Nick awoke to a distant ringing and staggered, groggy with sleep, from the sofa into the kitchen. He grabbed his cell phone from its charger. “Yeah?”
“Nick, are you awake?” Victor Ruby asked.
“Am now,” Nick grumbled.
“Drink some coffee and then get down to my office. I want my stylists and Wardrobe to work on you before your book signing today. I need you to look your best.”
Nick squinted at the wall clock. It was almost ten.
“Did you hear me?” Ruby bellowed.
“Yes. I heard you.”
“Good. Be here at eleven sharp.” Ruby hung up.
Nick had forgotten about the book signing. After learning he was possessed by a demented serial killer, the thought of smiling at strangers and signing books seemed ludicrous. Ruby demanded he play along with the author charade in order to entice more fans.
He started a pot of coffee to brew and then opened his laptop and typed NickTera.com into the url field. A banner on the Home page announced the book signing at two o’clock in the Volumes Book Store, an enormous new store in an upscale shopping mall. A muted ding and animated movement drew his eyes to the lower right corner of the page. The Nick Tera Fan Club counter boasted over four hundred thousand fans. Nick clicked on the Join the Fan Club button and was re-directed to an electronic form. The instructions said to type out the form and sign it electronically before submitting it. The form also included a line for a physical address, Ruby’s backup plan. He slammed the lid of his computer in disgust.
After gulping three cups of black coffee, he headed into the bathroom to shower. The hot water left him feeling sluggish and tired. He dressed, picked up his phone, keys and wallet and trudged out the front door.
Stephanie smiled when Nick entered the office. “Hey, Nick!”
He ignored her greeting. “Is he here?”
“Yes.” Her smile faded into a worried frown. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Buzz him and tell him I’m here, will ya?”
Stephanie pressed a button on her console and told Ruby that Nick had arrived.
Ruby’s door swung open. “Follow me, Nick.” He strode past Stephanie’s desk, out of the office and down the hallway. Nick lagged several steps behind, wondering where Ruby was leading him.
Ruby waited at the elevator. “Nick, let me make this clear. Your full participation is key to fulfilling your contract. Dragging yourself in here looking like dog crap is unacceptable.”
Nick’s lethargy turned to anger. “What the hell do you expect from me? Some psycho murderer takes over my body at will and tries to kill Katie! You’ve forced me into breaking up with the woman I love. Then you blackmail me into attracting fans so they can be possessed by demons. For what? Money and a book deal.” He slammed his hand against the elevator door. “Fuck you!”
The doors slid open and Ruby pushed Nick inside. “Fuck me? Ian Slaughter said those exact words. You saw how he ended up.”
“So what, now you’re going to throw me out a fucking window? Go ahead. I’d rather be dead than live like this.”
Small flames licked at the bottom of the silver walls forming a bright orange, yellow and red border around the elevator floor. With a sudden whoosh, the flames erupted into an inferno and raced upward, consuming all four walls and the ceiling. Trapped inside the tiny burning room, Nick whirled around in panic. Intense heat and a strong odor of sulfur sucked the cool air out of the elevator. Nick gasped to draw a breath. His legs weakened from lack of oxygen and he dropped to his knees on the floor next to Ruby’s feet.
“I have no intention of throwing you out a window, Nick. I think it will be far more fun if you are responsible for the deaths of your loved ones. And be assured they will be particularly long and painful deaths. Imagine if your family’s restaurant caught fire one night? Your family lives above it, they would all burn to death.”
The fire on the back wall faded and changed to an image of Rosa’s Ristorante. The front plate glass window exploded spewing glass and flames like fireworks. The fire quickly engulfed the building. Nick saw his grandmother, father, and brother trapped inside the raging flames. They yelled his name as their skin blistered and melted away, reducing them to grotesque manikins of blood-red tissue laced with white muscle. They continued to burn into charred, blackened bones. Still, the hideous skeletons called out to him. Nick closed his eyes, but couldn’t stop the stomach-turning smell of burning hair and flesh from invading his nostrils. Worse than the horrific images and nauseating odor, were their shrieks, begging Nick to save them.
He crouched on the floor with his eyes squeezed shut and his hands clamped over his ears. The screams grew louder. “It’s not real. It’s not real,” he shouted over them.
“It’s not real yet, Nick. But it could become quite real.” Ruby grabbed him by the throat with one hand and lifted him effortlessly until he was standing. “Watch this,” he said.
On Ruby’s command, Nick’s eyelids shot open. The roaring fire disappeared, replaced by a familiar street scene. Katie walked alone on the sidewalk near her apartment. A battered, windowless van pulled up beside her. Two men jumped out, grabbed her by the arms and dragged her into the back. The doors slammed shut, muffling her screams for help.
“No! Stop this! Stop it now!” Nick shouted. “I don’t want to see this.” He tried to close his eyes, but his rigid eyelids refused to close.
Ruby’s laughter rumbled inside the elevator along with Katie’s desperate pleas. She screamed for Nick to help her. The terror in her voice wrenched his heart. The scene abruptly changed to inside the van. One of the men pinned Katie down on the floor, kneeling over her and pressing a knife to her throat. A thin line of red blood stained the shiny blade. The other man tore at her nursing uniform. Two more men with ugly grins watched from the front of the van.
“God damn you!”
“He already did, Nick.”
“They’re just getting started. It gets so much better. Shall I fast forward to the good part?”
“No! I’ll do whatever the fuck you want. Just stop.” Nick’s voice cracked. “Please.” He collapsed to his knees and covered his open eyes with his hands. Katie’s raw, wrenching sobs tortured his ears. “Please, make it stop.”
The images rippled and then faded until nothing but the silver walls remained. Ruby leaned down and whispered into Nick’s ear. “I have a special treat planned for your book signing today. I expect your full cooperation, or I promise you, what you just saw, will happen tonight.” The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Ruby shoved Nick out into the hall. “You know where Wardrobe is. Get yourself cleaned up, Nick. You look like shit.” The doors closed on Ruby’s laughter.
Nick clutched the wall as he made his way down the hall. Feeling like he might vomit, he stumbled into the men’s room. He dry heaved over the sink and then threw cold water onto his face. His hands shook as he took out his cell phone and called his friend, Ray.
“Ray, I need your help.”
“Name it, buddy.”
“Pick Katie up from work tonight. Saint Mary’s hospital. Make sure she gets home safe.”
“Yeah, sure. What time?”
“Seven. Do you remember what she looks like? I’ll send you her picture from my phone.”
“Send me the picture. I saw her at your mom’s funeral. But that was a while ago. What’s going on, Nick? You sound stressed.”
“I can’t explain now. Please Ray, please make sure she gets home okay.”
“No problem. After I drop her off, let’s grab a beer. You can tell me what’s going on.”
“I can’t talk about it. I just need Katie to be safe. You’re the only one I trust—”
“Hey, relax, Nick. I said I’d drive her home.”
“Ray, could you take her home for the next few nights? I can’t be there for her until I . . . until I work out some stuff. She’s in danger. You should carry some protection on you.”
“Geez, Nick. What the hell’s going on? Does Katie know she’s in danger?” Ray waited and then let out a long, low sigh when Nick didn’t respond. “We have to talk later, all right?”
“Yeah, okay. Thanks, Ray. Thank you.”
“Considering how you looked when you came in, I think we did a fantastic job,” the stylist said. Nick murmured a thanks. He knew one of the blondes was named Lise and the other either Kendal, or Kendra, but he couldn’t remember which was which.
The shorter of the two women stood behind him and massaged his shoulders. “You’re so tense, honey.” She walked to the mirror and grabbed her handbag from a cabinet beneath the counter.
“Here.” She held a small blue pill in the palm of her hand. “This will take the edge off.”
The tall woman handed him a cold, canned energy drink. “Take it with this. Or else you’ll be sleeping on your books instead of signing them.” The two women laughed and high-fived each other.
“Mr. Ruby just left.” Stephanie handed him a printed sheet with directions to the Pine Castle Mall and Volumes Book Store. “He said to go in the back employee entrance.” Stephanie touched his arm. “Nick, are you okay?”
“No.” He shoved the paper into the pocket of the leather blazer that Wardrobe provided.
“What’s wrong? You’ve been acting so weird lately. Like the way you barged in here yesterday and—”
“Steph, do you know who Ruby is?”
“Depends who you ask.” Stephanie smirked. “Some people love him, and others, not so much. He can be a real pain in the ass, I know that.”
“No, I mean who he really is.”
“I’m not following you.”
“Remember the night Chris died? You said Ruby was pure evil.”
Stephanie stood and walked around the desk. “I was wasted. I blamed Ruby for Chris’s death. All the pressure he put on him. I thought that’s why Chris jumped.”
“Do you believe Chris committed suicide?”
“Yeah. Well, maybe.” Stephanie lowered her eyes. “It could have been an accident. The autopsy showed he had a lot of drugs in his system. Maybe he was stoned and lost his balance on the balcony.”
“Did Chris do drugs?”
“Not around me. But it was a heavy metal party, there were booze and drugs everywhere.”
“I didn’t know Chris very well, but I know Ruby. I think your first instinct is right.”
Stephanie lowered her voice to a whisper. “Nick, be careful, Mr. Ruby can be—oh, Mr. Ruby, I thought you had left.”
“Still here, Mr. Tera?” Ruby stood glowering at them from the outer doorway. “You’d better get going. Don’t want to be late for your first book signing, do you?”
“I was just leaving,” Nick said.
Ruby turned his glare to Stephanie. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Yes, sir.” She hurried to her seat and focused on her computer screen.
“I’ll see you at the book store, Nick.” Ruby slammed the door behind him as he left.
Nick whispered, “You’re scared of him. Has he ever threatened you?”
Stephanie kept her eyes on her screen. “What I’m scared of is losing my job. I need it. You’d better go. He looked really pissed.”
Nick sighed and held his hand out with the blue pill. “Do you know what this is?”
Stephanie picked up the pill and examined it. “It’s a Xanax. For anxiety.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause, I know.” She pulled a prescription bottle from her purse and shook out a pill, identical to the one in Nick’s hand.
“You take them?”
“Sometimes, when I’m stressed out. Where’d you get it?”
“One of the stylists gave it to me. She said it would take the edge off my nerves.”
“It will. But you should take it now. It takes about twenty minutes before you feel the effects. Are you that nervous about your book signing?”
“Yes. Ruby is going to be there watching me.” He stared at the pill. “I never take drugs. What if I can’t function?”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be able to function. It will just make you feel calm and relaxed.”
Nick popped open the energy drink & tossed the pill into his mouth. “Does everyone who works for Ruby take drugs?”
Stephanie shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Nick knocked on a metal door marked Volumes Book Store Employees Only. A pale, balding man in a tweed jacket opened the door.
“Hi, I’m Nick. Nick Tera. I’m here for the book signing.”
“You’re late.” He tsked as he opened the door wider to let Nick enter. He stuck his head outside and looked in both directions before closing and locking the door.
The large room was a combination storage and break room. One side held cardboard boxes stacked on tall steel shelving units, the other side contained a round table and chairs and a small kitchenette. Victor Ruby sat in one of the chairs drumming his long fingernails on the table.
He narrowed his eyes and said, “Nice of you to join us, Nick.”
“There’s a traffic jam at the mall entrance,” Nick said. “I was stuck half a block away for almost twenty minutes.”
“You should have left when I told you to,” Ruby commented.
The bald man wrung his hands and paced. “I should call Mr. Barrows. There are too many people.” He peered at Ruby over thick, round lenses in his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Relax, Wendall. A large turnout is good for Barrow’s business.”
“There are laws about maximum occupancy. If the fire marshal—”
“I said relax. I talked to Barrows. He wants a big show and we’re going to give it to him.” Ruby stood up. “Ready to meet your adoring fans, Nick?” He slapped Nick on the back and nudged him toward the doorway into the book store.
Wendall led the way up the wide main aisle. Their footsteps echoed on the laminate flooring inside the cavernous store. Rows of tall bookcases extended about a hundred feet on either side of the aisle. Reading areas with comfortable chairs and specialty displays were sprinkled among the book aisles. Nick wondered why there were no customers in the store. As the three neared the front of the store he heard a muffled roar. The crowd gathered in the mall outside the store stunned him. Bodies filled the mall as far as he could see in all directions. The impatient throng appeared to be all female, and all ages. They pressed their faces and hands against the glass storefront and peered inside. The floor to ceiling glass vibrated from the pressure.
“I insist on an orderly and dignified event,” Wendall said. “Mr. Barrows put me in charge and that is what he expects.” He squinted at Nick over his glasses with an expression of disgust. The few thin hairs combed across his scalp were slick from sweat.
“Of course,” Ruby said. He grasped Nick’s elbow. “Full cooperation or Katie will be taking a ride in a van tonight, understood?”
Nick’s mouth was dry, and he felt light-headed. He wasn’t sure if nerves or the Xanax were to blame. “What is it you want me to do exactly?” Nick asked.
“Sign books. Chat. Flirt with the ladies. This is all about building your fan base.” Ruby said. “You can start by smiling, Nick. You look like you’re at a damn funeral.”
Nick forced a smile.
“Here’s the signing table.” Wendall motioned to a square wooden table and matching chair near the front of the store. Nick’s novels lined a display case near the front counter. Two easels with board-mounted posters of Nick and the models stood by the table.
“Very dignified, Wendall.” Ruby slapped him on the back. Wendall blinked and took an involuntary step forward.
“It’s sixteen minutes past two.” Wendall tapped his wristwatch. “The sign on the door specifically says closed from one thirty until two, and then will reopen at two for the book signing.” His voice climbed an octave and droplets of perspiration sprouted on his forehead.
“We’re building anticipation.” Ruby smiled. “Nick, sit.” He waved an arm toward the entrance. “Open the doors, Wendall.”
Nick sat at the table. Sales clerks standing behind the counter stared at him; two young men and a woman who looked to be in their late teens. Three more young girls stood behind a coffee counter in the corner. One smiled and waved at Nick.
“Good afternoon. Please enter slowly. Single file. You may purchase your book at the front counter and then have it signed.” The crowd of women pushed through the double doors. Chatter and excited squeals drowned out Wendall’s orders. “Ladies, no pushing. Please!”
The throng of women crammed into the front of the store. Wendall waved his arms to get their attention. Soon, only his fingers were visible wriggling in the air at the back of the crowd. “You must show your receipt before getting the book signed,” he yelled.
Ruby patted Nick on the shoulder. “You’re on, Mr. Tera.” He stepped back as the swarm of women converged on the table.
Two teen-aged girls were first in line. “Oh, my gawd! It’s him!” One girl pointed her cell phone camera at Nick while the other jumped up and down with her hands clasped together under her chin.
Nick felt Ruby’s presence behind him. He stood, smiled and held out his hand to one of the girls. “Hi, I’m Nick. And you are?”
The girl grasped his hand. “Jennifer. Um, Jenny.”
“Jenny. Great to meet you. Have you read my book?”
Both girls nodded and giggled. Her friend grabbed a book from the stack on the table. “I’m Serena. Can you, like, write, ‘to Serena,’ on it?”
“I’d love to.” Nick picked up a pen from the neat row on the table. He opened the book and scrawled, ‘To Serena, from Nick Tera’ on the title page. Serena hugged the book against her chest while Jenny handed her book to Nick. She ran around the table with her cell phone held high, leaned close to Nick and snapped a picture.
“Here ya go.” He winked as he gave Jenny the signed book. “Pay for them up there.” He pointed to the counter. Serena hesitated, and then ran to Nick’s side with her phone poised. “I wanna picture, too.” The two girls walked a few steps and stared down at their phones comparing photos.
Nick made small talk, shook hands, signed books and smiled until his cheek muscles hurt. Ruby’s threat weighed on his mind. He flirted with the younger women and tried his best to charm the older ones. The Xanax calmed his nerves. For a while, he even forgot about Ruby’s ominous presence and enjoyed answering questions from the fans about his story and characters.
“Wendall, we need more books!” Ruby called out.
Wendall squeezed his way through the dense crowd. He took a utility knife from his pocket and slit open a cardboard box and then neatly stacked the books on the empty shelves by the front counter.
“Mr. Tera, you are checking their receipts before signing, aren’t you?”
“Get some more cases from the back,” Ruby said.
“But there’s fifty per case. That’s one hundred books.”
“And there’s four hundred or more customers,” Ruby said. “The line goes through the mall all the way to the outside entrance.”
“I don’t like this. Too many people. And so noisy.” Wendall crossed his arms. “Our maximum capacity is two hundred and twenty-four. If it exceeds—”
Ruby glared at him. “This is a gold mine for the store. Shut up and get more books.”
“Sir! I’m the manager in charge. I don’t appreciate your tone.”
“Mr. Barrows won’t appreciate losing sales. Now, get your ass in the back and get more books.”
Wendall yanked on his jacket lapels and stalked off toward the back of the store.
Ruby leaned and whispered to Nick. “Keep smiling, Nick. The press is here.”
Nick looked up and saw two arms holding a video camera high in the air making their way through the crowd. Janis Ford and a tall, lanky camera man emerged from the front of the crowd. Janis moved to the small opening behind the easel on the side of the table. Nick heard her commentary as she spoke into the video camera. “We’re here at Volumes Book Store in Pine Castle Mall where new horror author, Nick Tera, is signing his premiere novel, Thirst, for a record number of fans. Local police are on scene directing traffic, while mall security is attempting to control the crowds of fans inside the mall. This is truly an unprecedented turnout for a new author’s—”
A woman’s shrill scream stopped Janis’s report in mid-sentence. Nick jerked his head up from the book he was signing.
“Don’t cut in front of me, bitch!” A dark-haired woman shoved a tall, blond woman. The blonde fell against the table. She straightened up, drew back her arm and then punched the dark-haired woman in the face. The woman stumbled backwards holding both hands over her face. The blonde spun around and smiled at Nick. “How about signing these?” She stripped her tee shirt off above her head and then leaned forward dangling her bare breasts over the table. She offered a black marker to Nick.
Although Ruby wasn’t in sight, his voice whispered in Nick’s ear. “Full cooperation.” Nick pasted a smile across his face. “Yeah, sure.” He took the marker and signed Nick on top of her left breast and Tera on the right. The blonde turned toward the crowd with her arms in the air. She jumped up and down and yelled, “Nick signed my boobs!”
Pandemonium broke out. Women elbowed and clawed each other as they fought to get near the table. Screams rang out as several fell to the floor. He heard Janis Ford’s voice off to his right yelling above the din. “Are you getting this? Turn the camera over there!”
Something flew through the air, grazing Nick’s cheek. A bra landed on the table.
“Sign these Nick.” A plump, topless woman stood grinning at him.
“Get out of my way, you fat cow!” A teen-aged girl with long curly hair crawled up on the table. She knelt, yanked down her low-cut jeans and exposed her pelvis. “He’d rather sign this, wouldn’t you Nick?”
The plump woman grabbed the teenager by the ankle and dragged her off the table. The girl landed on top of an open case of Nick’s books. She scrambled to her feet clutching a book. She swung, smashing it into the side of the large woman’s head. The woman fell backwards into the crowd, knocking three women down behind her.
“My word! My word! What is happening?” Nick turned to see the store manager standing behind him with a handcart and two more cases of books. Beneath his thick lenses, Wendall’s eyes bugged from their sockets. His open mouth sagged downward at the corners in a grimace of horror. “Good Lord! They’re undressing! I knew you looked like trouble. Make them stop!”
Hands grabbed Nick around the neck and a woman pressed her mouth against his while his head was turned toward Wendall. He pried the woman’s hands away and spun around. Two women, one topless, climbed up on the table while more rushed around the sides. An easel displaying the poster toppled over onto Wendall.
Nick held up his hands and shouted, “Calm down, ladies! Please!”
The front of the store turned into a full-blown riot with women screeching, pulling at each other’s hair, kicking and wrestling on the floor. Others huddled on the sidelines and screamed. Outside the store entrance, the overflow crowd banged their fists against the window. The sales clerks shielded their heads with their hands as books and novelty items displayed on small shelves inside the window rained down. They ducked under an opening in the counter and ran to the back of the store.
Nick struggled to extricate himself from the women who clutched at his arms and clothing. He backed down the main aisle, stunned by the chaos in front of him. The chunky, topless woman staggered after him. She had bright red scratch marks on her cheek and blood oozed from a gash on her right temple. The curly-haired girl leaped onto her back and grabbed fistfuls of her hair. They fell on the ground punching and kicking each other.
Wendall hopped backwards to avoid the wrestling women. He stood a few feet from Nick shrieking into his cell phone. “What is my emergency? We have a riot, that’s what!”
Ruby appeared at Nick’s side. “Let’s go out the back, Nick.”
Ruby tapped his long fingernails on the tall oak book cases as he strode down the aisle. The heavy units lurched forward in slow motion. Books cascaded from the upper shelves. Each bookcase toppled over and slammed into the one in front of it. Like enormous dominoes, the cases thudded to the floor and avalanches of books spilled into the aisles. Nick sprinted for the back door. A piercing whistle sounded and a man’s voice bellowed over a bull horn, demanding order.
He slipped out the back door and found Ruby outside, lighting a cigar.
“That went well, don’t you think?” Ruby asked.
Nick stared. His heart still pounding from the chaos he had escaped “You planned this circus, didn’t you?”
“I simply provided a catalyst. People are sheep. Their herd mentality did the rest.”
Sirens wailed on the other side of the plaza.
“Why would you want to cause a riot at a book signing?”
“Controversy entices more fans. After Slaughter’s death, and Cullen’s sordid little mess, I needed to make sure your event got the media’s attention.” He threw his head back and laughed. “I believe it did. You’re done for today, Nick. Come by my office tomorrow at ten o’clock, sharp.”
“Mr. Ruby,” Nick forced a polite tone as he followed Ruby to his car. “I cooperated. My family and Katie will be safe, right?”
Ruby ground the cigar under his heel and opened the door of his red Jaguar. “For now, yes.”
“No, wait. You have to promise me they’ll be safe forever. I’ll stop seeing Katie. But I have to talk to her. As myself. Without any demons taking over.”
“Come now, Nick. I can’t allow that.” Ruby slid into the low-slung sports car.
“But I have to talk to her, so I can . . . so I can break up with her.”
“You can barely say the words. I don’t believe you have any intention of breaking up with your precious Katie.”
“No! You said if I cooperated, she’d be safe. All I’m asking is to talk to her. One last time.”
Ruby studied Nick with a thin-lipped smile. “We’ll see.” He started up his car.
Nick placed his empty beer bottle in line with five others on the table in front of him. He checked the time on his cellphone again. Nine-seventeen. More than enough time for Ray to pick up Katie at seven, take her home and then meet him here at the bar. Yet, Ray hadn’t shown up and he wasn’t answering his cell phone. Nick stood and pulled money from his wallet for a tip. A hand slapped his back.
“Sorry I’m late, buddy,” Ray said.
“What took you so long? I’ve been calling you.”
“Yeah, sorry, I left my phone in the car.” Ray signaled to a waitress walking past. “Bud Lite.”
She collected the empty bottles from the table. “Another one?” She smiled at Nick.
He nodded, sat down and waited for Ray to settle in the chair opposite him.
“Is Katie all right?”
“She’s fine,” Ray said. “Home safe and sound. It was weird at first. I assumed you had told her I was picking her up.”
Nick looked down and shook his head.
Ray grunted. “Yeah. Well, once I showed her my identification and answered all her questions to prove I was really, Ray, your friend, she finally agreed to accept a ride.”
The waitress put their beers on the table. She took part of the tip money Nick had put on the table and waited while Ray dug out his wallet from his jeans pocket.
“Here, I got it,” Nick said, pushing more bills toward her. “I owe you for tonight.”
“Thanks, but you don’t owe me nothing.”
“So, did Katie say anything?”
“On the drive to her place she asked me if you were still sick.” Ray shook his head. “I didn’t know you told her you were sick. Sorry man.” Ray held up his hands in a sheepish shrug “I think I blew your alibi.”
“Is she pissed?”
“Yeah, but not about that so much. I walked her to the door. She invited me in for coffee.”
“What’s with the look? You don’t trust me? Besides, I said no thanks. Then her roommate runs over and said we needed to come look at the news on TV. The riot at your book signing today was one of the top stories.” Ray grinned. “They had to blur out an awful lot of tits for television.”
“Yeah, that’s when I accepted the coffee. Katie insisted. She wanted to talk. It was awkward, man. I didn’t know what to say. I’ve hardly seen you since I’ve been home.”
“Katie must be furious. What did she say?”
“Most women would want to hang you by your nads, but she seemed to think it was the promoter guy you work for who set it all up. She stayed pretty calm, considering. Of course, her roommate, what’s her name, Clara?”
“Tara,” Nick said through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, she’s a friggin’ trip. Katie defended you, but Tara ripped you a new one. There’s a lot of tension between them. Katie told me she can’t wait to move in with you. She’s over Tara’s bullshit. After being around her for an hour, I can understand.”
Nick rubbed his hands over his face. He had been agonizing over how to tell Katie she couldn’t move in with him the entire time he had waited for Ray.
“What’s going on, Nick? You’re not sick. You say Katie’s in danger. The poor girl is worried about you. Then she sees women throwing their tits in your face on the news. Is that normal at a book signing?”
“No, it’s not normal. Nothing is freaking normal anymore. And yeah, it’s my agent. He sets up these stunts to get publicity. More book sales, or more fans. Whatever.”
“So, you lied to Katie about being sick?”
“No. I was feeling sick. But I had to go to the book signing today. I have a . . . very strict contract.”
“And asking me to carry a gun, what’s that all about?”
Nick glanced at Ray and then turned away. “I can’t talk about it.” He turned back and looked Ray in the eyes. “Katie is in danger. But I don’t want to scare her. I need her to be safe and I can’t protect her right now. It’s making me crazy, Ray. Time. I need time to work it all out.”
“You owe somebody money?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. Drop it, all right?” Ray’s penetrating gaze and pointed questions irritated Nick. The atmosphere inside the bar agitated his nerves. The older patrons who had quietly sipped their after-hours drinks had left. A swarm of younger people now filled the bar. Loud voices and rowdy laughter replaced the low murmur of conversation. The juke box blared, and dancing bodies gyrated all around them.
“Hey, look man, you asked me to pick up your girlfriend and carry a gun. I think I have a right to know what’s going on.”
The bar felt like an oven. Sweat made Nick’s shirt stick to him under his jacket. A reddish haze covered his friend’s face. Nick looked around and realized everything had taken on a bright red tint.
“I asked you to drive her home, not spend two hours drinking coffee and talking to her. It wasn’t a fucking date.” The harsh words shot out of his mouth.
“You’re accusing me of hitting on Katie? You asked me to help you and I did.” Ray stood and gulped his beer. He flipped bills onto the table and turned to leave.
The sudden heat and red-tinted vision dissipated. “Wait, Ray. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” Nick stood and swayed on his feet. He grabbed his friend’s arm both to stop him and for balance. “I apologize, okay? I’m pissed about shit I can’t control. All I want to do is see Katie. But I can’t. I worry about her, all the time. I’m not . . . myself anymore.”
Ray looked at him, shook his head and sat. Nick motioned to the waitress.
She put two more bottles on the table. Nick handed her money.
“I can buy my own,” Ray grumbled.
“I know.” Nick squeezed Ray’s shoulder. He held onto the table and eased himself back into his chair. “I do owe you. More than I can ever repay. I appreciate you taking Katie home. I really do.”
“Katie wants you to call her or come see her. She wants to talk to you tonight.”
“I don’t have a freaking clue what to say to her.”
A young brunette with a bare midriff bumped against Ray as she danced with a group of girlfriends. She touched Ray’s arm and shouted an apology over the loud music. Ray smiled at her. She smiled back, spun around and then wiggled across the dance floor in rhythm to the music.
“Hey Nick, think I’d have a shot with her?” Ray turned to Nick and sighed. “You’re lucky. I wish I could find a girl like Katie. Beautiful, smart and sweet as hell. She’s the perfect package.”
Intense heat rose in Nick’s face. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought to control the jealous rage simmering inside him. He wanted to punch Ray, but instead chugged down the beer in front of him and stood. “I gotta go.” He took one step, bumped into a couple dancing and staggered backwards.
“You’re wasted, my friend.” Ray stood and pressed his hand against Nick’s back to stop him from falling onto the table. “I saw all your empties when I got here.”
“I’m fine.” He stumbled into the crowd toward the front door. Ray followed beside him, pushing and pulling him to the right or left to avoid crashing into the dancers.
Once outside, the quiet brought some relief, but in spite of the cool night air, a burning heat consumed him. Nick zigzagged across the parking lot to his car.
“Nick, you can’t drive. I’ll give you a ride. We can pick up your pony tomorrow morning.”
“I can drive.”
“Don’t be an asshole, man. You can’t even walk.”
Nick jammed the key into the door lock. “I said I can fucking drive. I need to see Katie.”
“Like this? Not a good idea. Why don’t we get some coffee first? Then I’ll drop you off at Katie’s.”
Nick half fell, half sat in the driver’s seat and closed the door. He struggled to find the ignition keyhole. Ray opened the door and grabbed for the keys. Nick shoved him back, slammed the door and then locked it. Ray banged on the window. Nick started the car, put it in reverse and floored the gas pedal. He saw Ray in his side view mirror running toward his old fifty-seven Chevy parked across the lot.
Nick sped up, but couldn’t shake Ray, tailing him in the big two-toned Bel Air. He jammed on his brakes at a red light, rolled down his window, and waved for Ray to go away. Ray shot him the bird. Angry, he stomped on the gas pedal and then slammed his foot on the brake as a panel truck honked its horn and sped past, inches in front of him. The traffic light overhead still shone red.
Ray blared his horn and yelled, “Pull over!” Nick gunned the gas and shot through the intersection leaving Ray sitting at the red light.
After three attempts, Nick maneuvered his car into a parking spot in front of Katie’s building. Ray’s car rolled past and pulled into an open space half a block up the street.
Ray got out and leaned against the trunk of the cream and turquoise boat-sized car with his arms crossed, glaring and shaking his head.
Nick staggered up the path to Katie’s front door. He tripped up the front stoop and pounded on the door. “Katie! Katie!
Katie opened the door and stared up at him. “Nick? What’s the matter?”
Stacks of books and cardboard boxes filled the small kitchen. In the midst of them, Jon Gerber sat at the table sipping coffee.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Nick pushed past Katie and glared at Jon.
“Nick!” Katie grabbed his arm.
“B-Buying books from Kate.” His head swiveled from Katie to Nick.
Nick jerked his arm from Katie’s grasp. A red transparent film covered his vision. Jon’s blond-streaked hair and wide blue eyes looked red. He lunged across the table knocking a pile of books to the floor. “Get the fuck out!”
Jon jumped from his chair and flattened his back against the refrigerator.
“Nick! What do you think you’re doing?” Katie stepped in front of him with her hands on her hips. She turned to Jon. “I’m so sorry, Jon.”
“No problem.” He skirted around the table and picked up a stack of books. Hesitating, he held the books up as if to get Nick’s approval. “Thanks again, Kate.” He turned sideways to squeeze past Nick and then hurried out the front door.
Nick slammed the door behind him and then whirled around to face Katie. “What the hell is going on with you and that guy?” He moved toward her with his hands raised.
“Jon came to buy some of my books.” She gave Nick a withering look. “I don’t have to explain having a friend over. God, what is wrong with you?” Katie stepped back. “Your eyes, they’re so red.”
Nick’s vision cleared and he saw his outstretched hands reaching for Katie’s neck. Dropping his arms, he backed away. “Katie, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? You barge in here like a maniac and chase Jon out! I can see you’re drunk, but what, are you on drugs, too? And your eyes . . . uh . . . they’re normal now.”
“I’ll go.” He turned and opened the door.
“You’re just going to leave?” She grabbed his arm. “Nick?”
His temper raged at her touch. “I need to go now.” He shook off Katie’s grip and jogged down the path toward the street.
“Nick, wait!” Katie ran after him.
Ray stood blocking the end of the path. “What’s going on?”
Unsteady on his feet, and blinded by the unexplained rage, Nick stopped short and swung. His fist grazed the top of Ray’s crew cut. He swung again. Ray side-stepped the sloppy round-house punch, and then straightened up with both fists cocked in front of him. Nick landed a right hook on Ray’s jaw. Ray stumbled backwards, shaking his head but stayed on his feet. Ducking under his friend’s long reach, Ray charged, rammed his head and full weight into Nick’s chest and bulldozed him backwards. Nick landed hard on his back on the lawn.
“Stop it! Both of you!” Katie yelled.
Nick rolled onto his stomach and then pushed himself up on all fours. Grass, trees, lights, and faces spun in a blur around him. Two Katies scowled at him and two Rays loomed over him in a fighting stance. Without warning, an arc of liquid shot out of his mouth and splattered onto the cement path.
“Oh, God,” Katie said.
A window raised and a woman’s voice called out, “Are you all right, Miss Harrington?”
Katie rushed up the walk toward her front door. “Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Neil. I’m fine.”
A man’s voice yelled, “What the heck’s going on out there? Break it up or I’ll call the cops!”
“Sorry, Mr. Gretzski. Everything’s fine now.” Katie ran into her apartment.
Still on his knees, Nick sat back on his heels and closed his eyes to stop the spinning images.
“Need a hand, buddy?”
He looked up at Ray’s outstretched hand and smiling face. Nick leaned his weight onto one knee and then bent his other leg to get one foot on the ground. He grabbed onto Ray’s forearm and felt himself hauled upward. He stumbled. Ray gripped his arm and stopped his fall. Nick turned his head away, bent at the waist and threw up again.
Katie hastened down the path carrying a plastic pail with water sloshing over the sides.
Ray jogged across the lawn and took the bucket from her. “I got it.” He poised the bucket over the path. “Geez, Nick, looks like somebody spilled a friggin’ keg out here. It’s even got a head on it.” He tossed the warm, pine-scented water and washed the foamy, pale yellow vomit into the grass.
“Now you’re best friends again?” Katie glared at Nick. “Go inside. Clean yourself up.” She motioned to Ray. “Come in, Ray. Help me get him off the street before someone calls the cops.”
Ray and Nick followed behind Katie. She waited and then closed the door after they entered.
Nick glanced sideways at her. “I’m sorr—”
“I swear, if you say you’re sorry one more time—just go and wash up.”
Nick went into the bathroom and closed the door. He peeled off his jacket and sweat-soaked shirt. Leaning over the sink, he splashed water on his face and upper body. He loaded the toothbrush he kept at Katie’s house with toothpaste and scrubbed his mouth to remove the beer and bile coating. For the moment, he felt in control. The demon, whom Ruby called Artie, had overwhelmed him with thoughts of torture and murder, but tonight, intense flushes of heat and red-tainted vision brought on erratic fits of rage and jealousy. The thought that yet another demon had emerged inside him both sickened and terrified him.
He heard a soft knock at the door. Katie entered carrying a folded bath towel and a tee shirt.
“Here.” She handed him the towel and sat on the closed toilet lid while Nick dried his face and torso. “It’s one of the shirts you gave me. My favorite sleeping shirt.” She offered a weak smile. “I want it back.”
He reached out and ran his hand over her cheek. She shrugged away from him. A sudden rush of heat and then Artie’s angry whisper, Reject me? Bitch. You’ll be sorry. The demon’s voice in his head sent a chill down his spine. He turned away and pulled the shirt over his head.
“I saw your book signing on the news. Seventeen women hospitalized, three seriously injured, and dozens more treated at the mall. My God, Nick, what happened?”
Nick shook his head. “Victor Ruby happened. Bastard planned it all. He wanted the publicity to draw attention away from Cullen’s arrest and Chris’ death.”
“I figured Ruby set it up. But what I don’t understand is why you went along with it?”
“I–I had no choice.”
“No choice?” She stood, her arms crossed and anger glinting in her green eyes. “It didn’t look like you were forced into signing that woman’s breasts.”
“Look, Katie, I didn’t want to do it, but I had to—”
“You had to? Oh, please! You’re acting like Ruby put a damn gun to your head.”
Nick blew out a long breath, leaned on the counter and stared down into the sink.
“You heard Chris at the VIP party. Ruby’s publicity stunts ruined his marriage. Maybe even caused his suicide.” She sighed as she wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned her head on his back. Her voice softened. “I’m so worried about you. About us.”
Nick turned and leaned his chin on the top of her head. He hugged her and whispered, “Nothing Ruby does will ever make me stop loving you.”
“I hardly see you anymore. I miss you,” she murmured into his chest.
He lifted her chin with his fingers and kissed her. Tension melted from her shoulders and she pressed her body against him. A pleasant heat radiated through his body. Fearing his arousal might turn into something darker, he gently pushed her away.
Katie sighed and leaned against the wall. “Why were you fighting with Ray?”
He avoided her gaze, staring into the mirror as he ran a comb through his wet hair. “Just drunk.”
“I’ve seen you drunk. I hate it, but you’ve never acted violent before.” Reaching up, she massaged his shoulders. “You acted like you were on drugs or something.”
Nick put the comb down. “I took a Xanax today.”
“A Xanax? Why?”
“Ruby said he had something planned for the book signing but wouldn’t say what. One of Ruby’s hair stylists gave it to me. Said it would calm my nerves.”
Katie rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in the air. “Of course, a hair salon, where else would you go to get prescription drugs?”
“It was one pill, one time.”
“And then you drank. A lot. Do you know how dangerous mixing Xanax with alcohol is?”
Nick opened the bathroom door. “I’m fine.”
Katie followed him into the kitchen. Ray sat at the table holding a mug. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee hung in the air. She poured a mug for Nick and handed it to him. He nodded and put the coffee on the table while he bent to pick up the medical books he had knocked on the floor earlier.
“How long ago did you take it?” she asked.
“Take what?” Ray asked, looking from Katie to Nick.
“A Xanax,” Katie said.
“I’ve heard of it,” Ray said. “What is it?”
“An antidepressant. Relieves anxiety,” Katie said.
Ray looked at Nick. “You’re taking drugs?”
Nick flushed with heat. He squelched the surging anger, but it invaded his words. “What is this, a freaking intervention? I took one pill. Around one-thirty this afternoon. Stop treating me like a damn drug addict.”
“It stays in your system for two days. With all the beer you drank, you could have ended up in Emergency getting your stomach pumped. Plus the combination makes your heart rate and respirations slow down. Or stop.” She slammed the books together as she stacked them on the table.
“I pumped your stomach for you,” Ray said. “Saved you a hospital bill.”
Nick grinned at Ray’s goofy smile. At least Katie blamed his behavior on the pill and alcohol.
Ray rubbed his jaw. “It sure didn’t feel like a depressed dude hit me. It friggin’ hurt.”
“I’m sorry.” Nick glanced at Katie after saying the words.
“It’s rare, but some people react the opposite. Become violent.” She packed books into a box. “Please, promise me you won’t take anymore pills.”
“Yes, I promise, I won’t take any more pills, all right?”
Ray stood and put his empty mug into the kitchen sink. “I’m gonna take off. Thanks for the coffee, Katie.” He gripped Nick’s shoulder. “Call me tomorrow.”
“I need to get going, too.” Nick stood.
Katie dropped the books she held onto the table. “But I thought you’d stay here tonight?”
“I can’t, babe. I, uh, have an early meeting. With the publisher. I have to do some work on the computer tonight.” He hoped she believed the lie.
“Give me five minutes to pack. I’ll go home with you.” Katie hurried to her bedroom.
Another flash of heat accompanied Nick’s panic. “Shit.”
“What’s the matter?” Ray whispered. “You don’t want her to go to your place?”
Nick shook his head. “It’s not safe.”
Ray sucked on his upper lip, studying him. “You got people after you, too?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Crap.” Ray opened the door. “I’ll wait outside. Let me know what I can do to help.”
Nick walked into Katie’s bedroom. A small pile of clothes sat on the bed. She pulled a canvas bag from her closet shelf. “Two more minutes,” she said.
He sat on the end of her bed, his nerves tensed. “Katie . . . you can’t move in with me.”
She stopped packing and stared at him. “Why not?”
“It’s complicated.” His mind sifted through the various lies he considered while waiting for Ray at the bar. “I talked to Ruby about you moving in. He has this insurance plan. If you’re not a client or an employee, you can’t live in his building. Some legal, liability stuff. It’d break my contract if you moved in.”
Katie sank down on the bed next to him, her shoulders slumped forward. He turned away from the battered look in her eyes, stared at the floor and rattled off more excuses. “Plus, the rent’s astronomical. Over three grand a month. I know, I should’ve checked all this out before I asked you to move in. But, tomorrow, I’ll start looking for another apartment for us. Okay? It shouldn’t take too long.”
Katie let out a long sigh. “Nick, I can’t stay here. After we made up the other night, I confronted Tara about her lies and trying to break us up. She acted crazy. She said you wanted her, not me. Ranted some nonsense that she was the first to sign up online for your fan club. And then tonight, after Ray left, we got into another fight. She stomped off into her room. I followed. Her closet door was open. She had pictures of you and news clippings taped inside the door. Like some sort of creepy shrine. She’s obsessed with you. I can’t believe I never knew it before.”
“I’ve never liked Tara, but I didn’t know either.” Nick put his arm around Katie’s shoulders.
She cuddled against him. “Ruby’s not going to know if I spend the night at your place. I really need to be with you tonight.” She ran her fingers over his chest and brushed her lips against his neck.
Desire flooded over him and then something darker stirred within him. The thought that Artie felt aroused by Katie’s touch disgusted Nick. He shifted his weight away from Katie. “What if I tell Tara to move out? I’ll pay your rent here until we find another place together.”
“It’s not the money. We have a joint lease. For a year. Tara refuses to move. Legally, I can’t make her. So, I told her I’d move out.” Katie’s eyes watered. “Or at least I thought I would, until now.”
Nick swallowed the lump swelling in his throat. “Please, hang in there, just a little bit longer—”
“Why can’t I stay with you tonight? Or, you stay here? Something’s wrong, Nick. Something you’re not telling me. What is it?”
He slid his arm from around her and stood. “I can’t explain now. But I swear I’ll straighten everything out. I just need time. Please, Katie, trust me.”
Katie hung her head. Her tears fell, leaving dark dots on her faded blue jeans. He wanted to hold her, comfort her, stay with her, but redness colored his vision and a sudden anger grew inside of him. A new voice growled in his head, give her something to cry about. He rushed out of the room and left her crying on the bed.
Ray stood waiting by the Mustang. “What about getting the cops involved?”
Nick brushed past Ray, choking back his own tears after leaving Katie crying in her bedroom. “Cops can’t help me. I have to work it out myself.” He opened the car door.
“Bullshit.” Ray grabbed Nick’s arm and stopped him from getting into his car. “Tell me exactly what’s going on. We’ll figure out something together.”
His simmering anger bubbled over into rage. Nick ripped his arm from Ray’s hold. “Just make sure Katie’s safe. Pick her up from work and take her home.”
“Nick, c’mon man, it’s me. Talk to me. Let me help you.”
He clenched his fists and fought the urge to lash out at Ray again. “You wanna help? Leave me the fuck alone. That’s how you can help.” Nick got into his car and drove away.
As he stared at the television screen, all Nick saw was the image of Katie crying on her bed. His gut twisted thinking about it. He shuffled mindlessly though the stack of junk mail building on his coffee table. At the very bottom he found a brown padded envelope addressed to Stephanie. She had left her demo CD behind the other night. He held it for a moment, thinking he shouldn’t open it, but then ripped open the flap anyway. Steph wouldn’t mind. A CD slid out encased in a folded sheet of paper.
He slid the CD into his laptop and turned up the volume. Leaning his head back on the sofa, he closed his eyes and listened to the series of country songs and ballads. The soothing melodies distracted him. Stephanie’s voice sounded sweet and clear. On the ballads she sang with Chris, their voices blended in a natural harmony. After the CD had played through, he got up and ejected it.
He started to call Stephanie and offer to bring the CD upstairs to her apartment but stopped when he saw it was after one in the morning. He opened the folded paper to re-insert the CD. It was a letter from Chris. The words ‘Victor Ruby’ caught his eye.
As promised, here is your demo CD. Your voice is a true gift, and a delight to listen to. Follow up with the contacts in Nashville I gave you. I have no doubt you will become the star you’ve always dreamed of being.
More importantly, you must get far away from Victor Ruby. I’ve told you what he is, though I’m sure you don’t believe me. A year ago, I doubt I‘d believed it. I have found myself trapped inside a true hell on earth. But I refuse to let Ruby win. I’m sorry, Love, I know I promised to help you with your career. The enclosed CD is really all you need. It speaks, or sings, for itself. You are a sweet girl. If you stay, Ruby will destroy you, your dreams and everyone you love.
There is only one sure way to break a contract with a devil. I want you to know, I have no regrets about my decision. Without me, he cannot threaten my daughter and wife or countless other innocents whose only sin is to be a fan of my music. Don’t waste tears on me. Get away from Ruby. Pursue your dreams.
I have a favor to ask, but only if you can find a way without putting yourself in danger. Locate my contract and burn it. I never gave much thought to an afterlife, until recently. If I do possess a soul, I don’t want Ruby to have it.
Be safe, Chris
The paper shook in Nick’s hands. The sentence, there is only one way to break a contract with the devil, made his scalp crawl and his heart pound. It was a suicide note.