A writer's life - This showed up in my mind at 4 in the morning:
The Witch with 500 Hats - Prologue
The half-drunk man untied the scull and pushed it away from the shore. It was just before midnight - the start of a new witching hour. As steaming fog frothed along the calm riverbank, the man rowed. The lanky boy in the bow cradled his arms to bring warmth to his shivering body, listening to the hurried slap of wooden oars against water. The man was running late and that made him tense.
“Won't be long now, boy. Just a few hundred yards out there - in the river.”
“What if he don't like me?”
“Shaddup, boy! He better like you or you'll get yourself another whipping! Are we clear?”
“And no smart-ass talk!”
There was no traffic on the wide river now. Captains of bigger ships didn't want to risk navigating between the drifting sandbars without moon or daylight or tugs at the high end of the mighty Mississippi. The scull made good time out to the thin tree-lined island standing midstream and approached the old paddle steamer tied off on the shoreline. The scull drifted past the stern’s stilled paddlewheel along the port side to a hanging ladder. The man tossed a rope to the boy and looked nervously about.
“Tie us up, Buddy, and be quick about it. He’s an important man. We don't want to rile him.”
“We are just a little late,” said the boy as he tied the small craft to a gunwale.
The man reached over and grabbed the boy by the scruff of his neck. “Don't be the fool like your father,” the man whispered desperately. “This is an opportunity for the both of us! Do you hear me?” He studied the decks for signs of life and returned his gaze to the boy. “I told him you were smart. Don't say too much. Don't smile. And try not to wiggle.”
“But you still haven't told me why I am here,” the boy reasoned.
“He’ll tell you,” said the boy's father. “This is just your introduction. He has to like you first.”
“Introduction to what?”
“The ways of men, the path to a new life.”
A man in shadows bellowed from above with a deep baritone voice. “Who's down there?”
The father released his grip and called back. “It's Bill Dempsey. I brought out my son as promised.”
The beam from a flashlight raced across father and son.
“You're late,” said the voice. “Bring him up, then. Let's have a look.”
Dempsey lifted his boy to the ladder and handed him up towards the man. Buddy was yanked on deck.
“You can stay behind in the boat,” said the man. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes, of course. I knew that. Thank you,” said Bill Dempsey.
“Let me see your hands,” he heard the man say. “Good. Long, strong fingers as promised… Follow me.”
Bill Dempsey sat back down in the scull. After the fall of retreating footsteps faded away, he reached inside his coat pocket for the bottle of rye whiskey. Dempsey smiled and drank to his future.
“The kid’ll be alright,” he convinced himself. “Just has to play dumb, is all.”
As he lay back in the scull, he noticed an opened portal window above the waterline. He pulled the small craft within hearing distance. The man was leading the boy down a set of stairs to the boat’s small dining hall.
The man’s voice continued. “Have you ever seen a violin boy?”
“Not up close, sir,” Buddy replied.
“Think you can learn to play it?”
“I can do pretty much anything if I put my mind to it.”
“Just one caprice. That’s all I ask.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“A musical piece written and played by a man named Pavorini a long time ago.”
“Pavorini. He was the greatest violinist who ever lived. This is one of his original bows. But there was a price to pay for his gift.”
The man smiled, speaking softly. “He sold his soul to the devil.”
"Just to play music?"
"In time, you'll understand."
“Why do you want me to learn this caprice?”
“In due time, all will be revealed.”
“My father said there is money involved.”
“There is - some now, more as we go and plenty more when we’re finished. All that you learn must be in the strictest confidence. Am I understood?”
“After all, Buddy, we wouldn’t something bad to happen to your family, now would we?”
There was a light clatter as the violin was pulled from its case. “Hand me the bow, young man,”
Bill Dempsey took another drink in the scull and listened as the violin was played. It was the music of a haunted virtuoso played with unrivaled technical artistry. But there was something in the emotional notes that made Dempsey’s hair stand up and his blood curdle. “What have I done?” he pondered.
The music stopped.
Young Buddy’s voice dripped with awe. “I have never heard such music!”
“You shall learn to paint with music like me,” said the voice, “with emotion, voracity and perfect leaps through every draw of the bow, painting musical sounds! The four strings of the violin are capable of lightning, singing, thunderstorms, even birds singing! This is the instrument of kings!”
“May I pluck the violin?”
“That is the reason you are here. Pluck away.”
Bill Dempsey listened as his son scratched the bow across the strings of the violin. It was an awful high-pitched tumble of sounds. Now there was a long pull of the bow. It sadly hummed along a string in one long perfect note.
The man laughed loudly. “Bravo, Buddy! Your first words spoken with music.”
Bill Dempsey relaxed. His useless kid had passed the audition.