Chapter 6

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   



Frank was becalmed. Noon was approaching. Everyone at Desert House had retreated inside. They had surrendered the land to the heat. Ryan had gone off to the recording studio to prepare for the arrival of the first of three musicians who were coming in to play for him. Frank went to his room to take advantage of the downtime. He had changed into shorts.

Stretched out on his bed, eyes closed, earbuds in, Frank was immersed in the intricate fingering of Laurence Juber on solo acoustic guitar as he worked his way through The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The piece ended. Frank put the iPod aside and got up. He needed to be doing something. He looked around the room and saw the CD Ryan had given him the previous day. He’d listened to it twice. Frank picked it up and looked at the hippie-Western tableau on the front. The photo would have been more impressive on the original LP jacket. The CD reduced the image to an indistinct miniature. Frank wanted a closer look at the photograph. All the figures on the cover were in authentic dress. Someone had spent a lot of time posing them. Taking the insert out of the jewel case, he went to the desk, sat down and turned on the high-intensity lamp. That made for a slight improvement. There were nine horsemen, townspeople on the streets, and a group of children at play. Frank recognized Billy Kelvin as the lead rider, who had the same dirty blonde hair and a younger version of Kelvin’s tall, muscular build. The long hair, beards and mustaches on the other riders made them difficult to connect to the contemporary photos of the band. He went looking for help. He found Johns in the kitchen, picking the bad leaves out of a pile of spinach. 

“Johns, I have a question for you.”

“And, I shall try to answer it.”

“I was looking at the CD Ryan gave me. I can only identify a few of the band members in the cover photo. I thought you would probably know who the rest are.”

Johns took the CD and looked at it.

“That I can definitely help you with. This album cover has an interesting story. Magazine articles have been written about it. Let’s go to the music library. We can look at the real album.”

“I don’t want to take you away from what you’re doing.”

“I am virtually done.” He quickly removed the last wilted leaves. He glanced around to see if anything required his attention. One of the maids came in with a pile of plates. “Clara, I’ll be in the music room if anyone asks.”

“Should I stay here?”

“If you don’t have anything else?” said Johns.

“No, I just bring the dishes down from Mr. Ryan’s room.”

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Johns led Frank to the music room. 

“What got you interested in the cover art?” asked Johns.

“It looks like a still from a film. Like you said, it looks like a piece of a larger story. Are there any secret messages in the photo?”

“You mean like the Beatles’ albums?”

“Like that.”

“I will disclose everything,” said Johns.

Frank had glanced into the music room during his tour of the house. He remembered walls of albums and CDs. Johns opened the door. No one was in the room and the overhead lights were off. A row of windows at ceiling level let in light that reflected off shelves of plastic CD cases and the highly polished wood floor. The room was about thirty by fifteen feet. Albums filled three levels of shelves along two walls. There was a shelf of 45s. An easel near the far wall held a photograph of a coyote looking intently at whoever entered. A bare wooden table and four straight-backed chairs stood in the center of the room. 

By the door, a listening area had been set up. Four club chairs, each with a side table, formed a crescent facing two tower speakers. Shelves held a four-track tape deck, a high-end cassette player, a CD player, and two turntables. Frank noticed that the amplifiers had real tubes in them. The room was a music lover’s indulgence of his passion.

Johns turned on the three gray-shaded lights over the table. He went directly to a shelf of albums and extracted one of them. He brought it to the table, placing it beside the CD.

“This is the original album. It’s a collector’s item. How things change. I have a copy I found in a bargain bin with a hole punched in its corner. Even that has value.” He handed the LP to Frank. “So, the picture. The cover tells stories. The Longriders enter Northfield to rob the bank. The gang consisted of Jesse and Frank James, and Cole, Jim, John and Bob Younger. There were also several other men along on the raid. Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell. 

Frank slipped out the record and looked at the sleeve. “It lists some of the people but not all.” 

Johns pointed to the lead rider. “First is Billy Kelvin, you can’t miss Billy.” 

“And then Ryan?” Frank asked.

“No. Next is Randy Holmes. Randy is the tragic figure in the band’s history. I never met him. Shortly after the release of the second album, Randy dropped a massive quantity of acid tabs and embarked on a trip from which he has never returned. Somewhere he got lost. He tells people he had an encounter with the Acid God. He began composing hour-long songs to his God. These days Randy lives in a cabin on his parents’ ranch and records his songs. Now and then he sends Ryan a CD of his latest production.”

“What a waste. He threw his life away,” said Frank.

“Oh, I think Randy is probably quite happy with his delusions or his truth.”

“I’ve seen a lot of drug-damaged people like that around bands,” said Frank. “I’d rather get shot.”

“To each his own. The third rider is Ryan. Then Dave Oliver, Jesse Mikula, and Mike Holmes, Randy’s brother. So, Billy and Randy are the James brothers. They ride side by side. Ryan, Dave, Jesse, and Mike are the Youngers. Then we get a gap between the first group of riders and the rest. The other riders played on the record but weren’t official members of the band. That is Cody Mikula, he played drums on two cuts, Chuck Swenson, who did vocals with Ryan on one song, and bringing up the rear, Bob Duckworth, who played accordion, mandolin, and penny whistle. Those are the riders.”

“So that’s the band.”

“Yes, but we are not finished. Next, the children on the street. The little blonde boy with the wooden sword is Bob Duckworth’s son. The girl with the stick is Mike’s notorious daughter. The little boy in the paper hat is the son of the sound engineer, and the baby playing in the mud puddle is Billy’s son by his then girlfriend, who never did become his wife.”

Frank held the album up to see better. “And this?” 

“The tall man standing in front of the bank is Ryan’s father. The man next to him is James Kelvin, Billy’s father. The shopkeeper, sweeping in front of his store, is Randy and Mike’s father. The woman walking away carrying the basket is Rita Snowhill, now Rita Swenson. She had just found out she was expecting. The basket represents the child. That was a secret at the time the picture was taken.”

“Three girls watch the band pass.”

“That’s right. This is Jennifer Long.” Johns pointed to a dark-haired young woman wearing a high-necked white dress. “She did backup vocals on Zerelda along with the next girl, Nancy Powers. Whose sister, Stacy Powers, sang Zerelda’s part. Nancy was Ryan’s girlfriend.”

“And the older woman?” 

“Billy’s grandmother. The disreputable drunk sitting outside the bar is their high school principal. He evidently picked his role himself and put together his costume. Star of the local stage troupe.”

“He went a little overboard on the disreputable part.”

“Indeed. He really wanted the band to make it. Said he wanted to see somebody get out of Red Rock.”

“And these other girls?”

“The two girls chasing the band were groupies, Naomi Sinclair, you met her, and Elizabeth Riggins. Elizabeth died of an overdose a few years later. The credits identify them as fans. Oh yes, the dog chasing the children is Randy’s dog. He cast himself by running into the shot.”

“Naomi was a groupie? I’m surprised she’s still hanging around. Why was she here?”

“Some people never go away,” said Johns. “She comes by now and then to visit. Still addicted to the Longriders.” 

Johns answer struck Frank as consciously limited. He didn’t want to discuss her. Frank decided he needed to know more about Naomi and why she was still around. What or who was she addicted to?

“So,” Frank said, “it’s a snapshot of the Longriders’ friends and family back then. And Ryan’s band.” 

Johns glanced to the door before answering. “That is yet another story.” He paused, pursing his lips as if trying to find the precise way to say something. He continued in a lowered voice. “The Longriders were originally Billy Kelvin’s band. He assembled the members for those first rehearsals in high school, made the decisions about the band’s direction along with Randy. After Randy’s accident, Ryan took over as lead singer. He had a terrific tenor voice.”

“Then it became Ryan’s band?”

“No, the band is still Billy’s band with Ryan as lead singer. The fans think of it as Ryan’s band. Now Dave might disagree with that. He has his own history of the band. Dave has his own version of many things. For the others, the idea that its Ryan’s band is an illusion kept alive by fans and the media.”

“So if it’s Kelvin’s band why doesn’t he tell them?”

“Everyone tries to avoid that question,” said Johns. “You have to deal with Billy’s eclipse by Ryan to answer that and the last discussion ended with the band splitting up for a year.”

“I always thought of it as Ryan’s band.”

“The band members see Ryan as a media darling. Some see him as an opportunist who has taken advantage of the situation. The kinder view is that Ryan has fallen deeply in love with himself. Don’t mention any of that to him.”

“Why? What does Ryan think?”

“Please don’t ask him that.” A look of genuine concern crossed his face. “Simple questions can lead to unwanted consequences. The first arguments that led to the breakup started just that way. Some girls were telling Billy how great it must feel to be in Ryan’s band. But that has been officially forgotten. Anyway, soon Ryan will have a band all his own.”

“I’ll be careful,” said Frank. “Ryan’s starting a new band?”

“That is just between you and me,” said Johns.

Johns looked at the back of the sleeve. The characters from the cover photograph were all assembled there in 19th century family portrait style. Hair slicked down, unsmiling, and respectable.

“The past is a different country,” said Johns. “Those were the golden days when success had just found them.” Johns put the record back in the album cover and returned it to the shelf. Frank picked up the CD from the table, and he and Johns began the walk back to the kitchen. 

“You said you never met Randy Holmes. When did you come on board?”

“That was in the late 80s,” said Johns, “during the band’s European tour. You may have noticed that I’m English.”

“It comes out at times. How did you meet Ryan?”

“Now you want my story.” Johns laughed. “Nothing dramatic there.”

“Were you in a band in England?”

“God, no. Ryan always wanted to be a rock star. I always wanted to be a chef. When I left school, I became a kitchen assistant in Sheffield. You start out doing the most basic tasks. Like cracking eggs. You get yelled at quite a bit. Slowly you learn. It is very hard work. But English cooking was being reborn then. It was a very exciting time. By the time I first met the band, I was living in Dorset. Nice place. Thomas Hardy country. I was working in a rather posh restaurant in Lyme Regis. Right on the channel. I’d been there for three years. I had become the rôtisseur. I did all the roasting of meats. 

“One weekend, I went up to London. A friend of mine from school had tickets to this new band. He’d gotten them from a friend who was a roadie with a band. They were having their time in the sun. Long gone and forgotten, their only importance is that they were opening for the Longriders. Anyway, I went up. Great concert. We got to go backstage and met the band members. Go for drinks with them. Great guys. I’m sitting with all these Yanks, telling them all about being a chef. A year goes by. I get a call from a record company. The Longriders are coming back. They’ve been given money to hire their own chef for the European leg of the tour. Someone asked them—who do you want? They said there’s this English guy. Swithin Hubert Johns. Works in some place in the south of England with a strange name. Orange Regis they told them. And given that information, the company actually was able to find me. Do I want the job? Do I. Evidently, I was the only chef they knew. I give notice, leave my position. Hurry up to London. I’m sitting in the lounge at Heathrow surrounded by my cookbooks and everything else I own.”

“And the rest is history.”

“And what a lovely history it has been. That summer was one of the best in my life.” 

“Touring with a band,” said Frank. “I’ve traveled with bands. But back then it must have been incredible.”

“I’d be woken up, pulled out of bed at three in morning, and asked to do scrambled eggs and rashers of bacon for the guys and a bunch of royals.” Johns began laughing as he got into his story. “Once, the daughter of a very prominent family came back to the kitchen got down on her knees and gave me the blow job of my life as thanks for cooking such a wonderful meal. Let me tell you it was absolute madness at times. Billy would get drunk, take his clothes off and walk through the hotel halls naked. In the mornings there would be baskets full of empty champagne bottles. I’d spend the day trying to find a recipe for chicken-fried steak or real Texas Chili. I was a trained chef and there I am cooking chili.”

“Must have been a lot of drugs.”

“Fans would throw joints up on the stage. Drop off mushrooms, tabs of acid, packets of coke for us at the hotel reception. The band once got a welcome basket full of exotic fruit with a big card that had been dipped in acid. When you opened the card, it said, ‘Like Alice, break off of small bit and eat me. Happy Dreams.’

“The police, oh the police use to raid the rooms looking for underage girls or drugs. The police thought that every teenager who did a bunk from they’d find in our rooms. I had to restock cooking supplies so often because they would confiscate everything for drug tests. I’m just the cook, I’d say, and they’d say ‘Sure you are. What’s that white powder then?’ Arrow root for thickening sauces. ‘Sure. Well it’s going with us.’” Johns laughed. A smile filled the Major Domo’s face. He was happily lost in the past. 

“Swithin Hubert Johns,” said Frank.

“Forget you ever heard that. I am Johns, period.” 


ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.