Chapter One: Showtime
The roar of the crowd sounded through the floorboards. At any minute, the platform underneath my feet would rise and transport me to the stage. I peered around in the darkness and could just make out the silhouettes of my seven other bandmates, a sliver of light illuminating a portion of their features. Nervousness crept through my bones as it always did at the start of any important show. This was the opening night and San Diego expected nothing short of perfection.
“Feeling nervous, Nick?” I heard Michael’s voice call out to me.
I turned my head to my left just making out Michael’s tall figure.
“A little,” I admitted. “No different from the usual nerves.”
“We have to be at our best,” Michael addressed us all. “Remember that, boys.”
Sounds of affirmation came from the mouths of my other bandmates; Thomas Winifred, Billy Heidelberg, Barry Alanson, Ricky Wolfe and Warren Evers. I tried to hide my shakiness from them, using the pitch black to my advantage. As the front man, it was my duty to direct the band and uncertainty would offset the chance of a powerful and unforgettable performance. Michael Hutchins grinned at me in the darkness, readjusting the leather strap of his guitar. I fought to compose myself, determined to put on a good show. Too soon, the platform beneath my feet trembled and started to rise, the ceiling above me opening. The cheers from the crowd increased in volume, my eardrums pounding. Without a shadow of a doubt, music critics would be in attendance, critiquing every vocal and chord. In a mere matter of seconds, I was standing in front of a sea of people, thousands eager to claim a seat on opening night. Not a single seat was not occupied although people had disregarded the notion of sitting and had risen to their feet. With their shouts of admiration working their way into my blood, I stepped up to the microphone and did what I did best.
Music and screams of praise engulfed me, anxiety melting away almost instantly. We were loved and we had to ensure to never disappoint the loyal fans. We were a rock band but not in the traditional sense. With a love and a raw passion for the experimental and the dark, our music qualified as post-punk due to its alternative quality. But I was never one to commit myself to one genre or subgenre. I tried my hand at mournful and upbeat whenever the opportunity presented itself. The sceptical questioned why seven members were needed to create pieces but I always answered, why not? Each member contributed something unique to the band, their characters and talent adding flavour and personality to the music we played. With each man capable of handling a wide array of instruments, we would never limit ourselves to one. I could work my fingers from a guitar to a piano and my bandmates were no exception.
The three hour concert felt as if it were condensed into a matter of minutes because before I knew it, the seven of us were heading to the dressing room. I had thanked my audience, pleased with the reception and our performance. It almost made being nervous seem unnecessary.
“Now that had to be one of our finest performances!” Michael was exuberant, removing the cork from a bottle of expensive champagne effortlessly. “If we don’t get raving reviews, the critics should be concerned for their credibility!”
“Let’s not grow too egotistical, Mike,” Warren, the most humble of us, warned. “Nobody likes a bragger.”
“Of course, of course,” Michael waved him off, pouring champagne into seven glasses. “I propose a toast, however. To our spectacular performance! To the fans! Oh and to Nick with his angelic voice!”
I blushed at their agreements to Michael’s sentiment and shook my head.
“Oh, it’s nothing really,” I tried to downplay my vocal work.
“Come now!” Thomas scoffed, clapping my shoulder hard. “Don’t be so humble! That was some fine vocals up there.”
“No different from my usual shtick,” I commented, downing the champagne a little too quickly.
“He doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Thomas laughed in disbelief.
“I say this is cause for celebration,” Billy announced.
“Agreed!” Ricky piped up.
“I advise we keep it short,” Warren added his wise words to the excitement. “Keep in mind we have another show tomorrow and a hangover is the last thing we need.”
“Yes Dad,” Barry rolled his eyes.
I giggled as Michael put on some Rolling Stones, leaning back in an armchair. However, I bore Warren’s advice in mind. Alcohol would impair my performance and I did not want to sabotage what was a stellar show. It appeared my bandmates despite their excitement and pride were of the same mind, being cautious of the amount of liquor they consumed. The night wore on transforming into the early hours of the morning and that was soon broken. Thomas leapt onto Ricky’s back, the two ending up in a heap on the carpet, laughing their heads off. I observed my bandmates in their exhilarated state and felt grateful I could call them not only colleagues but friends. Despite their inclination to party harder than they should, it was always their priority to put the band first. Michael, being a co-founder alongside Warren, was fanatic about keeping the band together and always performing at our best. His hardened features matched his agenda perfectly, giving him the look of that of a stern teacher but his love for fun always lurked within. However, my closest relationship was with Warren and Billy. Warren was the wisest of us all, often scratching his beard when handing out his wisdom. I often disclosed my concerns and worries to him, content that he would always have a solution. I was indebted to him; he gave me a second chance. Billy was a friend for when I wanted to let loose. Handsome features and spiked out hair, Billy was the quickest to accept me of all the members, my past of no concern to him. His thick German accent contrasted with my Australian one and I often enjoyed listening to him talk. He once tried to teach me German with disastrous results.
I looked over to Thomas, my head foggy from the night’s indulgences. Frowning, I set the glass of wine I had been drinking onto a small table. Thomas was the most boisterous of us; a hotel room was never safe from a trashing when drunken Thomas was around. His dark hair always cleanly cut and grooming always a priority of his, one would never guess he liked to hit the bottle more than he should have. Then there was Barry and Ricky who were new to the band and still learning the ropes. Barry was a dark skinned man, his hair absent from years of shaving. Ricky loved hairspray as much as I did, his hair reminding me of a bird’s nest. Not that I could talk. Hair that had black dye poured all over it, it stuck up messily but was styled. But hey, it was the eighties. My eyebrows matched the black, my nose stubby at the end and my lips pouty. I was meant to be “the pretty one” of the band, a title I dismissed. That didn’t stop the modelling offers slipping into my mailbox though.
I returned to the party, Billy trying to ease another drink into my hand. I shook my head in refusal, tiredness setting in.
“You’re no fun,” Billy slipped the bourbon into my hand anyway, slumping into a chair beside me.
“I’m trying to be responsible,” I set the drink down next to my unfinished wine. “We have to remain at our best.”
“True…….” Billy’s speech was slurred but he abandoned his drink. “We did good tonight.”
“Agreed,” I nodded which only exacerbated the dizziness.
“Maybe we’ll get signed to a better label,” Billy was hopeful.
It was true. Our current label did not have the best reputation. Rumours flew around that the people managing it all had one thing in common; their love for money. Bands were seen as cash cows, bringing them the riches.
“Perhaps we should break free of a label,” I suddenly suggested.
“You mean………go independent?” Billy was struggling.
“Sure. Why not?” I felt confident at the idea. “We’ve raked in enough fame and I think going solo will give us a bold edge, you know?”
“I guess………” Billy was uncertain. “Perhaps we should discuss………this when we’re not so………”
“Intoxicated,” I finished for him, thinking that alcohol may have played a part in my suggestion.
Separating from a label was risky. It would give you a temporary boost in popularity but it may fizzle out in a few months. Besides, was I really suggesting that we try to grab attention? That was not our style. I abandoned the idea and hoped Billy would be too incoherent in the hours to come to remember. However, those hours weren’t spent in the way we had intended as at that moment, our manager burst into the room, looking furious.
“What on earth are you doing?” he hissed at us.
“Having fun,” Thomas retorted with wit. “What does it look like?”
“It looks like you’re undoing your hard work,” he gritted his teeth. “We had a very impressive show tonight and I will not have you diminish that.”
“We?” Barry questioned. “Last time I checked you weren’t involved in tonight’s performance.”
Barry disliked our manager, Paul and was always sure to demonstrate that.
“The only reason you have fans is because of me,” Paul almost shouted. “Now, get to your hotel rooms and catch some sleep. You have a big night tomorrow.”
Barry opened his mouth to retaliate when Warren shot him a warning look and shook his head ever so slightly. To be fair, Paul had a point. We promised to be responsible but alcohol overridden that promise for some of us. Without further argument, my bandmates lifted themselves off their seats or in Thomas and Ricky’s case, off the floor and trudged silently out of the room. I went to follow when Paul shoved me gently, making me back up against the wall.
“I found this in the bin,” Paul brandished a letter from his pocket.
“I don’t think you should be rooting through the trash,” I attempted some of Barry’s wit.
“It’s a modelling offer,” he ignored my remark, flipping the envelope over. “Any idea why it was in the bin?”
“Because I threw it in there,” I admitted, warily watching as he came closer.
“And why did you throw it away?” Paul continued interrogating me, coming toward me until he was a few inches away.
“I wasn’t interested,” I said briefly.
“Nick, I think you fail to understand what an opportunity this is,” Paul was eerily calm. “This would be pivotal to elevating the band’s status. Fans will be enthralled by such a novel move and not to mention, beauty attracts people. And people bring money.”
I felt sick when my worst fears were realised. Paul was seeing dollar signs and would do anything he could to pack his wallet with them.
“Come now, Nick,” he rubbed my arm, making the hairs stand up on end. “Think about it. Imagine your image plastered all over those glossy magazines and billboards. Those blue eyes drawing them in. You’re my little goldmine, Nick. But the angelic voice doesn’t cut it.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was not the first time we’d discussed the modelling offers but he had never acted so…….forceful about it. I found myself shaking my head.
“I won’t do it,” I voiced my thoughts. “It’s my decision in the end. I’m just not confident enough.”
“Not confident enough?” Paul pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing. “Why, Nick. I’m surprised you have forgotten your background and where your bandmates picked you up from. The flashing lights, the poles, those waiting customers eager for your…….services. Dark Prince…….”
My stomach clenched at the title I struggled to shake off. Swallowing hard, I tried to wash the unwanted memories from my mind. But they lingered at the back of it, demanding my attention.
No, that was the past, I reminded myself.
I drew myself up to my full height (an impressive 6’2”) but still seemed small in comparison to Paul’s bulkier build and long legs.
“I won’t be bullied into doing something I don’t want to do,” I informed him, trying to be polite.
“You will do as I say!” he suddenly barked, cupping my chin and tilting my head up to look at him. I could feel myself shaking, afraid of him. When he spoke next, his voice was gentler but he did not let me go.
“You will take the modelling job,” he explained, enunciating each word. “I will be arranging a time.”
Finally, his hand dropped away and he left the room. I suddenly felt chilly despite it was well heated inside and rubbed my bare arms to keep warm. Grabbing my jacket, I ran out onto the street and headed toward the hotel. My bandmates would have gone there by now.
How bad could it be, I thought as I walked. It was only a modelling job. But the company in question would demand more than just plain images. Notorious for at times photographing nude models, it could defile my reputation. To do such a thing, the public, the critics and more importantly, my fans would think I was going back to my old roots. Thunder rumbled somewhere nearby and my mind instantly took me back to that night. The freezing heavy rain, my cold hands wrapping my thin jacket around me, the lights of the rundown strip…….. I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. That was the past, I reminded myself once more. I was steps away from the hotel when I suddenly stopped. What was that? My attention had been dragged inwards that my senses had failed to notice the unwelcome feeling until now. Puffing out clouds in the cold air, I looked up and down the deserted street. My eyes skirted down the alleyways and behind the buildings. But I was the only one. Unnerved, I entered the hotel and without speaking to anybody, went straight to my room. However, even in the sanctuary of my hotel room, I couldn’t shake the feeling.
The feeling that somebody was watching me.