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Standing at the Crossroads

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They started breakfast without Artie grumping in with any cases, but Claudia knew better than to think it might be a quiet day just because of that - for one thing, one of the absolute craziest days she’d ever seen in the Warehouse started out with no cases for anyone. She and Steve headed over to the Warehouse first; once she got there, she settled in at her computer and checked her email.

“News, news, spambot wants to follow me on Twitter - whoa, dude, why do I end up with so much Viagra spam?”

Steve shrugged. “The same reason I get all the spam about mail-order Russian brides?”

“I’d offer to trade, but I doubt that’d do either of us much good.” Claudia checked off a few more messages to delete sight unseen, then stopped. “Ooh, Joshua sent me something.”

“What?”

“...A link to a stream of that blues thing in New Orleans. Just great, music from the stone ages, my favorite.”

“Hey, without those stone ages, you wouldn’t have half the stuff you like now,” Steve pointed out.

“I know, I know, but - I’ve never been a blues person. But he’ll ask about it, so.” Claudia set the stream to load for some background noise; by the time Artie came in, Steve was off to inventory and she was scanning the news on her phone.

“What’s that?”

“Blues thing in New Orleans,” Claudia said, without looking away from her phone. “Joshua thought I’d like it, can’t imagine why. And please don’t lecture me on its cultural relevance, dude, now isn’t the time.”

“Furthest thing from my mind,” Artie grumbled. “Any pings?”

“Not so far.”

“Let’s give it up for the return of Louisiana’s own Johnny Lancaster!” the announcer on the stream said; Claudia rolled her eyes as hard as she could.

“That guy? I thought he was in jail or something.” Of course, she could give the benefit of the doubt that the arrest was always more loudly announced than the release - but Lancaster was overblown, in her opinion, technically brilliant but way too caught up in the parties and booze to do anyone any good.

But she looked up and watched Lancaster take the stage anyway - and frowned. “Dude’s ditching his backup band and the electric? This had better be good.”

“He doesn’t usually go acoustic?” Artie said, without turning around.

“No, and this thing... speaking of the stone ages, this might be that old.” Even Claudia knew that Lancaster was about universally known for his custom blue Fender, had been since he was fifteen or so; what appeal could some ancient acoustic thing that very much looked its age have over that?

On the screen, Lancaster gave no indication of looking at the camera or the crowd; he just started playing a song that sounded about as old as the guitar looked. Claudia frowned, then smiled a little as Lancaster reached the lyrics - even she’d heard a few covers of “Crossroads” in her time - and then, all of a sudden, Artie was all but shoving into her space, just as the camera panned back.

“Wait go back go back--”

Claudia sighed. “No can do, it’s a stream, this is live. They’ll come back around to a close-up, don’t panic.” She tried to take her own advice as the cameraman took what seemed like an eternity to get back to the stage; anything that’d caught Artie’s attention this fast was probably Bad News.

The camera finally came back around to the guitar on the second verse; Artie spent most of that time staring at the computer, then said, “How old is this man?”

Claudia shrugged. “I dunno, around my age, maybe a little older? No older than Jinksy, definitely. Why?”

Artie turned back to his computer and pulled up one of his travel connections. “You and Steve are going to New Orleans. Now.”

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t,” Artie said, turning long enough to point at the video feed, “that man is going to die. I’ll brief you en route. Go.”

“Jeez, okay, fine, let me go get Jinksy.” Claudia sighed and shut off the video feed, wondering if it would really hurt Artie that much to give them a little more to go on.

***

The bad news was that Artie didn’t even bother putting together a case file before they left; the good news was that he’d actually chartered a plane for the purpose, so she and Steve had it to themselves. Claudia supposed that was kind of also bad news, at least in the sense that Artie was worried enough about whatever bad juju Lancaster had stumbled across to charter a plane, but for now she wasn’t arguing.

“So what kind of ping is this,” Steve said, “the kind where we know what we’re after, or the ‘people are acting weird, make it stop’ kind?”

Claudia shrugged. “Somewhere between the two, I guess? Artie sure as hell seemed to know what’s going on, but he didn’t elaborate beyond the prediction of doom and gloom if we didn’t get to New Orleans yesterday.”

“Helpful as usual.”

“You don’t say. I’m gonna make with the Google-fu when we land, see what else I can’t--” She was interrupted by the Farnsworth buzzing. “Assuming the infodump doesn’t completely change my list, of course.”

She dug the Farnsworth out of her coat pocket, flipped it open, and said, “And Claudia’s like ‘WTF mate?’” with as horrible of an Australian accent as she could manage.

“What?” Artie said. “...You know what, never mind, we have bigger fish to fry here. Does this look familiar?” He held an old photo up to the screen, of a black man holding an acoustic guitar.

“Put about eighty years on it, and... yes, yes it does. This explain why he went for a song from the stone ages?”

“And at what point do you tell us why this was so urgent you chartered a plane?” Steve added.

“This man,” Artie said, “is Robert Johnson. He was a blues musician in the ‘30s, almost a legend in his own time--”

“Wait, you’re not going to tell us he actually sold his soul to the devil, are you?”

Artie lowered the photo and rolled his eyes. “Probably not literally. There are any number of things that could have had the same effect - anyway, he recorded 29 songs in all, then died under mysterious circumstances at 27, but his guitar just - disappeared. Gus always said it was on the watch list, but even we never got a bead on it until 1969, when it was found in Brian Jones’s house the day they pulled him out of the swimming pool.”

Claudia frowned. “I already don’t like where this is going.”

“It gets worse. The year after that, one James Marshall Hendrix got his hands on it, shortly before his untimely death. The year after that, it was Jim Morrison. All musicians, all dead at the age of 27, and all of them owned this instrument.”

“Just how many Artifact guitars did Jimi Hendrix have?” Steve said.

Claudia shrugged. “He was a legend in his own time, too, but that’s not really the point right now. What about Janis Joplin, or - wasn’t one of the Lynyrd Skynyrd guys at least near that age group when their plane crashed?”

“Unrelated, as far as I know,” Artie said. “Gus was on that thing’s trail for years, but we’ve never been able to retrieve it - as soon as the owner dies, it disappears again. Closest we’ve come was Kurt Cobain’s estate sale in ‘94.”

“Well, there’s your problem, you were too caught up in your messy breakup with MacPherson--”

“Not the point, Claudia. If you two get to Lancaster immediately, you might be able to snag the Artifact and save his life, if you’re lucky.”

“I know it’s not the point,” Claudia said. “Excuse me for trying not to dwell on the fact that you just sent your twenty-something guitar-poker-atter after a guitar that likes to kill people in my age bracket. Not exactly feeling comforted by that.”

“That’s why I expect you to be careful,” Artie said, glaring at Claudia over his glasses. “You and Steve are also the youngest team that’s ever been sent out in pursuit - maybe you’ll spot something Gus and I never did. Meanwhile, I also did some digging on Lancaster himself - it’s worth noting he doesn’t entirely fit the Artifact’s type. While he was a chart-topper before he was twenty--”

Claudia rolled her eyes. “At which point he promptly started partying his head off.” The hype (and the tabloids) had been fiendishly difficult to avoid, before she’d really gotten to work on busting Joshua out of limbo.

“Yes, but you were right that he has been in jail, at least. Summer of ‘04, he took his trophy wife for a drive after they’d both been drinking all day, plowed into an overpass support column--”

“He survived, she didn’t,” Steve finished. “I remember reading about that, his BAC was off the charts.”

“What’d they book him for, then, vehicular manslaughter?” Claudia said.

Artie nodded. “And DUI. Got six years, out on parole after three, as far as anyone knows he’s been clean and sober since. But here’s the thing - he hasn’t put out an album since before that accident, and the guitar has usually kept company with people at the peak of their careers.”

Steve frowned. “Do you think... is it possible someone gave it to him?”

“Difficult, considering the way it moves around, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Oh, and by the way, Lancaster’s 28th birthday? Three days from now. You’re going to have to move fast - I don’t want to find out what will happen if he somehow manages to survive with it any longer than that.”

“Artie...” Claudia sighed. “I don’t know if you’ve thought this through all the way. How the hell are we supposed to get between Johnny Lancaster and his guitar?”

“You’re going to have to figure that out when you get there, but I can tell you where you can find him tomorrow. Store called Vintage 429, on Royal - they’re having a charity auction at ten tomorrow morning, and I’ll be letting my contact know you’re coming as soon as we’re through talking.”

“Your contact?” Steve said. “What kind of store is this that you have a standing contact?”

“They specialise in autographs,” Artie said. “Usually signed photographs, books or musical instruments--”

“And two out of three go Artifact-y reliably enough that you keep tabs on their collection,” Claudia finished. “Got it. We’ll be there.”

“You’d better.” Artie hung up, and Claudia closed the Farnsworth with a sigh.

“Great,” she said. “This couldn’t be something I wouldn’t be remotely susceptible to without making an effort.”

“Such as?” Steve said.

“I dunno, Duane Allman’s motorcycle? Bet that one’s all fun and games until it steers itself headlong into the nearest fruit truck. But no, it had to be an evil guitar.”

“Don’t worry, Claud. I’ve got your back - I’m not gonna let this thing take you down.”

Claudia smiled a little, but she doubted she’d truly relax until they got this case squared away.

***

“I don’t like where my Google-fu’s taking me,” she said the next morning over breakfast.

“Mmm?” Steve said, around a mouthful of beignet (for her part, Claudia was still expecting Pete to call up and tell them to bring some back; he could come to New Orleans and get them his own damn self).

Claudia wiped her hands, the better to avoid getting powdered sugar all over her phone, then passed it over. “Well, I started with the Lynyrd Skynyrd hunch, just to make sure, and I thought I was wrong at first - Steve Gaines was 28 when the plane went down. But guess what he got for his 28th birthday?”

Steve looked at the picture Claudia had pulled up and frowned. “And he didn’t even make it a month after that. You’re right, that’s not a good sign.”

“It’s not just that he didn’t make it, Jinksy - he took half the band with him. If we don’t snag this thing fast, it’s gonna be more than Lancaster’s life on the line.”

“We’ll just have to make sure we get it, then. And at least that fills in some of the gap between Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, but - what about the time between him and now?”

Claudia shrugged. “Still working on it. Anyway - what time did Artie say that thing was? Ten? We’d better boogie. Don’t want to miss our appointment.”

When they got to Vintage 429, Claudia could see why Artie bothered keeping up a contact; most of the signed books were first editions, and as for the instruments, God knew they’d dealt with enough of those before now.

“This is truly epic,” she said.

Steve nodded, without looking away from the Yalta photo he was examining. “It would be without the... added fun, really. This is a hell of a lot of history to pack into one building.”

Artie’s contact hadn’t been able to get them into the prep space for the auction, but did secure them front-row seats for the whole thing. Claudia found herself half wishing Artie had bothered to mention if they had fundage for this auction like they had for Typhoid Mary’s knife, but she doubted that would’ve helped them much; after all, if this guitar had its claws in Lancaster, the odds of him putting it in the auction were likely slim to none. She draped her coat over a chair, then set about mingling as people filtered in, hoping to find out something useful.

“Ended up talking to Lancaster’s mother,” Steve said, when it got close to go time and they returned to their seats. “She said he started getting more withdrawn about three weeks ago and she has no idea why.”

“Given his track record, that could be drinking,” Claudia said. “But I’m going with the Evil Guitar of Evil, unless and until we know otherwise. Anything else of note?”

“I don’t know how relevant it might be overall, but she’s here with her granddaughter. Eight years old and adorable.”

“So that’s why he got married in such a hurry.”

Steve rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything else, the people behind the auction and their special guest stars - mostly people who were in town for the blues festival - came out. Lancaster, she couldn’t help noticing, looked tired, more so than anything she’d managed to see from yesterday’s performance would account for; as far as she could tell, he didn’t look hungover, but she was the first to admit she was no expert in the field.

“Still don’t know how we’re supposed to get in to talk to him,” she said, “but I’ll give the place this, they’ve got some good taste in background music.”

“Claud...”

“What? I know old-school Stones isn’t to everyone’s taste, but you can’t deny it’s classic any more than I could say that about Elvis.”

Steve looked at her like - well, not quite like when it turned out she’d reminded him of his sister, but close. “Claudia... there’s no music on in here.”

“There isn’t? Are you sure?”

“Would I lie to you about something like that?”

Claudia swallowed, and looked at Lancaster again, willing to bet he could hear it too - and that they were likely the only people in the room who could. “Well, crap.”

***

After that little revelation, the charity auction got a lot harder to sit through. Claudia’s hunch that the guitar they were after wouldn’t be involved proved right, but the real surprise was Lancaster’s signature number going up on the block (and bringing in a pretty penny to boot); she and Steve even exchanged ‘oh crap’ glances when the auctioneer announced that. It was, of course, possible that he had more than one of the thing, but under the circumstances, it still didn’t feel right.

It didn’t help that she could still hear the music in the background, nor that about halfway through the auction, it shifted to Jimi Hendrix.

“Deep breaths, Claud,” Steve said, as the auction finally drew to a close. “No need to panic yet, we still have time to figure this out.”

“Easy for you to say, Jinksy, you’re not on the receiving end of this thing.” Claudia sighed. “We better go try to talk to Lancaster before he gets a chance to sneak out the back door.”

They followed him as far as a back room, and there, their way was blocked by a middle-aged woman in a well-cut suit - Lancaster’s manager, if she had to guess.

Steve had apparently made the same leap of logic; he flashed his badge and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, we were wondering if we could have a word with your client?”

“Mr. Lancaster is spending a little time with his family before the next part of the festival tonight,” the woman replied. “Is it anything I can help you with?”

“Maybe,” Claudia said, trying to think straight around the music. “We need to talk to him about that guitar.”

“What, the one he put in the auction? I tried to talk him out of that, but he said--”

“No, the one he was using for his performance yesterday.”

The woman frowned. “He said he wanted his next album to be acoustic. I’m not sure if the money’s really in it, but...” She shrugged. “It seems to have worked for other people. I’m willing to give it the old college try.”

“It’s not just that, ma’am,” Steve said. “It’s... it’s a long story, but this could very well be a matter of life and death. If you don’t know where he got it, we’re going to have to talk to him directly.”

“Well...” She pulled a phone out of her pocket, poked a few buttons, and said, “Looks like he’s got some time tomorrow morning. I could have him meet you somewhere for breakfast before he’s due at the studio.”

“The studio already?” Claudia said.

“If Mr. Lancaster’s going to be ready for his comeback tour, he’s got to get started while the festival’s still on.”

“Fair enough. Cafe du Monde tomorrow morning? Nineish?” Normally, she wouldn’t have wanted to eat at the same restaurant two days in a row, but if they were going to overdo it on the beignets, they might as well do it in style. Besides, it was next to impossible to miss and saved them the trouble of having to hunt for another place.

Steve shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”

The woman nodded, and entered it into her phone. “All right, I’ll have him meet you there.”

Before Claudia could say anything else, the Farnsworth buzzed from her pocket; she headed out the store’s front door before answering it, leaving Steve to finish the conversation.

“Well?” Artie said. “Have you talked to him yet?”

“No, but we did talk to his manager. We’re talking to him tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow - did I somehow not stress enough that this thing could kill him in the next 48 hours?”

Claudia sighed. “We got that memo, Grumpypants, this isn’t like barging into Joe Schmoe’s everyday life here. The guy’s got a schedule and we’re doing the best we can around that and it’s already trying to get into my head so if you could please stop hounding me, I’d really appreciate it.”

“Well, excuse me for - wait. What exactly is it doing?”

“I thought they had the stereo on before the auction started. Steve said it wasn’t. I haven’t even been within ten feet of the damn thing yet, Artie, how am I supposed to bag it?”

“I would recommend very, very carefully.” Artie frowned, and turned to face his computer. “Have you found out anything else of note?”

Claudia filled him in on what her research had told her so far, and Artie’s frown grew deeper; even though she’d been expecting that, it was still worrying to see. “We haven’t had a chance to work out how he got his hands on it yet,” she finished, “but we couldn’t talk to him now because he’s spending time with his family, so if he got it for himself it wasn’t out of any kind of death wish.”

“It rarely is, with Artifacts. But no matter how it came into his possession, I think I know how it got the responsible person’s attention.” Artie picked up his Farnsworth; Claudia looked away until the screen stopped blurring to see what he wanted to show her.

“Amy Winehouse? I didn’t even think of her, I mean, it’s so obvious that the tox screen’s going to come back as alcohol poisoning or something--”

“It was equally obvious,” Artie interrupted, “that Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison overindulged, Steve Gaines died in a plane crash and Kurt Cobain shot himself. She had the guitar two weeks before she died. It’s on the move again. Talk to Lancaster and stop it before the chain starts again.”

Artie hung up just as Steve walked out of the store. Claudia sighed - it seemed like she was doing that a lot, lately - and said, “What took you so long?” as she put the Farnsworth away.

“Lancaster’s manager felt the need to reassure me that if he’s drinking again, he’s gotten a lot better at covering it up since he was nineteen. She wasn’t lying about that, either.”

“You say that like she was lying about something else.”

Steve shrugged. “If she was, it was a lie of omission, and I can’t pick up on what someone doesn’t say. What did Artie have to say?”

“Oh, you know, the usual, doom and gloom, why didn’t you talk to this guy yesterday, the guitar’s on the prowl - it’s a guitar, Artie, how can it be on the prowl? And by the way, Amy Winehouse? Now she ded from Artifact. And he’s especially grumpy about getting this thing bagged and I’m already bent out of shape because it’s trying to mess with my head and I haven’t even touched it yet and--”

“Claud, look at me.” Steve put his hands on Claudia’s shoulders, and waited to continue until she did look at him. “If you keep panicking like this, we’re not going to get anything done. I know this is freaking you out a lot, but you have to concentrate. I have your back, and so does Artie, in his way - he’s probably being extra grumpy because he’s worried about you.”

Claudia rolled her eyes. “So nice of him to show he cares like a normal human being.”

“You know him better than I do. Don’t tell me that surprises you anymore. Anyway - take a few deep breaths, count your blessings that Agent Stukowski hasn’t tried to butt in on our case yet, and try to focus.”

Claudia did manage to take a few deep breaths - they were shaky, but they were deep and she was breathing. “Okay. I’m not interrupting Lancaster’s family time. If what his mother told you was any indication, he hasn’t been getting enough of it since he got this stupid guitar. We probably can’t sneak backstage and do this sooner.”

“Not without attracting attention, anyway, and if someone gave him the thing they might be keeping an eye out.”

“So... what do we do now, pray nothing happens to him in the next 24 hours?”

Steve shrugged. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s all I’ve got. Let’s get some lunch and see if we can think of anything else.”

***

They didn’t think of anything else at lunch, or at dinner, or in their hotel room that night. Claudia tried to sleep, but it didn’t come easily; she didn’t think that had anything to do with the guitar, but by the time Steve got up to get ready for their breakfast appointment, she had a new appreciation for how tired Lancaster must be feeling.

Breakfast itself seemed to drag by slowly, the way time always did when she was waiting on someone; it definitely didn’t help that this was so high-stakes that Lancaster might already be dead and they’d have no way of knowing until later.

“What do you think we should do if he doesn’t show?” Steve said, voicing the same doubts Claudia had been having just as she got confirmation that said doubts were completely unnecessary.

“We don’t need to worry about that. He’ll be here soon.”

“You sure?”

Claudia sighed. “Trust me, Jinksy, I don’t like the Doors at the best of times, and when an evil guitar is trying to take over my head? Not the best of times.”

Inside of a minute, they were sharing a table with a semi-retired musical legend. Claudia couldn’t help feeling it was supposed to be a slightly more epic experience than a tall, skinny guy about her age plopping down in a chair and saying, “Evangeline said y’all wanted to talk to me?”

But she’d take what she could get, especially since this meant they weren’t too late after all.

“Yeah, we do,” Steve said. “It’s about your guitar.”

“Knew I shouldn’t have sold it.”

“Well, no,” Claudia said, pushing the beignet plate in Lancaster’s direction in case he wanted one. “But not that guitar. We meant the acoustic one you’ve been using lately.”

“Oh, that one.” Lancaster sighed, and picked up a beignet. “What d’you want to know?”

“You’ve been tired lately, haven’t you? Hearing music when by all rights there shouldn’t be any playing?”

“No appetite?” Steve added, with a pointed look at the beignet; Lancaster had yet to take a bite.

“Finding it hard to dredge up an interest in the non-musical side of your life? Been happening since you first got the urge to go acoustic?”

Lancaster eyed her sharply, at that. “Yeah. What’s that got to do with the guitar?”

“Everything,” Steve said. “It’s a nasty piece of work.”

“Heard Hendrix used it.”

“He did. And then he turned up dead. So did a few other people you might’ve heard of.”

Lancaster sighed again, and finally took a bite of his beignet. After he swallowed, he said, “That thing… Ain’t a rush like it in the world, and believe me, I’ve tried most of ‘em. I know a bad high when I see one, but I ain’t got another option, especially after that auction.”

“Why did you auction off your signature number, anyway?” Claudia said.

“Well, I’m goin’ in a different direction right now. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Even to Claudia’s ears, Lancaster didn’t sound like he quite believed himself; she couldn’t imagine what Steve was getting out of it.

And then, much to her surprise, Steve stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I promised my sister I’d do something for her while I was here.”

Claudia frowned, but Steve just raised an eyebrow at her and left the table before she could ask the painfully obvious question – and then she realised what he was getting at.

“I play a little myself,” she said. “Nothing on your level, I mostly sort of dabble, but… my foster parents thought it’d help me make friends.”

“Did it?” Lancaster said, actually showing real interest in the conversation for the first time.

“Not really, but that was mostly my own doing. My parents and brother had skipped me ahead a couple grades, and then my brother… he disappeared. Similar thing to the guitar, but not exactly. So I’m saying this as both a fellow musician and someone who’s lost all of her family before – if you put the thing down for no other reason, do it for your kid.”

They sat in silence for a while, as Lancaster finished his beignet and Claudia wondered where Steve had gone off to, and then Lancaster sighed again. “You got a point there,” he said. “Melissa’s had it hard enough, she don’t need me missin’ more of her life than I already have.”

Claudia raised an eyebrow. “Melissa, eh? Do I spy a little Allman Brothers influence there?”

Lancaster grinned. “Never did like Jessica as a name, and much as I like the song, I wasn’t about to name a kid Martha. She’s a sweetie. Takes after her mama.” His grin faded into a wistful smile. “Lot of people think I only married Abby ‘cause--”

“Because you knocked her up?” Claudia blurted out, before she could stop herself; fortunately, Lancaster only rolled his eyes.

“Wasn’t gonna be that crass about it, but yeah. But we’d been talkin’ about it for a while, and Melissa just… kinda sped things up.”

“I can see that.” After another few moments of silence, Claudia added, “You know, you’re not such a bad guy. Made a few stupid choices, sure, but there’s no one at this table who’s not guilty of that.”

“Nobody on this planet who ain’t guilty of that, more like. Tell you what, I’m in the studio the rest of the afternoon till the festival starts up again. The studio’s one that wants you to have your own gear, so I need the guitar for that, but I’ll be able to come up with somethin’ at the festival, so y’all can have it before I go to that. Sound good?”

“Sounds as good as we’re gonna get. Where’s the studio?”

Lancaster pointed down the road. “Decatur and Barracks, inland from the market. Can’t miss it when you get there.” He stood up, just as Claudia caught sight of Steve walking back to the table. “See you around three?”

“We’ll be there.”

Lancaster smiled a little and left, taking the dulcet tones of Lynyrd Skynyrd with him; Claudia fished some money out of her tool belt to settle the bill.

“How’d it go?” Steve said, when he was close enough for conversation.

“Pretty good. We can pick up the guitar this afternoon.” Claudia raised an eyebrow at him and added, “Promised you’d do something for your sister, huh? I see what you did thar.”

“Actually, I did.” He reached into his pocket and fished out a little stone angel. “She always used to say she wanted something from the flea market, and I told her I’d get her something if I got here first.”

“Fair enough. Did it have to be a stone angel, though?”

“They don’t all try to eat you, Claud. Besides, I needed something that’d go well with her gravestone.”

Claudia let the topic drop, and they wandered around the French Quarter for a while. Close to noon – at a guess, anyway, from the way her stomach was starting to fuss – Steve tapped her shoulder.

“Huh?”

“I said, give me the Farnsworth, if you’re not going to answer it.”

Claudia pulled the Farnsworth out of her tool belt and stared at it for a moment; sure enough, it was buzzing away. “How long’s it been doing that?”

“Nearly a minute.”

“...Shit. Next you’re going to tell me there’s not a bar on this block that’s blasting ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ aren’t you.”

Steve frowned, took the Farnsworth, and opened it. “Sorry about that, Artie. I’d call it technical difficulties, but--”

“Do you have the guitar?”

“No, we’re picking it up later.”

Claudia didn’t have to be looking at the screen to feel the full force of Artie’s glare. “Apparently, I cannot stress enough just how time-sensitive this is. Meanwhile, I tracked down a bill of sale for the guitar – from Amy Winehouse’s estate to one Evangeline Scott.”

“Wait. We heard that name earlier today.” Steve frowned again, then looked up at Claudia, eyes wide. “Lancaster. When he came to the table he said Evangeline--”

“His manager,” Claudia finished. “I gotta – Decatur and Barracks, I gotta go, now.” She took off down the street at a dead run, leaving Steve to finish the conversation with Artie. For once, she was glad for the ever-present soundtrack of the last couple days; there was no going the wrong way with that to guide her, even if a block away from the studio she found herself with a song she’d never heard before stuck in her head.

“Miss Winehouse, I presume,” she muttered as she rounded the last corner. There were no less than three cop cars and an ambulance at the front door – never a good sign; fortunately, they were too occupied with whatever they were investigating to worry about her sneaking in.

When she reached the studio at the center of all the excitement, she found Lancaster collapsed on the floor, two paramedics hovering over him, and his manager hovering over the paramedics, apparently doing everything in her power to keep them from actually pulling the guitar out of Lancaster’s hands. If they didn’t already have Artie’s word for it, that would have been sign enough for Claudia that the woman was up to no good.

“He just bowled over in the middle of the song,” the woman said. “I don’t know what happened.”

“Oh, what a load of crap,” Claudia said to herself – or, from the way everyone conscious turned to look at her, not so much to herself after all. The paramedics turned their attention back to Lancaster, but his manager just raised an eyebrow at her.

“Beg pardon?”

“I don’t need Steve here to know you just lied through your teeth. You know exactly what happened, you’ve been waiting for it to happen since you gave him the stupid guitar, but – why? That’s the one thing I don’t get. Why are you trying to ass-backwardsly kill the guy you represent?”

Evangeline pursed her lips. “Well, he did say he wanted to do an acoustic album, and this guitar’s got quite the pedigree. I thought he would appreciate that.”

“Quite the pedigree of dead people, you mean. You had to know this was coming.”

“Honey, have you seen what posthumous album sales are like? He was talking about retiring, and no one cares about a musician who’s retired.”

Claudia was speechless for a moment, as much because she couldn’t believe someone could be that focused on the bottom line as because her personal soundtrack changed. It was only a fragment, but she didn’t have to hear more than a few chords to know it was moving on – and she wasn’t about to let that happen.

“Not on my watch,” she said, diving to grab the guitar just as Steve burst into the room behind her.

“Claudia! Artie said whatever you do, don’t--”

 

***

The next thing Claudia knew, she was outside, on what seemed to be a muggy evening – plucked straight out of the 1930s, if the cars on the dirt road were any indication – holding the guitar. There was no sign of Lancaster anywhere, which she chose to take as a good sign for the moment; on the other hand, there was no sign of anyone else who’d been in the studio, either.

She sighed. “You really need to learn to put on gloves before you grab these things, self.”

She eyed her surroundings for a few moments; none of the shops seemed to be open, and as for the buildings that looked like houses, she didn’t want to barge in on anyone’s dinner, assuming they weren’t just being a fake Rock Ridge for the purposes of... whatever was actually going on. The only sign of life that she could see was a single street lamp, over a crossroads a few blocks down.

Of course.

But Claudia had no other options, and even if it would work in a situation like this, Steve still had the Farnsworth. She was on her own, and from the looks of things, she had no choice but to play whatever game this was until it was over. With that in mind, she adjusted her grip on the guitar and started walking toward the intersection.

“Looks like you need a little help there.”

Claudia jumped, and spun around; there was a guy leaning on the lamppost. She was pretty sure he hadn’t been there when she started out, but he just tipped his hat like he hadn’t appeared out of nowhere.

She wondered for a second if the dude was related to Mrs. Frederic, then said, “No thanks. I’m just trying to figure out how to get home.”

The man smiled, the light from the street lamp somehow glinting off it, even though he’d put his hat back on. “Well, that I can help you with, miss.”

“I’m pretty sure I don’t want to pay your price for it.”

“Now, you say that like it’s a bad thing. I just want to help y’all reach your potential, make sure everyone remembers your name.”

Claudia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I just bet you do. How very music with rocks in. But, funny story, I don’t plan on dying for my art any time soon.”

The man scowled briefly. “You sound like that Townshend boy,” he said. “He didn’t want no help neither.”

“Maybe because he knew he didn’t need what you were offering. And I don’t either – if I wanted to be famous, I wouldn’t work for a place that does the opposite of advertise itself.”

The man scowled again, and started stalking toward Claudia; she froze for a moment, then raised the only weapon she had to hand and swung the guitar at him--

***

--And found herself on the floor of the studio, somehow still managing to brandish the stupid thing.

“Jeez, Claud,” Steve said, pulling the guitar out of her hands; fortunately, he’d taken the time to put a pair of gloves on. “See if I ever help you out of a tight spot again.”

“I wasn’t swinging it at you,” she said, sitting up and pulling on a pair of gloves. “Where’s everybody else?”

“The paramedics took Lancaster outside. And Evangeline, as it happens – she went down the same time you did.” Steve shrugged. “I told ‘em I’d get you down there if you turned out to be in real trouble, since they had their hands full.”

“Well. Hopefully this’ll do the trick.”

The ambulance was still there when they got outside, and Lancaster’s manager was still unconscious; Lancaster himself, on the other hand, was sitting up, talking to one of the paramedics.

Claudia stuck her head in the back door. “Hey, you okay?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” Lancaster grinned. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks to y’all. Go on and get that thing wherever it is you’re takin’ it. I’ll figure it out from here.”

“You got it.” She turned to go, then wheeled back around just as quickly. “Oh – Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“Happy birthday.”

Lancaster grinned again. “Thanks.”

***

When they got back to the Warehouse, Leena had a space in the Dark Vault singled out for the guitar and ready to go. Claudia was grateful for that; considering the thing had already tried to kill her once, she really didn’t want to leave it sitting in a relatively unsecured spot and give it a second chance.

A few days and an open mic later, Claudia fired up her computer to get the day’s preliminary checks underway. Steve and Myka were doing inventory, and she hadn’t seen Artie since breakfast, which she took to mean either Leena or Mrs. F was talking to him about something.

Just as she was loading her email, Pete came in and set a box of doughnuts on her desk. “Ye olde morning pastry.”

Claudia eyed the box for a moment. “I spy with my little eye three doughnuts left in the box.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So we’re usually lucky to have one left by the time you’re through with them. What did you do?”

“I, uh.” Pete managed to look at everything in the room but Claudia, which was a pretty impressive trick. “Might have posted a video from the other night on Youtube.”

“You did what?”

“Don’t kill me?”

She didn’t, but she did treat Pete to her best Death Glare (she’d been trying to work up a combo punch of the worst of Artie’s glare – as best she could, without the glasses – and Mrs. F’s). “Pete. It is going to take a lot more than doughnuts to make up for that. I told you no Youtube for a reason.”

“I know, I know, but – well, you said it was for the guy’s birthday. I figured he deserved a chance to actually hear it. And anyway, it was good.”

“Yeah, whatever, you still owe me. Now go away and continue groveling later.” She glared again, and Pete beat a hasty retreat.

Once he was gone, she pulled up his Youtube account to see just how cringe-worthy the video was. Pete had started recording midsentence – right after she’d said this was kind of for someone she’d met on the job the other night – so it picked up with, “--and, well, I figure it’s sort of a birthday present for him. Hopefully I can do this justice with just a guitar.”

She wasn’t at all sure she had, in listening to it – but then, she always had been her own toughest critic. All the same, she didn’t bother reading the comments.

Then she actually looked at her email, and found something sitting there from one J. Lancaster. Claudia raised an eyebrow, then opened it.

You’re a lot better than you give yourself credit for. Can’t thank you enough for what y’all did the other night. Anything ever comes up again that you think I can help with, say the word.

She stared at the email for a few moments, wondering how the hell he’d found it off of Pete’s Youtube account before she saw that Pete had actually forwarded it along himself.

Maybe she wouldn’t make him grovel all week after all.