A Deal's a Deal

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A Deal's a Deal

Pirate's Alley in New Orleans, by Carol Highsmith

It was raining in the Big Easy, which made it harder on Phil. He'd been walking so long his arches ached, and now walking was miserable with the water squelching through the cracks in his cheap shoes and soaking his only pair of socks. He was going to have blisters, he knew, but he'd have to keep walking, just as he'd have to endure the torture of the rain dripping off his hair and running into his eyes, his ears, his frayed shirt collar, all because he'd lost his hat on the streetcar. He wiped his wet face ineffectually with one hand, while the other clutched his last valuable possession. At least the clarinet case was waterproof. His Selmer was safe, even if he wasn't. Phil was down to his last dollar, down on his luck, and wretched and desperate enough to have (almost) forgotten how scared he was of what he was planning to do, which was to sell his soul to the highest bidder in some spooky dive off Bourbon Street.

If he could find the damned place, he thought. (That was an ironic turn of phrase.) How could Old Nick be hard to find in New Orleans? He stopped under an awning ( 'Shapiro's Gents' Tailoring, Best Prices in Town, You'll Love the Way You Look, We Guarantee It!') and took out the well-creased paper, unfolding it carefully by the corners to avoid getting his lifeline (ha!) wet. He read the address for the 666th time, peered through the needles of rain at the corner sign, and nodded. He'd found it. Or it had found him. With his last nerve, he dashed across Pirate's Alley and ducked into the door that said 'Café Inferne: Mind the Step'. He tried to mind, but the soles of his shoes were slippery with Mississippi mud.

He still almost fell down the steps inside. A boy of about twelve stopped playing his harmonica in the entry just long enough to catch him as he tripped. The kid shook off his thanks and went back to his interrupted practice, leaning against the tiled wall as if he were home (which he might well have been), dark-brown fingers cradling the cheap nickel of his instrument and coaxing out a soft 'wah, wah'. Phil shook himself like a dog and went down the steps (quickly, before he changed his mind) to the tune of 'The House of the Rising Sun'. He pushed open the double doors and squelched as bravely as he could into the darkness beyond.

Angel eyes, that old devil sent

They glow unbearably bright…

That was what the girl was singing at the far end of the smoky barroom, under the dim spotlight next to the scarred grand piano. She was leaning on it, and she was beautiful in a way that intimidated Phil: red hair, lithe figure underneath clingy silk, languid mouth. The sort of woman he'd always wanted to meet, but was sure he'd be too tongued-tied to impress. Her voice poured like clear water into the stream of the song, which flowed like a lazy backwater creek on a sultry day, the warm kind when the fish are too lazy to bite. The pianist helped the melody along, but stayed out of the way of that voice. The singer wasn't looking in the direction of the door. She was watching a man sitting with his back to the wall, at a table near the end of the room across from the miniature stage.

The man looked like somebody who usually kept his back to the wall. Oh, he was elegant, all right: dark-blue silk shirt, expensive suit, gold watch. The jewel in his ring glinted in the candlelight from the table when he smoothed back a stray lock of shiny, black hair. Handsome as hell, too. But he gave off a vibe like a coiled snake. Phil had the feeling the man could see him even though he wasn't looking at him. He also felt that, if he wanted to, the man could be across the room in the blink of an eye – and maybe take that eye out, too. He shivered involuntarily.

'Hey, mister,' said a voice in his ear. 'You look like you need this.' Phil turned. A short waiter handed him a dish towel with a grin. Phil took it. It was clean and dry. He rubbed the rain off his head and dabbed ineffectually at his shabby suit. Catching a glimpse of himself in the bar mirror, he didn't like what he saw: wet, lank hair which wouldn't be much better dry, thin face, long jaw, baggy suit that had seen better days, maybe in another century. Deciding he looked as good as he was going to, he handed the towel back with muttered thanks, pulled himself together, and crossed the room. He figured the dangerous man was the one he needed to see. He wasn't looking forward to it, but needs must when….he shook off the thought.

He crossed the room cautiously, feeling conspicuous. The redhead sang, 'Excuse me while I disappear,' and then did so, slipping behind a curtain. It startled him until he remembered that this was the last line of the song. The emcee, a quick little man with a cherubic smile, led the scattered applause and announced the acts in a weird mixture of Southern and Italian accents. 'Thank-a you, Ceecee. Ceecee will-a be back later, y'all. Right now, Gabe d'Angelo's here with his horn.' A round-faced black musician in a rumpled tux picked up his trumpet and suddenly blew a note Phil could hear in places he didn't knew he had to hear with. Yep, he was in the right place. Shame the price of admission was going to be so steep.

Before he really wanted to, he'd reached the table where the dangerous man was sitting. He cleared his throat. 'Mr Archer, sir?'

The elegant man turned and blinked once, like an owl. 'Yes, I'm Mike Archer. And you are…?' He smiled: a flash of white teeth. The smile went all the way, into cinnamon-coloured eyes. It lit them up. Unbearably bright, Phil thought.

'Philip Grimm. Sunny Harmons sent me. He said…er, you make…deals with musicians. I'm…' he gestured with the case, '…a clarinetist.'

The dangerous smile grew wider. 'Excellent! Have a seat, Mr Grimm.' He waved an elegant hand. 'Waiter! Get this man a drink. Frankie, come meet Philip Grimm. This is Frankie Dasisse, the proprietor of the Café Inferne.' Phil sat down, while the waiter brought him something fruity with an umbrella in it and Frankie Dasisse plopped himself down on another chair. The umbrella made Phil laugh for some obscure reason, but the drink was surprisingly smooth, and the added fruit juice was just the boost his blood sugar needed.

Frankie D looked at Phil appraisingly. 'You look tired, Mr Grimm. I'll bet you're hungry, too. Joey! Bring the man a menu!'

Phil started to protest that he couldn't pay for a meal, but Frankie made Italian hand-waving motions. 'No, no, you're Mr Archer's guest.'

Archer nodded. 'Can't sign contracts on an empty stomach,' he said. 'It's against house policy.' He winked at Frankie. So Phil ordered the steak special, something he hadn't hoped to do in a long time, and sipped his drink while Gabe d'Angelo filled the room with crystal notes of melody that soared and took you to new places. By the time the food arrived, Phil was drying off and getting comfortable. When he bit into the best steak he'd had in his life, he began to feel human again. Archer and Dasisse didn't press him for conversation. They just listened to the music and let him tuck in. Probably part of their sales routine, thought Phil, and then felt vaguely guilty for thinking it.

Gabe d'Angelo had left the stage to the same scattered applause as CeeCee. The piano player provided background music, in the manner of piano players everywhere, who are used to covering other people's breaks while getting their drinks plunked down next to the music stand. He was a good piano player: not flashy, but insinuating in a pleasant way.

As Phil finished an insanely good slice of pecan pie, CeeCee herself joined them at the table. She kissed Archer's cheek and nodded to the other men, who were standing politely. They all sat down together, like a collective sigh of contentment. CeeCee turned a high-wattage smile on Phil.

'You play that thing?' she gestured to the clarinet case on an empty chair. He nodded. 'Then I hope you'll play something for us. Haven't heard a good liquorice stick since…who was it, Mike?'

'You're thinking of Benny,' Archer said good-naturedly. She smiled.

'Yeah, Benny. One of the best. I miss him.' She hummed a few bars of 'St Louie Blues'.

Archer's eyes twinkled. 'You'll see him again, hon. Now, let's see what we can do for Phil here.' In a flash, the dishes were cleared away, they all had coffees and brandies, and Archer was ready to talk turkey. Here it comes, thought Phil. I know it's wrong, but….I want this. He stopped thinking, because he realised Archer was looking at him in a way that said he'd read his thoughts.

'Tell me about yourself, Phil,' Archer said. 'What brings you here?' Somehow, Phil knew that by 'here', Archer didn't mean New Orleans. He meant 'here', in this exotic dive, ready to make a dodgy deal for the music he was dying to make, the music he'd sell his soul for, there, he'd admitted it, music to deal with the devil for.

He was looking at the devil right now: a well-heeled businessman with a drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend and the relaxed air that goes with power. A lot of power. Better to get it over with. A guy that powerful might be impatient to cut to the chase. Funny, though. He seemed to have all the time in the world, Archer did, and he merely smiled at him encouragingly. There really wasn't anything in that smile that should have made Phil shudder, but he did it, anyway.

In spite of his fear, Phil found himself pouring out his story to Archer, CeeCee, and Frankie D. They were surprisingly good listeners for a bunch of fiends. He told them about his lonely suburban childhood. The stresses of playing in a school band that was constantly out of tune, and whose raison d'être was to fill in time while ball players rested. The lack of opportunities to play jazz in his white-bread community. He outlined his frustration at modern church music, also white-bread, with its emphasis on drumkits and self-absorbed lyrics like, 'Jesus, I'm so glad you're in my life.'

'I got so tired of them saying, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" and then playing that trash, that I finally decided…well, you know…' he actually blushed.

Frankie looked at Archer. Archer looked at Frankie. They laughed, loud and long, at what appeared to be a private joke. CeeCee joined in. She had a very nice laugh.

'Cut it out, you two,' said CeeCee finally. 'You're confusing the poor kid.' She leaned over and patted Phil's hand. 'Don't mind them, sugar. They get punchy about this time of day. You're doing just fine.'

Archer wiped away tears of laughter. 'I'm sorry, kid. It's just that I've heard that song, and I know what you mean. Tell you what,' he pointed to the stage. 'Why not give us a sample of what you can do? Play anything you like,' he chuckled, 'Except "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High".'

Wondering vaguely why he was so nervous at playing before the Lord of Darkness, Phil unpacked his clarinet and went over to talk to the pianist, a lanky Cajun who reminded him of Hoagy Carmichael, partly because he seemed so relaxed he might fall off the piano stool any minute. After a quick confab, he crossed to the mic, waited for the gentle intro, and started playing – the same song CeeCee had been singing, 'Angel Eyes'.

Try to think that love's not around

But it's uncomfortably near…

What was uncomfortably near: CeeCee's subtle, haunting perfume, Archer's unnerving smile, the oddly sympathetic gaze of Frankie Dasisse. What was reassuring: the way the pianist stayed under Phil as he played, always there, adding to the song without threatening to run off with it. Thus encouraged, he got lost in the old standard, letting the place and the time and the discomfort and the fear fall away. He reached for notes he'd been too nervous to try before. For the first time in months, he felt happy. In a strange way, he felt at home here, in a place he'd never been before.

When the song was over and the pianist trailed off with a quiet riff, Phil blinked. For a minute, he didn't know where he was. Then he remembered: he was here to do a deal with the devil. So he could keep doing this, and he wouldn't have to join the army or become a customer service worker for a computer company. Amid the now-familiar sparse applause, he sat down with the others. Somebody'd refreshed his brandy, so he drank it off, to give himself courage for what came next. He waited for Archer to speak.

What he heard surprised him. 'That was nice, son,' Archer said quietly. 'Real nice.' Phil glanced at CeeCee, who nodded.

Frankie D was more enthusiastic. 'Bellissimo,' he said. The waiter showed up with a cheque, which he handed to Archer. Archer took it carelessly, glanced at it, and shoved it across the table to Phil.

'Sign here,' he suggested.

Phil swallowed hard. 'In…er, blood?'

Again that full-throated laugh. If I didn't know better, I'd think we were just friends having fun, Phil thought. Archer raised an eyebrow. 'Ball-point will do,' he said, offering a gold-tipped one from his breast pocket.

Phil signed. Then he read the slip: 'Dinner and a show. Anytime. Admit three.' Below it was his name. He handed the paper back to Archer, who slipped it into the pocket the pen came from. And took out his wallet.

'Here, boy. You look like hell. Take this and get yourself some new clothes. And a decent hotel room. It'll all look better in the morning.' Archer pressed some bills into his hand. Phil shoved them into his own pocket without thinking. He couldn't think.

'Er, Mr Archer?'


'It's done, right? The contract?'

'Sure, kid. What did you expect? Gris-gris and a chicken sacrifice? All done and signed for. You're on the payroll now.'

Phil persisted. 'For, er, how long? I mean, seven years? Fourteen, maybe?'

Archer looked puzzled. 'What? Oh. Nah. For the rest of your natural. I mean, take care of yourself. A little reefer's okay, but lay off the hard stuff. Drugs are no good. But you should be good for a long while yet, don't worry so much.'

Phil looked taken aback. 'As long as that? And then, after?'

Frankie D chuckled. 'After, my friend, you come with us.' CeeCee nodded. So that was it. Eternity in…?

Archer laughed. 'You come with us for the Afterparty. And we keep making music. Now go. Get yourself spruced up. Get a room. Leave the number with Frankie D, he'll get you some gigs. Drop in once in a while, everybody does. Play us a tune, and we'll brag we knew you when.'

Phil Archer packed up his clarinet and left the bar, still in a daze. The last thing he heard was CeeCee singing again. Not really a jazz number, something wistful about, 'Fratele sole…'. Frankie seemed to be enjoying it a lot.

Outside, it had stopped raining. Some neighbourhood boys were breakdancing in the late-afternoon sun. The boy with the harmonica was playing for them. They grinned at Phil. He reached into his pocket for some change to throw into their old baseball cap. He found a couple of quarters. He also came across the wad of cash Archer had given him. $300, more than he'd seen in a long time. He headed for Shapiro's, 'Gents' Tailoring, You'll Love the Way You Look!' He hoped he would.

Outside the door to the shop was a little wayside shrine. Awkwardly hand-made, the sort of thing they called a 'Bathtub Madonna' along the Mississippi. Only this one had a little statue group inside the half-buried porcelain. A woman with a harp, a tonsured monk with a bird on his shoulder, and two angels, one with a sword and the other blowing a trumpet. Around the rim of the tub was lettered, 'Saint Cecelia and St Francis, with Michael and Gabriel. Pray for us.'

St Cecelia had bright red hair.

Phil Grimm shook his head in wonder. 'A deal's a deal,' he said as he pushed open the door to Shapiro's.

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