I swore to her in the back of our rented Jag that she would never have to sing a sad song again, and I was right, but not entirely by choice. The NME dubbed the concert “Double Bill, Double Kill”, and published lurid photos of the bloodbath in Martine’s dressing room. The singer herself was never found. No one saw her leave the stadium, and though the cops swept the stadium with K9 units, rumours swirled that she was hiding out in some boiler room deep within its bowels.
Aura’s career was finished.
Those few reviews of the concert that didn’t mention the murderous escapades of the headliner called her work “brilliant” and “unparalleled”. Unfortunately, her very public attempt at suicide had been captured from multiple angles on cell phones held aloft by the crowd, and that meant we were unable to obtain the insurance that was required by most concert venues in Britain.
Which was a bit shit, but seemed to suit Aura just fine.
We spent the next week hiding out in the studio. I played her some songs from my days in the punk rock band “Shut it”. My best song was “Don’t Shut the Bloody Door”, a song I’d written the night my much older girlfriend had been admitted to an underground club called the Inferno. I’d been carded by a bouncer and had to wait outside. Ah the angst of youth. It seemed like such a petty problem now, but I remember being devastated. The lyrics were angry, and I supposed it might have been a dangerous song to play for her, but my guitar-work was so rusty it made her smile. Soon she began harmonizing with my ragged three-chord melodies, and then she kissed me.
I set my guitar aside and returned the kiss.
We were going to be okay.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked her as we sat in Harvey’s cramped office, sipping instant coffee out of Styrofoam cups. Our executive assistant had called in sick, and we had the run of the studio.
She looked up at me from the rim of her cup and nodded.
“What did you do for Dolgov? I mean, guys like him don’t do anything out of the kindness of their hearts, and yet he paid for the studio. And your dental surgery.”
She smiled mischievously, and I was reminded of the girl she’d been back in my flat. It was something of a miracle that she’d been able to shake her depression so quickly, but in a sense she was the physical embodiment of the songs she sang, and music is a mercurial creation. A listener can feel the deepest sadness by a melody of minor chords one moment and then be lifted aloft by an aria in the next. Such was life with Aura. “Do you really want to know?” she asked.
“Sure.” My cup was getting warm from the scalding hot coffee within, so I shifted my grip. “I’m curious.”
“I slept with him.”
“What?” The coffee cup slipped through my fingers and I instinctively snatched for it before it landed in my lap. Unfortunately my aim was slightly off and, instead of catching it, I crushed the fragile Styrofoam, spilling coffee all over my shirt and pants. Pain flashed up and down my body and I shoved violently away from the desk. “You told me you weren’t his girlfriend!”
Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Do I have to be his girlfriend to sleep with him?”
“Yes.” I said, suddenly living in the 1950s and a world of disapproval. I shook my head. My emotions were in turmoil, and I was still dripping hot coffee. “No. I don’t know. Look, I have to, you know,” I indicated my coffee-soaked clothing, “We need to talk about Dolgov when I get back.” I turned to leave and then stopped. “You do realize that if he finds out about us, he’ll kill me?”
“He’ll have to get through me first,” she said with mock bravado.
I had no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be as I left the room and walked down the hall to the bathroom. I was still upset about Aura’s admission. It wasn’t so much that she’d been with Dolgov–I mean I’m not a moron, we all have our histories and mine, well mine’s a legend in my own mind if nothing else. It was more that I’d already begun scheming up ways to pay the gangster back his money and then retire from the spotlight to a private life with Aura. You know, I’m loath to admit it, but I had…feelings for her. Uncomfortable feelings, not of the trouser department variety either, no, these were of the variety that compel you to book dinner reservations on Valentine’s Day and buy expensive rocks.
But if Dolgov considered Aura his property, as violent men tend to do with beautiful women, there would be no paying him back. Not with all the tea in China, or all the blood in Romania if that was more his thing. We’d have to disappear. Ghana was looking very good, again.
The bathroom reeked of baked road kill.
I tried to breathe through my mouth as I yanked on the handle of the paper towel dispenser and pulled on the sheets. I crumpled them into a wad, wet them under the tap, and then began to scrub at my chest and stomach. The effort yielded very little in terms of results. It certainly wouldn’t have stood up to the Persil Whites Test. After a few more scrubs I tossed the paper towels in the garbage and rested my hands on the counter-top.
I looked at myself in the mirror. I’m a simple man with simple needs. They hadn’t actually changed since the time I came in here when the Fortunate Fridays were dying in the studio. What I needed was Yevgeny Dolgov off my back. Permanently. But how? I had nothing on him, except that he lived in a bunker under the Fast Chem plant. Nothing illegal about that. Bond villain-esque, but not illegal. That meant traditional recourse was out. No cops riding in to save the day and my skin.
If my life was an action movie I might have taken matters into my own hands, but obviously that would have necessitated me being an action hero, and even then the gangster and his henchmen were vampires. I’d have to have a pretty strong death wish to take them on. Hell, even if his hirelings were mostly human, I’d still have to deal with Dolgov and his pet, Dimitri.
The mere act of thinking his name brought back all those very vivid memories of what he’d done to the Fortunate Fridays. And, I realized with horror, it had all begun with the smell of road kill in the bathroom. I spun around. The stalls were empty. That meant…
I slammed into the bathroom door and skidded into the hallway.
I wanted to yell a warning to Aura, but the studio door was open and I didn’t want Dimitri to know I was coming. I had no plan. No wooden stakes, no silver bullets, no garlic. I had the element of surprise, but I didn’t know how that was going to help me.
I stopped just before the studio door and ducked my head around the corner. The main door opened into a hallway that was painted black with wooden finish. Left was the studio. Right was the office. There was no sign of Dimitri. I shifted my position and took a step into the studio so that I could see into the office.
I could barely see Aura through the legs of the chair in which I’d sat when I spilled coffee on myself. She was hiding under the desk. She spotted me and motioned frantically that I should remain in the hall.
Not a chance.
This was my moment. I was going to rise to the occasion. I was going to… what? Fucked if I know, to be honest. Make it up, I guess. Doesn’t sound quite as heroic, but it’s pretty much on the money.
I picked up a microphone stand that was lying in the hall and folded up its legs so that it formed a long black pole. I knew it wouldn’t do much good against a vampire, but it felt better to be armed. I heard a noise from the studio down the hall and backed away from it. Seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere without her, Aura pushed my chair out of the way, crawled out from under the desk, and then joined me in the hallway. I caught her up in one arm and felt her press into me. She put her finger to her lips and indicated the door with a nod of her chin.
We backed out of the office as quietly as we could. I still had the Jag in the parking lot downstairs. The problem was that the elevator was past the bathrooms at the other end of the hallway. I didn’t know if Dimitri had been sent because Dolgov had knew I was doing the nasty with Aura, or if it was because he’d come to the conclusion that I’d failed to make his girlfriend (or rather, lover, I amended bitterly. Oh so bitterly.) famous and thus had arrived at the end of my usefulness. Either way, Dimitri wasn’t after Aura.
I dug my car keys out of my pocket. “Here,” I said, offering them to her. “It’s me he wants. Not you.” I thought of the ticket to Ghana I’d bought but never used. “Take the Jag and make for the airport. I have credit with British Airways. Use it.”
She bit her lip and looked down the hall. She looked back. “What about you?”
“I’ll be fine. You know me. I’m a survi–”
Suddenly plaster flew apart around us. Hands like steel vices clamped onto me yanked me into the hole Dimitri had smashed through the studio wall. It was a tight fit. Not that I had time to worry about going on a diet to make it easier next time. He released me and there was a brief moment of weightlessness before the wall came up hard behind me. The plaster crunched, leaving a man-sized indent, and the air exploded out of my lungs. My vision was blurry and my eyes didn’t want to focus in the same direction. Two carpeted floors spun beneath me. I put my foot down on the wrong one and lurched to the side, collapsing into a drum kit. I bounced off a low tom-tom and brought the snare down on top of me with a cymbal crash that would have amused Tom and Jerry.
Something wet dripped onto my lip and then ran down the side of my chin as I lay in the wreckage of the drum kit, and I realized that it was blood.
I must have broken my nose but I couldn’t remember how.
In fact, I couldn’t remember how I’d ended up in the drum kit and saw no particular urgency to leave it.
A shadow loomed before me and I was dragged to my feet. I wobbled and began to slump again, so the shadow very helpfully hoisted me up into the air and slammed me back into the wall.
Sparks shot through my eyes, chasing away the blurred vision.
Dimitri shifted his grip and held me by the neck.
He wasn’t choking me, but the human body is not designed to be suspended that way. I felt like my spine was going to separate and his fingers were hot brands on my skin. I grabbed onto his hand with both of mine, trying to lessen the pressure.
“Yevgeny Dolgov says hello,” said Dimitri. Even this close, his eyes were dark pits and his mouth a red slit filled with needle-like teeth. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger, closing my windpipe and crushing my Adam’s apple. I began to gag and was paradoxically worried I might vomit on the vampire enforcer. I mean no one wants to be remembered as the guy who puked when you were putting the frighteners on him.
Suddenly his eyes widened almost imperceptibly and he turned his head, lowering me, not so far that I could stand on my tiptoes, but just enough to keep me wriggling because frankly he was a sadistic twat. “I’m only supposed to hurt you if you get in the way,” he said over his shoulder.
At the edges of my battered senses I began to hear the sound that had stopped him. A soft hum, gentle at first, but darkening quickly. Aura stood in the hole Dimitri had made in the wall. Her blue dress was stained with plaster dust, but there was something terrifying about her. This was the man-eating monster that she’d once been, and she had more in common with a great white shark than with a woman.
Dimitri released me completely, perhaps afraid for the first time in his long life. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said haltingly.
The humming continued and I felt her anger begin to seep into me as the lyrics erupted from her. The song she sang was rage, it was a conflagration. It was “Don’t Shut the Bloody Door”. It was mine. And it was a dangerous song.
“I–” Dimitri said again, but it was too late. He’d made her angry. He really shouldn’t have made her angry.
She bounded forward in a blur, snatched him up like a rag doll, and then threw him through the studio glass and into the live room. He smashed into the soundproofing and overturned a stool and microphone stand, then collapsed to the ground. He was supernaturally fast, but she was faster.
She caught him with a shoulder as he rose, and this time the soundproofing exploded outwards under the impact of their two bodies and they disappeared into the next office.
I stumbled to my feet, still shaken, and looked dumbly at the hole in the live room. The wall between the studio and the office behind it had been reinforced with brick and a Kevlar-like material used for soundproofing, and it was now shattered and torn respectively. One of the studs had exploded into kindling. I grabbed a particularly sharp piece and pulled it free. Hey, it was wood. It was pointy. That, in my books, made it a stake. I’m not big on literal definitions, but if it looks like stake, stabs like a stake, I figure it’s a bloody stake. That’s good enough for me.
Look I’m not a hero, I’m not even hero’s sidekick material. I’d have loved nothing more than to split, but Aura wasn’t indestructible. She was strong, sure, but it hadn’t been exactly a long time since she’d tried to commit suicide by jumping off a forty foot scaffolding. Once Dimitri realized she was made from your run-of-the-mill soft squidgy stuff he’d make quick work of her.
I stepped through the hole, armed only with my trusty–it was trusty now, okay? We were about to go through a lot and I loved that piece of wood–sharp piece of wood and then blinked against the sudden light from overhead fluorescents. A half dozen desks confronted me, each with two monitors and a black computer case sitting on the floor nearby. A large orange and white banner that read “PEEL Marketing Ltd.” hung across one wall. A nearby overturned water cooler glugged water onto the floor. Horrified PEEL staff members huddled in the office kitchen to my left and an unconscious man with blood pouring from his head lay on the floor nearby.
I put the stake under my arm, dragged the man over to his fellow staffers and told them to look after him. They nodded back at me with fear in their eyes, but did nothing. I caught a look at myself in a mirror with a motivational slogan on it that hung on the kitchen wall. Covered in scratches and plaster dust, torn clothing, two black eyes and a broken nose. I looked half-dead. No wonder they were terrified.
I left them in the kitchen and crossed the office to a small hallway that led to a conference room. As much as I wanted to run to Aura’s rescue, I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t her knight in shining armour. She was mine. If I wasn’t careful, she’d have to rescue me all over again.
A wide-eyed man with a walrus-like mustache and a belly to match nearly knocked me down in the hallway as he ran for safety. He didn’t even say sorry. Not an excuse me. Nothing. I tutted. I mean, you need some kind of decorum when you’re waddling for your life, don’t you? It’s not very British.
I found Aura and Dimitri in what had probably been the fat man’s office.
Dimitri held both of Aura’s arms in one meaty fist amid the splinters of the man’s desk. She was still singing “Don’t Close the Bloody Door”. Her rage was strong, but she didn’t have her sharp teeth, the other deadly weapon of the siren, whereas his fangs were very much intact.
It was like watching a declawed house cat fighting a rabid tom.
He head-butted her hard and I heard the back of her head smack into the floor. “Remember, you made me do this,” he growled at her as he raised his other fist. Quite the gentleman.
I took three steps forward and brought the remains of the stud down in the middle of his back. It would have been a mortal blow, except that he was a vampire and I was only human and I’d forgotten to actually stick the pointy end in. He twisted impossibly fast and caught the stake, and then rose before me, his eyes like coal, impossibly big. He grabbed my face with his free hand, fingers at my temples and thumb at my chin, and began to squeeze.
I thought my eyes were going to rupture.
My head was going to explode.
Unfortunately it was my big head, not the little one I did most of my thinking with.
Suddenly, it was over.
Just like that.
No, no, no, my head didn’t explode. I’m not talking to you from the beyond or any kind of crap like that. He released his grip and screamed as he collapsed into dust, filling the air with the smell of sulfur and burnt meat. Aura stood behind him, her head and face a bloody mess, holding the leg of the shattered desk. She’d remembered the whole pointy-stabby part of hitting a vampire with wood. Okay just thinking hitting someone with wood I realize I’ve got a bit of one track mind, but seeing her standing there, triumphant, I don’t mind saying I was sporting a bit of a stiffy. Call it fear. She let the lifesaving leg drop from her fingers and fell into me. I clutched her tightly, feeling her sob into my chest.
“We have to go,” I told her after a while. Sooner or later one of those frightened office workers would remember to dial the Met, although I had no idea what they’d say once they arrived. “That pile of ash there was fighting with a tiny waif of a girl who was singing a lot…actually she was really good, but a bit angry. She kicked the ash’s ass.” Because you kick ass, kicking arse just doesn’t sound right, even to me. They’d have to explain the damage to their insurance company, but I was ready to bet that when an actual police office with a notepad was standing in front of them, some other story, something a little more plausible, would suddenly occur to them. Like mice. It was always good to blame mice. Or rats. The city was full of them.
Dolgov would be watching my flat and the studio was wrecked. Further, he’d already demonstrated that he could find me no matter which scuzzy hotel we checked into. No, we had to go somewhere where he couldn’t touch us, and it had to be close.
The old Knight Templar in Temple, down by the Old Bailey, was larger on the inside than it looked on the outside. The main chamber was a large rotunda filled with arc-shaped pews which faced the altar in its center. A large wooden cross hung from the rear wall, illuminated by light filtering through stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes, many of which were unfamiliar to me.
I’d chosen the church because in 2003, an Algerian dissident who faced deportation, despite having fathered two children with a British woman, took refuge in the church for eighteen months until his case was heard in the House of Lords. That meant the minister in charge of the church would be sympathetic to a plea for sanctuary, and that they’d have space to house us if it came to that. Plus, I mean, it was a Templar church, those guys were connected. We’re talking secret society pre-dating the mafioso. If anyone was going to stand up to Yevgeny’s mob it was this lot. They were pretty nifty with swords in their day, too. Always a plus.
I didn’t know quite what to tell the portly administrator in the white smock who interviewed us about our request, but he had a niece who’d been at the Martine concert and he’d read the newspaper headlines. He assumed that we were there to dodge the paparazzi and maybe receive some religious therapy, who was I to deny him his little fantasy?