Music City Madness: Chapter 17

Leland propped his guitar in its stand for a five minute break from the stage at a milepost honky-tonk way off the tourist map. The smoky place smelled of beer and vomit with broken peanut shells scattered about the scuffed, hardwood floor. He’d played in worse bars but never imagined he’d find himself unsigned after fifteen years of chasing gigs for gas money and food.

He left the stage and caught up with Sid at the bar. “Are you lost?”

Sid raised his drink. “I’ve heard you play at better venues.”

Leland signaled the female bar tender and ordered a beer on tap. “I’ve made less money at better dives.”

“It’s not the Bluebird Café.”

Leland accepted the mug of Coors Light. “No doubt.” He clinked his glass with Sid’s bourbon. “To better gigs and bigger dreams.”

“Amen,” Sid replied above the drunken banter from the sparse crowd of revelers in bootcut jeans and dirty shitkickers.

Leland drank to quench his thirst and looked around for Nicole. “I’ve been thinking about the session gig you mentioned.”

“Tim went with someone else.”

“When?”

“A couple days ago.”

“You just told me about it a couple days ago.”

“The wheels turn fast in Music City. His people brought on someone else.”

“You could have told me.”

“I just did. You’ve been in this game long enough to know gigs like that come and go in a hurry.”

“And I’m still playing in dumps like this.”

“It’s called paying your dues.”

Leland took another swig from his beer. “I’ve been paying long enough. Karma owes me. I can barely make rent anymore.”

“That’s what your day job’s for. You’ve got skills. And you’ve got heart. You also have a kid who adores you and an agent brave enough to stick with you.”

“Then stick around awhile longer. You might hear something you like.” Leland looked out at the ramshackle audience in the blue-collar outpost one bribe shy of a failed inspection from the county health department. “One door closes. Another swings open to smack you in the face.”

“Speaking of which,” Sid continued, “I had lunch with Brad Siegel from Capital Country Records.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s heard of you. I floated him one of your demo tracks. He wants to hear you play in person.”

“Don’t mess with me.”

“This is legit. Capital Country is a small studio, but they have big backers, and they generate a lot of attention.”

“When?”

“As soon as he gets back in town.”

“Seriously?”

Sid’s expression went from jovial to austere. “Do I look like I’m kidding?”

Leland shook Sid’s hand enthusiastically. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Sid held the handshake for several seconds, pulling Leland toward him without letting go. “I had to call in a lot of favors to make this happen. My reputation stands to suffer a lot more than yours if this doesn’t go well.”

“I won’t disappoint,” Leland vowed, still caught in his agent’s iron grip. “Are you going to let go, or are you coming on stage with me?”

Sid let go. “This opportunity with Brad Siegel is like a duel with black powder pistols. You only get one shot. Make it count.”

“I will. You have my word.” Leland finished his beer and let the news sink in for a moment. Then he took the stage again and slung his arm through the strap on his favorite guitar. He squinted from the overhead lights. He played the D string and adjusted the nickel white tuner to flatten the note. “Here’s a little ditty I wrote about life on the road,” he shouted out to the Pabst Blue Ribbon crowd in three-legged chairs on an out-of-true floor. “I hope you like it.”

He chuckled to himself, his spirits lifted as he tapped his foot in time with the upbeat tempo and finger-picked the strings on his guitar. “I call this one, my favorite honky-tonk.”

Four-wheel trucks and slide guitars

Jim Bean bourbon and cheap cigars

Long-sleeve shirts and boot cut pants

Big belt buckles and wide brim hats

In a place that no one knows

But everybody goes

Where a man can walk the walk…

My favorite honky-tonk

High speed fiddles and two-step clogs

Cold beer bottles and red hot sauce

Chiseled jaw lines and cowboy themes

Rodeo clowns and football teams

In a place we like to go

And everybody knows, by name

Where a man can walk the walk…

My favorite honky-tonk

Snakeskin boots and tight blue jeans

Red Bull cans and prom night queens

Hardwood floors and heel-toe moves

Big-time players and small-time fools

Where a man can walk the walk

In my favorite honky-tonk

That’s right…

My favorite honky-tonk

My favorite honky-tonk!

He heard the obligatory clap from the owner and a local fan who whistled through a toothless grin. “Thank you,” he spoke into the microphone. He waved to Nicole at the bar and cleared his throat. He moved the microphone stand a little closer and smiled broadly. “Let’s go with something a little different this time. A little less country and little more, love…”

He ducked from an empty PBR beer can thrown his way and ignored the drunken hecklers. “I wrote this song for someone very special. Never played it live before, until now.” He slowed the tempo with the next chord sequence and locked his eyes on one person in the room.

We met on the fairground

You felt like a long lost friend, of mine

We shared all our problems

You showed me the light at the end of it all

I need you tonight

I need you to hear

A secret I share from my lips to God’s ear

With all that we’ve learned

And all we’ve been through

At the end of the day, you’ll see…

I’m all in love, with you

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

You tingle my sens-es

When I feel the heat from the fire in your eyes

I reach out to hold you

Now I can al-most read your mind

The weight of your smile

The touch of your lips

The way that I feel under your fingertips

I need you tonight

I need you right now

You open the door to my heart somehow

With all that we’ve learned

And all we’ve been through

At the end of the day, you’ll see…

I’m all in love, with you…

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

I’ve fallen in love with you…

Hmmm hmmm, oh yeahhh…

I’m all in love with you…

I’m all, in love… with you…

Leland rested his guitar on a stand. “I’ll be right back,” he spoke into the microphone before he followed Nicole from the bar to a side exit that opened to the parking lot. “Hold up. Where are you going?”

Nicole pushed her way outside. “I can’t stay.”

Leland followed her to her car. “Then why did you come here tonight?”

“I need to tell you something.”

Leland hugged her. “I tried to call you but your phone kept going to voice mail.”

“I had to work a double shift.”

“Abby was pissed when you didn’t pick her up from school.”

“I’m not her chauffer,” Nicole snapped, her demeanor cold and indifferent. She unlocked her car. “I think we should see other people.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I want to see other people.”

“Where is this coming from?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then why are you here?”

Nicole opened her door. “This doesn’t work for me anymore.”

Leland ran his hand through his hair. He spoke through clenched teeth. “What doesn’t work for you?”

“This relationship. Us. Your daughter. Our living arrangement. Everything.”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t love you anymore, Leland. I’m sorry.”

The words hit Leland like a kick to the face. “Just like that?”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“You gotta give me something more than sorry. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to end a relationship like this without a reasonable explanation. It doesn’t jibe.”

“I can’t explain it.”

“Will you be home when I get back?”

“I have other plans.”

Leland curled his lips in disgust. “Does your plan have a name?”

“Does it matter?”

“How long have you been—”

“He’s going on tour with Carrie Underwood. He’s a drummer. He wants me to come with him.”

Leland winced, his face taut with anger. “Good for him.”

“Good for us. I’m not slinging burgers for the rest of my life. I want something more than hearing about your next audition for another gig. Or your next great song. I’m tired of waiting. You’ve taken this dream as far as you can, Leland. Some things aren’t meant to be. You’re a great musician. You’ll always have that.”

“I’d rather have you.”

“You’re obsessed with your music. You never stop to think about the people around you.”

“Who’s going to cover your share of the rent?”

“Our relationship is broken, and all you care about is money?”

Leland threw his hands up. “I care about not getting evicted.”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“Would you stay if I quit music?”

“I don’t want you to quit, Leland. I want you to do what you do. Just not with me in your life anymore.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 14

Confined to her doctor’s waiting room, Nicole passed the time reading gossip about the Hollywood elite in a recent issue of Us Weekly. She focused on celebrity photos revealing everything from wardrobe malfunctions in Milan to nanny issues in Malibu. She had no sympathy for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, whose personal problems seemed like a dream come true among the masses. Between the clothes worth more than she earned in a year and the custom handbags worth more than her car, she could only imagine what life was like on the other side of her eight-dollar-an-hour job.

Dressed in her work uniform, she watched a forty-something woman in mom jeans and sandals leave the water cooler with her cone-shaped cup to inspect the waiting area for a seat. Pretending to be mired in a full page article, she avoided eye contact and discretely placed a magazine on the empty chair beside her. She kept the patient in her peripheral vision—right up to the point where the woman snagged the magazine off the chair and claimed the spot for herself.

Nicole wanted to move without overtly rejecting the stranger encroaching on her personal space in a pink sweatshirt two sizes too big. Instead, she kept to herself and reached for another magazine from the coffee table. This time she opened an issue of National Geographic. Before she could skim the first sentence, the woman perked up and said, “My husband worked for National Geographic. He does photography. Mostly black and white, but he also shoots color. I always wanted to learn photography. I mean, I know how to use a camera. I just don’t know how to take pictures the way my husband does. How hard could it be, right? You don’t even use real film anymore. Point, shoot, and done.”

“Nice,” Nicole replied curtly.

“Are you here for Doctor Sanders or Doctor Hemsky?”

“Sanders.”

“Me too. He’s the best. If he hadn’t caught my tumor, I’d be rotting in a coffin by now. Makes you look at life differently, you know? Like maybe we shouldn’t take so much for granted. Doctor Sanders told me his wife had breast cancer at one time. Talk about a lucky woman. I mean, not that she was lucky to have cancer, but that her husband is a doctor.”

Nicole kept her face pointed squarely at her magazine, hoping Chatty Patty would take the hint.

“I’m Beth, by the way.”

“Nicole…”

“How long have you been with Doctor Sanders?”

Nicole flipped the page. “Not long.”

“Are you from Nashville?” Beth prodded.

“Just moved here.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Any family here?”

“No.”

“I have an older brother and a younger sister. Got an uncle down in Baton Rouge. My folks retired in Pennsylvania. My husband’s family all lives in East Nashville. Born and raised. What kind of work do you do?”

“Food management.”

Beth pointed to the uniform. “Gotcha. The chemotherapy must be stunting my brain. I’m usually not this dense. I had a mastectomy last month.” She paused to sip her water. “You’re not much of a talker are you? I used to be that way. Before my diagnoses. I lost my stamina for exercise, but I find the energy to run my mouth. Cancer’s been in my family for generations. I knew my time would come. My husband has been supportive. He pretends it doesn’t bother him, but he doesn’t look at me the same. I found a good plastic surgeon. I can give you his name if you want. If you give me your phone number, I’ll text his information to you.”

Nicole closed the magazine in her lap, her nerves chaffed from the ninety-minute wait for a ten minute follow-up consultation. “No thanks.”

“If you change your mind, you’ll know where to find me. First I have to finish with the radiotherapy. If the cancer doesn’t kill me, my armpits might. Can’t wear deodorant because it interferes with the treatment. As if getting flambéed with radiation after having my breasts surgically removed wasn’t bad enough, Doctor Sanders makes me stink like a homeless person when I’m here. I guess it’s better than the alternative. My mother died from breast cancer. Her mother died from it too.”

Nicole crossed her legs and imagined she was sitting on the moon instead of waiting for an appointment that could change her life forever. As much as she tried to ignore her new dance partner, the woman got her point across. Breast cancer wasn’t the end of the world, but it was close. And not knowing her fate for certain, one way or the other, made it worse. She’d endured another gauntlet of tests, subjecting herself to more discomfort and doubt than any woman deserved. Now she needed to hear the final verdict. Good or bad, she would accept the outcome.

“If your mother had breast cancer, your chances of getting it increase significantly,” Beth continued unabated.

“My mother’s fine.”

“What about your grandmother?”

“She died years ago.”

“From cancer?”

Nicole bounced her leg on her knee and maintained a pinched expression. She dropped her magazine on the table the second she heard her name called out and hobbled on a numb leg toward the nurse who’d summoned her. Her butt tingled from sitting too long.

She found the doctor’s office as cold and inhospitable as she remembered it, with the familiar gun-metal desk and the big iMac with the white goose neck lamp beside it. When the nurse left, she took her phone out and started texting the one person she needed most.

“Hands are shaking,” she typed. She waited several agonizing seconds for a reply.

It will be ok.

“What if it’s bad news?”

Don’t go there yet.

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

Stay calm.

“Wish U were here.”

Me 2. TTYS.

Nicole slipped her phone in her pocket when Doctor Sanders arrived unannounced and logged into his computer. “Your final lab results are here. Let me just pull them up and take a look.” He concentrated on the screen. “Your initial diagnostics showed micro calcifications. I see we did a second biopsy from the lower region in your left breast to look for infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”

“No more tests,” said Nicole. “I can’t stomach anymore of this. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. All I think about are lab results. I’m so sick and tired of being squeezed and poked like some kind of lab rat. Whatever the verdict, just tell me and get it over with. I can’t take this anymore.”

Doctor Sanders moved the mouse to scroll the screen and review the patient profile. He maintained the same stony expression he had when he entered the room, unflinching and void of any concern or emotional response.

“How bad is it?”

Doctor Sanders typed a note. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m going to throw up.”

“Well don’t. Everything looks good.”

“What does that mean? No cancer?”

“No cancer. Go home. Have a glass of wine. My receptionist can schedule your next annual screening.”

Nicole started crying. “Seriously?” She wanted to hug her doctor. Instead, she went out and sent another text message to her man in all caps. “I feel like I won the lottery!”

Music City Madness: Chapter 8

Melissa climbed the staircase in her Belle Meade estate and hollered, “You’re going to be late!”

She entered Jonathan’s room first, aghast at the sight of dirty laundry strewn about an entire floor space larger than her first apartment. Exotic car posters covered one wall. A Miami Heat poster decorated a closet door. “I want your room cleaned up when you get home today. Put your dirties in the basket and bring them to the laundry room for me.”

Jonathan pulled a shirt over his head. “What about Adam’s room?”

“Same goes for him.”

“Yolanda always does our laundry.”

“Not anymore.” Melissa advanced through the bathroom to Adam’s adjoining cave. “Let’s go!”

Adam took his iPhone from the dresser. A Fender guitar stood upright in its stand beside a Marshall amplifier. Criss Angel posters covered the walls. “Where’s Tomás?”

“He’s bringing the car around.”

Adam shoved his dirty laundry in a pile. “I haven’t eaten yet.”

“You should have thought about that twenty minutes ago.” Melissa picked up a shredded air soft target printed with a zombie holding a flask of green toxic goo. “You need to work on your room too. With both hands. And a shovel.”

“Today?”

“Yes. And make sure you brush your teeth.”

Adam opened his sock drawer with his back to his mom and said, “I know…”

“All of them.”

* * *

Jonathan raced his brother down the stairs, bumping and shoving his younger sibling along the winding banister.

“It’s not a race!” Adam shouted.

“Loser—”

“Boys! Knock it off!” Melissa yelled from the spacious eat-in kitchen downstairs. She wore her hair up with her skinny jeans and a silk top she’d purchased from a favorite boutique. She had a party to plan and a million things to do without having to referee her sons.

“Where’s breakfast?” asked Jonathan.

“The big closet with the food,” said Melissa.

“Where’s Yolanda?” asked Adam. He tucked in his shirt and cinched his belt another notch.

“Yolanda quit,” Melissa stated matter-of-factly. “She doesn’t work for us anymore.”

“Since when?” the boys asked in unison.

“Yesterday.”

“Who’s going to cook for us?” asked Adam.

Melissa emptied the dishwasher and stacked clean plates in the cabinet above the stove. “You two are able-bodied. It’s time you learned to do more on your own.”

Jonathan entered the butler pantry to search the well-stocked shelves for a box of Pop-Tarts or a chocolate chip granola bar.

“This sucks,” said Adam. “Why did Yolanda quit?”

“Because she caught you jacking off again,” Jonathan taunted his brother.

“Shut up—”

“You shut up.”

“Boys! Get your stuff together. Tomás is waiting in the car.”

Adam peeled the drapes back to inspect the circular driveway for the Bentley. “Which one?”

“Did you finish your homework?” Melissa prodded.

“We didn’t have any,” Jonathan replied when he emerged from the pantry. He tore open a granola bar and chewed hungrily.

“Did you bring your dirty laundry downstairs?”

“We will,” Jonathan mumbled between bites as he chewed.

“Did you feed the horses?”

Jonathan looked at his brother, who mirrored the same perplexed expression. “Tomás always does that.”

“Not anymore. You boys will need to start cleaning the stalls too.”

“We don’t know how,” said Adam, pouring himself a glass of milk from the side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator.

“Then you’ll learn.”

“No fair,” said Jonathan. He threw his granola wrapper on the counter and took a swig from the milk jug when his mom wasn’t looking.

“Don’t drink out of the jug,” Melissa implored.

Jonathan sheepishly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I wasn’t.”

“I also want the pool cleaned when you boys get home from school.”

“That’s not our job either,” Jonathan complained.

Melissa ventured toward her music studio. “It is now.”

* * *

Tomás drove a Lincoln Town Car around the driveway and waited. He snatched a folded copy of The Tennessean from the seat beside him and checked the sports section for the basketball scores.

Outside the car, thick clouds lingered with the threat of stormy weather. Then as if on cue, drops hit the windshield in a random stutter start before evolving to a steady rain. The sound reminded him of his parents and his childhood years growing up in Honduras before the El Salvadoran violence began. Now he enjoyed a good life in Belle Meade with the Hamilton family. A better life than he could have ever hoped for, though not without great sadness in recent times as he’d outlived his parents and buried his wife of forty years.

He trimmed the edge of his fingernail with a small pocket knife. When Jonathan and Adam climbed in back, he folded the blade and set the paper down to stretch his arm across the passenger seat. “Buenos días. Cómo estás?”

“Bien,” Jonathan replied.

“You bring your umbrellas?”

“Sí,” said Jonathan, sliding across the seat to make room for his brother, Adam, who quickly settled in beside him. He shoved his backpack on the floorboard in front of him. “Where’s the Bentley?”

Tomás waited for the boys to buckle their seatbelts. “It transformed.”

Jonathan looked at his brother and shrugged his shoulders.

“We have a new ride now.”

“But I liked the Bentley more,” said Adam.

Tomás followed the driveway to the end and waited for the iron gate to open. He looked at Adam in the rear view mirror and winked. “Me too.”

“Yolanda quit,” said Jonathan. “I had to serve myself.”

Tomás arched his eyebrows. “The injustice…”

“I’m serious. Mom said we have to clean the pool, too.”

“And feed the horses,” said Adam.

“Sometimes we learn the value of hard work by working hard.”

“And sometimes life just sucks,” Jonathan replied.

Tomás drove through the open gate. “Your life is what you make of it.” He merged with traffic and gunned the engine to pass a school bus before it slowed to deploy the mechanical stop sign.

Jonathan watched his home fade from view. “Are you leaving us too?”

“No Sir. I’m here for as long as your mother needs my help.”

“Can you cook?”

“Can LeBron James dunk a basketball?”

“Can we skip school today?”

“You trying to get me fired?”

“Never,” said Adam before his brother could reply. He leaned forward in his seat. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to our family.”

“Very kind of you young man, but you’re still going to school today.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 3

Melissa Hamilton left her keys inside her Mercedes coupe and tipped the country club valet with a folded five dollar bill from her Dolce & Gabbana clutch. Her mirrored glasses reflected the car’s glossy finish and the CASHVIL vanity plate. Dressed more for a red carpet stroll than a meeting with her talent agent, she wore her favorite pumps with her Donna Karan pants and sleeveless top to elevate her slender frame and her brown, shoulder-length hair with red highlights. Part Cherokee and part Irish, her facial symmetry and high cheek bones enhanced her almond-shaped eyes the color of burled walnut.

A morning workout with her personal trainer had segued to breakfast with friends, followed by shopping at Nordstrom’s for shoes and a quick mani-pedi before heading to the private country club. Confronted with a choice between a dental appointment or a meeting with her haughty agent—slash personal friend and business manager—she’d reluctantly chosen the latter and postponed the dentist to accommodate her busy social schedule.

Inside the club’s posh surroundings, she climbed the staircase to the casual dining area overlooking the clay tennis courts and scouted a familiar figure waving her toward a table for two. “Been here long?” she asked her agent.

Sidney Irving, Esquire wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and stood up from his chair to hug Melissa. He wore his thick silver hair combed back with a neatly trimmed goatee to match. “Since yesterday.”

“Shut up…”

Sid moved a chair for Melissa. A big orange “T” advertised his Tennessee Volunteers belt buckle at the front of his pleated wool slacks. “You want a drink?”

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

Sid scooted Melissa’s chair forward, his pinstripe Polo neatly tucked inside his substantial girth. “You look chic.”

“I got my hair highlighted.”

“I thought you were traveling?” Sid asked.

Melissa unfolded a cloth napkin. “Change of plans.” She recognized a movie producer and the young tart captivated by his attention. “You look very, debonair.”

Sid patted his stomach. A gold Oyster Rolex rattled on his wrist inside his sleeve pinned with silver cufflinks. “I can’t complain.”

“I saw your name in the paper the other day.”

Sid lifted his drink. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

“We’re all guilty of something.” Melissa scanned the menu in front of her. “I had a late breakfast.”

“The eggs Benedict are divine.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Sid moved his hands when he talked. “You look like you’re starving. Every time I see you, you’ve lost another five pounds.”

“Hardly.”

“And you don’t have five pounds to spare.”

Melissa flagged a waitress and ordered a wet scotch and soda, neat. “You’re very sweet, but I didn’t drive all the way out here to flirt.”

Sid pushed his plate away with broken potato chips and a half eaten dill pickle on board. “Who’s flirting? I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kickin’ contest. Ten percent’s getting hard to earn.”

“Spare me The Prince and the Pauper routine. If you don’t sign me to a new record label, I won’t have ten percent to give anymore.”

Sid nibbled on potato chip crumbs. “Swapping labels doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t change horses in mid race and expect to win the heat. It takes time to manage, promote, and network. It’s a relationship game. We have to build a broader fan base. Make new connections with the right people.”

“My fans are my business. Connections are yours. Speaking of which, did you reach out to everyone for Wednesday’s event?”

“I did, but honestly, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

Melissa accepted her drink from the waiter. “I haven’t played a concert in seven years. I want my career back. Not next week. Not tomorrow. I want it now. I’ve worked too hard and sacrificed too much to sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity to float along. You’re my business manager. Get out there and manage.”

Sid leaned back in his chair. “I’ll take another bourbon,” he said, raising his empty glass to the waiter. “And make it a double this time.” He stroked his goatee as if deep in thought. Melissa Hamilton always reminded him of his older sister: obstinate, impulsive, and not afraid to speak her mind.

Melissa sipped her scotch. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“I’m not withholding anything you don’t already know.”

“I’ve been off the pills for months.”

“I wasn’t going there…”

Melissa clasped her hands together. “I heard you signed a new starlet.”

Sid relaxed his shoulders to soften his posture. “I can’t talk about other clients.”

“I’m not asking for her blood-type. I’m trying to weigh the competition.”

“Ariea signed her to a one-year deal.”

“Who’s writing for her?”

“She writes her own material.”

“Of course she does.”

Sid tapped his finger on his empty glass. “Forget about her. Let’s talk about you.”

“As long as the next words out of your mouth involve a new record deal.”

Sid cleared his throat and prepared for battle. “Do you trust me?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Then I’ll be straight with you, Melissa. Hip-hop music has become the David to our Goliath. Gangsta Rap, Dirty South, Old School, West Coast, Latin Rap, Underground, Hard Core… You name it. They’re stealing our market share.”

“Don’t compare me to 50 Cent.”

“You’re missing the point. The music business is about business. Like it or not, it adapts to meet the strongest demand. The baby boomers are out. Generation X has moved in. Half the country music singles we cut never make it to the airwaves. The ones that do, all sound the same.”

Melissa turned around to catch a tennis match on the courts below. She could see the iceberg looming, but she couldn’t steer out of its path. “You’re trying to tell me country music is dead?”

“I’m saying things change. The younger singers are more in touch with the new demographic. Labels are circling the wagons around the most successful artists—the ones with the biggest audience.”

“And you think I’ve lost my audience?”

“Sometimes we’re victims of our own success. Your audience has matured. People change. Their tastes evolve. You’ve been off the grid for seven years. You haven’t cut a new album since the accident.”

“Now you’re blaming me,” Melissa’s voice escalated. “I thought it was the hip hop moguls. Or my geriatric fans.”

“I’m your business manager. I see the facts for what they are. I don’t allow my emotions to obscure the truth. And the truth is, your music isn’t selling the way it used to. Your royalties are way down, and your merchandise sales flatlined years ago.”

“Don’t talk to me like an accountant, Sid.”

Sid claimed his refill from the waiter. “That’s part of what you pay me for.”

“What I pay you for is helping me negotiate a new contract. My last album went platinum. I was nominated for female artist of the year. I’ve played across the fifty states. I’ve toured Europe four times.”

“And you had a great run. I’m not discounting your previous success, but Nashville is all about sales volume. Stockholders control the labels. Labels want big money. They won’t record what they can’t sell.”

“Should I be worried?”

“You need to cut expenses. With a cleaver. Your mortgage is a drain, and after taxes, maintenance, staff salaries, horses, private school tuition, and—clothes—you’re spending more than your waning investments can earn.”

“I have plenty of money.”

“You won’t for long.”

Melissa rubbed her hands together. Goose bumps covered her arms. “This place is always freezing.”

“You need to think about your future. And your boys…”

“I am. They start public school tomorrow.”

“The school year’s almost over.”

“I’m trying, Sid. This isn’t easy for any of us.”

“You need to cut back more.”

“I have.”

Sid finished his double bourbon. “A lot more.”

“How much more?”

“Until it hurts.”

“I’m not selling the horses.”

“You can’t ride them anymore.”

“The boys can. And my back feels stronger every day.”

“Melissa…”

“Forget it, Sid. End of story.”

“Lose the Benz and the Bentley.”

“I look nice in those cars.”

“Then you’ll look nice on your way to the poor house.”

Melissa fidgeted with the silverware settings. “I’ll think about it.”

“Have you spoken to Tomás?”

“He’s nonnegotiable.”

“He can collect social security. Your boys will be old enough to drive themselves in a few years. Chauffer expenses are the last thing you need right now. Between the outrageous salary and benefits you extend him—”

“Tomás is family. He’s been a godsend to my boys. The only father figure they’ve had since their dad bailed on them.”

“You’re letting emotions cloud your judgment. As your agent and your business manager—as your friend—you need to make some hard course corrections. Soon.”

“Jesus, Sid. You sound like a bad country song. This is my life we’re talking about. And my sons’. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to get to where I am.”

Sid gave an empathetic nod. “And where you are is dragging you down a path you can no longer afford to go. Trust me.”

“I’m not throwing Tomás under the bus.”

“I’m not suggesting you desert him. I’m saying, get him off the payroll. He can remain in your life. Just not as an employee.”

“How would the boys get to school?”

“On a bus like everyone else.”

Melissa pushed her chair back. “We’re not like everyone else. My boys deserve better. I’m a country music superstar!”

Sid rocked his empty glass back and forth on the table. “Not anymore.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 1

“Melody and rhythm have a vibration that goes beyond ‘healing’ all the way to super-empowering, it really connects you to the central, limitless core force in the universe. Anyone can tap into this… it’s free, and all of human kind has used this power since the dawn of time.”

—Rory Block

Part I

A Better Teacher

April 26-30, 2010

Chapter 1

Thirteen-year-old Abigail Presley tapped her lilac, high top sneakers on the wet pavement outside an East Nashville rambler with a U-Haul trailer in the driveway. Her left arm hung awkwardly at her side in a long-sleeve top while she held an open golf umbrella in her right hand with her backpack slung over her right shoulder. She wore her strawberry hair in a ponytail with low-cut jeans that barely hugged her lanky hips. Mascara with black eye liner and a dark plum lipstick brought a measure of sophistication to her youthful appearance.

She collapsed the umbrella in light drizzle and stepped toward the brown two-door Stanza rolling up to the driveway. She shifted her backpack off her shoulder and opened the passenger door to hear the thumping bass from an Eminem track. “What took you so long?” she asked the driver, a petite platinum blonde in a white McDonald’s uniform with Nicole imprinted on a bronze name tag.

“I had to open this morning. Then I had to take an unscheduled break to come get you.”

Abby pulled the door shut with her floral print backpack on her lap and the wet umbrella wedged beside her seat. “I think the fast food gods will survive without you.”

Nicole adjusted the radio volume and drove away. “I can’t always leave work to come get you.”

“I can’t walk to school from here.”

“You could have taken the bus.”

Abby unzipped a side compartment on her backpack. “Not on my first day. My dad should have taken me.”

“He has an audition this morning.”

Abby gazed through her window with tranquil blue eyes the color of a Colorado sky. “I know,” she said assertively. She rubbed her hand on her damp pant leg.

Nicole shifted the Stanza into fourth with a noticeable clunk. “Are those my jeans?”

“Mine were dirty.”

“Where did you get the makeup?”

Abby twirled the end of her ponytail between her fingers. “I’m going to be late for school.”

“I don’t mind if you borrow my stuff, but your dad doesn’t want you to wear it.”

“My dad doesn’t get to choose my clothes anymore.”

Nicole checked her mirrors and changed lanes. In some ways, she saw her former self in Abby’s skin—young, naïve, and always mad about something. Cute boys were the center of her universe, and no one understood her problems. “I wasn’t talking about the clothes.”

“The makeup makes me look older.”

Nicole spied Abby reaching for a pack of cigarettes crammed inside a zippered compartment. “Don’t let your dad find those.”

“Find what?”

Nicole pointed to the red Marlboros.

“They aren’t mine.”

“You’re just holding them for a friend?”

“I’m thirteen. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“How’s your arm?”

Abby adjusted her position. “It’s fine.”

“I remember thirteen,” Nicole empathized. “Don’t be so quick to grow up.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Your dad’s a great guy.”

“When he’s around.”

“He works hard for you.”

“He works hard for his music.”

“He loves you more.”

Abby curled her hand around the pack of cigarettes and stuffed them in her jeans. “Drop me off before we get there.”

“It’s raining.”

“I can hold the umbrella.”

Nicole slowed near the school zone. “Are you sure?”

Abby waited for the car to stop and got out. “I’m good,” she said, leaning left to shift the backpack on her right shoulder before she deployed her umbrella with the same arm.

“Your dad will pick you up,” Nicole offered as Abby kicked the door shut.

* * *

Abby plodded toward the school’s main entrance and shook her collapsed umbrella above a non-slip mat inside. She wiped the rain off her face with her forearm and observed the thinning herd of students scrambling to beat the final bell. A moment later, a towering, full-figured woman with a cinnamon complexion, braided hair, and a look to suggest she knew bullshit when she heard it, rolled up like a tank on enemy patrol.

“You must be Miss Presley,” the woman greeted Abby. “I’m Principal Hendrix. Glad you could make it this morning.”

“My ride was late.”

Principal Hendrix extended her left hand, which Abby grabbed awkwardly with her right as the final bell rang out.

“I’m new,” Abby stated flatly.

“Indeed.”

“My dad’s going to pick me up this afternoon.”

Principal Hendrix pointed to the clock on the wall. “Let’s get through this morning, first.”

“I don’t know where to go.”

“Follow me…”

Abby feigned a polite smile. She hated the new kid in school label—one she’d worn more times than she deserved. She trailed her new principal through a labyrinth of hallways with dented lockers and cinder-block walls painted dark brown to hide graffiti. A resource officer roamed outside the empty cafeteria decked with spirit banners. The school looked old. It smelled old, too, like the basement in the house she used to live in.

“You’ve been assigned to Mrs. Dotti’s homeroom,” Principal Hendrix instructed Abby outside a class full of seventh grade students. “She’ll have a copy of your schedule. She can show you to your locker and answer any questions you have. Your lunch rotation starts at 12:15. Good luck today. I suspect we’ll see more of each other soon.”

Abby took a hesitant step toward the hangman’s gallows, where rows of curious students stared in her direction. She kept a laser focus on the teacher at the front of the room with an open textbook in her hand. “Welcome,” she heard Mrs. Dotti greet her, followed by, “Take any open seat you like.

Abby loped along the perimeter toward a spot near the back of the class, her adrenaline pumping as she avoided eye contact with everyone in the room. She hated Nicole for making her late. She hated her dad for making her move again. She missed her school in Tulsa, and most of all, she missed her friends in her old neighborhood.

She set her backpack on the floor and leaned her dripping umbrella against the back wall. She shuffled between two desks, her sense of anonymity returning when the class faced forward again. But as she maneuvered to take her seat, she slipped on a patch of wet tile and fell sideways toward a student who pushed off to help break her fall, inadvertently dislodging Abby’s prosthetic forearm from the socket in her sleeve.

Chapter 2

Leland Presley weaved through morning traffic on Hillsboro Pike with his steel-toed boot gunning the accelerator in his ’85 RAM pickup before the light at Old Hickory Boulevard turned red. Worn windshield wipers stuttered back and forth as steady rain swept over the Nashville metropolitan area and continued toward the bluegrass pastures and wooded hills in Middle Tennessee.

He jabbed the buttons on the truck’s AM/FM cassette to catch the latest traffic update. Short on time and long on miles to a new club in East Nashville, he raced through yellow lights outside strip malls and modest residential properties built away from the sprawling horse ranches and long stretches of triple-rail fence that framed the picturesque landscape outside the city.

He veered sharply from the slower-moving lane near the I-440 overpass. His construction hat tumbled off the hard shell guitar case buckled against the seat beside him and rolled onto the passenger floorboard. He tapped one hand on the wheel and ran the other through his thick, brown hair with his long sideburns. Razor stubble paved his tan complexion, accentuating his emerald green eyes, vibrant and stirring like the Caspian Sea. A gold cross necklace rested against his well-defined chest.

He brushed his hand on his work jeans and unzipped the orange safety vest he wore over his red flannel button-down. Morning news reported another accident west of his location at Parthenon and Oman, where a two-car collision had brought morning commuters to a halt.

Stuck in the center lane between a packed school bus and a dump truck hauling fill dirt, he checked his blind spot and inched his front bumper behind a black Mercedes S500 coupe with tinted windows and a blinking left turn signal. The vanity license plate spelled CASHVIL.

He cut the wheel to go around the Mercedes driver yacking on her cell phone and leaned forward to gauge the distance between his truck and the S500’s bumper with the left turn signal still flashing. Too tight to make the turn, he cranked his window down and waved at the driver blocking his path. He bumped his horn to force the issue as precious minutes ticked away on the open audition he’d left his job site to attend.

He pressed the brake with his left foot and pushed his right on the gas, revving the engine to spin the rear wheels in place. When the distracted Mercedes driver finally inched toward the left lane, he lurched in front of her and caught a stiff middle finger in his rear view mirror.

He drove as fast as traffic allowed beyond The District and its ensemble of refurbished restaurants, galleries, and familiar honky-tonks along Broadway. He hung a left onto 2nd Avenue and drove toward the Woodland Street bridge. He snagged the first parking space he could find outside the new venue in the Five Points neighborhood. Then he unbuckled his jet black guitar case and grabbed his silver-sand Stetson from the makeshift hat rack mounted behind the truck’s bench seat.

He beat a path to the entrance and dipped his six-foot frame inside the refurbished honky-tonk to claim his spot in the cattle call line. He set his guitar case down and flicked the rain off his hat. He sized up the competition in front of him, aligned single file along a wall with autographed photos of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Patsy Cline, and other superstars who’d played in relative obscurity before their careers went supernova.

He shuffled forward in line and spied the usual urban cowboys in button-down shirts and wing-tip Laredo’s with boot-cut jeans and tassel ties. He heard guitars out of tune and singers who couldn’t find the right notes if someone stapled them to their forehead. He heard the same tired lyrics to the same cover songs delivered without passion or connection to any person, real or imagined, in the live audience.

He watched the group of wannabe artists proceed one-by-one, lock-step toward the stage. And one-by-one, he saw defeated souls slouch away tuck-tailed and tarnished from the lukewarm response to their audition.

Undeterred, he rehearsed a new song in his head, where a few simple chords produced a melody to complement the lyrics he’d composed on a date with his daughter at a Taylor Swift concert.

When he landed his turn in the spotlight, he carried his guitar case on stage and acknowledged the impassive club owner who cracked peanut shells at the bar.

“Name?” the owner asked while he chewed.

Leland tipped his Stetson. “Leland Presley.”

“Nestley?”

Pres-ley,” Leland articulated slowly. He opened the guitar case with his sleeves rolled up, exposing a treble clef tattoo on his left inside forearm and a rustic wooden cross on his right.

“What are you singing?”

Leland removed his acoustic Gibson from the blue velvet lining. The scent of pattern-grade mahogany and Adirondack spruce brought the hand-made instrument to life. “I’m going to try something different this time.”

“How different?”

“A song I wrote for someone very special to me.”

“I’m touched, Mr. Presley. The stage is yours.”

Leland lifted the guitar strap over his head and caressed the vintage instrument against his body. He tweaked the steel E string with the nickel white tuner and strummed his pick above the single-ring rosette to produce a warm, balanced tone. Then he drew a steady breath and leaned toward the microphone to sing.

I can feel the music move you

On the country-western floor

A small town girl with big time dreams

Ain’t gonna settle anymore

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

May I have this dance?

‘Cause you’re the one that I’ve been waitin’ for…

And I don’t think, I can hold out anymore

A daddy’s girl with angel eyes

And a smile to open doors

You want a man who wants to love you

For richer or for poorer…

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

May I have this dance?

I can see the sunshine in your smile

When it comes to life and love I don’t keep score

And tonight I want you with me on the floor…

May I have this dance?

You’re the only one I’m waitin’ for

And I don’t think, I can wait here anymore…

May I have this dance?

Leland stepped away from the microphone. “It’s not my only song.”

“It is for now,” the owner replied.

“Are we good?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

Leland gently placed his guitar in the case and latched the lid. He stepped down from the stage and approached the club owner at the bar. “I hear that a lot. Tell me what you really think.”

The owner cracked another peanut shell and chewed. “This ain’t America’s Got Talent. I have a business to run.”

“And you’re not the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve heard one train wreck after another in here. I can out-sing any audition you’ve entertained today.”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“I really need this gig,” Leland persisted.

“So does everyone who comes through these doors,” the owner retorted. He wiped a pile of peanut shells onto the floor. “It takes a hell of a lot more than a pretty face to draw new business.”

Leland gripped his guitar case handle and adjusted his hat. “Yes Sir. But I bailed from my day job and drove thirty miles to get here. A job I might not have when I get back.”

“You from Nashville?”

“The buckle of the bible belt.”

The owner sipped his drink and chewed the ice. “You ever take voice lessons?”

“I’m self-taught.”

The owner gave Leland a business card with a handwritten phone number on the back. “If you want my advice, get yourself a better teacher.”

Emotions

May thoughts await in dreams untold

Along a stretch of lonely road

A barefoot stroll on powdered sand

Side by side, hand in hand

While stars align in open sky

And spirits soar where angels fly

As sunlight shines from heaven’s gate

To warm the hearts of those who wait

On whispers in a mild breeze

Or gentle stir of autumn leaves

For what was lost can now be found

When love and happiness abound

—J.M.

Valentine Surprise

Love is laughter young and old;

A shelter from the dark and cold.

Love is an unconditional design;

A bond between your heart and mine.

Love is unbounded by time and space;

A forever lasting warm embrace.

Love is strength and courage in times of need;

A reflection of the life we lead.

Love is comfort, safety, tenderness, and joy;

A smile revealed from my beautiful boys.

Love is red apple cheeks and sky-blue eyes;

Love is you, my Valentine. Surprise!

Armed and Dangerous: Screenplay Part 8

EXT. SUBURBAN HOME – DAY

Police cars line the curb with lights flashing outside a brick rambler with painted shutters.  Officers take cover behind their car doors, guns drawn.

OFFICER NUMBER ONE emerges from the front door and shakes his head.  He motions with his hands for his peers to drop their weapons. 

OFFICER NUMBER TWO steps away from his car and holsters his gun.

                         OFFICER NUMBER TWO

          Wrong address?

                         OFFICER NUMBER ONE

          The house changed hands two

years ago.  Nathan Smalls doesn’t

live here any more.

INT. SHERIFF’S PATROL CAR – DAY

Moving vehicle.  The Sheriff keys the radio mic.  Dale rides shotgun.

                         SHERIFF

                 (into mic)

          Ten-four.

                         DALE

          What happened?

                         SHERIFF

Right house.  Wrong time.

Nathan Smalls is on the run.

Highway patrol spotted the stolen

truck heading westbound.

EXT. MARY’S TRAILER HOME – DAY

Dirk, Nathan, and Mary arrive in the stolen truck.  Nathan and Mary approach the trailer.  Dirk drives away.  The spinning tires kick up dirt and gravel.

INT. MARY’S TRAILER HOME – DAY

Mary helps Nathan to the sofa.  She ducks in the back room and scoops her crying baby on her shoulder.

                         MARY

          She’s burning up.

Nathan GROANS in agony on the sofa.  He pulls his shirt off and cups his hand on his stomach wound.  He stands up and meanders about the room.

                         NATHAN

          It shouldn’t hurt this bad.

Mary opens the refrigerator to find a half bottle of formula beside an empty milk carton and some rotten fruit.

She takes the bottle and tries to feed her baby, but the baby won’t have it.

                         NATHAN

          She won’t take it cold.

Mary puts the bottle in the microwave.  Nathan paws through a cabinet and finds a first aid kit.  He opens it and tears through the contents for gauze bandage and tape.  Mary bounces, tries to sooth the hysterical baby.

                         MARY

                 (to baby)

          Shhhh.  Mommy’s here.

It’s all right.

          I’ll never leave you again.

Not ever.  I promise.

The timer dings.  She takes the bottle out and shakes it.  She dribbles formula on her arm.

                         MARY

          Shit.

The formula’s too hot.  She unscrews the bottle and adds tap water to cool it off.  Shakes it again and stuffs the nipple in her baby’s mouth.

Nathan tapes a wad of gauze bandage to his stomach.  He’s gaunt.  Shaky.  Sweating profusely.

                         MARY

          What are we gunna do?

                         NATHAN

          I don’t know.

Long beat.  Nathan swallows hard.

                         NATHAN

          They’ll find us eventually.

                         MARY

          Not if we get out of here.

                         NATHAN

          And go where?

                         MARY

          Anywhere.  Someplace safe.

          Until this mess blows over.

Nathan forces a smile.  The futility of his situation sinks in.  He’s dying and he knows it.

                         NATHAN

          Dirk killed a cop.  They’ll never

stop looking for us.

EXT. STOLEN TRUCK – DAY

Dirk’s truck sits on the shoulder of the road with two flat tires and bullet holes in the tail gate.  STEAM ESCAPES FROM THE HOOD.  BEHIND THE STEAM, we see Dirk in the front seat with his hands off the wheel.  The truck is surrounded by Sheriff deputies, Florida Highway Patrol, and local city police.  Sheriff Thorton brings the megaphone to his mouth.

                         SHERIFF

          Throw out your weapon and come

          out slowly with your hands where

          we can see them.

INT. STOLEN TRUCK – DAY

Dirk sits with his hands in his lap, holding the .357 revolver.  Through the windshield and the steam he can see the crowd of armed officers facing him.

                         DIRK

          Fuck you.

EXT. STOLEN TRUCK – DAY

Sheriff Thorton lowers his megaphone and looks at Dale who’s standing beside him.

                         SHERIFF

          What about the other two?

                         DALE

          An APB went out an hour ago.

INT. STOLEN TRUCK – DAY

Dirk opens the diaper bag and pulls out the zippered money bag out.  It’s flat.  He frantically unzips it and FINDS IT EMPTY.  He starts laughing.

Dirk empties the .357 cylinder.  Shell casings roll off the seat and onto the floorboard.  He reloads his last few bullets.  With the gun in his lap, he points the muzzle toward his chin and shuts his eyes for a second.

                         SHERIFF (VO)

          You have thirty seconds to

tell us where the others are.

Dirk pops his eyes open.  He slams his fist against the back of the seat.  He shakes his head in disgust and opens the door.  He steps out of the truck and fires at the police.  The police return fire.

INT. MARY’S TRAILER HOME – DAY

Mary stuffs clothes and diapers in a suitcase.  Nathan watches from the sofa, his breathing shallow and labored.

                         MARY

          We’re going to get you out of here.

                         NATHAN

          How?

                         MARY

          Don’t talk.

Mary rummages through the empty cabinets for a jar of baby formula.  She lobs the jar in her suitcase and unzips her jeans to pull out the zippered money bag (surprise), SPILLING CASH ON THE FLOOR.

                         MARY

          We have to get you to a hospital.

Nathan swallows dryly.  He clings to life by a hair.  His eyes glaze over.

Mary tries to lift him off the sofa with his arm around her shoulder, but she can’t.  The end is here and now.

                         NATHAN

                 (whispering)

          Telllll…Rossseee.  I–

                (beat)

          Love her.

Mary hugs him as the baby starts crying.  Nathan forces his last breath.  His eyes are fixed, lifeless.

                         MARY

                 (crying)

          Tell her yourself God dammit.

          Tell her yourself.

Mary wipes her eyes, throws a burp cloth on her shoulder, and scoops her baby from the box.  She grabs her suitcase and walks out.

EXT. MARY’S TRAILER HOME – DAY

Mary walks several yards from the trailer when she HEARS A CAR APPROACHING FROM BEHIND.  She stops.  Turns to see Mrs. Abbott in the old Volare wagon with missing hubcaps.  The driver HONKS and rolls by before CRASHING INTO A MAIL BOX AND STOPPING.  Mrs. Abbott stumbles out of the car shit-face drunk.  The driver gets out too.  They stare at Mary.

                         MRS. ABBOTT

                 (to Mary)

          What are you starin’ at?

Mary shoves her suitcase in the car and climbs behind the wheel.  SHE RESTS HER BABY ON THE PASSENGER SEAT and slowly drives away.

EXT. MRS. ABBOTT’S TRAILER – DAY

Sheriff Thorton stands outside the trailer with Officer Dale and Mrs. Abbott.

Mrs. Abbott smokes a cigarette as she pours lighter fluid on a stack of newspaper in a CHARCOAL GRILL.

The Sheriff shows Mrs. Abbott a photo of Mary Patterson.

                         SHERIFF

          You sure you’ve never seen this

          woman before?

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          Can’t say that I have.

                         DALE

          And you’re positive?

Mrs. Abbott nods her head.  She steps away from the grill and flicks ash.

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          I’m pretty good with faces but

          my short term memory ain’t what

it use to be.

                         SHERIFF

          We have a reliable witness that

          claims Mary Patterson lived here

with her boyfriend.  We understand

they had a baby together.  I don’t

suppose you ever heard a baby crying

around here?

Mrs. Abbott shakes her head.

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          Can’t say that I have.

Sheriff Thorton turns away.  Visibly frustrated.

                        SHERIFF

          One more thing Mrs. Abbott.

          A stolen car recovered at our

          crime scene was spotted here,

yesterday, outside your trailer.

Our witness said she saw Mary

Patterson get in it with this man.

Sheriff Thorton shows Mrs. Abbott a photo of Nathan Smalls.

CLOSE ON: PHOTO OF NATHAN SMALLS.

                         SHERIFF

          What do you think?

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          I think your witness needs her

          eyes checked.

Sheriff Thorton nudges the photo closer.

                         SHERIFF

          Do you recognize this man or not?

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          I seen him around.

The Sheriff frowns when he sees Nathan carried out in an open body bag.

                         SHERIFF

          The car was used in an armed

          robbery.  I don’t suppose you

know anything about that?

Mrs. Abbott watches the police carry Nathan’s body away.  She points at him with her cigarette and shrugs.

                          MRS. ABBOTT

          Why don’t you ask him?

Mrs. Abbott flicks her cigarette on the newspaper in the grill.

CLOSE ON: THE Barbeque grill.

The newspaper catches fire.

Headlines above a photo of the diner read: POLICE STANDOFF ENDS IN VIOLENCE.  ONE SUSPECT STILL AT LARGE.

Newspaper pages burn and curl, revealing a FAMILY PHOTO WITH MARY AND HER BABY and an assortment of BABY CLOTHES engulfed in flames.

THE END

Armed and Dangerous: Screenplay Part 7

SIMON’S POV:

He sees Carl with the knife and steps in front of the coffee machine.  Steam rises from the stale pot sitting on the burner.  THE CLOCK ON THE WALL READS 12:20.

NATHAN AND MARY’S POV:

Nathan peeks through the blinds to see two police cars lingering out front with lights flashing.

                         NATHAN

          They’re not leaving.

Dirk holds his loaded .357 revolver at his side.

                         DIRK

          What about the car?

                         NATHAN

          I don’t see it.

Dirk ponders the situation for a moment.  THE DINER PHONE RINGS.  Nathan answers.

                         NATHAN

          Where’s the car?

EXT. DINER – DAY

The Sheriff stands beside the SWAT Commander.

                         SHERIFF

          It’s on its way.

INT. DINER – DAY

Dirk lunges at Nathan and takes the phone away.

                         DIRK

                (to Sheriff)

          Thirty seconds.  Or I start shooting.

He slams the phone down and points the gun at Simon.

                         DIRK

          You, over here.

Simon reluctantly lets go of the hot coffee pot handle and comes out of the kitchen.

Dirk points the gun at Carl.

                         DIRK

          You too cowboy.

Carl slowly gets up from the booth.  He palms the knife in his hand with the blade behind his wrist.

                         DIRK

          Hurry up!

Dirk points the gun at Betty, then Abby, then back at Betty.

                         DIRK

                 (to Betty)

          And you.

Betty shakes her head.

                         BETTY

          No.  Please.

                         HAROLD

          My wife stays with me.

Dirk walks up to Harold and shoves the muzzle in his face.  He cocks the hammer and tells BETTY:

                         DIRK

          I won’t ask again.

Betty reluctantly joins Carl and Simon.

                         NATHAN

                 (jubilant)

          The car’s here.

                (beat)

          The cops are leaving.

Dirk shoves Betty, Carl, and Simon toward the front of the diner by the window.  Betty cries.  Carl waits to make his move.

                         DIRK

          Turn around.

Betty, Carl, and Simon turn around to face the front of the diner.

DIRK STUFFS CASH IN CARL’S POCKETS.

                         NATHAN

          What are you doing?

                         DIRK

          They’re small bills.

Dirk turns to Nathan and Mary.

                         DIRK

          Get everyone else in the back.

                         NATHAN

          Why?

                         DIRK

          If you wanna get out of here

alive, shut up and do what I

tell you.

Nathan points his gun at the other hostages.

                         NATHAN

          You heard him.  Let’s go.

Kelly, Lindsay, Darlene, Cheryl, Abby, Jon, and Harold are herded toward the back room area.

                         HAROLD

                (to Betty)

          I never cheated.

                         BETTY

          I know.

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Sheriff Thorton shakes his head.  He orders the patrol cars to move further away.

                         SHERIFF

          What if they don’t go for it?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          They will.

                         SHERIFF

          What if this blows up in our face?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Then we go to plan B.

EXT. DINER BACK ENTRANCE – DAY

SWAT team members dressed in black prepare to storm the diner.

EXT. GAS STATION ROOF – DAY

A sniper lies in a prone position with his rifle trained on the car parked in front of the diner.

CLOSE ON: VIEW FROM SNIPER SCOPE.

The sniper sees the car and the front door entrance.

INT. DINER – DAY

Nathan forces Jon, Harold, Abby, Cheryl, Darlene, Lindsay, and Kelly toward the walk in freezer.  Mary stands off to the side AWAY FROM CHUCK’S DEAD BODY.  Jon hesitates to enter.

                         NATHAN

          You’ll be safe in here.

Nathan checks the back door peep hole.

CLOSE ON: NATHAN’S VIEW THROUGH PEEP HOLE

Nathan sees an empty parking lot.

BACK TO SCENE:

Harold waits for the girls to enter the freezer.  He looks back to see Dirk holding a gun on Betty and the two other men.

Nathan motions for Mary to get away from the door AND TAKES HIS EYES OFF OF HAROLD FOR A SECOND.

HAROLD SEIZES THE OPPORTUNITY TO WRESTLE THE GUN AWAY FROM NATHAN AND GRABS FOR THE .22-CALIBER PISTOL.

JON STANDS STILL.  PETRIFIED.  DOES NOTHING TO HELP.

HAROLD BENDS NATHAN’S WRIST BACK UNTIL THE PAIN FORCES NATHAN TO DROP THE GUN.  HAROLD PUNCHES NATHAN IN THE FACE AND SHOVES HIM ASIDE TO REACH FOR THE GUN.  THEY STRUGGLE.

MARY CRACKS HAROLD UPSIDE THE HEAD WITH A FIRE EXTINGUISHER AND HAROLD COLLAPSES.

JON RETRIEVES THE GUN AND POINTS IT AT NATHAN.

                         MARY

          No!

                         JON

                (to Nathan)

          Don’t move.

Nathan steps toward Jon who FIRES ONCE AND HITS NATHAN IN THE TORSO.

DIRK’S POV:

Dirk steps away from the three hostages.  Carl pulls his KNIFE and attacks Dirk from behind – but Dirk sees it coming and spins, FIRES ONCE AT CARL – but Carl keeps charging and STABS DIRK IN THE LEG.  DIRK fires ANOTHER SHOT at Carl.  Carl collapses.

Dirk HOBBLES toward Nathan and Mary.  Jon ducks behind the freezer.  Dirk FIRES RANDOMLY at Jon and MISSES, hitting ABBY IN THE HEAD.

Dirk pulls the KNIFE out of his leg and chucks it.

EXT. DINER – DAY

SHERIFF POV:

Sheriff Thorton looks at the SWAT Commander.

                         SHERIFF

          What the hell?

                         RANDOM COP (VO)

          Shots fired!

The SWAT Commander gives the order:

                         SWAT COMMANDER

                 (into headset microphone)

          Go!

EXT. DINER REAR EXIT DOOR – DAY

The SWAT team lobs a stun grenade inside.  A LOUD BANG AND A BRIGHT FLASH GO OFF.  The SWAT team rushes in.

INT. DINER – DAY

Through the smoke, we see JON WITH THE GUN IN HIS HAND.

SWAT TEAM POV:

The SWAT team sees Jon rushing at them, waving his arms and mouthing DON’T SHOOT.

The SWAT team fires a BURST OF AUTOMATIC GUNFIRE.  JON IS RIDDLED WITH BULLETS.

EXT. GAS STATION ROOF TOP – DAY

The diner’s front door opens.

CLOSE ON: VIEW FROM SNIPER SCOPE

SWAT sniper sees two suspects in masks rush out toward the car.  HE FIRES TWICE, HITTING BOTH SUSPECTS IN THE CHEST.

EXT. – DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Police converge on the two wounded suspects in masks.

INT. DINER – DAY

The SWAT team circulates through the SMOKEY diner.  Team members drag bodies away.

                        SWAT TEAM MEMBER 1 (VO)

          Clear.

                        SWAT TEAM MEMBER 2 (VO)

          All clear.

EXT. DINER REAR EXIT – DAY

SWAT team members and ambulance personnel assist the hostages.  Pandemonium.  People running, screaming.

Mary emerges with her mask off and averts her attention from the hostages who follow each other in a separate direction.

EXT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Paramedics lift Nathan (mask off) into an ambulance.  Mary approaches the paramedics.

                         MARY

          I’ll ride with him.

                         PARAMEDIC

          Who are you?

                         MARY

          His wife.

EXT. SECOND AMBULANCE – DAY

Paramedics load Dirk (ski mask off) into the second ambulance.

INT. SECOND AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk pulls his oxygen mask off and unbuckles the straps holding him to the gurney. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME WE SEE DIRK’S BABY FACE.  WHAT YOU THOUGHT WAS A MONSTER FROM HIS ACTIONS IS A MAN WITH A 17-YEAR-OLD FACE.

DIRK STABS THE DRIVER IN THE THROAT WITH A SYRINGE.

INT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Mary holds Nathan’s hand in the MOVING AMBULANCE.  Suddenly it STOPS.

EXT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk approaches the driver’s door.  The driver opens the door to help and DIRK PUNCHES HIM IN THE FACE.

Dirk SLAMS the DRIVER’S HEAD IN THE DOOR and leaves the man on the road.

Dirk glances in the rearview mirror to see Nathan’s reflection.

                         DIRK

          Miss me?

EXT. DINER ENTRANCE – DAY

Dale and several deputies approach the dead suspects in front of the diner.  Dale pulls the ski mask off Betty’s head.  He reaches to pull the mask off the other suspect.

INT. DINER – DAY

Sheriff Thorton and several deputies trudge through the diner.  The SWAT Commander follows them.  THEY SEE JON’S BODY LYING FACE DOWN WITH A GUN IN HIS HAND AND A MASK BESIDE HIS BODY.  Two men carry a body bag out.

The Sheriff discovers Carl’s dead body lying face down.  Blood and broken glass covers the floor.  Sheriff Thorton shakes his head.  He sees the KNIFE.

                         SHERIFF

          Holy Mary mother of God.

The SWAT Commander points to Carl’s body.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          We found him first.

The Sheriff takes his hat off and scratches his head.  He looks around the room and sighs.

Dale appears through the front door.

                         SHERIFF

                (to Dale)

          You find the others?

Long beat.  Dale hesitates to answer.

                         DALE

          There’s something you should see.

EXT. DINER – DAY

Sheriff Thorton stands over Betty and Simon’s unmasked bodies.

                         DALE

          I’m sorry Sheriff.

Sheriff Thorton squats beside his dead brother.  He gently closes Simon’s eyes.

The SWAT Commander joins them.

                          DALE

          I found a driver’s license for

Betty Meeks.  Her husband is on

his way to the hospital.

Sheriff Thorton charges at the SWAT Commander.  Dale restrains the Sheriff who takes a wild swing at the SWAT Commander.

                          DALE

                 (to SWAT Commander)

          You killed him.

The SWAT Commander is mortified.

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          I’m sorry.  We didn’t know.

                          DALE

          What happened to the third guy?

          The girl said there were three

men inside.  We found one in the

back and one up here with a knife.

          Where the hell is the third one?

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          He got away.

Dale lets go of the Sheriff.

                          SHERIFF

          Not for long.  Talk to everyone

who was in here.  Find out what

they saw, what they know…

                  (beat)

          Simon deserved better than this.

          I want every man on board.

                          DALE

          You got it.

EXT. AMBULANCE PARKED NEAR DINER – DAY

A deputy opens the driver’s door and THE DEAD PARAMEDIC FALLS OUT WITH THE SYRINGE STILL LODGED IN HIS NECK.

                         DEPUTY

                 (shouting)

          Sheriff.

INT. MOVING AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk drives the stolen ambulance along the interstate.  No lights and sirens.  Nathan rides in the passenger seat with Mary beside him.  He’s bleeding from his bullet wound.  He sweats profusely.  Great pain.

                         DIRK

          We have to ditch this ride.

                         MARY

          We have to get home.

                         NATHAN

          I need a doctor.

EXT. INTERSTATE EXIT – DAY

The ambulance veers onto the exit ramp.

EXT. GAS STATION – DAY

The ambulance parks at a gas station.  A late model GMC pick-up sits beside the fuel pump as the owner goes inside to pay.  Dirk leaves the ambulance WITH THE DIAPER BAG.

                         DIRK

          Let’s go.

Nathan climbs out.  Mary follows.  THEY WATCH A STATE TROOPER PASS THE FRONT OF THE GAS STATION AND KEEP GOING.

                         NATHAN

          They’re looking for the ambulance.

Nathan tugs on Mary’s arm.  They jump inside the GMC pick-up with Dirk behind the wheel.  They take off as the truck’s owner emerges from the gas station with a drink in his hand.

                         TRUCK OWNER

          Hey!

INT. HOSPITAL EXAM ROOM – DAY

Dale stands in front of Lindsay, Kelly, and Hilda with his notepad and pen.  The girls are visibly shaken with minor cuts and bruises but no serious injuries.

                         DALE

          How many robbers were there?

                         HILDA

          I told you, three men in masks.

                         KELLY

          One was a woman.

                         DALE

          Are you sure?

                         LINDSAY AND KELLY

                (together)

          Yes.

                         DALE

          Did you see her face?

                         LINDSAY

          She wore a mask like the others.

                         KELLY

          One of the robbers was her

boyfriend or husband.

The SWAT Commander arrives with Cheryl.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Officer.

Dale turns to see the SWAT Commander with Cheryl.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          You should hear what she has to say.

INT. SHERIFF’S OFFICE – DAY

Sheriff Thorton looks up from his desk to see Dale BURST into the room.

                         DALE

          We got a lead.

The Sheriff stands up.

                         SHERIFF

          You found our third guy?

                         DALE

          Wrong gender.  A witness said

          one of the masked robbers

          was definitely a woman.  The

          other two were male.  A waitress

recognized one of them from his

voice.  A student in her math

class.  We’re searching school

records for a last known address.

The Sheriff grabs his hat off his desk and ushers Dale toward the door.

                         SHERIFF

          Good work.

                         DALE

          Where are we going?

                         SHERIFF

To bust some ass.

                         DALE

          Now?

                         SHERIFF

          Grab your vest.  These guys are

armed and dangerous.

INT. STOLEN GMC PICK UP – DAY

Nathan rides in the passenger seat with Mary beside him.  He winces from the bullet wound in his upper torso.  Dirk drives sporadically through traffic.

                         NATHAN

          Pull over.

                         DIRK

          We can’t.

                         MARY

                 (to Nathan)

          Hold on.

                         NATHAN

          Just get us home.

                         DIRK

          The cops will be all over you.

                         NATHAN

          Not if they don’t know where to look.

Armed and Dangerous: Screenplay Part 6

DIRK AND NATHAN POV:

Dirk sees Hilda tugging on the rear exit door.  He FIRES TWO SHOTS and misses.  He fires A THIRD SHOT as Hilda opens the door and runs out.

Nathan follows Dirk to the back room and secures the door again.

                         NATHAN

          Where the hell did she come from?

Dirk runs to the front window and peeks out.  HE SEES HILDA RUN TOWARD THE POLICE.

                         DIRK

          She never saw our faces.

          She can’t ID us.

Dirk storms toward Lindsay and Kelly.  He grabs Kelly by the hair and pulls her off her seat.  He puts the HOT MUZZLE to her forehead.  KELLY CRIES OUT.  The muzzle leaves a small impression in her skin.

                         DIRK

          I should have done this sooner.

                         NATHAN

          Let her go.

Dirk points his gun at Nathan.

                         DIRK

          Now it’s my turn.

Nathan puts his hands in the air.

                         NATHAN

          This won’t help anything.

          So one of them got away.

          Big deal.  She can’t hurt us.

Dirk hesitates for a second.  He looks at Kelly, then back at Nathan.

                         NATHAN

          Please.  Too many people are

          hurt already.

Dirk pulls the trigger.  CLICK.  The gun is empty.

Dirk laughs.  He lets go of Kelly, who runs back to the hostage group.

Dirk dumps the spent .357 casings on the floor.  He digs more bullets from his pocket and reloads.

                         DIRK

          I wish I could see your face.

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Sheriff Thorton grabs Hilda by her shoulders and looks her in the eye.  Hilda’s hyped on adrenaline.  Out of breath.  In a state of shock.

                         SHERIFF

          It’s all right.  Shhhh.

It’s all right.  Are you hurt?

Hilda shakes her head.  A paramedic rushes over.

                         SHERIFF

          She’s all right.

                         PARAMEDIC

          I still need to evaluate her.

Hilda swallows hard.  Her hands are shaking.

                         HILDA

          I’m all right.

She waves the paramedic off.

                         SHERIFF

                 (to Hilda)

          What happened in there?

Hilda takes a step back.  She’s reeling from what happened.

                         HILDA

          I saw three men with guns.

They’re wearing masks.

       (beat)

One of them shot a cop.

                          SHERIFF

          Is he still alive?

Hilda shakes her head.

                          HILDA

                 (about to cry)

          They shot him twice in the chest.

                 (crying)

          I think they killed him.

The Sheriff punches the air in frustration.

                          SHERIFF

          Son of a bitch.

Dale approaches.

                         DALE

          What happened?

                         SHERIFF

          Chuck’s dead.

                         DALE

          Shit…God dammit!  I fucking

          new this would happen.

                         SHERIFF

                (to Hilda)

          Is anyone else hurt?

                         HILDA

          A waitress got shot in the arm.

                         SHERIFF

          What about the cook?

                         HILDA

          They burned his hand but

          he’s all right.

                         DALE

          How many people are in there?

Hilda’s flustered, dizzy, STARTS TO FAINT.  THE SHERIFF CATCHES HER.

                         SHERIFF

                 (to Paramedic)

          Stay with her.

The Sheriff jogs to—

HIS CAR

The SWAT Commander follows him.  Sheriff Thorton grabs his MEGAPHONE from the passenger seat.

                         SHERIFF

          This is Sheriff Thorton.

          Throw out your weapons and

step out now.

The SWAT Commander pushes the megaphone aside.

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          What are you doing?

                          SHERIFF

          Trying to end this thing.

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          And kill everyone inside?

                          SHERIFF

          We have to do something.

Sheriff Thorton runs his hand through his hair.  He tosses the megaphone in the car.

                         SHERIFF

My brother’s inside there.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          I’m aware of that.  I’m also aware

          there are a dozen other hostages.

          We’re doing everything we can.

                         SHERIFF

          Well it’s not enough.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Call the diner.  Keep them

talking as long as you can.

We’ll get your people out.

INT. DINER – DAY

Nathan and Dirk pace back and forth near the counter.  THE PHONE RINGS.

                         NATHAN

          What if she can ID us?

                         DIRK

          She never saw our faces.

                         NATHAN

          She knows you killed that cop.

                         DIRK

          We, killed that cop.  Now we’re

all involved.  For the long haul.

                         NATHAN

          You said you’d get us out of here.

How are you going to do that?

Dirk answers the phone.

                         DIRK

          What do you want?

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Sheriff Thorton on the phone.  The SWAT Commander stands beside him and listens.

                         SHERIFF

          This is Sheriff Thorton.

          Don’t hang up.

                         DIRK (VO)

          If you start shooting, I swear

to God I’ll kill every one of

these people.

                         SHERIFF

          No shooting I promise.

          I just wanna talk.

                         DIRK (VO)

          Make it fast.

                         SHERIFF

          Let the rest of the women go.

                         DIRK (VO)

          I haven’t let anyone go.

          That bitch got away on her own.

                         SHERIFF

          Don’t make this worse.

                         DIRK (VO)

          I want a car with tinted windows

and a full tank of gas.  And I

want your guys to back off.

The Sheriff looks at the SWAT Commander and covers the cell phone with his hand.

                         SHERIFF

          He wants a car.

The SWAT Commander nods.

                         SHERIFF

                (to Dirk)

          You still there?

                         DIRK (VO)

          Twenty minutes.  Or I start

          killing hostages.

The line goes dead.

                         SHERIFF

          Wait.

INT. DINER – DAY

Dirk slams the phone down.  He turns his head to read the CLOCK on the wall.  IT’S NOON.  Then he turns back to read the iron man plaque on the wall by the grill station.  He takes the plaque off the wall and reads the name beneath Simon’s picture.

CLOSE ON: IRON MAN PLAQUE

Dirk sees the name Simon Thorton.

BACK TO SCENE:

Dirk looks at Simon who’s holding ICE on his severely burned hand.

                         DIRK

          Small world.

EXT. MARY’S TRAILER – DAY

Mrs. Abbott emerges from the trailer and climbs in the old Volare.

INT. VOLARE – DAY

                         WHITE TRASH DRIVER

          What about the baby?

                         MRS. ABBOTT

          She’s down for a nap.

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

The Sheriff slams his hand on the roof of a police car.  Dale stands beside him with his hands on his hips.

                         DALE

          We can’t just give them a car.

                         SHERIFF

          Then what do you suggest?

                         DALE

          We can’t let them leave.

A cop runs up to Sheriff Thorton and hands him a fax.  The Sheriff examines the page.

                         SHERIFF

          What’s this?

                         OFFICER

          Arrest warrant for Timothy Rivera.

          The Corolla’s registered in his name

          but he’s not our man.

      (beat)

Orange County police popped him

          for drug possession two nights ago.

          He’s been in lock up since then.

                         DALE

                 (to Sheriff)

          Then who’s inside?

                         SHERIFF

          Peter fucking Piper for all I know.

                 (beat)

          Find out.  Fast.  I wanna know

          who we’re dealing with.

INT. DINER – DAY

The clock on the wall reads 12:07.

NATHAN AND MARY POV:

Mary points to Dirk, who checks the front window blinds again.

                         MARY

          Why did you get involved with him?

                         NATHAN

          He said this place was easy

          money.  That he knew somebody

          who stole ten grand from one of

          these and got away.

Dirk approaches Nathan and Mary.

                         NATHAN

                (to Dirk)

          You see a car?

                         DIRK

          Not yet.

EXT. DINER BACK DOOR EXIT – DAY

SWAT team members dressed in black attach a special MIRRORED device over the peep hole.  They use a blow torch on the lock mechanism.

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

The SWAT Commander lays out a hand drawn map on the hood of the Sheriff’s car.  Sheriff Thorton and officer Dale examine it.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Timing is critical.  One man will

          bring the car up front and get out

          with the engine running.  I want your

          men to drive away.  Give the elusion

          all is clear.  When our suspects

          approach the car, my men will enter

          from the storage room undetected.

          One team will secure the hostages.

          The other will engage the suspects.

Sheriff Thorton rubs his hand on the back of his head.

                         SHERIFF

          What if they get away?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          They won’t.

                         DALE

          What if they try to take

          the hostages with them?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          The car barely seats four people.

          When it reaches a safe distance

from the diner, my sharp shooters

will take it out.

                         SHERIFF

          Too risky.  I don’t like it.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

Right now it’s all we got.

The Sheriff checks his watch.

                         SHERIFF

          Eight minutes.

                         DALE

          You think they’re bluffing

          about killing the hostages?

                         SHERIFF

          They didn’t hesitate to kill a cop.

INT. MEN’S RESTROOM – DAY

Nathan takes his mask off.  He splashes water on his face.  His gun rests on the sink.  His hands tremble.

INT. DINING ROOM – DAY

Dirk’s seated at a table.  He watches the clock tick past 12:15.  Deadline’s looming.  Still no car.  He counts heads with his finger and removes more bullets from his pocket.

LINDSAY AND KELLY POV:

                         LINDSAY

          I’m sorry.

                         KELLY

          For what?

                         LINDSAY

          It was my idea to come here.

                         KELLY

          It doesn’t matter.  At least

Hilda got away.

                 (beat)

My uncle’s a New York State

          Trooper.  Cops train for this

kind of stuff.

                         LINDSAY

          I hope you’re right.

HAROLD AND BETTY POV:

Harold leans over the table and whispers to his wife.

                         HAROLD

          We can’t just sit here.

          We have to do something.

                 (beat)

          The other guy’s only holding a

          twenty-two.  I could take

          a couple shots from that and

          still survive.  If I can get close

          enough to him–

                         BETTY

          Shhhh.

                         HAROLD

          It’s us or them.  I’m not

          going to sit in the hangman’s

          gallows and wait to die.

Masks or not, we can identify their

          voices.  Sooner or later, they’ll

figure that out.

                         BETTY

          Don’t say that.

                         HAROLD

          We’re all witnesses.

                         BETTY

          The police will do something.

                         HAROLD

          They better do it soon.

CARL AND JON’S POV:

Carl slips a small folding knife from the top of his boot and hides it in his hands underneath the table where HE UNFOLDS THE BLADE.