Rock & Roll Rip-Off

2010 Mystery/Thriller Novel of the Year – Premier Book Awards

Description & Excerpt

Jason Duffy thought he had accepted a routine burglary case when a career studio musician hired him to recover a memorabilia collection featuring unusual treasures from some of the top performers in the music industry. But Jason quickly finds himself at the top of a hit list that has nothing to do with The Top 40 and everything to do with a table for one at the San Diego Coroner’s Office.

While the facts of the case point to an emo band that the victim was helping at the time of the theft, the lethal force that Jason encounters in his investigation feels more like death metal. He finds himself imperiled by a hitman known as The Heartbreaker, due to his signature of shooting his victims through the heart at close range. With danger also threatening his staff and girlfriend, Jason must continue to mend fences with his retired police detective father, in spite of a recent riff that caused a major setback to their relationship.

Everyone thought The Tactile Tattoo was a “can’t miss” band. The pre-release buzz for their first CD was tremendous. But a bad review from a key industry critic, who didn’t care for their lyrics, left the album stillborn at record stores across the country.

The group soon learned that second chances in the current state of the music business are practically nonexistent. One band member discovered that money talks in an industry strapped for cash, and a bribe was entirely possible. However, funding that bribe meant getting involved with all of the wrong people.

In the midst of this action whodunit, the reader is treated to an insider’s view of the music industry that captures the new obstacles that today’s bands must overcome in order to succeed. Some musicians handle the pressures, opportunities, and disappointments more effectively than others. Some still succumb to the mesmerizing allure of sex and drugs and rock & roll.

Rock & Roll Rip-Off is the second novel in RJ McDonnell’s Rock & Roll Mystery Series. Like the critically acclaimed Rock & Roll Homicide, McDonnell once again mixes humor, music, and a cast of unique characters to unfold a memorable mystery that shows Jason and a loved one “knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

Kindle version of Rock & Roll Rip-Off for $2.99 click here.

Paper version of Rock & Roll Rip-Off through PayPal (accepts Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, and Discover) click the “Buy Now” button below. Email immediately after placing the order to request a signed and inscribed copy.


Chapter 9

 Jason barely crossed the threshold of his agency on Wednesday morning when Jeannine shot out of her chair holding a pink message. “Max Varner wants you to call the minute you get in the door.”

            “What’s going on?”

            “Somebody tried selling part of the collection to a vintage guitar dealer here in San Diego,” she replied.

            He had Max on the phone in two minutes. “I hear we have a lead on the collection.”

            “It’s gonna be all over the state in no time. I’ll never see it again,” Max said.

            “Actually, this could be a break for us. If they had a contact on the black market the collection would simply disappear. Now we know they have to expose themselves and take chances if they want to cash in. That will help us tremendously.”

            “Do you really think so, or are you just trying to make me feel better?”

            “What’s the name of the dealer?” Jason asked.

            “Callison’s Vintage Guitars & Memorabilia, on 7th Avenue,” Max said.

            “Who did you talk to?”

            “Detective Darden. He told me not to go over there.”

            “I’ll drop by and see what I can find out.”

            An hour later Jason walked into Callison’s. “Are you with the police, or the media?” asked the owner, who had a squint that Popeye would envy.

            “Neither,” Jason replied, handing him a business card. “I work for the owner of the collection.” This got his attention.

            “Those were some impressive items. Are you sure they’re authentic?”

            “Didn’t the police tell you? The owner is a musician who worked with all of those guitar owners,” Jason said, knowing that any dealer would love a connection in the business.           

“Who is it?”

            “I can’t tell you without his consent, but I’m sure he would be very grateful for your cooperation. Would you please tell me what happened?”

            Mr. Callison was in his late sixties, and in no hurry to rush into the story. “How grateful?”

            “I guarantee you he’ll make a personal appearance, and sign any item here in the store.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw in a big bonus if your information aids in the recovery of his collection.”

            Mr. Callison adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and moved slowly to his desk. He removed a pad and pen, handed them to Jason and said, “Write it down and sign it.”

            “No problem,” he replied. The old man would probably be up half of the night hoping he would be meeting a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Jason handed his promissory note to the proprietor. “Tell me what happened.”

            Callison gave Jason’s signature a hard squint. “Yesterday afternoon, around three o’clock, a man walked into my store with a large duffel bag, and asked if I was a buyer as well as a seller. I said yes, and he opened the bag. Inside were three guitars autographed by well-known musicians, and a DVD of each signing.”

“Did he have anything else in the duffel bag besides the guitars?”

“He also had a couple of autographed bathrobes from some hotel and a pair of autographed panties that were so tiny I couldn’t make out the signature with my magnifying glass.” Callison’s face flushed.

“I take it those are some pretty unusual items for your store.”

“I read about the bathrobes and undergarments about two weeks ago when Detective Darden sent a fax telling me to be on the lookout for a long list of items.”

            “And the panties stood out because they were so unusual?” Jason asked.

            “The bathrobes rang a bell, and I knew I was looking at part of the stolen collection.”

            “What did you do?”

            “I told him his collection was very valuable, and I would have to call a potential buyer before I could commit that kind of money.”

            “What did he say?”

            “He seemed a little suspicious, but he was also pleased that I recognized the collection’s value. I was hoping his greed would keep him around while the cops made their way over here,” Callison said.

            “What spooked him?” Jason asked.

            “The only thing I can figure is that I’m a little hard of hearing, and my friends tell me I tend to speak louder than I need to, especially when I’m nervous.”

            “So, you think he overheard your conversation with the police?”

            “That had to be it. By the time I got off of the phone he was gone.”

            “What did he look like?” Jason asked.

            “He was white, mid- to late twenties, about six feet tall, and in good shape.”

            “Is it possible he was a musician?”

            “It’s possible, but I didn’t recognize him. I’ve been looking at guitar and music magazines for years and I still have a pretty good memory,” Callison said.

            “Could he have been from a new group?”

            “I guess it’s possible. But I got the feeling while he was emptying his duffel bag that the collection meant nothing to him. I have a hard time believing a guy who spends years learning an instrument would be so indifferent to the treasures he just dumped on my counter,” Callison said.

            “I wish I could agree with you. But I’ve read too many interviews with musicians who have no concept of the history of the music business or the people who paved the way for them to make millions,” Jason said.

            “Sadly, I know you’re right.”

            “Did the cops have you go through the mug books?”

            “That’s one collection I hope I never have to look at again.”

            “Anybody look familiar?”

            “I couldn’t be sure. My glasses are set to reading length. Everything outside of two feet looks fuzzy,” he said. “I keep my driving glasses in my car.”

            “Anything distinctive about his voice, the things he said, or the way he said them?”

            “He was a smoker. I could smell it on him. I didn’t tell that to the cops, do you think it’s important?”

            “If you talk with Detective Darden again, let him know. Anything else?”

            “If I think of anything I’ll give you a call,” he said. “When can I expect to hear from your client?”

            “Would you rather I ask him to call you soon, or do you want to wait and see if your information helps lead to an arrest?”

            “The sooner the better,” he replied, rubbing his palms together.


            At 5:00 PM Jason picked Kelly up at her condo for their weekly Wednesday night date. Thefun thing she wanted to do was to visit friends who recently set up a glassblowing studio in an annex built onto their detached garage. Jason agreed that it might be fun, but told her about the case and that he needed to attend the Tactile Tattoo concert at a venue an hour outside of San Diego. Reluctantly, she agreed to postpone the glassblowing outing; hopefully, to a month when standing next to a 2000-degree oven would be less oppressive.

            They picked up their tickets at the Will Call window and met Ellen Varner in the Family & Friends balcony box to the right of the stage, shortly before the first song. The box held two tables. They were at the front table, and would not have to worry about being overheard by the band girlfriends, seated behind them, when they got into the topic of band mates who might be suspects.

“Is Max OK?” Jason asked. “He sounded pretty stressed when I talked with him yesterday.”

            “He was hoping the burglars would sit on the collection long enough for them to be caught,” Ellen said.

            “I went to Big Bear yesterday and took a look around with Chief Carson.”

            “Did you find any clues?”

            “I got a very strong feeling that whoever did it knew exactly what to look for. That means it was probably a neighbor, a musician, a friend of one of the kids, or someone who attended one of your annual parties.”

            “Oh my,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine any of those people being involved.”

            “Chief Carson thinks your son is a great kid, and feels most of his friends are kids from high school. Does Carl have any friends from San Bernardino who strike you as capable of doing this?”

            “No. The chief is right. Carl’s a good boy, and he still associates with the friends he had in high school. Same with our other kids,” she said defensively.

            To settle Ellen down he drew Kelly into the conversation, and focused on the show when the band started. After the first set, the lead singer picked up a piece of sheet music from a stool and led the band backstage.

Jason said, “Max seems to be a very likeable guy, but bands have squabbles all of the time. Sometimes musicians work on projects, or play gigs, and get stiffed on the pay. Nobody works in this business without making a few enemies along the way. Can you think of anyone who had a problem with Max?”

            “Max played in a few bands when he was in his late teens and early twenties. You’re right. Bands have infighting and break up all of the time. Sure there were some hard feelings along the way,” she said. “But after our second child was born Max got a chance to do some studio work, and everybody loved how quickly he could adapt to all kinds of music. He could’ve had his pick of bands, but chose to go in a direction that offered a steady paycheck as a contract musician.”

            “So, no potential enemies come to mind?”

            She replied, “There was a young guitarist with a big drug problem that Max got bumped from a steakhouse commercial. He filed a complaint with the union, and went off on Max pretty hard while clearing out of the studio.”

            “Do you think he could be a possibility?”

            “No. I understand he got into rehab and is now doing all right with a solo career in New York.”

            “Can you think of anyone who might still be holding a grudge?”

            “Now that you mention it, there’s a guy who hates Max with a passion.”

            “What happened?” Kelly chimed in.

            “A couple of years ago, Max did a tour with a band that had just cut their first album. The leader was a drummer named Jimmy Marcello, who was trying to save money on the tour by using his cousin to hook up the electrical and run the soundboard. The CD went to the top of the charts when the president’s daughter told a White House reporter that they were her favorite band. A gig at the Kennedy Center in D.C. was added to the tour. Along with the daughter, the president and first lady were also in attendance. Jimmy had his cousin add some sound enhancement electronics to Max’s keyboard and organ. He told Max he was going to announce the dignitaries before the first song, by saying ‘I’d like to welcome the president and his continued support of our band, as well as the first lady, on this very special night.’ Jimmy told Max to start playing Hail to the Chief when he said the word ‘continued.’ But when Max hit the first note, the whole sound system blew out, as a stunned crowd just heard Jimmy say, ‘I’d like to welcome the president and his cont-’”

            “I saw that on CNN at least 20 times,” Jason said.

            “The tour was immediately cancelled. CDs were pulled from shelves at all of the major retailers, and the band called it quits a few weeks after the incident when their music was banned on most FM channels.”

            “Jimmy blamed Max?” Jason asked.

            “Absolutely. Jimmy tackled Max backstage and started swinging. Max said it took six security guards and a Secret Service agent with a pistol to get Jimmy off of him and out of the Kennedy Center.”

            “Has he ever threatened Max since then?”

            “For about three months after the incident he called and sent letters saying that Max ruined his life. I can’t believe I didn’t think of him before this.”

            “When is the last time you heard from him?”

            “The calls lasted about three months. We thought he got over it and moved on.”

            “Maybe he adopted the adage: Don’t get mad, get even. Are you sure he got out of the music business?”

            Ellen said, “There were quite a few reporters backstage who saw Jimmy go nuts on Max. Between the perceived insult to the first lady and the unwarranted attack on Max, Jimmy was blackballed.”

            “Any idea where he is now?”

            “Max has a friend in the musicians’ union front office. I’m sure he could get you Jimmy’s last address.”

            “Did Jimmy know about the collection?”

            Ellen sat silently, looking up and to her left. After a minute she said, “Yes. I remember Max telling me he once said, ‘You’re here to get autographs, I’m here to re-write rock & roll history.’ I’m sure he knew.”

            When the show was over, Jason introduced Max to Kelly, and mentioned the Jimmy Marcello incident. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of him right off the bat. Not only does that guy hate me, he told me I owed him for ruining his life. I’ll call my friend at the union first thing in the morning and try to get his address.”

            “Find out if he had any friends, or a contact person on his insurance forms, who might know where he is now,” Jason said.

            “Will do,” said Max, and waved goodbye.

            During the ride home Kelly said, “Something interesting happened while you were at the snack bar.”

            “What’s that?”

            “You saw the band girlfriends sitting at the next table, right?” she asked.

            “I thought I was pretty discreet. I only glanced when you were turned away. You know how I value my shin skin.”

            “Very funny.” Kelly deadpanned. “Anyway, when the band took a break they all went over to that table, including the lead singer – Marni something. After the hugs and kisses, the boys started talking shop, and the strawberry blond gave Marni a little nod. She then discreetly passed her a paper that was folded in her hand.” 

            “Did you see what was on it?” Jason asked.

            “I did. She walked around our table and, with her back to her band mates, she unfolded it. I think it was a sexy female model in a Calvin Klein ad.”

            “Interesting,” Jason said.



Chapter 10



            On mornings after date night with Kelly, Jason has been known to arrive late for work. During the school year, when Kelly is teaching second grade, he usually rolls in a few minutes after 9:00. During her summer vacation, he rarely makes it to the office before 10:00. Today was no exception. By the time he arrived, Jeannine had placed color-coded pushpins in a giant map of San Diego that hung on a corkboard in his office. Each pushpin held a small circular sticky with a number printed on it. There appeared to be 27 in all. Neatly pinned to the corner of the map was a typed legend, noting the names of collectibles and memorabilia dealers, musical instrument shops, and eBay consignment companies.

            Jeannine was quite excited about her project. “What do you think?”

            “It’s terrific, Jeannine.” In spite of her many obsessions and compulsions she is very bright, and beginning to think like a detective. “I take it we’re contacting the dealers nearest to Callison’s to see if the crooks will try again.”

            “All but three have fax numbers. I thought you might want to send them a memo,” she said, handing Jason a piece of paper. “I took the liberty of typing up a little general information flyer. What do you think?”

            “It’s a good idea, but let’s add that the collector is a professional musician and offer a four-hour personal appearance for any dealer who provides information that leads to the return of the collection.”

            “Ooh! I like that. Should I put Max’s name on the flyer?” she asked.

            “Not if we actually want any phone calls. Let me take a look at it before you send it out.”

            Jason called Max and asked him what he learned about Jimmy Marcello. Fortunately, Jimmy continued his medical benefits through a union program until his new employer covered him. He went to work for a welding shop in Long Beach. Jason took down the address and was on his way, hoping to arrive before Jimmy went to lunch.

            No such luck. Traffic was painfully slow, and he didn’t get into Long Beach until 12:30 PM. He found the welding shop, noted the “Closed till 1:00” sign on the door, and located a deli about a half-mile down the road. By the time he returned, all welding operations appeared to be at full speed. Jason asked a huge guy, who bore an eerie resemblance to Uncle Fester of the Adams Family, where he could find Jimmy Marcello. Without speaking, Fester nodded at a body builder, who was clamping a piece of metal into a vise.

            “Jimmy, I’m Jason Duffy. An old friend of yours got robbed, and I’m here to see if you know anything about it.”

            “Are you a cop?”

            Jason flipped his credentials at him and said, “Private investigator.”

            “Not interested,” he said, and went back to work.

            “We can talk about it here and get it over with in five minutes, or I can call the detective in charge of the case, and he’ll give you a ride to his stationhouse in San Diego. We can do it fast or we can make a day of it – your choice, Jimmy.”

            “Who got robbed?” he asked.

            “Max Varner.”

            Jimmy got very agitated and loud. “That motherfucker! He ruined my life! If I was the one doing the robbing there’d be a homicide detective here instead of you!”

            “Calm down, Jimmy. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

            Several of Jimmy’s co-workers formed a circle around them and waited to see what would happen.

“Don’t tell me to calm down! You’re helping the guy that killed my chance at fame and big money! You’re helping the guy that made me a welder instead of a legend!”

            “C’mon Jimmy. All he did was start to play Hail to the Chief on cue. You’re the one who dropped a C-bomb on the first lady.”

The co-workers roared with laughter. Jimmy shook off his work gloves and charged like a wild animal. They crashed hard on the concrete floor and Jason was briefly stunned when his head struck the base of a well-anchored workbench. He tried struggling to his feet, but before he could get all the way up, Jimmy locked him in a sleeper hold that completely cut off his air supply. A couple of large dark spots clouded his vision and he felt his arms lose their grip on Jimmy. As he was about to pass out, he heard a loud metal clank and a thud. The next thing he knew he was falling to the floor. Jason squeezed his eyes shut tight. When he opened them, Jimmy Marcello was lying next to him unconscious.

            Jason looked up and saw Uncle Fester holding a gigantic wrench. Addressing his fellow workers he said, “Ain’t nobody gettin’ killed around here as long as I’m foreman. Now get back to work.”

            “Thanks,” Jason said, and he gingerly struggled to his feet.

            “You can thank me by not pressing charges,” he replied. “Jimmy’s a freakin’ lunatic, but he’s also the most productive guy in the shop. He works at 100% all day long and hasn’t missed a day since he started.”

            “What about two weeks ago? Has he taken any vacation time?”

            “He’s the first one here in the morning and the last to leave at night. Even though we give an hour for lunch, he takes about 15 minutes, and only breaks to piss.”

            “How long has he worked here?”

            Fester replied, “About a year, maybe a year and a half.”

            “No vacations?”

            “No vacations, no absences, no doctor’s appointments, no taking kids to the orthodontist, no chiropractic appointments, and none of any of the other bullshit excuses I get from most of these other guys,” he said, raising his voice for their benefit.

            “Thanks. You saved my life,” Jason said, and extended his hand.

            Fester squeezed it a bit too hard. “It’s been a pleasure. Now do me one more favor and never come back.”

            “You got it, big guy.”


            Jason was pleased to see Max had faxed the guest list for the past three snowboarding parties when he returned to the office. Eliminating duplicate names from one year to the next, there were a mere 252 suspects to clear.

            Kelly called around 4:00. “How do you feel about rockin’ it again tonight?”

            “Babe, you wore me out last night. I had all I could do to drag myself to the office this morning.”

            “I’m not talking about that,” she said. “I got a call from Ellen Varner this afternoon, and she wants to meet at another gig tonight. She thought of something she should have told you from the start.”

            Jason still had a headache from the sleeper hold, in spite of the four aspirins he took three hours ago. “I hope you gave her the Alexander Graham Bell lesson plan.”

            “Ellen’s a very visual person. Didn’t you see the way she held eye contact with you the whole time you were talking at the show last night? She didn’t glance at the stage once while you were speaking,” she said.

            “She was being polite.”

            “She’s scared, and feeling violated, and very worried about Max. She needs us there tonight, Jason.”

            He didn’t want to appear insensitive, but he also didn’t want to tell her about how he got crushed by Jimmy the Human Vise.

“Why don’t we get together with them on Saturday night?”

            “We’re having dinner at your parents’ house on Saturday night. Didn’t I tell you?” she asked.

            “My mother calls you. My client calls you. Maybe I should get a cell phone. Wait a minute – I have one! What’s wrong with this picture?”

            “Give me a break. I told her we’d be there tonight. The show is at a casino on the outskirts of Oceanside. It’s half the distance we traveled last night. Are you going with me or do I have to sit next to one of those hardbody Marines from Camp Pendleton?” she asked, with just the right touch of tongue-in-cheek.

            For the trip to Oceanside Jason selected a quiet Jack Johnson CD instead of his usual fare, to keep his head from throbbing. She wanted to talk about Jason’s resistance to her setting up a get-together with his mother. Kelly’s the only non-alcoholic member of a family of five, and is determined to establish and maintain normalcy in her life. Jason did his best to let her vent quietly while he nursed his aching head.

            Ellen greeted Kelly with a hug and gave Jason’s forearm a squeeze. If she had given him a neck hug he might have passed out. They were seated at a table in front of the stage and the band girlfriends were at a table to their right. Jason was glad they were about to hear an emo band instead of hard rock or metal. But the mere thought of amplified music made him flash on the moment his skull connected with the workbench.

            “Ellen, is there a place where we can sit down and grab a bite to eat? I’m starving,” he lied.

            “There’s a barbecue on the other side of the poker tables. Let’s go,” she said, and led the way. Conversation was minimal until they were all seated in front of large plates of gooey beef ribs.

Jason said “Kelly told me you remembered something that might be significant.”

            “Before we get into that, did you find out anything about Jimmy Marcello?”

            “I found out he does hate Max. He does think Max ruined his life. But he has an alibi for the day of the burglary,” Jason said, hoping he wouldn’t have to elaborate.

Kelly appeared to be formulating a follow-up question, but he stripped off half a rib with his teeth, rendering himself incommunicado. Unfortunately, chewing hurt almost as much as talking.

            Ellen said, “When we told you about the dealer who came to our house to assess the collection, what Max didn’t tell you is that he was out of town at the time, and I was home alone with the kids. I’m usually not skittish about having workmen around when Max isn’t there, but this guy made me feel very uncomfortable.”

            “What did he do to make you feel that way?” Jason asked.

            “It wasn’t anything he said or did. I can’t put my finger on it, but he just-,” Ellen paused, unable to find the words.

            “Creeped you out?” Kelly offered.

            “I guess so. He looked normal. But I had to get out of there. Max agreed that I could take the kids to Oceanside and start looking for a summer rental.”

            “When did you leave?” he asked.

            “First thing in the morning, the second day he was in town.”

            “Who let him in the house?” he asked.

            Ellen said, “Max gave him a key and the alarm code. He didn’t want Graham to think we didn’t trust him.”

            “You barely knew him,” Kelly said.

            “Max felt that Graham made it possible for us to buy our home by doing a good job selling part of the collection at a time when we only had a few weeks to come up with our down payment. He was also planning on using him to eventually sell off the rest of the collection to finance college for the kids, and our retirement years. I guess he wanted to show faith and confidence in him,” Ellen said.

            “Did you get the key back and change the code after Graham left?” he asked.

            “We got the key back, but Max is superstitious. He had just landed a nice contract with The Tactile Tattoo that included a tour after the CD is released. He was afraid that if he changed the code he would change his luck.”

            They got up from the table and tossed their bone collection into a trash barrel.  “Is it possible Carl actually armed the alarm and Graham turned it off?” Jason asked.

            “Chief Carson says no. The alarm wasn’t armed, but Graham couldn’t have known that.”

            “What’s Graham’s last name?”

            “Weston,” Ellen replied. “Max has been a wreck ever since this happened. Carl’s in community college by choice. He was accepted at USC and wants to go there for his junior and senior years. Next year Kayla will be starting college. It would mean the world to us if you could get the collection back.”

            Kelly gave Ellen’s hand a squeeze and said, “Don’t worry, Ellen. If it’s possible, Jason will do it.”

Jason loved spending time with Kelly, but there are some things you just shouldn’t promise a client.

Kindle version of Rock & Roll Rip-Off for $2.99 click here.

Paper version of Rock & Roll Rip-Off through PayPal (accepts Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, and Discover) click the “Buy Now” button below. Email immediately after placing the order to request a signed and inscribed copy.


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