1 AM. Opening night. At Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. 1938's already been a hell of a year. And here I am, wading through a lively crowd with watered-down whiskey seeping from their warm pores. I'd get a drink myself if I weren't here on business. This time of night is typically when my work day starts. Such is the life of a Dick.
Not long ago, I got a nervous call from Lorraine. She's one of the house singers, providing backup for the visiting acts. She's also my neighbor, climbing one less flight of stairs than I in our apartment building between 116th and 117th.
"It's Jim. He's dead." She said. "Come quick, Richie."
Now, to find Lorraine. Making my way to the back is taking work. This place's layout is geared more to a medium-sized audience, sitting comfortably at the tables near the stage. The Great Depression hit us all hard, but in Harlem, it felt particularly awful. It's been such an emotional swing., from the heights of the Harlem Renaissance to this. Everyone is drinking the night away, hoping the worst is over.
My gut says it is. It's going to get better, that is. At least for everyone but Jim. Finally, I reach the back door, rapping on its course facade, hoping they can hear me on the other side. I can hear these large metal locks clink and shift inside the door. It's clear how this place was used just a few years back. Prohibition kept me busy. There was a body a week. Things have slowed lately, so I ran to Minton's quickly. I've got habits to support. I mean, bills to pay. Finally, Quentin, the manager, nervously opened the door.
"Rick? Get in here," he says, with his eyes darting around past me. Perhaps nervous I've not come alone.
Behind the door is a short hallway with entrances to just three rooms. Quentin's office was at the end of the hall. Everyone changed and kept their belongings in a staff room on the right. And finally, a green room for the visiting performers, with another exit providing an unobstructed path to the stage.
Jim, the fallen barback, lay dead center, no pun intended, in the middle of the staff room, which I find oddly tidy. Coat racks - perfectly aligned along the wall. Wooden stools on the opposite side, spaced evenly apart. Even Jim's body, face down, somehow appears neat, with a small and still pool of blood at his waist. All of which is strange, but it doesn't strike me as staged.
"Who all's been back here?" I ask.
"Since we found him? Me and Lorraine. Jim was the last to leave, or not, I guess, besides the band."
"So the band may be the last people to see Jim alive?"
"Um. Yeah. I guess so."
"Well, Quentin, I'll need to talk to them first."
...To be continued.