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Joplin's Ghost

by Tananarive Due

Hardcover, 484 pages, Pocket Books, List Price: $25 |


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Book Summary

Having resisted her family's music-centered lifestyle in her pursuit of fame, Phoenix Smalls, the daughter of a jazz club-owner mother and a touring band manager father, becomes uncharacteristically intrigued by an old piano in a back room of her mother's jazz club, with ominous consequences. By the author of The Good House. 40,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Joplin's Ghost

Chapter One

Someone rapped on the hotel room door.

Gloria squealed, laughing. "He's still there, Phee."

"Shhhhh. It's not funny." Phoenix wasn't in the mood for fan bullshit. If this was the same boy, he'd been outside their hotel suite two solid hours, knocking softly every half hour to let them know he hadn't gone anywhere. What had been amusing at ten wasn't at midnight.

Phoenix pulled a velvet throw pillow from her cousin's bed across her eyes. Before the last knock, Gloria had been flipping through The Source, fantasizing about which men she'd like to hook up with when they had the chance to shop backstage at the Grammys or the MTV Music Awards — It's a tough choice between Tyrese and 50 Cent, huh?

Phoenix's only fantasy right then was to have the strength to walk to her master bedroom across the hall, brush her teeth and go to bed. The OutKast CD sounded tinny and awful from the cheap CD player that doubled as a clock radio, and Phoenix knew she had to be tired, if OutKast couldn't wake her up. She couldn't remember being this trashed on the road before, even when she still had a band hauling instruments and amps.

The knock on their door came again, bolder.

"What's your name?" Gloria called toward her open doorway, and she might as well have been calling down the street. This was the biggest room of Phoenix's tour so far, an elegant suite with two bedrooms, a living room with a dining room table for six, phones and televisions in each bathroom, and Phoenix's master bedroom, with a canopied bed so high off the ground that it came with its own steps. Welcome to the future, Gloria had said when they arrived last night. The room was comped, or Sarge would have put them up at the Budget Inn as usual. At least at Budget Inn, she didn't have to walk so far to go to bed. Everything has a price, she thought.

"Don't encourage that boy," Phoenix said, slapping Gloria's thigh. "I'm not kidding."

"I'm Kendrick," a voice came back, full of false confidence. He sounded young, a kid.

"How'd he find my room? I'm calling Sarge," Phoenix said. Sarge wasn't in for the night yet — he was surely out at one of the clubs schmoozing the radio folks and music writers — but Sarge's cell was always strapped to his belt, fully juiced.

"Don't call Sarge. Damn. Just talk to the man. You haven't been laid in a month."

True enough. Ronn was busy, and so was she. Ronn was in L.A. recording a CD and trying to get his film production company going, and she was in the middle of her radio tour to promote her first CD on Ronn's label, Rising. Three Strikes Records was better known for gangsta rap than R&B, but Ronn had put a lot of labor into Rising, and not just because he sometimes shared his massive four-poster bed with his new artist. With a hit-maker like D'Real producing her tracks, Ronn had told Phoenix she'd better get used to people knowing who she was, the good and the bad.

Was this stranger outside the door part of the good, or part of the bad?

"I rode the bus from New York to see you, Phoenix," said the young man's muffled voice. "I'm prelaw at NYU, not a stalker. I'm only asking for one night, and I won't be bragging to my boys in the morning. I want to be a gentleman and treat you like a lady."

"Phee, boyfriend is smooth. Ask him if he brought a partner," Gloria whispered, and Phoenix pinched her cousins's arm to shut her up. Gloria was crazy if she thought they were going to tag-team groupies tonight, Gloria's favorite fantasy.

But the man had come from New York to St. Louis on a bus just to lay this rap on her? How did he know where she'd be staying, much less where her room was? This boy better hope her father wouldn't stop by the suite and find him standing there. After a month straight on the road, Sarge would not be in the mood for a stranger who didn't understand boundaries.

Phoenix stood up. She was still wearing the tattered jeans and white T-shirt from rehearsal for Friday night's show at Le Beat, her peanut-butter-colored makeup smudging her collar and shoulders. She lifted her underarm, and her tart scent assailed her nose. Gloria was a M.A.C. girl who kept herself glam day and night — streaked hair moussed to perfection, face painted to glorify all the right angles, blouses cut low across her cleavage — and compared to her cousin, Phoenix knew she looked like one funky mess. Funky and tired.

So why was she wasting the energy she'd saved for brushing her teeth to walk to the suite's white double doors? Phoenix put her face close to the doors. She could smell cologne in the cool air through the crack, one she knew. Calvin, maybe. Not Kenzo, but not bad.

"How'd you find my room?" she said to the crack and the cologne.

"Oh, Father Jesus," she heard him say, surprised. His smoothness had evaporated.

"You know you're not supposed to be standing outside my room, right?" Gentle but firm.

His voice came closer to the crack, and she saw a blur of dark skin. "Miss Smalls, I love your music. I have your CD from back in the day, those cuts with the mad keyboard riffs, that first one you put out. You're a straight-up genius."

Phoeinx's first CD had been born and buried four years ago, so this was a hard-core fan. Phoenix and her band in Miami had poured their souls into two CDs, and their old label hadn't sold enough copies to pay for them. That had hurt so much, she'd come within a breath of telling Sarge she was ready to quit, except that she knew how disappointed he would be. At Three Strikes, Ronn and D'Real had laid down the law: Her original music was too this, too that, not urban enough, not enough like D'Real's vibe, and D'Real is the producer and the producer is God. Hell, D'Real's the real star, let's be real. Sarge had warned her things would be different at a major label, and he'd been right. As different as different could be.

"One of my cousins works here, and she told me where you'd be," the boy said through the door. "Please don't try to make me say who. I promised not to get her in trouble."

This was rich. "Someone's pimping me out at the front desk?"

"It ain't like that." She heard the smile in his voice, saw the white of his teeth through the crack. Polished, peroxide teeth. "I told her I would slide up on you for an autograph. But I couldn't get this close and miss my chance to scrub your back while you take a bubble bath. And take some of this massage oil to rub down your muscles. I have strong hands, Miss Smalls."

Damn, that does sound good, she thought. Her knees and thighs were throbbing, sore.

"If you want to take it to the next level, of course I have protection," he went on. "And just to keep it safe, I brought a doctor's report you can look at. I don't play."

"Oh, no he didn't say that!" Gloria said, Miss Blue-Eyed Ghetto Fabulous in the flesh.

"This is a joke," Phoenix said, certain. Arturo and the dancers had nerve bothering her this late. "Who is this?"

Phoenix opened the door, and the man who stood there was a stranger. He was tall and lanky, with tree-trunk shoulders, a boyish face the complexion of Wesley Snipes, and a shadow of fuzz on the deep cleft of his chin. It wasn't a joke. Phoenix assessed the stranger's loose linen pants, bone-colored knit shirt, leather sandals, and close-cropped haircut. Nice. He had a leather duffel bag slung across his shoulder, probably his Booty Kit. He would be a magnificent man one day, but he was young. Very young.

"You're a baby, Kendrick," she said. "Let's see some ID."

This must be how Carlos had felt with her, she realized. Phoenix didn't think of Carlos often, but she wished it was Carlos at her door instead of a stranger. Carlos's memory might be bad luck for this boy, since Sarge had knocked one of Carlos's back teeth loose.

Gloria posted herself beside Phoenix, no longer laughing, her guardian. Phoenix couldn't pay her cousin much — a little pocket change, free travel, and free hotel rooms — but she would definitely pay Gloria more one day. That was a fact. One day soon.

Kendrick reached for his wallet, clumsy. It took him nearly thirty seconds to pull his license from its sleeve. Kendrick Allen Hart, Brooklyn, New York. Just turned nineteen. If he'd been seventeen or eighteen, Phoenix would have sent him back to the playground. Nineteen made him more interesting. Hell, she was only twenty-four, and her promo packets claimed she was twenty-one. There was only a two-year age difference between this boy and Phoenix singular, The Phoenix, no last name necessary. Sarge said if Beyoncé and Ashanti and Imani didn't need surnames, neither did she.

"Phoenix, ma'am, you're more beautiful in person," Kendrick said, smart enough to keep his distance in the hall. She saw perspiration across his forehead, but his cologne smelled fresh. His smile struggled against a twitching bottom lip, but held on.

"Thank you. Give me your bag," Phoenix said.

Quickly, Kendrick complied, ducking beneath its strap as he swallowed hard.

Phoenix gave the lightweight duffel bag to Gloria, who unzipped it behind her, stone-faced. Most days, Gloria was hardly better than no help at all, but she liked playing bodyguard. If Kendrick forgot himself, Gloria would put him on his back.

"You coming to the New York show?" Phoenix said, small talk during the inspection.

Kendrick's admiration, loosed from all restraint, leaped free. "What? I ain' missin' it! Front and center. I can't hang out in St. Louis and see you Friday 'cuz of my Af-Am lit final, but I will hear you at the Osiris. Believe that. History in the making. Phoenix, you are off the hook."

Friday's show was a small listening party at a club called Le Beat near the University of Missouri, no big deal. But next week, Phoenix had a gig opening for the New York leg of the Hip-Hop R&B Summer MegaJam, joining the show at the historic Osiris Theater in Harlem. That show would be the biggest of her life, maybe seventeen hundred people. A few days later, she would begin shooting her first music video for her single on location in L.A. The sun is about to shine on you, Peanut, Sarge told her. Time to open the blinds.

"Where'd you get the nerve to come stand outside my door?" Phoenix said to the boy.

"I prayed on it. I won't get another chance after you blow up like you're gonna do."

"You know you're crazy, right?"

"Hell, yeah. Gotta be crazy in a crazy-ass world."

Gloria was grinning while she went through the duffel bag. "Ooh, he brought the good kind," she said, playfully shaking a black box of condoms. Lambskin, the brand Ronn preferred.

She was going to do this, Phoenix realized, her heart racing. She had never done this before, not with a fan on the road, but she was going to do this tonight.

"You really brought a medical report?" Phoenix said.

"Yes, ma'am. Got it from my doctor on Monday, before I left. It's in there."

"Bring your crazy ass in here, Kendrick. Don't make me sorry. And if you call me ma'am again, you're gone."

"What should I call you?"

"What do you think? Call me Phoenix."

The sound of her name lit his face afire.

Phoenix worked hard not to think about Ronn as she climbed out of her robe and sank into the jetted marble tub Kendrick filled to the sky with bubbles. The boy's eyes on her made her body feel clumsy — breasts too small, legs too thin, stomach pooch too big — but her uneasiness vanished in the embrace of the hot water and the blanket of bubbles. The bubbles rose up past her chin as water beat into the tub amid the whir of the jets. In Kendrick's eyes, she was a goddess.

Kendrick let his shirt fall from his shoulders, past his hips, revealing the banks of his dark chest's muscles, unburdened by body fat. His erection cast a shadow across the crotch of his pants in the candlelight. He looked like a Herb Ritts photo, except his head wasn't shaved.

He was beautiful.

Shit. She was really going to spend the night with a fan. What would Ronn say if he could see her in a candelit bathroom with this half-naked manchild? She and Ronn had never said they were exclusive. She hadn't seen Ronn in a month. He only called her every three or four days now, not every night like he used to. It wasn't like he was going home alone every night. She'd be crazy to believe that. "You know who my boyfriend is, right?" Phoenix said, to cover her obligations.

"Just what I read," Kendrick said. He didn't sound concerned.

"Keep that in mind before you say anything foolish to anybody. We're straight?"

Ronn would never hurt her, and she didn't think he'd try to hunt down a groupie she'd met on the road if he heard about it, but you never knew. One of Ronn's overzealous fans might give Kendrick a beatdown if he started bragging. Anything could happen after that crazy shooting last month in New York, everybody saying G-Ronn and Three Strikes was behind it. That was bullshit — Ronn had hustled a little in the projects way back when, but he'd been more a businessman than a thug. Still, you couldn't guess what other people would do in your name.

Kendrick hooked his hands into the waistband of his linen pants. "You don't have to tell me twice. This is about me and my memories, and hopefully you and yours."

Kendrick must have put too much bubble bath in the jetted tub, she realized. The bubbles were a mountain in front of her, so Phoenix had to carve a tunnel to see through. The bathroom reeked of the bubble bath's sickly sweet strawberry scent. He'll learn, she thought.

"Didn't you promise to scrub my back? Better hurry, before I drown in these."

"Sorry," he said, timid. He knelt beside her, one knee against the marble floor.

He knocked away some of the bubbles, a path. "Lean over," he said in her ear.

Phoenix leaned forward, her ears drowning in the water's rush from the faucet near her face. Kendrick's fingertips traced the trail of her spine. His fingers were more steady now than when he'd been in the hall, all hesitation and boyishness forgotten. His fingertips were smooth, and the tickle she felt at the end of his fingers grew into a burn.

"Phoenix." He said her name as he rubbed soapy warm water across her back. He said it again as he encircled her with his arms, resting his palms across her breasts, gently pinching her waiting nipples with his fingertips. Phoenix. There was wonder in his voice.

And in his touch. Phoenix was shocked at the way his squeezing fingers locked the rest of her body in place, almost fetal, as if it were afraid to release something. Her lips parted as her body seemed to expand beneath the warm water, pleasure in a balloon.

"Does that hurt?" he said.

She shook her head. It wasn't painful, but torture all the same. "Let's go to the bed," she said, thinking about how Gloria must be eating her heart out. Gloria was probably hoping Kendrick would sashay his chocolate loveliness over to her room next. Too bad. With blond hair like a magician's wand, Gloria usually had her pick — but not tonight.

In her bedroom, Phoenix noticed her Rolex on her nightstand, a small, gleaming window to her conscience. The watch had a diamond bezel and dial, and it was the only gift she had accepted from Ronn. Her Rolex was the most expensive item she owned, more than her car and keyboards combined. She burrowed beneath the mound of covers, cool sheets swaddling her overheated skin, and felt like she was hiding. She hadn't expected to feel bad. She'd told herself when she hit twenty-one she would stop doing things she felt bad about.

Kendrick climbed under the covers beside her. His long, bonelike manhood nestled against her hip, pulsing gently whenever she inhaled and her body rose. When he leaned over to kiss her breast, his lips were so gentle that they might have been kisses, or only hot breath. She could barely feel his lips and tongue. Ronn always took her breast in the palm of his hand, making it bulge like a melon, and lathered her nipples. She always knew when Ronn was there.

Kendrick guided her hand toward where his eager body strained against her, and she grasped him the way she might hold a stick, feeling his juices beading already as she rubbed her thumb across his most sensitive spot. He moaned against her neck, waiting. He's tripping if he thinks I'm going down on him, Phoenix thought, and she let him go.

Kendrick pulled her thighs apart and burrowed beneath the sheet, but his tongue felt dry and lifeless on her, as if he had lost his way. He was just a kid, she remembered.

"Get the condoms, OK?" she said, because she was ready to be done with it.

Kendrick was better at intercourse, luckily. He kept his eyes on hers, watching her face as he inched his way inside of her, steadying himself with his arms locked. He didn't expel right away as she'd feared, and he no longer felt like a boy. Kendrick was so long, he seemed endless. Phoenix felt her body loosen and flood, embracing him. His measured, confident strokes felt so good, she almost had a full-blown orgasm. Almost. That would take more practice, and Kendrick wouldn't have time to learn. When he was ready, Kendrick gritted his teeth and tilted his head so far back that his Adam'a apple bulged. "Oh, shit. Oh, shit."

Then, it was over. This was the same way it had been with the Dominican guy she'd danced with at Crobar on her twenty-first birthday: The heat of a buildup realized in brief bubbles, the pleasure over too soon, and wishing she could roll away as soon as it was done. She suddenly wanted to ask Kendrick to leave. She hoped he wasn't expecting to spend the night.

But Kendrick had made himself comfortable, gazing at her from his pillow.

"Phoenix..." he whispered beside her, disbelieving. She could smell a trace of his last meal on his breath, something spicy. She would not kiss him. Kisses were too intimate for a man she didn't know.

"Why do you keep saying my name like that?" she said.

"Like what?"

"I don't know...Like it's..."

"Like it's the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess? It is. Like it's the name of a force of nature? It's that, too. Pheeeee-nixxxx," he said. He cupped her chin in his hand. His eyes were swathed by thick lashes, and he gazed with a gravity she found unnerving. "I'm jealous, girl."

"Jealous of what?"

"I'm jealous because I knew about you first. I knew you when nobody else did. And now everybody's about to come late to my party. I have to share you." When he stroked her bare shoulder, his hand lashed fire. Her body didn't mind if he stayed a while.

"You really think I'm gonna be all that?" she said. Her voice cracked.

Kendrick laughed, his head rolling against the pillow. "Don't even front. You know it."

She smiled. "Yeah, you're right." Sarge would see to it, that was all.

"But you changed your sound. I heard a Rising demo, and you're different now."

Phoenix had nearly forgotten that anyone would know her old sound. "Better, right?"

"Different, not better. Maybe not as good, in some ways, not to me. Too R&B radio. I miss the rock riffs, the freaky keyboard, the worldbeat. But you're still in there. I still hear you."

Phoenix had gone so long without hearing the truth, she hadn't realized it was missing. When was the last time anybody had the nerve to say something like that to her? Not Gloria. Not even Sarge. Nobody since Carlos, who had seemed to enjoy telling her exactly what she didn't want to hear. Having a truth-teller was like having God himself in the room, so Phoenix tried to think of a question worthy of Kendrick Allen Hart. She covered her bare chest with the sheet. They were two people talking now, not a wannabe singer and her one-night stand. They could be in a junior-high schoolyard sharing a strawberry soda.

"What's the worst cut?" she said.

He shrugged. "A couple of them are weak."

The word weak made Phoenix's stomach cramp with gas.

Kendrick went on: "Truthfully, tracks five and seven could go. That's the producer talking, not you. He drowned you out. He was putting out that same shit two years ago."

Damn. Phoenix tried to think of what to do about the seventeen hundred people who would hear her singing behind those recycled beats at the Osiris. They would boo her off the stage. Had Sarge given her an escape clause in her contract? Sarge usually took care of that.

"But that one 'Party Patrol,' that's gonna bump all summer," Kendrick said. "Reminds me of Prince, or the Gap Band, but with your own flava mixed in, too, like that Middle Eastern vibe. It's tight. Nothing on your old CD was that good. It's gonna make you a star, girl."

Phoenix felt herself breathe, her heart pounding. "Party Patrol" was one of the few songs on Rising that had felt like a collaboration, at least pieces of it. At first, D'Real hadn't liked the sound of the Egyptian-style violin intro she'd asked him to weave inside the opening measures, but he'd relented, mixing her until she sounded like a full string section. "Party Patrol" was one of their few true moments of musical collaboration.

"But is the CD any good?" she said.

"Yeah, mostly. It's real good, Phoenix. It's on for you, girl. All I'm saying is, my favorite ones are when you're in there, too. Not your voice, but your music. The best part."

Phoenix's stomach cramped again. In today's rehearsal, she hadn't been able to get through the choreography of "Party Patrol" without sounding breathless when she sang, and on the last song her voice was smothered beneath the exploding tracks. She wished she had a voice like her sister's, because Serena could sing. Serena could bring it like Aretha and Patti and Whitney, from her soul-space.

But Phoenix would have to be Phoenix. Whatever she was, she was.

Phoenix wanted to ask Kendrick if people would think she could sing worth a damn, but she had heard enough truth for one night.

Me and my crew's gonna roll...We're on a Party Patrol..."

Kick-cross-step, kick-cross-step. Phoenix spun, hitting her mark a fraction behind the beat. Head cocked left, then right. And sliiiiiide...two, three, four...sliiiiiiide...two, three, four....Hunched shoulders, snapping high. "We're losin' control...Out on this Party Patrol..."

The more Phoenix concentrated on her dancing, the more sluggish her energy felt. Arturo and the other two dancers seemed to follow her lead, missing cues, stumbling over steps and performing by rote, as if they were unmoved by the music blasting from the giant club's speakers. Phoenix's voice cracked on the last high note, fluttering to nothing, barely audible in the speakers from her headset microphone. She was so breathless, the recorded vocals drowned her out. Her voice was worse than yesterday. And her lower back throbbed, the old injury taunting her.

The rehearsal at Le Beat was not going well.

"OK, guys, let's take a deep breath," the choreographer said, stopping the music.

Phoenix was grateful for the break. The label hadn't paid for backup singers on this radio tour, much less dancers — but Sarge had convinced Manny to give her dancers in St. Louis and at the Osiris. Hell, it's all coming out of your end eventually, Phee, Sarge had reminded her. Dancers would make the concerts look better, give Phoenix more dancing practice, and give her and Sarge a chance to audition their choreographer before the video shoot began.

But the choreographer Olympia was pushing for too much too soon, trying to show off for Sarge. Phoenix had studied a little dance in high school and had always been rhythmic, but Olympia's finely regimented contortions took her mind away from her voice, and apparently her voice needed more attention. How could they perform this tomorrow night? How could they dance at the Osiris, with only a week of rehearsals left before that show?

Olympia sighed. The lithe, short-haired woman was twenty-two, but something officious in her voice made her sound like a Student Council president moonlighting as a B-girl. "Guys, was that your way of telling me it's time for lunch?"

That was the first good idea Phoenix had heard today.

Sarge was waiting for them in the club's tiny conference room, standing against the wall with his arms crossed as they filed in with their bags of lunch from Wendy's across the street. Sarge was always her watchman and taskmaster, with his shaven head, trademark skullcap, and mole-splotched face that hadn't changed since her childhood. The only part of Sarge that aged was his temper, which had gotten more brittle. Sarge gave her a look: What's the problem?

Phoenix shrugged. She wasn't in the mood for Sarge on an empty stomach. While she waited for the dancers to negotiate whose food was whose, Phoenix's eyes studied the room's wood-paneled walls, which were plastered with concert posters dating back a decade. Everybody had been through here, apparently. Nelly, of course. Chingy. Ginuwine. Lauryn Hill, from forever ago. Even Gloria Gaynor, still surviving on a long-ago comeback tour. This room reminded Phoenix of the Gallery of Greats in the Silver Slipper, before her mother sold the club like she'd always promised to. There was even a piano against the wall, like déjà vu.

"I have a migraine after that sorry display," Sarge told the group, as the dancers took their seats in the plastic chairs, crowding the table. "Maybe since this isn't New York or L.A., you think this show doesn't mean shit. Well, there's no such thing as a small show. Maybe I need to call my friend R.J., who's doing Ronn a solid even having you on his stage, and tell him my crew isn't ready for Le Beat..."

Sarge could go on all day.

Arturo sat sullenly beside Phoenix, stirring his chili with a plastic spoon. The other two dancers were Olympia's contacts, but Arturo was Phoenix's friend from high school, and she always hired him when she had a chance. He was a great dancer, perpetually underemployed. Arturo was six-four, a colossus who could leap over a horse.

"Maybe you need to learn to let people eat without all this noise," Arturo muttered, and Phoenix slapped his thigh under the table.

Sarge pierced Arturo full force with The Ray. "You know what? You're the first one I'm sending home. And don't think I'm gonna have you in that video or on my stage at the Osiris if this is the best you've got. I'll send you back delivering those damn pizzas, or whatever the fuck you were doing when Phoenix begged me to call you. You're not ready for this level, son."

Arturo's ego must be screaming, Phoenix thought. She'd met him at Miami's New World School of the Arts when they were both fourteen, and he was still one of the most dynamic dancers she'd ever seen, able to make his body defy physics. After studying dance on a college scholarship, he'd somehow ended up back in Miami managing a Domino's Pizza. She didn't want Arturo to blow this chance. She could take him with her, if only he'd get out of his own way. Under the table, Phoenix squeezed her friend's hand. Chill, sweetie. It's just Sarge.

As Sarge beckoned Olympia through the door to tell her something privately, Arturo spoke close to Phoenix's ear. "He's got it twisted if he thinks I'm a sissy queen shaking in my shoes. I will take him outside to throw down, whether he's your father or not," he said. Arturo had a low-pitched, satiny voice that had always made Phoenix wish he weren't gay.

"No stress," Phoenix said. "It's just trash talk, Arturo. You know Sarge."

He pecked her lips, standing. "Only for you do I tolerate this, chica. Believe that."

The dancers rushed their lunch, since no one wanted to wait for Sarge to come back, so Phoenix waited for her father alone. She pulled one of the plastic chairs up to the piano and tested the keys. Surprisingly, it was nearly in tune. She slid her foot to the sustaining pedal and ran her fingers through a hurried version of the largo from Dvoràk's From the New World Symphony, which had been a recital piece her freshman year in high school. Playing felt good, a chance for her fingers to dance. She hadn't brought her red Roland AX-1 or Moog Liberation shoulder keyboards for this tour, the first time ever. But there was no substitute for a piano.

Phoenix didn't realize Sarge was behind her until she heard his chuckle. "Haven't heard that in a while," he said. "Your mama would be glad to know you can still play it."

"By heart," she said, concluding with the stately D-flat chord.

She played better than she sang, Phoenix realized, and the thought made her spirits wane. In high school, she had told Mom she would attend one of the arts colleges that had been cramming her mailbox with solicitations by the time she was a sophomore, Juilliard included. But when Phoenix was sixteen, she decided she wanted to be a star like Janet Jackson, and Juilliard didn't have classes on that.

The band Phoenix started in high school, Phoenix & the New Fire, hadn't worked out, even with Sarge's contacts and enough momentum to get bookings and a small record deal. Their two CDs got great reviews (when they were reviewed), but they never found an audience in R&B, pop, alternative or anywhere else. Maybe she could have stuck it out like Lenny Kravitz, waiting for the audience to find her, but there were plenty of bands whose music was never heard, and never was a long time. Sarge had known multiplatinum rapper G-Ronn since his first tours, so when Ronn said he was looking for an R&B singer, Sarge suggested her. Just like that. Now, Phoenix was flying solo. And it's a long way down by myself, she thought.

Sarge looked at her closely. "What time did you get to sleep last night?"

"Late," Phoenix said, guiltily. Her hair still smelled like strawberry bubble bath, and the scent irritated her now. She'd been in such a hurry to get to rehearsal that she'd barely said a word to that boy as she walked him to the door, much less offered him a number. She wished she could erase last night.

"You know better," Sarge said, as if he knew everything. "Your voice sounds worn-out. Where's Gloria?"

"Probably at the hotel ordering room service and watching pay-per-view."

"Tell her to stop wasting up our money, hear? Ronn isn't paying our tab, and nobody here is rich. Your advance has to last."

A hundred thousand dollars had sounded like a fortune a year ago, but no more. Phoenix had banked a chunk of her first major advance so she couldn't touch it, but she hated to think about how much of the rest she had already spent. "I've told her," Phoenix said.

"You should have left her home, Phee."

"Don't start, Sarge." Her cousin could be a pain in the ass, no doubt, but without Gloria, the road would be a cruel companion, beyond lonely. Sarge had agreed to Gloria's presence on the tour, and Phoenix had agreed to give D'Real and Ronn the creative direction of Rising. Most days, it hardly seemed like a fair trade.

Phoenix heard the Egyptian string tracks from "Party Patrol" squall through the open doorway as Olympia queued up the CD. Although she'd heard it two hundred times, Phoenix still felt a charge when her multitrack violin solo came on the club's speakers. Kendrick was right about this song: It was a hit-in-waiting. It didn't all belong to her, but a piece was enough.

"The show doesn't feel right yet, Sarge," Phoenix said. She almost called him Daddy, craving comfort, but he preferred Sarge when they were working.

"It isn't right. But you'll get there. Give it a couple more hours, and come back strong in the morning. We have time to tighten it up before tomorrow night." Sarge had promised never to bullshit her when it mattered, so she prayed this was one of those times.

"The radio stuff is really splitting my attention," she complained.

"There's no more radio interviews in St. Louis. You got bumped because of the blues festival. You're a free woman until the show."

Good. Canceled interviews would give her more time to rehearse, rest and watch a couple movies with Gloria, even if Ronn and the publicity department wouldn't like it. Publicity is paper, Ronn always said. Even though she was sure Ronn had nothing to do with the shooting that killed DJ Train's bodyguard in Brooklyn, Ronn said he'd seen a big bump in his SoundScan numbers because everybody said he was behind it. Publicity was paper, all right. If anybody knew about money in the bank, it was Ronn.

"I talked to Serena today," Sarge said. "She's coming out to join us in L.A., and she says she'll stay on through New York."

Phoenix hardly knew her two half brothers, but Serena was a true sister despite their twenty-four-year age difference. Phoenix had only seen Serena two or three times in the past few years, and she'd been begging her to come on this tour."She said she'll sing with me?"

"We'll work on that. For now, she says she'll do your hair so you won't look so nappy."

Phoenix laughed. Serena owned a beauty shop in Atlanta, and was a virtuoso with hair. Ronn wanted Phoenix to get a more television-friendly weave, and Serena would hook her up. At the moment, Phoenix's blowout Afro was a curly brown-red crown reaching toward the sky, virtually untended. Not suitable for mass consumption. Ronn hadn't said it quite that way, but that was what he'd meant.

"What about Mom?" Phoenix said.

"Call her yourself, but she still says she's not coming until New York. Sorry, Peanut."

No surprise there. For years, on the rare holiday occasions they all stayed in the Miami house, Mom slept in the master bedroom and Sarge hibernated in the garage he'd refinished for himself. Her parents were married only in name, and probably had been longer than she'd known. Phoenix wondered how much of her parents' long, slow drift she could blame on her career.

"I'm gonna go hit that stage again," Phoenix said.

"Save your voice for tomorrow night, though. Work on your moves."

Sarge followed her through the doorway back out to the cavernous nightclub, where the bass for "Party Patrol" resounded like thunder.

Le Beat was a two-story nightclub bedecked in mirrors and shiny poles against a black dance floor and dark walls. The deejay booth lorded high over the stage like the control panel of a space shuttle. They passed the VIP section just beyond stage right, with a velvet rope partitioning off Art-Deco-style furniture, the room's only bright colors. There might be more than five hundred people there Friday night, the club owner had told them, and the most important ones would be in the VIP section: deejays, music writers, record buyers. The airplay sentinels.

Olympia was taking Arturo and the other two dancers through the opening, which started with them lying flat on their backs, thrusting their torsos high and leaping to their feet after a B-boy-style spin. Phoenix could see that Arturo had taken Sarge's criticism to heart: His motion was energetic and crisp, the way she remembered him at New World. His body sailed through the air, and he landed solidly, cranking his shoulders into the next move, hitting his beats. The other two dancers looked like children at play beside him. She could only imagine how lame she must look trying to pull off Olympia's moves.

"Ronn knows I'm not Janet Jackson, right?" Phoenix said to Sarge.

"You don't have to be. But trust Olympia. She understands illusion, how to make you look like you're doing more than you are. By the way, Arturo looks good. A little discipline, and he'll shake things up when it's time to start shooting that video."

"I know," Phoenix said, smiling. Arturo's personality clashed with hers too much for a deeper friendship, but she and Arturo had lived through a storm when their friend Jay died of AIDS complications in high school. She and Arturo had shared their first tragedy in common. "Could you just ease off on him a little, Sarge? He's touchy."

"Why quit a tactic when it works?" Sarge said, winking. "I'll think about it. Listen, where are you going after rehearsal?"

"Back to the room with Gloria, I guess. Why?"

"I'm gonna make a call and set something up for you."

"Please don't, Sarge. I'm tired."

"Not an interview. I want you to go to the Scott Joplin House. It's near the hotel."

For an instant, Phoenix was sure her father was just trying to get a rise out of her, but no smile cracked his face as he gazed at the stage. It was bad enough rehearsals and interviews were driving her into the ground, but in each new city Sarge was trying to be a tour guide, too. In Atlanta, he'd dragged her to the King Center when she'd barely gotten four hours of sleep. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel.

"Sarge, I said I'm tired."

"That's your own fault for staying up late. It's a state historic site. I'd go, too, but I have to work my phone. Gloria can drive you. Make her earn her damn keep for a change."

One oversight in Phoenix's quest for stardom had been learning how to drive. She'd better hope she could afford a driver one day. "OK, you're not hearing me. I can't be running all over the place twenty-four/seven on some kind of history lesson."

As always, her words seemed to have no effect on Sarge, as if they were a wind gust he had to tolerate before he spoke again. "Just go for an hour. You can't get where you're going until you know where you've been, Phee." His voice quieted as he locked their eyes. "Remember me telling you about how you played that Joplin in your sleep? And the two of us played a duet in the living room while your mom watched?"

It isn't fair to bring up those days, Phoenix thought.

"I wasn't asleep. I just don't remember it," she said. The skin on her forearms fluttered every time Sarge talked about that night. That year came with a slew of bad memories: a long, boring hospital stay; painful therapy; and worse, seeing for the first time how fragile her mother was, understanding what a nervous breakdown was. That was a bad year.

And the story of the piano at the center of it all scared the hell out of her. That damn thing had almost killed her. And she'd never heard the pieces Sarge told her she'd played in her sleep, much less should she have been able to play them. She could hardly remember the piano anymore. If not for her family's corroboration, she wouldn't believe it had happened. And whatever it was, Phoenix didn't want to nudge it to see what else might stir.

"You need to go over there and pay your respects," Sarge said. "That man helped open the door for every one of us in music with black or brown skin. Simple as that."

"You say that about everybody."

"And it's true about everybody I say it about."

This was her punishment for hiring a former Black Panther as her manager, Phoenix thought. Hell, this was her punishment for hiring her father. Why was it so hard to stand up to him? Gloria's right. I'm too old to be such a Daddy's girl.

Phoenix had forgotten Scott Joplin ever lived in St. Louis, and she didn't care. She'd played a little of Joplin's ragtime in high school as part of her classical piano curriculum, but the happy syncopation sounded like the soundtrack to old black-and-white movies, and she'd never even seen The Sting, the movie Sarge told her had made Joplin internationally famous. When it came to old music, Phoenix preferred blues. Or even jazz, Sarge's favorite. Maybe Scott Joplin had been ruined for her that night when she was ten, she thought.

What if you'll jinx yourself if you diss Scott Joplin on his home turf? The last thing she needed before this show was a jinx.

"OK, I'll go to the Joplin House. But this is the last diversion, Sarge. I mean it."

"Good girl, Peanut," Sarge said, grinning. "You won't be sorry."

I'm already sorry, Phoenix thought, suddenly so weary she couldn't imagine another two minutes of rehearsal, never mind two hours. Then, under her father's vigilant eyes, Phoenix joined her dancers on the brightly lighted, waiting stage.

Copyright © 2005 by Tananarive Due