First, Do No Harm
The Midnight Special
Scamming the Birdman
The Music Box Murders
The Enchanted Ear
The View from the Vue

Click the links above

for more information on each of Larry Karp's books. 

Larry Karp is currently being published by Poisoned Pen Press

Click here to return to the main page of Larry Karp's Books.




Larry Karp


Opening Scenes



Sedalia, Missouri

Sunday, April 1, 1951

Late evening


An unshaded bulb in a ceiling fixture sent grotesque shadows dancing around the six men in the basement of Otto Klein's small house on East Fifth Street.  The mood in the room was ugly as the weather.  One man, a squat, balding farmer in striped overalls, muttered a curse as a gust of wind slapped rain against a window.  He rubbed his hands together, stamped his feet.  "Christ a'mighty, Otto, it's cold as my wife's heart down here.  Why the hell can't we sit upstairs and talk?"

Below his sloped forehead and receding crew-cut hair, Klein's dark eyes smoldered.  "God A'mighty, Rafe, sometimes I think you ain't got sense enough to pound sand down a rat hole.  We can't have my wife or my daughter hearing any of this, okay?  You know how women do.  One gabby word at the beauty shop, and next minute, it's all over town.  If it's too goddamn cold for you, go on back home, sit in front of your fire, and toast a marshmallow."

A couple of men laughed.  Rafe bit his lip.

Klein looked toward a rangy man with bright blue eyes and a haystack spilling over his forehead.  "Think anybody else's coming, Jerry?"

Jerry Barton plucked a toothpick from his mouth.  "Not as I know.  Whyn't we get started?"

Klein nodded.  "Yeah, I guess.  Time was, we had a meeting, we could count on ten times what we got here."

"Times change," said Barton.  "And it ain't just here.  Klan membership's down everyplace.  It ain't enough that niggers got their freedom, now people just stand around and pick their nose while the government gives the whole stinkin' country to the colored."  He coughed. "God damn Franklin Delano Rosenfeld.  When the son of a bitch died, I figured we were gonna be okay again, Harry being a good old Missoura boy and all that."

Derisive laughter filled the room.  "Wouldn't be surprised if Harry goes on Saturdays and sits in Rosenfeld's pew in the Jew-church," drawled Johnny Farnsworth, a short, rawboned man with two days' worth of stubble on his face.

"I knew we was in trouble when he integrated the Army," said Rafe Anderson.  "Next thing you know, it's gonna be okay for a colored man to marry a white woman, and before you can say Jackie Robinson, we'll be a country of half-breeds, don't care about nothin' but gettin' laid and stealin' chickens.  Might as well just hand over the White House keys to the Russkies and be done with it."

Klein held up a hand.  "Okay, then.  But that's exactly why me and Jerry got you boys here tonight.  Somebody's got to take a stand, and I say why not us?  Show this country that decent white men ain't gonna let America go to hell in a black handbasket."  He waggled a finger in the direction of a small, bald man still in his Sunday-go-to-church suit and tie, sitting on a stained, battered couch, rubbing his hands together.  "Luther, what happened at the meeting today?  This ceremony really is gonna go down, is it?"

"'Fraid so."  Luther Cartwright spoke in a prissy countertenor.  "I told them they ought to give a whole lot of thought about what just might happen if things get outa hand.  Said I wasn't real happy about the idea of my drugstore getting damaged, say, in a riot or a fire.  But Charlie Bancroft called me a lily-liver.  He thinks the publicity'll be good for the town, and besides, accordin' to him, 'It's the right thing to do.'"

"Charlie always did like his chocolate," Barton said.  "If that hoity-toity wife of his don't have at least a couple drops outa of the tar bucket, I'll eat my hat."  The laughter in the room encouraged him on.  "People don't get a sun tan at Christmas like she's got.  Well, don't worry none about your drugstore, Luther.  Push comes to shove, it's far enough away from Charlie's grocery, you'll be okay."

"Wait a minute, now," Klein shouted.  "Just hold on one minute.  There ain't gonna be any fire, and no riot, either.  Luther, you didn't let on about nothing, did you?"

Cartwright humphed.  "Come on, Otto.  How dumb you think I am?"

"Dumb enough to say you were even thinking about a fire or a riot."

Cartwright got halfway to his feet, but Barton pushed him back onto the couch.  "Relax, Luther.  You too, Otto.  Last thing we need is for us to get on each other.  Luther, you were supposed to go to the meeting and just listen, not talk.  Best if everybody in this town stays nice and calm, nobody thinking about riots, fires, or anything else.  If we're gonna blow up a high school, we don't need the whole damn town pointing fingers in our direction.  Now, what about Herb Studer?  What's the mayor thinking?"

Cartwright's face darkened.  "He told that kike who's the head of the Mens' Choral Club - "

"Abe Rosenthal?"

"Yeah.  Fancy-pants little Jew.  Herb told him he'd be glad to give a speech at the ceremony.  He thinks it'd be good to show people how Sedalia's moving ahead with good race relations."

A sound like swarming bees swirled through the little group.  "Oh, he did, huh?"  Otto Klein was furious.  "Don't that just top all.  Guess he wants to see niggers eating in restaurants, right at the next table to him, and sitting with him in the movie theaters.  What the hell's the matter with Studer?  Them colored breed like rabbits, and one fine day they're gonna be tellin' us what we can do and what we can't.  I wouldn't never have believed in a million years I'd live to hear the mayor of Sedalia say it's just fine and dandy to have white and colored go up on a stage together.  An' in the colored high school to boot."

"Well, that's the way I heard it," said Cartwright.  "But  there's even more.  Some old white guy's coming in from California, wants to play piano at the ceremony.  He says he was here fifty year ago, and took piano lessons from Scott Joplin."

"He comes here and does that, he's gonna be a dead white piano player."  That from Clay Clayton, an angular man with an uncombed thatch of gray hair cut short above his ears.  "They're gonna find pieces of him, come down to earth as far away as Kans'City."

Rafe Anderson, the man who'd complained of the cold, patted Clayton on the shoulder.  "Damn right, Clay."

Klein turned to Farnsworth.  "Johnny, you're sure you can handle this, huh?  Once we get started, be hard to back out."

The little man rubbed at his bristly chin, then grinned.  "Work with dynamite, y' don't get to be near as old as me if y'ain't good and goddamn sure what you can handle.  Don't you worry none, Otto.  If a pussy mayor don't have it in him to tell them people what their place is, I do."

"Good."  Barton raised a clenched fist.  "Guess we're ready to give them Hubbard-High pickaninnies something else to think about besides their ABCs.  And send a message to Mr. Mayor Herb Studer."

The bee-swarm sound told Barton he had a unanimous vote of confidence.  "Okay, then," he said.  "Everybody up."

The six men formed a circle under the unshaded light bulb, each extending a hand toward the center to grasp the hands of the others.  They lowered their heads.  "Oh, Lord who set the black man on earth to serve the white," Barton intoned.  "We ask your blessing on us as we set out upon our holy mission, to make manifest your design for your children, through the ministry of your beloved son, Jesus Christ.  May all evildoers perish, and those who truly honor you thrive.  Amen."

A chorus of amens, then the petitioners raised their heads. "Man alive, Jerry."  Clay Clayton grinned.  "You pray as good as any preacher I ever heard."

Barton coughed.  "My old man was a preacher.  Grow up with him, you learn to pray in a hurry.  When I was a kid, I used to pray the whole day long he didn't catch me smoking back of the barn, or just get himself in a bad enough mood he'd give me a licking for the hell of it and tell me it was payment in advance."

Klein broke the heavy silence.  "Well, okay, that's it.  Ceremony's on the seventeenth, so we got two and a half weeks.  Let's do some thinking, and then get together next Sunday night, see where we are."

"What say we meet by Jerry's place," said Rafe Anderson.  "Ain't nobody else lives out there to hear us, so it'll be all that much more private.  Besides, we could sit in his upstairs, and not freeze our ass off."

Everybody laughed. 

"Fine with me," Barton said.  "I'll get us a keg."

"I ain't gonna argue with that," said Klein.  "See y'all in a week, then.  If Herb Studer or anybody else thinks white people who got any self-respect are gonna just sit back while they put on some kind of fancy ceremony for an old-time nigger whorehouse piano player, they got another think coming."


Venice, California

Monday, April 2

Early afternoon


The old man banged the final notes of "Maple Leaf Rag" out of the piano, then jumped to his feet and spun around as he heard applause from a single pair of hands.  The hands belonged to a young man with shining black eyes, ears off a loving cup, and a grin all over his face.  "Jesus H. Christ, Cal, you scared the living crap outa me.  I never even heard you comin' in."

Cal laughed.  "Well, how would you hear me, the way you were beating the life out of that poor old piano?  Who the hell keeps a piano in a barber shop, anyway?"

"A man whose wife don't approve of ragtime and won't let him play it in his own house," Brun muttered.  

Cal tried to hide his embarrassment for the old barber. "Come on, Brun.  You wouldn't have heard me if I'd set off a grenade.  I said hello twice, but Scott Joplin had your ears, didn't he?  Bet he was telling you not to play his music too fast, that it's never right to play ragtime fast.  Right?"

Brun glanced at the sepiatone photograph on the wall above the piano, a dark-skinned Negro man and a white boy, side by side on a piano bench, looking over their shoulders at the photographer. "Don't mock, Cal."

The young man struggled to hear the whispered words, then  walked across the room, and plopped into the barber chair.  "Hey, Brun, I'd be pretty dumb to mock you right before you pick up your razor and scissors.  Come on, let's get it over with."

Brun sighed.  They never quit joshing him about how bad a barber he was, and he had to admit, there was something to what they said.  He'd never wanted to be a barber, but a guy had to make a living, and forty years ago, he'd let his pop talk him into giving it a shot.  Campbell and Son, Barbers.  Just temporary, Brun had told himself, but as things worked out, it became temporary in the same way a man's life is temporary.  He shook his head, then reached to the shelf behind the chair, pulled a strip of tissue from the box, wrapped it around Cal's neck, snapped the striped apron clean, and fastened it over the tissue. 

Cal gave him a theatrical fish eye.  "Still that same old clipper, huh?  Jeez, Brun, go down and sell it to Molly Stearns in the antique store.  It's so damn old, I'll bet you'd get more for it than you'd pay for a new one."

Brun pushed the button, ran the clipper up the back of Cal's neck.  "Shut up, kid," he growled.  "I got a fondness for antiques.  I'm one myself."

"Ow-ow!"  Cal jerked forward, grabbed at his neck.  "Would you two antiques mind leaving just a little skin on me."

Brun swallowed whatever he was going to say.  For a couple of minutes, the only sound in the room was the whir of the clipper and the snipping of scissors, but Brun Campbell never could manage long periods of silence.  "Betcha don't know what yesterday was."

Cal started to turn, thought better of it.  "Sunday."

"I don't mean what day of the week.  I mean what's important about yesterday?"

Cal narrowed his eyes.  "Today's April second...okay.  If you're gonna tell me they gave you the Barber of the Year Award yesterday, I'll tell you yesterday was April Fool's Day - ow, my ear.  Jesus Christ, Brun!  You cut my ear."

"Sorry," the old man mumbled.  "You got me all worked up.  Yeah, yesterday was April Fool's, all right, but it was also the day Scott Joplin died.  April first, 1917.  Thirty-four years ago.  Died in that New York crazy house where he ended up after nobody would publish his opera.  Treemonisha." 

What he died of was syphilis, Cal thought, but the young man wasn't about to argue the point, not while the barber was trimming furiously above his right eye.

"Nothing in any of the papers yesterday," Brun shouted.  "Not a word on the radio.  It's like Scott Joplin never lived.  Greatest American composer ever.  I was working on a book, gonna call it When Ragtime Was Young, and it'd have everything in it about Scott Joplin that people oughta know.  But last year, this guy Rudi Blesh from outa New York, he went all around the country and talked to everybody, me included, then he took what the people said and made it up into a book.  But it's all fulla mistakes.  I tried telling him he shouldn't do it that way, you know, too many chickens spoil the broth, but he didn't want to listen.  Now I don't know if my book is ever get published, and if it don't, when I'm gone, there ain't gonna be nobody to tell people about Scott Joplin and his music."

Cal's eyes bulged.  He raised a hand under the apron.  "Brun, put down that razor."

The barber glanced at his hand, then hunched his shoulders and stared at Cal.  "What d'you mean, put down the razor?  How the hell am I supposed to get the edges clean."

"Just use the scissors," said Cal.  "You're waving that razor around like a sword."

Brun couldn't seem to decide what to do.

"Put it down."  Cal spoke gently.  "Before you say one more word about Scott Joplin."

Slowly, the old barber laid the razor on the shelf, picked up the scissors, and went back to work.  "I'm trying everything,"  a dull monotone.  "I show young kids how to play the music right.  I write articles about Joplin, they get published in important music magazines.  I make phonograph records.  I get interviewed by music professors and experts.  I'm workin' with Ethel Waters - you know who she is?"

"Yes, Brun.  I know who Ethel Waters is.  I've even heard her sing."

"Well, then."  The wind picked up; Brun's sails refilled.  "I got Miss Waters interested in making a movie about Joplin's life, but the people down there in Hollywood, they don't want to let a colored woman say nothing but Yassir and Yas'm in a film, so I'm afraid that ain't ever gonna happen.  Christ, kid, I'm sixty-seven years old.  How much longer do I - "

A howl from Cal broke off the barber's speech.  The young man reached from under the apron to grab the side of his head.  "Jeez, Brun, can't you sharpen those scissors once in a while?  You're pulling my hair out by the goddamn roots."

The barber looked contrite.  "Sorry.  Sometimes I get myself carried away.  But I ain't givin' up.  People in Sedalia're puttin' on a big ceremony, couple of weeks from now.  They're gonna present a big bronze plaque to hang up in the colored high school there, saying how it was in Sedalia that Scott Joplin signed the contract with Mr. John Stark to publish 'Maple Leaf Rag.'  I'm working along with them, gonna go out and play at the ceremony, but also, I think maybe I can talk Louis Armstrong into giving a scroll to Mrs. Joplin in New York, right at the same time as they present the plaque in Sedalia.  And I want the radio people to broadcast the whole shebang over their network."

Cal nodded, but didn't say anything.

Brun read his thoughts.  "I know, a plaque in a high school ain't the same as a monument in front of the City Hall...or a museum, say.  That's really what they ought have in Sedalia, a museum.  While I'm out there, I'm gonna see if I can't get them cracking on setting one up for Mr. Joplin and ragtime.  Hell, that town's been on the edge of the grave since the Depression.  Just think about the tourists who'd come in to see a museum, and hear ragtime music."

A smile curved a corner of Cal's lips.  "So you're going out to Missouri."

If I can figure out how to get food for the Greyhound, Brun thought, and sighed.  "I gotta."

The old man pulled the apron away from Cal's neck, then shook it with a quick downward flip of his wrists.  A sharp crack, then a cloud of dark hair fluttered to the floor.  Brun tore the tissue from Cal's neck, held a mirror up to the back of the young man's head.  Cal cringed.

"Guess it ain't one of my better jobs," Brun mumbled.  "Figure it's on the house."

Cal pushed a dollar bill into the barber's hand.  "It's not the worst you've done.  If you could only talk about something beside Scott Joplin and ragtime, at least while you're cutting peoples' hair."

"Damn, boy, what in creation should I talk about?  I ain't never had anything in my life come close to Scott Joplin and ragtime."




End of the Opening Scenes


This historical mystery is the latest novel from Larry Karp.  It is the third novel in the Ragtime Historical Mystery Trilogy was released by Poisoned Pen Press on April 1, 2010.