Excerpts for Headed for Trouble
When Frank Met Rosie
November 25, 1999
New Orleans, Louisiana
The music made him stop and turn around.
It was just a solo voice--a man singing the richest, bluesiest version of Silent Night that Frank O'Leary had ever heard. It drew him closer when he should have headed away from the French Quarter and back toward his hotel.
Where his damn fool of a half brother was no doubt still holding court in the lobby bar. Lord Jesus save him from imbeciles. Of course, he himself could be included in that subset, considering he'd agreed to come to New Orleans for the holiday.
It was their mother who'd been the glue that kept them connected, Frank and Casey. Her constant smile and teasing words lightened the years of bad feelings between brothers who'd been born more than a decade apart. Now, though, they had less than nothing in common.
And yet Frank had come all the way from California on one of the busiest travel days of the year at Casey's request.
Because he'd thought his mother would've wanted him to. Because she'd valued her precious family--her two such different sons--so highly.
Despite being just a few blocks down from the whorehouse-on-heavy-stun dementia of past-midnight Bourbon Street, this narrow road was deserted. A right turn revealed a street just as empty of tourists, but it definitely brought him closer to that angelic voice. Not like Frank was in any danger from the flesh-and-blood demons who crept out of the rotting woodwork of this city at night, no sir.
With his thrice-broken nose, his hair grown out from his usual no-frills tight and square cut, and his PT-hardened body, he knew he looked like the type most folks crossed the street to avoid.
He looked--as Casey had so often scornfully told him throughout his teenage years--as if he had barely a dime in his jeans pocket. Like a drifter. Like lowlife loser scum. Like his father, who'd cleaned out their mother's bank account when he'd left, back when Frank was nine and Casey was twenty.
The joke was that Casey had asked Frank to today's Thanksgiving dinner to borrow money. He'd lost nearly everything in bad investments. And since he knew that Frank still had his share from the recent sale of their mother's house . . .
And here Frank had thought Casey wanted his company during this difficult holiday season, the first since their mother had passed.
Happy fucking Thanksgiving to you, too, bro. Yeah, the real joke here was that Frank had left his true brothers behind in San Diego. His SEAL teammate Sam Starrett was hosting a dinner in the apartment he shared with Johnny Nilsson. He'd even roasted a turkey. Nils and the Card were in charge of the vegetables. Jenkins was handling dessert. Everyone else brought beer.
Instead of settling in for a day of food, friends, and football, Frank had shared a grim meal with Casey and his current wife (was Loreen number three or four?) up in their hotel suite. He'd escaped as quickly as possible after letting Casey know he'd already earmarked their mama's money--all of it--for something special. A down payment on a condo or maybe even a boat.
Still, it didn't take Casey long to join him in the bar. Could Frank maybe cosign a loan? Or let him borrow just a bit off that down payment . . . ? No, no, no, don't answer right away, bro. Just think about it . . .
Fifteen minutes of listening to his brother regaling the waitresses with tales of his own magnificence was all he could endure, and Frank escaped from the hotel bar as well.
But wandering Bourbon Street had been mildly amusing for only a very short time. Preservation Hall was already closed up tight and silent, and the bands playing in the various bars were entertaining only to inebriated ears. Watching grown men acting like frat boys drinking in the street and gazing with calf eyes at the teenage whores was flat-out creepy. And then there was that old woman--probably just an actress wrapped in rags and wearing stage-makeup warts--who'd first enticed Frank closer, offering to read his palm, and then, after only one brief look, had bluntly refused.
She'd shaken her head at him, backing away in alarm.
Which didn't mean a goddamn thing.
Like anyone with eyes in their head and a lick of sense couldn't tell from looking at him that he lived a dangerous life . . . ?
Frank glanced at his watch. If he knew Sam Starrett, the meal would have long since been replaced by a deck of cards and a pile of poker chips. There'd be plenty more beer, lots of laughter, and music on the boom box--although nothing that could compare to this solo voice, the owner of which still eluded him.
Silent Night segued into an Ave Maria as sung by an angel who'd done his share of hard time on this earth.
Frank rounded the corner, and there the street singer stood. He was a wiry black man in his late fifties, although, on second glance, he might've been younger. Hard living could've given him that antique veneer a decade or two early. He was standing in a storefront, the windows creating a makeshift acoustical shell that amplified his magical, youthful voice.
Only a few people had gathered to listen to him sing. A group of older folks--three sets of couples, clearly tourists, laden with Mardi Gras beads--used their cameras to snap his picture. A bedraggled young woman stood slightly apart from them, in a sequin top and a tight-fitting black skirt, looking like sex for sale.
The singer's voice faltered, and Frank slowed his steps, shortening his stride as the eight of them turned almost at once to look at him. They shrank away as if they all were fortune-tellers and knew that an anvil was on the verge of falling on top of him, out of the clear blue sky.
Cloudy sky, actually. It was definitely going to rain again tonight.
And not all of them shrank from him. The girl--she didn't look more than seventeen--didn't seem too afraid. Probably because she hadn't yet met her pimp's quota for the night, and saw him as a potential john.
She had to be relatively new to the city, new at her distasteful job. She was still pretty, with long, dark hair and deep brown eyes. Her skin hadn't yet acquired that unmistakable gray pallor caused by substance abuse and nocturnal living. She gave her top a hike northward as she met his gaze and smiled a greeting.
The Red Hat Club and their spouses weren't quite as friendly. They quickly scurried off down the street.
"Sorry, man," Frank told the singer, taking out his wallet and extracting a twenty. "Didn't mean to chase 'em away."
He dropped the bill in the cardboard shoebox being used in lieu of a hat. The man clearly couldn't afford headwear, dressed as he was in Salvation Army castoffs, T-shirt dirty and torn, feet shoved into sneakers with the toes cut away.
"S'okay," the singer said, still eyeing him warily. "They were twenty-five-centers. It's been that kind of night. Aside from your twenty, I ain't got mor'n a buck seventy-five."
Did he really think . . . ? "I ain't gon' rob you, man," Frank said, slipping easily into the molasses-thick accent of his childhood.
The singer nodded, but didn't seem convinced. "If you did, you wouldn't be the first. Like I said, it's been that kind of night."
"You take requests?" Frank asked.
"For twenty bucks?" The man's lips twisted in what might've passed for a smile. "Son, I'll perform unnatural acts."
Jesus, he wasn't kidding. "Amazing Grace," Frank said, "is what I'm hoping for."
The singer's eyes were dark with understanding as he looked up from his crouch beside his box. His hands were shaking as he slipped the twenty beneath the newspaper that lined the bottom of his container, and Frank knew the man wasn't going to spend that cash on either food or shelter, and wasn't that a crying shame?
"I guess we all need savin' at some point or 'nother," the singer said, straightening back up.
"Yes, sir," Frank agreed. Some more than most. The man closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started to sing.
It was strange hearing that rich voice coming out of that scrawny, dried-up husk of a body. Clearly the Lord worked in mysterious ways.
Frank closed his eyes, too, letting the familiar words wash over him, the melody soaring and dipping, carrying out into the unnaturally warm Louisiana night.
He sensed more than heard the girl as she moved to stand beside him, and he mentally inventoried his valuables. Wallet was in his front jeans pocket. It wasn't getting picked without him noticing, that was for damn sure. He wore his dive watch on his left wrist. His hotel keycard was in his back pocket--easy to lose, but not a problem if it got taken. What was she gonna do? Go into the Sheraton and try every room on every floor, looking for the lock it opened? Security would escort her out the back door within thirty seconds.
She shifted slightly, and Frank caught a whiff of her perfume. She actually smelled nice--like vanilla. Mixed, of course, with whiskey. He opened his eyes and as he turned to look down at her--she was about an entire foot shorter than he was--she smiled again.
"He's incredible, huh?" she whispered.
Frank nodded. Up close, she was even prettier than he'd first thought, with clear, perfect skin and lively eyes in a heart-shaped face.
She opened her mouth to speak again, but he spoke first. "Ain't lookin' to get hoovered, Sugar, even by a mouth as pretty as yours. Don't waste your time on me."
She blinked at him, clearly confused. "I'm sorry, I didn't . . . You said, you're not looking to get . . . ?" Ah, shit. Her accent and words were pure well-educated Northerner. Her voice wasn't that of a seventeen-year- old, either. She was closer to ten years older. And Frank could see now that her bedraggled state was merely from being caught in the rain that had poured down a few hours earlier, as if someone had pulled the plug in heaven.
"Sorry," he said quickly. "I thought . . . I was wrong."
Just his luck, she wasn't drunk enough to let it slide. He could see her replaying the words he'd said, trying to figure out the ones she'd missed--or misunderstood.
"Hoovered," she said with a laugh, comprehension dawning. "As in . . . Right. Okay." She quickly turned back to stare, as if fascinated, at the singer, color tingeing her cheeks. "I'm feeling pretty friendly tonight, but not that friendly. Wow."
Shit, now he was blushing, too. Great. "Sorry," he said again.
She turned to look at him again. "You really thought I was . . . ?" Amazingly, she wasn't offended, just curious. Interested even.
Frank tried to explain. "Most women . . . out alone, this time of night . . ." He shrugged.
She nodded, accepting the misunderstanding as an honest mistake. And if he weren't mistaken, she was more than a little thrilled to have been taken for a prostitute. Go figure.
They stood there then, just listening to the music, to the timeless words. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see . . .
Silence settled around them as the last notes of the song faded away. The singer didn't open his eyes, he just launched into a bluesy rendition of an old torch song. "Crazy." Another of Frank's mother's favorites.
The girl--woman--standing next to Frank cleared her throat. "See, I lost my jacket," she told him, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "I was with a group of friends and . . . It's gone. I don't know where I left it. I went back for it, but . . ." She shrugged, an action which did some amazing things to the plunging neckline of that barely there top.
"They let you come out here, all alone?" Frank had to ask, working to keep his gaze on her pretty face. What kind of foolish friends did she have?
"Of course not. But we'd only gone a block when Betsy felt sick, so Jenn flagged down a cab. She told the driver to take me to the bar we just left and then right back to our hotel, and the first part of that plan worked. But when I came out, the cab was gone," she reported. "It was a toss-up between staying there and trying to flag another while getting hit on by bozos, or walking back. I opted for walking. I attached myself to that group. They were from Ohio."
"You just let them leave," he pointed out, and it was weird as hell, because as he held her gaze, something shifted in his chest, something massive that hadn't moved in years.
"I definitely look less like a, you know, hooker with my jacket on," she told him.
"I am sorry," he said again, "that I said what I said . . ."
"You reminded me of my best friend's cousin," she said. "Billy. When you walked up, for a second I thought you were him. Which didn't make sense, but . . . He was Marine Recon. What are you? Navy, right?"
How the hell did she know? None of his tattoos showed.
She pointed to his dive watch. "I used to work for a catalog company, and we sold much cheaper versions. Lots of knockoff K-Bar knives, too. And chain mail. You ever need chain mail, I can hook you up with a supplier."
Frank laughed at that. "Thanks." Chain mail. "I probably won't . . ." He shook his head.
"You never know," she said, a sparkle in her eyes. Sparkle and spark.
"I pretty much do." He smiled back. And had to ask. "So, you and, uh, Billy, um . . . ?"
"A thing of the past," she informed him. "And yes, it was tragic. He broke my heart--he went and married someone else. Of course, I was twelve, so within a week I'd moved on to Chandler from Friends."
Frank laughed. "Ah."
"How long have you been out of the service?" the woman asked, but didn't wait for him to answer. She somehow managed to read his eyes or maybe his mind. "You're not out--you're still in."
Frank nodded. "You really should've stayed with that group from Ohio."
"And missed the chance to be mistaken for a lady of the evening?"
"What if I was dangerous?" he asked, and there it was again. That spark of heat between them.
"Why Amazing Grace?" she countered.
Frank just looked at her, using silence to let her know that he wasn't going to let her change the subject. Damn, but she was pretty, with those dark brown eyes that shone with intelligence, even though she'd clearly had too much to drink. But she met his gaze steadily, refusing to be intimidated, just letting the singer's beautiful voice wash over them. Crazy for crying and crazy for trying . . .
Finally, he spoke. "Got a thing for livin' dangerously?" he drawled, purposely leaning heavily on his accent. But even though her cheeks again flushed, this time she didn't look away.
"Actually, no," she admitted. "I've always been careful. Sometimes too careful, I think."
Frank had always scoffed at the idea of love at first sight. How stupid was that? Giving your heart based only on the way a woman looked, without getting to know her . . . ? But as he held this girl's gaze, he felt that same seismic shift in his chest that he'd felt before. "No such thing as too careful."
"Yeah," she said, dead serious. "There is. If I'd left with the Ohio squad, I would've regretted it. Badly. Maybe I'm crazy, but when I saw you . . ." Her voice trailed off, and she finally looked away. Laughed. "I am crazy. I must be. I just . . . I didn't want to regret not meeting you. Your turn to embarrass yourself. Why Amazing Grace?"
"My mother passed last spring." The words left his mouth as if on their own volition. What the hell . . . ? There were members of his SEAL team whom he hadn't yet told of her death, and here he was, telling this stranger.
A stranger who'd just looked him in the eye and admitted that she was willing to risk her own personal safety just to meet him.
Like he was something special, like she'd seen his aura or some kind of halo hanging over his head. Right.
My mother passed last spring really wasn't a complete answer to Why Amazing Grace? but somehow she understood. Completely.
"Oh, wow," she said, her eyes sympathetic. "Happy Thanksgiving, huh? It must've been such a hard day for you."
Frank felt himself nod. Whatever it was that had shifted in his chest had moved to his throat. He tried to swallow it back down, but it was lodged there. She put her hand on his arm, her fingers cool and soft against his skin. "I'm so sorry."
She meant it. Frank didn't know what to say.
Across the street, the singer finished his song. He started packing up his box. "Sorry, folks. Gotta run. Shelter starts filling this time of night, weather like this. If I wait too long, I won't get a bed."
Frank hadn't noticed until now, but it had started, again, to rain. It was coming down faster now. Harder.
The singer clutched his box to his chest. "Rosie, can I walk you to your hotel?" he asked.
Rosie. She only briefly glanced away from Frank as she answered the man. "No thanks, Odell. I'm okay."
The singer--Odell--still didn't trust Frank, eyeing him, edging closer, as if he could do some serious damage to the SEAL, who had way more than a hundred pounds on him. "You sure?"
"Thank you, but yes." Rosie was sure.
And as the skies opened up, Odell was gone.
Rosie looked up into the deluge and just laughed. She must've been even more drunk than Frank had thought, so he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her, and together they ran for shelter.
It was pointless--they were already soaked--running wouldn't keep them from getting any more wet. Still, the sound of her laughter made him smile, and--go figure--he was laughing, too, when she finally pulled him into a narrow doorway.
She was breathless and soaked. Her face wasn't all that was glistening wet, but her smile was so damn infectious as they stood there, squeezed together in a space where he'd have barely fit on his own. She was warm and soft against him, the neckline of that clingy top truly amazing from his vantage point.
"This seems like a good time for introductions," she told him. "I'm Rosie Marchado. I'm from Hartford. In Connecticut."
"Frank O'Leary," he said. He couldn't look down into her face without getting an eyeful of her sonnet-worthy cleavage. Sweet Jesus, he loved full-figured women.
"Do you want to . . . ," she started, then stopped. She made an embarrassed face. "God, I've never done this before. You're going to think that I'm . . ." She took a deep breath, which completely renewed his faith in a higher power. "I really never, ever do this, but do you want to . . ."