered to his every egotistical whim. He’d never sweated, never done a damn thing but hang out at the fraternity house and kiss ass until he made partner. I stared.

He looked down at my tattered and faded jean jacket and sneered. “What do you want?”

I slowly reached down the side of my leg and pulled out my boot knife. I grabbed him by his tie—red with paisley patterns—cut it off at the knot, and shoved it in his mouth. The younger man moved in as the CEO took a swing at me. I caught his fist in my hand and squeezed. If I had anything, it was strong hands from shirking tackles when I played football.

I brought the guy to his knees.

“Sir, when your grandkids are sitting on your lap this Christmas and everything is all warm and fuzzy, I want you to remember this. I want you to think about it as you light the tree, cut the turkey, and pat the kids on the head. Tell the boys when they come to New Orleans to treat the ladies real nice.”

I released my grip. He wouldn’t think about what I said. He was not me, and I was not him. I remembered something a psychologist friend had told me years ago. Don’t expect anything from a pig but a grunt.


SHE AGREED TO walk with me to the Quarter only after I gave her fifty bucks. It was fifty I didn’t have, but it was the only way. Together we crossed Canal, dodging cars, soon smelling that cooked onion and exhaust scent that floats around the old district.

I took her to a small bar off Decatur to talk. Really it was just a place to sit and drink, only four feet from a sliding window. I got two beers in paper cups, and we sat down. No one around us except an elderly black waiter in a tattered brown sweater. Sarah finished half her beer in one gulp.

I asked her if she was afraid.

“No. Not of you.”

“What then?”

She finished her beer, then pulled a cigarette from a pack extracted from a cheap vinyl purse. I lit it.

“Tell me about you and Fats. You know he’s dead?”

“I know.”

She sat there for a moment just looking at me.

“Was he a regular?”

She dropped her head, kneading the palm of her hand into her forehead. The cigarette held high in her fingers.

“Did you work for him at his apartment or did he get a hotel?”

She scratched the inside corner of her mouth and took another drag of the cigarette.

“You were with him the night he died, weren’t you?”


I exhaled a long breath and gambled with what I said next. “That man didn’t have anything. Why’d you set him up? You could’ve rolled anybody, like those two in the hotel. You’d come up with a lot more money than what Fats had. He was a sweet old guy. He had more talent than someone like you could ever comprehend. Just tell me who helped you.”

“Stop it. Just stop it. You don’t know anything.”


“You got it all messed round. You don’t know how it was.”

“How was it, Sarah? You tell me.”

“I loved him.”

I laughed.

“He tole me he’d marry me. Imagine that. Him marrying me. Even sold his saxophone to—”

She was sobbing now. I waited. When she stopped, she told me about how they first met. Thursday nights she would wait for him outside JoJo’s, listening to his sweet music. The day he told her that he loved her, it was raining. “Real black clouds over the Mississippi,” she said.

“So why’d he sell his sax?”

“To buy me.”


IT WAS TWO in the morning when I got back to the Warehouse District, lonely, cold, and tired. I didn’t want to be alone. A light was on across Julia Street in the warehouse of a neighbor, one of the many artists who lived in the district. A ballet instructor. Beautiful girl. Good person.

I parked my Jeep, grabbed a six-pack of Abita out of the fridge, then found myself buzzing her from the street-level intercom. I could hear Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 filtering out a second-story cracked window and reverberating off the concrete and bricks down the street. Her blurred image floating past the dim windows.

As I stood there, I suddenly felt silly because she could have company. I guess I arrogantly thought she would always just be there when I needed her. Just waiting, no need for a life of her own. But I guess she thought of me like one of the neighborhood cats that she consistently fed whenever they decided to wander by for a meal.

Sam slid back a rusted viewing slot, then opened the door smiling. Short blonde hair and blue eyes. She wore cut-off gray sweat pants and a man’s white ribbed tank top tied at her waist. She’d been dancing a long time—enough to build a sweat.

“I don’t remember ordering a pizza,” she said.

“I do. Should be here in fifteen minutes—chicken, artichoke hearts, and white cheese.”

She shook her head and laughed. She slid two heavy bolts behind us, and I followed her up the stairs. I put my hand on her back. It was very warm.


THE NEXT DAY I played the waiting game in a little tourist café on Royal. I waited and I watched Sarah’s apartment. I ate two bowls of bland gumbo and a soggy muffuletta, drank draft Abita until I got loopy, and then switched to “Authentic French Market Coffee.” Tasted like Maxwell House.

I saw her walk outside to a balcony in a loose-fitting robe and lean over a scrolled balcony sipping coffee. That was noon.

At three, she came back to the balcony. She sat down in a director’s chair, propped her feet on the iron railing and read. The Billie Holiday book?

At 3:43, she went back inside and did not come back outside for two hours. The bright sunshine barely warming a cold day retreated, and the shadows finally returned, falling over my face.

Around six, she came out of the street entrance walking toward Esplanade. I tucked the copy of Nine Stories back in my jacket pocket, where I always kept it, placed a few bills under the weight of a salt shaker, and began to follow.

I had a ragged Tulane cap pulled low over my eyes and wore sunglasses—some Lew Archer I was. I pulled the collar of my trench coat tighter around my face. Not just for disguise, but also to block the cold. December wind shooting down those old alleys and boulevards can make a man want to keep inside.

She went into the A&P on Royal, and I stayed outside. In a few minutes, she returned, unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and continuing to walk toward the far end of Royal. She walked into one with the doors propped wide open, leaned over the bar, and French-kissed the bartender. He struck an effeminate, embarrassed pose and laughed. She patted him on the face and kept walking.

At the end of the street, she went inside a bed and breakfast. Semi-renovated. New awning, peeling paint on the windows. I got close enough to see through the double-door windows. She was talking to someone at the front desk. Then she turned, going deeper inside the building. I waited.

It was cold. There were no restaurants or coffee houses on this side of district. It hadn’t been civilized yet. I blew hot breath through closed fists.

I waited.

I got solicited twice. Once by a man. Once by a woman. And had a strange conversation with a derelict.

“Crack,” he said.

“Gave it up for the holidays. Thank you, though.”

“Naw, man. Dat’s my name.”

“Your name is Crack?”


I asked “Crack” where the nearest liquor store was. He said it was on Rampart, so I gave him a few bucks and told him to buy me a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and whatever he wanted. Actually it wasn’t really a gamble to give him money. Most of those guys work on a strange ethical code when it comes to a fellow drinker.

He came back, and we sat on the other side of Esplanade watching the bed and breakfast until nearly ten o’clock. The whiskey tasted like sweet gasoline.

When Sarah came back, her hair was mussed, her jaw worked overtime on gum, and she looked tired. She certainly did not expect what came next as she bent down to re-strap a sequined stiletto.

As she pulled the buckle tight around her ankle, an early seventies black Chrysler whipped around the corner of Chartres, speeding right toward us. I had no time to push her out of way or yell. I could only watch as she just stayed bent over with her butt in the air. Hand still touching those ridiculous shoes. Very still.

I knew the car would hit her.

But it didn’t. Instead, the car skidded to a halt next to her, and a white arm grabbed her by the hair and jerked her in. She screamed as I sprinted across the street. Because of the tinted windows, I couldn’t see the driver, who put the car back in gear and weaved to hit me.
I bolted away and lunged toward the curb, where Crack was standing holding his bottle of apple liquor. The car’s tires smoked as it headed down Royal.

I followed.

My breath came in hard, fast spurts. I knew I was sprinting a losing race, but I followed until I saw the dim glow of the car’s cracked red taillights turning somewhere near Toulouse.

And she was gone.


WHOEVER TOOK SARAH dumped her body underneath the Greater New Orleans Bridge on the Algiers side of the Mississippi. Naked with a cut throat.

Jay Medeaux stood over me at police headquarters on Broad Street and slurped on a cup of black coffee. I rubbed my temples. It was 9 A.M. and I hadn’t slept. His wide, grinning face looked more amused with my situation than sympathetic.

“No coffee?”

“No, thanks.”


“Jay, do you mind?”

“Touchy. Touchy.”

I regurgitated every trivial detail of what I witnessed and knew. Jay listened without asking any questions. He didn’t even lecture me about conducting my own investigation—which he knew I was prone to do. Jay was a good friend.

I remember him happiest when we beat LSU. His grin wide as he held our coach high on his shoulders in a warped, fading photograph I still kept on my desk.

He pulled Sarah’s file from Vice and made a few phone calls. We found out she was working for a pimp with the awful moniker of Blackie Lowery. A lowlife whose previous convictions included running a strip club staffed with twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, trucking oysters from a polluted water zone, indecent exposure at Antoine’s restaurant, selling illegal Jazzfest T-shirts, and beating the shit out of his pit bull with a Louisville Slugger. Sounded like our man.

Jay let me go with him to pick the guy up.


WE FOUND BLACKIE outside his Old Style Voodoo Shop spray-painting a dozen little cardboard boxes black—his back turned as he spurted out a final coat. He was a skinny guy with pasty white skin, a shaved head, and a thick black moustache curled at the end like Rollie Fingers used to wear. He stopped painting and looked sideways at us.

“Hey, Blackie, why don’t you spell shop with a two Ps and an E?” Jay said. “The tourists would like it more, I bet. Make it sound real authentic, ya’ know.”

Blackie had his shirt off, and a tiny red tattoo was stamped over his heart. As he watched us, I could see the colored skin beat.

“We found one of your employees this morning,” Jay said. “Blade sliced her throat real even.”

He gave a crooked smile and threw down his paint can. “I don’t have a clue.”

“That’s beside the point,” Jay said. “Come on with us.”

“Eat me,” Blackie said.

I walked through a side door and into a voodoo shop. The smell of incense was strong among the trinkets, stones, and powders. A small, glass-topped casket sat in the middle of the room with a carved wooden dummy inside painted to look like a decomposing corpse.

But beyond the Marie Laveau T-shirts and the hundreds of bags of gris-gris powders, something interested me.

Fats’ sax sat in a corner.

To be concluded...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Original Ace Atkins short story excerpt (part 1 of 3)

Busted Flush Press's new reprint of Ace Atkins's first novel featuring blues historian Nick Travers, Crossroad Blues, also features an original, never-before-published Nick short story, set at Christmas! As an early Christmas gift to fans, BFP is serializing the story in three posts... Here's part one... Enjoy!

An original Nick Travers story. © Ace Atkins, 2009

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN one to keep an eye open during a church prayer—not because of my lack of faith in God but because of my lack of faith in people. What I learned by watching was that others were doing the same. People mistrust people. Each of us pulses with our own agenda. In New Orleans, and particularly, in the French Quarter, those agendas cross frequently.

That night I was in my own house of worship—JoJo’s Blues Bar—with both eyes closed tight as I chased a shot of Jack with a cold Dixie. Fats’ band banged out the last few chords of “Blue Monday,” his lazy sax matching my own black mood. Each drink softened that black mood into brown melancholy.

A cold December drizzle rained outside. Cold droplets fell a muted pink along the window lit by JoJo’s neon sign, only a few regulars in the bar with ragged fedoras pulled low. JoJo’s niece Keesha, the only waitress on duty, tapped her foot slowly to Fats’ music. While she smoked, she read the Bible by dim candlelight.

“Keesha, how ’bout another Dixie?”

“You know where they’re at.”

And I guess I did. JoJo was my best friend and this was my second home. I took off my trench coat and old scarf and walked behind the bar. Pushing up my shirt sleeve, I reached into the slushy ice bin and grabbed a beer. My hand instantly went numb.

“Who’s closing up?” I asked.

“Felix,” she answered, stuck somewhere in the middle of Corinthians. “JoJo and Loretta went to Baton Rouge.”

The set finished and the sparse crowd clapped. Most of them were old men like JoJo who had frequented this place since the early sixties. JoJo’s was the only decent blues bar in a city dominated by jazz. “A little Delta on the Bayou,” is what said the sign outside read.

Fats pulled up a stool next to me. His face grayed under the tiny Christmas lights strung over the bar’s mirror. I looked across at both of our reflections and tilted my head.

He said my name dully back to me.

“How ya been, Fats?”


“You know why JoJo’s in Baton Rouge?” I asked, for lack of anything better.

“Naw.” Fats shifted in his seat and coughed, politely turning his head away. He looked over at Keesha with her head close to the Bible.

“What? You got religion now or somethin’?”

“Seek and ye shall find,” Keesha said, blowing smoke in his face.

Hmm,” Fats said. “Ain’t that some shit?”

Someone opened the two rickety Creole doors and a cold breeze rushed in off Conti. A horse-drawn tourist carriage clopped by with a guide pointing out famous sites. Fats popped a handful of salted peanuts into his mouth, shell and all.

“You hungry, Fats?”

He looked at my face for the first time, right in the eyes. “Yeah, I could eat.”

Fats was known for gambling or drinking away his weekly profits every Friday. He usually lived on Loretta’s leftover gumbo or handouts from JoJo.

We walked over a few blocks to the Café Du Monde. I asked for a couple orders of beignets and two large café au laits. A Vietnamese waiter set down the square donuts covered in powered sugar and within a minute, Fats ate them all.


His coffee sat empty before him. I ordered another round for him.

Fats didn’t say a word. He leaned an arm on the iron railing and looked across the street at St. Louis Cathedral. Or maybe he was looking at the bronze statue of Andrew Jackson. I’ve always liked to think it was the church, with the spotlight beams illuminating the simple high cross.

“Is it the track?”

“Naw.” He laughed.

“You need help?”

“No,” Fats said. “What I got, pod’na, is a fair deal. Just like Robert Johnson said, ‘Last Fair Deal Goin’ Down.’ You know about Johnson?”


“He sure played a weird guitar. I’ve always tried to make my sax do that. But it just ain’t the same.”

“What’s the deal, Fats?”

He laughed again and shook his head. He looked up. “You ever been in love, Nick?”

“Every Saturday night.”

“No, man. I mean really in love. Where it make you sick jus’ to think you ain’t gonna get no more.”

“I guess.” I looked at him as he brushed a hand over his gray suit to get off the fallen powdered sugar.

“Let’s just say I found somethin’, all right, big chief.”

“That’s where the money went?”

“Thanks for the eats, Nick.”

And with that, Fats reached down, grabbed the handle of his battered sax case, patted it like a child and was gone. I sipped on another café au lait, warming my hands on the steaming mug.

Two days later, JoJo called to tell me that Fats was dead.


THE SLEET PLAYED against the industrial windows of my loft, a 1920s lumber storage, in the Warehouse District on the blackest early afternoon I could remember. Tulane was on Christmas break and instead of teaching blues history, I found extra time to loaf. I was practicing some of Little Walter’s harp licks on my Hohner Special 20 when JoJo buzzed me from Julia Street.

“I’ve already joined the Moonies,” I said, pressing the button on my intercom. “Fuck off.”

“Goddammit, open the door.”

I went to the kitchen portion of the second floor’s open space, lit the stove with a kitchen match, and began to make coffee. I left the sliding metal door ajar and JoJo walked in, tramping his feet and muttering obscenities under his breath.

“You don’t even know my mother,” I said.

“I need you to go with me to clear out Fats’ shit. That’s if you want him to have a proper funeral. Man died without a cent. And no family that anyone knows about. Loretta said we should do it.”

“She’s right.”


IT WAS A bullet through a clouded mind that killed him. A self-inflicted wound. Or so read the coroner’s report that my friend, Detective Jay Medeaux, shared with me. He told me a pink-haired runaway found Fats’ body on the Riverwalk, his back broken from a final fall onto the jagged rocks lining the Mississippi River.

All I could imagine was the grayness of those rocks and the grayness of his face among the damp paper bags and broken multi-colored bottles as we climbed the stairs to his apartment. It was on Decatur, not far from the French Market—a sign outside asked for fifty bucks a week.

The apartment manager met us on the stoop, thumbing through the sports section of the Times-Picayune. Wordless, with an impassive face, he led us to a second-floor efficiency. Hazy white light sprouted through rust-flecked metal blinds onto a rat’s nest of dirty clothes, an empty bottle of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum, a rumpled black suit on a bent hanger, a book called The Real Israelites, a juke joint poster, a toothbrush with a box of baking soda, and a pack of sax reeds on an unmade bed.

No sax.

“Mmhmm,” JoJo said.

“It’s not here.”


“Hey, buddy,” I said to the manager. “Where’s his saxophone?”

“What’s here is here. I ain’t responsible.”

“Where’s his goddamned sax?”

I felt JoJo’s strong hand on my shoulder.

“Man doesn’t know.”

The manager bit his lower lip, turned on a heel, and left us. We spent five minutes packing everything in the room into a cardboard box made for Colt 45 malt liquor. I took the rumpled black suit from the hanger, folded it, and handed it to JoJo. He nodded.

I heaved the box up into the crook of my elbows and walked down a urine-scented staircase. My ears rang, full of Fats’ sax, those deep full notes that bled the man’s life and loss. He never cheated, putting all he was into every note. And now someone had taken the one thing he cared about even more than his own life.


THAT AFTERNOON I started searching all around the Quarter. I looked into any painted window using the words MUSIC, PAWN, or ANTIQUE. I learned his sax was a classic made in the forties, a collector’s item that could pay for a dozen caskets and burial plots.

I found nothing.

The cool day turned into colder night as the setting sun turned burnt orange over the Mississippi. Driving down St. Charles Avenue, mottled shadows played over my face. Leaves turned end over end from the knurled water oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

I parked off Prytania, where Fat’s drummer lived in a rotting carriage house among mansions.

He was stoned when he opened the door. Red-eyed, sunken-shouldered, giggly stoned. Tom Cat usually wore his hair in a greasy ponytail, but tonight it hung wild in his face. Clutching a bag of Cheetos in his skinny white arms, he wiped orange dust from the corner of his mouth and invited me in.

“Hey, dude.”

I pulled a crumpled pair of jeans and a foul-smelling T-shirt off a chair and sat down. The place reeked of marijuana. He’d be lucky if the paint didn’t start to peel.

“Want a smoke?”

“No, thanks,” I said, smiling and pulling a pack of Marlboros from my jean-jacket pocket.

“Jesus, Nick, I’m a mess.” He started to giggle. “Why’d he do it, man? Didn’t he realize it wasn’t just him, man, that . . .”

He laughed uncontrollably.

I smoked my cigarette and looked outside. Two kids played touch football in the street.

“I’m sorry,” he said. His laughing died like a cold engine. “I just can’t handle the shit now. Ya know?”


“Your band need a drummer?”

“Did Fats have a girlfriend?”

“I really don’t want to talk about this. It makes me feel like I’m gonna throw up.”

“I need to know.”

“You ain’t a cop, man. Don’t be a hard-on.”

“Did he have a girlfriend?”

He dropped his head between his knees, black hair cascading into his face. In a few seconds he raised back up, looked at the ceiling, red-faced from the inversion, and said, “See, Fats didn’t have girlfriend. Fats . . . Fats had a whore.”

To be continued...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What David Handler has been up to...

Edgar Award-winning mystery writer David Handler has long been a favorite of mine, no matter what he writes. He's just contributed a fine story for next fall's BFP anthology Damn Near Dead 2, and though he's no longer writing the award-winning Stewart "Hoagy" Hoag & Lulu novels (featuring a celebrity ghostwriter & his faithful yet neurotic basset hound), he remains committed to the wonderful Mitch Berger & Desiree Mitry mysteries (starring a shlubby NYC film critic & his Halle-Berry-sexy Connecticut resident state trooper girlfriend) that are being published by St. Martin's Minotaur. If you're a fan of intelligently-written whodunits that are a pleasant mix of hard- & soft-boiled amateur detective fiction, you can't go wrong with David Handler. Start with either the first Hoagy book, The Man Who Died Laughing (available from BFP), or the Mitch & Desiree debut, The Cold Blue Blood.

Here's David himself with a few words on what he's been up to...

"I'm pleased to report that I have a kick-ass new political thriller called Click to Play (Severn House) out now. It's something a bit different for me -- a turbo-charged page turner about a dying child star from TV's golden age who reaches out to a renegade internet journalist with the true story behind the most famous murder spree in Hollywood history. A secret that's so shocking it will most certainly destroy the U.S. senator who is poised to become America's next president. I had an absolute blast with Click to Play. It's chock full of bizarre characters and plot twists. Good, dirty fun. I promise you won't be able to put it down.

"However, if you are a loyal Berger-Mitry fan do not despair. My next Mitch and Des installment, The Shimmering Blond Sister, is all finished and scheduled for publication in fall 2010 from St. Martin's Minotaur. And I'm happy to report that I just agreed to write a new one entitled The Blood Red Indian Summer."

I know I, for one, am very much looking forward to these!

Visit David Handler online at

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kenneth Wishnia's students on TOWER!

by Kenneth (k.j.a.) Wishnia

My students hate cozies. Really. I’ll assign one every once in a while for balance and maybe three people out of a class of 35 will say they liked it. Everyone else will hate the freaking hell out of it. I teach a crime literature course every fall term at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, one of the poorer areas of Long island, and I’ve observed that our students always respond more favorably to hardboiled and noir stories, in part because the sensibilities at the darker end of the genre more closely resemble their own life experiences. In fact, this year’s group became such experts in analyzing the genre they even started complaining that some of the stories in Megan Abbott’s anthology A Hell of a Woman weren’t noir enough for them.

I repeat: some of the stories in A Hell of a Woman weren’t noir enough for them...

So I promised them that the next assignment would supply the electric jolt of noir that they were craving: Tower, by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman.

They loved it.

And they loved it even more when Reed Coleman dropped by to discuss the novel with us. (We’ve also brought Lee Child, S.J. Rozan, Jason Starr, Megan Abbott, Steve Hamilton and many other authors to our campus over the years.)

One student compared it to the collaboration between Jay-Z and Linkin Park on the album Collision Course, so naturally, we had to christen Reed with a new title: “The Jay-Z of Noir.” (Ken is stuck with being Linkin Park, I guess.)

Other sample comments:

“It was like a hybrid of a Guy Ritchie movie like Snatch and Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas.”

“It was really disturbing that the only time Griffin ever showed emotion was in the presence of violence, or when someone was speaking about violence. He was a sick bastard.”

“Interestingly, it is finding love that impacts both men more than any of the criminal activity they are involved in... Nick’s experience with love eases his rage; Todd’s experience ignites his rage.”

One woman summed it up in six words: “Love, Hate, F#@^k... then you Die.”

I have my favorite moments as well, but I’ll just pick one, when Todd says the Irish are always pining for the old country, but not the Jews: “You don’t hear too many second generation Jews pining for Poland or Russia, Romania or Ukraine.” You got that right, boychik, and it was true for my family, too. With good reason.


Kenneth (K.j.a.) Wishnia was born on a hot August night to a roving band of traveling academics. His first novel, 23 Shades of Black, was nominated for the Edgar and the Anthony Awards, and made Booklist’s Best First Mystery list. His other novels include Soft Money, which Library Journal listed as one of the Best Mysteries of the Year, and Red House, which was a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year. His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Murder in Vegas, Queens Noir, and elsewhere. Ken’s latest novel, The Fifth Servant, a Jewish-themed historical set in Prague in the late 16th century, is due out from William Morrow/HarperCollins in Feb. 2010. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Crossroad Blues, by Ace Atkins (978-1-935415-03-9; trade paperback reprint; $15) On sale in two weeks!

Chapter 1

last night
New Orleans, Louisiana

JOJO’S BLUES BAR stood on the south edge of the French Quarter in a row of old Creole buildings made of decaying red brick, stucco, and wood. Inside, smoke streamed from small islands of tables, drinks clicked, women giggled, and fans churned. Black-and-white photographs of long-dead greats hung above the mahogany bar—images faded and warped from humidity and time.

Dr. Randy Sexton stared at the row of faces as his thick coffee mug vibrated with the swampy, electric slide guitar. He tapped one hand to the music and held his coffee with the other. The bucktoothed waitress who had brought the coffee shook her head walking away. This wasn’t a coffee place. This was a beer and whiskey joint. Order a mixed drink or coffee and you felt like a leper.

JoJo’s. Last of the old New Orleans blues joints, Randy thought. Used to be a lot of them in the forties and fifties when he was growing up, but now JoJo’s was it. The Vieux Carre was now just endless rows of strip joints, discos, and false jazz—unless you counted that big franchise blues place down the street. Randy didn’t.

This bar was a New Orleans institution you couldn’t replace with high-neon gloss. The blues sound better in a venue of imperfection: a cracked ceiling, scuffed floor, peeling white paint on the bricks. It all somehow adds to the acoustics of blues.

Randy was a jazz man himself. He’d studied jazz all his life, his passion. Now, as the head of the Jazz and Blues Archives at Tulane University, he was the curator of thousands of African-American recordings.

But blues was something he could never really understand. It was the poor cousin to jazz, though the unknowledgeable thought they were the same. Jazz was a fluted glass of champagne. Blues was a cold beer—working class music.

His friend and colleague Nick Travers knew blues. He could pick out the region like Henry Higgins could pick out an accent: Chicago, Austin, Memphis, or Mississippi.

Mississippi. The Delta. He sipped some more hot, black coffee and watched the great Loretta Jackson doing her thing.

A big, beautiful woman who was a cross somewhere between Etta James and KoKo Taylor. Randy had seen the show countless times. He knew every rehearsed movement and all the big, black woman’s jokes by heart. But he still loved seeing her work anyway; her strong voice could fill a Gothic cathedral.

Her husband, Joseph Jose Jackson, pulled a chair up to the table. A legend himself. There wasn’t a blues musician alive who didn’t know about JoJo, a highly polished, dignified black man in his sixties. Silver-white hair and moustache. Starched white dress shirt, tightly-creased black trousers, and shined wingtips.

“Doc-tor!” JoJo extended his rough hand.

“Mr. Jackson. Good to see you, my friend, and—” Randy nodded toward the stage. “—your wife, she still raises the hair on the back of my neck.”

“She can kick a crowd in the nuts,” JoJo said.

Loretta sweated and dotted her brow with a red lace handkerchief to some sexy lyrics and winked down at JoJo.

“Rock me baby.
Rock me all night long.
Rock me baby.
Like my back ain’t got no bone.”

They sat silent through the song. JoJo swayed to the music and smiled a wide, happy grin. A proud man in love. The next song was a slow ballad, and Randy leaned forward on the wooden table, the smoke making his eyes water. JoJo cocked his ear toward him.

“I’m looking for Nick. Isn’t he playing tonight?” Randy asked.

JoJo shook his head and frowned. “Nick? I don’t know. He’s been tryin’ to get back in shape or some shit. Runnin’ like a fool every mornin’. Acts like he’s gonna go back and play for the Saints again. No sir, he ain’t the same.”

“He’s not answering his phone or his door.”

“When he don’t want to be found,” JoJo said, nodding his head for emphasis, “he ain’t gonna be found.”

“Could he be out of town? Maybe traveling with the band?”

“What?” JoJo asked, through the blare of the music.

Traveling with the band? ” Randy shouted.

“Naw. I ain’t seen him. ’Cept the other day when we went and grabbed a snow cone. Started talkin’ to some gap-toothed carriage driver ’bout him beatin’ his horse. Nick said how’d he like to be cloppin’ ’round wearin’ a silly hat and listenin’ to some fool talk all day. Skinny black fella started talkin’ shit, but he back down when he got a good look at Nick. I’m tellin’ you, man, Nick gettin’ back in some kinda shape. Not much different than when he was playin’. You think he’s considerin’ it? Playin’ ball again?”

“I doubt the Saints will take him back,” Randy said, raising his eyebrows.

Nick had been thrown out of the NFL for kicking his coach’s ass during a Monday Night Football game. He knocked the coach to the ground, emptied a Gatorade bucket on the man’s head, and coolly walked into the tunnel as the crowd went crazy around him. Nick once told Randy he’d changed his clothes and taken a cab home before the game ended. He never returned to the Superdome or pro football again, and Randy never prodded him for the whole story.

A few months after the incident, Nick enrolled in the masters’ program at Tulane. Later, he earned a doctorate in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi before sporadically teaching a few classes at Tulane.

“JoJo, tell him to call me if you guys talk.”

“His band ain’t playin’ til . . . shit . . . Friday night,” JoJo said. “Whatchu need Nick for?”

“Got a job for him.”

“Yeah, put his sorry ass to work. Soon enough he’ll be back to the same ole, same ole, drinkin’ and smokin’.”

At the foot of the bar, an old man watched the two talking. A cigar hung from his mouth as he brushed ashes from his corduroy jacket lined with scar-like patches. His gray eyes darted from JoJo to Randy then back down to the drink in front of him.

“If you talk to him, tell him to call me,” Randy said, getting up to leave and offering JoJo his hand. He knew JoJo would find Nick. He was the man’s best friend.

Randy took another sip of coffee and stood watching Loretta. She had a drunk tourist on stage and was getting him to hold her big satin-covered hips as she sang the nasty blues. The old man at the bar watched her too, his face flat and expressionless. His black, parched skin the same texture as the worn photographs on the wall.

Randy and the man’s eyes met; then the old man looked away.

“One of our colleagues left for the Delta a few weeks ago,” Randy said. “He’s disappeared.”

“The Delta? Lots of things can happen to a man there,” JoJo said, looking him hard in the eye. “Nick’ll help; he’s a fine man.”

“Yeah, I think a great deal of him. He’s a good guy.”

Chapter 2

NICK TRAVERS WAS drunk. Not loopy, hanging-on-a-flagpole drunk, but drunk enough to find simple enjoyment in the soapy suds churning in the Laundromat washing machine. It was two A.M. on St. Charles Avenue, and he sat sideways on a row of hard plastic seats—baby blue with flecks of pink. He had three loads now in the machine as heat lightning shattered outside like a broken fluorescent bulb, a tattered Signet paperback of The Catcher in the Rye in his hands.

“Goddamned phonies,” he muttered, thumbing down a dog-eared page, waiting for his clothes in white boxer shorts and battered buckskin boots. His white T-shirt and faded jeans were in the wash, and there was no one around except a homeless man drinking whiskey from a brown-bagged bottle. A classic wino, even missing a few teeth.

“You know what I mean, they screw it up for everybody,” Nick said.

The wino nodded.

Nick liked the hard sixties decor of the place with its stainless-steel rims circling the glass of the washing machines and its occasional elevator music over a busted speaker. But now, he only heard the sound of the dry summer wind blowing Spanish moss on the oaks that canopied St. Charles Avenue like the gnarled fingers of an old man in prayer.

An elderly black woman with her hair tightly wrapped in curlers walked through the open front of the Laundromat and saw Nick in his underwear and boots. She immediately turned and left. The wino watched her butt as she walked by him.

“Get me a piece of dat,” he said, his head bobbing as if he had no neck muscles.

Nick turned to the washing machine. So this is what it had come to: washing clothes for enjoyment and talking to derelicts for a social life. Jesus, life changes in five years. Not that life was crappy now and all that sorry-for-self bullshit. Just different. Apples and oranges. Yin and yang.

Sometimes he could hear the deep resonating cheers echoing from the Superdome and wished he was still in there, grabbing some sissy quarterback by the jersey and slinging him down. But then he thought about lacing up his cleats for a five A.M. practice and would smile. Yeah, life was simple now. Teach a few classes on blues history, play some harp down at JoJo’s, and just enjoy life.

He’d watch the bubbles as the world pulsated in an electric vibe around him. Not quite in, not quite out. Somewhere in the middle. In his mid-thirties and getting soft mentally and physically. No challenges. No immediate goals. He needed to get back on it.

He reached down to the plastic chair beside him and grabbed a handful of quarters from a pile of keys and Dixie beer caps. He tossed the soggy clothes into a double-load dryer and walked next door to an all-night convenience store. He bought two quart bottles of Colt 45, one for him and one for the wino. The Vietnamese woman never blinked at his pantlessness.

“Hey pal, here you go,” Nick said, handing him the water-beaded beer.

“Tanks, Chief,” he said.

Nice of the guy to say thanks. Proved he was all right. It didn’t matter that he was homeless as long as he had some manners. Nick had seen some rich bastards not even thank a waiter for bringing them a meal at Emeril’s. “You from here?” he asked, unscrewing the cap.

The man jerked his head back giving him a double chin. “Naw, man, dis ma’ summer home. Just on a vacation from France.”

“Well, you don’t have to get all surly about it. You could be just passin’ through.”

“Naw. From New Awlins. Stay in New Awlins.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like I can’t leave, as much as I hate this fuckin’ city sometimes.”

“Yeah, I know, man. Listen, I know. Twenty-nine, ninety.”


“That’s the degrees this city sits on, man. Like a big magnet, it draws folks in.” He set his hands a few feet apart, then crashed them together. “Smack. Just like that, your ass is stuck and you can’t leave.”

“I could get out if I wanted to,” Nick said.

“Reason you hangin’ out here is you ain’t got a woman.”

“Had one.”

“Had me a meal yesterday but my stomach still empty.”

“Brown hair and eyes like morning coffee. Voice kinda raspy like a jazz singer and a comma of hair she constantly kept out of her eyes.”

“I ain’t ask you to unload on me. Jus’ sayin’ you need a woman.”

“I need to get back on it.”

“On what?”


“Life is easy,” the man said, gathering his rags and a dirty plastic bag of crushed aluminum cans. “Livin’ is hard.” He winked at Nick and disappeared into the thick night as a streetcar clanged past.


"JoJo's Blues Bar—a place so deftly described that it should be real even if it isn't. This tale's a pleasure for both mystery and [Robert Johnson] fans."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"An impressive debut by a promising new talent."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"One of the year's most promising new series . . . Throw in some snappy dialogue, a steamy romance with a red-haired blues singer, and the superbly evoked Delta landscape, and you have a meaty, straight-ahead mystery, entertaining from first to last."—Booklist

"Ace Atkins has woven the Johnson legend into a zesty tale that should appeal to mystery buffs, musicians and readers who like to discover new and promising talent."—The Tampa Tribune


Crossroad Blues will be published this month, December 2009. Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles. Booksellers/librarians: Crossroad Blues (along with all other BFP titles) is available through Consortium, Ingram & Baker & Taylor.

Ace Atkins, a former journalist, has written eight novels. His writing career began at age twenty-eight, when the first of four Nick Travers novels was published in 1998. In 2001, he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his investigation into a 1950s murder that inspired his 2006 novel White Shadow. He followed with three more true-crime novels: Wicked City, Devil’s Garden, and Infamous (2010). Atkins lives on a historic farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, with his family. Visit his website here.