Robert McCammon's first contemporary novel in nearly two decades, The Five tells the story of an eponymous rock band struggling to survive on the margins of the music business.
As they move through the American Southwest on what might be their final tour together, the band members come to the attention of a damaged Iraq war veteran, and their lives are changed forever. This is a riveting account of violence, terror, and pursuit set against a credible, immensely detailed rock and roll backdrop. It is also a moving meditation on loyalty and friendship.
Written with wit, elegance, and passionate conviction, The Five reaffirms McCammon's position as one of the finest, most unpredictable storytellers of our time.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||999 KB|
About the Author
ROBERT McCAMMON is a New York Times bestseller best known for Swan Song and Boy's Life, both still in print after two decades. He is a frequent nominee and winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has won several World Fantasy Awards. McCammon resides in Birmingham, Alabama.
ROBERT McCAMMON is a New York Times bestseller best known for Swan Song and Boy’s Life, both still in print after two decades. He is a frequent nominee and winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has won several World Fantasy Awards. McCammon resides in Birmingham, Alabama.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert McCammon
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 The McCammon Corporation
All rights reserved.
Nomad decided he would have to kill the waitress.
* * *
How he would do it, he didn't know. But it would have to be done soon, because in another minute he was going to go off like that dude in The Thing whose alien blood bubbled and shrieked under the touch of a hot wire. His neck was going to grow six feet long and spikes would shoot out of his arms before he tore the room apart. The waitress was cheerful and talky. Nomad hated cheerful and talky. He wasn't a particularly good guy, nor a very bad one. He was a musician.
Besides, he wasn't worth a damn before noon, and here he was at ten in the morning sitting in a booth at a Denny's restaurant just off I-35 at Round Rock, about twenty miles north of Austin. Everything was too bright for him in here. Everything was yellow and red and the sun was blasting between the blinds of the east-facing windows. His sunglasses helped a little, but underneath them his eyes were tired. And now here came the fucking waitress again, her third swoop past in as many minutes. She was an old hippie chick somewhere in the human wasteland of her late forties, he figured. She looked like she'd been somebody's groupie, back in the day. She was too thin and too old to be wearing her copper-colored hair in braids like some kind of Pippi Longstocking wannabe. She was bringing the coffee pot, she in her goldenrod yellow uniform, smiling, a big-toothed goddess of breakfast. Her nametag said Hi I'm Laurie.
"Oh, my God," Nomad said, to no one in particular.
"Fill 'em up?" Laurie asked, coffee pot poised.
There were various noises of assent. "Thanks," Mike said, when his cup was brimmed, and then Laurie answered, "No problem," and Nomad looked at the ketchup bottle as a weapon of murder because she'd just stepped on the nuts of one of his worst pet peeves. Where that damned No Problem had started he didn't know, but he wished he had two minutes in a locked room with the sonofabitch who'd first said it. Like a waitress or waiter was saying Oh it's no problem that you're asking me to do something that I'm fucking paid to do, and that is part of my job description, and that if I didn't do I would be kicked in the ass out the door by whoever pays me to do it. Oh no, it's no problem at all.
Then Laurie took a long look at all of them, at Nomad and Ariel and Terry in the first booth and Mike and Berke in the one just behind, and she gave a lopsided little grin and came up with the familiar question: "Are y'all in a band?"
Nomad, whose given name was John Charles, did not rate breakfast at the top of his daily needs. Some of the others liked it. Mike and Terry did, especially, and had wanted to stop here before they headed up to Waco. Usually they stopped at a barbecue joint just outside Austin called Smitty's, where the one-eyed ex-Marine cook put eggs and beef hash in a blender with hellacious homemade hot sauce and called it a Texas Tornado, but Smitty had closed up shop at the first of the summer and so Denny's got the vote. They had never been in here before and had never met Laurie, but of course she knew. Probably because if there were thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar players in Nashville there had to be fourteen hundred and sixty-three bands in and around Austin, so seeing musicians sitting in a Denny's was no biggie. But more clues were the bracelets of green vines and music notes — the opening bars of "Amazing Grace" — tattooed around Ariel Collier's wrists, or maybe Terry Spitzenham's soul patch and shaved skull, or Mike Davis's heavily-tattooed arms, or Berke Bonnevey's silver nose ring and in general her do-not-fuck-with-me attitude, or Nomad's own shoulder-length black hair, sunglasses designed to shut out the world, and his dark demeanor.
Take all that together and you had either a band or a freak show, and some would say there was very little difference.
"We are," Ariel answered, and she offered the waitress the encouragement of a direct gaze and a smile, which Nomad had known was coming because Ariel — sweet, simple child — could never turn her face from a stranger.
"What's your name? Your band's name, I mean?"
"The Five," Ariel said.
There was just the briefest of pauses, and then Laurie wrinkled her brow and cocked her head to one side as if she'd missed part of that. "The five what?"
"Aces," Mike mumbled, into his coffee cup.
"Asses," Berke corrected.
But Laurie's attention was still on Ariel, as if she knew Ariel was probably the only person in this group who wouldn't steer her into a ditch.
"Just The Five," Ariel said. "We wanted to keep it easy to remember."
"Oh, yeah. Like the Fab Five, right?"
"Fab Four," Terry spoke up. The sunlight sparked off his round-lensed wire-rimmed glasses, which were suitably Lennonesque. "That was the Beatles."
"Right, right." Laurie nodded, and again she swept her eyes across the assembled Five, in all their glory of an early-morning saddle-up and an impending ride into the great unknown. "How come there are six of you?" She motioned with the coffee pot toward the place next to Berke where the sixth member had been sitting until about ninety seconds ago.
"He's the manager," Ariel replied.
"The slave driver," Mike said. "Keeper of the keys and the money bags."
"The boss, huh?" Laurie asked. "Well, I guess everybody's got to have one." She caught sight of another customer flagging her down for a refill, and she said, "'Scuse me," and moved away.
Terry started back in where he'd left off on his pancakes. Berke worked on buttered toast and a glass of water. Mike ate his scrambled eggs, Ariel sipped her apple juice and Nomad parted the window blinds a fraction so he could peer out against the glare into the parking lot.
The Little Genius was out there, talking on his cellphone. George Emerson by name, road manager, sound mixer, crisis mender, argument mediator, bean counter, and what have you. He was standing by their van, a battleship-gray 1995 Ford Econoline, three doors, with a U-Haul trailer hooked up behind. He was intent on his conversation, and he'd lit a cigarette. Nomad watched him as he talked and smoked. George was five feet, six inches tall, had curly light brown hair — losing it on the crown a little bit, to be honest — and he wore horn-rimmed glasses and his usual button-down pale blue short-sleeved shirt and chinos. God only knew why George wore brown loafers with shiny pennies in them. Maybe it was for the shock effect. George was strolling back and forth now as he talked, trailing a plume of smoke. Not only was he a little genius, he was a little locomotive.
I think I can ... I think I can ... I think —
"Y'all playin' here tonight?"
Laurie had returned, toothy and bright and braidy. She had posed this question to Ariel, who said, "We were at the Saxon Pub last night. Tonight we're at Common Grounds in Waco."
"Y'all are from around here, then?"
"Yeah, we've been living here ... how long, Terry?"
"Years and years," Terry answered.
"Our tour's just started up," Ariel said, in anticipation of Laurie's next question. "That was the first show."
"I'll be. What do you play?"
"Guitar. And I sing some."
"Oh, I would've known that," Laurie said. "You've got a nice speakin' voice."
Nomad had let the blinds go and was drinking his bitter black coffee, but he was thinking about George and the cellphone and the smoke signals in the air.
"My daughter plays the guitar," the waitress went on. "Just turned sixteen. She sings, too. Any advice I can pass along?"
"Stay sixteen," Berke said, without looking up.
"Move to an island," Mike offered, in his low raspy growl, "where agents and promoters are shot on sight."
Laurie nodded, as if this made perfect sense to her. "One thing I'd like to ask, if I could. Then I'll leave you guys alone. I've seen ... like ... musicians on stage do this." She transferred the coffee pot to her left hand, balled up her right fist and did the heart thump and then the peace sign. "What's that mean?"
Nomad studied her through his dark glasses. She was probably five or six years younger than she looked. It was the hard Texas sun that aged the skin so much. She was probably a little dense, too. Happy with her lot in life, and dense. Maybe you had to be a little dense to be truly happy. Or oblivious enough to think you were. He couldn't help himself; he said, "Bullshit."
"Pardon?" Laurie asked.
"It means," Ariel said evenly, "solidarity with the audience. You know. We love you, and we wish you peace."
"Like I said: Bullshit." Nomad ignored Ariel, who likewise ignored him, and then he swigged down the rest of his coffee. "I'm done." He slid out of the booth, put a buck down on the table, and walked out of the Denny's into the hot sunshine. In this mid-July of 2008, the fierce heat was unrelenting, day after day. Drought scorched the land. The air was hazy and carried the acrid tang of a brush fire, maybe from the next county. But where was George? The Little Genius was not standing beside the Scumbucket, which was the name Mike had given their van. Then Nomad saw a wisp of smoke rise up and waft away, and he walked over to the edge of the parking lot where George was sitting on a low brick wall, still involved with his cell conversation. Or, really, George was just listening, and taking a drag off his cigarette every few seconds as cars and trucks blew past on the long straight corridor of I-35.
Nomad quietly came up behind him. George must have felt the presence of a black aura because he suddenly turned his head, looked right at Nomad, and said, "Hey, listen. I've gotta go, I'll call you back, okay?" His phone buddy seemed hesitant to give it up, so George said, "I'll let you know tomorrow. Right. Early, before ten. Yeah. Okay, then." He put his phone away in its small clipcase on his belt, and then he drew the cigarette in as if it were oxygen to an air-starved man and spewed the smoke out through his nostrils.
Nomad said nothing. Finally George asked, "They ready yet?"
George continued to watch the passing traffic. Nomad sat on the wall a few feet away from him without being asked, because it was a free fucking country.
They were both wearing their uniforms, Nomad thought. George's was the uniform of the guy in control, the guy who met the accountants, if there were any accountants to be met. The guy who spoke to the banker about the loan for the new gear, if there was a banker and a loan and new gear to be had. Though George had three small silver rings in each earlobe, he still projected the conservative front, the voice of reason, the leash on these madmen and mad women who called themselves The Five. Nomad's uniform was his Army-green T-shirt, his well-worn black jeans, his black Chuck high tops and his black glasses that cut the glare and shunned the world until he was ready to let any of it in. His was the uniform of the fighter, the rager against the machine, the take-no-prisoners bard and bastard. The teller of truths, if there were any truths to be told. As if he knew any real truths, which he doubted. But you had to dress the part of whatever play you were in, that was for sure.
He had turned twenty-nine two weeks ago. They'd given him dairy-free birthday cake and soy milk ice cream, since he was allergic to dairy. They'd taken him paint-balling. Everybody got a birthday celebration, that was part of the deal. Not a written deal, but one that was understood. Just as on stage, everybody got their time. Their appreciation, for what they did. That was an important thing, Nomad thought; to feel appreciated, like you meant something in the world and your life and work wasn't just like a big busted-up truck spinning its tires in a mudhole. Like what you did mattered to somebody.
He was the good front man: six-one, lean and rangy, the hungry-as-the-wolf look. He could do the curled lip and the attitude as well as anybody on the knife and gun circuit. His nose had been broken in a bar fight in Memphis and he had a small scar on his chin courtesy of a thrown beer bottle in Jacksonville. He had been born in Detroit, and he had been down enough rough streets to know when to look over his shoulder and check what might be coming up on him from behind.
That was what he had decided to do now, with the Little Genius.
"Business call?" Nomad asked.
George didn't answer, which told Nomad all he needed to know.
But in time — ten seconds, fifteen, whatever — George did reply, because he was a stand-up guy and part of the family. He said, "John, I'm thirty-three years old."
"Okay." That was no news; Nomad remembered George's thirty-third back in April. "And?"
"Thirty-three," George went on. "Ten years ago, I was ready to climb mountains. I thought I was going to have it all. You know?"
"Yes," Nomad said, but it sounded more like a question.
"Ten years is a long time, man. In this business, it's like dog years. And I've been on the road with somebody since I was twenty. First gig, with the Survivors out of Chicago." George was a Windy City boy, born and bred. "They lasted about four months before they exploded. No survivors." He didn't pause to see if Nomad had cracked a smile, but that wasn't going to happen anyway. "Then with the Bobby Apple Band, out of Urbana. Have I told you this before?"
"No." There'd been many stories from George's complicated past, but not this one. Nomad wondered if he'd been saving it.
"The band was lame, just frat boys really. Bobby Apple — Bobby Koskavitch — was a skinny computer geek at Illinois, but he could belt it like a fifty-year-old black dude raised on misery. I saw him lift the gigs on his shoulders and just fly with them. Just take off, and leave the band behind. He was in some other space and time, you know?"
"Yeah." It was what every musician longed for: the rapture when nothing in the world mattered but the sound and it carried you away with a mindrush that was better than sex with sixteen women.
"They recorded two CDs in the drummer's basement," George said. "Solid songs, most of them original. Had some airplay on a local station. Swapped up musicians, people came and went. Tried a horn section for a bigger sound. But that force — the stage magic — in Bobby never translated." Not an uncommon thing, Nomad knew. If you didn't translate to CDs or MP3s or vinyl sooner or later the road would wear you out. "I mean, they had plenty of live gigs. We were making money, and Bobby was a trooper, and we had a few nibbles from A&R dudes but no bites. Then one day ... he just woke up and asked me what town he was in, and he said he was going to do the gig that night at the Armory and to pay everybody up afterward, because he was going home. I tried to talk him out of it. We all did. I said, Keep going, man. Don't give it up. I said, You've got a huge talent, man. Don't walk away from it. But, you know, he was tired. He'd hit his wall. I guess I was tired too, because I didn't try harder. I guess I figured ... really, there's always the next band." George took another draw from his cigarette and regarded the burning stub as if figuring it was time to kill it. "I've been thinking about him a lot lately. He went back to computer programming. Anti-virus shit. Probably mucho rich right now, laughing his ass off in Silicon Valley."
"Maybe," Nomad said, and shrugged. "Or maybe he lost his ass and wishes he was back in his old band."
"You ever wish you were back in your old band?"
"Which one?" Nomad asked, his face impassive.
"The one that made you the happiest," said George.
"That would be the current situation, so your question is null."
George pulled up a pinched smile. "I didn't realize how little it takes to make you happy."
"This isn't about me, or whether I'm happy or not, is it?" Nomad waited for George to speak again, but when the Little Genius did not, Nomad leaned toward him and said, "I do have eyes. I've got some sense. I've gone through enough bands to know when somebody's got the wanders. So be brother enough to tell me the truth. Who's making the offer?"
"Not what you think."
A pained expression passed across George's face. He took in the last of his cigarette, blew out gray smoke that scrolled away like a banner of mysterious calligraphy, and crushed the butt into the bricks.
"My first cousin Jeff, in Chicago," George said, "owns a business called Audio Advances. They do the setups for auditoriums, town halls, churches ... you name it. Mixing boards, effects racks, speakers, whatever they need. Plus training in how to run everything. He's doing real well." George stopped to watch a Harley speed past on the highway, its driver wearing a bright red helmet. "He needs a new Midwestern rep. He wants to know by ten tomorrow morning if I'm in or out."
Excerpted from The Five by Robert McCammon. Copyright © 2011 The McCammon Corporation. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
One: Death of a Band,
Two: Are You My Pet,
Three: Ballad of the Greek Potatoes,
Four: Stone Church,
Five: This Seat Is Saved,
Six: The Last Song,
About the Author,