You may think you know where this story of undying love is going … but beware: you might be myth-ing something important.
The concert was going fine until Johnny Harlowe saw his dead girlfriend in the third row.
He faltered, fingers skidding on guitar strings just as the rest of the band went into the instrumental bridge. If anybody noticed his lapse, he couldn’t tell. Didn’t care. He blinked, looked again.
She was gone.
If she’d ever even been there.
Third row and to the left of center. Where Edie had always preferred to be when she came to one of the shows. He remembered asking her once, why there, and she’d considered it for a long time before tilting her huge dark eyes to his and saying, softly but impishly, that it was close enough to see but not close enough to get spit on.
A fist of panic seized Johnny. He was on the verge of losing it, right in front of several thousand fans and a film crew. His hands were shaking, his mouth had gone dry, and a wild screaming sensation was rising in his throat. When it reached the top, he would either shriek or throw up.
There she was again. Edie. Waves of long black hair framing her face. Looking up at him solemnly. Pale beneath her olive complexion. A space around her, despite the way that the audience was on its feet, dancing in place or crowding the stage. As if those nearest Edie, not noticing her, were still somehow aware of her presence. And shying away from it.
Gone. Like she’d never been there.
Lost to him forever.
A low, strangled cry issued from Johnny. He fled the stage, feeling the shocked eyes of the rest of the band on him, catching a brief glimpse of Carlotta’s face, carmine lips mouthing questions at him as she kept on with the drumsticks, kept on with the rock.
He ignored them all and ran, avoiding loops and bundles of electrical cords, veering around a startled roadie, plunging down a dark passage that led to the backstage area. He didn’t slow until he had slammed through the door into his own dressing room and swept it shut behind him.
“Edie.” He said her name into the numbing silence, barely hearing it with his ears still throbbing from the music. Didn’t need to hear it. Felt it, stabbing him as sharp as any knife.
A flood of hot tears surprised him. He’d thought he had cried himself out after the funeral. Cried and then done his best to move on, though one tragedy after another had made it seem like his career was over. Surely his career with Scarlet Angel was, once Nick got himself killed. Not that Johnny had shed any tears over Nick’s death. If anything, he’d been gladdened by it. If anyone deserved to die that way, that horribly, it was Nick. The only shame was that it had been over so quick.
In the months immediately following Edie, he had done his best to go through the motions. The tour must go on. Music videos weren’t going to make themselves. Scarlet Angel was poised for stardom. Then Nick was rudely erased from the picture, and Scarlet Angel fell apart.
Johnny had gone home after that. Not home to the apartment where he’d lived between shows; he’d gotten out of there fast because memories of Edie were everywhere. Not home to the studio he’d rented after that either. Home to the mansion high in the Hollywood Hills, home to his family.
He’d thought he was doing better. Healing. Getting back on track. He couldn’t imagine a life without music. It was as much a part of him as his cobalt-blue eyes, and similarly inherited, going back generations. Probably as far as some minstrel in the Middle Ages, or the first caveman who ever clapped two rocks together or blew into a bone whistle.
“We can’t live without music, Johnny-boy,” his mother had told him. She still wore her hair as long and kinked as she had during her days as a folksinger in the sixties, still favored loose granny dresses and Red Zinger tea. “It’s in our blood.”
His father, a classical violinist, agreed. So did his grandmother, who’d sung torch songs and gone to entertain the troops in WWII.
In his blood. Maybe so … but how could he go on when it only brought him pain? Edie had loved his music, loved him for his music, and without her, it was all meaningless.
Edie … not beautiful in the California sense. On the short side, slim, small-breasted, dusky. He wouldn’t have given her a second look except that she kept turning up. Whenever he played, she’d be there. Third row, left of center, most of the time. Those eyes, her best feature, fixed on him. Looking into him so intently that he finally realized he had to get to know her.
Maybe if he hadn’t gotten interested, she would still be alive. Maybe, if not for him, Nick never would have noticed her either.
He choked up as he saw, all unbidden in memory’s relentless recall, the party. Opening for Attraction at the Civic Center. Edie hadn’t wanted to go. She would rather keep to herself, didn’t like those big noisy scenes. But so many important people were going to be there, people who could make a difference for Johnny. So they’d gone, and she had encouraged him to go around and mingle, talk, make those vital connections.
And like a circling shark, that was when Nick made his move. Maybe because she was just the type he liked – an innocent to defile and abandon. Maybe because he was stung by a recent review that called his singing ‘incoherent screeching’ and said good things about Johnny. Calculated, or spur of the moment, hadn’t mattered.
When Johnny couldn’t immediately find Edie, he first assumed she must have left, quietly, so as not to draw attention. Then someone mentioned having seen her leave with Nick, and said that she hadn’t looked well. Sick, almost fainting.
White-hot rage blasted through Johnny, obliterating all the good feelings he had about the party, the evening, the band. He knew in a flash what Nick was up to. Had witnessed it countless times before. When his blond bad-boy good looks and arrogant charm didn’t do the trick, a surreptitious dose of whatever new drug was on the market usually did.
He had gone charging after, to Nick’s hotel room, knowing what he would find and feeling his soul flayed alive at the vision. How many girls had it been? Ten, a dozen? They’d wake up the next day, alone and naked and sore and sticky, with one of Nick’s autographed photos propped on the other pillow as a remembrance of what they couldn’t remember.
Not Edie. Not his Edie.
They had been going out for six months, taking it slow, not rushing things, and Johnny was starting to think he’d finally found The One. She was so sweet. He knew she would have if he pressed her, because she had loved him from the beginning, but knowing that made him not want to press her. Made him want to wait until she was ready. Better that way. Special.
Then along came Nick to take all that away.
He’d reached the door and kicked it open, fueled by adrenaline. Too late. Not too late to save her virtue … too late to save her life.
The medical examiner blamed it on the date-rape cocktail that Nick had given her. A bad reaction. Like snakebite. Her respiratory system had shut down, her circulation moments later. Nick had gotten her unconscious form half-undressed before she stopped breathing. He had been dithering uselessly, debating whether or not to call the hotel desk, when Johnny burst in and knocked out two teeth, dislocated his jaw, and split his lips.
That had been the functional end of Scarlet Angel, though the band had limped on for another couple of months. Nick, out on bail and awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter and attempted rape, offered a casual apology to Johnny and seemed to think that made everything all right. Johnny, too stunned and hurt to know what he was doing, continued with the tour until the night that Nick got torn to pieces. The police tried to connect Johnny to that one, but couldn’t.
And so here he was. Wishing that there was something, anything else he could do with his life and knowing there wasn’t. He was born to be a musician. It was all he had ever known, and now that Edie was gone, it was all he had left.
Gradually, it occurred to Johnny that he wasn’t alone in his dressing room. He had been so lost in the past that he couldn’t recall hearing the door open or close, yet there was a man sitting on the long black faux-leather couch, regarding him evenly with cool, dispassionate eyes.
“Huh!” The sound was jerked out of Johnny, wet, almost a sob. His face was drenched with tears. He swiped his sleeve across it and straightened up, searching for righteous indignation. “Hey, who the hell are you?”
Even as he said it, he recognized his unexpected visitor. It was the guy Carlotta had been seeing, some New Age mystic who made his living as a ‘psychic advisor’ and told well-to-do older women that they could expect romantic visits from tall dark strangers. It seemed an oddball choice for a girl who’d teethed on the music of Sheila E.
Johnny groped, and found the guy’s name. His real name, not the hokey ‘Alastair Cayce’ moniker he put on his business cards.
“Jeez, Ferryman, what are you doing here?” he asked. “Waiting for Carlotta?”
Charles Ferryman smiled at him, which only unsettled Johnny’s nerves further. He was tall and thin, abhorring the famous California sun in favor of a chalky pallor, and when on the job, he wore black contacts that gave the impression he had no eyes at all.
“Carlotta tells me you’ve been having problems,” he said. “She thought I might be able to help.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not having problems, and even if I was there’s no way you could help,” snapped Johnny. “So go peddle your Tarot cards somewhere else, okay? I’m not in the mood to be manipulated.”
“Is that what you think it is?”
“Ouija boards, palm reading, astrology, past life regressions … what else am I supposed to think it is? I suppose you want to invite me to a séance and you’re going to shoot ectoplasm out your nose and conjure Edie’s spirit.” His tension and grief morphed eagerly into anger, because in anger he didn’t have to think, or hurt.
A tight smile flitted across Ferryman’s thin, bloodless lips. “Not quite what I had in mind. I know what you’re experiencing, John. I can help. I want to help.”
“Get out of here.”
“You’re seeing her. She comes to you, but not all the way. She wants to come back.”
“I said get out!” Johnny lacked four or five inches, but had plenty of mass and muscle on Ferryman, and stepped toward him with the intention of throwing his bony ass bodily out the door. Without opening it, if necessary.
He halted abruptly as Ferryman leaned close, black eyes glinting like orbs of volcanic glass. His hair was so blond it was almost white, cropped close so the shape of his skull was clearly defined, and he favored the kind of voluminous trenchcoats that made cops stop him on the street thinking he might be on his way to shoot up a school, post office, or fast-food joint.
“Do you want her back or don’t you?”
Something in the question chilled Johnny. “Of course I do. I loved her. But she’s dead.”
“There’s a chance, if you’re brave enough. Let me help you.”
“Knock it off,” Johnny said, but weakly. Those black eyes were draining the anger out of him. He could almost believe Ferryman was serious.
But of course, he was putting Johnny on. Had to be.
“Come with me,” Ferryman said. The compulsion was so strong that Johnny was halfway across the room before his wits collected.
“Wait. What is this? I told you, I’m not going to any séance.”
“No, you’re not. If you really want her, you’ll have to go much farther than that.” Ferryman’s coat flared like a cape as he went to the door.
Johnny followed, helplessly. “This isn’t funny.”
“Do I seem like I’m joking?”
“I don’t know what you seem like. Besides damn spooky and weird.”
Ferryman’s chuckle was the sound of bones rolling in a tomb. He probably practiced it as diligently as Johnny practiced guitar chords.
Speaking of which …
“You’ll need that,” Ferryman said, pointing to a guitar case in the corner.
Johnny picked it up. Inside was his battered but well-loved old Gibson, given to him by his parents when he was fourteen. He rarely played it anymore, but took it everywhere with him for luck. “What’s this for?”
“What do you think?”
He strode down the hall, Johnny trailing along behind with the guitar case. The muffled din from above, from the arena, told Johnny that Carlotta and the others had kept right on playing. The show must go on. He hadn’t been with them that long anyway, and probably wouldn’t be missed.
They emerged into the private parking garage. Ferryman led Johnny to a jet-black car on the far side of the tour bus. It had windows tinted dark as its paint job, and light seemed to soak into it rather than shine on it. The car was of no make Johnny could recognize, though the plate was a standard California vanity plate. He saw CHAR and that was all before Ferryman stood in front of him with one pallid hand outstretched.
“You play piano?” Johnny reflexively asked, his family’s automatic question upon seeing anyone with fingers of such length and grace.
“You’ll have to pay me,” Ferryman said, ignoring him.
“Before we go. I don’t do this for free, you know.”
“For one, you came to me,” Johnny argued. “For two, I don’t have any cash. You didn’t tell me to bring my goddamn wallet. This is crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing out here.”
The doors of the black car sprang silently open of their own accord. “Get in,” said Ferryman. “You can play me a song while we drive.”
“For Edie. Or you’ll never see her again.”
A thousand protests bubbled up, and Johnny bit them all back. Yes, this was crazy. Yes, she was dead and he understood the irrevocability of that. But something in Ferryman’s tone, or manner, was so eerily persuasive that he walked around and got in on the passenger side, unlatching his guitar case.
“Your discretion,” Ferryman said, taking his place behind the wheel.
So Johnny played a variety, somehow finding in the strings of the old guitar the comfort that had previously eluded him. He saw the scenery rolling by, Los Angeles streets dark as a river, armies of vagrants and hookers and other lost souls of the night wandering by.
The guitar resting across his lap, he strummed idly. The entire episode had taken on an air of unreality. What was he doing here, tooling the city with Carlotta’s weird boyfriend when he was supposed to be on stage?
Ferryman pulled up in front of a club, all pulsing neon and pounding bass. A line of hopefuls stretched to the corner, and the sunken stairs leading to the entrance were guarded by the biggest man Johnny had ever seen. He was shirtless in tight leather pants, wearing a choke-chain around his bull neck, and his bare, broad chest boasted an intricate tattoo of some hellish mutant wolf with three fanged heads and foaming jaws.
Above the bouncer’s head, red neon spelled out the word ‘Erebus.’ Johnny thought he was pretty well-versed in the local clubs but had never heard of this one.
“This is as far as I go,” Ferryman said.
“What, you want me to go in there?”
“And talk to my boss. He’s the only one who can give you what you want. If you can convince him.”
“I don’t know about this.”
“Go on. He’s a sucker for good guitar music.”
Somehow, Johnny found himself on the sidewalk, with the line of wanna-be club hoppers looking at him. In the fey, flickering light, they were waxen and ghoulish. And utterly silent.
Johnny descended the steps and was blocked by the bouncer with the three-headed dog snarling eternally on his pecs. “Yeah?” the man growled, sounding rabid himself.
An instinct that he couldn’t understand – music and the savage beast, some corner of his mind misquoted – led him to strum a few chords. The bouncer’s eyes narrowed, then he shrugged and a wistful grin lit his face, turning it almost handsome.
“Okay,” he said. “You can go in.”
The door, like those of Ferryman’s car, swung open untouched. The music swelled, and rotating beams of light splashed out. Johnny, nodding his thanks to the bouncer, proceeded into Erebus.
The club was all pitch-black walls and floor and ceiling, with chrome table edges and barstools turned lurid shades by the neon and multicolored lights. He paused in the entryway, sizing it up.
The interior was divided not by rooms but by vaguely discernible groups. The beautiful people were off to one side, laughing and dancing and partying like there was no tomorrow. The majority, on the main dance floor, shuffled dolefully to the beat.
And some, here and there, were wretched. Johnny saw a scrawny guy straining to reach a tray on a table just beyond his stretching fingers. The tray was loaded with little dishes of pretzels and bottles of beer, and whenever the guy scooted his chair forward, the table somehow got knocked a few inches away. Beyond him was another man, this one far older than the usual club-goer, was trying single-handedly to wrestle a piano up a flight of stairs. He was within a riser of making it when the piano shifted and tumbled, with an awful jarring of keys, to the bottom. Groaning, the old man trudged down and started again.
Holding his guitar close to him now, feeling obscurely threatened and out of place, Johnny struck out across the dance floor. He was making for the raised, glassed-in platform where a deejay in a black suit was dividing his attention between the sound system and a sleek woman picking plump, juicy seeds from a pomegranate and sliding them, savoringly, between her lips.
As his foot touched the step at the bottom of the platform, the music cut off and the resulting silence was loud enough to hurt his ears. Everyone was looking at him, and in none too friendly a manner, either. A trio of waitresses in scanty outfits, but with wild hair and harridan faces, swooped down on him out of nowhere and surrounded him. Each, bizarrely, had a short scourge tied to her belt, a bundle of braided lashes hanging from a stout handle.
The deejay, who boasted a deep widow’s peak and backswept ink-dark hair, fixed burning, hooded eyes on Johnny. The woman beside him licked pomegranate juice from her fingers and raised one intrigued eyebrow.
“Who are you, and what brings you to Erebus?” intoned the deejay in a voice that would have made James Earl Jones green with envy.
“I was told you could help me,” Johnny replied, knowing somehow that this had to be Ferryman’s boss. “It’s about my girlfriend, Edie.”
“Only the dead know Erebus,” the woman with the pomegranate said. “You do not belong here.”
“I’m not planning to stay,” Johnny assured her.
At this, the waitresses hissed and drew the scourges from their belts. “Let us flay the skin from his living flesh, my lord,” one of them beseeched.
The deejay held up a staying hand. His demeanor seemed more amused than angry. “Let us hear him out.”
Not having the faintest clue what to say, Johnny lifted his guitar. “I understand you like music.”
Flickers of interest made the rounds of the room and the beldam waitresses backed off a few steps. The deejay gave Johnny the nod.
“All right. Show us what you can do, and maybe we can deal.”
He played. Later, he would never be sure exactly what he played but he put his entire being into the music. For a while he lost track of the club around him, lost track of everything except the melody he was producing. Every love song he’d written with Edie in mind poured from him, and blended into something he knew he could never repeat. Emotion sobbed in every note.
As he brought it to an end, he blinked and came back to himself with a shudder like waking, unashamed and unsurprised to find he was crying, and Edie was there.
Johnny sucked in a breath. It was her, just as he’d seen her at the concert. Not a girl who bore a resemblance. Not a trick of the light. Edie. A tentative smile of love and hope on her face. Saying nothing but there, only arm’s reach away. He extended a hand.
“Stop,” said the deejay. His deep voice had gone husky, though he struggled to keep a severe expression. Beside him, his woman was surreptitiously wiping away a tear. “You play pretty good, kid,” the deejay added. “What is it that you want?”
“Her,” Johnny said. “Edie. I want her back. Loving her was the best thing that ever happened to me, and losing her was the worst. I want another chance.”
“A chance … very well. You’ll have your chance if you can handle it. Think you can?”
“What do I have to do?”
“Go,” the deejay said. “Go and don’t look back. She’ll follow, but only as long as you have trust. The moment you give in to doubt and look back, she’ll be gone. Mine. Forever.”
“Okay.” Johnny, trembling but resolute, turned from the control booth and faced the gathered crowd of onlookers.
They parted to let him pass. As he moved between them, the music started up in a clash and a roar, drowning out the soft steps that had been trailing after him. The activity and dancing resumed with its frantic, yet oddly empty energy.
He kept his gaze on the exit, the fine hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Was it her breath? He remembered evenings they’d spent on the couch, her breath a faint breeze on him as they cuddled. Never so cold, like the exhalation of a grave.
Awful thoughts popped unbidden into his mind. The Monkey’s Paw, for instance. Beware of what you wish for. What if he got to the street and found Edie with him all right, Edie as she’d be all these months after her death? Shrunken and rotting, but horribly alive and bound to him.
If she was even there at all. If this was even happening at all.
The waving, sweeping lights threw his shadow all around his feet, a capering, leaping thing. Terror whispered into him as he saw no others, only his. No one else cast one.
Except … was that a feminine shadow, thrown briefly by a rotating beam? Edie’s shadow?
And had that been a step he heard in the lull between tunes?
Or were they watching him, the deejay and his woman and the rest, sneering at his gullibility? Nothing was back there. No one was following him. Ferryman had pulled some nutty joke and Johnny had fallen for it.
She was there. She had to be.
The doors were dead ahead. His guitar was slick in his grasp, from the nervous sweat sheathing his palms. He listened intently, agonizing to hear something. Why didn’t she speak up? Why didn’t she say his name?
He couldn’t stand it. Was she really there?
The deejay’s words echoed in his ears. Don’t look back.
But he had to know.
The doors, so close, so close now.
A soft gasp. Surely not his imagination.
Edie was with him.
Unless it was a trick.
What if he turned and it was the woman with the pomegranate, or one of the waitresses? How they’d laugh! Laugh at him for being a fool. Maybe, since in a place like this violence was never far beneath the surface, strike him with one of those scourges.
No. It was Edie. Otherwise, it had all been for nothing.
He walked on, almost to the doors, almost to the bouncer. The big man’s eyes were flat, non-reflective, and devoid of humanity. Not so much as a hint. It wouldn’t have taken much to assure Johnny that all was well. Just a hint. Was she there, or wasn’t she?
If he left, dark certainty told him that he would never find this place again. He had one shot and one shot only. Blow it, and that was all.
But if they were tricking him …
He had to know. Nothing else mattered. Had to look, and see, and know. His eyes would find truth. Seeing is believing. Everything else was stardust and fancy.
He had to know.
Johnny surfaced from blackness with a sick and queasy groan. He rolled, meaning to go from his side to his back and succeeded in falling from the couch to the floor. He groaned again. Sat up, felt a swaying turbulence in his head, and rested it on his knees, eyes shut.
The cliché words came to him and he uttered them, thickly, hoarsely. “It was only a dream.”
Rather than relief, it brought a stab of inner pain. Only a dream. Or some bizarre drug thing. He stayed clean, always had and always would, but Ferryman might have slipped him something. The man was a walking, talking freakshow.
Someone rapped at the door and Johnny, without raising his head, mumbled, “Come in.”
The door opened. He heard the distinctive click-clack of Carlotta’s spike-heeled boots. She may have modeled her performances after Sheila E. but her legs were pure Tina Turner.
“Tell your boyfriend to stay the hell away from me,” he said, eyes still shut.
“What?” Distracted, mentally thrown off-stride, and only then did Johnny hear the near-hysteria in her voice. “I haven’t seen him in a week, what?”
“Johnny … I don’t know how to tell you this … God!”
He winced. This was where she fired him, kicked him out of the band. His last shot, and he’d screwed it up. “It’s all right, Carlotta. I understand.”
“You mean you knew? And you’re okay with it? If I were you, I’d sue somebody!”
“What?” He wasn’t tracking, and lifted his head from his knees with considerable effort. “What are you talking about? Who’m I going to sue?”
“I wish you’d told me. God, Johnny, she about scared the crap out of me. I thought I was seeing a ghost.”
A slow, creeping awe tinged with horror spread through him. He tried to speak but only a raspy noise came out. He cleared his throat. “What?”
Then he heard the footsteps. Soft footsteps. And a shadow on the floor of the hallway. Coming closer. Closer.
“Edie,” he whispered.
“This time, you didn’t look back,” she said.
And she was there.