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Max Griffin

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    Writing, SciFi, Horror, Action/adventure, romance

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  1. Max Griffin

    Chapter 1

    George clenched his coat and leaned into the bitter winds that blustered down Michigan Avenue. Snowflakes sparkled in the streetlights and prickled against his cheeks. He thought about catching a cab, but the fifty dollar fare to get to the north suburbs stopped him. After all, the Red Line subway station awaited only three blocks away. His cell phone buzzed. He rolled his eyes when he recognized Martin's number on the screen. Shit. He probably just wants to bitch me out again about working late. George rejected the call and slipped the phone into the pocket of his overcoat. Glacial air knifed his throat, and fog from his breath had left an icy crust on his scarf. Three blocks stretched like infinity, and all that waited at home was a black hole of despair. I'll just find a place to stop for a quick one, and warm up. He peered through the gloom, searching for a refuge. He rushed forward, his thoughts on a warm Irish Coffee and a soft bar stool. His cell phone buzzed again. He scowled and pulled it out to check the caller ID, but his heel skidded on a patch of ice. He lurched forward and crashed to the ground. His head slammed into the cold concrete, and for an instant the world disappeared. Purple stars floated before his eyes when he sat up. His phone had spun away and wedged into a grimy pile of snow next to the curb. "Shit!" He scrambled to his feet and winced as pain shot from his knee up his leg. He limped to the curb, shook snow off his phone and checked the screen. It displayed two missed calls from Martin. "At least the damned thing still works." He shivered and squinted through the storm. Half a block ahead, a purple neon sign in the shape of a grand piano hung over the sidewalk. The word "bar" flashed in script letters from inside the piano-shape. Piano bar. Clever. Just what I need. He'd walked this street hundreds of nights. Strange that he'd never noticed this place before. The skin on his right knee burned, and a cold chill ran down his leg. When he inspected the damage, a foggy sigh puffed from his lips. He'd torn his suit pants, and blood stained the ragged edges of the fabric from where the sidewalk had shredded his flesh. He fingered his forehead; a knot already swelled over his eye. "Great." With each heartbeat, blood pulsed deep in his brain, bringing with it a nagging ache. His scarf fluttered in another gust of wind, and he gripped it between knuckles turned white and stiff from the cold. His knee wobbled as he labored toward the entrance to the bar. The glass of the door gleamed onyx and purple; the image of the piano on the overhead sign warped across the shiny surface in an insane distortion of reality. He grasped the burnished aluminum handle and the cold bit into his bare palm like fire. He gasped, pulled the cuff of his overcoat down over his hand and tugged the door open. Warm, moist air flooded over him even before he entered. Lavender neon lights lined the ceiling and the edge of bar. An aquarium, filled with tropical fish in blue and green hues, bubbled on a wall to his right. On his left, under the cold brilliance of a spotlight, a grand piano sat, empty, waiting. George stomped snow from his feet and inhaled the aroma of beer and cigarettes. Customers sat scattered here and there in the shadows, together and alone. A mutter of conversation rattled while winds buffeted the windows. His knee throbbed, and the skin on it flamed from his fall. The barstools were modernist monstrosities of aluminum and not padded, but they'd do. He settled onto one, slipped off his scarf and overcoat, and signaled the barkeep. The man's dead eyes glowered at him. "Whatchyer poison, bud?" He polished the ebony wood of the bar with a white towel that seemed to glow with an inner light. George tried to twist his frozen features into a smile. "I could use something warm." On impulse, he asked, "Do you know how to make a mad monk?" The man chuckled. "Seems to me a monk is nuts already without no one makin' 'em that way, what with them bein' celibate and all." His face flashed for the barest instant into what might have been a smile before returning to opacity. "Oh, wait. I bet you meant, 'can I make the drink, a mad monk.' You betcha. Frangelico, schnapps, coffee, hot chocolate." George grinned, nodded and rubbed his hands together. "Perfect. I'll have one, please. It's just what the doctor ordered." "I gotcha covered, bud. It'll take about five minutes." He dumped pretzels in a bowl, shoved them in front of George, and turned to the task. George leaned back and let the warmth from the bar ease into his aching joints. Candles flickered on the tabletops, their golden light supplementing the purple effulgence of the neon. Plush carpet padded the floor, and gray-napped fabric matted the walls. The customers--all male--huddled in easy chairs arranged in intimate seating groups around low-slung tables. He turned when arctic air blasted from the door and two young men arrived. They sat in the back, placed an order with the waiter, and held hands. The aroma of chocolate, coffee and hazelnut brought his attention back to the barkeep. The man growled, "Here ya go. That'll be eight bucks." George slipped him three twenties. "I'll run a tab, if that's all right. This'll cover it for now." He sipped at the drink and let its heat penetrate his organs and soothe his pains. The barkeep blinked and his eyes showed a glimmer of..something. Not interest, surely. "No problem, bud." He picked up the bills while he scanned George with hawk's eyes. "I ain't seen you in here before." "I've never been. I just spotted the sign and decided to come in from the cold. Strangest thing, though. I've walked this street every day for the last five years, and I don't remember seeing this place." The man shrugged, and then cocked an eye toward George's head. "Ya been in a fight or somethin'? Ya got a nasty bruise there." George fingered the knot on his forehead and winced. "No. I fell on the ice, right outside the bar, and banged my head on the sidewalk." "Ya ain't gonna sue or nothin', are ya?" His eyes narrowed and his jaw muscles jumped. George shook his head and the room swirled in a dizzying spin. He paused for a beat, waiting for the world stop moving, before he answered. "No, of course not. It was my fault, for not paying attention." He took another sip. "This is great--one of the best mad monks I've ever had." The man grunted. "Thanks. It's a specialty of the house." The door rattled and admitted another gust of winter as a new customer entered the bar. George shivered and glanced at the piano. "Is anyone going to play tonight?" The barkeep's laugh barked at him. "The piano man's a no-good bum. He was supposed to be here at eight." George glanced at his watch. Eleven-thirty. "So I guess he's not coming, then?" "Ya never know with him." The man who had entered the establishment moments ago settled to a seat at the opposite end of the bar. He signaled to the bartender, who nodded back and muttered to George, "I gotta go. Let me know when ya want another one." George folded both hands over his drink and let the heat seep into his fingers. Wordless chatter cluttered the silence, syllables murmured from unknown lips that fell like colorless autumn leaves, gray and lifeless. Alcohol conspired with memory to ensnare his soul in tendrils of loneliness. From the other side of the bar, dusky eyes stared at him from a pale visage. The newcomer raised his drink and nodded. His narrow features and slicked-back silvery hair reminded George of a whippet. George gave the barest nod back. Not tonight. Not ever again. He gathered his things and limped across the room to an empty space near the piano. The soft leather of the easy chair, cold from disuse, sent chills trickling up his spine. His cell phone vibrated once more from inside his suit coat. He sighed and slipped it out. It announced a text from Martin. where r u? I'm going to bed alone. again. A weary sigh filled his lungs, and he put the phone back in his pocket without replying. A gentle arpeggio swelled from the piano and made him lift his gaze to the stage. A dumpy bald man, wearing crumpled chinos, sneakers with no laces, and a black t-shirt now huddled over the keyboard. A brandy snifter glimmered on the piano, an invitation to tips. The strains of a jazz arrangement of "Someone to Watch Over Me" floated into the lounge, graceful as a dove, delicate as moonlight. The wraith-like newcomer rose from his place at the bar and floated toward George. Don't look and maybe he'll go away. George kept his gaze locked on the piano and his attention focused on the song. As the final notes wafted to oblivion, the stranger leaned forward and murmured, "Mind if I join you? You seem to have the best seat in the house." George's skin prickled with anticipation, but thoughts of escape buzzed through his mind. He shrugged. "Sure, why not?" "Thanks." The man settled in a chair next to his and crossed his legs. "I'm David, by the way." He extended his hand. "George." The name caught in his throat. Despite his wraithlike appearance, David grasped his hand with a firm, warm grip. "Nice to meet you." The music paused, as if waiting for a cue. A drunken voice from across the room slurred, "Play Melancholy Baby." Instead of the tin-pan alley original, the piano man chose a slow, romantic arrangement that conjured Judy Garland. George's lips moved in a silent recitation of the words. An ironic smile bent David's features. Just as the lyrics sang of "all your fears," he leaned forward and muttered, "Reminds me of the scene in A Star is Born." George scowled and shushed him. The lovely melody filled the emptiness; the transcendent lyrics sang in his mind and lifted up his soul. When the final chord faded, David spoke again. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude." George's face heated. "No, I'm the one who should apologize. I shouldn't have shushed you--that was rude of me. I shouldn't let these songs get to me. It's just..." He couldn't bring himself to finish. David nodded. "It's all right. It's the same with me. Music and memory have a magical embrace with our souls, I think." The piano man glanced their way with a secret light in his eyes. His fingers tripped over the keys. Thin harmonies eddied underneath the melody for "Take My Breath Away." George fought back tears, remembering Martin's embrace on a winter's night long ago. The waiter sauntered to where they sat and slapped napkins onto their table. "What can I getchya?" He lit the candle that rested in a votive, dark and cold on the table in front of them. A rainbow of mascara glittered about his wrinkled eyes. David's pure gray gaze twinkled in the flickering light. "I'll have a gin and tonic, and I'll buy my friend here another of whatever he's drinking." George didn't want to be beholden to this stranger. "A mad monk, please. And I'm running a tab with the bartender. I left him enough to cover us both." "Sure thing. Ya want I should getchya pretzels or anything?" George gave his head a slight shake, and David answered, "I think we're fine. Thank you for asking." That got him a shrug. "Lemme know if ya change your minds." He waggled his hips in his too-tight black jeans as he flounced away. David's chuckle was like the rush of warmth from a blazing hearth. "Well, he's not going to take anyone's breath away with that kind of attitude." George let silence stretch between them while he waited for the next song. Night and Day. He leaned back and the music washed over him, but Martin's face from this morning, eyes cold and mouth sneering, fouled the pleasant melody. Just like our relationship, night and day, fire and ice. When the song ended, David whispered, "We adored that song, my partner Jonathan and I. We were so in love. I remember dancing with him while the band played on, under the moonlight in Providence." George cast an astonished glance at the man next to him. Tears welled in those dusky eyes and dampened his narrow cheeks. We danced to it, too. Could it be he's as lonely as I? A sob clenched George's throat and he choked it back. As if reading minds, the piano man segued to an easy-listening rendition of Roy Orbison's Crying. David wiped his face. "I'm sorry," he husked. "You must think me a sentimental fool." George's hand, tremulous and tentative, dared to touch David's. "Not at all." He fought the quaver in his voice. "Memories are harsh, sometimes. They lash at us." The waiter returned with their drinks. George snatched his hand back, but the waiter's face still soured, like he'd bitten into an apple and found George inside. He planted his hands on his hips and sneered, "Anything else?" David slipped him a twenty. "For you." Without a word, he grabbed the bill, turned on his heel, and left. George snorted. "Charming." David's fingers edged back across the table and found George's waiting palm. His serene touch induced a terrifying warmth somewhere deep within George's soul, making him pull his hand away. David's liquid gaze melted George's heart, and his voice sang mute promises. "Thanks for the drink." His fingers curled on the table next to George's, resting, waiting. "I wanted to do it." George evaded his eyes. "Thanks for tipping the waiter. He didn't deserve it." "Perhaps not. But then, perhaps he needed someone to care for him this cold night." David paused. "Everyone needs someone to care for them." The piano man shifted into a medley of movie themes. As Time Goes By. George's phone buzzed again. He ignored it, but memory whipped him with guilt and with yearning. Visions of Bogey and Bergman danced in his head. Casablanca was Martin's favorite movie. We had Paris, too, like in the movie. But their love endured. David's eyes lingered for a moment on George's suit coat where his phone hid. He blinked, looked away, and balled his hand into a fist. "Strange how I remember every detail of our last night in Providence. Jonathan wore blue, I wore gray." George wanted to forget Martin, so he asked, "Where is he, your Jonathan?" "Gone." David squinted at the piano man. "What's he playing now?" George tipped an ear. "Charade." His lips turned down. "You know, they always leave, one way or another. Love's nothing but a charade." A shadow of a smile passed across David's features. "Sometimes, yes, that's the way it is. When it's right, though, love's the only thing that's real, don't you think?" George didn't answer. David rubbed a tattoo that blossomed on the back of his wrist: a purple lotus. His gaze avoided George. "When we're afraid, we run away from life. When that happens, it's not the charade that scares us. It's the reality." George closed his eyes, wishing the world away. He missed Martin so, the young Martin he'd fallen in love with, not the nagging, churlish Martin who waited in their home. What happened to that person, the one he loved? Where had he gone? Why did he leave? How can you know love is true? David's finger traced a circle on George's palm. "It's easy to love when your heart's on fire and smoke gets in your eyes. But that's not when you need it, when it's easy." He pushed his chair back. "We should tip the piano man." He shuffled to the stage and stooped to murmur in the musician's ear before passing a discrete palm over the empty brandy snifter on the piano. When he returned, he gathered up his coat. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you. I really must go." He leaned close to George. His breath warmed George's cheek as he whispered, "Don't let go of what holds you up. Life is fleeting, and love is our only window to eternity." With a rustle of garments, he vanished, as if he'd never been. George's head throbbed. and the room rippled in shades of purple and gray. The piano thrummed discordant in his ears, the sound clogged as if under water. But then the room settled back to muttered voices and shadowed faces; the music resolved to a melody familiar and soothing. The piano man lifted an eyebrow at him as his magical chords embraced George. Bridge Over Troubled Water. That was song that had played the first night he and Martin had made love, those many years ago. How did David know? He must have asked for that song, must have tipped the man to play it. As the harmonies faded, George rose and approached the musician. "Why did you play that piece?" He had to know. The piano man shuffled his sheet music. "It was just the next one in the stack." "The man I was with, the one who tipped you. He didn't ask you to play it?" "What man?" "The one I was sitting with. He whispered something in your ear and tipped you, right before you started that song. Did he ask you to play it?" "Bud, I don't know what you're talkin' about. You been sittin' there all night, alone, while I did my set. And I ain't got no tips, not from no one." George stared at the brandy snifter: an empty globe shimmering in the glaring spotlight. His phone buzzed. He pulled it out. Martin again. Memories and hope assaulted him, and his hand trembled in indecision. The piano man looked at him, then at the phone. "You gonna answer that, man?" "I don't know." "Well, you can't stay up here. I gotta play." His fingers rested on the keys. George stared at his phone. It came to him then, in the shadowland of a piano bar, what he must do. He donned his coat and fled into the frigid winter's night.
  2. Max Griffin

    Piano Man

    A winter's night, a piano bar, and a troubled relationship...
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