Read an Excerpt
The witness remembers it like this:
Shortly after 2 a.m., Baby Boy Lee exits the Snake Pit through the rear alley fire door. The light fixture above the door is set up for two bulbs, but one is missing, and the illumination that trickles down onto the garbage-flecked asphalt is feeble and oblique, casting a grimy mustard-colored disc, perhaps three feet in diameter. Whether or not the missing bulb is intentional will remain conjecture.
It is Baby Boy’s second and final break of the evening. His contract with the club calls for a pair of one-hour sets. Lee and the band have run over their first set by twenty-two minutes, because of Baby Boy’s extended guitar and harmonica solos. The audience, a nearly full house of 124, is thrilled. The Pit is a far cry from the venues Baby Boy played in his heyday, but he appears to be happy, too.
It has been a while since Baby Boy has taken the stage anywhere and played coherent blues. Audience members questioned later are unanimous: Never has the big man sounded better.
Baby Boy is said to have finally broken free of a host of addictions, but one habit remains: nicotine. He smokes three packs of Kools a day, taking deep-in-the-lung drags while onstage, and his guitars are notable for the black, lozenge-shaped burn marks that scar their lacquered wood finishes.
Tonight, though, Baby Boy has been uncommonly focused, rarely removing lit cigarettes from where he customarily jams them: just above the nut of his 62 Telecaster, wedged under the three highest strings, smoldering slowly.
So it is probably a tobacco itch that causes the singer to leap offstage the moment he plays his final note, flinging his bulk out the back door without a word to his band or anyone else. The bolt clicks behind him, but it is doubtful he notices.
The fiftieth Kool of the day is lit before Baby Boy reaches the alley. He is sucking in mentholated smoke as he steps in and out of the disc of dirty light.
The witness, such that he is, is certain that he caught a glimpse of Baby Boy’s face in the light and that the big man was sweating. If that’s true, perhaps the perspiration had nothing to do with anxiety but resulted from Baby Boy’s obesity and the calories expended on his music: For 83 minutes he has been jumping and howling and swooning, caressing his guitar, bringing the crowd to a frenzy at set’s end with a fiery, throat-ripping rendition of his signature song, a basic blues setup in the key of B-flat that witnesses the progression of Baby Boy’s voice from inaudible mumble to an anguished wail.
There’s women that’ll mess you
There’s those that treat you nice
But I got me a woman with
A heart as cold as ice.
A cold heart,
A cold, cold heart
My baby’s hot but she is cold
A cold heart,
A cold, cold heart
My baby’s murdering my soul . . .
At this point, the details are unreliable. The witness is a hepatitis-stricken, homeless man by the name of Linus Leopold Brophy, age thirty-nine but looking sixty, who has no interest in the blues or any other type of music and who happens to be in the alley because he has been drinking Red Phoenix fortified wine all night and the Dumpster five yards east of the Snake Pit’s back door provides shelter for him to sleep off his delirium tremens. Later, Brophy will consent to a blood alcohol test and will come up .24, three times the legal limit for driving, but according to Brophy “barely buzzed.”
Brophy claims to have been drowsy but awake when the sound of the back door opening rouses him and he sees a big man step out into the light and then fade to darkness. Brophy claims to recall the lit end of the man’s cigarette glowing “like Halloween, you know—orange, shiny, real bright, know what I mean?” and admits that he seizes upon the idea of panhandling money from the smoker. (“Because the guy is fat, so I figure he had enough to eat, that’s for sure, maybe he’ll come across, know what I mean?”)
Linus Brophy struggles to his feet and approaches the big man.
Seconds later, someone else approaches the big man, arriving from the opposite direction—the mouth of the alley, at Lodi Place. Linus Brophy stops in his tracks, retreats into darkness, sits down next to the Dumpster.
The new arrival, a man, also good-sized, according to Brophy, though not as tall as Baby Boy Lee and maybe half of Baby Boy’s width, walks right up to the singer and says something that sounds “friendly.” Questioned about this characterization extensively, Brophy denies hearing any conversation but refuses to budge from his judgment of amiability. (“Like they were friends, you know? Standing there, friendly.”)
The orange glow of Baby Boy’s cigarette lowers from mouth to waist level as he listens to the new arrival.
The new arrival says something else to Baby Boy, and Baby Boy says something back.
The new arrival moves closer to Baby Boy. Now, the two men appear to be hugging.
The new arrival steps back, looks around, turns heel and leaves the alley the way he came.
Baby Boy Lee stands there alone.
His hand drops. The orange glow of the cigarette hits the ground, setting off sparks.
Baby Boy sways. Falls.
Linus Brophy stares, finally builds up the courage to approach the big man. Kneeling, he says, “Hey, man,” receives no answer, reaches out and touches the convexity of Baby Boy’s abdomen. He feels moisture on his hand and is repelled.
As a younger man, Brophy had a temper. He has spent half of his life in various county jails and state penitentiaries, saw things, did things. He knows the feel and the smell of fresh blood.
Stumbling to his feet, he lurches to the back door of the Snake Pit and tries to pull it open, but the door is locked. He knocks, no one answers.
The shortest way out of the alley means retracing the steps of the newcomer: walk out to Lodi Place, hook north to Fountain, and find someone who’ll listen.
Brophy has already wet his pants twice tonight—first while sleeping drunk and now, upon touching Baby Boy Lee’s blood. Fear grips him, and he heads the other way, tripping through the long block that takes him to the other end of the alley. Finding no one on the street at this hour, he makes his way to an all-night liquor store on the corner of Fountain and El Centro.
Once inside the store, Brophy shouts at the Lebanese clerk who sits reading behind a Plexiglas window, the same man who one hour ago sold him three bottles of Red Phoenix. Brophy waves his arms, tries to get across what he has just seen. The clerk regards Brophy as exactly what he is—a babbling wino—and orders him to leave.
When Brophy begins pounding on the Plexiglas, the clerk considers reaching for the nail-studded baseball bat he keeps beneath the counter. Sleepy and weary of confrontation, he dials 911.
Brophy leaves the liquor store and walks agitatedly up and down Fountain Avenue. When a squad car from Hollywood Division arrives, Officers Keith Montez and Cathy Ruggles assume Brophy is their problem and handcuff him immediately.
Somehow he manages to communicate with the Hollywood Blues and they drive their black and white to the mouth of the alley. High- intensity LAPD-issue flashlights bathe Baby Boy Lee’s corpse in a heartless, white glare.
The big man’s mouth gapes, and his eyes are rolled back. His banana yellow Stevie Ray Vaughan T-shirt is dyed crimson, and a red pool has seeped beneath his corpse. Later, it will be ascertained that the killer gutted the big man with a classic street fighter’s move: long-bladed knife thrust under the sternum followed by a single upward motion that slices through intestine and diaphragm and nicks the right ventricle of Baby Boy’s already seriously enlarged heart.
Baby Boy is long past help, and the cops don’t even attempt it.