Morning sunlight streamed into Charles’ bedroom. When he pushed back the covers and sat up in bed, he shivered. It had gotten chilly overnight, the first really cold night in a long time. He crossed bare wood floor to close his bedroom window.
The scene outside the window was a busy street in Harlem in 1919, far from Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972. Here he was Isaiah Jenkins, a former World War I soldier and now the manager of a jazz spot called the Blue Club.
And he had a breakfast date.
Half an hour later, freshly showered and dressed, Charles stepped outside into the crisp air. Everyone he passed wore coats and scarves not seen since April. The leaves on the trees in the park were edged in orange and yellow and red.
He saw her before she saw him. Wearing a dark red dress with a fur coat and stole, she sat at a table at a sidewalk café while sipping a cup of coffee and nibbling on a pastry. Not only was she beautiful, but Millie Priest had the most remarkable voice Charles had ever heard. She was whip-smart, too. Millie had always managed her own career. She knew how to pack a house and make sure she got her cut of the take.
When their eyes met, he smiled and waved. She smiled back, and his heart skipped a beat. He slipped into the seat opposite her. They talked about easy things for a little while. Charles drank his coffee and watched people go by. Isaiah’s memories were all there, right next to his own. As they chatted, it was easy for him to think of himself as Isaiah.
Charles was the bad dream.
“I was thinking about wearing the dark blue dress tonight,” she said after taking a sip of her coffee, “the one with the white rose on the sleeve. What do you think?”
“You know that’s one of my favorites. You trying to distract me from my job? Hard enough as it is when you’re up there.”
She smiled, but it seemed strained somehow. “There’s going to be some important people in the audience tonight. We need to impress them.”
Charles frowned. “Important people? Who are you talking about?”
She hesitated. “You know how the Blue Club has had a couple of lean months.”
“Yeah, but they’ve been just that. Lean months. We’ll bounce back.”
“Lewis isn’t so sure.” She glanced down at her half-eaten Danish and lowered her voice. “He’s worried about what happens when we can’t serve booze anymore.”
Lewis was the owner of the Blue Club, and he wasn’t wrong to be worried. Charles, too, wondered what would happen when Prohibition stopped the liquor from flowing.
Charles leaned forward and waited until Millie met his gaze again. “You know the drinks aren’t what brings people out. It’s you they’re coming to see.”
“Some people are thinking about investing. That’s all.”
Charles leaned back again. “Who?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know their names. Only Lewis does.”
“How come you know before I do? I’m supposed to be the manager.”
“He pulled me aside last night, told me to pick out my best dress and my best songs.”
Charles’ ire rose. “He should tell me himself rather than leave it up to you to do it.”
“I’m sure he’ll talk to you tonight.”
“He’d better, or there’s going to be hell to pay.”
She placed a hand on his and made him unball his fist. “Isaiah, behave now. All you have to do is make sure everything runs smoothly, just like you always do, okay?” Her smile returned. “Stop by the dressing room tonight after the set when you get a chance. I have a present for you.”
“A present? What is it?”
She laughed. “It’s a surprise.”
The tension in his shoulders eased somewhat. “What if I don’t want to wait?”
She stood, but her hand lingered. “Just be patient. I promise you’ll like it.”
He watched her walk away and vanish into the throng of people.
That evening, as he always did, Charles oversaw the last-minute touches before the patrons were let into the Blue Club—making sure the tablecloths were straight, the silverware polished, and the glasses clean—but he couldn’t shake the nagging worry at the back of his mind.
The worry eased somewhat as the club filled up. Everything ran smoothly at first. The Bill Porter Three—piano, bass, and trumpet—played their low-key set as everyone drank their cocktails, but about ten minutes before Millie was supposed to go on stage, a small commotion erupted at the door. A group of people entered the club, a dark-skinned man dressed in a midnight blue three-piece suit leading the way. Even the Blue Club bouncers gave the heavies on either side of him a wide berth.
A ripple of murmurs ran through the crowd. The man was Andre Lestrade, who styled himself a businessman. Charles had learned about him while working at the docks. Nothing went on in Harlem without Andre having a finger in it, legal or not.
What’s he doing here?
He can’t be the investor Millie was talking about, not him.
Charles knew better than to tell him he wasn’t welcome at the Blue Club, but the least he could do was make sure Andre understood trouble wouldn’t be tolerated. Before he could get to Andre, though, Lewis intercepted the businessman, an ear-to-ear grin on his face. The club owner took Andre’s hand and shook it enthusiastically, then led him and his entourage to a group of tables near the stage. Several waiters came over immediately.
For the moment, Charles retreated. He’d have a talk with Lewis later. No good could come from throwing in with a man like Andre Lestrade.
The lights dimmed, and Millie came on stage, dazzling as always. This was Charles’ favorite part of the day, but he couldn’t enjoy her set. He kept glancing at Andre and his entourage. Millie, too, looked Andre’s way more than once. Usually Charles could imagine she was singing only to him, but that night it was obvious she was singing to someone else.
To make matters worse, after Millie’s set was over, she didn’t retreat backstage like she normally did. She went over to Andre’s table and sat in the chair next to him, recently vacated by one of his bodyguards. Charles watched as Andre crept closer, putting his arm on the back of her chair, placing a hand on top of hers. She smiled and laughed occasionally as the Bill Porter Three played their second set. Eventually, she stood and took her leave, but not before accepting a kiss on the hand from Andre.
In the small hours of the morning, after the club closed and all the patrons had gone home, Charles went to Millie’s dressing room. He knocked three times like he always did.
“Come in,” a muffled voice called from inside.
Charles opened the door. Millie sat at her dressing table.
Her smile faded as soon as she saw the expression on his face. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? Do you know who was at the club tonight? That was Andre Lestrade.”
“I know who he is.” Her expression became a little more guarded.
“Why was he here?”
“I think you can figure out why.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
She gestured at him. “Because of this. Because of how you’re acting now.”
“But he’s dangerous,” Charles said. “We can’t take money from him.”
“We have to do something.”
Charles shook his head. “No. There’s got to be another way.”
“Trust me, Isaiah. If Lewis thought there was another way, he would do it. We can’t lose the Blue Club.”
Charles took a deep breath. “You let him put his arm around you.”
“Yes, I let him.” She squared her jaw. “And that’s all I let him do.”
“What if he wants to do more next time?” Charles asked.
Unbidden, the image of Millie in her blue sequined dress stained with blood came to his mind. Her ghost had revealed to him that she died on March 18, 1920, in the real world, less than six months away. He’d spent a lot of time thinking about how he could stop her death.
“There’s not going to be a next time,” she replied. “He was just coming over tonight to check out the place and talk to Lewis.”
“And if he invests? Don’t you think he’ll be here a lot more?”
She glared. “What kind of girl do you take me for, Isaiah Jenkins? I am a singer. I am a professional.”
“I’m not talking about you. I just know that sometimes men in his position don’t take no for an answer.”
“Well, he will take it from me.”
Charles wiped a hand across his face. “Millie, this is a bad idea.”
“It’s not your decision to make, Isaiah.”
“I just worry.”
“Too much.” She stood and came across the room and placed a hand on his chest. “Nothing is ever going to separate us. Do you understand?”
He covered her hand with his. “I want to believe that.”
He leaned down and kissed her. She melted into his embrace.
Charles woke up in his own bed in his own house, surrounded by his books. The moonlight shown through the curtains that moved like ghosts in the breeze. He sat up, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed.
Ephraim Brown turned on the television and fell into the recliner. His clothes still held the faint whiff of the blackberry root he’d burned as part of the ritual, but at the moment, he didn’t care. He was tired. Louise was still in Virginia, and Bertram was on a camping trip somewhere in North Carolina, so no one was there to question him about it. He’d take a shower later.
The news was full of reports that a truce had been reached in the fighting between North and South Vietnam. At least they weren’t talking about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel anymore. He was sick of hearing about that, just the news making a big deal out of nothing. There was also a small update about the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Everyone always acted shocked when such evil things happened, but Ephraim knew you only had to look at your own back yard to find evil—just look at his.