We arrived at Wembley in a rented Jag.
Dolgov had had been remarkably stingy with petty cash, but I’d just received the insurance check for my crushed Jetta and splurged. Image is everything. It’s all about perception. Look the part and people will think you are the part. Me, I was born to be the part. The backup band tailed us in another Fast Chem van, which, in hindsight, I should have taken as a bad omen. I ignored it. I’m not superstitious. Omens schnomens.
I’d been so busy working on Aura’s last few tracks and trying to teach Harvey how to write a compelling press release and doing all that other promotional stuff that I hadn’t thought to check the Stadium’s website to find out who we were opening for.
We got the bad news as we walked down a long, concrete hall in the bowels of Wembley in search of our dressing room.
It was Martine.
Yep, that Martine, the sex demon with a voice of sin.
I told myself this was a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that Martine would fill the stadium, and that meant a lot of eyes would be on Aura. The bad news was that Martine also had a voice that was backed up by magic. I struggled to remember the name of any other band that had opened for her and came up blank. Casterly had screwed us on this one.
Martine wasn’t due to arrive for another couple of hours, so I sent Alice and the rest of the crew to the stage for sound check and then located our dressing room. It was by far the smaller of the two. Simply decorated, we had at our disposal two chairs, a mirror with plenty of light, and an upright piano, which was a nice touch. I’d asked for dinner to be delivered and it was waiting for us on a small table. Though Aura demurred, I insisted she eat. She needed her strength.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” she admitted at last.
She looked thinner than she’d been, waif-like. It was a good look on her if you dug the whole heroin-chic thing. I didn’t like it, but now was not the time to talk about it.
In the far distance we could hear ticket holders filtering through the stadium.
“A little stage fright is good for you,” I joked.
She dragged her fork through her tilapia and cream sauce, herding a lump of fish to the edge of her plate and then giving up on it. “It’s just that…when I came ashore I tried to put all that behind me. I became a vegetarian. Of sorts,” she qualified, and I knew what she meant. “I volunteered for two years at the Fishermen’s Mission. And now I’m doing nothing but relive my worst moments night after night.”
“That’s what being a star is all about,” I snapped, and then immediately regretted it. What can I say? I could see the bright lights and was a bit star struck. I was going to be a star. The man behind Aura. I was going to be the Queenmaker. “We can’t have a repeat of what happened at the Broken Doll. If you want to be a star, this is it. This is your one shot,” I said, trying not to sound unkind.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said cryptically.
I could hear a few strained cords as the band tuned their instruments and the sound techs adjusted their amps. Despite my occasional attempts to get things going between us, she remained silent for the rest of the meal and then left for sound check.
My thoughts, however, turned to Martine.
I don’t much mind a bit of healthy competition. I believed in the power of Aura’s voice – after all, I’d experienced it myself. But what I didn’t like was Martine’s magical advantage. If I could just take that away from her, Aura would have a much better chance of outshining the headliner. And that was what I wanted more than anything. For Aura, obviously.
I wondered how Martine’s talents worked. Aura’s voice amplified whichever emotion she was feeling at the time, but she was a siren, not a succubus. Surely, a demon would draw its power from a different source?
So what could that be?
I decided to do a little old fashioned investigative work. First stop: her dressing room. I was thinking that maybe her concert riders would offer me some clue as to how I could work things to Aura’s advantage – and put Martine at a disadvantage, naturally.
I left Aura’s dressing room and crossed the hall to Martine’s.
Since Security guarded the entrances to the dressing room area, the rooms themselves were usually unlocked.
I looked both ways before trying the door handle, and then slid quickly inside when it opened.
Her room was built to accommodate far more people than ours, which made sense. Including Aura herself, we had just the four band members in our group and myself. They had a band, two DJs, a team of managers, assistants, and makeup artists. Lighting stands had been aimed at a white sheet on one side of the room from which Martine would give behind-the-scenes interviews, and a computer station had been set up nearby from which wires spewed like vines. There was also a small area, and when I say small, I mean larger than my living room, with sofas, a television and speakers, and a small kitchenette with a fridge.
This was how the other half lived.
This was what I wanted.
For Aura, naturally.
There was a second room further in that was marked with Martine’s name. The outside space was for the band and its hangers-on. This was the artist’s personal (and private) lair. This door was locked, but the lock itself was more of a gentle suggestion than a deterrent. I was able to bypass it simply by jiggling the handle and then throwing my shoulder into the door.
I’d expected to find the inner sanctum of a sex demon, but was sadly disappointed. Instead of leather and chains I was greeted by the sight of a small television, a Blu-ray player, and a yoga mat. A large stainless steel refrigerator sat next to a small table. It was far larger than the one in the kitchenette and looked brand new. A brown stain marked the carpet at its base, almost as if whatever was inside it had thawed during transport and liquefied.
My hand hesitated above the handle.
Did I really want to see what a flesh-eating sex demon kept in her refrigerator?
I pulled my sleeve over my palm to avoid leaving fingerprints and pulled on the door handle. Slight resistance and then give. Cool air hit me as I bent to look inside.
Nothing but steak. A lot of steak. Two or three cows’ worth. A herd of steak. I’d simultaneously expected something dramatically more horrifying or something completely innocuous. Orange juice or a human head. I didn’t know what to make of the steak. There was no stove in the tiny room, and the kitchenette in the other room sported a hot plate that would struggle with one steak at a time.
It occurred to me that she might eat it raw.
That thought made me yank my hand away from the fridge. I’d assumed it was cow, but a succubus might want something a little more exotic.
I knew on an instinctive level that I’d found the source of Martine’s power. She was a flesh demon eating after all. So she fueled herself on prime rib. Excellent detective work if I do say so myself. Now I just had to do something about it. I thought about wheeling the fridge into Aura’s dressing room, but they’d just send one of their assistants out to the meat department at the local supermarket (or worse) and delay the show until they came back. No, I needed to make sure that Martine would eat this meat and get nothing from it. I couldn’t exactly swap it for Big Macs…
I returned to our dressing room and retrieved Aura’s diet pills from her purse. Hard white pills the size and shape of an Aspirin, I emptied the bottle on the table and banged them into powder with the heel of my shoe. I scooped the result into my hand and returned to the refrigerator.
I was reluctant to touch the meat with my bare hands, but I steeled myself and rubbed the powder into several of the largest.
No matter how much I tried, the white powder was still visible on the meat, so I flipped them over and hoped that either she wouldn’t notice or that she’d think it was salt. I left a tumbler of salt from the kitchenette on the counter, just to help her make the connection. Fiendishly clever, I thought, like a Jedi mind trick.
I emerged from the dressing room just seconds before Martine’s security detail rounded the corner at the end of the hall.
Two large men in suits and sunglasses lead the way, followed by a small army of women and shorter men, all fashionably dressed, most with cell phones pressed to their ears. At the center of the group was Martine.
I got a good look as I pressed myself to the wall to let them pass. She was small, like Aura, but unlike Aura, she bore a full, curvaceous figure. I mean a sex demon would have to, right? Her ample breasts were held aloft with a pink push-up bra that was visible beneath a white shirt, and she wore close-fitting yoga pants that left nothing to the imagination. Her hair was down, and ready for her hairdresser to work his magic, but it had already been dyed an artificial, eye-catching shade of red. Her lips seemed to be perpetually pinched into a sneer, but the sneer deepened when she saw me, as if I was an unpleasant reminder that she was not the only act performing that night.
I had told Dolgov all those weeks ago that I’d give my eyeteeth to represent a woman like Martine, but at a glance I now knew better. She radiated a terrible menace. Aura had repented her former ways, become a vegetarian (of sorts), but Martine had done no such thing. Now I was sure that the contents of her refrigerator wasn’t what it seemed to be.
When they’d all filed into Martine’s dressing room, I breathed a sigh of relief and re-entered Aura’s.
She stood up from the vanity as I entered.
She’d used a mixture of gel and egg whites to emphasize her pixie-cut and it now glittered blue, a glitter that extended across her cheeks and under her eyes. She wore the blue vinyl costume I’d had Harvey fabricate for her, and it made her look like something elemental, a flower that had washed in from the sea.
She was heartbreakingly lovely.
“Did you take my pills?” she asked, holding up the prescription bottle I’d lifted from her purse.
“I’ll replace them after the show. They’re diet pills,” I said with a shrug. “I’m sure you don’t need to lose any weight in the next two hours.”
“I lied.” Her face fell. “They’re not diet pills.”
“Okay? Aspirin? A little medicinal herb?”
“They’re antidepressants.” Her hand tightened around the bottle. “I can’t perform without them.”
Antidepressants? Fuck me, Old Harvey had been on the ball. Arse. Bollocks. Bugger. Feck. And lots of other colorful swearwords that help you understand just how much of a fuck-up this was. I’d just laced a sex demon’s meal with anti-depressants. You had to laugh. Well, you did if you weren’t in need of those little white pills to put a smile on your face. How had things gotten so bad for Aura? How couldn’t I have seen? I mean… I’d seen everything else, right down to her most intimate piercing but I’d missed this.
I remembered the Broken Doll. She’d gotten “hungry” and that had come out in her music. Did she also have to get depressed in order to put power behind the album I’d written for her? “There’s nothing we can do about it now.” I tried to adopt a reassuring tone. “We’ll talk about your music after the show. Maybe we can make our second album a little more upbeat.”
It took everything I had to coax her out of her dressing room and onto that stage. I had a plan in my head that would fix everything.
I never suspected that she wouldn’t make it through her set.