I saw my first Kiss concert in November of ’77. From the opening chord every other adolescent obsession in my life dropped dead before the shiny leather boots of those golden gladiators. We drove them wild, they drove us crazy. That was also the night I lifted my first wallet. And my second and third.
FThe first was a drunken doofus in a Kiss Alive T-shirt, stumbling from the bathroom, his over-fed wallet taunting me like a vinyl-lined carrot on a string. He wandered into a hallway that was just crowded enough for an “accidental” bump he wouldn’t notice until the next morning.
“Oops, excuse me, nice shirt, I hear that tour rocked.”
That was all it took. I dipped into the crowd eighty-one dollars richer,
eyes already locked on victim number two. If I’d spent that night with my eyes fully open I would have noticed something. I would have figured out how skilled I was at it. I would have learned where my talents really resided. But no…
Thieves – even damn good ones – don’t make the cover of Rolling Stone. They don’t get the supermodel girlfriends or the backstage BJs from strung out groupies who can’t wait to tell their friends what a jerk you were in person. They don’t the glory. They don’t get adored.
I wanted to be adored. I wanted to be Ace Frehley.
So I dusted off my big brother’s neglected six-stringer and locked away my real talent – thievery – for those desperate times when I needed thirty or forty bucks until things got rolling with the band.
Nineteen years later things never got rolling with the band. Nineteen years of drummers too drunk to rehearse and gigs that didn’t pay much and managers and crystal meth-addicted girlfriends who were too nice to tell me I just wasn’t good enough.
When reality did reveal itself, I figured I’d slam shut that chapter of my life by assembling one last band for one last gig – a fire-breathing, demon-fueled tribute to the greatest four-man circus known to the rock and roll world. And if you’ve been paying attention you know I’m not talking about The Goddamn Beatles.
Here was the plan: Jason Welsh was drafted to be our Peter Criss, The Cat. He was a drummer and car thief from Bloomington. The plan was that after the show, he’d wipe away his make-up and slip backstage to the vender’s area where the money was to be counted and collected. He would intercept the cashbox before it got to the armored goons and replace it with a box of paper. He’d have a nine-millimeter on hand in case someone needed persuading.
Tyrelle Piper would be the Demon and bass player. A bald black dude, he resembled Gene Simmons about as much as I resembled Diana Ross. But under all that make-up who would notice? Dressed as a janitor, his job was to stash the cashbox in a mobile dumpster and move it to the parking lot. He too would be carrying heat, with a snarl that told me he wouldn’t be shy about using it.
Tommy Roflson would be Paul Stanley, the Star Child. His resume included long-term stints for aggravated assault and burglary. His role was that of a homeless man who somehow finds a box – now wrapped in a garbage bag – in the parking lot dumpster.
And I would be Ace Frehley, spaced-out lead guitar god and Good Samaritan who would give this lucky homeless man a ride home.
We also had four ringers, to pose as the band after the show, signing autographs and providing an alibi for the four of us who did the heavy lifting.
And there was Janis a soft-eyed tomboy with a sweetness beneath that east coast grumble. “I’m from Brooklyn,” she’d say whenever I would try to bullshit her. And she would lift an eyebrow like that meant something in Brooklyn.
Janis was my ex-parole officer, who used her connections among her charges to assemble the band. She also posed as our manager and secured us the gig at a Kiss Memorabilia show by offering the band’s performance for free.
Actually we stood to make 8.7 million. As long as everything went as planned.
But, of course, almost nothing went as planned.
The day began with a pep talk from our ‘manager’ during make-up.
“… alright guys, let’s get out there and rock this crowd!” Janis wrapped up. Whatever.
These were hardened, persistently unhappy criminals pretending to be a band pretending to be another band. This was just another job, but with a bass player who vomited fake blood.
But for Janis this was something new, dangerous, sexy.
That glint in her eyes should have scared me. She was too happy about this, too eager. She was a baby kitten, stealing a peek of a jungle cat’s life, wondering what it would be like to prowl the plains. Wondering what danger really tasted like. So that’s what she was in this for, I thought. Then it was time for me to tuck my gun in my left boot and be Ace Frehley for ninety-seven minutes.
How did the show go? We were four career criminals with almost no musical training; singers who couldn’t sing, a bass player who I’m pretty sure was high and a drummer who fell from his stool several times. How do you think the show went?
But they loved us anyway, because they loved who we wanted to be. They screamed and danced and swayed through every missed cue, every off-key wail, every mishap that nearly set the stage afire. We limped to a close and heard the most thunderous applause I’d ever received. It might have moved me if I thought it was me they were clapping for. But I was a stand-in and I knew it.
And as the cheers faded the real show was just beginning anyway. We dissolved into the crowd the way only professional bandits can, racing to our stations, stripping ourselves of our costumes and make-up. Backstage I bolted from the dressing room, having handed my space suit and boots to Janis –
My boots that I stashed my gun in. I looked back – too late. Janis had been swallowed by the mist of fanboys. I tried her cell, but was intercepted by a call from Tommy: “We had a problem,” he barked, trying to conceal his hurried breaths.
“What is it?”
“We’re going to have to improvise. Jason didn’t make it.”
“Let’s start from the start. What happened?”
“I can’t get into it now,” he said.
“You can and will. I need to know what happened.”
“Tommy, I need to know what happened.”
Then I got an ear full of dial tone that told me to step cautiously.
In order to understand the way things unfolded next, you first have to shake from your brain one bogus truism about the lives of the lawless: The one about honor among thieves.
Bullshit. Yes, sometimes thieves need each other to slide by, to pull off a job, to cover their collective tailbones. But when mutual need and greed collide, greed always wins. Any thief faced with a chance for a bigger payday will put a bullet in the back of another thief without stopping to blink first.
The drama then snapped into double time. Two familiar bodies – Tyrelle and Tommy – stepped into the shadows of an empty hallway. I followed, not knowing if it was a good idea, but afraid of what I would miss if I dozed. They had a box with them – half hidden by a hefty bag, and they moved like rabbits with foxes on their asses. Again, I followed. Without a gun.
They lead me to a half-finished backstage nook. It was painted in an angry gray, perfect for the moment. Every footstep slapped against the walls, so I stayed in a corner motionless, a statue wary of blinking too loudly. I couldn’t see them, but I guessed that the creaky moan was the cashbox being opened and the pause was the money being tallied.
“Not a bad day’s work, dog. Not a bad day’s work,” Tyrelle said.
“Nice piece of change.”
“Only had to fire one shot too. So far.”
“But you took him out clean, right? No chance of him coming around to squeal?”
“He ain’t talking to nobody but his maker tonight.”
“That’s the way to do it,” Tommy croaked.
“My man’s eye’s got big as bagels when I whipped that piece out on his ass.”
A chuckle from Tommy, but really he was somewhere else by now. Maybe already spending his money.
“Then he come talkin’ about: hey brother we’re on the same side here… aren’t we?”
The last part done in a nerdy ‘white guy’ whine. A real comedian, that Tyrelle.
But he wasn’t done:
“I say to him, ‘Jason, it ain’t nothing but a role, dog! We ain’t a real band, we ain’t brothers, we ain’t teammates! We just four cats trying to get paid!’ I put that gatt up in his grill, my man turned them waterworks on like my two-year-old jonesin’ for a pacifier. Waaawaaa!”
Laughter from Tyrelle, but not Tommy. Tyrelle grew silent in seconds too. Why?
That was why.
This would have been a good time to ninja-step into the hallway, moving on with my life and finding something to distract me from the money I never made. Only one thing stopping me: The snub-nosed .38 buried in my left nostril. He had circled around that quickly and quietly.
“On your knees, guitar man. Right next to the soul brother,” he rasped.
The soul brother was slumped in the corner, drained of a soul, his hairless head slanted back, his mouth stretched into a frozen scream. Nothing left of his right ear but a sliver of skin, sprouting from a gusher of dark red. In a final act of defiance he teetered on his knees, determined not to topple.
“Just take the money, dude. You don’t have to do this,” I offered. But we both knew he did. I was buying time, re-shuffling the crappy cards in my hand until I could scrape together a plan B. He knew this. That’s why he was smiling now.
“So was this the idea from the beginning?” I asked. More shuffling.
“This isn’t a date, spaceman. No need for small talk.” With his gun he gestured to the spot next to Tyrelle.
I knelt. He stepped forward, took aim.
But it didn’t sound right. Too distant. This shot had come from…
His body jerked then dropped onto mine like a backpack of meat, boasting just enough life to squeeze out an ounce or two of its insides on my shoulders and chest. Behind him at the doorway: Janis, my gun dangling from her shaking hands, her mouth pushing out words: “You… left this in your boot,” she gasped, holding the gun sideways now, flat on her palm.
I shook loose Tommy’s body and let it flop to the floor next to Tyrelle‘s. Janis’s eyes bulged and wanted to slam shut or at least move away but they couldn’t. I grabbed the cashbox, stuffed it in the hefty bag, pulled a paralyzed Janis away from the horror show.
“You alright?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she answered.
Eleven years later, she’s probably still not sure. Yeah, she has more money than she will ever need – including the share of the deceased band mates (it seemed like the gesture to make to somebody who saved your life). But still…
I get the feeling she’d trade every penny to be the person she was before she had to squeeze that trigger and decorate my shirt with Tommy’s brains.
I wish I could say I lose sleep every night over Janis’s torment. But part of being a career criminal is learning to shrug away those tugs at your conscience, learning to look past the damage done to anybody blocking your path to a payday. It’s not an admirable way to live, it’s not a neighborhood I’d recommend anybody reside, but hey, it’s not like I chose the sad path of larceny and lapsed morality.
If it were up to me I’d be living Ace Frehley’s life.
Copper Smith’s hard-hitting prose has littered the online world through such venues as Spinetingler, Beat to a Pulp and A Twist of Noir. He lives in Minneapolis and plays the ukulele for some damn reason. Check out his blog for daily flash fiction crime reads as well as an advance peek of his upcoming Jake Legato mystery series.