“Thank you, New York!”
Justin Howitzer stood bathed in spotlights, his right fist raised aloft, his left hand idly tracing patterns on the fingerboard of his Stratocaster, as if impatient to begin the last song of the show. His words, reverberating through a sold-out Madison Square Garden in a Northern-Brit accent, came out sounding like “Thenk yew, Nyew Yauk!” The words in his head sounded like “Fook yew, Nyew Yauk!”
The last bloody show on the tour, and he couldn’t wait for it to end. Couldn’t wait to get back to his hotel suite and “fook” himself into oblivion, with as many beautiful women as he could fit into.
He needed to concentrate on that, not on his arsewipe, incompetent band. As soon as he got back to London, they were gone, the lot of them.
“What a fabulous eight weeks in the U.S. it’s been!” he shouted as the crowd roared in delight. “I love you!”
Three girls in front tried to climb the stage and were pulled back by security.
Justin paid it no mind. “And now, we’d like to close with the tune that got it all started.” The worst piece of shite I ever wrote, he thought as he leaped in the air and blasted into the famous rhythmic guitar figure that introduced it.
The arena went nuts. The band kicked in behind him, Angus Ross, on drums, immediately pushing the tempo. This, as always, drove Justin ’round the bloody bend, but he stifled his murderous thoughts. He approached the microphone and, in the sweet, gravelly voice that was his alone, began to sing.
We come, we go
We ebb, we flow
We never show
What lies below
But that’s all right
It’s just tonight
No need to know
We come, we go
Beads of sweat glistened on his bare chest and strands of blond hair clung to his cheeks as he sang the lyrics for the zillionth time. The crowd was singing too, moving back and forth ecstatically. Over the years the song had become a millstone around his neck, a penance he had to do at the end of every performance.
To his left, Reggie Upton was once again treating the tune like a bass solo. You’d think the wanker got paid by the fucking note, Justin thought, also for the zillionth time.
To his right, Mick Thornwell was laying down his usual amorphous keyboards. If you wanted mushy synthesizer parts, Mick was your man. Vegas lounge crap was all he was good for, and Justin could not remember why he hired him. Probably all that X he was doing at the time.
Right, then, he assured himself, just a wee bit more of this grinding agony. Then he was but a brief limo ride away from full immersion in an endlessly fascinating, all-consuming pile of sex.
He imagined it as he stepped away from the mic. With eyes closed and head thrown back defiantly, he began his guitar solo. A tangled forest of hands reached out for him as he moved close to the front, his guitar shrieking, the fingers of his left hand a blur on the strings. Hendrix be damned, he was still the most powerful guitarist in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and fuck anyone who said otherwise.
These solos were the only moments in the show that gave him even a scintilla of pleasure. He could close his eyes and get lost in the sheer, unstoppable force of them. Sometimes he imagined his guitar as an automatic weapon, and the screams all around him were people dying.
But that was only in his darkest times. Tonight was not one of them. Tonight was the end of this sodding tour. Tonight was for love!
Rock guitar solos are a bit like foreplay, with sensual, visceral, sometimes wild responses to delicate movements of the fingertips. As on other occasions, his penis—Cap’n Willy, as he thought of it—was actually getting hard against the back of the guitar. Hi, ho. His secret.
He ended the solo with a sustained, flashy run as the crowd broke into cheers. He gave them a quick nod as he resumed the vocals. The buggers would scream at anything, whether he played like shite or gave them the greatest solo of his life. They knew nothing.
But that’s all right.
It’s just tonight
No need to know
They played the big instrumental hook at the heart of the tune, Angus pounding on every tom and cymbal.
Twenty thousand people surged to their feet, paying him tribute with all the lung power they possessed. He stood humbly in the center of the stage, spotlights swirling about him. Then, with an outstretched arm, he indicated his bandmates, shouting their names into the mic, getting waves of cheers and applause. After each one, as was his custom, he inwardly said, Arsehole!
A large towel draped about his bare upper body, he made his way through the supplicants backstage with a smile on his face, nodding and signing autographs as he moved along. One of the roadies relieved him of his guitar as he stepped into the hallway, where, much to his discomfort, he was joined by his business manager Miles Markham.
“Phenomenal show, Justin, phenomenal!” Miles raved as they walked along. He was a short, plump man with comb-over hair who looked ten years older than Justin, even though they were the same age. They’d been in school together in Manchester. Justin and his mates had made him the butt of their jokes, but Miles went on to become a financial wizard. Now he was handling Justin’s business affairs. Deep down, Justin still didn’t trust the little clod, who was tone-deaf anyway and wouldn’t know a phenomenal show from a physics lecture.
“Something we need to discuss,” Miles said as Justin increased his pace. It was never good news when Miles had something to discuss.
“The label, as I predicted, is not sitting still for your one-year hiatus, Justin. They want the next album ready in six months, as usual.”
“Sod the fuckers, I just finished a bloody tour. I need to recharge. Tell ’em that, and then tell ’em to get stuffed.”
“I can’t do that, Justin. According to the contract…”
“Right, right,” he interrupted. “Look, lad, do what you have to.”
They were approaching the private elevator. The sponsors of the tour, Nuke Athletic Footwear, had a corporate suite and sky box atop Madison Square Garden, and they were providing it to him as a dressing room.
The security cop at the elevator nodded and pushed the button. The doors opened. He could hear Miles saying something as he stepped inside and the doors closed behind him, but he couldn’t make it out and was glad of it.
He was alone. He relished these moments after a show when he was utterly alone. He tried to make them last.
The car reached the top and the doors opened. He stepped out into a lavish suite, a 75-inch TV screen dominating one wall. A wet bar, a buffet, and several leather couches and chairs were arrayed about, along with the large makeup mirror they’d brought in for him. He stood in the center of the room, breathed deeply, and closed his eyes. He remained that way for several moments. Then he opened them, looked in the mirror, and saw the girl sitting on the couch behind him.
“What the bloody hell…!” He turned around.
She looked like a waif from Carnaby Street in the ’60s: tight bell-bottom jeans, tie-dye t-shirt, and a Bob Dylan cap sitting atop long, brown hair. She had a killer body, that was plain, but the thing that struck him was her face. She looked exactly like Bridget Farlow, the girl he’d lusted after when he was a pimply-faced teenager.
“How did you get up here?” he demanded to know.
She shrugged. “My editor sent me.”
Her accent was North Brit, like his, and her voice had a bell-like quality. Some girls had a lilting sound to their voices, which he greatly preferred to the nasal stridency of others, but this one’s voice sounded…well…bell-like.
“No, I mean physically, how did you get up here? No one’s allowed in my dressing room after a show.”
She stood up from the couch, and now the resemblance to Bridget Farlow was overwhelming. She could have been her daughter if Bridget had one, which he knew was not the case. Bridget had died of a drug overdose during her first year at university.
“I just came here, that’s all,” the girl said, leaving it at that. “My name is Ariel Geist, and I’d like to interview you for Elysian Magazine.”
Girls were always trying to sneak into his dressing room, and some of them were quite inventive at it. But there were only two ways to get up here—the elevator and the fire stairs. He knew that because he’d checked out the fire door immediately upon arriving this afternoon. He had a great fear of being trapped in a fire. The door was in the next room and connected to an alarm that went off when it was opened. So she didn’t sneak in that way, and it had to be the elevator.
“Did Miles send you up here?” It made sense that Miles would play a joke on him, seeing her uncanny resemblance to Bridget Farlow.
“I told you, my editor sent me.”
He nodded. “All right, luv, whatever you say.”
Wouldn’t it be grand, he thought, to bring her back to the hotel? Wouldn’t it be the crowning touch to shag Bridget Farlow after all these years, or at least her facsimile?
“Where’s your recording device?” he asked. “You don’t even have a notepad. What kind of interviewer are you, then?”
“I have a photographic memory.” She smiled. “But if it makes you more comfortable…”
A digital voice recorder appeared in her right hand. He blinked. She must have got it out of the spangly little purse hanging from her shoulder, but he hadn’t seen her move.
“You ought to do one of those magic acts,” he said, taking the towel from around his shoulders and starting to wipe off his bare torso. “But no, luv, that little device there doesn’t make me more comfortable at all. In fact, why don’t you use your photographic memory after all and shut it off?”
“Right, then.” And it was gone. Her hand was now empty.
He eyed her suspiciously.
“It’s all a trick, isn’t it? You’re a sleight-of-hand artist. I never heard of any Elysian Magazine. And what did you say your name was?”
“As in ‘Polter’? Come on, luv, out with it. Miles set this all up, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know who Miles is,” she said. “It was arranged by my editor.”
“And what, pray tell, is your editor’s name, when he’s at home?”
“He has many names, but he’s known to me as the editor.”
He gave it pause.
“I see.” All right, he’d play along a bit. “Very well, luv, start the interview. But you won’t mind if I change while we conduct it, do you? I’ve got a car waiting outside.”
“Oh, no, of course. Do what you need to.”
“Fine,” he said. “And while you’re using that photographic memory, why don’t you photograph this?”
He hooked his thumbs in his pants and was just on the verge of showing her Cap’n Willy, when a strange thing occurred. Suddenly, the idea seemed distasteful. It was the oddest feeling.
He stared into her eyes, which had changed somehow. In fact, her whole face seemed different. Maybe it was the light, but now she no longer looked like Bridget. Now she seemed more like Jane Somerset, the first girl he’d ever had sex with, behind the boiler in the basement of his parents’ flat. He was fifteen and she was a slut who dropped her knickers for everyone. But Jane was an ugly cow—not like this one—and yet he was reminded of her. What was happening?
He tore his eyes away, walked over to the wet bar, and poured himself a double scotch. He slugged down half of it and began to feel better.
“Sorry, luv, I’ve been a bad host. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you.”
Once again, she looked like Bridget Farlow.
He shook his head and took the rest of the drink over to one of the easy chairs. He sat down.
She didn’t. She began to move slowly about the room, her eyes wandering, his eyes following her.
“My editor wants me to ask you about your voracious sexual appetite,” she said. “Why do you need to have so many women?”
Aah, now they were getting to it.
“A beautiful woman,” he explained, “is the most glorious thing in creation, luv. And the human orgasm is the closest thing in this world to heaven.”
She continued her stroll about the room, lightly touching the backs of the chairs.
“But surely, then, it’s your music that’s most important to you, isn’t it?”
She paused at the bar. An empty long-neck beer bottle stood on top. She gazed placidly at him as her fingers began to caress it, running up and down its surface, gently stroking its tip.
It was so erotic it brought Cap’n Willy to instant attention.
“Luv, what you’re doing right at this moment,” he said in a husky voice, “that’s what’s most important to me.”
“Is that a fact.”
It was exactly what his mum would say when she caught him in a lie, and with the same precise inflection. For a horrifying instant the girl looked just like her.
It took his breath away, and his mouth went slack. Then she was Bridget Farlow again, still caressing the bottle. It was almost as if it never happened.
“So you like orgasms, then.” She moved away from the bar and continued her tour of the room.
He decided it must have been an acid flashback as he watched her graceful movement. The way she looked as she aimlessly drifted about took away any doubts.
Besides, he never had doubts, not in this area. Not with the way this “interview” was going. He downed the rest of the scotch, and the warmth of it spread through him.
“I love orgasms,” he said softly. “I want to give them, I want to have them. The more the better. In fact, that’s how I’d finally like to leave this earth, right in the middle of an orgasm. Wouldn’t that be special? I ask you, what ending could be more fulfilling?”
A smile played across her lips. “You’ve said that before, haven’t you?”
He laughed. “You mean the Rolling Stone interview? Sorry I’m not giving you the exclusive on it, luv. I’ll try to be more original in the future.”
“Actually, it was the Rolling Stone interview that first attracted my editor’s attention. He wanted to know if you really meant that.”
“With every fiber of my being.”
He rose from the chair, remembering now what he’d been about to do before he’d spotted her in the mirror and been distracted. In the next room was a small leather pouch with some excellent blow. He’d had a couple of toots before the concert and was planning a couple more, just to get him through the limo ride. He’d offer her some.
“Wait a mo, luv,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’m empowered to tell you that my editor will grant you your wish.”
He stopped in the doorway. “Beg pardon?”
“The wish you expressed in the Rolling Stone interview. My editor will grant it to you.”
He tilted his head to one side and regarded her.
“And how will he manage that?”
“My editor can do anything.”
He stared at her exquisite, childlike face. She’s completely daft, he realized. It didn’t bother him. He was used to crazy women.
“You wait right there, luv. I’ll be back in a jiff!”
He ducked into the next room and quickly snatched the small pouch from his suitcase, a process taking less than five seconds. When he stepped back into the room, she was gone.
The elevator’s In Use light was on. He strode across the room and got there just as the doors opened and Miles Markham emerged. They almost collided.
“Where’s the girl?” Justin said, looking into the empty elevator.
“There was a girl here. She just took the elevator.”
Even as he was saying it, he knew it couldn’t be. Not enough time had passed for her to take it down and for Miles to take it back up. Not nearly enough time.
“Don’t know what you’re goin’ on about, mate,” said Miles, “but we’ve got to get cracking. Besides, with what awaits you back at the hotel, I should think you’d be chomping at the bloody bit by now.”
“Right, right.” Justin wasn’t looking at him, his eyes roaming the room. “Go on back down; I’ll be there directly.”
“As you wish,” said Miles as he got into the elevator. “As always.”
There were four of them at the hotel, each more beautiful than the last—blonde, brunette, Asian, and a black woman with rich, ebony skin. They were all naked, and two of them were kissing and pleasuring each other as he sat watching from a plush chair. The other two were working on Cap’n Willy, who, so far, wasn’t doing much.
He couldn’t stop thinking about it. After Miles left, he’d searched the suite from top to bottom. He’d even taken apart the chairs and sofas, in case one of them had a false interior, tearing off the cushions and strewing them about the room. He’d looked underneath the bar, then climbed on top of it and removed one of the ceiling panels. He peered inside, not that she’d have time to get up there and pull the panel closed. Added to that, the ceiling was far too flimsy to support anyone’s weight, even hers. He looked underneath and behind everything, in every cabinet, even the ones that were too small for a person to fit into. She’d utterly disappeared.
He hadn’t imagined her; he knew that much. As for the shape-shifting, he tried to hold onto the acid flashback explanation, but it was getting weaker every moment. He’d had acid flashbacks before, and they were nothing like that. They were more like sparkly lights and stuff. No one’s body and face had ever changed radically in front of him.
Let it go, mate, he told himself again. Through an act of will he began to concentrate on the women. God, they were lovely, weren’t they? Absolute perfection. He looked over at the two who were making love to each other, watched their delicate hands explore their magnificent bodies, listened to their sensuous breathing, their groans of ecstasy. As always, it stirred in him a passion beyond measure.
His body became aware of what the other two were doing to him. There was no matching the sensation; it was like nothing else a man could ever experience. And it was happening to him! That’s what he’d always finally get off on—to him!
He closed his eyes in blissful rapture and her face appeared: Bridget Farlow, or Ariel Geist, whoever she was. Her bell-like voice resonated in his head. “My editor will grant you your wish.”
His eyes snapped open.
What if he’d had one of those Biblical revelations people claimed to experience, and she was some sort of angel? That’s what it felt like, and the more he considered it, the more it made sense.
Then, to his horror, he realized what he’d agreed to. He was going to die in the middle of an orgasm.
Would it be this one?
He sprang out of the chair, startling the two naked women at his feet, who recoiled in surprise.
“Get out of it!” he yelled, hardly believing what he was doing. “Put on your bloody clothes and leave! All of you! Now!”
They did as they were told, grabbing their things and scurrying out of the room. He stood there for a moment in a haze. Then he collapsed onto the chair, his mind reeling.
He looked down at Cap’n Willy. It suddenly seemed tiny, as if drawing into itself for protection. He threw back his head, just as he would in a guitar solo. But not in defiance, this time. Not at all.
“Oh, God!” he moaned. “How can I go on living!”
Nigel Benington, producer of the hit BBC series Who’s On Top in Pop?, along with his young female correspondent Gretchen Morrow, sat in the screening room watching the rough footage of her interview with the reclusive ex-rocker Justin Howitzer.
“What a load of rubbish!” Nigel said. “Can we even get ten good seconds out of it?”
It had been seven years since Justin’s last concert or public appearance. He’d stopped making records and basically confined himself to his mansion near Edinburgh. Pop music had moved on in the meantime, and so had Nigel’s viewers. He’d had minimal interest in shooting the interview, even when Justin’s manager called and offered it. Which is why he’d sent a neophyte like Gretchen.
And now, on top of it, the bugger was a lunatic.
“What’s he on about? Some angel of God told him the manner of his death? Give me a break. This is bloody dementia!”
“Wait.” Gretchen held up a cautionary hand. “It gets better.”
She had long, silky-blonde hair and deep blue eyes. She’d done fashion modeling before being hired by Nigel. This interview was her first real assignment.
Nigel sat next to her on the couch in front of a large monitor, close enough to smell her perfume. In an unconscious gesture she raised her skirt so she could cross her tanned, elegant legs.
On the screen, Justin’s face looked twenty years older. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow. His hair was matted and he had a wild growth of beard. The camera, so far, had shown him and very little of Gretchen. All that could be seen of her, occasionally, was the back of her head, which was covered by a kind of shawl.
“What’s that you’ve got on?” Nigel asked.
“Before he’d see me, they made me put on this outfit that looked like a burlap sack. It was almost one of those burkas they make the Muslim women wear. Very strange. His manager said Justin thought if he saw me he might dream about me. And if he dreamed about me, he might die.”
“So his goal, then, is to never have another orgasm, is that it?”
“Listen,” she said.
Justin was speaking. “I haven’t really slept in ages. Each night I’m deathly afraid of having a wet dream. I’ve already had several; you can’t help it. It’s like having the worst nightmare of your life. I wake up screaming.”
“Dare I ask a radical question?” Gretchen’s voice could be heard off camera. “Have you ever thought of castration?”
He gave a bitter laugh. “Do you really think I could subvert the will of God? Orgasms aren’t merely physical, they’re emotional as well. Even the ancient eunuchs got erections. You’d have to cut out my libido, and that’s impossible.”
The camera pulled back to reveal the room they were sitting in. Large photographs dominated the walls, all of them of gruesome scenes.
Nigel was curious. “Isn’t that the one of the Saigon police chief shooting the Viet Cong prisoner in the head?”
“Yes. And there are photos like that throughout the house. He called it his antierotic environment.”
“Bloody sick, that’s what it is.”
“Here,” said Gretchen, “this is the part I was talking about.”
She gave her full attention to the screen, and Nigel thought the earnest expression on her face was very sweet.
Nigel was twenty-nine and not a bad looking chap at all, if he did say so. He’d unfortunately married early, before he had a chance to experience the world of attractive females in which he found himself. He’d always regretted that.
“The trouble was, I loved the sex more than the music,” Justin was saying on the screen. “Finally, I hated the music. I wanted a hiatus from it. Well, I got one all right.”
“But minus the distraction of sex,” said Gretchen, “haven’t you been able to write more, then?”
“No, luv.” He shook his head wearily. “And that’s my punishment. Whatever it was I had, I wasted it. Now it’s gone. I haven’t had a musical idea worth a fart in seven years.”
Dimly in the background, one of Justin’s songs could be heard playing on the sound system.
“But you still listen to your music,” she said.
“From time to time. It’s like listening to someone else.”
But that’s all right
It’s just tonight
No need to know
We come, we go
“Do you ever reflect,” Gretchen asked, “on the irony of that song title?”
Justin suddenly got up and switched off the music.
“If you’re making fun of me, luv, we can bag it right here.”
“No, no,” she said, taken by surprise. “I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”
Hearing her apologize touched Nigel. She seemed so vulnerable in that moment, someone he wanted to protect, to hold.
“What I’m trying to say…” Justin looked desperately into the camera. “…is to respect what it is you have. Whatever your talent or ability, don’t be diverted from it. In the end, it’s all you’ve got.”
Nigel could sense Gretchen’s emotional intensity as she watched the screen. He couldn’t stop looking at her. Yes, he’d run the sodding interview if she was so keen on it, even though his viewers no longer cared about an old fossil like Justin Howitzer. She’d see it as a sign he trusted her judgment. It would be her first big break, and she’d be grateful.
“Don’t let your penis decide your life, mates!” Justin pleaded. “It’s stupid, it’s got no sense, and it doesn’t care about you or anyone else. Don’t lose sight of what’s truly important, or you’ll lose everything!”
Nigel was barely listening, his excitement growing. They’d go out for a celebratory dinner, he and Gretchen. Have a few drinks, and then who knows?
Sod his wife. He was getting hard just thinking about it.