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Science-Fiction at its Best!

The stories in this book grew from C. B. Hampton's love of reading science-fiction as a child and young man.

At a very early age, he got hooked on the stories about the Greek and Viking gods, especially Thor and his mighty hammer and the trickster, Loki.Through his highschool years, he began digging for stories and books with more depth. That change came about when he discovered the existence of the older science-fiction magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction. He learned of a bookstore in New Orleans that sold used pocketbooks for fifteen cents each. By then he was working after school at a gas station. His pay was pitiful, he says, but he earned enough weekly to buy a brown paper bag full of books at fifteen cents each, so, every Saturday, he made the trek from Algiers over the Mississippi River to that book store. There he sold the books he previously bought for a nickel each, and added that money to help buy a new sack of books. He continued that practice all the way through high school.

Although C. B. Hampton is primarly a novelist these days, when he gets an idea for a short story, he writes it. These stories are the result. Enjoy.

 

The Mystery of Gabriel Fouchard

NOPD homicide detective sergeant John Robichaux, a tough New Orleans cop in his fifties, leaned forward and glared at me. He was in the easy chair I offered him when he arrived at the apartment I shared with Gabriel Fouchard.

"Listen, Shack, you know what I think? I think you're full of it," he said. "How long you been roomin' with Gabe Fouchard? Five, six years? And you expect me to believe you don't know where he is? A man don't just walk off without telling his roommate."

I opened my mouth to answer, but was interrupted by a long screech of brakes outside on Dauphine St. A loud car horn blared angrily in answer, and then someone shouted a string of dirty words. It sounded like it was right in front of the apartment house, but you can't tell for sure. On a bright spring morning like today, sounds reverberate noisily along the narrow French Quarter streets, so it could have been anywhere. Four blocks away on the Mississippi River, a riverboat answered the melee with a long, mournful ummmmp. I smiled. The boat's whistle was in the key of G, deep and mellow. Sometimes having perfect pitch is fun, but sometimes it isn't, especially when the sounds are off key. But that boat horn was dead on. And nice.

"Damn it, Shack," the detective growled. "I asked you a question. Where's Gabriel Fouchard?"  

"And I told you. I don't know. He disappeared." I shrugged. "And it's ten years, not five. We been together ever since we graduated high school."

"Then for damned sure you're lying!" He looked ready to get up and shake the truth out of me. "You better come clean, or maybe you rather go downtown and meet some really bad-ass cops."

"Come on, Sarge. Threats don’t help, 'cause I ain't lyin'. All I know is Gabe was supposed to play a concert night before last at the Hall, but—"

"The hall?"

"Mahalia Jackson Theater, where they do opera, big concerts, that kind of stuff. Anyhow, I came home from a rehearsal about five o'clock, and Gabe was already in his tux and had his axe on the bed ready to—" 

"His axe!" His eyes widened.

I laughed at his expression. "Musician talk, Sarge. A musician calls his horn his axe. His trumpet was on his bed in its case."

"Oh!" Instantaneous relief.

I relaxed and decided right then to cut the detective some slack. The papers were full of Gabe's disappearance, and I figured Robichaux was under terrific pressure to find out what happened. Ever since Gabe suddenly became the darling of the jazz world, he couldn't sneeze without the media jumping on it. So, it was only natural for the old city to go nuts when he didn't show for the concert. Hell, he left a couple of thousand very angry people staring at their ticket stubs and nowhere to go.

"Okay, so he was here when you got home, and he was already dressed. "Damn it, don't make me drag it out of you. What happened then? What’d he say?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," I said. "He grinned at me and said, 'Hey, Shack, you made it! Great! I left you some tickets in an envelope on the kitchen counter. You gonna come?' I punched him on the arm and said, 'You know it, bud. Wouldn't miss it. Wanna see you knock those stuffy SOBs dead."

The detective's antennae went up again. "Why would you say a thing like that? What you got against—"

I held up a hand and smiled. "Look, Sergeant, it's obvious you don't know anything about Gabe, or music, or how he got so famous, but I do. You asked me if I know what happened to him, and I said, 'No,' and I don't. But I do know where he went the day he disappeared because I followed him."

"You followed him! Why—?"

"Look, I'll tell you everything I know, but you gotta shut up and listen. Let me spill it my own way, because it's a damned weird story. You can make it easy or make it hard. It's up to you. What do you say?"

The detective pinched his mouth shut and pushed it to one side, thinking, then said, "Okay, Shack. Tell it your way, but it better be good. . .or else."

"Yeah, yeah."

I sat back and gave him the whole story of Gabriel Fouchard as only I knew it. 

 

Gabe and I went to Sister School together from fourth grade ‘til we graduated ten years ago. One day in seventh grade, one of the Sisters announced that the junior-high band needed a trumpet player and a clarinetist. She asked for volunteers. Gabe and I looked at each other and immediately stuck up our hands.

The sister told us to see Father Joseph after school. The Father was the band director and had a reputation for being a scary old SOB, so nobody showed up except us. The Father looked us over, examined our mouths to see whether our teeth were okay for the horns.

“Mmmmmmm…” he said to me. “I’d say you’re the trumpet and Gabriel is the clarinet.”

We both shook our heads.

“I want to play trumpet,” Gabe said.

“And I want to learn to play like Pete Fountain,” I said.

We were both ready to scat out of there if he got mean.

He looked at Gabe. “And I guess you want to be like Al Hirt.”

Gabe gave him a huge grin. “Yes, Father. Only I don’t have a horn.”

“Me neither,” I chimed in.

The good Father laughed. “All right, boys. You’ve named your own poison. Let’s see what you can do.”

The Father brought out two old horns and popped open the cases.

He handed Gabe a corroded old silver trumpet, then put together a cheap old metal clarinet and stuck it at me.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“They call me Shack, Father.”

“I’m Gabriel,” Gabe chimed in.

“Okay, Shack, you first.”

I won’t tell you what came out of that old clarinet, except to say it sounded like the brakes squealing on a rusty freight train. I turned bright red, expecting a whack on the head, but apparently the Father wasn’t too disappointed. He just shook his head in disgust and looked at Gabe.

“Okay, Gabriel, let’s see you blow the walls down.”

Gabe licked his lips and lifted that crummy old horn. He stared cross-eyed at the keys to make sure his fingers were in the right place, took a huge breath and blew as hard as he could. The amazing thing was it came out sounding like a trumpet. It wasn’t just noise. I looked surprised, the Father looked astonished, and Gabe looked shocked.

“That’s a pretty good sound, son,” the Father said. “Have you had lessons?”

“No, sir, but I watched the bands last Mardi Gras and saw how the trumpet players did it.”

“I see.”

“Well, I’d say you’ll do fine, but. . .” Father Joseph looked at me. “I have to think about you,” he said.

“We’re best friends,” Gabe said. “We have to go together.”

The Father hesitated only a second and said, “Well, then, looks like I got me two new musicians.”

 

That was the beginning. Gabe and I threw ourselves into music like it would hold back the end of the world. We both lived with our parents in big, old two-story duplexes built at the turn of the twentieth century. My house had a garage; Gabe’s didn’t, so we mostly practiced at my house. When other kids were out screwing around, we were practicing. By ninth grade, I was pretty good, but no barn burner. Gabe, on the other hand, had super fast fingers and he had chops made of iron. He—

“Wait! Chops?”

“Sorry. Musician talk again. Lip muscles.”

“Ah!”

 Gabe had learned to double and triple tongue faster than anyone I’ve ever heard since. By the time he was fourteen he had worked his way through the Arban’s Trumpet Method, the toughest training there is; he could play Carnival of Venice, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, you name it. When it came to classical music, he was phenomenal. But, when it came to jazz, he choked up, and fell apart.

“Shack, I’ll never be able to play jazz!” he used to tell me. “Never!”

“Hey, Gabe, you’ll get it,” I told him. “I’ll work with you. Don’t worry about it. I’ll write out some licks for you.”

 

Detective Sergeant Robichaux held up a hand to stop me. “What the hell does that mean. You’ll write out some licks for him?”

“Well, you know, Sarge. Jazz musicians ad-lib. They follow the chord changes in a tune and make up stuff as they play. They practice scales, arpeggios and all kinds of technical stuff, so when they’re ad-libbing, they can do whatever they feel the music needs. Al Hirt and Pete Fountain were great. Some musicians never play a song the same way twice. See?”

“Sort of, go on.”

“On the other hand, Glenn Miller could ad-lib, but almost never did. He had one of his arrangers write out what sounded like an ad-lib solo for him. He memorized what they wrote, and every time they played that tune, he played it the same way.”

 “Therefore, he wasn’t really ad-libbing. Got it. So, you offered to write out some ad-libs for Gabe,” the Sarge said. “Did you do it?”

“Yeah, but that takes time, and it’s hard work, so I eventually taught him how to make up his own. He learned, but he was never any good at it.”

“If he was such a good musician, why not?”

“’Cause, well he just didn’t have a feeling for it. He couldn’t wail. Sorry. He couldn’t let go and blow his heart out.  He played jazz like a robot with incredible technique, but no feeling, and he knew it, poor guy.”

“Okay, I got it, get on with the story. I ain’t got all day.”

 

Okay, where was I? Oh, yeah. Gabe got better and better as a classical musician. He won the highest awards in all the state music festivals. People were mesmerized by the sweetness and the clarity of his tone and the speed of his fingers. He played in church so often, he was famous in our parish. People would see him on the street and yell, ‘Hey, Gabe! You playin’ this Sunday?’ Of course, he became the total apple of Father Joseph’s eye. He was invited to play with the New Orleans Opera Orchestra. He had everything a young musician could hope for, except one thing.

“He couldn’t play jazz.”

I stopped my story to answer. “Right. Remember, I said he wanted to play like Al Hirt. Remember that flight of the bumble bee thing, Green Hornet, in the movie Kill Bill? Gabe could match Hirt note for note, but he just couldn’t make it feel right. He came off like a machine.”

“No soul.”

“Right.”

“So, what happened to change all that.”

“Okay, okay, I’m coming to that.”

 

 You see, I was getting better and better on my axe, too. Maybe not like Gabe, but pretty good. And, I had that one ingredient Gabe didn’t have. I was no Pete Fountain, but I could play a pretty mean stick. So, after graduation, I got a steady gig at one of the Dixieland Clubs on Bourbon Street. Poor Gabe had nothing after graduation. He got a job selling horns at a big music store over on Canal Street. And, he picked up a few bucks teaching trumpet on the side. But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to play jazz so bad he could taste it.

“I’m still waiting to hear what changed all that.”

“Coming to that now.”

 

Well, neither of us was making enough money to get anywhere, so we started rooming together ten years ago. Gabe was pitiful. He wanted to know everything we played at the club every damned night, so in exasperation, I told him to come see for himself. He started hanging out every night, nursing one beer ‘til they were ready to throw him out. I talked to the band leader and asked him if Gabe could sit in some time. He said, ‘Okay, but I gotta hear him first.’ So, I wrote some hot ad-libs for Gabe on the Saints Go Marching In and told him to memorize them. I told him he could sit in on a set at the end of the show when most of our customers were too pie-eyed to give a damn.

The detective chuckled. “I been there,” he said.

I laughed and continued. That was about five years ago. It was about two in the morning, and only one drunk was sitting in a back corner. Gabe came up to the bandstand with his horn. He had a brand-new twenty-five-hundred-dollar Bach Stradivarius Trumpet by then. Got a deal from the store where he worked. The other musicians saw it and were going, ‘Wow!’ because they knew what it had cost.

Gabe seemed awestruck when he shook hands with Harry Thomlin, the band leader, who was also our trumpet man. Harry had been playing Dixieland since he was nine years old and was pretty well known around New Orleans. He was white haired and wrinkled all to hell from too many cigarettes, too much booze, and too many late night gigs. He was tough as hell, but a nice guy.

Grinning from ear to ear, Gabe made the rounds of the guys from our bass player, to guitar-banjo, to Big Bone, the trombone man, then me, then our piano man and finally the drummer. I could tell Gabe was nervous enough to mess his britches, but I just smiled and gave him a thumbs up. He grinned back, but I could see his knees trembling, so I said little prayer for him.

“Yeah? If you don’t get on with it, you’re gonna have to say a prayer for yourself,” Robichaux growled. “Damn it, how’d he do?”

“Terrible, Sarge,” I said. “He was so nervous, he missed the kick off. Harry stopped the band and said to Gabe, ‘You got a problem?’ Gabe just said, ‘No, sorry. Let’s do it.’ So Harry counted off again. This time Gabe picked it up right on and played pretty good, except mechanically, until time came for his ad lib solo. He was so nervous, he got way off beat, lost his place in the music. He was so screwed up, the band just quit playing and stared at him. It was embarrassing.

“Thought you said he could play.” Harry glared at me.

“I ignored him and went to Gabe. Gabe was totally mortified. “It’s okay, man,” I said. “We’ll try again another time. You go on home, and I’ll be along soon.”

Gabe had panic in his eyes. “No, I gotta, I gotta—” He stumbled over to Harry and said, “Mr. Thomlin, I’m sorry. I—I don’t know why I can’t jam. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to—”

Gabe turned away suddenly, head down, shoulders slumped and started away from the band stand. He refused to meet my eyes.

Suddenly, Harry Thomlin yelled, “Kid, wait!” He rushed over to Gabe and grabbed his shoulder. Gabe stopped and looked up at Harry. Big tears were running down his cheeks.

“Look, kid, it ain’t the end of the world. I hear you’re a great classical trumpeter. Maybe you better stick with that. Not every cat can play jazz. It’s gotta be in your blood.”

Gabe, looking like a slightly pudgy, overgrown kid, shook his head and said, “I don’t understand, Mr. Thomlin. What’s gotta be in my blood? What do you guys have that I don’t have. Tell me, please! I don’t want to be a classical musician. I wanna play jazz.”   

Like I said, Harry was tough, but a nice guy. He looked at me for help. I just shrugged. He turned back to Gabe. “Look, kid, you’ve heard people talk about having soul, right?

Gabe nodded and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “Yes.”

“Well, that’s what you’re missing, son. Some musicians got it and some don’t. You just don’t feel the beat or hear the chords when you play. You gotta turn off your brain, learn to hang loose and let your soul take over. You understand?”

“No! Tell me, how can I get soul? I’ll do anything!”

Harry looked like he was ready to panic then, but he stuck with it. “Hell, kid, how do I know? Maybe you gotta commune with nature or something. Relax, let your guard down. Commune with your inner self, you know? You gotta stop letting your brain run your life and start feeling more.”

“But—“

Harry put his hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “Look, son, that’s the best I can do. If you wanna get soul, you gotta find it yourself.”

Gabe’s eyes suddenly grew bright like he’d just had a revelation. He looked at Harry almost with adoration. “Mr. Thomlin, if I can find a way to get soul, would you give me another chance? Would you?”

Relieved, Harry grinned and said, “Sure, kid. You go get soul, and I’ll give you another shot. Why not?”

Gabe grabbed Harry’s hand, shook it vigorously. “I’ll be back,” he said. He spun on his heel and headed out before I could say anything to him. “See you later,” I yelled. Then to Harry I said, “Harry, thanks, man. I owe you.”

“No problem,” he said. “That kid’s got something. I just don’t know what the hell it is.”

 

“I know what I’ve got,” Robichaux snapped. “I’ve got me a murder suspect sittin’ right in front of me, and he’s stalling.” He pushed up from his chair. “Let’s go, Shack. I’ve had it with you.”

“Sarge, wait!” I didn’t budge. “I ain’t stalling. It’s just you ain’t gonna believe me ‘til you hear the whole story. You promised to let me tell it my own way. Sit down, please. I’m almost there.”

The sergeant pinched his mouth again, then sat. “Ten minutes,” he said. “You got ten minutes.”

“Right. Ten minutes.”

—End of Sample—