Jade stood in moonlight and shadow, touching Joaquin's face with gentle fingers, her engagement ring sparkling in the starlight. He felt himself get lost in her love for him shining from her eyes. Leaning down, he kissed her with warm, expressive lips, delighted with how she reached for him. Raising his head, he whispered, "Thank you for saving me. Thank you for loving me. I would be so lost without you."
He felt Jade's breath on his ear, heard her sigh. "I love you, Quin. Forever and always. Forever and always. Forever and alwa..." As her voice trailed away, he glanced down and realized he no longer held her. Twisting around to look over his shoulder, he still couldn't find her. "Jade? Baby girl?" He spun the other way. "Jade! JADE!"
Jerking upright in bed, Joaquin woke from hearing himself scream her name. He threw his head back, realizing it had all been a dream. She wasn't in his bed, in his arms. For over a month, she had been in the merciless ground, buried in Kansas City. Tears streamed down his face as his waking memory brought it all back. A cry filled Joaquin's spirit and burst into the room. Raising clenched fists to his face, he let himself howl.
Flinging the covers off, he got out of bed and crossed the room to his window. Moonlight reflected off of his bare biceps and chest, casting half his face in shadow. Straight black hair from his Lakota Sioux ancestry spilled around his shoulders and down his back. His cocoa brown eyes studied the star-filled Texas horizon while her ghost danced in front of him.
Turning from the window, he picked up his jeans from the floor and put them on. Adding boots and a leather jacket, he went to the garage and jumped on his Harley, barely waiting for the garage door to swing up before roaring down his driveway, his tires squealing when he turned left onto the street.
In a few minutes, he found himself on the nearly deserted freeway, his hair streaming behind him, his shoulders hunched over the handlebars, his mouth in a tight line. Halogen streetlights reflected off his black jacket when he passed underneath until he left Austin's city limits. From there, darkness engulfed him - darkness and wind and speed. Giving the machine more gas, he ignored the speedometer as it climbed to eighty…eighty-five…ninety… When it passed the century mark, he glanced down, frowning. It still wasn't fast enough.
The next Thursday, they met at Gary's to drive in his van to the dance hall together. Joaquin was helping Max pack his keyboard when Roni walked into the basement. Layers of foundation, rouge, tarantula mascara and bright lipstick paint-balled Roni's face. Joaquin grimaced at how high she had teased her hair. Black pants fit so tightly the washing instructions label could be read through them. Red stilettos and a clingy black off-the-shoulder top completed her outfit.
The drummer set down the keyboard stand and held up one hand. "I'll be right back, Max." He then approached Roni, shaking his head. "You look like a hooker."
"What? I do not! I'm dressed for the stage!"
"Have you got anything else to wear?"
"All I have is a pair of jeans in my car."
"Get 'em," he ordered.
She started to argue, but he arched one eyebrow and pointed toward the door. Roni clomped her protest up the stairs and returned shortly, carrying her jeans. He led her to the bathroom and instructed her to change. When she came out, he nodded.
"Better. Now, take off your shoes."
"I'm not going around barefoot!"
"Just give me your shoes."
She shook her head, leaned one hand against the wall to steady herself, and handed them to him. "Why do you want…?"
Before she finished, he snapped each spiked heel off at the base, turning her expensive shoes into a pair of flats.
"What the hell did you just do? Those cost over two hundred bucks!"
"I'll pay you for them. Now, scrape about half of that goop off your face. Clowns don't wear that much."
She snatched her shoes away from him, then stood on tiptoes to glare directly into his eyes. "You are so damn arrogant!" Whirling away, she hissed over her shoulder, "If you think I'm singing with you tonight, you can for-get it!"
He lunged for her elbow and stopped her. "Roni, please, I've been in this business a while now. I know what I'm doing."
"What? Ruining my wardrobe? Insulting me?" She crossed her arms, shifted her weight to her left foot and locked her jaw.
"Think about it for a minute. What do you want to be known for? Your talent? The music? Or that the only way you can get people's attention is if you look cheap?" Reconciliatory fingers touched her shoulder and his voice softened. "You're too good for that, Roni. You don't need this. I promise."
She speared him with another glare before she spoke. "You're paying for these shoes!"
"You have my word." He touched his chest.
"Oh…all right." She went into the restroom again with her purse, washed her face, reapplied less makeup, and returned a few moments later, pointing a hairbrush at him. "I suppose you're going to tell me my hair's wrong, too."
"Well…now that you mention it…"
She sighed, but brushed the tangles out, leaving her hair falling straight and natural down her back and shoulders.
He took a step back. "Okay, turn around. Let's see."
She put both hands on her hips, tilted her head, scrunched her face and stuck her tongue out.
"Knock it off. Stand up straight."
She rolled her eyes but did as he asked.
Gary came in from carrying an amp to the van. "Oh, that's better, Roni. Good move."
Quin held out both hands in a gesture of "See, what'd I tell ya?"
"I just wanted to look good for my first gig," she told Joaquin.
"I know. But you look good already. You don't need anything extra. Okay?"
"Okay." She cast a wary glance his way. "But you'd better be right!"
Loco Lobo set up and ran sound check late Saturday afternoon, then returned a few hours later to a packed dance hall. The word-of-mouth campaign that Joaquin Black Wolf played drums for the new band drew customers in. John set up a two-drink minimum as well as a twenty-five dollar cover charge, knowing people couldn't get Black Wolf concert tickets for that price.
The juke box went silent at 8:55 and the house lights dimmed. John stepped on stage at 9, squinting in the spotlight.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to Cactus John's. You're in for a treat tonight. I've heard this band play before and, not only is Joaquin Black Wolf sitting in, but their vocalist is amazing. Please, put your hands together and welcome Austin's own Loco Lobo!"
John stepped away from the mike while applause and whistles filled the air. The quintet walked on stage and Roni took her place in front, Gary to her left and Nick to her right. To the far left, Max stood behind his keyboard and in back, on the stage's right edge, Joaquin's drums waited for him. Several flash bulbs went off when he stepped up.
He wore a leather headband to keep the sweat out of his eyes and the red T-shirt emphasized his chest and shoulders. Sitting behind the drums, he tapped a staccato beat on the snare's rim while waiting on the others.
Nick picked up his bass and ran a few scales, making sure the instrument was still in tune, scanning the room as he did. The expression on his face reminded Joaquin of an emperor surveying his kingdom.
Roni adjusted her microphone stand and looked behind her at Joaquin.
"You ready?" he asked.
At her nod, he checked with the others, then clicked them into their first song. They opened with "Heart Won't Tell a Lie," and the dance floor filled up.
One couple stood next to Nick and Joaquin's side of the stage, the man jerking his arms almost on the beat, his feet rooted to the floor, while his waist twisted back and forth, resembling a stick man caught in the wind.
The woman, however, became the music, with fluid hips and serpentine arms. Her crop top and hip hugger jeans gave her diamond belly ring plenty of chances to wink and twinkle under the stage lights. Chestnut brown hair reached to the small of her back, shining like satin in moonbeams. An exotic quality about her features drew people's stares like free jelly beans drawing children's fingers.
The woman's dance mesmerized Roni. Frowning, she glanced at Gary and saw him just as entranced. To her right, she could see Nick's eyes following the dancer's every move, every bend, every twirl. An unwelcomed jealousy slithered up Roni's spine and wrapped its scaly body around her chest.
Halfway through the song, ignoring her partner, the dancer turned toward the stage and raised her arms, catching her hair up as she did. Thrusting first one hip forward and then the other, like a belly dancer, she let her hair fall strand-by-strand while her eyes issued their invitation. She leaned forward, shimmied her shoulders and formed a kiss with her pouting red lips, sending it straight to Joaquin.
Jealousy opened its mouth and swallowed Roni whole, making her twist around to watch what he'd do.
Nick's eyes devoured the goddess - or water nymph - he couldn't decide which, dancing by his side of the stage. When the beauty turned toward him, he moved closer to the edge and began dancing with her while still playing. Glancing at her partner, Nick decided the jerky fool had no chance against his charisma and good looks. Focusing on her again, he envisioned pulling that diamond out with his teeth and how she'd laugh because his breath tickled. Then he'd get tangled in all that hair of hers and take his sweet time finding his way out.
He threw her a wink, saw her eyes flicker directly to him and then look behind him. When she blew a kiss to Joaquin, Nick jerked back, scalded, and leaned to his left, away from her.
Roni twisted right just as Nick jumped in her direction. In the collision, he almost lost his footing, but she steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. By the time they got untangled, she missed seeing Joaquin's reaction to the dancer. They'd come to the end of the bridge and she needed to sing the next verse. Taking the mike out of its stand, she stood beside Max to finish the song, wanting to put as much distance between her and her nemesis as she could.
The next Thursday, Joaquin sat in the backstage dressing room, in front of the wall-to-wall mirror. He could hear the first act wrapping up their set and checked his reflection one last time before going on. The black sleeveless shirt gave his arms plenty of room to move and a gold chain hung around his neck. He looked ready, but he didn't feel ready. This was Black Wolf's first show since they ended their tour…since Shreveport…since Jade... Dread covered him like a personal miasma and, in the mirror, eyes of stone looked back at him.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" the emcee roared through the sound system. "Dallas is proud to introduce one of this state's great bands. Please welcome Black Wolf!"
"Hey, misúng!" Caleb clapped him on top of his shoulders. "We're up!"
"I'm coming." The drummer unfolded his tall frame from the chair and walked down the short hallway to the stage.
An enthusiastic welcome and spotlights followed the four brothers to their places. Caleb waved to the audience and threw the Stratocaster's strap over his shoulder. Matthew adjusted his white fedora, then ran his fingers up and down the keyboard. Jay took his bass from the guitar tech and thumped a string while he scanned the full room. Joaquin took his place behind the drums and, out of habit, looked for Jade and her camera. Catching himself, he picked up his drumsticks and tried to ignore the twist in his gut.
"WE LOVE DALLAS!" Caleb shouted into the microphone. The roar increased, making hearing impossible, and the brothers had to turn toward Joaquin to watch him count them in. "Goodness Knows" roared back at the audience, turning it into a writhing, singing animal. Watching his brothers play brought it all back - the day he wrote that song for Jade, and the band's impromptu jam session. Glancing at Matthew, he saw his hands splayed across the keyboards, looking just like one of the pictures Jade took that day. Shaking it off, he let himself get lost in the rhythm, his biceps flexing, his hair swinging to the beat. Sweat began to bead on his forehead under the hot lights. The music enveloped him and he relaxed.
They had just started the poignant "Sail Away" and Joaquin leaned forward, eyes closed, building a crescendo on two cymbals. Underneath that sound, he heard a click and whir of a camera. His head snapped up and, for one insane second, he thought Jade had returned. Instead, a photographer stood in the audience with his elbows resting on the stage while he focused in on another shot. The drummer's shoulders sagged and his arms each felt fifty pounds heavier.
In "Little Miss Kiss Me," Caleb and Jay went into their two-step shuffle across the stage. The audience roared their approval, sending a smile to the drummer. But, when they came to the place where he would normally tap the top of Jade's head with his sticks, he had to stop himself. No one was taking pictures, making him laugh, throwing his drumstick back at him.
During his drum solo, his gut wrenched and he couldn't get enough oxygen to his frantic heart. Instead of the drums or his brothers or the audience, he could only see that look, that damned look of surprise on Jade's face…the gun shot…the smell of cordite…the blood spurting from her chest…someone screaming…no, him screaming. Caught in the nightmare's vortex, sweat poured from his forehead and glistened on his arms. He shut his eyes and concentrated on the beat, keeping the rhythm going in spite of the hallucination. His hair swung harder and harder as he pounded the drums with more force.
Hearing the change, Jay looked over his shoulder and sent him a silent, "Are you okay?" It took a minute before Joaquin responded with a quick nod.
To keep it light, in the middle of Caleb's guitar solo in "Only One Man", Jay walked over and strummed the strings, then jumped at Caleb's kick. In turn, Caleb "helped" Matthew play the piano during "Oh, Little Sister", earning him a whack on the shoulder for his thoughtfulness.
Matthew picked up an extra drumstick in the middle of "Workingman Shuffle" and began tapping on a cymbal, grinning at Joaquin. Joaquin sent him a half-smile and kept on playing instead of running him off. He wasn't part of it this time. It just wasn't funny.
* * *
Within fifteen minutes after the show, they left in their SUV for the long drive to Austin. Caleb sat beside Joaquin and reached behind the seat, pulling a cooler out.
"I'm hungry. I wonder what Sara packed for us."
"She didn't have to do that," Matthew said. "We could get something here."
"I know, but she doesn't want me eating fast food, so…" He lifted out a large baggie full of wrapped sandwiches and opened it. "Let's see, we've got tuna salad or roast turkey. Oh, and there's peaches and sodas, too. Jay, what do you want?"
"Uh, turkey, I guess."
"Okay. Here ya go. Quin?"
"Tuna it is, then." After handing his brothers their food, he unwrapped a turkey sandwich and took a big bite. Glancing over, he saw Joaquin staring out the window, his food still in his hand, untouched.
"Not hungry?" Caleb asked.
"Guess not." Joaquin kept facing the window.
Caleb took another bite and studied his youngest brother. "Can you do this, misúng?"
"Do what?" Joaquin turned.
"These shows. You looked lost back there tonight."
"Oh, did I? Sorry about that."
"I thought getting you back on stage would help," Caleb explained. "Now I wonder if it's too soon."
"No. I've been playing with Loco Lobo with no trouble."
"Yeah, but that's not the same as playing with us. Is it? We're reminders of…everything."
Joaquin's chest lifted with a sigh and he leaned his head against the side of the car. "I just wasn't expecting to miss Jade so much through the show, that's all. I'll be better for Tulsa."
"Do we need to cut anything from the set list?"
"No. Keep it like it is. It works."
Matthew joined in. "It's no problem to change things."
"No, really," Joaquin said. "It's fine. Now can we drop it?"
Two nights later, Roni pulled into the "Howling Wolf" parking lot in New Orleans and turned off the engine. "We're here."
Lynette admitted, "I've never been backstage at a concert before."
"Me either. But, it's going to be fun." Roni opened her purse and took out her backstage pass, putting its string around her neck. "Joaquin said to go to the side entrance and security should let us in."
"Do you think we'll see him? I mean, won't he be too busy for visitors? It's a sold out show, after all." The thin woman opened the car door and got out, her fine brown hair tousled by the Gulf breeze.
"I don't know if he'll have time to talk very long, but we can at least say hello." Roni shut her door and studied the building. A mural by the renowned New Orleans artist Michalopoulos decorated the outside, showing The Big Easy's neighborhood scenes and its musical history. Satchmo's friendly face welcomed them in from his place on the wall.
"Get your pass out and let's go," Roni instructed.
"All right. I'm ready." Lynette adjusted it around her neck and nodded, following her friend's lead. They got almost to the door when Lynette stopped and laid a hand across her stomach.
"What?" Roni asked.
"Butterflies. I'm so nervous!"
"About going backstage?"
"About that…and meeting the Black Wolf brothers…and maybe getting a picture with them. The most famous person I ever saw was Carrot Top in an airport. And he was running the other direction!" Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, trying to relax. "Did I thank you for inviting me? Of all the people at work, you could have…"
"Yes, you've thanked me. Several times. Besides, you're doing me a favor by keeping me company. I didn't want to drive all this way by myself." Roni winked, then gestured to the door. "I'm going in." Pushing the door opened, she stopped at the guard standing inside.
The guard inspected her pass, then let them through.
"Do you know where I can find the band?" Roni asked him.
"Through those doors."
The door stood ajar and Roni could see several people milling about the large dressing room. Peeking further into the room, she spied Joaquin with one of his brothers standing beside the lit makeup mirror.
"Hi, Quin. I made it!" she announced and walked in.
"Hi, Roni." He hugged her hello. "Meet Jay. Jay, this is the singer I've been telling you about."
"Hello," Roni said.
Jay waved one hand. "You've sure impressed my brother. I'll have to catch your band sometime, just to listen to you sing."
"That would be great! Sometime soon, I hope?"
"You bet! Now, if you'll excuse me?"
"Did you come alone?" Joaquin asked her.
"No, I brought my girlfriend from work." She turned around. "Now where did she get to? Just a minute." Roni walked out the door.
"What are you doing out here in the hall?"
Lynette made a face. "I…I can't go in there. What if I say something stupid? What if I start gushing about being their biggest fan?"
"Like they haven't heard it all before. Joaquin knows you're here, so you might as well meet him."
"Stop me if I start gushing, okay?"
"All right. Now, come on!" Roni stepped behind her plain-looking friend and pushed her into the room.
"Quin, this is Lynette."
"Hello, Lynette. How you doing?" Joaquin shook her hand.
The aroma of a hearth fire on a wet autumn afternoon, tinted with cloves, emanated from his copper skin. Gleaming light skipped and bounced down his raven hair, which lay like silk across his shoulders and down his chest.
Lynette put both hands on her flushed cheeks, her eyes wide in mute admiration. At her silence, he looked at Roni. "How was the trip? Did you find your motel all right?"
"The trip went fine, except for some construction just before we hit New Orleans, otherwise we'd have been here sooner. And our room is nice."
Roni's eyes searched his face and arms.
"I'm glad Nick didn't do too much damage. You don't look beat up!"
"I feel it, though. I was so stiff yesterday I barely got out of bed." He showed her his bruised hands.
"I bet Nick's got a shiner."
"Probably." His eyes flickered behind her at Matthew waving to him. "I've got to go, but listen, you've got two choices for the show. You can watch from the side of the stage, or you can join the crowd out front."
Roni glanced at her enrapt friend and then answered, "Neither one of us has seen Black Wolf in concert, so I think we'd like to be out front."
"Okay. I'll see you out there, then. Enjoy the show."
"We will." Roni turned to her friend and chuckled. "Can you at least wave goodbye?"
Instead, Lynette jumped toward Joaquin, kissing his cheek. Stepping back, her eyes expressing the horror at what she'd just done, she mumbled, "Oh gosh! Oh gosh! Oh gosh!" Spinning around, she fled the room.
Startled, Joaquin laughed, but Roni shook her head. "I will never take her out in public again."