Murder Ballad

bloody guitar

Harrison was lying on the couch at the back of the recording studio with all the lights out, and that was not good. Harrison in the dark was never good.

The room was cluttered with equipment and when Thumper started toward the couch, he stubbed his toe on a mic stand and nearly went over on his face. He caught himself, rocking back on his heels and stumbling into his drum kit. The hi-hat made a soft clanging noise that reverberated in the air a long time. He had a strange impulse to wrap his arms around himself and hold on, even though it wasn’t cold. The tone from the hi-hat went on and on. On the couch, Harrison didn’t even move.

“Hey,” Thumper said, flinching at the sound of his own voice. “Hey, are you all right man? What are you doing in here?”

The tangled shadows and the silence made everything eerie. Harrison should be out soaking up the admiration in a VIP lounge somewhere, making out sloppily and publicly with his girlfriend Angie, not lying by himself in the dark.

Harrison didn’t answer, and for an instant, Thumper had the sudden, catastrophic idea that he was dead. It wouldn’t be the first time a lead guitarist had bitten it in less than majestic fashion, drank himself out or OD’d and left his bandmates to clean it up.

Then Harrison spoke from out of the dark. “Just sitting here. Just thinking about Roland.” His voice was slow and empty. It echoed hollowly, like the dry, dusty air in a tomb.


The Dead Rat Show was a persistent endeavor, going all the way back to high school. For close to four years, they’d languished in total obscurity. Mostly in Harrison’s garage.

But that was before Roland.

Harrison was the one who’d found him. Or maybe it was the other way around. Back then, Roland was playing regular shows at a dive bar with some trashy synthpop cover band. In typical Roland fashion, he was perfectly content there and seemed to have no problem with the fact that he was manning the keyboard for a bunch of yahoos who weren’t nearly as a good as he was and thought that torturing songs by Talk Talk and Erasure was the height of cool.

When Harrison invited him to try out for The Dead Rat Show (a laughable proposition—no one had ever been turned away yet), he didn’t fall on his knees trembling with gratitude. He didn’t even act surprised, and Harrison had never forgiven him for it. Roland had always been too self-assured for Harrison’s tastes.

During his tenure with the Electromagnetics, Roland had worn a strange array of patterned ties and bright nylon jumpsuits, and after his induction into The Dead Rat Show, he didn’t stop wearing them. The look was entirely inappropriate, since The Dead Rat Show was mostly an indie collage of labret piercings and vintage band T-shirts. But that was just Roland.

Before him, they’d been nobodies, and occasionally, nobodies who were between bass-players. When Harrison met Roland, the whole scene had changed. Roland knew things. He said they could take off if they could just change their style and their sound, just get one or two decent gigs. Roland knew people. He could get around all the red tape and the velvet rope in the world. Thumper was beginning to suspect that Roland could get you pretty much anything you wanted.

He’d certainly gotten them an in with a major label. The release of Rebel Songs had catapulted them from occasionally opening for scuzzy local bands, to headlining a tour so massive is lasted close to fourteen months. In interviews, Harrison liked to cultivate the impression that their epic success was mostly due to his role as the talented and charismatic front man, but Thumper knew the truth. When Roland touched the keys, people listened—they couldn’t help it. They were captivated, powerless to walk away or shut it off, and in less than two years, The Dead Rat Show had become synonymous with sold-out shows, infectious beats, and a horde of screaming young fans who would follow them anywhere.

Thumper stood over the couch in the dark studio. He took a deep breath and folded his arms against his chest. “What do you mean ‘Just thinking about Roland?’ What’s to think about? We’re freaking famous. If he writes another Rebel Songs, our next album could go triple platinum. Where’s Angie?”

Harrison shifted lazily on the couch. His feet were hanging over the armrest, chunky in their high-top skate shoes. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Roland’s a saint.”

Thumper looked away and hugged himself tighter.

Harrison had been the first one to feel anything like resentment. He’d become increasingly bitter over the way that Roland had simply walked in and become the new, beating heart of the band. And Thumper thought that bitterness was just a little weak, considering that guitarists were basically indispensable, while Roland’s synthesizer made Thumper’s drum kit pretty much obsolete—and you didn’t hear Thumper complaining. But Harrison was temperamental. No, if you got right down to it, Harrison was a selfish prick.

“Harrison, what the hell is going on?”

“She was going to run away with him. Did you know that?”

“Who? Run away with who?” But Thumper didn’t really need to ask.

Angie was quiet, childlike, a sweet and permanent fixture. Sometimes, Harrison adored her. Most of the time, he had no problem deserting her for the ever-present glow of the groupies. And Angie took it because taking it was a nasty little habit of hers, just like their last bassist’s coke problem, and she had nothing better to do. Angie had been languishing with Harrison almost as long as The Dead Rat Show has been languishing in Harrison’s garage.

On the couch, Harrison lay very still. “Roland, you dumbass. She was going to leave me for Roland.”

Thumper nodded. He’d been expecting that, and even knowing it was coming, he was still surprised by how much it hurt. He’d always been kind in love with Angie—as much as you could be in love with your best friend’s girlfriend. And yes, when he was honest, sometimes that was a lot in-love. When Roland came along, he figured it was really only a matter of time. She never would have ditched Harrison for Thumper, but Roland and his magic keyboard was another thing altogether.

“Where’s Angie now?”

Harrison just shrugged and tipped his head back. His outline was stark again the pale upholstery of the couch, but his face was invisible in the dark.

“Don’t screw with me. Where is she?”

Harrison still didn’t answer. He threw out an arm, gesturing vaguely to the little equipment room.

Thumper’s heart constricted. He felt it skip, then start to hammer, and adrenaline flooded his arms and legs. He picked his way through the mess of gear, noticing for the first time how disorganized everything was. How chaotic. Mic stands lay toppled in a tangle of wires, along with Harrison’s guitar. Evidence of a struggle.

He opened the door to the little equipment room, knowing what he would see before he saw it. In the dim light from the hall, Angie lay on the carpet and her eyes were wide and empty. There was a huge, ugly hole in the middle of chest, and something dark and glossy pooled under her.

Behind her, a larger shape was slumped sideways against an amp. Roland, in his bright nylon jumpsuit. He’d slid down the wall, leaving a dark smear behind him on the paint.

Thumper sat down on the floor, holding onto his elbows, rocking. Rocking. Harrison was still behind him on the couch, but that didn’t really matter. Justificatio
ns didn’t matter. Retribution didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that Angie was gone and so was the band. The only thing that mattered was, if Harrison couldn’t have all of something, then no one would have any of it.

Over in the corner, Roland’s keyboard sat vacant, silent, and Thumper was back to being nobody. He sat with his back to Harrison, waiting. Waiting for the click.

Photo by nadja.robot

25 thoughts on “Murder Ballad

  1. Cool. I’ll calL CSI. Angie’s a groupies name. I like the tension in 3 word and single word sentences.

  2. That is the best last line I’ve heard in a while.

    And creepily, I prefer to believe that Harrison killed him, instead of Roland having to live in the ashes.

  3. Wow. Even though i knew what was going to happen it was still suspenseful and wonderful. I loved all the imagery and tragedy dude.

  4. What a great way to start my day… totally creeped out by a story and perpetually glancing at the dark, misty shadows outside (thanks to the rain). My kind of day, thank you! 🙂

  5. Cool. I’ll calL CSI. Angie’s a groupies name.

    It is, kind of! Yesterday was my day of names arising completely randomly, no rhyme or reason.

  6. Thanks! I was so excited when I found that picture in creative commons. You would be surprised at how many of the search results for “bloody guitar” . . . are not bloody guitars.

  7. I definitely think you’re right about Harrison—although I am often conflicted by my own ambiguity in this Merry Fates shorts . . .

  8. Thanks! I just now realized that it’s kind of alarming how many of my Merry Fates shorts end in death or kissing. It’s got to be, like, 85%!

  9. And Angie took it because taking it was a nasty little habit of hers

    That was an entire history in less than a sentence. Fabulous. I love the tension in this. Killer last line.

  10. *plays intro to The World I Know on red Stratocaster* *chords from The Spirit Of Radio* The murder of Geddy Lee and Neil Peart. I should have known that Alex Lifeson would go all Viking on them; unfortunate that he stained the lovely Fender with their blood!
    Happy birthday in advance!! Methinks that I shall re-read The Replacement in honor. Perhaps twice, alongside some Ray Bradbury for Halloween. 😉

    — Virginia K.

  11. Sometime I can’t help it—I get very In-the-Pines/Where-Did-You-Sleep-Last-Night and then I have to write a story about death 😉

  12. Oh, man—I feel really bad for Angie . . . I don’t know the details, but that history is clearly not good!

  13. Pingback: Rock’n’Roll Pain Train « A long way to the top

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