New Jersey, Spring 2013
Friday, May 10
Suzanna closed her set with a swinging Brazilian samba to match the room’s upbeat vibe. Keep the customers happy. Keep those tips rolling in. The crowd at the Haddonfield Bistro was full of life, chatting and drinking with a weekend gusto. Her classical guitar rang out bright and fast with notes bouncing off the restaurant’s tile and woodwork. The spirited conversations merged with her music. Typical Friday.
She stretched her arm under her music stand and shut off the amp. Two men at a nearby table were debating the liberal values of Haddonfield’s new mayor. She abruptly tuned it out. During her earliest background music jobs, she’d been guilty of eavesdropping, especially when it included juicy gossip. But now, after two years of working all manner of gigs, including three nights a week here at the Haddonfield Bistro, she was content to mind her own business.
As she fastened the guitar to its rack, her hair fell across her face. The warmth and humidity of New Jersey’s early spring had transformed her cropped brunette bob into unruly curls. Pushing a strand back into place, she spied a pudgy man approaching. His cheap cologne reached her first.
He tossed a dollar in her tip jar. “Your music’s lovely, so relaxing!”
What did he expect her to do with one dollar? But then, a dollar might be a lot to this guy. She reminded herself that dollars add up.
“Your fingers practically dance over those strings.” He took one of her business cards and read it through Coke-bottle glasses. “Suzanna.”
She eyed him with slight suspicion and tried to assess whether he actually liked her music or was just hitting on her. He might be one of those creepy guys who go gaga over female performers. That would be unusual at this restaurant, where she didn’t even play on a stage.
She glanced down at her traditional performance clothes: black blouse and black slacks. Even though they fit snugly to her petite frame, they were decidedly unsexy. She rubbed her arms against a vulnerable shiver. Displaying her natural good looks while not attracting unwanted attention was a trick she hadn’t quite mastered. Still, she kept to her rule: never be unsociable to an audience member. Swallowing her unease, she plastered on a professional smile and said, “I was named for a song, but─”
“Like ‘Oh Suzanna’?” Behind the glasses, his eyes lit up.
Uh-oh. She shook her head and hoped a rendition of the Stephen Foster wasn’t coming up, but—
“Oh, Suzanna, oh, don’t you cry for me. I come from Alabama with a geetar on my knee,” he sang in a nasal tenor voice.
It took all her effort not to roll her eyes. Instead, she faked a laugh along with him, then slipped away to the long antique bar. How many times had she been serenaded with that song? A million? And everyone who replaced banjo with guitar thought they’d cracked their own original joke. Here, in small-town Haddonfield, New Jersey, it was a rare occasion when someone guessed her actual namesake. She sighed, put the encounter behind her, and hopped up on a barstool.
Swiveling from side to side, she scanned the faces of the cheerful couples and families packed into the dark wood and leather booths. That well-dressed gentleman in the corner looked like a prime tipping candidate. She hoped so, anyway. Tips made up the core of her income; hourly wages were just icing. Even after four stellar years at the Philadelphia Conservatory, she didn’t have the credentials to do any other music job. No orchestra jobs for classical guitarists. Solo concerts took gobs of money and college positions required a master’s degree. If she wanted to make a living playing music, background was it. For now.
Inhaling deeply, she took in the scrumptious aroma of burgers and fries. Her mouth watered just smelling the fatty scent permeating every inch of the place. All the local restaurant critics claimed the Haddonfield Bistro served the best pub grub in New Jersey. She agreed.
A dark-gray shadow rippled across her arms. She gazed out the window for the source. A black sedan the size of a stretch limo cruised by the front of the restaurant. Odd to see such a bulky car on the historic streets of Haddonfield. It was gonna take finesse to park that monster around here. She strained her neck to get a better look, but it was gone.
She swiveled to face the bar. The Haddonfield Bistro’s trade name, HB, was etched into the bar rail. She ran her fingers over the carving’s distinctive sloping letters.
Vinny’s back was to her, but she caught his eye in the mirrored back wall. “Busy night,” she said.
He pulled a wineglass down from the hanging racks and skimmed it across the top of the bar in one smooth motion. “Yo, Suzanna, the place is rockin’.”
His slicked-back black hair, strong chin, and accent reminded her of a younger, more handsome Sylvester Stallone, thoroughly South Philly Italian.
He poured out a chardonnay and handed the glass off to a waitress. Then, propping his elbows on the bar, he beamed at Suzanna. “How’s Baby holding up?”
She smiled at the thought of her creaky, old 1974 Maverick, aka “Baby.” The only car she ever owned.
Vinny’s dark eyes were practically laughing. “I can still hook you up with my buddy to get you a better ride.”
One corner of her mouth twisted up. “But I haven’t got all my use out of him yet.”
“That’s one ugly—”
A woman at the other end of the bar held up two fingers, and Vinny slid across the floor as if his feet were roller skates.
It was true; her car was no great beauty. Rusty holes dotted the faded, midnight-blue paint job like copper constellations, and wires aggressively poked through the back seat’s shredded cloth covering. No hubcaps, no power brakes or steering, no electric windows, no electronic anything—Baby was humble, but he was hers. The HB was only a few blocks from her apartment, but she couldn’t manage to drag all her gig paraphernalia on foot. She needed Baby.
While Vinny made his way back to Suzanna’s end of the bar, he gathered a bouquet of emptied wine glasses in each bear-paw hand.
“Saw Baby parked in your favorite spot.” He sloshed the glasses in soapy water.
“Yep, got lucky.” For Suzanna, that tiny stretch of macadam outside the HB’s side door held a little magic. Not that she was superstitious or anything, but every time she parked there, she had an excellent tip night.
She spotted Emily breezing across the room in her crisp all-black uniform, arms loaded with dirty dishes. The Haddonfield Bistro’s blue HB logo, stitched on her collar and pocket apron, looked refined next to the rose tattoo on her forearm. Her miniskirt showed off her long and shapely legs, a quality that Suzanna, being on the short side, secretly envied.
Emily coaxed the dishes into the bus cart at the end of the bar. She straightened her apron, tightened her ponytail, and plopped down beside Suzanna. “That guy you were talking to—the chubby one with the goggles. Was he bothering you?”
“I saw him lurking around while you were playing.”
“Just a fanboy.”
“More like a fucktard.”
HB’s owner, Harry, strolled by. “Watch your language, Em. This is a family restaurant.” Harry, being ex-military, ran a tight ship.
Emily grimaced and sighed dramatically in his direction. He fixed his gaze on her with a frown but then winked. She grinned back and said, “You look very Denzel tonight.”
Flagged down by a customer, Emily grabbed the coffeepot and marched over to the table with a huge smile, her strawberry-blonde ponytail bopping up and down. On her way back, she bumped shoulders with the busboy and splashed half the pot of coffee on the floor.
“The legend lives on.” Suzanna chuckled at Emily’s well-known butterfingers. “How you manage to keep from spilling all over your customers is beyond me.”
Suzanna inched slowly by the puddle of coffee on her way to the HB’s side door. She’d left her clamp-on electronic tuner out in her car. Early in her background music career, she learned that a tuner measuring vibrations, rather than pitch, was a must in a noisy restaurant.
As she pushed the door open, the sun’s last rays threw Baby’s profile into relief. Her car’s sporty sloped back tried hard to make the boxy chassis look sexy, but Baby just wasn’t a Mustang, more like a wannabe. Didn’t matter to her. Baby was her rock.
She could see her tuner sitting on Baby’s dash. All she had to do was cross the doublewide sidewalk.
A sudden flash of white pierced her eyes. Intense heat enveloped her as a deafening boom shook the ground. Somewhere glass shattered. Every inch of her body trembled.
Like the smack of a surging ocean wave, a thump on her chest whisked her backward into the HB. Her head clipped a barstool as she rammed into Emily. The two ended up sprawled on the floor, hearts pounding.
The side entrance no longer had a door, only a bare, dangling hinge. Eyes burning, Suzanna peered out through a veil of smoke at a flaming hunk of metal ablaze in her favorite parking spot. A flaming hunk that used to be Baby.
Suzanna lay flat on her back atop the chill tile floor where the explosion had dumped her. Through a black-gray haze, she squinted up at the HB’s pressed copper ceiling and tried to pull together her splintered thoughts. She was sure of only one thing. When she walked over to the now nonexistent side door, that stupid coffee spill slowed her pace. Just enough. She would be dead right now if Emily wasn’t such a klutz.
A confusion of tramping feet and shouting whirled around her, muffled by a low, constant rumbling in her ears. Her lungs burned from the fumes of melting plastic. She wiggled her fingers and pulled her legs up to her chin. No injuries, only a throbbing bump on the back of her head.
She craned her neck toward her performance area with a growing sense of alarm. That spot, positioned between the HB’s front door and a bank of oversized windows, was where she played background music for the restaurant’s customers. It was also home to all her gear. Holding her breath, she stared across the room and checked on her amp, music stand, and precious classical guitar. Miraculous. All untouched.
With fragile relief, Suzanna jacked herself up enough to sit cross-legged and let her head droop into her shaking hands.
Far-off sirens blared and swelled as they closed in. Harry charged out of his back office. He took one look at the thick smoke pouring through the HB’s blown-out doorway, snatched up a fire extinguisher, and started spraying.
As Suzanna kneaded the bump on her head, an older man, pressing a napkin to his mouth, shoved past, almost knocking her flat again. Bracing herself, she slid back on her elbows. Her fingertips skimmed over something solid and crackly. She jerked her arm back and squeezed her eyes shut. Was that a bug? She opened one eye to a squint. It was only a scorched paperback. It must have hurtled in from the sidewalk, just like she did. She wiped her watery eyes and examined the cover. Although it was singed various shades of brown, she could still clearly read the title, The Jersey Devil: Phantom of the Pines. “What the—?”
Vinny thrust his beefy hands under Suzanna’s arms and whooshed her up on a barstool. “Is your head okay?” he asked, out of breath.
She could see his lips moving, but her ears were totally out of service. Still clutching the paperback, she gave him a weak nod. Over his shoulder she saw Emily spread-eagled on the floor.
“Oh my God, Emmy?” Suzanna frantically pointed at her friend.
Vinny spun around and knelt by Emily. “You all right?”
“What do you think? We just got blasted!” Emily’s eyes flitted back and forth along the length of the HB. “I’m not hurt, but what the hell was that?”
Vinny gripped Em’s elbow and helped her up. “Let’s find out. Come on, Harry’s up front.”
Suzanna watched them plunge into the crowd but decided to stay put. From her barstool, she stretched her neck to look out through the jagged hole that had once been the side door. A firefighter was hosing down Baby’s remains. The torrents of water blew the sharp scent of burning tires into the restaurant and turned her stomach. She held her nose.
Three police officers barged through the gaping doorway and brushed past her. Harry left his post guiding families out the front door and rushed to join them, his burly frame cutting a swath through the crowd.
Suzanna’s teeth began to chatter even though she wasn’t cold. She tried to slow her heart rate and dial down the adrenaline coursing through her veins. A light tap on her shoulder nearly made her fall off her barstool.
The tapper, a police officer, grasped her elbow stopping her fall. “Suzanna Archer?”
She cupped her hand to her ear and tilted her head.
The officer shouted, “Suzanna Archer?”
She nodded and shouted back, “What happened? Is anybody hurt? Is it my fault?”
“Only minor injuries. You’re the main victim.” He pointed at her head. “I’m Officer Cline. That waitress over there is very worried about you.” He tipped his head in Emily’s direction.
“Was it a terrorist attack or something, Officer…?” She couldn’t remember his name to save her life and had a vague feeling she was being impolite.
“Just call me Jason. We don’t know much yet. The detective and CSI guy are working the scene outside. They’ll talk to you when they’re done inspecting your vehicle.”
She whimpered to no one in particular, “Baby, my Baby…”
Jason clutched her wrists. “What baby? My God. Was there a baby in that car?”
“Oh, no, Baby’s my car’s name. Or was his name.”
He released her arms and let out a heavy sigh.
“Sorry,” she said.
“That’s one for the books.” Gently, he slanted her head forward and examined the growing lump in the back. “It looks superficial to me, but there’s an EMT in the ambulance out front. Should I get him?”
Even though her head did ache, Suzanna just wanted everyone to leave her alone. She needed time to puzzle out this nightmare. Why in the world did Baby go up in flames? A gas leak? Some sort of spontaneous combustion? “No. Thanks…really.”
Jason nodded. “I can’t force you, but see a doctor if it doesn’t feel better soon. Call out if you need me.” He turned and took charge of the room. With an authoritative voice, he said, “All right, everybody, relax. There’s a car fire on the side street, but limited damage. We’re evacuating to play it safe.”
Emily scanned the empty room. Only two stragglers lingered. Everyone else was already out on the sidewalk gathered around the burnished town clock. She let out a short snort of laughter. “Yeah, come on, everybody. Both of you, out here.”
That was Em’s coping MO: make light of the problem, no matter what. And she had the wit to carry it off. Sometimes Suzanna admired Em’s quips, but other times, like right now, the jokes only added to the stress.
Jason ignored the wisecrack, drew back his shoulders, and led the last customers out.
Emily hurried over to Suzanna and gave her a quick hug. “Do you think this had anything to do with that goggles guy?”
“My ears are rumbling. Speak up.”
Em cupped her hand around Suzanna’s ear and shouted, “Could goggles guy be responsible?”
“God, Em, I hope not.”
“Well, earlier, I wanted to knock his teeth out. He called me bubbly!”
“You are kind of bubbly,” Suzanna said, attempting a snicker but ending up just sniffling.
“Whatever. How ya feeling?”
“My head hurts, but it’s minor. That’s what Jason said anyway.”
“Is that his name? Jason, huh.”
Emily hooked her elbow on the bar, and despite all the mayhem, she coolly leaned over and exclaimed in Suzanna’s ear, “Did you see the muscles on him? Gotta love a man in uniform!”