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Sole Operator

Everyone knows that you never let the drummer write the lyrics.

Erik Arneson proves that when it comes to rock 'n' roll fame, the first cut is the deepest...

Sole Operator by Erik Arneson




April 1996

Billy Campbell had no conscience. When the shrink his parents made him see after a particularly bruising middle-school fight said Billy was a sociopath, it worried him at first. Through high school and college, however, he came to see the condition as a feature rather than a glitch.

He also realized that although he never felt guilty, he often felt jealous. And it was jealousy that consumed him as he read, for the ninth time, the review of his band’s new album in the influential indie rock mag Notebored:

“One of the greatest rock songwriters of the ’90s, Bear again delivers poetic lyrics and intricate percussion topped by catchy guitar riffs on Tangled Pool’s third release, Alaska Flowers. Add to the mix Billy Campbell’s smooth, Sade-like vocals—a voice female fans find simply irresistible—and the result is another brilliant album.”

The bit about his voice was true, obviously, but top billing always went to Bear, the drummer. Every fucking time. The drummer. The motherfucking drummer.

Enough.

*

Bear, a man large enough to deserve the nickname, sat behind the Mackie 1604 mixing board in his home recording studio, finishing off a Padrón corona, when Billy entered.

“Those things’ll kill you,” Billy said.

Bear, who hadn’t used his real name—Harry Evans—in years, grinned. “I told you before, Billy, it’s all good. You don’t inhale the smoke, you let it linger.” He blew a smoke ring to the ceiling. “You see Notebored? Chicks dig you.”

Billy grunted.

“When we hit the West Coast next month, you’ll be chasing away groupies.”

“Hope so. Hey, I got something for you. To celebrate that great review.” Billy handed his bandmate a Bahia Maduro torpedo.

Bear sniffed the cigar. “Impressive.”

“It took me far too long to appreciate the beauty of a fine cigar. I’m making up for lost time.”

“Got one for yourself?”

“I’ll try one of your Padróns.”

They smoked and relaxed and talked about the new Coen Brothers movie Fargo, that incredible night they opened for R.E.M., and everything else that came to mind. Halfway through the cigars, Bear began coughing, lightly at first. The cough grew much worse as they neared the end of the cigars.

Billy said, “You remember history class?”

“Hell, no,” Bear said between hacks.

“I remember learning about the CIA trying to assassinate Castro. Never could touch him.”

“Rings a bell.” The coughs, more drawn out now, started to sound painful. “Damn. I need some water.”

Bear tried to get up but his legs buckled. He fell to the floor and his eyes filled with confusion, then fear as he struggled to stand and failed. Billy felt a small twinge of…joy? Yes, joy, an unfamiliar emotion provoked by the sudden rush of power.

“What the hell’s wrong with me?” Bear labored to catch his breath.

“The CIA knew Castro loved cigars,” Billy continued. “So they planned to poison a cigar with something called BTX. Would’ve worked, but they couldn’t get near his personal stash.”

“Billy, help me. Please.”

“You know that medical lab I used to work at? They did a lot of research with BTX. Still do, it turns out. Surprisingly easy to get my hands on some when I stopped by to catch up with old friends this morning.”

Bear struggled to speak, struggled even to cough now. Billy stood and relished the feeling of control, the knowledge that his lack of guilt enabled him to do things—big things—other people would never consider.

Bear’s mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Billy knelt and grabbed Bear’s hair, lifting his head. “What’s that, Bear? Can’t hear you.”

“Why?” Bear’s voice was barely audible.

“Why?” Billy dropped Bear’s head to the floor with a thud as he considered the question. “You changed, Bear. Everything used to be fine. Then you bought into the critics’ bullshit, thinking you’re the reason people buy our albums.”

Bear’s breathing was thin, his face pale and blue. His cough was little more than a wheeze now.

One corner of Billy’s mouth turned up in a crooked smile as he stood and brushed some lint off his black pants. “Something in your eyes tells me you’re barely alive, Bear, so I’ll get quick to the point. It’s time to go solo. I’ve been thinking about what to call my first record. I really like being compared to Sade so maybe I’ll pay her tribute and go with Sole Operator.”

Billy nodded, pleased with his decision. “Yeah, Sole Operator. That has a nice ring. You dig it?”

The first piece of writing Erik Arneson ever had published was a review of a CD by gospel and blues singer “Blind” Willie Johnson. His crime fiction stories have been published in the charity anthology Off the Record 2: At the Movies, Needle, and Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, and the websites Shotgun Honey and Near to the Knuckle. He blogs at http://erikarneson.wordpress.com and tweets @erikarneson.