I awoke some time later in incomplete darkness.
I was in the Jag’s trunk. I could hear the engine, once a proud roar, now more of a reluctant rumble, thanks to my misadventure behind the wheel. I’d obviously done enough damage when I’d hit the Passat to crumple the bodywork, because light filtered in through small cracks in the side of the trunk.
I tested my jaw with my fingertips. It didn’t feel shattered which, considering how hard I’d been hit, was a miracle of biblical proportions. There was, however, a sizable goose egg growing on the back of my head from where it had hit the headrest after the blow. I’m surprised the impact didn’t deploy the airbag.
I wasn’t tied up and did my best to stretch in the cramped quarters.
That probably meant the man in black didn’t think I represented much of a threat.
He was obviously a smart monster.
I did my best to be grateful to be alive. It was 99.9% certain that my assailant was the same guy who’d aced the Fortunate Fridays on Whack-a-Band Wednesday, so he obviously didn’t care about the whole ethics of mass murder or anything so… polite. Which meant this was a retrieval mission. Though why anyone was retrieving me didn’t bear thinking about. The only man I could think of who was powerful enough to pull it off was Yevgeny Dolgov. Sure, I mean, there was a good chance he was a bit miffed with me trying to skip the country, but if his hired help had killed my band, that meant he was the reason I was fleeing. It was all a bit… bad manners?
I mean, he’d just killed my only chance of paying him back.
That’s hardly good business.
I decided then and there that I really didn’t want to know who it was. Here’s a little secret for you, should you ever find yourself locked up in the trunk of a car against your will: every car built after November of 1998 has to have an internal trunk release, to prevent adventurous children and kidnappees like myself from suffocating inside them. All I had to do was wait for the vehicle to stop at a red light and make a break for it. If I got lucky and bounded out of the trunk in a populated area, I might not even have to worry about a foot chase. I found a bright orange handle in a compartment on the side of the trunk that was covered by a plastic fascia.
The next few minutes seemed like an eternity.
The car made a repetitive thumping noise as it drove over various irregularities in the road and seemed to maintain a consistent speed. We went over a set of railway tracks without even slowing and I was nearly bounced into the lid. A long stretch passed where the only sound I heard might have been the horn of a faraway tractor-trailer. It could have been the mating call of some lonely forest dweller, too.
Finally, the car began to slow. After a few sharp turns, it stopped.
I yanked on the trunk release, and when it wouldn’t open quickly enough, shoved the lid of the trunk up with my shoulder. I felt a sharp cramp in my leg as I stood and my foot caught on the lip of the trunk. Instead of gracefully leaping out of the car, I hit the pavement hard, cheek first.
I wasn’t at a red light.
I was in the parking lot of some kind of industrial complex on the outskirts of London. A sign on the three-story stucco building at the center of the lot read “Fast Chem” in large, well-lit letters. A happy little drop of blood, complete with sunglasses, danced alongside it. Its ecstatic expression and huggable arms made me hate it instantly. There were no convenient pedestrians around to save my arse from the beating of a lifetime, either.
A pair of wingtips approached. I felt a hand on my collar, and I was hauled to my feet and then shoved toward a back entrance to the building. I was shoved inside, then kept on being shoved all the way to a cargo elevator. It was a long way down to the level marked “sub” several times in a row before the word “basement”. You and me, we can just skip the formalities and call it hell. Not capital “H” Hell, small “h” hell.
We were separated from what looked like a cleanroom by a large Plexiglas wall. Inside I could see men and women in coveralls, expertly manipulating equipment I might better have been able to describe had my attempt at Pre-Med not gradually turned into a Bachelor of Arts and worked its way down to a diploma as my grades continued to fall one toke, one swig, and one shag at a time.
The man in black knocked on the glass, catching the attention of one of the technicians who, in turn, motioned to a third man that had been observing the proceedings. He came over to the door and stood in what was basically an airlock, like something out of Star Trek, which sprayed down his clean suit with chemicals before admitting him into our room.
When he took off his mask I saw that I had previously guessed right. It was Yevgeny Dolgov.
I took absolutely no pleasure in being right.
Some might have called him a short man, but I prefer to describe him as “compact”. It’s less likely to get me killed, for a start. His head was a tad too big for his body, a fact made more obvious by the fact it was absolutely hairless. We’re talking Playboy-model-pudenda hairless. He was pale, like a nightclub DJ, but polite. You know, that special kind of politeness only a complete psychopath can manage.
“Marcus Reardon! Mr. Dead Records himself! I understand that you were a bit reluctant to come see me today. I’m hurt,” he said, his accent slurring together his words.
“Reluctant? No. Not at all. You know me, Yevgeny, I’ve always got time for my favorite shady underworld godfather. It’s just that I have a very early flight to catch.”
“I hear Ghana can be quite nice at this time of year.”
I nodded mentally. My travel agent was a sonofabitch. “There’s a man in Accra who sings just like Gaga. I thought, you know, teach him to play the electric guitar, and we could have the next big thing on our hands, right?”
Dolgov pulled off his gloves and shrugged his cleanroom suit into the hands of an assistant. He wore an expensive Italian suit underneath, grey with a sky-blue shirt and tie. “We won’t be needing you for a while, Dimitri,” he said to the man in black. He adjusted his tie and indicated that I should walk beside him. Who was I to say no?
“It is a shame about what happened to the Fortunate Fridays,” he said. “It appears they were not that fortunate after all.” He laughed a weird hissing laugh, and I think he expected me to laugh along with him, but I saw nothing funny about their deaths.
“Yeah. Did you know that Edgar Morton, the rhythm guitarist, had just had a child?”
“It will be taken care of,” he said, waving the problem away.
He was like that, any problem could be paid for until it went away.
Elevator doors slid open in front of us and we descended to another “sub”. This one was decorated luxuriously with black leather and white walls. A painting that might have been titled ‘two black cubes fucking on a white sheet’ hung behind a large couch. Two black leather chairs were set perpendicular to the couch, all aimed at a plain white wall. On our way to the couch, we crossed over a glass porthole, flush to the floor, which looked like it opened into a circular staircase lined with wine bottles. There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere, and the compact fluorescents overhead made the contrast even starker. I wondered idly how often Dolgov needed to shampoo his carpets to keep them so immaculate. Even the wine was white.
He picked up a remote control from a glass coffee table, collapsed into a leather recliner, and invited me to do the same. “I understand how tempting this prospect of yours in Ghana must be, especially as things with your current band didn’t work out, but what would you say if I asked you to set aside all that and take a look at another singer?”
There I was expecting him to gut me with a fishhook, and he wanted me to check out some talent? As long as they weren’t a school of fish at the bottom of the Thames, what did I have to lose? Still, it was all a peculiar dance, since Dolgov knew I was making up the part about the singer in Accra. I really had no choice but to do whatever he asked. I had no way of paying him back, and he’d made it clear that running was not an option. “I don’t know, man, I don’t know… Gaga’s hot again. I mean, who doesn’t love a tinfoil-clad freak getting her groove on? It’s very retro. But I might be persuaded, if the singer is talented enough.”
“I think you’ll be impressed.” He tapped a few buttons on his remote and I was startled to see a vertical black line appear on the previously white wall. It grew as the wall retracted into two panels, revealing one of the most impressive entertainment centers I have ever laid eyes on. Two giant speakers stood on either side of a TV the size of my Jetta, and receivers and amps were perfectly arranged in the shelves behind them. There were no wires visible, so either they were expertly set into the wall, or the whole thing was wireless. Several of the system’s components lit up and, as a song began to play, I realized that we must have been surrounded by more hidden speakers. The sound appeared to come from all directions at once, and yet it was so well calibrated to our positions in the room that it was totally immersive.
The song itself was a staticky, unproduced mess. All synthesizers and jangly guitar. But it had a catchy beat. The singer was female and sounded young, but there was something about her I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I felt her voice grab me deep in the pit of my stomach and not let go until she’d finished her piece.
“I’ll take her on,” I said, a little too eagerly.
Dolgov’s eyes lit up. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize the song, Mr. Reardon.” He tapped another button and the screen flared to life. A heartbreakingly beautiful girl, not more than twenty, blonde hair/blue eyes, the lot, sang into a microphone with the kind of bop reserved exclusively for smarmy pop singers. It was the same song, but so heavily produced as to be almost unrecognizable. The girl, on the other hand, was instantly recognizable. It was Martine, our generation’s answer to Madonna. A pop sensation who could fill a stadium and the front page of a tabloid magazine on the same day. But why would Dolgov play a Martine demo song for me? Surely, she had the money to hire an army of producers who were far more successful than I am.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t going to be quite as much a no-brainer as it appears to be?”
Dolgov nodded. “I’m going to show you a few more charts and let you come to your own conclusions.” He thumbed another button and Martine was replaced by a chart that had a few bumps in it with one huge spike near its center. I squinted to read the text accompanying the chart. Interesting. Martine was popular with women up to their thirties, but the bulk of her audience were mainly fourteen to eighteen year olds. However that huge spike consisted of boys on the verge of puberty. Not the traditional demographic, especially for female pop singers. Who am I kidding, she was hot, and pre-pubescent boys are always willing to risk one eye in the name of research.
Dolgov flipped another button on his remote.
The chart was replaced by what could only be dental x-rays that had been crudely photocopied. Handwritten notes in ink on the top right corner indicated several points on the jaw where massive reconstructive work had been done. I was no dentist, but it looked like maybe she’d had her jaw broken, or massive tooth decay. I supposed it made sense that someone who wrote sugary pop songs would have a sweet tooth.
Another button press.
I was looking at a song sheet. Reading music is an entry-level skill in my profession, so I had no problems recognizing that this was the sheet music for the song Martine had sung in the previous video. Except the lyrics here were different. Instead of “capturing the heart of her love”, her first draft had been about eating it.
It wasn’t exactly teen heartthrob stuff… or maybe it was, in a more literal sense.
Suddenly everything clicked into place. “She’s not human, is she?”
“Very perceptive, Mr. Reardon, she is not. Neither is Dimitri, as you probably noticed, but while Dimitri is merely a vampire, Martine is something greater. I believe you’d call her a succubus.”
I didn’t know much Greek mythology, but I’d dabbled in a little light bondage, nothing too kinky, no pain, no blood. Well, not mine anyway. “Sex demon.”
Dolgov smiled. I’m sure the gesture was genuine. It was the kind of smile a shark gave a minnow right before opening its mouth. “Crude, but I suppose that describes her adequately. My point is that Martine has taken a few very deliberate actions to transform herself from something repulsive to a star. But she is merely, as you say, a ‘sex demon’. What if we were to take her model and apply it to a creature who can actually sing? Whose magic itself is bound up in her voice?”
He tapped another button.
The face on the screen was in close up. She was pretty, but in an odd, alien way. Her eyes were sea green, but they were set too far apart. Her neck was inhumanly long, and I thought I could see thin scars on either side of it that reminded me of gills. Taken together she was eye-catching, but I didn’t know if it was because of her beauty or her flaws.
“Well, she’s certainly got a distinctive look,” I said doubtfully. “Can she sing?”
“Of course I can sing,” said the image on the tele. I managed not to jump, but I felt my cheeks go red. I hadn’t realized she could see and hear us.
“She’s a siren, Mr. Reardon. In the days before geosynchronous satellites and GPS on every phone, she might have lured sailors to their deaths with her songs. Two days ago, she expressed an interest in entering the music business and wondered if I could help her, in exchange for performing a few services for me. I told her I knew the right man for the job.”
I hid a sneer. ‘A few services’. Dolgov was trying to set his girlfriend up with a music career. “I’m kind of busy right now,” I said.
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “I thought that I’d cleared your schedule. Do I need to clear it further?”
There wasn’t a hint of danger in his voice, and it didn’t even look like he was paying attention to me.
“I’m a hard worker, Mr. Reardon,” said the girl on the tele. “And I can sing. Would you like a demonstration?”
I sighed, defeated. “There’s no need, is there? It looks like you’re my client whether I like it or not.”