The Star Makers
By Robin D. Laws
© 2012 Robin D. Laws. All rights reserved.
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Given that Orlando Frank was opening his refrigerator door for the first time since his return from two weeks playing club dates down the eastern seaboard, he expected that maybe there’d be something living there, back in the back, amid the jars of Patak’s curry paste, the Tanqueray, and the jumbo-sized ReaLemon bottle. What he did not think he’d see peering back at him with a single, bloodshot, cyclopean eye was a beige-colored arthropod, as long as his index finger, clinging with four pairs of legs to the side of a milk carton.
“Ack!” said Orlando, and slammed the door shut. He fell backwards onto the tiled floor of his tiny kitchen. Inside the fridge, he could hear flapping and thumping, as if he’d startled the bug-thing, sending it caroming around against the interior walls and condiment bottles. He regathered his bathrobe around his skinny frame, set his mouth into a determined line, and said, “Damn. Tom! It’s gotta be...” He stood, took a breath (he hated freakin’ arthropods) and opened the door. The creature banged furiously against the fridge’s lightbulb. Orlando thrust his hand in and grabbed at it, noticing only partway through his move that the thing was equipped with inch-long chitinous mandibles. It buzzed towards his face on dragonfly wings. He batted it away and down onto his unswept floor. With slippered foot he crushed it, setting his teeth up against each other as he took in its exoskeletal crunch. Queasily he lifted his foot and turned the sole of his slipper upwards for inspection. The creature was now a mushy mix of vivid green paste and crushed shell, the latter midway in thickness between jumbo shrimp and blue crab.
Whatever it was, it was not native to this plane of existence. The human-like eyeball was your basic dead giveaway. It was too bad he hadn’t preserved it in a better state for examination, but he sure as heck wasn’t going to give that thing a second chance to hurtle at his face. Orlando was pretty sure that it had been put there for observation purposes, not to deliver an actual attack. Its eye would be like a spy-cam to scry through. If its conjuror was who he thought it was, it was no surprise that the thing had gone and grown to such an obtrusive size. Tom had a history of efforts whose creativity outstripped their effectiveness.
Orlando headed straight for his phone, an old wall-mounted number, to dial Kacie, but got a busy signal. Online, as usual, probably. He might as well hoof it over to her place, which was only a few blocks away. He went for his laundry hamper, quickly smell-tested its contents for the least offensive T-shirt and skintight black jeans, dressed himself, and headed out.
He wasn’t too far down West 22nd when he saw a slightly stout girl spot and recognize him. Orlando was used to the look of recognition and its various permutations. He’d learned to discern a “hey, aren’t you famous in some way?” look from an “I recognize you from MTV 2 but don’t much care” from an “omigod, it’s Orlando Frank”, and this was definitely the third option. The girl was in her early twenties most likely, wearing a pink fuzzy jacket. She smiled wide and headed towards him on intercept course.
“Omigod, I don’t believe it,” she said, “It’s Orlando Frank!”
He’d still never quite figured out the appropriate answer to that half-question, so he stopped, smiled in what he realized had to be an utterly goofy manner, and nodded. She turned around, dropped her sizable army-surplus backpack to the sidewalk, and rustled around in it. She pulled out a magazine, last month’s CMJ Music Monthly and on its cover Orlando saw his own pug-nosed, shag-haired face staring back at him, doing its best to look all defiant yet winsomely sexy. Bathed in the green lighting that had been really hip six months ago when the shot was taken. Under a tagline that read, in big yellow sans serif, ORLANDO FRANK’S PUPPY MILL COMES OUT OF QUARANTINE.
“Hey,” said the girl, “I just happen to have this in my backpack. Could you sign it maybe?”
“Sure,” he nodded, vainly patting his jacket for a writing implement. As she dug into her pack for a pen, he sheepishly paged through the issue to the feature article. He’d been a bit of a jackass that day, a fact the interviewer had taken no pains to conceal in her piece. It felt a little weird to sign an article accurately portraying you as an arrogant dink. At least, Orlando reckoned, he’d made himself part of a long tradition of rock ‘n’ roll dinkery. People liked it, even.
“I’m sorry I haven’t bought the new Puppy Mill record yet,” she was saying, “I love the sample track on the CD that comes with the—It reminds me of... I mean, I like all your stuff, but those first three Dogs records... So what’s up with Tom these days?”
“We’re not in touch.” Orlando briefly considered telling her that Tom Lockhart, his former bandmate and writing partner, had been on the lam ever since nearly completing a ritual to bring about the apocalypse. But he’d been taught from an early age that the great mass of the population was better off not knowing.
The girl’s smile broadened, and she nodded knowingly. “Oh, yeah. Right. Of course.”
Orlando signed the cover for her, frowning slightly. The fans were always sure that The Dogs were on the verge of a surprise reunion. Stupid Internet rumors. He handed the mag back to her and redoubled his walking speed towards Kacie’s place.
The heat had gone off in Kacie’s building and Orlando warmed his hands over a bubbling saucepan of ramen noodles. She held the jar containing the bug’s remains up to the desk light over her work station. “Etymology is not my strong point,” she said.
“Entomology,” Orlando corrected.
“That either,” she said, tossing back her silken, crayon-red hair extensions. She’d settled on a glam-goth combo look for the new record and tour. The angle of the light brought out the fineness of her cheekbones, and Orlando gazed at her with the usual unconsummated romantic tension. Kacie Markovich was the only other carryover, aside from him of course, from his old band, The Dogs, to the new one, Puppy Mill. If Tom was making a play, Orlando couldn’t not tell her.
“You called Carlo, right?”
Orlando felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. He hadn’t. How could he have been so stupid? “Jeez, no, Kacie, all I thought of was you.”
Kacie shot him a disgusted look and flipped open her cellphone. She’d picked the closest model she could find to the classic Trek communicator. “What’s the number?”
Orlando told her. “But he never picks up anyway. You know how paranoid he is. He thinks dealers cold-call.” Carlo Martelli had been The Dogs’ fourth member, the drummer. After Tom’s attempt at the ritual, which he’d been roped into, Carlo had decamped to a tiny place in rural Pennsylvania to kick heroin, repent to the Lord, and convince himself that nothing he’d seen in the sky that night had been anything but the product of his chemically-enhanced state of mind.
Kacie shook her head. “You’re right. No answer.”
“Call Sphinc and tell him to get the van and his ass over here. We’re probably overreacting, but who else would pull this kind of thing but Tom? And what else would it mean than he’s on the move and out for the promised vengeance? And who else would he go after but Carlo?”
Orlando didn’t use the phrase weak link. He didn’t have to.
If there was one rule about We’re Off On A Mission music, it was that you had to time it to start with the moment of turn-off from city to highway. Orlando decided that, in this instance, the moment to pop in the CD, which he’d burned several months ago for just such an occasion, would be when 14th Street made its lycanthropic transformation into the I-78 W.
The tune Orlando had chosen to lead off the disc rang out from the van’s speakers: “Slalom”, by Ennio Morricone, the title music from a 1965 Italian film of the same name that Orlando had never seen. Its madly driving beat, executed on tubular bells, and the frenzied sing-song of its female chorus, seemed utterly appropriate for the situation at hand, even though they would not be skiing.
“Sla-lom!” Orlando thought. “Sla-lom!” For the first time he felt up to the task, if indeed there was one.
Sphinc, muscle shirt displaying his meticulously sculpted upper body, sat behind the wheel. His full name was The Recurring Sphincter; he bashed the kit for Puppy Mill. The freak-out that broke up The Dogs was before his time, but Orlando had briefed him on it, and he had assimilated the weirdness with stolid equanimity. He and Kacie knew Sphinc’s real name, but had been forbidden to use it. They respected his dedication to his performing alias.
“Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.” Sphinc said, unhappily reviewing the driving directions, which Kacie had downloaded onto her PDA. Sphinc got a nosebleed whenever he got more than half a mile from a functioning espresso machine. “I thought I’d have a longer break than this from driving, you know what I’m saying?”
“Actually, Wellsboro’s the teeming metropolis nearest Carlo’s hut.” Orlando had visited once, briefly, until Carlo made it clear how unwelcome he was. “His shack’s completely in the boons.”
“Looking forward to talking with the dude. I want him to tell me how he produced those drum fills on ‘Pursue the Stink.’”
He probably doesn’t remember, Orlando thought.
At the five and a half hour mark, Orlando got bored of the CD selection and scanned the radio dial for a talk station. Kacie was sprawled out in the back seat and softly snoring. Orlando dialed past a couple of evangelists and a sports call-in, finally settling in on an NPR discussion of something that had been steaming him, ever since he’d heard of it, months back. The Ochykyk Project. The morons had even approached him to have Puppy Mill play their brain-dead inaugural concert in Brussels.
“Have you heard of this, Sphinc?”
“Sure, it’s only on CNN about once every twelve minutes.”
This Russian aerospace company had shot this series of giant reflectors up into space, and on New Year’s Eve they were going to activate them, shining light ten times as bright as the full moon down on Seattle, Brussels, Kiev, and... Orlando had forgotten where else, but the radio story soon supplied the rest of the details: London and Hamburg. All to show that, with even more reflectors, they could light up the winter Arctic as bright as daytime in Miami Beach.
“Supposedly, that is,” Orlando ranted at Sphinc, drowning out the radio debate. “It’s all a big marketing group-grope. The perfect freaking venue for corporate sponsorship: a big flashy event that means exactly zero. A recursive celebration of itself. One hundred per cent content-free.”
Orlando came up for air, allowing the astronomy professor speaking on the radio to be heard. He and his colleagues were apoplectic that nothing could be done to stop the project. The reflectors would be so bright, they’d make proper observation of the night sky impossible.
“And you should see the freaking line-up for their concert: the lamest assemblage of interchangeable, focus-grouped, payola-fueled, plastic-teated crapola ever paraded before an international audience.”
“How many people going to be watching this?”
“Millions, they claim. Zillions.”
“And we had a shot to play this gig, and you turned it down? How much did they offer?”
Orlando cut him off with the dirtiest look he could muster. “Hey, we all agreed that Puppy Mill was about integrity, every minute of every day.” Seeing Sphinc’s hurt look, he moderated his tone. “Hey, man, I know you didn’t go through The Dogs era, so you don’t know the gnawing feeling you get inside when you realize you’ve totally whored yourself out. Believe me, I know. And we all agreed—”
“Sure, Orl, sure. I was just kidding with you, man.”
They drove a bit.
“And anyway,” Sphinc said, “getting all worked up over Ricky Martin and Britney Spears, I mean, isn’t stuff like that always going to be with us? Isn’t it, like, getting pissed off at nitrogen?”
Orlando threw himself around in the seat. “It’s freaking soul pollution, that’s what it is.”
Fresh tire tracks had been cut in the thick layer of snow covering the driveway leading up to Carlo’s clapboard garage. The golden light of the fading sun made the fresh top layer of flakes sparkle like on a Hallmark card.
Sphinc shivered pro-actively as Orlando reached over to open the passenger side door. “Way rustic. Does Carlo drive?”
“Of course he drives,” said Kacie, stretching and arcing her back. Orlando tried to look anywhere but her compact yet perfect chest. “This is the middle of nowhere. Everybody drives.”
“Sphinc, you wait here, just in case,” Orlando said. “We’ll go see that everything’s okay.”
“This will have been a long trip if it all just turns out he forgot to pay his phone bill.”
“That’d be the answer that would make me happiest in the world, my man.”
Orlando and Kacie crunched through the deep drift leading up to the cottage. Orlando didn’t own winter boots, and his red Converse sneakers soon filled up with snow. He ran up to Carlo’s front stoop and banged on the door.
“Carlo! Hey Carlo, it’s me and Kace! We just dropped by to see if you’re doing okay!”
A voice came from deep inside the house.
Orlando turned to Kacie. “Did he say come in, it’s unlocked?”
“I think that’s what he said.”
Orlando tested the aluminum screen door and yep, it was unlocked, as was the pine door behind it. A skiff of snow followed him in as he shoved it open. He stamped his feet on the mat and walked into what he remembered as the living room. Behind him he heard Kacie stomping the snow off her boots. The room seemed oddly dark and indistinct for the time of day. From outside, he hadn’t noticed that the drapes were drawn, but they clearly had to be.
“Carlo? Hey man, where are you?”
“Down here, Orlando.” The voice maybe emanated from the cellar, behind a closed door. Orlando ventured down and saw Carlo, appearing shrunk since the last time he laid eyes on him. Sunk into an overstuffed, old-style chair as if it were wired for electricity and he was sitting in the death house, waiting for the throwing of the switch.
“Hey, Carlo, what’s up? If my mom were here, she’d say, put on some lights, you’ll ruin your eyes.”
A dim shaft of light from a low window fell across Carlo’s body, directing Orlando’s eye towards an end-table.
“I’m sorry, man.” Carlo’s eyes were pleading up at him. A set of works lay on the table: syringe, rubber tube, spoon, lighter, clumps of white powder on a square of foil.
Orlando heard Kacie cry out and turned in time to see her topple, felled by a blow delivered by a massive form concealed by the cellar’s clinging gloom. He reeled as something caught him hard on the temple. Turning, he saw a second towering figure bearing down on him. Which meant he’d given his back to the other one. Orlando’s neck swiveled to and fro as he tried to keep both of them in his field of vision. Even though his eyes had otherwise adjusted to the low light, the two attackers remained blurry around the edges. They seemed to wear dark clothing; he got the impression that there were just big empty holes where their eyes should have been. He felt Carlo’s legs bump the back of his knees as he backed into the chair.
“Carlo!” he said, gaze still fixed ahead of him. “Carlo!” He turned for just a moment, and saw that Carlo had completely nodded out. He wondered how much of the stuff they’d shot him full of. Whether it was meant to kill, or just to sedate. Orlando wasn’t even sure these guys were human, but something told him they weren’t primed to carefully measure out the difference between dose and overdose.
One of the big guys grabbed a floor lamp and yanked on it to pull its cord from the socket. The glass fixture on top tottered off and onto the shag carpet below. Orlando backed past Carlo’s chair. The thing, guy, whatever: it was obvious he was planning to swing that heavy lamp like a freaking cudgel.
He hadn’t tried talking to them yet. “Look, I don’t know who you dudes are or what you want, but we don’t have to play it this way, do we? Come on, what’s the deal? Maybe I’d rather go along with you than get hit by that thing.”
The sound of his talking seemed to stop them up, at least momentarily. They exchanged eyeless glances; then the one armed with the lamp again advanced. Orlando took another few steps back, felt warmth radiating behind him. He allowed himself another quick backwards turn of the head and saw a big-bellied old cast iron wood stove.
“So if I were to surmise that you two collectively have as much brains as a Bon Jovi lyric, I wouldn’t be too far off the mark, would I?”
This time his words didn’t faze them; the forward one continued its plodding advance. A final beam of sunset light struck the lamp-pole, sending a glinting reflection playing across the room’s roof beams. Orlando made as if distracted, following the light. On cue, the thing took advantage of his wayward gaze and charged all-out. Like Bugs Bunny in the cartoon where he whips the matador’s cape aside to reveal an anvil, Orlando side-stepped out of the way, allowing his attacker to plow directly into the hot furnace. He expected the guy to rear back, groaning with the pain of his burns, but instead the thug stayed stuck to the furnace door, his head and arms bubbling and falling away. The air filled with the smell of burning tallow. Wispy gray smoke rose from the figure’s shitty suit.
Orlando tried to remember the correct term. He’d been schooled in all this stuff from an early age, but he’d been more interested in listening to old Velvet Underground records than in Mother’s boring details of the family business. Homunculi! That was it: homunculi. Sorcerous constructs in the form of men. In this case, fashioned from a member of the wax family. Heavy-duty hocus-pokery. If this was all Tom—and it had to be Tom—he’d definitely been boning up during his hiatus.
The remaining homunc cocked its head, like it was trying to sniff the air only to remember it had no nose. It plodded over, too, but then stopped short. Maybe these things had enough rudimentary smarts not to follow each other, lemming-like, into the same trap. Or perhaps Tom had some kind of limited remote control over them. Whichever it was, Orlando was screwed for an idea of how to get the remaining one to ram the stove, too. He’d have to take the thing down some other way.
Bang! Bang! Bang! It was the screen door being whacked on, up above. Sphinc, presumably. And about damn time.
“Orl! Orl! Everything all right in there?”
The homunculus reared back, distracted by the noise Sphinc was making.
Orlando cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled. “Sphinc! Go back to the van and get a freakin’ tire iron!” As soon as he started, the homunculus turned back towards him.
This time the homunculus ignored the distraction, kept its non-stare fixed on Orlando.
“On second thought, if you got one in there, bring an acetylene torch!”
It recommenced towards Orlando again. Its balled-up fist looked about the size of a ham. Orlando tried to reassure himself that getting punched by wax could not possibly hurt that much.
He heard the upstairs door bang open. The homunculus turned its back on him and motored with surprising speed towards the cellar door. Orlando tailed it, pausing at the end-table by Carlo’s chair to grab the syringe. He leapt up and jabbed it down into the thing’s neck. The homunculus’ back was slippery as hell, and Orlando slid down it even before it turned to shake him off. Orlando could still see the syringe poking out of the back of its neck. He hadn’t expected to be able to tranquilize this glorified aromatherapy accessory, but, hey, all he had to work with were the materials at hand.
The cellar door swung wide, and there stood Sphinc, jaw agape. The homonculus turned and linebackered towards him. Again Orlando jumped up, wrapping his hands around its massive neck. It bucked to throw him off, but with terrier tenacity Orlando hung on for the ride. Sphinc recovered from his disbelief episode and wound up to sock the thing in the chest. His fist went through the dark suit jacket, which seemed also to be made of wax, burying itself in the thing’s chest up to the wrist. The homunculus wrenched itself around, yanking Sphinc’s two hundred and forty pound, steroid-enhanced frame along with it. Sphinc’s wrist snapped, and he hollered in pain. Orlando watched the color drain from Sphinc’s face. He kept digging with his fingernails into the thing’s head and neck. Greasy yellow shavings peeled from the thing’s featureless mug, impeding it not at all. It raised its fist, ready to hammer down on Sphinc’s shaved skull. Orlando reached out to try to pull back on the arm, but managed only to slap it on its way down. Stray wax chunks splapped onto Carlo’s paneling and window blinds as the homunculus’ fist smacked Sphinc in the temple. Sphinc went limp.
Orlando chose to get off the thing’s back. He looked around for a useful found weapon. The homunculus wrapped its now-misshapen fingers around Sphinc’s wrist, and, with a discernible pop, freed the drummer’s hand from its chest. Orlando ran back towards the stove. Stepping gingerly past the homunculus he’d already downed, he reached over for a lifter sticking out from the stove top and pulled on it, freeing what felt like about ten pounds of thick iron lid. He was worried the lifter might be too hot to hold, but the handle turned out to be insulated. The lid was not. He turned and swung wide with the lifter, sending the lid sailing like a discus towards the wax figure. It hit the thing in the neck, slicing the head clean off, hot-knife-through-butter. The waxy orb plopped into a metal wastebasket, hitting it on the edge and knocking it over. Orlando gaped at the utter perfection of his fluky shot.
Then the thing resumed its forward motion, unperturbed by the loss of its head. Orlando felt pressure around his right ankle, looked down, and saw the severed hand of the stove-melted homunculus clamped around his sports sock. The other one loomed over him, pulling back both of its arms and then clapping them together, with Orlando’s head their obvious and imminent point of intersection.
“Oh, crap,” Orlando thought.
Orlando’s brain swam its way back up to muzzy consciousness, and with the effort came the parallel realization that he was somewhere he’d been before. A slight feeling of motion, with a soothing hint of rocking cradle. The soft seats: black leather. Enclosed space: little more than eight feet across. Rows of seating. Alongside and back, four to a row, aisle in the middle.
Holy crap, he was on the Concorde. He blinked and stretched his facial muscles. Yes, it was definitely the Concorde. Orlando hadn’t been on one of these babies since his major label days. Before he fully understood how all the extravagance was being charged back against his future royalties. He craned to see who was seated beside him, and, as he did so, understood that he was somehow contained, that he couldn’t move his arms or legs more than an inch or so in any direction. He looked down and saw no chains, no fetters. He was caught in a hold spell.
The man beside him greeted him with a mild eyebrow raise as Orlando sized him up. It wasn’t Tom. Neatly-arranged hair the color of straw; a small mustache to match; powder blue eyes. Decked out in about eight thousand bucks worth of Armani business wear. Idly stroking the manicured surfaces of his nails with his thumb. His lips were moving. He was speaking to Orlando in a low, enveloping tone that made him feel everything was going to be all right. The timbre was Barry White with the merest whiff of Slavic. An incongruous sound for this body, nearly as skinny as Orlando’s, to be making.
“What?” said Orlando. He was hearing the sound but not the words.
“I am happy that you are with us again. I have been hoping for some conversation. I am never able to read on an aeroplane. My attention wanders.” A hardcover copy of Only the Paranoid Survive: How To Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company sat on his lap like a Pekinese. According to the dust jacket, its author was head of Intel.
Orlando refocused on the man. He knew this guy. But he would have remembered meeting him. Seen him on television? And in some kind of annoying context, he was increasingly sure. He’d sworn at this bland visage on some interview show —
“I will introduce myself. I am Maxim Zhakharenko.”
Jeez! The guy from the Ochykyk Project! With the scam to stick the sky full of mirrors for the delectation of Nike and Kodak. Orlando knew he recognized his presence as noxious.
“Maybe you can tell me what the hell I’m doing here.” Orlando expected it to come out as an outraged cry, but something had control of his vocal cords, adjusting him to a laid back coo. He managed a swivel: behind him were Kacie and Carlo. Kacie seemed peacefully asleep, a largish gauze-and-tape bandage fixed to her temple. Carlo was out, too, slack-jawed and drooling.
“Do not worry. They are not harmed.”
“Not harmed? You’ve doped Carlo up again. He’d kicked, you son of a bitch. Now he’ll probably bottom out all over again.”
Zhakharenko shrugged slightly.
“You don’t even care, do you? What about Sphinc?”
“The fourth guy at Carlo’s place. Last I saw, one of your homunculi creamed him with a giant haymaker. You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“I am unaware of this person. My people were a fair distance away. Homunculi do not reason abstractly, and cannot extrapolate from their specific orders. Doubtless the surviving homunculus carried the three specified targets to the rendezvous point, leaving the stray party behind.”
Chances were, then, that Sphinc had probably come to in Carlo’s cellar. It had been a juggernaut of a KO, but the resilience of Sphinc’s cranium was pre-established. What would he be able to do, though? This was the first time Orlando had gotten him dragged into outright occult crap. He might or might not know he’d be wasting his time going to the cops. Possibly he could follow homunculus tracks to the rendezvous point, but if Zhakharenko’s people were any good, the trail would end there. The important thing was that Sphinc was in all likelihood okay. But there’d be no rescue coming from that quarter.
“If you seek consolation, know that I have never before had a target so thoroughly destroy one of my constructs. You should be proud to have held out so effectively.”
Zhakharenko’s attempt at a benign expression roiled Orlando. He actually wanted him to feel good about the situation. Typical stalker mindset. Like he was supposed to take forcible confinement as testament to a fan’s devotion.
“Jeez. People have gone to some lengths to get The Dogs to play a reunion gig, but I gotta tell you, buddy, you’re taking it a little far. Maybe you should just go download old live tracks from Napster like everybody else, huh?”
“Do not take this as an insult, but the music of your band does not interest me. I am partial to Shostakovich.”
“Yeah well I dig the chamber music but I’m not totally sold on his symphonies.”
Zhakharenko’s expression brightened. “Ah, then, we shall have an interesting conversation.”
“So if you don’t give a flying burrito for The Dogs... And we were big, but not enough for your corporate sponsors to care—you are working for Tom!”
The Russian maintained his pleasant demeanor. “Rather, Mr. Lockhart is employed by myself.”
“And this kidnap was his price.”
“You do realize he’s probably going to try and use your event to summon malign entities from the planes beyond? You know, bringing about the destruction of the world?” Throughout his question, Orlando heard the volume of his voice drop like a board fade. No one else on the plane could possibly overhear them. “The Apocalypse, or Ragnarok, or whatever he’s calling it these days?”
“Such is the nature of our arrangement.”
Orlando wanted to throttle the guy but his arms wouldn’t move. “Why? For what possible reason—”
“Do not feel I act out of malice. The suffering mankind will undergo: I accept it without relishing it. It is the only means by which I can attain mastery of the earth.”
“World domination. The same old dream.”
If Zhakharenko caught the allusion, he made no sign of it. “I have read some of your interviews, Mr. Frank. You deplore the falsity of this world. Its neon canyons, its commodified sexuality, its mindless pursuit of fleeting gratification. Surely they are all things to be destroyed.”
“Yeah, well, the devil’s in the details of the destruction, you well-coiffed wingnut. Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods. Continents sinking, rivers of flame, demons scourging the earth. Cities converted to crematoria. I may not dig living in an Andy Warhol world, but that doesn’t mean I want to try to survive in a Hieronymous Bosch painting.”
Another minor shrug. “The offer is anyway hypothetical.”
“Screw you. Read your book.”
The attendant wheeled down the caviar cart.
Tom, on the other hand, did not want Orlando to feel good about the situation. He drew back for the widest swing possible and slapped his old partner across the face.
What th—?, Orlando thought. Wasn’t I on a plane a second ago?
“I’ve been waiting to do that for a long, long time,” Tom said, massaging his reddened palm.
Orlando was securely duct-taped to a metal folding chair, just like the ones wrestlers always bash over each other’s heads. The room was anonymously industrial: made of cinder blocks, painted friendly yellow, well maintained. Wooden benches came out from two of the walls. It could have been the dressing room of any stadium The Dogs had ever played.
Tom had put on a little weight. He’d never been a healthy eater, and a modest spare tire now rolled over the waist of his jeans. He’d cut his hair and dyed it blond. A small love patch, also dyed, hung around his chin. He wore a long Pucci-influenced polyester shirt in wild colors, with an eye-harming pattern, open over a black T-shirt. Early-eighties low-cut snakeskin boots topped off the experiment in era-mixing.
“Well, someone really liked Velvet Goldmine,” Orlando said.
Tom belted him again. “There’s no percentage in acting the smart-ass this time, Orl.”
Orlando didn’t know where Kacie or Carlo had been taken. If he had to guess, he’d figure on them being nearby.
“Have you ever stopped to consider that your rage might be a means of compensating for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy?”
This time Tom tagged him with closed fist. Orlando could feel blood pooling on his lip and dribbling down his chin. His head rang like hell and he didn’t have a plan yet, but at least he could make Tom mad, because, when he got mad, he got stupid.
“This Zhakharenko of yours must be quite the sugar daddy, to fly me all the way here on the Concorde just so you can smack me in the mouth.”
Tom leaned in close to talk right into Orlando’s face. His breath was minty fresh. “Oh, that’s not it, you arrogant turd. In a few short hours, you are going to be the recipient of cosmic irony. And cosmic irony is a bitch, Orl, and believe me, there’s no one has it coming more than you, you self-righteous jackass. You thought you could mess me up, couldn’t you?”
“That’s a rhetorical question, right?”
Tom twitched as if tempted to give Orlando another smack. The fact that he didn’t confirmed one of Orlando’s operating suppositions. Tom needed to keep him at least marginally presentable. Which meant this whole thing would end onstage, with mics and guitars.
Tom embarked on a round of manic pacing. Crank, Orlando diagnosed. “You figured I had just that one shot at it, didn’t you? That the stars were only right on that one night, and they wouldn’t be right again for another thousand years. Well, you’re going to see how freaking wrong you can be, Orlando Frank. Midnight tomorrow we hit the rewind button and we go back to that night. Except this time I’ve plugged the holes. You’re going to stand there and watch me, helpless, as I make it happen. And you can forget about launching into the riff from ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ in the middle of the incantation. You can sing ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ for all I care, and it won’t do jack to the ritual.”
That fateful gig, headlining at the big reiteration of the peace and love festival, was when Tom had decided to throw open the gates to the planes beyond. He’d insisted on playing a backing track during the final number. Said we should try to capture the sound of the string track from the record, even though they normally didn’t bother when they played the tune live. Orlando had given in on that argument, not knowing the whole point of the backing track was that Tom had digitally implanted an incantation on it. Only dogs and demons were supposed to be able to hear it. But when Orlando saw the crowd going nuts, torching the concession stands, turning the mosh pit into a gladiatorial arena, he knew something was wrong. And some inkling, maybe an instinctive sense for these things picked up by osmosis from his mom and grandmother, told him it was the backing track doing it. Despite the fact he shouldn’t have been able to hear it at all. Tom had obviously programmed the track so that nothing the rest of the band did could obscure the incantation, so long as they stuck more or less to the tune. But a little bit of classic Who, that was not on the set list. Orlando had looked up to see a ripple appearing in the sky, and behind it a glimpse of a malign, dark, and implacable eye. And he’d played harder. And the ripple had gone, and he thought he’d heard a scream of petulant frustration from the stars. The rioting, even a rash of sudden rapes, got covered plenty on the news. But no one outside of The Dogs knew what Tom had really tried that night. He’d slipped away during the chaos, disappearing from Orlando’s s life. Until now.
“Okay, well, maybe you can answer one question that’s been bugging me ever since you split, Tom.”
His mouth warily tightened. “What?”
“What the hell are you thinking? What happened to you, man? I mean, seriously, the end of life as we know it?”
Tom reached into his shirt pocket for a pair of green-tinted, white-framed glasses and perched them on his nose. Moving away from Orlando, he walked over to a corner, where a mic stand stood, leaning up against it. “One thing’s for sure: it’ll put into perspective that punk-ass who shot John Lennon.”
“When you talk, do you register what it is you’re saying?”
Tom’s only answer was a contemptuous snort.
“I mean, that fruitcake on the plane. He seems to have totally detached himself from the reality of what you plan to do. I don’t know how he got to that point. But you, man, we’ve known each other since we were sixteen. And you were acting freaky the few months before that last show, but I had no idea. Tell me, man: what did I miss?”
Tom held the mic stand away from his mouth, and in a feigned interviewer voice, said, “Gee, Tom, what do you think Orlando’s strategy is here?” He moved the mike closer and said, in his own voice, “Well, Bill, I think he’s desperately trying to establish some bogus emotional connection, in hopes that I’ll suddenly bust out crying and repent my savage ways. But what he doesn’t realize is that it’s too, too late...”
Orlando clenched his fists. “So tell me this, then. Who do you really think you’re going to be summoning? Some impersonally destructive expression of non-linear geometry? Kali and Shiva? Good old Beelzebub? Or—I know. Dude, dude. You’re such a pitiful romantic. You think you’re summoning Cthulhu. Don’t you? Straight out of Lovecraft. Cthulhu and all his pals, the whole rugose, multi-tentacled lot of them.”
Tom charged at him, holding up the mic stand’s base as if he was about to bash Orlando’s skull in with it. He pulled himself short, set down the stand, and got back in Orlando’s face. “There’s a lot that’s real in those Lovecraft stories, man. They tell you otherwise to throw you off the trail, man, but I know. I’ve done my research. And Maxim backs me up on that, and you know the kind of stuff he’s capable of.” Behind the green shades Tom’s eyes popped wild. He was close enough that Orlando could see the enlarged pores around his nose, and beads of sweat peeling off him like drops of mercury. “Sure, we’ve known each other since we were sixteen. And ever since we were sixteen and a quarter you’ve been undermining me. Maneuvering yourself just one step above me. Making me your damn sidekick. Well tomorrow night you won’t be able to execute any manic, adrenaline-charged leaps towards rock ‘n’ roll apotheosis. You’re gonna be chained to the frickin stage.”
“Good grief, Tom, you’re quoting the first review we ever got. You’re quoting a review from a campus newspaper.”
“I can quote you the whole fucken scrapbook. Article after article. Review after review. Who’s name was always first, hmm? Who always had his best side whipped out for the camera just when the flashbulb went off?” He had Orlando by the ear and was crushing it between his fingers. Orlando gritted his teeth, so as not to cry out.
“Hey, who fought to make sure you were right up front in every video?”
“When the suits were pushing for you, you, you, the star, star, star?”
“Who made sure you got you co-writer credit on everything?”
Tom’s face went even redder. “And how did that credit read, childhood friend? Frank/Lockhart. Frank/Lockhart. Me always last!” He ripped his hand away from Orlando’s head, which also hurt like crazy.
That was it. Orlando’s BS detector overwhelmed his survival instinct. “You know why that is, don’t you?”
“Why don’t you just go ahead and tell me?”
“Because while you were out with Carlo testing the biochemical limits of the human body, I was sitting on my ass in the chair composing music. Because your contributions were always the grace notes, the frosting on the cake. Don’t get me wrong, it was great frosting. You helped make those records what they are. But the reason the credit reads Frank-slash-Lockhart is that I am and always will be an artist.” He switched to a tone that was low but cut through the room nonetheless. “And at your best, and you’re well past your best now, the most you ever were was an editor.”
Tom threw his chest and his arms out like a frenzied alpha gibbon, bellowing out an inarticulate yowl of fury. “That’s it! That’s exactly it!”
Orlando had already begun to feel bad. It was a mean thing to say. But then, the guy was trying to destroy humanity.
Tom threw the mic stand against the room; it clattered against one of the benches. He seized Orlando by the shirt, giggling chirpily. “You want to know my secret, Orl? How I found a way to perform the working even though the exact optimal conjunction of the stars is now three years gone? Because, with Maxim’s help, I found an alternate version. One that is hardly ever performed, because of the difficulty of acquiring the material components. Because what you need to complete it is a human sacrifice. Big deal, you say, so do they all. But this one, you have to sacrifice a very special human. One who drives the lead ritualist into spasms of wild ambivalence. It has to be someone the caster loves like a brother and hates like his worst enemy. And how many of those does any one of us have?” Tom lurched at Orlando, arms outstretched, head cocked to one side. He clamped hands on both of Orlando’s cheeks and pulled his face forward. With lips tightly pressed together in a way that said Do Not Mistake This For A Homoerotic Gesture, he gave Orlando a prolonged, bruising kiss. Finally he came up for air. “Orlando, guess who’s going to be checking out a few minutes earlier than everyone else?”
Two bull-necked security types cut him loose from the folding chair and hustle-walked him down a hallway. They unlocked a steel door and tossed him into a room, a smaller version of the one he’d just been in. Flickering fluorescents provided grudging illumination. Kacie and Carlo were in there, sitting on the benches. Kacie leapt up; Carlo stayed put.
“You okay?” Kacie asked. She examined his busted lip and various other facial contusions.
“Nothing that serious in the grand scheme of things.”
“I’d bandage you up, or at least get a tissue to wipe the blood off, but my purse is back in the van. Any idea where we are?”
“My best guess is Brussels.” Orlando leaned up against the door, grabbed his left foot, and pulled it up against his butt, stretching out the kinks from being restrained for so long. He told Kacie and Carlo what he’d learned, and what he’d surmised. He did his other leg and then started testing the door’s lock.
“You’re welcome to try,” Kacie told him, “but it seems solid. Also no person-sized air ducts, no ceiling tiles to climb up through.”
“Distract a guard maybe?”
“They’re pros. Always come in pairs, contact minimal.”
Orlando glanced over at pale and sweaty Carlo. To Kacie, he asked, “Have they...”, meaning, have they kept Carlo shot up? Kacie shook her head no. Carlo began to rock violently, pitching forward and back:
“They’re not real, they’re not real, they’re not real.” When Orlando went over to calm him, he wrapped his arms around Orlando’s pant legs. “Tell me I’m not going to see those things again, Orlando. Tell me!”
In what he hoped worked as manly reassurance, Orlando clamped a hand on his former bandmate’s shoulder. “Chill, Carlo, okay, so we can figure something out. We will figure something out.” Carlo rocked less vigorously, muttering to himself. Orlando bit his lip and took Kacie aside, as much as this was possible in such a small room.
“I keep feeling my sense of awareness going in and out of focus,” Kacie said. “I think I have big chunks of missing time.”
“It’s a hex Zhakharenko has on us, to make us complaisant as he shuttles us from place to place.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a spell or something to get us out of here?”
Orlando shook his head. “You know I can’t work any of that sorcery nonsense. It’s really hard, you know...”
“You don’t remember anything your mom used to—”
“She tried to teach me, but I just never got to first base with it.” Maybe I should have applied myself more, Orlando thought. “And it’s way dangerous to just blurt out excerpts of half-remembered incantations.”
Kacie paused for a moment, then asked, “You think Tom will come by again?”
Orlando shrugged. “I’m not kidding myself I have the first clue about the guy anymore, but somehow I think what I just got was the pregame in its entirety.”
“If he did come by, maybe I could break through to him. Remind him of that thing we had.”
Orlando pivoted towards her. “You and Tom had a thing?”
She shrugged. “Just briefly; maybe it’s enough to—”
“The first half of the Cannons and Nothingness tour. Why? What’s it matter?”
“And I never noticed.”
“I guess not. I thought he told you. Anyway, it was no big deal.”
Okay, okay, Orlando told himself, concentrate on the main issue here. “Well if he comes by, by all means, do whatever you can to find the dude we used to know. But I don’t think we can count on that.”
“You think we’ll be zoned out under this hex spell when he starts up the ritual?”
“It would be the smart thing for them to do, so I wouldn’t rule it out. But judging from the peevish, grudge-crazed lunatic I just had the pleasure of chatting with, he’s going to want us—me, anyway—fully aware when he sticks the knife in.”
“If he’s expecting me to play drums,” Carlo chipped in, “he’s crazy. No way am I playing under these conditions.”
“He’ll have us up there on stage basically as props,” Orlando said. “For the TV cameras. You can bet there’ll be other musicians either onstage or in the wings doing the actual playing.” He turned back to Kacie. “Okay, let’s do our best to plan, given what we know. Here’s what to do if the homunculi come out onstage...”
Tom had them standing on hydraulic platforms below the stage; when the cue came, they’d rise and it would look like the band was coming up through the floor. Their bindings were not magical in nature: chains connected shackles on their ankles to U-hooks, which were in turn welded to the platform’s plate metal covering. The concert in progress thundered up above; preceding them on the bill was a big rap-metal band Orlando regarded as really phony.
“Band huddle!” Tom crowed. Orlando fumed. He was profaning the little ritual they used to do before each gig, back when they all loved each other. He was still playing with that microphone stand. Orlando could tell it was the exact one from before because it had a pronounced ding in it where Tom had chucked it against the wall.
Tom continued: “Might as well kick it off with the big hit, right? So as soon as the platforms are level, we’re going to go into ‘You’re My Vigil.’ It doesn’t matter if you play or not, but, you know, if it were me having to die tonight, I’d want to go out doing what I was put on this earth to do.” He sauntered over to Orlando, dragging the stand along the flooring so it produced a shudder-making grinding noise. “Of course, you, Orlando, will just have to sing. Can’t have you wielding a guitar, can we? Swung overhead, a Gibson makes too good a weapon.” Tom looked up as the final chords and drum crescendo of the metal-rappers’ current radio hit resounded through the stage. “That’s our cue,” he grinned.
The hydraulics kicked in and Orlando felt his platform rise. Moved to a futile gesture of irksomeness, he reached out and grabbed hold of Tom’s precious mic stand. The risers moved quickly, frustrating Tom’s upward jumps to grab at it. Tom shook his fist, then ran for his own platform, which the roadies had been holding for him. He’d have to find some other mic stand onstage as soon as he hit it. It would ruin his entrance and make him look stupid. If I’m going to die tonight, Orlando thought, at least I’ll go out doing what I was put on this earth to do.
Lights blazed in his eyes as the stage appeared around him, and the crashing first notes of his own best song assaulted his ears. Might as well lull him with some cooperation, Orlando reckoned. He threw his head back to sing. He made eye contact with fans at the front of the stage. At first, they looked thrilled and surprised to see The Dogs together again. Then he saw confusion in their faces, probably because he couldn’t move around and wasn’t playing lead. A group of them, young girls mostly, began to beckon him forward. He was famous for surfing into the crowd at the front of the stage. Come on, come on, they seemed to scream, but Orlando was stuck on the spot.
He expected the ritual to kick in during the song, but the tune barreled towards its conclusion with nothing untoward in sight. Orlando tried to hear the subliminal chanting on the backing track, but couldn’t. He’d been banged around so much, his ears were already ringing. Whatever fine-tuned sense had allowed him to pick it up the first time had deserted him. Or maybe the subliminal chant hadn’t started yet. He looked at a TV monitor and saw big digital clock numbers in the middle of the stage’s proscenium arch of lighting gantries. 11:52. Whatever was coming, it wouldn’t happen until midnight. And the song would be done before then.
Orlando felt his passion for the tune draining away, but kept on anyway, until it ended. He heard the telltale pop of his mic being cut off. Tom had another and was speaking into it. Orlando shouted that no one should listen to him, but he was drowned out.
“All right, people!” Tom called. “You having a good time, Brussels?” The crowd roared. “I can’t hear you!” The crowd roared louder. Orlando had always hated that kind of by-the-book audience rousing. So that’s how the world ends; not with a bang, but with a cliché. “Are you ready? Are you ready for the sky to come alive? Are you ready for the unveiling moment of the Ochykyk Project? Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome a visionary. A true friend, to me and to humanity. A man you’re really going to get to know in the months ahead. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving it up for the founder and CEO of Ochykyk International, Maxim Zhakharenko!”
Zhakharenko strolled out from the wings, wearing an all-white suit with purple shirt and pocket handkerchief. He clasped his hands together and shook them over his head in the international sign for meaningless victory. Tom handed him the mic, and he launched into a speech so full of clunky generalities Orlando could scarcely process it. He saw Tom rushing over to him, anger in his stride. Tom grabbed for the mic stand. Orlando didn’t know why he wanted it, but the mere fact that he did was enough to want to keep it from him. Orlando yanked it away and held on for dear life.
“Give me that!” Tom growled.
Orlando stuck out his tongue. He glanced significantly over Tom’s shoulder at the crowd gathered at the front of the stage. “You’re looking like a clown again,” Orlando said. Shaking with thwartedness, Tom withdrew, stalking back past Zhakharenko, who was still yakking away blissfully. The crowd began to chant impatiently. Orlando’s eyes followed Tom as he strode into the wings, looked around, saw what he wanted on a wall, and made a beeline for it. He grabbed it down and set it against a speaker, just out of the audience’s sight line. It was a fire axe.
Tom crossed back to the Russian sorcerer’s side. “...My pleasure that the honors of our inaugural launch be performed by this man. People all across the world, please welcome our host for tonight, and the driving creative force behind your favorite band, The Dogs—Please welcome Tom Lockhart!” As he said this, another riser came up from the floor, this one bearing a chrome and plexiglass lectern, on top of which rested a sleek black laptop computer. Tom cracked his fingers together and headed for its keyboard.
You scum-sucking rat bastard, Orlando thought. Deceptive gloating! That whole business about not having to worry about the stars being right because, he, Orlando, would be the sacrifice, as the perfect object of Tom’s love and hate—that was all a load of the finest-grade bushwah, meant to mislead him from what was really going on, just in case he figured out how to stop it. It was the Ochykyk Project that would make the ritual possible again. Those mirrors wouldn’t beam down light onto its specially selected cities. They’d be arranged in the pattern of the conjoined constellations the summoning required. The Ochykyk Project was nothing more than a multi-million dollar technological effort to make the stars right! And sure enough, as if to confirm Orlando’s realization, the cheezy synth fanfare that arose as Tom readied himself to activate the satellites rang with those hidden notes, the digitally encoded incantation. The ritual had begun, and Orlando was still chained to the spot.
He looked up into the sky. It rippled, bulged. He glanced back at Carlo, curled up into a ball behind his drum kit, moaning like a gut-shot dog. He looked up at the sky again. A giant eye coalesced there, he was sure of it.
He examined the loops of microphone cord in his hand, mentally assessing their length. The last time Tom tried this, Orlando drew on the hallowed hymnal of Saint Pete Townsend, delivering righteousness with a windmilling arm blasting across the strings of his guitar. Now he would have to invoke the flipside of that transcendental duality, invoking the bravura and precision-swung microphone of Saint Roger Daltrey. Orlando whipped the mic around his head to charge it up with kinetic energy, and, focusing all of his being on his inner Daltrey, let go of the cord, watching it as it flew unerringly towards the notebook computer. It flew to pieces, its crystal screen detaching and thwacking Zhakharenko in the upper thigh. Keyboard keys exploded everywhere, landing like a rain of frogs on the metallic stage.
An angry scream shook the sky as the ripple shimmied, quavered, and imploded. An angrier scream flew from the open mouth of Tom Lockhart. Orlando wasn’t certain, but he thought he heard the words ‘no’, ‘you’, ‘bastard’ and ‘done it again!’ Tom ran to the fire axe and turned to charge. The stage, a good sixty feet wide, gave him plenty of space to pick up momentum.
Ack, Orlando thought. He felt the mic stand, warm against his now-chilly hand. What was so important about this, anyway? He unscrewed the connecting ring that held the stand’s two pieces together. The base dropped away, revealing ten inches of razor-sharp, machine-honed spear head. This was the weapon Tom had planned to use to sacrifice him, after the sky opened and the hungry entities made themselves welcome in the material plane. Very nasty. Orlando looked up. Tom, axe upraised, was fifteen feet away. Ten. He didn’t have time to think. Did he really want to—
Orlando held the stand up, bracing to receive Tom’s charge. He saw Tom’s eyes widen at the last moment, the realization in them that the charge was too far along to be reversed. The axe flew wildly overhead as Tom’s chest landed on the gleaming blade. He fell further into the impaling haft, the blade poking out his back, coated in gore. His eyes fluttered open as Orlando released the stand and he sank to the stage floor.
“You’ll be—you’ll be—without me,” Tom choked, blood gouting in rhythmic pulses from his mouth. Orlando put a hand on his old friend’s forehead. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to accomplish, but many hours of television watching suggested that it was the thing to do in this circumstance.
“Don’t use up any breath,” Orlando said. All around him rang the sounds of chaos. Just like before, the dissipated, frustrated energy of the whatevers from beyond had seeped into the crowd, which was going wild: setting things on fire, hurting each other, performing acts of orgiastic violence. In his peripheral vision, he glimpsed Zhakharenko as reaching arms pulled him down into the mosh pit.
“Orl—Orlando,” Tom said.
“Orlando—I don’t know why I did it, either.” Then he gasped for a little while more, like he wasn’t getting enough air, and died.
Kacie and Carlo sat together, Indian-style, on the stage. They stared out onto the expanse of a trashed and deserted stadium. Some of the seats still smoldered as fire crews took their leisurely time dousing the last of the small fires. Carlo was already reciting the twelve steps, promising himself that this little setback wasn’t going to affect him. The heroin had not been his decision. Outside of his control. But he would resume control. Maybe he would find a new cabin, somewhere else. New Mexico, perhaps, or Utah. Kacie just listened, patting him on the hand.
Orlando walked over to join them, having concluded yet another brief conversation with a representative of the local police. He had not been through this drill so many times, not compared to Mom and Grandma, but he had the grounding to see where it was headed. The locals would handle the case gingerly until the specialists arrived. They’d help craft the cover story, fan out to find and eliminate any remaining clues. Orlando would cooperate fully with their effort.
“No sign of Zhakharenko?” Kacie asked.
Orlando shook his head. “I could have sworn I saw the crowd get him, but there’s no trace. He could have been torn apart, I guess, but, with his powers, it’s more likely he scarpered. The specialists are probably raiding all known Ochykyk facilities as we speak. Maybe they’ll find a paper trail, who knows?”
“Think we’ll have to worry about him now, coming back for vengeance?”
“Dunno. He presented himself as not the type to take it personal.”
Kacie punched buttons on a borrowed cell phone. Her previous calls had already located Sphinc at the hospital in Wellsboro. Now she was arranging for flowers and reading material.
Orlando drifted over to the spot, stage left. The paramedics had already carted away Tom’s remains. What was that second last thing he’d had tried to say, anyway? Orlando would be what without Tom? Freed?