I waited in an empty recording studio all the next day.
It wasn’t a patient wait, if you know what I mean. Lots of pacing, lots of grinning like an idiot wanting to give the good news. It’s a pretty rare thing for me, this whole good news lark. I quite liked it. And hey, the fact it would keep Yevgeny happy was a serious bonus.
Harvey asked me how the previous night had gone. I didn’t have to tell him; it was on the news. We watched the segment with an air of detached fascination. It was like Take That Fever, Back Street Boys Banality and Madonna Mayhem all rolled into one very marketable package. And as if the universe felt it necessary to confirm just how lucrative it was, the phone rang immediately after the segment and then rang again. I took calls from four different promoters in the next few hours, but none as big as Casterly, so I blew them off in the nicest possible way. When the phone had remained silent for half an hour, I phoned Rick. Ten minutes later I hung up and looked at Harvey.
He looked at me.
I looked at him.
He still looked at me. A bit expectantly this time.
I looked at him.
It was a long bit of looking with no words. Normally this amount of silence and looking leads to a pretty passionate first kiss in my world, but Harvey wasn’t my type.
Not that I didn’t want to kiss someone.
“Are you going to tell me?” he asked, after what felt like a whole deep and meaningful amount of silence had passed between us.
“I… ahhh… We… that is… well, not us, obviously… Aura. We got the gig. We’re playing Wembley.”
Harvey’s face split in a cheerful smile. “Well, I’d say this is a Fortunate Friday,” he said, making the sign of the cross really quickly as he looked at the last lingering stain of a fledgling career on the soundboard. “We’d better get working on that single.”
He found me in the editing bay a couple of hours later listening to Aura’s single on repeat. He had to pry my hands off the headphones and reboot the computer I’d used to listen to the file. I’m not sure what he thought was wrong with me, but he gave me some water and made sure I ate. Then I pushed him away. I needed to edit together the various takes or we wouldn’t have a song to give the BBC. Without the song, one concert wouldn’t do much for her career, even if it was at the greatest stadium in the world.
I tried again, this time with Harvey in the room. I couldn’t listen to more than a few seconds before I felt myself slipping back into the same dark pit that had consumed me at the Broken Doll. I threw the headphones across the room and they shattered against the wall, scattering black plastic and electrical components across the floor.
I didn’t care.
If I didn’t figure out a way to produce this song, Aura’s career would go nowhere, and Yevgeny Dolgov… well, forget Dolgov. He could only kill me once, after all.
At least I thought he could. You can never really tell with these foreign types.
“Serious question, Marcus. What do you think will happen to the crowd at Wembley when she starts singing?” asked Harvey solemnly. He looked at the headphones. I knew what he meant. It was the same fear that had had me hurl the headphones across the room in the first place. It was the first time I’d seen him look anything less than jovial. He was probably around Defcon 4. Maybe 3.
I held my head in my hands and let it slide down until it hit the desk.
I tried to reason it out.
The crowd at Wembley would be different.
It wouldn’t be drunks and barflies this time, not like at the Broken Doll. This was an all-ages show. There would be kids there. That was a good thing, right?
“I don’t know.” I said, trying to keep a moan out of my voice. “I don’t know.”
The truth was that I still had no idea where Aura was, and here I was producing her single. “I can’t think about this. Not yet. One day at a time. I’m going home. We’ll worry about Wembley tomorrow.”
I didn’t notice that the deadbolt had been punched out of the door of my flat until I tried to put my key in it. The wood was splintered where the lock had been, but the door was otherwise undamaged. Someone had even closed it behind them. Considerate B&E men, I guess. I knelt and looked through the hole. The flat was dark, but I could still see the broken-off deadbolt lying on the linoleum tiles of the foyer, next to my criminally disorganized shoe tree.
Had I been robbed? It didn’t make sense. I half-suspected Dolgov, but I’d done what he’d asked. Aura was in the news. She wasn’t exactly a household name, but she was on her way. Still, the thought freaked me out enough that I debated knocking on my neighbor’s door and having them call the cops, but the Bains were a working class Pakistani family and hated me already, given as I represented everything that was wrong with the world, so I didn’t bother. Instead, I searched around for a weapon and came up blank. There was a red plastic baseball bat and a hockey net outside the Bains’ front door, but the bat was one of those tee-ball jobs that weighed maybe half a kilo, and the last time someone used a net as a weapon, they were fighting lions in the Colosseum in Rome. Instead, I made a fist around a set of keys, with the key to the Jetta jutting out between two knuckles like a unicorn’s horn, and opened the door.
“Hello?” I called, which is always a great thing to do when walking into a dark flat where you’re pretty sure someone is waiting to beat your brains out. I crept into the foyer. The kitchen was just to my right, a bachelor-sized thing with a pass-through that looked into the living room. A few pots and pans littered the stove and a cutting board had been left out. I didn’t even know I owned a cutting board. Most of my meals thawed themselves out in the microwave.
I advanced further into the apartment. “Aura?”
I found her in the hallway, looking at one of the pictures that hung on the wall–my sister and I at the rear entrance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. About ten feet behind us, in blurry profile, was Keith Richards, who’d been completely unaware of us, but was, of course, the reason we’d taken the picture in the first place. We basically photo-bombed the poor bastard.
Aura was dressed in the same revealing outfit she’d worn at the Broken Doll, which made me wonder where she’d spent the night. With Dolgov? I found it hard to believe he wouldn’t have supplied her with a change of clothes. Her pink Scottish war-paint was mostly intact, though she looked more like Brokenheart than Braveheart. She probably needed special makeup remover to get it off.
“Is this your girlfriend?” she asked, unhooking the picture from the wall.
“Sister,” I said.
I shoved my keys in my pocket and then removed my coat and put it in the closet. “She lives in Sussex now. Two kids and a third on the way.”
Aura made a face that basically said ‘too much information’ and hooked the photo back on the wall. She ducked to see the next one up close and then shrugged. “You need more pictures.”
“I need more life,” I said.
I closed the closet door and leaned on the wall, folding my arms over my chest. I had been worried that whatever I’d felt in the Broken Doll would come back the moment I saw her but, though I did feel something, it was because she was a very beautiful woman and the get up she was in was hot, nothing more. Good old-fashioned horniness. “Did you know what was going to happen, back there in the club?”
“Do we have to talk about that?” she asked.
“We need to plot our next move, and that means that I need to know exactly what happened and how we can stop it from happening again. Which means we’ve got to be truthful. I’ll start. You scared the fuck out of me back there. Your turn.”
She tried to walk past me, but the hallway was narrow, and I sidestepped in front of her. Annoyed, she reached to push me out of the way and then stopped. She withdrew her hand and bit her lip. “I thought I could control my power. My passions flow through my music, and usually that passion is hunger. I thought if I wasn’t thinking about eating, if I was singing about something else, then the audience would have a different reaction. But then I was singing about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, and I was shaking my hips, and I saw you in the crowd, and you looked great, and I guess I got hungry in a different way.”
I stared at her. A different way. A few images leapt to mind, mostly of her, mostly naked, mostly shaking her hips, and mostly with one pissed off Yevgeny Dolgov’s vampiric shadow looming over them, which I had to shove back down into my subconscious real fast. This was Dolgov’s girlfriend. If I laid a hand on her, he’d probably remove it from my wrist and feed it back to me along with anything else I laid on her. Or in her. Yeah, not going there. “Well.” I cleared my throat and awkwardly pushed off from the wall. “Well, then.”
“Do you have any wine?” she asked abruptly.
“Yes,” I said, grateful for the distraction. “A chardonnay or a… I can’t remember, but it’s red and the clerk at the off-license recommended it.”
“I’ll take red.” She squeezed past me, rubbing her body against mine. I bit my bottom lip hard enough to draw blood as I watched her walk down the hall and into the living room before I entered the kitchen. I had to remind myself her boyfriend was a bloodsucking fiend. No matter how good she looked, I was a fan of keeping all of my blood inside me. I took the red out of the cupboard, opened it, and let it breathe before pouring myself some white from the fridge. I was hungry, but she’d already eaten… one of the salmon steaks my sister’s husband had given me after his last fishing trip (judging from the residue in the pan), and I felt awkward eating in front of her. Especially since the only other thing I had on hand were a few ready meals.
She waited for me in an overstuffed leather chair that I’d set perpendicular to the accompanying loveseat. Unlike the contents of my refrigerator, I had spent some money on my flat, and the furniture was upper-end. Aside from the loveseat and chair, a flatscreen was mounted to the wall above a small gas fireplace I sometimes lit in the winter months. Hand-painted portraits of the Rolling Stones that I’d bought at auction were hung on one wall. I remember being impressed by the skill involved in their creation. The artist had captured Mick right down to his pout.
I set her glass on the coffee table between us and sat on the loveseat. Her feet were spread wide apart, but her knees were pressed together. Very ladylike. She took off her earrings, set them on an end table, and then reached for her glass. She took a sip and savored it. “Your clerk was right. It’s not bad.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked abruptly. No beating about the bush for me. And then, embarrassed: “I mean, what happened after the show?”
“I didn’t know where else to go. When you disappeared into the crowd at the Broken Doll, I knew what would happen if I stuck around. You remember the two guys fighting in the parking lot?”
“That. That’s part of the magic. Usually my song brings more than one man to me, and when they arrive, they fight over me. One will kill the other, and then I take the survivor.”
I felt a chill as she described how she fed. She was so cold and dispassionate, like it was just a fact of life. Suddenly the glass of red in her hand looked a lot like blood.
She saw me looking, set it down, and then leaned back in her chair. “When you disappeared into the crowd, I was worried you might be hurt, so I ran. I had no money, no phone, and,” she looked down at her bare midriff, “barely any clothes.”
One of the straps of her halter top fell off her shoulder and, as she readjusted it, her knees drifted apart. I dragged my eyes upwards. She was Dolgov’s girlfriend, and he was a very dangerous Caucasian. “You couldn’t, um, go to Dolgov?”
She looked back at me and, noticing the effect she was having on me, smiled. “It never even occurred to me. I was thinking about you.” She leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. It was all very Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And I’ve always been a sucker for that movie. The idea of living it in real life, sans the ice picks obviously, was too much to resist. It took every ounce of willpower I had to yank my gaze upwards. She was toying with me. Was she looking to get me killed? If Dolgov knew…
I cleared my throat. “Where did you spend the night?”
“At the bus station, down by Victoria. It was cold, but several nice gentleman offered to let me stay with them. Even offered me some spending money.”
“Sleep with them?” She licked her lips. “Or eat them?”
At once embarrassed that I’d asked the question and grateful that she hadn’t taken offence, I took a sip of Chardonnay.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asked abruptly.
“Shoot,” I said, lamely miming a gun with my thumb and forefinger. Sometimes I hate myself. I really do.
She leaned forward and folded her arms over her knees, then quickly adjusted her halter top as the strap fell off her shoulder again. She looked up. “You weren’t affected, were you? Not at first. Why?”
“I think…” I trailed off and tried to focus my thoughts, which was damn difficult when Aura’s halter top kept slipping down. Did I even know? I remember the glass freezing in Rick Casterly’s hand and the waitress calling the Met when none of the men around her were moving. The women hadn’t been affected, but I was as much a man as Rick Casterly. More so, if even half the rumors about him were true. Okay, I admit it, I made up most of those rumors myself, but… “I think that I was paying more attention to the crowd than I was to you. I was so concerned about Rick and the rest of them that I barely listened to the music.”
“Mental wax,” she said sagely.
She mimed plugging her ears. “Sailors used to put balls of wax in their ears to block out my music. You did the same thing, except you didn’t need the wax.” Her expression changed abruptly. “I hope… I hope it wasn’t because you find me unattractive?”
She was insecure? Either the wine had warmed my cheeks or I blushed like a schoolboy. “No. That’s not it at all. I… find you, uh, you know… on a scale of one to ten, I’d give you ten. Well, if you weren’t hooked up with a vampiric mobster boss boyfriend, obviously.”
She grinned and finished her wine in a gulp, then set the glass down but didn’t release it. Instead she began rubbing her fingertips up the stem. Then down again. Then up again. I’m no expert when it comes to symbolism, but that one I get.
“Is it hot in here?” I blurted out. “I’m hot. Are you hot? Of course you’re hot. You’re smoking. I’m going to open a window.” I leapt to my feet and made for the kitchen, and then struggled with the window. I was pretty sure the last time it had been opened, the year had started with a nineteen. Once it was open, I poured a cold glass of water, dipped my fingertips in it, and splashed some on the back of my neck. She was a sadist. That was it. One of the most beautiful women I’d ever had in my flat, ready to go, and if I slept with her, Dolgov would chop my bollocks off and feed them to me with a nice Chianti. That was the name of the red wine.
“Is it okay if I have a shower?” she asked from the other room. Oh, she was fucking killing me. And not so softly. “I’d like to get this makeup off my face.”
“Sure,” I said, without leaving the kitchen. And then, under my breath: “I could use a cold one myself.” Yes, that was a euphemism.
Soon I could hear the water running and then the sound of spray hitting the bathtub. I picked up my phone. Should I call Dolgov and let him know that his girlfriend was safe and sound? Or should I call Dolgov and tell him his girlfriend was naked in my bathroom, and I had a raging… no. I really shouldn’t mention that second bit. Can’t always say the first thing that comes into our heads, can we? I set the phone down and stepped back.
I heard humming coming from the bathroom. It was simple tune and ancient, and it was stunning. Everything about her was stunning.
I am so weak.
I’m such a boy…
I stopped myself. Mental wax. I thought of puppies and football and yesterday’s news. The Premier League table. I tried to recount it. I couldn’t remember who was at the top. Not Spurs. Not Arsenal. That was as likely as a biblical flood all over again. My heartbeat had finally begun to slow when I realized that if she’d slept at the bus stop, she likely didn’t have a change of clothes. I went through my closets, looking for something that might fit her. I had nothing that suited her. At last, I settled on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. She had a boyish frame, far smaller than mine, but the sweats had a cord she could tighten. It was the best I could do. And let’s be honest, she was gorgeous, so anything would look good.
The water shut off in the bathroom. “Marcus?”
I stood just outside the door. “Yes?”
“I need a towel.”
Of course she’d need a towel. Like most bachelors, I had only the one towel on the rack, and it was in need of a wash. “I’ll leave it in front of the door.”
“You can come in.”
“That’s probably a bad idea,” I said.
“Please,” she said. And who wants to make a lady beg?
I grabbed a towel from the closet and opened the door. The air was misty and, thankfully, the glass shower partition was fogged up. I could see only her blurry outline as she bent to squeeze water out of her hair. She’d used my solitary towel as a makeshift bath mat. She looked up when she heard the door and opened the partition.
I immediately snapped my eyes closed. “I’ll just leave it on the counter.”
“Can you bring it here?” she asked. “I don’t want to step on the floor.”
I hesitated and then began to shuffle towards her with my eyes closed. Finally, she caught my wrist. Her hand felt warm and soft.
“Marcus,” she said gently. “You can look.” She pulled me closer and I felt her chin on my chest. I cracked an eyelid. Her jet black hair was plastered to her head and smelled of sea foam and water lilies. Tiny droplets beaded on flawless skin from her cheeks to her small, perfectly formed breasts. She looked up and me and stood on her tiptoes. It was all very vulnerable and Harlequinesque. Our lips met in a kiss that turned passionate. She tasted like a peach.
After a moment, I pulled away. “What’s happening here?” I asked breathlessly.
She stepped out of the shower and onto the towel. I don’t know how I could have ever considered her boyish. She was as beautiful as any statue in the Louvre. Rodin would have wept to bring her likeness out of stone. The Fairy Fella would have a master stoke looking at her. “I hoped that would be obvious,” she said. Her hand strayed lower and cupped me through my jeans. “I like you, and I know you like me…”
She was forbidden fruit, and she must have known it. It was time to call her on it. “Don’t think you think Yevgeny would be upset if I slept with his girlfriend?”
She frowned. “I don’t know. Wait, do you think I’m Dolgov’s girlfriend? Is that what this is about?”
I felt the floor drop away from me. I’d made an uncharitable assumption back at Fast Chem, before I’d gotten to know her and, just like with my neighbor in the scuzzy hotel, that assumption had come back to bite me. Though I’ll be honest, her bite was arousing, his not so much. There had been no ulterior motive to her advances. As difficult as it was to believe, maybe she just found me attractive. And I’d made a fool of myself for the past hour. “I assumed. I’m sorry.”
Still naked and wet, she looked me over, as if to decide whether or not to accept my apology. At last, she seemed to come to a conclusion. “Please hand me the towel.”
She caught my arm again as I offered it to her, and we took up exactly where we’d left off.
I like to think I’ve never been the type to kiss and tell, but I also like to think I’m an awesome lover, and we all know that’s about as likely as the Fortunate Fridays reforming. Making love to Aura was a unique experience. She was enthusiastic, but also immensely strong. Her body was soft in places, but like steel in others, and she was a savage in bed, as if she could not quite control her primal urges. If she had not had her teeth replaced, I’m not sure I would have survived the experience. So yeah, it was good.
Only hours after we fell asleep together, I opened my eyes to an empty bed.