RIDE UPON MIDNIGHT

It wasn’t just the horrific visions that come forth from Nils Andersen’s guitar. It wasn’t just his father’s rock legacy shadowing him. It was also the murder sentence for a crime he did not commit.

If Nils has any hope in clearing his tarnished name and paving his own road as a musician, he will have to learn to control his paranormal power. And to do so, he will need the help of a young woman who once called him father, a woman keenly connected to the Wandering World, a place from which his visions come.


CHAPTER 1: BLACK MOON

THE DAY I WAS RELEASED from Belmarsh prison a crowd of protesters were carrying picket signs with my name on them. My lawyer, pushing aside dictaphones and fluffy microphones and angry members of the public, escorted me to his Alfa-Romeo at the end of the road. Through the tinted windows I saw the white flashes of cameras, and I heard air horns and my lawyer telling me not to look back at the banners and signs that read, ‘Nils Andersen is a murderer for life’ and ‘Let the woman killer rot in prison’ and ‘Disgusted at the Injustice’.

It was a three hour drive to Gabel, Gloucestershire, yet I didn’t appreciate the countryside until we’d passed Oxford. I saw rolling hills and grazing sheep, farm machinery, an electric train rattling on the tracks, and I watched a rain shower dance across the green fields on the hard line of the horizon. Then there was the Welcome to Gabel sign, population 90,000.

The house I moved into was the house my father bought before I was born and in which he lived and recorded his first album. The homemade studio was still there, but it was empty now, the walls discoloured with the ghosts of guitars he had taken with him when he moved to the USA. I kept that door locked and the key out of sight.

It rained all week but I didn’t mind. I often sat on a deck chair in the garage watching the rain dent the puddles, and there were neighbourhood children carrying umbrellas as they walked to school. I was calm and my mind was calm and everything was calm.

I spent the week moving things out of storage and piling them in the garage. I hired a moving van to help me with the bigger items, like the ‘85 Harley Davidson softail motorcycle my father bought twenty years ago. We never got around to repairing it. I kept it covered in a white sheet as I wheeled it behind a stack of boxes filled with old clothes.

On the following Saturday I was lifting my old vinyl collection out of a cardboard box, the sun poking through the receding clouds, when I heard a car engine come up the street. A door opened. A door closed. An engine faded away.

I knew who it was before she said my name. I pushed aside a box with my shoe.

‘You’re looking well,’ she said. ‘The beard suits you.’

I hadn’t seen her in fourteen years. She was a child when I went away. She wasn’t a child anymore.

‘Thanks,’ is all I could say.

‘I wrote to you,’ she said.

‘I know.’

‘You never wrote back.’

She turned her attention to the boxes, the ones peppered with stickers from places my father travelled to while he toured in an unknown rock band, before he started his own gig and sold a hundred thousand albums in the UK alone.

‘Those your dad’s vinyls?’ she asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘You still play?’

‘Haven’t in a long time.’

‘I thought about you. About your music. The band. I missed you a lot.’

‘I missed you too.’

‘But you never wrote back.’

‘I tried to let you go. Sometimes it’s best to let people go.’

I took a couple cans of Stella Artois from the fridge and cracked them open and set them down on the wooden workbench. I took a pull on mine, sat down and gestured the can at a spare stool.

‘I can’t believe it’s you,’ she said. ‘When I was sixteen I started looking for you and I found you and I wanted to talk to you but you never wrote back.’

‘For a long time I wasn’t me, so even if I did write back it wouldn’t have been the man you knew. Prison does that to a person. Takes away who you are. Buries you deep down, where no one can see you, not even yourself. Hey, look at me, I’m me again, okay? And I’m here now and you’re here now.’

‘I remember that song you wrote for me. I can’t ever get it out of my head.’

‘I think my days of making music are over, Ingrid.’

She smiled when I said her name. ‘What’s so funny?’

‘Out of all the names in the world you gave me that one. Why?’

‘It once belonged to someone important to me.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘She went away. Before all this.’

‘You ever wonder what it’d be like if you hadn’t gone away?’

I drank my beer. ‘I’m not a murderer. I didn’t do it,’ I said.

‘I know you didn’t.’

‘I’m going to prove it.’

‘And then what?’

‘The man who did it is out there, living my life. I feel like he’s taken a part of my soul. Between him and prison, I don’t know if I’ve got a lot of me left to lose.’

She sat down and I finally got a good look at her, saw the woman she’d become. She wore a pale green uniform and skirt.

‘I’m a waitress,’ she said, following my eyes. ‘It’s not a bad job. It pays. I was working when I saw you on the TV, all those people saying all those things. Do you think I was meant to see that video?’

I was never much of a man who believed in fate or destiny, not until she showed up in my garage as if nothing had ever happened. Truth is, I thought about her a lot too, though I was never very good at admitting how I felt.

As suddenly as she’d appeared in my garage, my mind was back in that moonlit street. It was 2003. I was 23 and she was probably no older than 9. It was a clear sky that night, although when I saw her she was soaked and water dripped down her hair and neck. Her beautiful dress was all ruined with mud and dirt, her blond hair riddled with twigs and dead leaves. She looked up at me and I looked down at her, and I wondered why a little girl like that would be out so late. When the bus arrived I picked up my guitar in its case, paid my fare, and sat down at the rear. I wiped the fog off the window with the flat of my hand. She was still out there, her eyes never straying from mine. I saw in her eyes a deep seated fear that comes from a child’s inexperience with the injustices of the world. But inside the darkness there was a light that didn’t belong to any child I’d ever known.

The street was empty save for the glow of the street lamps and rising mist. The bus started moving. I rang the bell. The driver said I’d have to wait. I yelled at him until I got what I wanted. The bus cast puddle water over me when it pulled away from the curb.

I removed my leather jacket and put it around her shoulders and she buckled under its weight as though it were a steel hauberk.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked, but never she replied. ‘Where’s your mum and dad?’

I heard junkies in the nearby alleyway, coughing, yelling at visions. I thought she was too frightened to talk. I looked about the quiet street and the moon was everywhere, and I followed my gut feeling and made a decision that could only be understood if you knew my connection to music. I set down my guitar case and I proffered my hand.

At my apartment I made her a sandwich and poured a glass of milk. I put them on the table in the living room, where she was sitting on the sofa looking at nothing. From the hall cupboard I took a pillow and a wool blanket that was once my mother’s and made her a bed on the sofa. In the morning the sandwich was eaten and the milk drunk. I called child services but only got a machine, so I hung up with the intention of trying again later that day. I didn’t know why I felt relieved.

The child got me thinking about my own past. When I was seventeen I left home, walking out the same way my mother had. Not long after, I started having visions that came out of my guitar. I never told anyone. I assumed there was a place for people like me that usually involves heavy iron doors and straight-jackets. A year or two later they were no longer just personal visions confined to my mind. Because it turns out they were real then, and they’re still real now.

At the time I found Ingrid I was working at an Italian restaurant called Grim Tony’s. I started as a dishwasher and later began cooking as a sous chef though I don’t think I was ever very good at it. Tony was the owner and he was a good man who had the worst Italian accent I’d ever heard, and I hadn’t ever heard one before his. He claimed his name was Antonio Mastroianni, but everyone who worked at the restaurant knew he wasn’t really Italian and that his real name was Ewan Jones. Once when the topic came up he caved and begged us not to tell anyone.

The bar was always filled with the same faces and drinks that left water rings on napkins and which rattled with ice when the patrons drank. Sometimes Tony held music competitions in an attempt to bring in crowds, and he would award food vouchers and free drinks to the winners. He also promised the possibility of being picked up by a record label, but I had always wondered how true that was. Some of the old fry cooks used to say the restaurant was a front for an illegal firearms trade Tony operated out of his office. At the time I didn’t believe it.

I hadn’t played or sung for close to four years before that night. My guitar case was beside me and my hands were sweaty, and I couldn’t keep my heart rate down.

‘What are you all nervous about?’ Tony asked. His dark hair was oiled, combed back, and his eyes were always puffy. His breath was foul with tobacco smoke from the cigarette between his fingers.

‘I can’t do it.’

‘Can’t do it? Your old man’s Aksel Andersen. A local hero. You’ve got more credit to that stage than anyone else that has ever been here.’

‘I told you I didn’t want to do this.’

‘You’ve been walking around with a guitar since you started working here and telling everyone you’re some struggling musician. Now you tell me you can’t do it?’ Tony sucked on the cigarette, the tip of the paper crisping. ‘Plus I told you we don’t have a choice. We’re a singer down and we’ve got a slot to fill.’

‘What if I stink?’

‘You can change your name and sell car insurance until it’s all over. You want me out there playing my ukulele? Chin up, kid. This could be your lucky break.’

‘Are there really band managers out there?’

‘Sure.’

‘How can you know?’

Tony flicked ash to the floor. ‘I sent out letters myself. I know for a fact there’s a couple of high class rollers out there. You ever heard of a label called Machine Gun Records?’

‘They’re here?’

‘He’s that fat prick at the back. Don’t believe me? Ask him after the set. Hey, why’ve you got your hair down like that. No one ever tell you it makes you look like a woman?’

I knelt down and unlocked the fasteners on the guitar case and opened it. I picked up the acoustic guitar, the wood blonde and scuffed round the edges, the bubbles of light in the remaining polish somehow promising me the world. I pulled the pick from between the strings and walked out on stage.

The audience was shrouded in black and the lights around me were bright and made me sweat. Tony stood in the wing and I could see the burning tip of his cigarette moving from his hip to his lips. I lost sight of the studio executive.

I chose to do an acoustic version of Bad Company’s Bad Company, a song I used to play with my father. I sang in a lower register but it was a song I was comfortable singing and I’d known the lyrics since I was four. It would later be covered in a similar manner by Five Finger Death Punch on their 2009 album War is the Answer.

I swallowed hard and took in a deep breath. I ran my fingers up and down the neck of the guitar, strumming with my other hand. I completed the first verse entirely. That’s as far as I got.

The room began tilting and I saw amongst the crowd a face of a young woman, wet and pale. She was opening and closing her mouth like a fish whose gills have collapsed upon themselves. One by one the audience faded.

A spotlight clanked on and it was just me and her. I don’t know why I noticed her fingernails were caked with dirt. She was trying to tell me something. I watched her move toward me, her mouth flapping to silent words, and I smelled an odor that reminded me of mildew on the tiles of a damp bathroom. The floor was littered with paper cups and I could smell beer and hard spirits. My heart was pounding. All sound had become static in my ears that grew and grew until I imagined waves crashing against the shoreline of a moonlit beach. The next thing I heard was the ceiling cracking and groaning. A beam crashed through the bar, shattering bottles and glasses, smashing beer kegs into the wall. A part of the roof followed it.

Tony was on the phone to the emergency people. He was trying to explain what had happened. I guess they had trouble understanding, because he was repeating his sentences. The roof at Grim Tony’s collapsed. Why? How the hell am I supposed to know? Just get someone over here.

And then there were sirens and fire trucks and police. They brought everyone outside into the gravel car park. A couple of women were in shock and were wrapped in silver blankets, but apart from that no one seemed hurt. Tony stood with his hands on his head looking at his restaurant that bore his name in red neon. There was a flicker and a buzz. The red G in the name went black.

I don’t know why I thought the night would go any other way. I just wanted to play music, but music didn’t let me play.

My girlfriend at the time, Rachel Waters, came over and put her hand on my shoulder.

‘Bad luck there, soldier,’ she said.

‘You could say that.’

‘How about we go out and try and forget all this?’

‘I think I’m just going to get some sleep.’

‘How about you walk me home then?’

I checked my watch. Eleven. I’d left Ingrid alone in my flat. Maybe a little while longer wouldn’t hurt.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’ll buy you dinner along the way.’

We crossed the street and followed the footpath. Rachel kept looking behind her shoulders. It started to drizzle and cars made the sound of Velcro pulling apart when they drove along the wet street.

‘Something wrong?’ I said.

‘You haven’t read the news?’

‘Not my thing, babe. I’ve got enough news in my life.’

‘A couple was murdered a few streets from here.’

‘No kidding?’

‘It’s serious, Nils. The boyfriend was shot with a shotgun. The girl was drowned. The TV said it wasn’t a mugging because the bodies still had their wallets. They think it’s the same dude who killed that woman in the tub a couple of months ago. Could be a serial.’

‘Remember when Brian had his bike stolen on Dovetail?’

‘You’re comparing a stolen bike with two murders?’

‘What about that homeless man they found in the alleyway by Hammond Sports?’

‘That was never found to be murder.’

‘My point is we aren’t in any more danger now than we were last month. Or last year. Or since ever.’

She’d stopped walking but started catching up to me again. ‘That doesn’t make me feel any better.’

‘I wasn’t trying to make you feel better.’

We stopped at McDonald’s and ordered McChickens. She asked me for a McFlurry. I ordered everything and a Happy Meal and carried our food tray to a window seat. The world through the window was dark and the rain gave it the appearance of a television channel with poor reception. In the deep shadows the M of the McDonald’s arch was painted across the road.

Rachel ate quietly, her eyes periodically moving to the untouched Happy Meal on the chair beside me.

‘You going to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Nah, later. Midnight snack.’

She squinted, trying to figure out the joke. After she’d eaten her burger, she leaned back in her chair, picked up her drink and stared out the window while sucking at the straw.

‘What a way to go,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘The dead girl. It was in a toilet. Shoved her head in there until she let go. Makes you wonder how clean that toilet was.’

I didn’t think a shotgun would be much cleaner. I kept my thoughts to myself.

At her flat we kissed outside the door. I walked home in the rain, the water clattering against my leather jacket, my eyes over my shoulders. Just in case.

Ingrid had never told me her name. I don’t think anyone ever gave her one, so I began calling her the name of my mother, and she didn’t seem to mind. In her waking hours she did not speak but she did in her sleep and sometimes she would do so all night. Often she just made noises, and I’d listen from the doorway. When she wasn’t making noises or speaking she was suffering from night terrors that I could only assume came from a past that would destroy most adults.

She had fallen asleep on the sofa with the TV on; when I stirred her awake her skin was cold and at first she didn’t respond, but then she opened her eyes and again I saw that strange light that seemed to be simultaneously produced by something external and internal.

I put the Happy Meal bag on the table and opened it. She looked at me for permission. I helped her unwrap the hamburger, her eyes brightening. I genuinely believe she had never eaten McDonald’s before.

I sat there watching this being who was under my care, whether by fate or otherwise. I once played a song for her on my guitar, playing it all the way through without anything bad happening, which led me to believe I could play at Grim Tony’s.

I waited for her to finish eating and then got up and took my guitar from the cupboard and sat down beside her. I began to play, and the way she watched me made me unable to stop. I felt a release of energy I hadn’t experienced since my own childhood.

I’d grown up with music. I’d lived it and breathed it. Music was there when nothing else was. The way her eyes lit up when I played told me she knew a lot more about it than I did.

Next morning I woke at sunrise and dressed in a black shirt and a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. I tucked my wallet into my back pocket and walked down the stairs putting on my jacket. The street was puddled with last night’s rain and the wind was puffing at my hair.

At the nearest newsagent I asked if he had any papers from the last two days, and he went out back and returned with a stack of them. I took one and rolled it into a tube and for Ingrid bought a colouring-in book and a box of crayons.

The clouds were threatening rain before noon. I blew on my numb hands, trying to warm them. Walking back to my flat I opened the newspaper and I found staring at me a face I had seen only the night before. And I wondered what it meant to have played in front of a woman that was supposedly dead. Her black and white eyes pale and wet in my mind. Her name was Janet McFadden. I watched the newspaper fall from my hands and pull apart in the wind and skip down the street as I realised not only had I seen her image last night, but I knew her. She used to go to Motorizer, a rock bar. I think I spoke to her once or twice.

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