The Piano Player

Her partner in crime left her in the lurch. Now she’s hunted him down to a strip mall church and will get either her revenge — or her cut of the next con.

Piano keys

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Sunday, July 7, 1985

I would’ve sworn on a stack of Bibles that a closer walk with Jesus had never been on Harry’s bucket list, yet there he was, working the crowd in front of the church with the look of a man who had salvation in the bag.

Even though I was too far away to hear what he was saying, his movements commanded my attention. His arms rose high like a prophet. His clenched fingers danced around the halo of his curly locks as if he were ripping some eternal truth from the air itself. And his eyes flashed when he held forth his upturned hands. It felt like he was offering something to me, and me alone — something rare and precious and marvelous. But, he wasn’t.

Tracking down the lying, thieving, backstabbing, double-dealing Harry Wilson had taxed my spirit mightily, so I breathed a prayer of thanks that I’d finally have a chance to put him through hell for all the grief he had caused me.

When he motioned for the gaggle of onlookers to follow him inside, I pushed open my car door and hurried to the staff parking spots at the rear of the building where I had seen him leave his vehicle. Five minutes later I was stepping through the front door into the cool of the sanctuary.

The church occupied the north end of a decaying shopping center out on one of the struggling edges of the Baton Rouge metro. The inside, however, was fresh and nicely appointed — a surprise, given the location and the meager crowd of worshipers all gussied up in their down-market finery.

From my center-aisle seat in the second row, I watched a gowned choir file into a set of bleachers at the back of the stage as Harry worked his way through a lively chord progression on a beautiful baby grand that had a few bum notes in the upper register. It reminded me of a piano he and I used to practice duets on, back before the lure of easy money from sports betting scams elbowed aside our visions of playing the East Coast resort circuit for a living. Lately, I’d found myself getting nostalgic for those abandoned show business ambitions.

At the end of his warm-up, Harry launched into an intricate, animated fanfare — Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. He had rewired the rhythm with a bluesy tempo, and the random dissonance of the two or three out-of-tune keys gave the normally soaring piece a haunting, hypnotic mood. I could feel myself getting lost in the music, so I hummed a few bars of Chattanooga Choo Choo to keep from slipping under the spell of his inventive playing.

In all the time I’d known him, Harry’s witches’-brew musical concoctions had been strictly romance enhancers, inhibition shredders, clothing looseners. A rascally grin twitched at the corners of his mouth as his long, capable fingers high-stepped across the keyboard. Scanning the faces in the choir, I spotted the likely object of his intentions — a willowy dark-haired woman with shy adoring eyes and a rapturous smile.

When the house lights dimmed, Harry segued from his crossover Beethoven into the opening measures of Rock of Ages, then an overhead spotlight snapped on, illuminating the vacant pulpit with a cylinder of soft radiance. The crowd got to clapping, and hallelujahs sailed in from every corner as a tall, lean, broad-shouldered man emerged from behind the curtains and stepped up to the mic, raising his hands for quiet.

After the congregation settled into a solemn silence, I let loose with a loud cough and a lengthy sniffle. Harry turned toward the sound, and our eyes met. My grim smile and an arched eyebrow sent a shadow of panic across his face, causing a tiny thrill of satisfaction to rise up inside me. As the preacher closed his eyes and began to pray, Harry slid from his bench, making for the shadows behind the choir, so I hurried back down the aisle.

 

Rounding the edge of the building, I could hear Harry through his open car window, taking the Lord’s name in vain. I planted a foot on his front bumper. His head inched up, his gaze locked onto the snarl of sparkplug wires dangling from my left hand, then he reached for the door handle.

“Don’t. Both mitts on the wheel.”

His eyes followed my right arm to where it disappeared inside my shoulder bag.

“Look, Nina, the money’s gone. Yours and mine.” He raised his hands in a don’t-shoot gesture. “And as you can see, I’ve been reduced to honest work.”

“I oughta blow your head off just for thinking I’m stupid enough to fall for a line that dumb.”

“But, it’s the truth. You’ve gotta — ”

“Shut up, Harry. With your right hand, real slow, unlock the rear passenger-side door, then leave that hand hanging over the seat.”

I hustled alongside the car, yanked open the door, and ducked inside.

“You don’t have to be — ”

“Didn’t I just tell you to shut up?” My right hand emerged from the bag, gripping a .38. With my left, I pulled out a pair of handcuffs and manacled Harry’s dangling wrist to the post of the passenger head rest. He eyed me in the rearview mirror.

“I bet you really dug that new piece I was playing.” His wink and his flirty tone, smooth as they were, didn’t quite hide the fear in his eyes. “You still a softy for Ludwig van?”

“What part of ‘shut up’ do you not — ”

“Fine. I’m listening, but you’re not sayin’ much.” He made a show of turning to look at me over his shoulder. “Oh, I get it. You want to have church out here in the car.” He bowed his head, moving his lips as if he were mumbling a quiet prayer.

“Quit trying to be charming.” I slapped the back of his head. “Where’s my money?”

He faced forward, eyeing me once more in the rearview. “I just told you. Gone.”

“Gone where?”

“I got in over my head with some art forgers and lost everything. It scared the pants off me, so I turned over a new leaf.” He shrugged. “Nowadays, my life revolves around the church.”

“Then I have to wonder what kind of church it is.”

His expression grew serious. “Can’t it just be for the glory of God?”

My bark of laughter brought a wounded look. “Nice try, but the simple fact that you’re buzzing around means there’s more to this place than meets the eye. For instance, even in a low-rent district like this, it would take real money to operate such a big space. Add in rent, payroll, and all that fancy interior decorating, not to mention your lovely piano — which, by the way, needs a little work — and it’s more than I’m thinking that ragamuffin congregation forks over on a weekly basis. So, what’s the story?”

“About the piano?” He grinned. “A couple of pins are loose. The tuner is coming on Wednesday to fix it.”

“Do you think I came here to be entertained?” I smacked his head again. “Things’ll go easier if you keep in mind that my little helper can be persuasive without being lethal.” I pressed the snout of my .38 against the back of his shackled hand. “Now, talk.”

His eyes were fixed on the spot where the gun dimpled his skin. “Eddie Swires and David Martin — the guy at the podium — they’re just two ex-cons who found Jesus, in prison. They started this place when they got out. There’s nothing more to it.”

In the confidence game, you never insist on what something is not. It makes people suspect the opposite is true. So, claiming there was ‘nothing more to it’ told me I was digging in a good spot. It also told me that my former associate’s technique might be slipping.

“Harry, I can practically smell the prosperity.”

“Big deal. There’s no law saying the preacher and the people have to be in church for the same reason for the miracle of redemption to occur. Even if you assume they’re more interested in making money than saving souls — ”

“Yes. Let’s do assume that. And that you’re part of the crew.”

“Not me.” He raised his free hand in protest. “I handle the music, and I chat up the sidewalk crowd before each service, and I do it for next to nothing, because I’m trying to make up for all the wrong I’ve done.” He hung his head, his lips twisting into a frown. “Why is this so hard for you to believe?”

His delivery was convincing, but the tiniest flicker of artifice in his eyes, right at the end, spoiled the performance.

“If you’re not part of it, then you’re bird-dogging the place.”

He shook his head. “Even if I was still in the game, this one’s way too dangerous. These guys are totally insane. Not the type you fool around with.”

Maybe not, but his too-steady gaze told me he was doing exactly that. The possibility of tearing off a piece of whatever he was trying to hide made my heart race, so I pressed harder on the gun and teased my finger around the rim of the trigger guard.

“Tell me about this church, Harry. Chapter and verse.”

He glanced at the gun, then stared off into the distance, trying to look as if he were indulging a child and her tantrum, but his shallow breathing signaled worry.

“Well … the blood of the Lamb is washing the sins off a lot of souls, but it’s also washing the dirt off a fair amount of cash.”

“The church is a money laundry?” I gave him a slow, approving smile. “Dirty money was always like catnip, to you. There must be piles of it if you’re thinking about taking down guys as bad as you make these two out to be.”

When Harry started to shake his head, I thumbed back the hammer on my gun, and his calm exterior began to fray.

“Nina. Baby. Come on. We’re talking big, retirement-grade money.”

A jittery crap-artist smile ruined his attempt to sound chummy. Maybe he had lost a step.

“If you call me baby again, without my express written consent, I’ll put one of these hollow points through your right thumb. Now, where’s all this money coming from?”

“The guys who run the place are in the secret-keeping business.”

“Blackmail. Fascinating.” I nodded. “How do they clean it up?”

“It’s accounted for as donations to church-operated charities based in faraway states. Charities that shell out nearly all their revenue as salaries to Swires and Martin, or as payment for goods and services bought from businesses they control. And, most of that money is used to buy high-dollar homes with long-range profit potential.”

“That’s what you’re chasing? Residential real estate? With all the paper trails it leaves, a swindle hardly seems worth the risk.”

“When did you become such a conventional thinker?” He looked away, like he was embarrassed for me. “For your information, there’s a new animal in the woods. Ever heard of a home equity line of credit?”

I shook my head, feeling slightly embarrassed for myself. Maybe I had lost a step.

“The bank gets a second mortgage, and the homeowner writes checks against the equity.”

“Won’t you have to impersonate the owners to set up accounts like that? I seem to remember you drawing the line at posing as someone else — too easy to get found out.”

“Well, I’ve changed my thinking on that, because, you see, I know for a fact the banks have never laid eyes on these guys or their wives. All the original purchases were handled through lawyers.” His face lit up with a manic smile, and he waggled his eyebrows. “Tapping less than half the equity on their five most valuable properties would net a little over two mill. Just for writing a few checks.”

Given the potential payoff, and considering how much he owed me, his scheme looked promising. And the window of opportunity seemed big enough for both of us to climb through.

“I want a third of this deal.”

He looked at me as if I had suggested he castrate himself. “That seems a bit steep.”

“Not as steep as me trashing all your hard work by ratting you out to your employers.”

An ugly expression crept over his face.

“And I’m tagging along as your loving wife, so you can’t run off with the money again.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but I cut him off. “You stole from me, Harry.” I grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back. “You made a fool of me. I can’t let that slide, and I won’t let it happen again. So, either pay back what you took, right now, or I play your wife and take a one-third share. You pick.”

I let him go, then slammed my heel into the back of his seat to emphasize my point. He lurched forward, his mouth dropping open.

“Damn. That hurt.”

“Let me tell you about hurt,” I said through clenched teeth. “We were partners, but you screwed me like I was just another mark.”

“Nina’s Number One Rule: You see your shot, you take your shot.”

“No. Rule number one is you never hose your partner.” I kicked his seat again. “And, I still can’t understand why you broke up such a perfect team.”

When he fleeced me he’d wounded my heart along with my net worth. In the months leading up to that, things had grown difficult between us and, even though I’d known better, I let my hope that we could recover blind me to the fact that Harry’s affections had already found a new home.

“What’s it gonna be? Me, in for a third, or do I trash the whole bit?”

“I’d hate to lose all the work I’ve put into this, but let’s face it, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. If you ruin this one, I’ll just disappear and start fresh someplace else.”

Saying you’ll take your ball and go home is a good test of your opponent’s resolve, but making the threat without knowing you can carry it through is an amateur move.

“Harry, do you really think I’d go to all the trouble of hunting you down if I didn’t have a way to keep you tied to the whipping post?”

I pulled a picture of his sister from my bag and dropped it in his lap. I had left part of a theater marquee in the background — enough for him to see that Back to the Future was playing, so he’d know the image was recent, but not enough so he could tell where the shot was taken.

Darla had raised Harry after their folks became full-time heroin addicts. In exchange for her blind devotion, and long before I knew him, Harry had used her as unwitting cover for what he thought would be a straightforward sting. But one night, shortly after he and I had thrown in together, I found him in a drunken mope, crying over a photograph of him and Darla. He confessed he’d made a mistake that put her in serious danger. And while he desperately wanted to set things right, he’d never been able to locate her, afraid she might’ve been killed. To the best of my knowledge, she was his one and only regret.

“How did you find her?” His posture stiffened as recognition dawned in his eyes.

“The same way I found you. By being clever. But don’t kid yourself. Without me, you will never track her down. If I hadn’t been lucky, I’d’ve never found her myself.”

He turned toward me, his face a mask of anger and misery.

“Your sister definitely deserves a better brother than you. Yet somehow, I got the impression she’s willing to forgive and forget, if you’re willing to atone for what you did.” Darla hadn’t said exactly that, but she had told me that as long as I kept Harry from trying to locate her, I could use the picture any way I wanted, provided I made him suffer. “In any event, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You and I have business to take care of before I tell you who she has become and where you can find her.”

Expecting him to lash out, I was surprised when his hostility softened into what looked like remorse.

“Nina, if I had the money, I swear to God I’d give it to you. But I don’t.” His face brightened a bit. “So, it looks like you’re in for a third.”

Could it be that he was sorry for what he’d done to me, the way he’d eventually become sorry for what he’d done to Darla? Or was he just playing me to get to his sister? If I got paid back, out of this real estate job, did his motives really matter?

“Smart boy.” I eased the hammer down on my gun and shoved it into my shoulder bag. “And to answer your earlier question, I did enjoy that crazy Beethoven you cooked up — out-of-tune keys, and all — even though I know it was for the dreamy-eyed brunette at the end of the middle row. She’s pretty. Would she be playing your wife if I hadn’t bullied my way in?”

He tried to hide a sheepish grin behind the fingers of his free hand. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

“Speaking of missing things, do you ever wish we’d stuck with the music business?”

“Funny you ask. If I weren’t so damn greedy, this gig at the church could’ve been home. It ain’t the bigtime, but …” He shrugged. “You?”

“I’m so tired of the shady life.” I unlocked the handcuffs and dropped them into my bag, along with my gun. “The minute you and I are done, I think I’ll give showbiz another shot.”

He studied me for several seconds, then nodded. “If you’re serious about doing this, we have to get going, because the ship’s about to leave port. Appointments at the banks start Thursday, and we’ll be posing as different couples at different banks, so you’ll need two sets of fake ID. And we have to rehearse. It’s been a while since we played a scene together. We’ve gotta be smooth, down to the last facial tic.”

After we agreed on where and when we would meet to polish our act, I tossed his plug wires onto the front seat.

“Better get back to your piano before they get the idea you’re up to something.”

Wednesday, July 10, 1985

Harry’s knock on my hotel room door startled me out of my thoughts about the past few days and how, in our business, nothing is ever what it seems. I checked my watch. He was right on time, but I wasn’t ready.

Pieces of clothing were strewn on the far side of the unmade bed, and my suitcase lay open on the luggage rack beneath the window, shoes scattered along the wall. Harry would take one look at the mess and get mad. Then, the OCD part of his brain would kick in and he’d rush around snatching up the loose items, lecturing me on how a late start was a bad sign.

I pressed my eye to the peephole. He cut a sharp figure in his casual summer suit, hair trimmed banker style. When I opened the door, he hurried inside, head down like a cheating husband. Three steps in, he saw I hadn’t finished packing.

“Dammit, Nina. This is gonna hold us up.” He strode between the dresser and the bed, past the desk, trying to act like he wasn’t watching me button my blouse as he surveyed the room. “What if we hit traffic on the way to the airport — ”

“Or the cabbie gets spirited away in the rapture?”

He was all the way over by the window, hunting around for things that needed to be picked up. I leaned back against the connecting door to the next room, galloping my fingertips against the wood.

“Harry, can we just slow things down for a minute? I’m starting to feel really nervous.”

“Huh?” His head snapped up. “The plan is solid, and we’ve got our routine down perfect.” He grabbed my T-shirt and sleeping shorts out of the tangled sheets. “So, what the hell are you worried about?” He lifted the pillows, looking for more of my belongings.

“If any of the lenders smells a scam, there we are, inside an office, inside a building, where the exit is controlled by the mark, not by us. And — ”

“Nina, what’s going on, here? This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t think you’ve thought this through.” I gave him a strained smile. “Why does it have to be all five houses in one trip? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do La Jolla, first? Then watch and wait and, if it goes off clean, to move down the list? Nashville, Sea Island — ”

“And give the psycho preachers time to catch on? No way. I didn’t spend the last eleven months putting this deal together, right under the noses of those maniacs, just to let it come undone because my Johnny-come-lately partner is too chicken to go pedal to the metal.”

“Think about it, Harry. Five steals in one go? The risk is crazy, even for you.”

“Look, loose ends will always sprout up. Our job is to be out of the picture before they wrap around our ankles. When the pick-off is complicated, time is the enemy. Understood?”

What I understood was that Harry’s display of remorse, when I offered to trade Darla’s location for a piece of his action, was unusual enough to raise a red flag, to make me question what I’d been seeing. Through that lens, everything he’d said and done in the car behind the church looked like gamesmanship. His pious denials that he was up to something, so I’d keep digging. The grudging revelation of his grand plan with its big payoff, to entice me to muscle my way in. All those artless tactics to convince me his skills were in decline, so I’d let my guard down. From the moment I cuffed him to the headrest, he had figured out that his best chance to keep me from settling the score was to lure me in close and then hang me out to dry.

So, after our first practice session, I trailed Harry to the apartment of the doe-eyed woman from the choir. Once they went out, I snuck in and snooped around. She too was packing for an extended getaway, and inside one of her suitcases I found a packet of documents they’d be using to carry out the real plan — the one where Harry was making me the patsy. I’d end up either in jail or in the clutches of the men we’d be ripping off, while he and his little songbird vanished with the cash.

“Harry, the last time I ignored my instincts where you were involved, I got burned.”

A hard look rose in his eyes. “I don’t believe this. I bent over backwards to bring you in at the last minute, trying to make things right between us, and now you’re backing out?”

“Not exactly.” I gave him a wry smile and watched, fascinated, as his anger turned into puzzlement. Then I pulled open the door to the adjoining room. Martin and Swires stepped through. A nylon gym bag swung from Martin’s right hand.

To his credit, Harry didn’t miss a beat. “I hope y’all know that if it wasn’t for me, this conniving little thief would’ve taken y’all to the cleaners.”

“That ain’t the way we heard it.” Swires plucked a small microphone from between the wall and the mirror above the desk.

Harry looked from my pajamas, still balled up in his hands, to the mirror just a few feet away, then at me. I gave him a one-shoulder shrug.

“Guys, y’all know I’d never keep that money.” When all he got were stony glares, his eyes widened and he held out his upturned hands. “I was only playing along until I could figure out her game, so nobody else could steal you blind.” His gaze toggled between the two men. For several seconds, no one spoke.

I almost hated to break the awful silence. “You know, Harry, it wasn’t easy to persuade your employers there was a fox in their henhouse, but once I convinced them I was only after revenge, then promised they could hear the truth from the thief’s own mouth — ”

“The truth is she was forcing me to help her.” He jabbed his finger in my direction, his voice suddenly loud and shrill. “She’s the mastermind.”

“If that was the case, she’d have stuck with the grift and made a lot more money.” Swires tossed me an envelope. “Thanks, Nina. We’ll catch you later.”

My eyebrows went up as I leafed through the fat stack of hundreds inside. I’d miss the big payday Harry’s scheme would’ve brought in, but this wasn’t a bad consolation prize, considering the other benefit that was coming with it.

Martin unzipped his gym bag. An ominous clank and rattle came from inside as he rooted around among the contents, then took out a roll of duct tape and set it on the bed.

I didn’t want to know what else was in there. I snapped my suitcase shut and hauled it to the door.

“By the way, Harry, your sister is dead,” I lied, delivering on my promise to protect Darla. “Car accident. The day after I took that picture.” The life seemed to go out of him.

Even though I knew that, if things had gone his way, I’d be the one with my head on the block, it was still hard not to feel a little bit sad for him. He had to have known the fate he’d been beckoning for a lifetime would eventually arrive. Whatever drove him to periodically destroy his world and the people who cared for him was beyond my understanding. He’d done it to his sister, and to me, and to who knew how many others. His accomplice in the choir would likely have been next.

The shriek of duct tape ripping from the roll followed me into the hallway, derailing my bleak train of thought. One of these days, I would devote some serious effort to figuring out the riddle of Harry Wilson, but at the moment, I had to hurry. If I wanted my resurrected music career to start on the right note, I needed to get to the church in time to meet the piano tuner.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. “The Piano Player” sounded all the right notes. When two con artists strike a deal, expect the unexpected. And when wordsmith Roger Johns is telling the story, expect original imagery, crisp narrative, realistic dialogue, and a twist in the tail. Short story enthusiasts will applaud.

  2. Fabulous short story, but now I want more! I hope we get to see Nina in a novel all her own. Beautifully written with the perfect balance of action, back story, and character development, all wrapped up in a literary style. Kudos to Roger Johns!

  3. I’ve been a fan of Roger Johns’ writing for a number of years and “The Piano Player” is no exception. I love the way his stories flow seamlessly and draw you in immediately and, as others have commented, my only regret was that the story ended so quickly. Kudos to a great writer!

  4. The Piano Player did not disappoint. It is a well constructed, historically accurate , tale with compelling characters and an engaging plot. My only regret was that the story ended. Like all of Roger Johns works, it is a must read for anyone interested in Detective or Crime fiction.

  5. Maybe the best opening to a story I’ve ever read. I was instantly hooked and the story kept me guessing until the end. And IMHO, that is exactly what a story should do. The writing is smart and funny. Loved it.

  6. If I could adequately describe what makes the stories of Roger Johns so satisfying, then I’d write them myself. But I can’t; and few people can. Like the perfect gearbox, “The Piano Player” takes the reader from zero to full engagement in short throws of believable characters, base motives, propulsive anticipation, and gratifying resolution. The story’s “engineering” is complex, but it unfolds smoothly and with “oomph.” I think it’s the perfect short story.

  7. “The Piano Player” was such a fun read! The writer kept me guessing about who was duping who and whether Nina or Harry would win in the end. Roger Johns did a great job!

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