Dolgov accompanied me back to the surface, quizzing me the entire time about my plans for his girlfriend. It was hard to muster much enthusiasm for the job. I had very little experience in pop music, and yet if I failed to turn the siren into a star I would answer to Dolgov. Fuck, I’d even named my company Dead Records because if it failed that’s exactly what I’d be. I’m a prophet of my own doom. Hell, even if she succeeded wildly, I would still answer to Dolgov. Instead of merely borrowing money with the intention of paying him back, I had somehow been coerced into a lifetime of servitude.
Dimitri seemed to harbor no ill will towards me for what I’d done to his Jag, but he wasn’t exactly my best mate either. We drove in silence back to my flat, rather than the room in the sleazy B&B I’d hired when I was trying to hide from him. Later that night, I drove, also in silence, along the M20 out to Dover and through the Chunnel. They didn’t catch me until Bourges.
What can I say? Once I set my mind on something–especially something important like staying alive–I’m nothing if not stubbornly, predictably persistent.
When I was returned to Rainmaker studios there was a young woman waiting for me. She was tall, but rail slim, with the body of a young boy. Not literally, obviously, she hadn’t killed a young boy. Well she might have, but if she had, he wasn’t with her. Can you tell I was getting a bit jumpy? Look, I’ll be honest, I was expecting Ice T to jump out and shout, “Bodycount’s in the house!” it was just that kind of day. Her hair was dark, and swept back in a pixie-cut. She wore a push up bra to flaunt what she had, which obviously I’m all for, and a tank top that showcased a spectacularly flat stomach, we’re talking ripped… and a pierced navel. I’ve got a thing about piercings. All piercings, everywhere, the more intimate the better. Her jeans were tight enough to clearly outline another piercing. I approved.
I assumed she was there to set up the studio for the siren. Either that, or Dolgov had sent me a present to soften me up.
“My name is Aurelia von Trappenstein,” she said nervously, holding out a hand for me to shake.
“God, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?” I said. Some of my bruises hadn’t yet healed and if I held my head a certain way I could hear a phone ringing. I was in no mood to be charming. You could argue that’s my default setting. I like to think I have a certain irresistible something, but in truth the only thing that’s ever been irresistible about me has been the male pattern baldness creeping in. And that’s not a good look around a pretty woman. “When does your boss get here?”
She blinked. “My boss?”
A terrible thought occurred to me. “No. No, no no no no. You’re not…” I looked closer. The makeup she’d applied was stunning, but under it her eyes were still set too far apart. “You’re the siren?”
“My name is Aurelia,” she said with a smile that I was grateful to discover was not filled with razor-sharp teeth. Either she’d had them capped or had gone in for the same kind of radical surgery enjoyed by Martine.
“Okay then,” I said rubbing my temple.
Dolgov had spent lavishly on the studio–the best suite Rainmaker had to offer, which just so happened to be the same one I’d booked, trying to impress the Fortunate Fridays–he’d even gone so far as to hire me an assistant. Harvey was a portly Londoner with perpetually rosy cheeks who wore vests that were color-coordinated with his socks. I knew he was spying on me for Dolgov, but I didn’t care, I had an assistant. I was going up in the world.
I hit the intercom switch on the wall. “Harvey, bring us some coffee.” I stepped away from the switch, but then stepped back. “And some water for Little Miss Muffet here.” I turned back towards her. “We need to see what you can do.”
I sent her into the live room and sat down in front of the soundboard.
She took a seat on a tall stool in the center of the room and put on the headphones that hung from a nearby microphone stand. I observed her through the glass partition. She was sitting in the same spot where only a few weeks before, the Fortunate Fridays had met their end. Frankie Dubont, Edgar Morton, and Chuck LeChance. I tapped on the soundboard, adjusting the treble absently. Their settings were still programmed into the board.
“Mr. Reardon?” said Aurelia from the live room.
I noticed a rust colored spot on the edge of the board and probed it with a fingernail. The bastards had renovated the whole studio, but they’d missed this one spot of blood. I licked my finger and rubbed at it. It wouldn’t come off.
I looked up. “What?” I asked a little too sharply.
She was a fragile little thing, knees pressed together as she sat on the stool. “You’re crying.”
I blinked and then wiped my cheeks with my sleeve. It came away wet. Damn. I stood, meaning to leave the studio, but realized that I’d turned the wrong way and was now looking at a poster of Ozzie screaming into a microphone in an otherwise empty corner. Feeling like an idiot I stood there, hands on my hips, looking at the ceiling and kicking my own arse for not being able to get a grip.
After a while I felt a hand on my arm. It was Aurelia. She said nothing.
“Yeah, well, right,” I said gruffly. “Break time’s over, isn’t it? Let’s get to work.”
I suggested she try something a cappella first, so that I could get a true gage of her talent.
“Okay. I’ll try something upbeat then?”
I tapped the intercom. “Hit me with your best shot,” I said, not meaning the Pat Benatar song.
She closed her eyes and began with a low hum that rose like the sun over the ocean. She swayed slightly in her seat and then sang a single crystal clear note which quickly dipped into lyrics–
“–Wait, wait,” I said, cutting her off. “Are you…are you singing about cannibalism?”
She leaned into the microphone to speak, not knowing that I could hear everything in the room through the soundboard. “I thought you wanted something uplifting.”
Of course. She was a siren. Luring men to their deaths and all that. I supposed they sang when they ate. “Okay. I’m not sure it’ll get past the censors at the BBC, so we’d better try something a little less different.”
The tune was good…great actually. It had a martial feel to it and the lust the sirens must have felt as they devoured their prey was apparent in the melody. It was catchy. Okay, that’s a bad pun. But you know what I mean. I sent her home for the day while I worked on something about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, which fit the original lyrics in a figurative sense.
I sent Harvey out to pick up a new wardrobe for Aurelia. Unsurprisingly he’d been able to guess her measurements just by looking at her. Us men have a talent for things like that. Some say they have a head for numbers, but what they really mean is 34-26-36 is their idea of a Fibonacci sequence.
She looked disappointed when I had her dress the next day. “What was wrong with my old clothes? I thought sex sold? Isn’t that what they say?”
“Not always,” I said guardedly.
“It works for Martine.”
“Yeah, but she’s–,” I made an hourglass shape with my hands, coming over all Fibonacci on her. “And you’re–” This time it was just a slash. “Trust me, we’ll go way further if you dress a little funkier.”
She looked down at herself, and then at the handheld mirror that Harvey had set on his desk for the occasion. Of course she had to adjust the angle, because he’d set it for his own delectation. She wore a white blouse, with a rakish number of buttons undone, a grey plaid skirt and a thin-brimmed fedora. She looked a corrupted schoolgirl, which was exactly the look I had in mind for her. I may have a slight fetish, so sue me. “I guess I could get used to this.”
“One more thing. Aurelia von Trappenstein is dead. It was a sad tragic death, obviously, much gnashing of teeth and wailing from all concerned. If you want we can have a little funeral for her or a burial at sea, lift a glass in her honor. From now on, you’re simply “Aura”. No last name. Especially not that one.”
To the girl’s credit, she had chops. A few days into rehearsal and I was convinced she was the most talented singer I’d ever worked with. After the first week I thought she might be the most talented in the UK. I was convinced that anyone who listened to her demo would book her straight away. She’d be in Wembley by the end of the month. Over-enthusiasm, however, is the bane of the record producer. We’re a little like lawyers who convince themselves that our clients, who have been caught with a victim’s severed head in their refrigerators, are completely innocent. We need to believe in our acts in order to put in the hours we do, but sometimes that gets flipped on its head and we start believing in them because of the hours we put into them.
I had to see if anyone else believed in Aura before I sent out her demo.
However, we had one shot at building her career, and I knew it. If I sent out something that wasn’t absolutely top shelf, her next demo reel would be filed in the dustbin. I used my connections to land Aura a gig at a local place called the Broken Doll that had a reputation for being both totally disgusting, and also a crucible for new talent. Initially, it had been home to mostly punk bands, but as its reputation increased, so did the breadth of the acts who played there. Now they hosted ska, indie music, trance, and even a little hip-hop. Aura’s brand of pop music was pushing it for them, but they were willing to give us a shot. Palms were greased and I was grateful. Me being grateful meant Yevgeny was grateful.
There were always a few promoters sitting in its dingy booths, and more than one band who now filled stadiums had had their start there.
We arrived well before our set, me in the front of the Jetta with Aura in the passenger seat and Harvey in the rear with some of our equipment. The rest would be arriving shortly in a lorry, along with our backup band. After the disaster with the Fortunate Fridays, it seemed that word had circulated in the music community that my studio was cursed and I’d had difficulty wrangling fresh the talent. In the end, I’d turned to Dolgov. That meant that I’d probably have three very skilled, but terrified–or conversely terrifying–musicians on my hands.
The alley was littered with refuse and discarded drug paraphernalia. A trickle of something dark and blood-like ran down its center from a low budget butcher shop across the way. The single perk in the hard-fought contract I’d negotiated with management at the Broken Doll was a parking spot for me and another for our truck, so I parked next to a black sports car which I assumed belonged to the owner. At least it wasn’t Dimitri’s Jag.
Despite her small stature and the looks given her by some of the transients who’d clustered near a green dumpster a few meters away, Aura seemed unconcerned. I supposed that when your diet consists mostly of enchanted sailors, hard-lived men don’t frighten you much.
Quite a few clients sat at the tables in the Broken Doll even at this early hour. Outside, it was a bright, cloudless day, but inside, the place was dark. And dank. Dark and dank. Perfect for a gig. Dark, dank and sweaty were an A&R man’s dream combo. Large windows, a relic from when the bar had been a storefront in a shopping mall, were blacked out and the only light came from wooden chandeliers in the ceiling. Each was scratched many times over and home to ancient, candle-shaped light bulbs. I wondered how often a drunken patron had injured themselves by swinging on them.
Booths lined one wall, brown leather that was cracked from years of being soaked by spilt beer. The bar on the other side of the great room was a solid oak fortress, with very few breakable glasses or bottles on display. In the very darkest corner of the bar was our stage.
Aura hesitated when she saw it. A plain wooden step that was home to a dozen orange extension cords that had been left where the last band had dropped them while unplugging their equipment, it was separated from the bar by a floor-to-ceiling chicken-wire fence.
“It’s to protect you against bottles, won’t help with the bodily fluids I’m afraid,” I said. “Perk of the job.”
I’d burned through most of my cell phone battery earlier that day trying to let every promoter who would return my calls know about the concert, and now I took to Twitter to try and drum up more interest while we waited. By the time the battery flashed red and the screen winked out I was ready to throw the phone against a wall. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get the word out about a new band. Believe me, it’s like advertizing yourself thus: old, wrinkled diseased hooker looking for sucker. No one’s coming.
The evening clientele began to filter with the setting sun, and thankfully I recognized a few. Among them was Rick Casterly, a promoter for a company called Performance Edge that had been known to fill a few stadiums. A blond swede, though you couldn’t tell it from his Yorkshire accent, he wore a grey suit and pink shirt, topped by a grey fedora. Fedora’s it seemed were all the rage. It was a faux pas to dress too well in such a poor neighborhood–the Broken Doll was the kind of bar you wore your worst clothes to–but Rick thought he was above all that. Normally aloof, he and I had attended the same technical college, and though we were a year apart, me on the way down, him on the way up, talk about the old college days was always a good ice breaker.
“Slumming again, Casterly?” I asked as slid into the booth next to him. A waitress glanced at me from a couple of tables over and I signaled her to bring us two of whatever Rick was drinking.
“Marcus, old boy,” he said with a laugh. He had an excessively deep, booming voice, and patrons a few table over looked up when he spoke. “I thought you’d died.”
“What, of a heart-attack? I’m only thirty-seven.” I said, faking offense.
“Yes, well, that business with your band made the papers, and then there was word that you’d disappeared…Two and two and all that. Nice to see you’re still breathing.”
“I’ve been grooming a new act,” I said, neatly avoiding the implied question about the fate of the Fortunate Fridays. “A phenom out of…” I realized I knew virtually nothing about my young protégée except that in a former life she’d lured sailing vessels to their doom. “…Dover.”
He interlaced his fingers and raised an eyebrow. “The plot thickens. So…I’m assuming that you’ve gotten it into your head that she’s the kind of phenom I might want in my stable?”
I decided to play it cool. “Well, you or Polanski. I thought I saw his Aston Martin turn into a parking garage as I drove up.”
The waitress clinked our drinks on the table and I tossed her a few crumpled bills. This was likely the last time we’d see her all night. The bar got busy enough that it was rare for a server to make it all the way to the booth without an order.
“Nice try,” said Rick over the rim of his pint. “Red Sky went under six months ago, and Polanski went with it. Last I heard, his car had been impounded and he was day-laboring for pennies in Lewisham. It’s a new world out there.”
I took a drink and let the amber liquid swirl in my mouth. A pale ale, it tasted a little too much like the keg it came in for my liking. “Yeah, well, this girl is a phenom. Have you ever known me to exaggerate?”
“You’ve got more tall tales in you than Beatrix bloody Potter. But keep paying for the drinks. Maybe we’ll discover that I can be bought with watered down beer and false promises. I’m notoriously cheap.”
Despite the joke, I knew that Rick would be a hard nut to crack, especially if things were as difficult out there as he suggested. Promoters like him are basically cowards who’d rather book a band on the tail end of their fifteen minutes than risk a few quid on an unknown. Aura wasn’t in competition with Martine in Rick’s eyes, not yet in any case. She was in competition with the Air Supplies, the REO Speedwagons, Asia’s and every other 80s band who might fill a casino lounge. In my heart of hearts, I knew she’d surprise him. She had to. Her career was on the line, and me, well, knowing Dolgov, my life was right there with it. It’s not good being on the line. Lines don’t have sides so you can’t pick one. Me, I’ve survived this long by picking sides right about the time it’s become obvious which one is winning.
Rick was only three beers in when sound check finished and the band’s female bassist had begun to strum a war cry. I noticed when the drum came in that the whole band was female. Women who could play were a rare enough thing in rock and roll that an all-female band had to be Dolgov’s idea of a marketing gimmick. I could work with it, I supposed, given the whole sweaty-palmed young horny male demographic we were looking at tapping into.
Right on cue, Aura burst out of the backroom and onto that chicken wire stage like it was the Albert Hall. She’d spent time on her makeup, and it looked as if she was wearing glittering pink Braveheart war-paint. She clenched her fist and bent over like she’d been punched in the gut as she sang her first notes, and we were all right there with her, taking that punch in the gut. Her voice was chocolate on velvet and she could howl like Florence with or without her Machine.
This was the complete package.
A few minutes in and Rick’s beer halted in mid-sip.
The bar fell silent.
And I mean eerily silent.
Silent like bars aren’t meant to be.
Even the bartender, normally under assault, had turned towards the stage.
We sat in that scuzzy bar on the wrong side of town, and it was like we were listening to a symphony at the Barbican but it was all coming out of one girl’s mouth. Every single man in that room was in love. No one made a sound. No hoots. No hollers. After a while, I began to realize the silence was more than just eerie. It was positively creepy. I turned my attention away from the stage. No one in the audience was moving. Rick’s beer slid a little in his grip, clinked onto the table, and then overturned. Beer spread in a pool, soaking our napkins, and then began dripping onto his lap. Still no movement.
“Uh, Rick?” I asked, entirely too quietly to be heard over Aura’s singing. “I think you spilled your beer.”
I reached out and shook his hand, which was still suspended mid-way between the table and his mouth. No reaction.
Suddenly, a woman at a neighboring table shouted obscenities and stood up, emptying her drink over her drinking companion’s head. A waitress shoved a customer too enraptured by the song to pay for his drinks. The women in the crowd were unaffected. It was just the men who were frozen. I began to feel real fear. Never trust a fucking siren. She was singing these guys to their dooms. I did not want to find out what would happen when she stopped.
I rose and darted into the back hallway towards the backstage door.
A deadbolt hung from a bolt screwed to the wood. My guess was that it had been locked by management of the Broken Doll to prevent the band from doing a short set. They’d paid for forty minutes and this was their way of making sure they got them.
I grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall nearby and brought it down on the lock.
Apparently, the lock was solid steel, but the door was plywood and cardboard. The blow ripped out the bolt assembly by its screws and it clattered onto the ground. I stared in shock for a few moments, and then kicked it out of the way, dropping the fire extinguisher on a sofa that occupied nearly half the hallway.
I must have burst onto the stage like a rock star.
No rapturous applause though, so that kinda shattered the illusion.
I was immediately blinded by the stage lights. The audience wasn’t more than a dark smear I could barely see through the chicken wire. Aura danced ahead of me, belting a seductive song into her microphone as she ground her hips into the leg of an imaginary dance partner. She was twerping or tweaking or whatever the kids called it these days. She couldn’t see what was happening to the audience. What would they do when the song stopped? Would they rush the stage? Until yesterday, the only time I’d heard a siren was just before I let an ambulance pass me. Vampire hit men, singing succubae, pop star sirens? This was new to me.
None of the other band members seemed to be aware of what was unfolding in the bar beyond. I saw now that Dolgov’s decision to employ an all-female backing band was no marketing gimmick–they were immune to the siren’s charm. He just hadn’t thought of–or hadn’t cared about–what would happen to the audience.
I tried to signal the guitarist, the only one who was even partially turned my way. A tall blonde with the physique of a praying mantis, she wore a folded up British flag around her forehead to hold back her hair. She nodded when I waved, then performed a little flourish with her guitar. Musicians.
I could now see movement in the dark blur beyond us. A lot of movement. I shielded my eyes and stepped into the shadow of an amp. Bar patrons were taking to their feet, accidentally upending tables in their carelessness. Their arms were at their sides and they stared at Aura with cold, dead eyes. As my vision adjusted to the dark, I could see a waitress at the bar, panicking into a phone. Great. How long until the cops arrived?
I saw movement a few feet away. A muscular college kid with a military haircut shambled up to the stage. His fingers hooked the chicken wire and squeezed, stretching the metal. Maybe the cops wouldn’t arrive soon enough.
“Fuck it,” I said to myself. I took two steps forward and caught Aura’s arm. A true professional, she continued to sing, even as she gave me a startled glance. Several more patrons grabbed the chicken wire and I argued in a well-reasoned whisper that now was the time to gracefully exit stage right. “We’re leaving!”
Behind me the guitar cut out abruptly. The bass quickly followed. The drummer, God bless her, thought that was her cue to start a solo and continued playing even as we left. Again, I say, musicians.
We burst into the hallway with all the enthusiasm Aura had mustered bursting onto the stage. To our right lay the door to the alley and our likely salvation. Across from us were a pair of dressing rooms, cunningly placed next to the bathroom where waiting musicians were sure to be inspired by the smell of stale piss and vomit. To our left was the scariest thing I have encountered in all my thirty seven years, and I’ve twice been an in-patient at one of the more… ahh… backward thinking infirmaries. Thirty or forty men stood at the end of the hallway, arms at their sides, some with stains on their clothes from where they’d spilled their drinks. There was no life in their eyes at all. It was like they’d gone elsewhere and left their bodies behind them. A man somewhere in the back said Aura’s name in a cold deadpan, and it was repeated several times. Soon, the entire crowd was saying it, but not at any shared pitch or volume, so that the sound dissolved into an unintelligible drone.
I looked back to my right. It might have been the longest hallway in London. Hadrian’s Wall had nothing on that hall. I estimated we might be able to traverse half its length before the crowd caught up to us. Maybe less.
“What do you usually do now?” I asked Aura.
She licked her lips.
“I’m a siren. I lure men to their deaths. What do you think I do?” She said sweetly. She looked at the floor, then back at me. To her credit, she actually looked embarrassed. “I eat them.”
I was tempted to ask her to do just that, except that she no longer had any teeth, and without them I wasn’t really sure she’d do much better than I would.
Like a flock of birds taking to the air for no particular reason, the crowd began to advance on us. A shadow had fallen over their eyes, and a small flame burned in the very depths of that shadow. As the flame grew, their faces twisted into a mixture of lust and hatred.
I shoved Aura into the room across from us and caught the guitarist’s arm, dragging her behind us. The bassist, a small woman with rosebud lips and purple contacts named Marnie that I’d seen play with a few local bands followed close behind. The drummer was nowhere in sight. Still on stage, presumably. Good for her, a pro right to the last.
We’d accidentally chosen the larger of the two dressing rooms, and not the one the Broken Doll had reserved for us. There was a door stop on the floor nearby, but instead of putting it under the door, I thrust it into the frame, just above the bottom hinge.
“You,” I barked at the guitarist once it was firmly embedded.
“Whatever. Help me with this sofa.” I took one end and she took the other one. I thought I’d have to do much of the lifting since she was skinny enough that could count her ribs through the fabric of her yellow t-shirt, but she surprised me and we managed to put what we soon discovered was a hide-a-bed in front of the door in record time. Marnie, the bassist, assisted as best as she could by moving the end table and plugging the lamp atop it into a different outlet, so that it was once again next to the hide-a-bed. Not on top of. Beside.
“You’re high aren’t you?” I asked, matter-of-factly. She giggled and adjusted the lampshade, answering my question for me.
Whatever magic lay in Aura’s voice hadn’t entirely robbed the crowd of its senses. They tried the handle before thumping on the door. I watched the door stop shudder in the frame with a peculiar kind of dread. I’d always dreamed of being hustled into a limousine just ahead of a screaming crowd, but I imagined the evening ending in toasted champagne and half-naked girls in my flat, not my mutilated corpse in some anonymous dressing room in a shithole like the Doll.
“What’s wrong with them?” asked Alice.
Aura and I looked at each other. Neither one of us wanted to explain the whole mythical creature from under the sea thing. “They’re…just…fans,” I offered lamely.
“Jesus, Eileen’s out there,” she said suddenly, referring to the drummer, I assumed.
“She’ll be fine,” said Aura quietly. “They only want me.”
Alice stared at her as if to judge whether the comment was egoism or fact. Evidently, she decided on the later. “Well then, I vote we toss you into the hall and make like a shepherd.”
“Huh?” I said, eloquently.
“Get the flock out of here.” I liked that. I had to remember that line. “Marnie’s with me, aren’t you Marnie?”
The diminutive bassist gave a dazed nod from her place on the sofa. The door banged as something heavy slammed into it, and she turned to scowl at it as if she’d just realized it was there.
“You’re a real hero, aren’t you?” I asked. It wasn’t exactly an accusation, I mean, who was I to talk?
“I get paid a hundred quid a show. I’d need,” she considered carefully, “at least double that to risk my life against that crowd.”
I considered pulling out my wallet and handing her a wad of twenties, but things were tense enough as they were. Plus it’d look pretty shit if I came up a tenner short. I didn’t want to look cheap. Instead, I turned my attention to the rest of the room. The walls were ugly green, and full of bumps and cracks from where damage to the drywall had been painted over. A few signed posters were taped to the wall, almost certainly left there by the bands themselves rather than management. Furniture was sparse. A brownish square of dirt and discarded cigarette butts marked the place where the sofa had once sat, across from which stood an ancient wooden vanity. Its mirror was cracked on the lower right edge, and initials were scratched onto its surface.
A fan in an aluminum block embedded in the wall beat the air, mixing humid London air with the relative coolness inside the building. It was large for the room–I’d often seen the door of this dressing room left open during the summer to circulate the air. Maybe we could somehow pry it out of the wall and escape that way. Unfortunately, it was housed in an exterior wall which looked like it was made of painted cinder blocks.
Even if we could find something to bash it with, as I had done to open the stage door with the fire extinguisher, I doubted we could do more than dent it.
“Does anyone have a screwdriver?” I asked, eyeing the screws.
“Why?” asked Aura.
“Oh, I don’t know, to save our asses,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly. Looking hurt, she retreated. I felt guilty. I was about to apologize when an idea struck me out of the blue. “Does anyone have a cellphone? Mine’s dead.”
Alice shook her head. “I left mine in the dressing room.” I must have shot her a dark look because she patted her hips. “No pockets.”
“I’ve got one!” shouted Marnie gleefully.
“Dial the cops,” I told her.
The door shook again, and the tip of the door jamb snapped off. The door opened, and a few fingers appeared in the crack. The hide-a-bed began to slide, taking Marnie with it. I grabbed Aura by the arm and pushed her behind me, and then scanned the room for a weapon. Out of desperation, I picked up the chair that sat in front of the vanity and held it in front of me like a lion tamer. I was never a fighter, but I was damned if I wasn’t going down swinging.
“Marcus,” said Aura. “I’ve got an idea.”
“I’m open to anything,” I said, not taking my eyes off the door. Alice had retreated into a corner of the room, taking Marnie with her. We had minutes at best. Probably seconds.
“We can get out through the fan,” she said.
“I already thought of that, but there’s no way of getting it out of the wall.”
I heard the horrible screech of twisting metal behind me and then a crumpled ball of aluminum bounced past me. It landed awkwardly, began to tilt, and then settled on its side. It was the fan. I lowered the chair and turned around in shock.
Aura stood in front of a fan-sized hole in the wall. Cinderblock dust hung in the air and the back of my throat tickled but I was too much in shock to cough. “That was…impressive.”
She patted dust off her sleeve and looked up. “I’m not a little wallflower, Marcus. How do you think I killed those sailors once I stopped singing?” She rolled her eyes as if to say ‘men’. Of course, she’d have to be strong enough to overwhelm her prey–even if her voice managed to lure several sailors at once–but it was intimidating and scary to know just how strong she really was. She looked up at her two remaining band members. “Come on!”
Marnie started towards us, but Alice caught her by the shoulder and pushed her back into the corner, eliciting a frown from the bassist. “I think we’re safer here.”
She was probably right. All this time I thought I’d been protecting Aura from the mob, but I’d actually been protecting the mob from Aura. Even with her teeth surgically removed, she could likely go toe-to-toe with a bunch of barflies. That would however, result in a lot of bloodshed, and aside from the fact that I knew and liked some of these guys–Rick Casterly among them–a massacre was a hell of a way to end a singing career.
“Okay, let’s go.” I set the chair down under the opening and stood on it. Inside the shaft, I was confronted by a dark square that glowed at its edges. Was it blocked? I retrieved my keychain from my pocket, clicked the top of the penlight that hung from it, and shone it down the shaft. I could see part of an anthropomorphic drop of blood and a giant letter F. “Fast Chem”. One of the two parking spaces the Broken Doll had allocated to us was right outside this room, and because I’d parked next to the owner, the girls had parked the truck–full of all their gear–here. “We have a problem.”
“I got it,” said Aura. She jumped on the chair as I got off and thrust her shoulders into the vent. I had no idea what she planned to do, but I had bigger concerns. One of the legs of the hide-a-bed had caught in a groove in the floor, but the whole thing was creaking and snapping under the weight of repeated assaults on the door.
We weren’t going to be keeping the angry mob out much longer.
For a moment I debated getting a running start and just throwing my full weight at the door, but the fingers and arms that had thrust their way through belonged to people who didn’t know what they were doing.
The steady drone of “Aura”s grated on my nerves.
I turned on Alice. “Can you at least…?” I indicated the couch, and we put our shoulders into it, struggling to push it back into place. I’d worn loafers to the gig and now regretted it. The flat leather soles offered no purchase and I scrambled against the sofa.
I heard rhythmic banging behind me. Aura had hopped off the chair and wedged her tiny body into the fan-hole. She couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, but it was still an incredibly tight fit. She braced her feet against one of the walls and held on tightly to the edge of the opening with one hand. Grinding her teeth together, she pushed out with the other one. Metal screamed and then something huge hit the outside of the wall. Had she actually managed to overturn a box truck with one hand? I didn’t even want to think about it.
“The metal gave way,” she cursed. Of course. Physics. The bane of the fantastically strong. Instead of pushing on the side of the vehicle to overturn it, she’d accidentally punched a hole in the flimsy aluminum box and the truck had collapsed back into the building. She shifted her weight. “I’m going to try again. I think I can catch the corner of the box.”
“Don’t…hurry…on…my…account,” I grunted.
I kicked off my shoes and adjusted my position. The drone of “Aura”s had reached an almost frantic pitch now. Couldn’t the bastards understand that I was protecting them all from a gruesome death? For once in my life I was the good guy for all the good it was going to do me. Death by devoted fan. If it was good enough for John Lennon it should have been good enough for a two-bit producer like me, right? Well, no actually, wrong. Death by anything that didn’t involve being incredibly old with the puckered lips of two beautiful teenage girls wrapped around my junk wasn’t good enough for me thank you very much.
Despite our best efforts, the hide-a-bed slowly slid across the floor, taking us with it.
The drone swelled in triumph and a man in brown pants and a plaid shirt jumped over me, nearly stomping on me in his haste. Another followed and another. Out of stupid, foolish, idiotic desperation, I caught at a pant leg. I was rewarded by a boot to the face. Pain flashed through me and I released my grip. I felt my face, and my hand came away dirty but not bloody. More men poured into the room, tripping themselves on the hide-a-bed, and ripping the cord of Marnie’s desk lamp out of the wall. I heard a crash as the vanity was overturned, but I could see hardly anything between the press of bodies.
I scrambled to my feet before I could be crushed. The man in front of me was easily a head taller than me and had a mop of greasy black hair in which tiny white balls were suspended. I hoped for dandruff but guessed from his general lack of hygiene that it was lice. I tried to push my way around him, but then the mob shifted and he fell backwards towards me. The man behind me, desperate to get to Aura, pushed forward and the wind was driven out of me–hard. Worse, that gross, disgusting mop of hair pressed itself into my lower lip and I got a proper mouthful of it as I spluttered and tried to spit it out. When the crowd shifted again, I shoved him away and tried a different angle of attack. The mass of humanity was endless and it stunk like sweat and piss.
I still couldn’t see Aura.
I called out to her.
My call was echoed a thousand times from every direction.
She wouldn’t be able to hear me through the shouting of the crowd.
Everyone seemed to be facing one direction, but I couldn’t see the back of the room. I needed to get closer to her. I needed to see her. I needed to make sure she was safe, safe from everything. That damned chanting was getting to me, beating its way into my skull, Aura, Aura, Aura. I needed to see her. If I could just see her, just get close to her it would all be alright.
I started elbowing my way through the crowd, yelling out her name over and over, clawing my way past the men in the crowd.
A hand lanced out of the crowd and I was pulled towards the wall. I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of the room. Was that a shaft of light? Had Aura escaped through the fan-hole? It occurred to me that she might have left me behind.
An indistinct face lined with blonde hair loomed in my vision.
Whoever this was, they needed to know about Aura and I shouted her name in their face.
I started to turn back towards where Aura was when the figure kicked out. I felt the impact hard between my legs and I was pretty sure that I heard something pop. It was a sound I hope I never hear again as long as I live. Even thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes. My legs gave out. For a couple of seconds I lay curled on the floor. I wanted to yell but no sound came. Finally, the pain dulled to a manageable level and I was able to un-cup my bollocks.
Hands helped me to my feet.
“Are you okay?” It was Alice. She slapped me hard across the jaw. “Snap out of it!”
At first I could only grunt. After a moment: “I’m fine. Thank you.” And that was the only time in my life when I’ve ever thanked a woman for kicking me in the nuts.
I could feel the spell of the crowd begin to slip back over me. “Is she okay?” I asked.
“Don’t say her name.” Alice looked up. Slightly shorter than I was, there was no way she could see over the crowd. “She got away. Our turn now. Can you walk?”
I took a step and though I wasn’t going to run any marathons, I could probably make it to the car.
The crowd had become more docile, and we were able to wend our way through them like rats in a maze. By the time we made the hallway, the crowd had begun to lose interest and disperse. Either Aura had gotten away or it had simply been long enough after the end of the song for the spell to lose its effect. I wasn’t bothered either way. Whatever the reason, the mob was growing less angry and more confused by the second.
The scene in the alley was chaos.
Streetlights painted the scene in nitrogen orange and a light rain missed the ground. The Fast Chem truck was tilted to an obscene angle and somewhere underneath, crushed into a pancake of cheap steel and German engineering, lay my Jetta. Two police vehicles blocked the entrance to the parking lot, and I could see another one at the entrance to the alley. Dazed Doll patrons squinted at their surroundings as if trying to figure out how they’d ended up in the alley. At least one fight had broken out, and a shouting match was slowly transforming into another one.
Aura was gone.
I found Rick Casterly giving a statement to an officer in a neon yellow raincoat. He looked up at me, said something to the officer, and then came over. His fancy grey suit was in disarray and he was missing several button from his shirt. “Bloody hell, Reardon, you said she was a phenom, but seriously, mate…”
Seriously indeed. What was Dolgov going to say? This would make the news for sure. Aura’s career was over before it had really begun, and there are no second chances in this business. I searched for some way to spin this, some way to salvage the situation, but I drew a blank. “It’s such a shame because,” I said, “this business aside, she really is a talented singer.”
“Talented?” boomed the big Swede. “I couldn’t get enough of her. Where have you been hiding her you fucking wanker? I have to have her. End of.”
I was speechless. Then it struck me. Couldn’t get enough of her. Of course. Her voice was like a drug, and not a healthy one. It left its abuser with cravings long after the high had worn off. “I…wanted her to come out of nowhere. Cause a storm.”
“Well, you’ve certainly done that, haven’t you? A debut at the Broken Doll. That’s a cunning trick, isn’t it? Last place you’d expect to discover a half-decent singer never mind a fucking superstar.” He separated me from a still stunned Alice with one arm and walked me over to a quiet spot next to the Broken Doll’s exterior wall. Ironically, we weren’t more than a few feet away from the hole Aura used to make good her escape. “Look,” he continued, putting on his best weren’t-the-old-days-awesome smile for my benefit, “I’m looking for a new band to open for another act–I can’t say who, but it’s big, really big. I think Aura is perfect for it.” He slid his card into my shirt pocket and backed away. “Call me tomorrow, ya?”
I took the card out. “I already have your number, don’t I?”
“This one’s better,” he called over his shoulder. “This is the magic number.”
I looked at the card, mildly annoyed that he’d given me the wrong number in the first place. There was no name on the business card, just a phone number and a clip art palm tree. I supposed that made sense. If you found the card and you didn’t have the name to go with it, they simply hung up on you on the other end.
“You’re not seriously going to call him, are you?” Alice looked at me with something like disgust. “You want to go through this again with a larger crowd?”
It took me a long time to answer the question.
The edges of the card felt so new and crisp. Almost sharp, even though it was rapidly getting wet in the rain. The ink shone faintly in the orange light of the overhead street lamps. “No.” I put the business card back in my pocket. It felt warm against my chest. “No. I guess I don’t.”
But I did.
I wanted nothing more in this life, not even a rimming from Britney.
I paid the band the double that Alice had told me her life was worth and put them in a cab, seeing as how our truck was ruined.
There was some business with the police, statements to give, and of course, it was my Jetta under the truck. I gave them my information, promised not to talk to the press until their investigation was complete, and then immediately made a beeline for the barricades at the end of the alley. A dozen reporters awaited, some with microphones, others with cameras. I told them absolutely everything. You could play bingo with the number of times I dropped Aura’s name.
The problem was that I didn’t know where to find her.
I circled the block a few times, checking storefronts. A local pizza-by-the-slice place was full, but she was not amongst its clientele. It was nearly midnight before I abandoned my search. All I could do was hope that she’d hopped a cab and gone home.