“So who’d you see last, Stella?” the guy asked, as familiar as if we’d known each other for years instead of five minutes in the concert line. His T-shirt had the most recent Kenny Wayne Shephard tour emblazoned on it, so I figured I knew his own answer to the question.
“Haven’t gone to many shows lately,” I said. “Cash shortage. These tickets are gifts from my friends over there.” I hooked my thumb toward my live-in farmhand, Lucy, and Lenny, her fiancé and my biker buddy. “They’re getting married next Saturday, and I’m her…” I cleared my throat. “Her maid of honor.”
“Cool,” the guy said. I think his name was Fred. “So who’d you see last?”
Back to that. “Would’ve been Bad Company, I guess. When they were in New Jersey last year. Awesome concert.”
Fred nodded. “I was there, too. Can’t remember a whole lot of it, though. Too much beer.” He smiled, revealing a mouth of missing teeth. “Probably won’t remember much of this one, either, once I get inside.”
A breeze whipped down South Street, and I shivered, clutching my elbows to my sides. The sun wasn’t offering any help, unable to find us in the shadow of Club Independence, and for a moment I wondered why I’d left my cozy dairy farm for the cold concrete of Philadelphia. I turned to share some body warmth with my boyfriend, Nick, only to find him standing off to the side, his gaze fixed on the sidewalk.
“You all right?” I asked.
He didn’t respond, so I stepped toward him and rubbed my hands up and down his arms. He raised his head, and I frowned at the lack of color in his cheeks. “You okay? You haven’t been yourself today.” Or the two previous days, if truth be told. Usually energetic and fun, Nick had spent most of this visit pop- ping Tylenol and drifting off in the middle of conversations.
He rubbed his eyes with a finger and thumb. “Sorry. I thought that nap this afternoon would help, but now I can’t shake my headache. And my eyes are acting funny.”
I looked into his baby blues, concerned to see how bloodshot they’d become. Slipping my hands inside his leather jacket, I pulled him close. “You want to go home?”
“No, no. I’ll be all right.” He put his arms around me and rested his cheek on the top of my head. “Besides, Lucy and Lenny paid enough for these tickets I don’t want to waste them.”
“If you’re sure.” “I’m sure.”
A group of Harleys eased up and idled by the curb. The lead rider, an older guy in chaps and a leather skull cap, checked out the line. “This where Tom Copper’s playing?” he yelled.
“You got it,” Fred, the toothless beer drinker, yelled back. “Where do we park?”
Fred pointed east. “End of the road. Public parking lot.”
The rider saluted and led his group off in a roar of shotgun pipes.
A man with a Club Independence Security shirt planted himself by our section of the line. “No cameras will be allowed in the building,” he said, projecting his voice. “No recording or video equipment. All such devices will be confiscated at the door, to be returned at the conclusion of tonight’s concert. Thank you.” He moved down the row, and began his spiel again.
“Hey, guys,” Lucy said. “Line’s moving.” “About time,” I said.
I detached myself from Nick and followed Lucy and Lenny in the slow trek toward the front door. Not any too soon either, if the bluish tinge to Nick’s lips was any indication. I hadn’t thought it was that cold.
“Thanks again for getting these tickets, Luce,” I said. “I’d heard they were completely sold out.”
Lucy smiled. “Yeah, well, it’s a little easier when you know the sound guy.”
“And when the band’s playing at your wedding in a week,” Lenny added.
Nick tripped over something—a crack in the sidewalk, maybe—and I grabbed his hand. He grinned sheepishly, but didn’t show me his pearly whites. I didn’t smile back.
“Here’s your tickets,” Lenny said, pulling papers from his wallet.
I took them and handed one to Nick. “You’re sure you want to stay?”
He gently squeezed my fingers. “Yes. I’m sure.” I studied his face. “Okay. I’ll stop asking.” “Coat open, please, miss.”
I faced the security guard and unzipped my leather jacket, holding the sides out so he could see I didn’t have any explosives strapped to my stomach or a gun holstered on my belt. He impersonally scanned the rest of my body and patted my jacket pockets.
“Thank you. Next.”
I stepped aside as Nick got the same inspection, the man a little more forward with his checking of a male patron.
“Whew,” Nick said when he reached me. “I was afraid he’d confiscate my cell phone, since it can take pictures. Guess they figure if they start that they’ll have a couple hundred to deal with.”
“Just try not to take too many photos of the girls serving the beer.”
He laughed, and we stepped toward the door.
A man with a mane of jet black hair and a great arch of a Roman nose reached out to take our tickets, scanning the bar codes and handing them back to us. “Enjoy the show.” Beads of sweat shone on his forehead, and I shivered once more as the cold from the outside clashed with the lobby’s heat.
I glanced around and found Lenny’s bright red hair on the far side of the foyer. He waved his beefy arm and we pushed our way through the crowd to where he and Lucy waited with a guy in a Tom Copper Band T-shirt.
“Hey, Jordan,” I said.
Jordan Granger, one of my eight “adopted” Granger brothers, was living out a childhood dream as the Tom Copper Band’s sound man. A young-looking guy in his mid-thirties, he’d told many stories of being mistaken for an intern or groupie at other concert venues. Fortunately for the band, his technical knowledge was on a much higher level. He jerked his head toward the auditorium. “Want to meet the guys?”
“Really?” I looked at Nick. “You up for it?” “Sure. Let’s go.”
“We’ll get a place for the concert,” Lucy said. “Think you can find us?”
I hesitated. “You don’t want to meet them?”
“Already have,” Lenny said. “When we signed them up to play for our reception.”
“Right. Okay. We’ll find you somehow. Any idea where you’ll go?”
“Not on the dance level, if you don’t mind,” Nick said. Lucy looked at me and I lifted a shoulder.
“All right,” she said. “We’ll try to find a good place a little farther from the speakers.”
Jordan bounced on the balls of his feet. “Ready?” I gave a thumbs-up. “Let’s go.”
We walked around the edge of the lobby, exiting through a far door into a warren of hallways and weaving around until we reached another door that said Back Stage Access—Authorized Personnel Only. I guessed being with Jordan made us okay.
Swinging the door open, Jordan collided with a pair of women coming through the other way. Once they backed up I could see they each wore a Tom Copper Band T-shirt like Jordan’s, but were otherwise opposites: one was tall and dark with lots of makeup and jewelry, the other short and blonde with only a hint of mascara. In one area they were unsurprisingly alike: both, being young and female, immediately slapped their eyes on Nick, who did a good impression of a GQ model even with his bloodshot eyes.
“Get those cables taped down, Annie?” Jordan asked the blonde.
She tore her eyes from Nick. “I promise no one will be tripping over them.”
“Good. Thanks.” He gestured to us. “Come on.”
The two women stole one more look at Nick before disap- pearing out the stage door, and we followed Jordan.
“Got some new groupies,” I said to Nick. “And you’re not even a rock star.”
He grunted. “Too young. Besides, I like my women to have visible body art.”
I laughed, and he reached a hand up to rub the back of my neck, where my steer head tattoo sits proudly under my short hair.
Jordan led us through one more door, where the sound of animated conversation greeted us.
“So there we sit at this diner in New Orleans,” a guy was saying, waving a bottle of Red Stripe beer, “and I’m about to take the first bite of my po’ boy when Tom here grabs it out of my hand and digs into it like he hadn’t had anything to eat for two days.”
A man sitting on a sofa barked a laugh, covering his face with his hands. “Oh, Tom!”
“Well, I practically hadn’t.” Tom Copper’s long hair and goatee were familiar, the same as on the band’s album covers. “Those southerners seem to think the ultimate vegetarian meal is a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of iceberg lettuce. They were about to serve it to me again and I was desperate.”
“So I ate his stuff,” the first guy said.
Tom moaned. “And I ended up being sick for two days.”
The man on the sofa laughed again.
“Hey guys,” Jordan said. “Can I introduce you to someone real quick?”
Conversation stopped and all eyes landed on us.
“Hey, Jordan, man,” Tom said. “You know your friends are our friends.”
“Sure.” Jordan waved a hand at me. “This is Stella Crown. Practically my sister. And Nick. He’s with her. From Virginia.”
Tom walked over, his hand extended. “Howdy, Stella. Nick from Virginia. Glad you could join us.”
We shook, and he pointed around the room. “That guy, giving me grief, is our bassist, LeRoy. He might be a smartass, but he’s got good chops.”
LeRoy laughed, his teeth white against his cocoa-colored skin. “Pleased to meet you.”
“That there’s Donny, our guitarist.”
We waved at Donny, a skinny, balding man with a tattoo of a bull on his forearm. His guitar hung around his neck, and he stood in a corner where he’d been practicing when we’d walked in.
“And Genna, who does vocals for us.”
Genna, a pretty, pixie-like woman probably in her late twenties, smiled at Nick and me, not letting her eyes linger on Nick. Instead, her eyes flicked toward Jordan before she turned and snatched a baby carrot off the buffet table behind her.
“The guy on the couch,” Tom said, “is Parker, used to be our drummer.”
“I left them to find normal folks to hang around,” Parker said, grinning.
“Oh, shut up,” Tom said. “You’re the one who chose to come by tonight and get another dose of us.”
“He likes us!” LeRoy said in a high voice. “He really likes us!” They all laughed, and Parker shook his head in mock disgust. Like the other guys, Parker looked to be in his early to mid-thirties, but while the band was dressed in carefully chosen performance clothes, Parker wore new jeans and a striped short-sleeve shirt.
“I’m a teacher now,” he said to us. “One of those respectable types.”
I nodded, thinking they all looked respectable to me. “Well, thanks,” Jordan said. “We’ll leave you alone to get ready.”
“We are ready,” Tom said.
“You mean you’ve done your meditation?” LeRoy asked. He closed his eyes, chanting something unintelligible.
“See what I mean?” Tom said to us. “I don’t get no respect.”
LeRoy and the rest of the guys hooted. Genna, after another quick glance at Jordan, left the room through a door on the other side.
“What’s up with her?” Tom asked Jordan.
Jordan shrugged and turned back the way we’d come. I gave one last wave to the band and followed Jordan into the hallway.
“They’re crazy, but nice,” he said. I laughed. “They seem like fun.” “They are.”
I wanted to ask him about the woman, but figured he’d tell me if he wanted to.
“Check this out,” he said. He took us through another door marked Stage, and suddenly we were in the wings, standing behind heavy black curtains, the noise and smoke from the dance floor drifting our way. “As long as you can’t see the audience, they can’t see you. So don’t worry.”
“Are those the cables that girl was taping?” I asked, pointing at a line of duct-taped wires. “What was her name? Annie?”
“Yeah. Somehow they got loose and Donny, the guitarist you met back there, tripped over them during sound check. Could’ve been bad.”
Urgent whispered voices drifted toward us from the other side of the black curtain, getting louder until they were directly opposite us and we could hear a low voice. “I swear to God, if you don’t cut it out I’m gonna wring your fucking neck!” A man stormed past us and out the stage door.
Jordan sucked in a quick breath, and a number of emotions washed over his face. We waited, not speaking, until whoever was on the other side of the curtain exited a different way. I looked to Jordan for an explanation of some sort, but he wasn’t giving any, his face closed and tight.
“Well, come on, then,” he finally said.
We left the stage, Jordan taking us back toward the door we’d originally entered.
“See you after?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Probably not. I gotta break all this stuff down and get it out of here. There’s a touring dance troupe coming through tomorrow and these things belong to the band, so we don’t want them getting mixed up with another company’s equipment.”
“Thanks for the introduction,” I said. “It’s fun seeing those guys close up.”
Jordan flashed a smile, the first one I’d seen on him that night. “Sure. They’re good people.”
Before we got to the door it opened and a man strode through, a walkie-talkie squawking in his hand. He nodded at Jordan as he strode by, his eyes passing over Nick and me with a quick appraisal.
“That’s Gary Mann,” Jordan said when the man had gone. “Owns the club. Nice guy. Keeps the building up to code, which is more than I can say for a lot of these places.” He held the door open for us. “Enjoy the concert.”
“We will,” I said, but checked out Nick’s response, seeing how he hadn’t said much of anything backstage.
Nick tried out a smile. “Thanks, Jordan.” “You bet.”
The door closed behind Jordan as he turned and walked away.
I looked down the hallway. “Think we can find our way out of here?”
“I guess we’ll have to try.”
After a few minutes of trial and error we found a door to the lobby, and from there discovered a set of stairs leading to the second level. Lucy and Lenny had said they’d avoid the main floor, so we started our search a level up.
There were no chairs in the club, and pushing our way through the standing crowd took some effort. Eventually we made our way to a small clearing at the front of a platform and were able to turn around and scan the faces.
“There,” I said.
Lenny’s red hair again acted as a beacon in the thick smoke, and Lucy waved frantically beside him. I held my hand up to let her know I’d seen her, and tried to figure out the best way to get one level up to where they stood.
I grabbed Nick’s wrist and pulled him toward another set of stairs, only to be stopped by a small woman who stood immobilized, intimidated by the bulky, Harley-shirted men blocking her way.
“Gotta be assertive,” I said in her ear. She looked up at me.
“Like this.” I stepped toward the men, raising my elbow and my voice. “’Scuse us, guys. Coming through.”
Without a hitch in conversation the men shifted enough we could battle our way past their stomachs, only to find the way closed off by a scantily dressed waitress serving beer.
I leaned back into Nick. “Got your camera?” He wrinkled his nose. “Too skinny.”
“Boy,” I said. “You sure are picky.” But of course I was glad.
We’d almost made it to the stairs when Nick jerked to a standstill, yanking me backward.
“What?” I said.
He didn’t answer, so I followed his eyes not to a cocktail waitress but to a couple situated at the front of one of the viewing platforms. The woman stood behind the man, her hands on his shoulders. He sat in a wheelchair, leaning forward onto the railing to peer down on the dance floor. He pointed at something, and the woman bent over to follow his finger.
“Nick?” I shook our clasped hands.
He whipped his head toward me. “What? Oh, sorry. Let’s go.”
We made our way up the stairs and over to the space Lucy and Lenny had carved out in the mass of people.
“Good spot,” I said. We were at the front of our level, the stage in plain view. The crowd below teemed with energy and sound, which looked like fun, but we had a prime spot to see without having to stand on tiptoe.
“We had help,” Lucy said.
She pointed over her shoulder and I saw yet another of my Granger “brothers.”
“Jermaine!” I said. “What are you doing here?”
He smiled, his teeth setting off his dark skin, just like LeRoy, the band’s bass player. “Got a call this morning asking if I could fill in on the security team.” He indicated his Club Independence Security T-shirt. “Guess somebody came down sick and they needed another body. Jordan suggested me and I got the gig.”
“Yeah. Well, gotta go make sure nobody’s blocking the exits.
He pushed himself away and disappeared into the throng. “Nick okay?” Lucy yelled in my ear.
We both looked at him, and I shrugged. “Don’t know. But I’ll get him situated.” Pulling on his elbow, I leaned him backward against the railing, where he could get some support before he keeled over onto the dancers below. “You want something to drink?” I asked him.
“Wouldn’t mind some water. This smoke isn’t helping my head any.”
“The smoke’s why I didn’t bring my purse,” Lucy said. “Last time I took it to a concert the cash in my wallet even stank.”
“I’ll see if I can grab a waitress,” I said.
One came by just as the crowd started to roar. The roar faded when everyone saw it was just Jordan, fixing one more cable. “Two waters, please,” I said to the waitress.
“And a Coke,” Lucy added.
The waitress, definitely not too skinny—perhaps even a bit plump for the outfit—took our order and left.
The crowd started to roar again, and this time was rewarded with the appearance of the band. LeRoy and Donny took their places and were joined by another guy who sat behind the drum set.
“Hey,” I said to Nick. “Isn’t that the guy from backstage?” He shrugged.
“The one who said he was going to wring somebody’s neck,” I said.
Nick shook his head. “I don’t know.”
It was. We’d met the old drummer backstage with the band, but not the new, so it made sense this guy would’ve been in the wings.
The crowd erupted into an even louder cheer as Tom Copper made his way on stage, holding one hand up in greeting, the other on the neck of his guitar. He swung his hand down in two exaggerated circles and the band launched into a song. One of their trademark tunes, “River Love,” a favorite of this Philadelphia crowd.
The river rages The waters flow
Past twinkling lights The Schuylkill’s show But tell me baby
Tell me true
Can you feel our love The way I do?
A laugh bubbled up inside me, and I pumped my fist in the air, the thrill of the bass guitar vibrating my ribs. The song climaxed with Copper’s well-known guitar solo, and dancers on the lower level air-banded along with him, eyes closed in rapture. The song ended with three strong chords, and Copper stepped forward, his face shining with energy.
“Good evening, Philadelphia!” he yelled.
The crowd responded with an even louder cheer.
“It’s always good to play here at home in the City of Brotherly Love!”
Another roar, punctuated with screams and squeals of girls in the front rows.
“You ready for some more music?” Copper asked. “You sure?”
He laughed, and the drummer banged out the first four beats of the next song. The crowd cheered as Genna, the female vocalist, grabbed a microphone and the band launched into yet another Philly favorite, “Lust on Ice.”
The set was over far too soon, the forty minutes flying by in a whirl of sound and lyrics, but Copper promised they’d be back in ten minutes for another round.
“They’re amazing!” Lucy said. Her eyes shone with excite- ment. “I can’t believe they’re playing at our reception!”
Lenny smirked at me, and I elbowed him. “Good thing you’ve got deep pockets.”
He chuckled. “They ain’t that deep. But deep enough to give my girl a special wedding present like this.”
“What do you think?” I asked Nick. “Like their stuff?” He smiled. “It’s great.”
I looked at him. “But you feel like crap.”
“Yeah. I think I’ll go try to find a quieter spot for a few minutes. Or at least one with a little less smoke.”
“Good luck with that. Remember they’re starting again soon.
You don’t want to miss it.” “I’ll be back.”
“Want me to get you another water?” “Sure. Thanks.”
My throat was dry, too, but I figured the waitresses would be busy serving the beer drinkers. I fought my way to the bar at the back of our section and pushed up to the counter. A few minutes later I was back in our spot with Nick’s water and a Coke for me.
“Seems like they should be starting,” I said to Lucy. “Hasn’t it been longer than ten minutes?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Come on!” a guy behind us yelled. “We gotta get the babysitter home before midnight!”
Lucy grinned. “I guess that’s a yes—they are running behind.”
I looked around, hoping Nick could find his way back to our spot, but didn’t see him anywhere. If I’d had a cell phone I would’ve called him, except it was so loud in there he couldn’t have heard me, anyway.
In another ten minutes the band still hadn’t appeared, and the crowd started rumbling. Jordan and the short blonde girl came on stage to fuss with knobs and cables, but they soon left, and the crowd started chanting: “Tom Copper, Tom Copper, Tom Copper…”
The chant exploded into a cheer when the band members loped on stage, waving and smiling.
“Sorry about the delay, folks,” Copper said. “Just a few bugs in the sound system. But now we’re ready to rock. Are you ready to rock?”
The band dove into a tune in unison with the crowd’s cheer, and led us back into the world of rock and roll. Nick still hadn’t returned, and I hoped he wasn’t collapsed somewhere down below. I was trying to decide whether or not to go find him when the music lurched to a stop. The crowd on the dance floor changed from a mass of rhythm and cheers to a riot of chaos and shouts.
“What’s happening?” Lucy asked.
I squinted down into the crowd, unable to understand any of the voices drifting up to me. I leaned further over the railing and finally heard some clear words, which pierced my brain like the harsh feed from a microphone.
“A bomb!” someone shouted. “They’re going to blow up the building!”