Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.
Author's Note: For Deirdre. Because she asked. And because she deserves a pressie. Huge thanks to my betas for keeping me on track, particularly Voleuse and Kanna Ophelia.
How Stormer Got Her Groove Back
by Tara LJC O'Shea
"You know how big stars like Luna Dark have personal shoppers?" Kimber asked Aja as they walked through the chrome and glass doors of the Galleria out into the southern California sunshine.
It was a beautiful day even by sunny SoCal standards, with a light breeze keeping the smog at bay, and kids on skateboards and roller-skates whizzed past them, taking full advantage of the gorgeous weather and summer school vacation.
"Yeah?" Aja prompted, digging through her purse for the keys to the van.
"I think I'd miss this, if I had some guy named Javier from West Hollywood picking out my shoes."
Aja laughed. Their arms were piled high with bags and boxes from a string of boutiques they'd visited, and with a sigh, Kimber dumped her haul on the back seat of the van. Aja slid behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition and Kimber immediately reached for the radio dial.
"So... shakes and burgers?" she asked as Aja pulled out of the parking lot, rows of palm trees flashing by on either side as she merged easily into the light afternoon traffic.
"Hey, you wanna fit into all these new outfits, girl, you better be thinking salads and swimming laps."
Kimber pouted, prompting Aja to laugh.
"But after that marathon round of shopping, I am totally craving a peach shake from—"
Kimber froze mid-word, and Aja's brows drew together in a slight frown. "Kimber?"
"Shhh!" The radio was still turned to K-MAX from the drive from the mansion to the mall, and the younger girl cranked the volume up.
She knew this song. It was over-produced, and she thought the singer was utterly generic. But underneath all of the layered, tweaked voice tracks the melody and words sparked a memory. She chased it for the length of the song, and then asked Aja to pull the car over into the parking lot of an Astro Burger, and waited for the DJ to tell her who had recorded that single.
"That was 'Pretend You Love Me,' the brand new single from Ephemeral—"
It wasn't. She knew it now. It was a different arrangement. They'd changed the key, and the breathy pop-star wannabe's voice was higher, and didn't have the throaty growl she remembered, or the range. But what she remembered was a summer night, sitting on the floor next to two empty pints of Hagen Das, as Stormer had played it for her on her acoustic guitar, almost a year earlier. She'd been stuck on the bridge from the second to third verse, and the lyrics had been shaky in parts.
But she knew.
"Aja, can you drop me in Sherman Oaks? There's something I have to do."
"But what about lunch?"
"Raincheck? It's important."
Confused, Aja let her off in front of the Tower Records on Ventura. With her hair pulled back in a pony tail, wearing jeans and a faded baseball tee-shirt, Kimber was damn lucky she didn't get mobbed, as there were posters for the current Jem and the Holograms single covering the wall next to the wire racks of cassette singles. But in the middle of the day, the store was practically a graveyard, and the bored looking clerk didn't even look her in the eye as he rang up her purchase.
She ripped the plastic off the cassette and squinted at the tiny type in the insert.
The ranch-style house was modest, much smaller than anywhere Kimber had ever lived, including the first Starlight house with its cobwebbed rafters and rickety staircases. But rather than seeming shabby by comparison, the bungalow instead came across as cosy and inviting. Sitting on the side of a steep hill, the deck looked out over the valley and a forest of red Spanish-tile roofs of her neighbours. Stormer usually parked her car on the street, and Kimber knew her friend and sometimes rival was home when she saw the battered orange Volvo parked half a block from her front door.
The first time she'd been here, it had been a week after she and Stormer had started playing together at The Scene. The floors were covered in green and cream patterned area rugs, and the couch was deep and comfortable. Potted plants broke up the walls between the large windows that looked out over the valley, and one entire wall of the living room was taken up by an entertainment centre that would have put even tech-geek Rio's to shame. The house was Stormer's pride and joy.
It had embarrassed the youngest Hologram to admit that owning her own home was the furthest thing from her mind when Eric had begrudgingly handed over her first royalty cheque. But it had seemed very important to Stormer, who had admitted one night over ice-cream sundaes that she'd grown up in a double-wide with her mother and brother, after their folks had gotten divorced. When "Back to Back" had gone double platinum, rather than move into a bigger house or upgrade her car to something flashy, Stormer had quietly paid off the mortgage.
Kimber hit the buzzer twice in quick succession, anger on her friend's behalf making her anxious.
Stormer was wearing cut-off shorts and a sleeveless tee-shirt, her hair pulled back from her face in a messy ponytail and a can of furniture polish in her hand, when she opened the door.
"Hey—I was just getting caught up on some housework—"
"Did you sell 'Pretend You Love Me'?" Kimber asked without preamble.
"Wh—what?" Stormer stammered, stepping aside so that Kimber could come inside. She marched straight up to the stereo that dominated the entertainment centre opposite the sofa. Stormer had a Bangles tape playing, music to move to while she cleaned, and Kimber stopped it mid-"Manic Monday."
"The song you were working on last fall, when we were putting together 'Back to Back'. Did you sell it?" Kimber pulled a cassette tape from her purse.
"No—I haven't even looked at those songs in forever. Why?"
"You have to hear this," was all Kimber said as she popped the tape into the deck.
Once the single had played through, Stormer sank to the couch, mouth hanging open in shock. Kimber sat down next to her, blue eyes wide with concern.
"How many songs did you have? I know you had the one, and 'Broken.'"
"Maybe... maybe a dozen?" She leaned back, staring at the ceiling and frowning. "They weren't very good—"
"Well—apparently Eric thought it was good enough for Ephemeral."
"They're a new girl group, fronted by that Finnish girl."
"I thought she was Icelandic?"
"I remember, now. Eric threw a big party when he signed the band—they're supposed to open for the Stingers next week. I only heard their demo... I didn't even know they had a single coming out. Maybe—maybe it's just a coincidence?"
Kimber sighed and popped the cassette out of the tape player. She tossed it across the room, and Stormer caught it awkwardly.
"Stormer, this is your song. Lyrics, the music—all of it. That's not coincidence—unless you got paid for it, that's theft, plain and simple. 'Pretend You Love Me' is already in the top 20 on the charts. It's a hit. Your song is a hit, and nobody even knows it's your song."
"I don't—Eric? Are you sure?"
"'Composed by Phillip Ericson, Copyright 1989 Oleander Music,'" Kimber read from the insert. "Three guesses who owns Oleander Music, and the first two don't count."
"Phillip Ericson," Stormer repeated, grabbing the tape insert from her so she could see it with her own two eyes.
"Has anybody heard that stuff? The stuff you were working on?"
"No—nobody..." Stormer began, and then stopped, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously. "Except..."
"Pizzazz!" Stormer shouted as she wandered through the marbled halls of Harvey Gabor's stately mansion. A maid saw her coming, and, at the look in her eye, high-tailed it out of there. "Where are you? Pizzazz!"
"I'm in here!" Phyllis Gabor's voice came floating down the stairs, and Stormer stalked through Pizzazz's bedroom suite to a marble bathroom with a tub big enough for a football team.
Floating among the frothy bubbles, wearing a ridiculous pink shower cap, was Pizzazz. Never mind it was three in the afternoon. Phyllis Gabor was hardly known for following anyone's idea of rules—and broke them whenever she could, simply out of sheer contrariness. If the rest of the world was busy with their jobs and lives and mundane drudge work to pay their bills, then all the more reason for Pizzazz to party like there was no tomorrow.
"Want some bubbly?" she asked, nonplussed.
"Daddy got a whole case of champagne. It's good—French, and everything." From her cheer, Stormer got the feeling that the bottle resting on the marble Jacuzzi wasn't her first.
"No, I don't want any champagne," Stormer snapped.
"Suit yourself. More for me." She reached over to refill her glass, and the flute slipped from her soapy fingers. Stormer flinched at the sound of breaking glass. "What's eating you?"
"How did Eric get a hold of my song?"
"The song he's got that new band recording—as their first single!"
"Oh. Those losers." Foregoing a glass, Pizzazz grabbed the champagne bottle and took a long swallow. "Their original stuff sucked. You shoulda heard it—it was like a bunch of beached whales."
"But how did he get my songs?"
She shrugged. "I gave them to him."
"Well, it's not like we were gonna record them. Jeez, Stormer, give me a break. They weren't Misfits material, and you knew that when you showed them to me—"
"I showed them to you to get your opinion. Because I respect it, as a musician. You had no right to give them to Eric, Pizzazz! Those songs—they were mine!"
"Puh-leeze. What's the big deal? You're always writing something—so just write s'more." She took another long swig of champagne, and belched. "What are you getting so sore at me for, anyway? If you're pissed at Eric, take it up with him. Not my problem."
"Maybe I will. That's a lot for the show of solidarity—partner."
Stormer slammed the bathroom door, the sound of splashing following her as she dashed down the stairs, her high heeled boots echoing through the foyer.
Eric Raymond's secretary Rochelle was painting her nails as the elevator doors opened on the top floor of Stinger sound. She glanced up as Stormer approached the reception desk, and then blew on her freshly painted nails while the lines on her phone blinked steadily.
"Is he here?"
"Yeah, but you can't just—Hey!"
Stormer ignored Rochelle as she opened the door to Eric's office. Eric was sitting at his desk, feet up on the polished wood, and phone pressed to his ear. He waved dismissively at Stormer, signalling her to wait.
Stormer wasn't in the mood. Walking right up to the desk, she grabbed the phone out of his hand. "He'll call you back," she barked into the handset, and slammed it down.
"What do you think you're—" Eric began, but Stormer cut him off, tossing the cassette single down on the blotter. It bounced, and came to rest against his engraved nameplate.
"What's the meaning of this, Eric?"
Regaining his composure, Eric glanced down at the tape. "Ah. I see you've seen it."
"Were you going to tell me?"
"Why should I?" he asked with a shrug.
"This is my song!"
"Correction, my dear—my song. As in, my song, to do with as I please. If the Misfits weren't going to record it, why shouldn't Ephemeral? New bands means more profits. More profits means more money to promote your band. More promotion means more ticket sales, more record and cassette sales, more money, period. I really don't see what the problem is."
"The problem is, you never asked me. You didn't even put my name on it—"
"Since when do I need to ask you?"
"Since—since—" The anger that had carried her all the way from Sherman Oaks to Stinger Sound began to flag a bit, met with Eric's nonchalance.
"You are under exclusive contract, or do I need to remind you?"
"My contract is to write music for the Misfits—"
"Your contract is to write music for Misfits Music—now Stinger Sound. Ephemeral is part of the happy Stinger Sound family. Just like you. And if I choose to have them record an entire album of your music—which, by the way, they're in the middle of—then there's not a single thing you can do about it."
Eric opened one of his drawers and with one hand, pulled out a thick sheaf of papers, which he tossed to her.
"Read the fine print, Stormer dear. I didn't do a single thing I wasn't contractually allowed to. So save your righteous indignation."
Stormer stared down at the contract in her hands feeling utterly defeated.
"Now get out." Eric had gone from genial to cold in a heartbeat. "I have a meeting in twenty minutes, and I need to concentrate."
"...and then he threw me out of his office."
Stormer rested her chin in her hand, regarding the ice-cream sundae melting in front of her with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
She'd called Kimber as soon as she'd gotten home, and the youngest Hologram had come straight over, stopping only to pick up two pints of rocky road along the way, no doubt sensing from Stormer's dejected tone over the phone that she would need comfort sweets.
"Eric Raymond is the lowest of the low, I swear." Kimber poked the cherry atop her own sundae with her spoon, and watched it slide down the mountain of whipped cream. "He'd sell his mother, if he thought he could make a profit."
"I don't even know if he has a mother," Stormer muttered, setting her spoon down. Not even rocky-road with butterscotch was going to lift her spirits today. "Pizzazz said—"
"That the song wasn't Misfits material. That doesn't mean it's not good. It's better than good. This could have been your single. This should have been your single."
Kimber began to pace the length of the kitchen. She spun on her heel, gesturing with her ice-cream spoon.
"I bet I know what happened. I bet he found out you had a whole album's worth of solo material, and freaked out."
Stormer laughed at the absurdity of the suggestion. "I'm not going solo."
"Maybe Eric was afraid you would?"
"Afraid? Eric? C'mon—you gotta be kidding me."
"If he was so afraid you'd do a solo album that would be a hit, you'd think he'd have offered you a solo contract at Stingers Sound instead of selling your music right out from under you. God knows he's tried to lure me away from the Holograms enough times with that promise."
"Twice. He was just using me, to get at Jerrica," Kimber added dismissively.
"Kimber, you're good—you could easily—"
"This isn't about me. This is about you."
Stormer shook her head, eyes wide. "I couldn't leave the Misfits. They need me—"
And I need them, Stormer added silently, but she wasn't going to tell Kimber that. She'd had enough lectures from both Craig and Kimber over the last year, and trying to convince them that her band were anything other than a bunch of spoiled hooligans was often just so much wasted breath. They only saw the bad stuff, and were usually less than willing to listen to her, when she tried to explain that Roxy, Jetta and Pizzazz did care about her, in their own way. Even if they didn't always show it.
"You're right. There are no Misfits without your songs. Eric knows that. But that snake is just low enough to make a buck off you any way he can."
"But... Eric's right. He says it's in my contract—"
"I may not know a ton about contracts, but I know someone who does. And I bet she'll help us."
Jerrica frowned, paging through the contract again to make sure.
"My God, this is practically medieval. The intellectual property rights section alone... Stormer, did you even read this before you signed it? You signed away your ownership to your copyrights to Eric."
Across the desk, Stormer slumped in her chair, looking utterly defeated. "Eric... Eric said it was normal... A standard contract."
"He lied." Jerrica glanced through the pages of codicils, still frowning. "Under this contract, you don't retain anything—including rights to advances, or residuals for any work you produce while you're with the Misfits."
"Then he really owns everything?" Kimber asked, her voice tinged with desperation.
"Everything she produces while under contract to Misfits Music—now Stinger Sound. Management, publishing, and recording. Lock stock and barrel."
"That snake. That no good, lousy, son of a—"
"I guess that's it, then."
Kimber reached out to grab her friend's arm. "No! Stormer, he can't take your songs and just hand them off to some other band to record!"
"But you just said he could. He did. What else can I do?"
"Well..." Jerrica's blue eyes narrowed, and her sister and Stormer turned to look at her, expectant. "You could try and sue him for undue influence and breach of fiduciary duty. But it would be risky. Since he manages you personally and the Misfits as a whole, he can always claim he's acting in the best interests of the group, rather than the individual members. I'm afraid your contract doesn't give you any wiggle room there. "
"Sue Eric?" Stormer laughed. "I don't even have a lawyer."
"And court cases can drag on for years... I'm sorry, Stormer. "
"Jerrica, can't we do anything?"
"Kimber—it's out of our hands. Stormer signed the contract. It's good for five years, and she's still got a year to go on it. When you re-negotiate, maybe you can make sure it gets changed then. But in the meantime—"
"In the meantime, Eric wins." Stormer picked up the contract and stuffed it back in her purse, trying not to feel like such a fool for thinking there might be an easy answer.
She'd had such hope, when Kimber had suggested coming to Jerrica for help. Even after all the trouble the Misfits had caused for the band Jerrica managed over the years, Jerrica had always been nothing but fair to Stormer. She'd even gone so far as to offer Stormer a contract to perform with Jem, when she'd left the Misfits the first time. But the hope Kimber had sparked in her breast had died at the look in Jerrica's eyes as she'd paged through Stormer's contract. Eric may have been a sleaze, but the one thing he did know was business. If Jerrica said the contract had no loopholes, then Stormer believed her.
It was over.
Dejected, Stormer sighed. "Thanks for trying anyway, Jerrica. I really appreciate it."
"I just wish there was more I could do. I truly am sorry, Stormer."
"It's not your fault I was a dumb kid who didn't know any better when Eric signed me. I guess... I guess I'll just have to do better next time, right?"
"Oh, Stormer..." Kimber's eyes well with tears, and Stormer felt her own yes begin to smart with unshed tears at the naked concern in her friend's face. She gave Kimber a quick hug, blinking rapidly to keep from crying.
"Hey, at least I know who my real friends are. Don't worry about me. There'll be other songs, and other albums."
She turned to go, before Kimber saw straight through the smile she'd pasted on her face, and she broke down completely.
Stormer buried her head deeper into the pillows, eyes squeezed tightly shut. But the buzzing continued, as if there were a swarm of hornets in her bedroom. Opening her eyes a crack, she was able to focus on the LED display of the clock on her bedside table, and groaned.
Throwing on her robe over the tee-shirt she'd worn to bed, she stumbled out of the bedroom blearily. "Hold your horses, I'm coming!" she yelled and wasn't one bit surprised to find Kimber on her front porch.
"It's 7am on a Saturday!" Stormer wailed.
"I had an idea."
"Kimber—it's Saturday. I sleep on Saturdays. I get to sleep until at least 9am. It's a law."
"I had an idea," Kimber repeated.
"An idea that couldn't wait until noon?"
"You're grumpy in the mornings," Kimber observed sagely.
"It's 7am," Stormer repeated, as English were not Kimber's native tongue. "On a Saturday."
"You obviously do not live with a half-dozen teenage girls all vying for control of the TV before the cartoons start. Once, Terri wanted to watch Wildfire, and JoEllen wanted to switch over to Laser Tag, and Shana actually had to separate them. There was hair-pulling. It got ugly."
Stormer lay down on the couch, and put a throw pillow over her head.
"Kimber—it's 7am." Stormer's voice was muffled slightly by the pillow. "On Saturday."
"What about Riot?"
Stormer tossed the pillow onto the floor, giving up. Obviously, once Kimber Benton got an idea in her head, nothing was going to shake it loose, not even basic respect for the sleeping habits of her supposed friends. "What about Riot?"
"Well—Riot owns half the company, right? If you can't get Eric to amend your contract..."
"Oh, I don't know." Stormer frowned. "I mean, Riot doesn't like me very much—"
"You mean he doesn't like Pizzazz." Kimber giggled.
Stormer flushed and nodded, feeling as if she should stand up for her band-mate, but not sure how given that she hated how Pizzazz acted around the lead singer of the Stingers. "She's always kinda... all over him."
"Yeah. Something tells me he relishes being the predator more than the prey."
"And we both know how good I am with predators..." Stormer sighed. "Wild boars, tigers—"
"Rock musicians?" Kimber added mischievously.
"They're the worst. Seriously, Kimber. Riot doesn't like the Misfits, and I don't know if I like him much. He uses people. He treats Pizzazz like dirt, and she'll still do anything he says without even thinking about it, and he knows it. He manipulates her. And you know how I feel about those parasites he plays with. And his ego—"
"—is the size of New Jersey. I know. But Jer—Jem's gotten through to him in the past. And he can control Eric, a little anyway. Maybe she could talk to him for you?"
"No!" Stormer shook her head, panicked. "No. The last thing I need is for Pizzazz to find out I had Jem bail me out of a jam. With Riot, of all people. No way. Just... no."
Kimber pouted. "At least think about it?"
She sat down next to Stormer, resting her chin in her hand.
"How would you feel if at the next Music Awards, that weirdo from Ephemeral walked up on stage and accepted the award for your song, huh? Forget the money, Stormer—Eric sold your talent. No one should be able to do that. We've got to fight this."
"I'll... I'll think about it," Stormer said hesitantly, and was almost blinded by the force of Kimber's smile. She held up a warning finger before the other girl could throw her arms around her in a hug. " After I've had a shower, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee."
While Stormer showered, Kimber put on a pot of coffee, and, mug in hand, wandered through Stormer's living room.
The walls were almost completely bare, except for a framed black and white photo of a much younger Stormer and her brother Craig, onstage with several guys Kimber didn't recognise. She figured it had to have been back before the Phillips siblings had come out to LA, as both she and her brother appeared to have yet to have discovered the wonders of Manic Panic's "After Midnight Blue".
It was odd, seeing the familiar face peered out from behind the keyboard framed in black locks, and devoid of the ostentatious make-up she sported on-stage and off.
When they'd first become friends, Stormer had told Kimber that after the first Misfits album had gone gold, while Roxy had bought (and subsequently crashed) a new car, and Pizzazz had gone on a multi-continental shopping spree, Stormer had invested in converting the garage and part of the basement into a studio. Her whole life, music had been her escape. Her refuge.
It was something they discovered they had in common. After her mother's death, Kimber had buried herself in her music, hardly looking up from her guitar all through grade school and high school. Her father had been tremendously supportive, even talked about Kimber following in her mother's footsteps, recording music at Starlight. She wished he could have lived to have seen the Holograms' success. But then, if he hadn't died so suddenly, and if Eric hadn't taken over control of Starlight Music, the band might never have been formed. Kimber considered her band's accomplishments a bittersweet victory, at best.
Kimber was jolted out of her reverie by the sound of the bathroom door opening. Stormer stepped out wearing her terry-cloth robe, a towel wrapped around her head. She made a bee-line for the coffee pot, adding liberal amounts of sugar and cream to her mug. Kimber waited until Stormer had taken the first swallow of fresh coffee before launching into the idea that had kept her up half the night.
"Okay, so Riot's a great big walking ego, right?"
Stormer nodded, staring into the steam rising from her mug. "The biggest. But what's that got to do with my contract?"
"We're going to offer him the perfect song. The kind of song he can't resist. The kind of song that appeals to his big fat ego so much he can't not want to perform it. Play completely to the bands strengths—and to Rory Llewelyn's ego. A song so irresistible that he'll demand Eric sell it to him."
"But how will that help?"
"Because Eric will have to sell it to him. He's got to stay on Riot's good side, to stay in charge at Stinger Sound, right? He'll have to let Riot have it. And once the Stingers have it—"
"—they'll just take it, the way they do everything. And I'll be worse off than before."
Kimber was amazed at Stormer's self-defeatist attitude.
"No, no, Stormer, don't you see? Then you step forward and tell Riot you wrote it. Eric won't be able to do a thing, you'll see. Riot's sure to give you full credit!"
Stormer paused, considering the idea.
"Why are you so sure Riot will be on my side?" she finally asked, her tone cautiously hopeful.
"He's not as bad as he used to be. Remember how he helped find Ba Nee's father?"
"He only did it because Jem asked him, to score points," Stormer pointed out, obviously not completely letting go of her doubts.
"It'll work, Stormer. I know it will."
"Easy for you to say. You're not the one who has to write the perfect song."
"Hey, all my songs are perfect."
"Now who's got the monstrous ego?"
The next week passed in a flurry of activity. Stormer dutifully went to Stinger Sound during the day, to work on the latest Misfits album, and then each night, met up with Kimber. Her living room had been turned into a war room, as they poured over the Stingers first two albums, making meticulous notes.
Stormer had written for Minx and Rapture during their brief tenure as Misfits, but she was still leery of composing for Riot. The band's sound was limited by the fact that Rapture most often had to handle the bulk of the melody, except for rare instances where Riot played lead guitar. Minx handled bass and percussion on her synth—a beautiful custom deck Stormer had envied from afar ever since the Stingers had hit town the year before. She'd been writing for the Misfits for so long, it was a major adjustment, remembering that she wasn't writing for Pizzazz or Roxy's vocal ranges, and she couldn't count on Jetta's sax to deepen the sound.
She'd thrown away ten different songs before she finally came up with one that she felt truly showcased the bands best abilities—and played down any weaknesses they might have. But coming up with the melody was only half the problem.
Stormer balled up another notebook page and tossed it at the wastepaper basket in the corner of her studio. "I suck at lyrics."
She sent her pencil after it in a graceful arc. It bounced off the edge of the basket, and rolled across the carpet.
"You do not!" Kimber assured her, picking up her pencil from where it landed. "It's just been a long night, that's all."
It was almost midnight, and Kimber had grave doubts she'd be seeing her bed any time before 2am. Shana and Raya had teased her all week, as she'd stumbled down the stairs of Starlight Mansion bleary-eyed at close to noon in search of coffee and waffles. Mrs Bailey had taken to starting a fresh pot as she fixed lunch for the girls, and Kimber was eternally grateful. She'd joked to Jerrica that afternoon at practice that she was becoming a java addict. But so far, the Holograms had been surprisingly supportive of her "extra-curricular activities."
"And I have to be up early," Stormer moaned, starting in on a fresh sheet of paper. "We've got a recording session scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. If I'm late to another session, we may not have to worry about amending my contract. Eric'll fire me."
"You can always become a Hologram."
"I think there's about as much chance of that as you becoming a Misfit again."
Kimber blanched. "Oh God, no. Never, ever again."
"I hate to admit it, but I really loved it." Stormer's smile was sheepish. "It was so amazing, all those new instruments and voices... I know you guys weren't happy, but the music—"
"See, that's why what Eric's doing is so lousy." At Stormer's uncomprehending look, Kimber explained. "You're so into the music—you'd probably have written a song for Ephemeral if he'd just asked, just for the chance to experiment. You were so the lesser of two evils so far as the Holograms were concerned, that whole mess after Jem and Riot disappeared."
Kimber frowned. "That came out wrong."
"I'll say!" Stormer stuck out her tongue at her.
"Look, the whole time Pizzazz was treating us like slaves, you really were great to work with. I always love performing with you—even if it was stuck as back-up singers for Pizzazz."
"It was just so amazing, having the chance to work with musicians like you guys, trying stuff you'd never done before. Even if... even if, you know, you guys were miserable, you sounded fantastic. You made great Misfits!"
"No offence, but I think we make much better Holograms," Kimber said wryly. "Now—get back to work."
"Slave-driver," Stormer muttered.
"Slacker," Kimber shot back at her, throwing a wadded up page at her head.
"Kimber..." Stormer shook her friend's shoulder gently. Kimber had fallen asleep on the sofa in the corner of the studio around 3am, and Stormer had covered her with a blanket and kept on working. The birds were singing outside, and it was shaping up to be a scorcher outside.
"Don wanna go school..." Kimber muttered sleepily, and Stormer poked her hard in the shoulder.
"Wake up—I think I've got it."
"Huh?" Kimber sat up, rubbing her eyes. Her blouse and slacks were wrinkled from sleeping on the couch, and her eye-shadow was smudged and almost gone.
"The song? The song you've been bugging me to finish? Hello?"
"You finished the song?"
"I think—I think it's done."
Kimber scanned through the pages of script Stormer stuck under her nose, and grinned.
"Stormer—this is great. This is perfect!"
"It better be, after all this work."
Riot's office was next to Eric Raymond's, on the top floor of Stinger's Sound. Unlike Eric's, which had bare walls except for a few art prints and matted and framed features from the trades, Riot's was decorated with giant mounted posters of the Stingers first two album covers, and tour posters from around the globe. Sitting behind an enormous glass desk, Riot was dressed per usual in black and yellow. He had foregone his usual frock coat and ruffled poet shirt for a skin-tight black lycra shirt and a yellow and black leather motorcycle jacket. The mid-morning sunlight streaming in the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him turned his blond hair white. Kimber squinted at the brilliance, and wondered suddenly if that was why his blinds were always open—to create just such an effect.
"Kimber Benton. What an unexpected surprise," Riot's tone was deceptively warm, and Kimber couldn't help but feel a tiny thrill that he actually seemed happy to see her. The thrill died, however, when he gazed past her. "Is Jem with you?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, Riot. I'm on my own."
"What brings you to my domain? You're not leaving Starlight, surely..." His features sharpened slightly, all business. Kimber realised that while in the past she may have assumed Riot was a partner in name only, Jerrica had assured her that Riot took the business of running Stinger Sound very seriously. He was as likely to attend board meetings, and work with the licensing arm as he was launch parties and gala charity events. Blessedly, his two band-mates were nowhere to be found. The last thing Kimber wanted was for that leech Rapture to overhear and butt in. Rapture on her own had proven to be more of a nuisance than all the Misfits put together, and Kimber was amazed she hadn't been busted by the bunko squad yet. Riot's fleet of publicists probably had their hands full, keeping all of her schemes out of the papers.
"I'm actually here on behalf of... a friend," Kimber said coyly, reaching into her purse to pull out the script pages and a cassette tape. Stormer had dubbed off a recording of the DAT file of the song—her synthesiser mimicking Rapture and Minx's playing as best she could with what equipment she had in her basement studio. It was rough, but still powerful. "This friend is a songwriter who's written a song for the Stingers."
"A song for us?" He made no move to pick up the pages of script.
"It's really something I think you'll want to—"
Riot pushed the sheaf of papers back across the desk. "I'm afraid you've come on a fool's errand. We produce all our own material."
"I know—I know. It's just, I really think this song would be perfect for you—"
"Why would I seek perfection, when we've already achieved it on our own?" Riot asked, and Kimber had the sudden desire to shove the pages down his throat. But, thinking of Stormer, she clamped down hard of her anger.
"But won't you even listen—"
"This meeting is concluded, Miss Benton," Riot said coolly, and Kimber knew there was no point in continuing. He may be a perfect gentleman with Jem, but to him, Kimber was nothing but an underling. An annoyance to be dismissed.
"Thanks," she said sourly, and stalked out of the office.
"Conceited, arrogant, jerk," Kimber muttered as she stabbed the elevator button, disappointment souring her mood. "'Why seek perfection?'" she mimicked loftily, and then growled. "I'll show him perfect..."
"Kimber!" Stormer's voice interrupted her rant, and she turned to see the other girl coming down the hallway. Her smile faltered when she caught Kimber's expression.
"Oh no. You talked to Riot, didn't you," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, in case they were overheard. When the elevator doors slid open, they rushed inside, hitting the "close" button for privacy. A Muzak version of the Stingers latest hit was piped in through the tinny speakers, and it made Kimber even angrier as the elevator headed for the lobby.
"He wouldn't even listen to it," Kimber admitted, and Stormer sighed.
"Well, we tried—" Stormer began, shoulders slumped in defeat.
"I am not giving up!"
"What else can we do? It's over, Kimber. We tried our best—it just wasn't good enough."
"I'm not giving up, and you can't either, Stormer. I'll make Riot listen to the song."
"But how?" Stormer asked, mystified.
Tapping her foot absently in time to the beat of the Muzak, a slow smile spread over Kimber's face. "I have an idea. You just leave it up to me."
"Synergy, I need a favour." Kimber stood in front of the giant supercomputer her father Emmett Benton had created with her proverbial hat in her hand.
Synergy's holographic form shimmered into existence, floating a few inches off the carpet. "What manner of favour, Kimber?"
Now that she knew the modulated tones of the computer's voice were based on her mother Jacqui's, Kimber couldn't help but feel comforted, hearing it.
"You have all of the Stinger's songs in your database, right?"
"I have stored them at your request, yes."
"If I input a new song, can you synthesise it? Create their performances and vocals, based on the other recordings?"
"Of course. It is a relatively simply algorithm."
"Synergy, my dad built you to be the ultimate in audio visual experience." Kimber slipped the disc with the DAT file Stormer had recorded in her studio into the data port, and the lights on Synergy's displays immediately started cycling as she read the data. "I know you can create the perfect Stinger song, based on what Stormer's written."
The hologram regarded her with frank curiosity. "Why is this so important to you?"
"She's my friend, and she needs someone to stand up for her."
"Then I will do what you ask."
"Thank you, Synergy." She suddenly wished she could give the hologram a hug—but she knew that her arms would pass though thin air if she tried.
"But Kimber... what will you do with the song, once it is finished?"
"Well, that's where the second part of my plan comes in."
They sat in Jerrica's bedroom, which for the moment was more like an office, as Jerrica had taken of late to bringing work home with her, rather than staying at Starlight Music until midnight. She had spreadsheets and invoices spread in neat and tidy piles on her bedspread, and Kimber had to carefully move three piles to the floor before there was even room for her to sit down.
"But Jerrica, Synergy's signal isn't strong enough to project it from here—"
"Kimber, this is insane!" Jerrica's voice rose, and she calmed herself by closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. As always, when faced with a thorny problem, she began to pace. Kimber wondered if her sister even realised it was an ingrained habit she'd picked up from their father.
"I know Stormer's your friend, and I'm sympathetic to her problem, but I can't believe you'd risk exposing Synergy like this..."
"Riot will never know. How would he even suspect? All you have to do is shadow Riot for the night," Kimber pleaded. "He'd never even know we were there."
Jerrica frowned, and Kimber took that as a sign that she was getting through to her.
"What if it was me?" Kimber countered swiftly, stopping her older sister in her tracks. "What if Eric had stolen my songs? The guy burned mom's tapes. He deserves the worst we can come up with, but this isn't half so bad as what he did to us. What he's doing to Stormer."
Jerrica looked down into her kid sister's face, her expression softening.
"How do I let you talk me into these things?"
"Then you'll do it?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Kimber threw her arms around Jerrica, laughing. "Nope."
Los Angeles glittered and sparkled like a jewel, neon and streetlights reduced to blotches of colour by the height of Stinger Sound. Riot clicked off his desk lamp, plunging his office into shadows, and basked in the reflected glow of his kingdom beyond the glass.
It had been a long day. The Stingers Saturday morning cartoon had been cancelled after only one season, and the toy company which had funded it was panicking, but Riot had no fears. Their albums were selling better than ever, and market research had shown that the children who made up the backbone of the industry's pop music sales were only a portion of Stinger's sales. Their core fan base skewed older—trendy club-goers, college students, and yuppies with more disposable income. They were more likely to forego analogue cassettes in favour of more expensive digital compact discs which produced a cleaner, truer sound. He'd already entered into talks with Sony about marketing a special Stingers CD single to be sold with the new Pocket Discman devices in key markets.
The band he had created and shepherded through four seasons on the streets of Europe, playing any venue that would book them no matter how dingy or far from the tourist's eyes was now literally on top of the world. They would play Wembley Stadium in September, walking the same boards as Johnny Deacon, Luna Dark, and the top acts of the day. Over 85,000 Stingers fans would attend—something that seemed unthinkable, remembering their first year in London, where they were lucky to make enough to pay for petrol and one meal a day, and slept in the van as often as they could get a room at a hostel.
They were a phenomenon in Japan, where the Stingers were outselling Jem two-to-one, something that would have been unheard of a year ago. There would be something called a live on-line chat in France next week sponsored by France Telecom, which had five million subscribers to their Minicom system. Minx had explained to him at length how these computers connected to other computers in people's homes would change the entertainment industry forever, and trusting her instincts, he'd agreed, wanting the Stingers to be at the forefront of whatever new technology could increase their fame. And in a month they were being flown to London to host "Top of the Pops", which to him was the most tangible sign of their global success, even more so than the Grammy Award for Best New Group which adorned the shelves in his office.
Rory Llewelyn had made something of himself. Even his own father had admitted it, and that knowledge had changed everything.
He thought back to Kimber Benton's surprise visit that morning, and frowned. While he respected the younger Benton's accomplishments as a songwriter, he wondered what had possessed her to presume that the Stingers needed outside talent. The three of them—either separately or as a group—had written every song on their first two albums, polishing them through five years of touring and live performances. How could a stranger possibly capture the magic that was theirs alone? It was simply not possible.
Rochelle was still at her desk in the reception area when Riot left, tapping her multi-coloured lacquered nails on the reception desk absently. She slipped her headphones off her ears as he approached, sitting up straighter and flipping her brown hair back self-consciously. When Eric had first hired her, no doubt she had been a great beauty. But her unnatural pallor and thinness now he suspected had less to do with her exercise habits than her penchant for partying with record industry execs, and their habits.
"Are you leaving for the night, Mr Llewelyn?"
"Yes, Rochelle," Riot purred, allowing her to bask in his reflected glory. "You should too—it's late."
"I'm just waiting for Eric—for Mr Raymond," she covered quickly. "I'll see you in the morning, sir!"
Riot smirked as he headed to his private elevator which would take him straight to the underground parking garage. If Eric thought there was anything original about sleeping with his secretary, the man obviously needed to get out more.
As he entered the elevator, he leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. He was looking forward to a quiet evening. Perhaps he would have the chef at his favourite restaurant prepare him some dinner, and deliver it to his penthouse. He couldn't decide if he was craving sushi or steaks when the piped-in music invaded his thoughts.
Ephemeral's new single had been the order of the day ever since Eric had signed them, but this wasn't it. It wasn't even the bland orchestrated Muzak version of any of the bands signed to the label, but seemed to be a fully orchestrated track waiting for the voice tracks to be laid in. The energy of it was infectious and he tapped his foot unconsciously along with the driving rhythm. There was something hauntingly familiar about the melody, but Riot couldn't place it.
As the doors opened onto the darkened parking garage, Riot saw that his Porsche was one of only four vehicles remaining. As he slid into the custom leather interior, he tried to banish the tune from his mind. He pulled out of the parking garage, flipping on the radio as he did so.
He almost blew through a red light when the tune blared through the sound system. He listened expectedly, waiting to see if the DJ at KMAX would identify the recording. It was passing strange that a song with no vocals would be playing on a strictly Top 40 station, and he had to admit, his curiosity had been piqued. But when the final notes faded, there was no voice announcing the artist. The song simply started again, as if on a loop.
Riot flicked the radio off, switching to the second Stingers CD already in the player. He expected to hear Rapture's guitar open the first track, but he was confused when the same tune began to play. He forwarded through all the tracks, but each was the same.
Popping the disc out when he reached a stop light, he glanced down at it, wondering if it had somehow been replaced by a copy. But his face still adorned the cover, beneath the band's name.
"What on Earth...?" he mused aloud. Two girls in a convertible across from him giggled and waved, but he ignored them. Tossing the disc into the backseat, Riot turned the stereo off, and opened the driver's side window. He allowed the warm, dry Los Angeles air to tug at his long hair, with no regard for how it tangled and blew into his eyes.
He was in no mood for a mystery tonight.
"We're losing him!"
Hidden beneath one of Synergy's holograms, Jerrica, Kimber, and the Starlight House van had been transformed into a plain white delivery van. Any passers-by who happened to glance their way would see two dark-haired young men in the driver and passenger seat, not the Benton Sisters. If Riot even glanced in his rear-view mirror to see the van following a discreet three car lengths behind him, there was nothing that might give them away.
It didn't make Jerrica any less nervous.
As they'd sat across the street from Stinger Sound, waiting for the lights to go off in Riot's office, she'd grown increasingly agitated. As much of an egotistical maniac as Riot could be—and she'd seen first hand how much damage he could do, if he perceived himself slighted in any way—she had developed something of a relationship with him over the last year. Well, Jem had, she automatically corrected herself. And she was wary of losing any of the progress she felt she'd made with him, ever since his mother had been hospitalised.
Since he'd reconnected with his estranged parents, Riot seemed to have changed for the better. Now, his comments to her about being her "perfect mate" were less threatening, and almost more of a shared joke between them. He no longer went out of his way to make her relationship with Rio difficult. In fact, he'd been downright civil, the last two times she and Rio had run into the Stingers socially. And he'd been such a huge help in locating Ba Nee's father.
Jerrica couldn't tell if he was simply on his best behaviour while she was around, or if he'd truly changed. And she was chagrined to admit that she was flattered by his attention—more so than she'd perhaps let on to her friends and sister. It was nice, having a relationship that wasn't threatened by her dual identity, free from the emotional minefield that her long history with Rio had become. She didn't want to lose that.
"Kimber—he's going home. I know where he lives." Jerrica favoured her sister with an indulgent smile.. "We're not going to lose him."
Kimber continued to wring her hands. "But Synergy said we have to stay within 100 feet for her jamming signal—"
"Riot has turned off his car stereo," Synergy's voice, projected through the Jemstar earrings, assured them.
Kimber's face fell. "Oh no—"
"Don't worry, Sis. This isn't over yet."
The elevators in his building did not have piped-in music, so Riot was granted a brief reprieve the long journey to his lavish penthouse suite. As he entered his home, however, he clapped his hands over his ears.
The song was playing from every speaker in his state-of-the-art sound system. It sounded even fuller and richer than it had at either Stinger Sound or in his car. He could feel the floors thrumming with the bass, and the whine of the guitar crawled up his spine like an electric shock.
The guitar sounded familiar still, the little flourishes resonating within him, but he swore before this night he had never heard the song before. No lyrics came unbidden to his mind, no melodies or harmonies, as often did when he listened to the instrumental tracks of his own music before they laid and mixed the final vocal tracks.
He opened the CD player, but no discs were inside. He tried switching back and forth between the tape deck, turntable, and CD player, but to no avail. The music continued to pour through the speakers unfettered. He would have simply unplugged the system, cutting off its power, but the outlet was behind the heavy steel and glass cabinet which housed it, and shutting off the power button had had no effect. He was almost afraid that physically unplugging the unit would similarly be a waste of time.
It was as if he was being haunted. By a song, instead of a ghost.
Finally, he gave up, and retreated into the silence of the hallway. The tune thrummed inside his mind, and he knew the only way to banish it was to replace it with something else. A new target in mind, he headed back down to the lobby.
"Evening, Mr Llewelyn." Carl, the doorman, tipped his hat as Riot stormed through the brightly lit lobby of his condo complex. "Can I get you a taxi?"
"Yes. Yes, a taxi would be perfect."
The doorman in his red wool coat despite the warm Los Angeles night whistled sharply, and a yellow and white cab pulled up the kerb.
"The Beyond, in Santa Clara," Riot barked, handing the driver a hundred dollar bill. "Turn off the radio and keep it off."
"Whatever you say, mister," the cabbie said as he pocketed the bill.
The Beyond was packed, and one of the large skin-head bouncers nodded curtly to Riot as he approached. The kids in line merely watched as he was waved beyond the red velvet ropes. The all-ages club was filled to capacity—almost 1000 young people dancing to the pounding beat pumped out over what was admittedly not the best sound system in the world. The cavernous main room was sweltering, and Riot felt sweat begin to trickle down his back beneath his leather jacket. Stripping it off, he commandeered a booth and ordered several over-priced drinks, drowning in the Depeche Mode song blaring through the speakers directly overhead.
Suddenly, the song segued into a familiar tune, and Riot's head snapped up. Standing so he could see over the heads of the dancers, he saw the DJ talking animatedly to one of the sound techs. The dancers, however, continued on oblivious. Riot began fighting his way towards the DJ's raised dais when, for the first time, he heard his own voice chime in over the music.
I see your face in every place
And I hear your voice on every dial
I call your name, but you don't hear me
What about the promise you made me?
Riot froze in his tracks, the sea of dancers pulsing around him, utterly ignoring him as they continued to move to the driving beat which filled the club.
I gave you all I had and more
Tears and blood, but you kept the score
Nothing counts, no words that I say
What about the promise you made me?
It was his voice—there was no mistaking it.
It was also a song he had never recorded, or even heard before today.
"Dude, it's a new Stingers song!" one of the dancers shouted to her friend.
"Dude, I love them."
Meanwhile, the DJ had thrown his hands up in the air in frustration. Riot was jostled by the dancers who, while they recognised his music as quickly as he did, were completely oblivious to his presence among them.
And you take, and you take, and you take, and you take
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
He pushed past the dancers, and fled the club.
As Riot exited The Beyond, Jerrica resisted the urge to duck as he walked right past the van, arm uplifted to hail a taxi. But Synergy's hologram was holding—he couldn't seem them if he wanted to.
As a taxi pulled up to the kerb, Kimber gripped her sister's arm.
"I can't believe I'm about to say this—but follow that cab!"
Jerrica couldn't help but laugh.
Seven clubs later, Riot had given up. The sun was coming up, the sky in the East lightening to a dingy blue-grey, when he finally arrived home exhausted more than just physically.
He'd called Eric Raymond's work and home phone, but there was no answer. It was a Friday night—no telling where Raymond was. But Riot was too weary to hunt the fox to ground tonight. He waved to Marcus, the day shift doorman, as he came inside and leaned heavily against the wall next to the elevator bank which would take him to the top floor and his home.
For the second time that night, he exited the elevators and approached his front door. However, this time something was different. Bending down, Riot picked up an envelope leaning against his door. Pulling out the pages of music inside, a yellow Post-It note stuck to the first page caught his eye.
It bore the name "Phillip Ericson" and an address.
For the second Saturday in a row, Stormer woke to someone leaning on her doorbell. The incessant buzzing followed her as she tugged on her robe. Her clock read 6:47am, and she vowed that best friend or not, she was going to kill Kimber Benton.
"Kimber, what part of 'I don't get up before noon on Saturday' was hard for you to—'" Stormer grumbled as she threw the deadbolt and yanked open her front door.
However, it wasn't Kimber Benton on her front porch, but Riot of the Stingers.
Riot hadn't known what to expect when he pulled up outside the bungalow. The neighbourhood was quiet. He saw a few bicycles in driveways, and carefully tended flowerbeds. Not exactly his usual environs. It was early yet, but he saw a few people walking their dogs, and with young children in strollers, taking advantage of a Saturday morning. One little girl who couldn't have been more than seven stared at him openly from the relative safety of her front garden as he climbed the stairs down to the house which corresponded to the address on the Post-It. He glanced down at his ensemble, and then gave her a rakish grin. He imagined black leather pants weren't quite the look the child was used to.
Riot would have peered in the windows of the house, but the curtains were drawn. All he could see was blue damask. He leaned on the bell, and waited. After a few minutes, he heard footsteps, and a woman's raised voice.
"Kimber, what part of 'I don't get up before noon on Saturday' was hard for you to—'"
She stopped dead when she opened the door, and it took him a moment to recognise the keyboardist from the Misfits.
She was wearing a robe loosely belted, and through the gap in the robe he could see a faded and worn Blue Bloods tee-shirt, and bare legs ending in pink socks. Her thick wavy blue hair was pulled into a messy braid, strands slipping to curl towards her jaw and across her forehead. Without her outlandish make-up, she was much younger than he'd pegged her for, the few times he'd seen her in the past.
"You. You're Phillip Ericson?" he asked, incredulous, and she pulled her robe tighter around her.
"Mary Phillips, actually." She stepped aside, and he followed her inside. "If you'll give me a minute..."
She was blushing, which he found strangely charming. His fury at being led all over town by the phantom recording was subsiding, as he began to see why the Benton girl had been so cagey when she'd visited him in his office the day before.
He remembered the girl now—she was the least rowdy member of her band, least likely to trash a hotel room or smash a musical instrument on stage. He recalled now that she wrote all the music for her band, and whatever he may think of Pizzazz's silly infatuation with him, he could not deny that the Misfits music had power. It was raw, and strong, and it was hard to believe that power came from the timid little girl practically cowering before him.
Any time they'd been at any kind of social function together, she had steadfastly avoided him. Rapture had told him, after he'd returned from his enforced vacation, that Stormer apparently bore him considerable ill-will for his treatment of that fool Pizzazz. Yet she had never shown even a hint of contempt to his face—only cool indifference.
Something was going on—something he was only party to a part of, and he hated being reduced to the role of pawn, when he knew he was the only true king on the board.
Stormer tugged on a pair of jeans, and ran into the bathroom. She gasped when she saw what state she was in, and re-plaited her hair and splashed cold water on her face, which was still puffy from sleep. She brushed her teeth quickly, wondering where she'd left her shoes. Deciding it was her house, and she could go around in her stocking feet if she wanted to when company came unannounced this early on a week-end morning, she took a deep breath and padded back into the living room.
Riot had draped his jacket over the back of a chair and was lounging on her sofa, looking like he owned the place. He practically radiated control and calm, and she bit her lip to quell her sudden case of nerves.
"I can make coffee—" she began, and he waved her concern away.
"No need. I'm not staying long."
"Why the charade?" he asked, arms crossed.
"It's not—I mean, it wasn't supposed to be." Stormer sank onto the opposite end of the couch. "Eric's been selling my music without telling me. Do know what it's like, to hear one of your songs being sung by some other band? A part of you that's just been stolen, taken without anyone ever asking?"
"I have some idea," he said softly, and she waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. "Where does Kimber Benton fit into all this?"
"Kimber was the one who found out what Eric was doing," Stormer explained. "She thought that since you owned half of Stinger Sound, maybe... maybe you could help me."
"Help you," Riot parroted. "Help you what, exactly?"
"Eric has me under contract. He says he can do whatever he wants with my music. But you own half of Stinger Sound. You could make him amend my contract."
"So it was her idea that you write a song for the Stingers?"
Stormer nodded, suddenly feeling foolish. "She thought, if I could write something that you couldn't resist, then you'd go to Eric and... It seemed to make so much more sense when she said it."
"Why not come to me yourself?"
"We've never said more than two words to each other, and I know you don't much like my band, so..." Stormer trailed off.
"So you assumed I would have no time for you."
Stormer played with a loose thread on the hem of her tee-shirt, finding it easier to stare down at the carpet than to meet his eyes. "Yeah."
Riot moved closer to her, tilting her chin up gently so she was forced to look at him. "Do you always let everyone else fight your battles for you?"
She jerked away from his touch. "That's not—I don't!"
"You're young. Talented. Beautiful. And yet you let a man like Eric Raymond take advantage of you."
"Eric's a hard man to fight," she stammered. "He's always holding all the cards..."
"You make yourself easy prey for men like Raymond. Men like me, who take what they want."
She was too shocked by the seductive purr in his voice, the sudden lack of space between them, to think of a suitable comeback. She could only blink as he leaned forward, dark eyes threatening to swallow her.
"I'm not going to sleep with you to get what I want," she said quietly.
He stopped so close she could feel his breath warm on her cheek, that annoying half-smile still playing about his lips.
"I'm hardly asking you to. I don't trade sex for favours. I don't bargain. I don't need to. I only take what's freely given."
"I didn't exactly see Rio giving Jem away like a party favour," Stormer muttered, annoyed at the blush that had risen in her cheeks at his proximity.
"She's hardly his to give," Rio countered with a laugh. "Haven't Mr Pacheco and Jerrica Benton been betrothed practically from birth?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"I never took a single thing that wasn't offered to me. She may lie to him, and she may lie to herself. But she wanted me."
"You wanted her," Stormer said, shocked at his editing of reality. "You're just as bad as Pizzazz, chasing after her no matter how many times she rejects you!"
"The forbidden does have a certain allure, and I bore so easily. I relish a challenge. I must say, you're proving a surprising one."
He leaned towards her again, and Stormer got up from the couch, putting as much distance as she could between them. Part of her knew that she ought to be nice to him, to try and get him to help her. But she didn't feel like being nice. Right now, all she could think about was how angry he was making her.
"I'd take Eric Raymond to court before I'd let you lay a single slimy digit on me, you... you... you creepy, egomaniacal, self-absorbed lothario."
Riot seemed amused by her fury. "Ah, flattery will get you everywhere."
"You're insufferable!" Stormer snarled, completely abandoning any attempt at flattering his ego.
"And you love to suffer. What a pair we would make."
Stormer sputtered for a moment in shock, before she found her tongue. "I do not love to suffer."
"Really? Is that why you've stayed Pizzazz's loyal little lapdog, when it's your hard work that has made her a star? Is that why you allow Raymond to treat you like hired help?"
"Stop it! Stop talking about me like I'm nothing, like I don't have a single thought of my own, like I'm some spineless—"
"Then grow a spine." He stood, and she resisted the sudden urge to step backwards as he advanced on her. "Why are you craving the approval of people who should be on their knees before your talent? You shouldn't have to dupe someone in order to get simply what is your due."
Stormer mirrored his posture, crossing her arms and standing her ground. "There are a lot of things nobody should have to do. But you do them, to survive."
"Is that all you're willing to settle for? Mere survival?" He quirked an eyebrow, smugly superior. "And what about you? Tell me what Mary Phillips shouldn't have to do."
"I shouldn't have to stand here and listen to you—you, of all people! Pass judgement on me. Like you know me. Like you know the first thing about me."
"You've just told me more than I needed to know. You're nothing but a fraud. All your prancing around, your tough girl façade. That's all it is. A façade. You're like a child playing dress-up."
"This coming from a guy who dresses like the Vampire Lestat on- and off-stage," Stormer said derisively.
"Am I supposed to fear the kitten's claws?" He matched her petulance with amusement.
"Could you be a human being for five seconds?" Stormer hissed, disgusted.
His mocking smile faded. "I am always exactly who I am, every second of every day. No one will ever force me to be who they want me to be ever again. Because I won't let them. And the person who wrote this song?" He held up the envelope containing the song she'd written for his band. "Wouldn't either."
"You want to know what I shouldn't have to do?" she said quietly. "I shouldn't have to settle for scraps, for everything, when everyone else lives some charmed life where men fall at their feet, and daddy pays all their bills, and some asshole in a suit gets rich off of my songs. I shouldn't have to beg."
"Are you begging me for my help?"
"No," she snarled. "This was a mistake."
"Yes. It was. From beginning to end. You let Raymond dupe you, you let Jerrica Benton's little sister turn you into a cause, and you let everyone walk all over you. Including me."
"I am not a—a—"
"A doormat? A pushover? Soft? But you are." He reached out and stroked her cheek. "Soft. You only give the illusion of hard edges. And it's not an act you're particularly skilled at maintaining for any length of time. I'm amazed you've made it this far."
Stormer batted away his hand angrily. "I'm amazed no one's knocked your teeth out by now."
"Music is freedom. And you've let yours become a cage."
"I didn't 'let' anything happen!"
"Poor little Stormer. Nothing is ever her fault."
"Oh, just get out." She pointed towards he door, no longer caring that she might be throwing her future out along with him. "Get out of my house."
Nonchalant to the last, he slipped on his motorcycle jacket, as if he'd made the choice to go and she wasn't standing there, ready to grab the nearest heavy object and smash his fat head in.
"Hiss. Spit. Claw. Show me that there's some spirit inside the cowering girl hiding behind her artfully ripped costumes and carefully affected snarl."
"You want me to throw a tantrum?" Stormer asked, utterly confused.
"Tantrums are for children like Pizzazz," he said from the doorway. "I want you to fight for something. I want you to see that you're something worth fighting for."
"I already have a big brother, thanks," Stormer said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I don't need another one."
"I assure you," he purred, his eyes tracing every one of her curves lasciviously, "there's nothing brotherly about it."
He closed the door, and Stormer grabbed a vase off a side table. With a growl of frustration she hurled it against the closed door, just to hear the sound it would make as it shattered.
Stormer tried to keep from fidgeting as she waited on the front steps of the Starlight Mansion. When the door opened and she saw Aja, her heart sank. However, the Hologram for once didn't seem angry to see her. Just faintly puzzled to find the Misfit on their doorstep.
"Um, is Kimber around?"
"I think she's still sleeping." Aja stepped aside so Stormer could come inside. "Mrs Bailey said she and Jerrica got in early this morning. She's been crashed out ever since."
Stormer followed Aja up the stairs, trying not to feel like she was intruding. It had seemed natural enough to visit the mansion while she was working on packaging "Back to Back" with Jerrica and the Holograms. But after the album was packaged and distributed, she'd only come once—for Ba Nee's going away party. Ever since London, Stormer had felt incredibly awkward around Aja in particular.
Kimber had told her a dozen times that Stormer was hardly to blame for Craig's choosing to stay in London. But she still felt responsible for her brother having to keep part of his identity a secret from the woman he loved. Kimber may have been convinced that Aja didn't blame Stormer, but that did little to ease Stormer's conscience.
"Hey, slugabed!" Aja knocked loudly on Kimber's bedroom door. "You've got a visitor!"
Stormer heard Kimber moan through the door, and stifled a giggle.
"Go ahead—it's time she was up anyway."
Aja headed back down the stairs, and Stormer opened the door to Kimber's room cautiously. The pink curtains were drawn, casting the room in a rosy glow, and Kimber was curled up under the lavender bedspread, her head buried under a stack of frilly pillows. Stormer lifted the pillow directly over her friend's head, and poked her in the shoulder.
"Hey, Stormer," Kimber said sleepily as Stormer perched on the end of the bed.
"So, Riot showed up at my place this morning."
Kimber threw back the blankets, coming fully awake in seconds. "Ohmygod! How did it go? Did he love the song?"
"How did you even get him to listen to it?"
"The Great Kimberdini never reveals her secrets," Kimber said with a giggle. "C'mon, spill. Is he going to amend your contract?"
"I... I doubt it," Stormer said hesitantly, and Kimber's face fell.
"Oh, Stormer, I'm so sorry. I was so sure, once he heard the song..."
"Hey—hey, it's not your fault," Stormer said quickly. "You did your best—more than anyone else has ever done for me. And that means a lot. It really does."
"Hey, what are friends for?" Kimber said with a grin, and gave Stormer a quick hug. "So what are you going to do now? About Eric?"
"I think..." Stormer took a deep breath, and sighed. "I think it's time I started fighting my own battles."
"You're in a good mood," Rapture observed as Riot came waltzing into the studio at Stinger Sound Monday morning whistling a jaunty tune. She was leaning against the arm of a couch, absently picking out a tune on her guitar while Minx worked on her synthesiser, the sickly-sweet smell of solder hanging in the air around her.
"I am in a marvellous mood."
"Where were you Friday night?" Minx asked, stepped out from behind her synthesiser, setting the soldering iron on the lip of her toolbox to cool. "I called you, and got your service. There was a fabulous band playing at Le Klub Kool. They had a snake."
Riot flung himself down on the sofa, putting his feet up on a glass coffee table. "I was out—being led on a merry chase."
"Jem again?" Rapture asked, sounding bored.
"No, actually." Riot glanced down at the table and picked up the latest issue of Cool Trash magazine, which featured a colour photo of the Misfits in one corner. "I am content to leave her to the tender ministrations of Rio Pacheco for the time being. She'll come to her senses eventually."
"Sounds like you've picked a new target," Minx observed, a wicked gleam in her eye.
He flipped to the article, and frowned when it appeared to be nothing more than a tabulation of the damage Roxy and Pizzazz had done to a hotel suite on their last Vegas tour. No mention of Stormer at all. "Something like that."
"Anyone we know?" Rapture asked, peering over his shoulder, and he quickly flipped past the article to the celebrity horoscopes.
"Is she rich?"
"Is she famous?"
"Is she rich and famous?" Rapture quirked a brow. "Or a beautiful but penniless urchin?"
"You haven't had one of them in a while," Minx pointed out shrewdly.
"The last one was in Munich."
"I miss Munich," Minx said wistfully, and Rapture frowned.
"I don't miss Munich. You couldn't get a decent vegetarian anything in Munich."
Minx pulled the magazine from his fingers, irked that he wasn't paying attention to them. "Tell us, Riot. We're dying to know."
"Yes—tell us," Rapture purred.
"All in due time, my dears. All in due time." Riot patted each of them on their blonde heads fondly. "Go ahead and start without me. I won't be long."
Rapture shrugged, and picked up her guitar again.
Riot smiled to himself. It was true—he hadn't had a single dalliance since he'd moved back to Los Angeles. He'd been so devoted to winning Jem from her road manager that no one else had appealed to him enough to pursue. And while women constantly threw themselves at his feet, he wasn't much interested in anything that came so easily.
He hadn't lied when he'd told Stormer that he relished a challenge. And she was turning out to be an intriguing one.
He strode down the hallway to the studio the Misfits had booked for the week. As he turned the corner, he saw Eric Raymond in his ubiquitous grey suit stride angrily into the practice space.
Jetta and Roxy lounged on the circular sofa which dominated one corner of the room. Roxy was tossing a drumstick high into the air and catching it one-handed, while Jetta paged through the latest issue of Cool Trash. Meanwhile, Pizzazz was picking over the craft services table, popping grapes into her mouth.
Eric took in the scene with disgust. "What's the hold up, Pizzazz? We need this album finished by next Tuesday!"
"Hey—don't look at me." Pizzazz shrugged. "I was here on time."
"Yeah, Eric," Roxy tossed the drumstick up again. "Stormer's the one holding up practice."
"St-Stormer?" Eric stammered. "Where the hell is she?"
Jetta didn't even look up from her magazine. "Haven't seen her since Friday, ducks. Maybe she's playing hooky."
"Stormer? Hooky?" Eric snorted derisively. "She's the only one of you girls who actually shows up for practice, half the time."
"Maybe she got a boyfriend," Roxy offered, which sent Pizzazz and Jetta into gales of laughter.
"Yeah, right. Except for that unwashed hippie freak, Stormer hasn't had a date in years."
"I don't care if she's dating all of the Fifth Avenue Boys, if she's not here in ten minutes, she'll be out on her ear!" Eric spat, and stormed out of the practice room, almost running into Riot, who was leaning casually against the wall outside the door.
"Misplaced one of your girls, have you?" Riot asked as Eric brushed past him. Eric glared at his partner, and then continued to the elevators.
"Rochelle!" Eric barked as the elevator doors opened on the top floor. His secretary almost dropped the magazine she was reading.
"Yes, Mr Raymond?"
"Find Stormer's home number, and get her on the line."
"Yes, Mr Raymond." Rochelle flinched as Eric slammed the door to his office so hard, the framed Stingers and Misfits posters on either side rattled against the wall.
She had her head buried in her Rolodex when a shadow fell over her, and she looked up into the dimpled smiling face of Rory Llewelyn, who was leaning casually against the reception desk.
"Rochelle, my dear, would you like to make me happy?" His smile was dazzling, and she found herself completely falling into his dark eyes.
"Anything for you, Mr Llewelyn..." Rochelle cooed.
Stormer was dressed for war. It was a different kind of war than she was used to fighting, so she'd chosen her battle attire appropriately.
Foregoing the flower she usually tucked behind her ear, she had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense chignon. And rather than hiding behind her Misfits "war paint", she'd gone with nothing more than dark red lipstick, to try and appear as grown-up and serious as she could.
"Serious" being the word of the day, she wore a dove grey silk suit jacket over a cream-coloured blouse, black slacks, and plain black heels. While part of her worried she looked like a secretary, the rest of her knew she looked every inch as serious a businesswoman as someone like Jerrica Benton. And hopefully it would put Eric off-guard as well.
As the elevator doors opened, she took a deep breath before stepping out into the reception area.
There was no turning back now.
"Mary Phillips, to see Eric Raymond," she said to Rochelle, who stared at her with her mouth hanging open.
"I believe he's expecting me," Stormer said loftily, and stepped past the shell-shocked secretary to throw open the doors of Eric's office.
Riot was in his office when the intercom buzzed.
"Mr Llewelyn? You asked me to call you, if Stormer came to see Mr Raymond alone. She's just arrived."
"Thank you, Rochelle."
"You're welcome, Mr Llewelyn. If there's anything else you need—"
"That will be all, Rochelle," Riot said quickly, and then hit two different buttons on his intercom.
"On strike?" Eric's voice shrieked over the tinny speaker, and Riot couldn't hold back a laugh which, thanks to his speaker's "mute" button, no one but he could hear.
"What do you mean, on strike?"
Normally, the full force of Eric Raymond's anger directed straight at her would make Stormer back down. But she only squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye.
"You heard me. You want a new Misfits album? Then you'd better write it yourself."
"You'll write that album," Eric sneered, "and you'll write whatever I tell you. You're under contract."
Stormer took the thick wad of legal papers out of her purse and held them up in Eric's face.
She grasped the stack and tore them in half. He opened and closed his mouth, looking like nothing so much as a landed fish as the scraps of paper rained down on his blotter.
"Without me, there's no Misfits," Stormer said icily as she snapped her purse closed again. "You know it, and I know it."
Eric recovered quickly, and merely rushed the torn contract aside, leaning back in his chair to regard her with undisguised contempt.
"You think you're so special? Keyboardists are a dime a dozen in this town—I could replace you like that." He snapped his fingers, and Stormer had to work hard to keep from flinching.
"Go ahead! I'd like to see you try and find somebody who'll let you take advantage of her the way you took advantage of me. I may have been a dumb kid when you signed me, but I'm not that kid anymore."
"What are you going to do, Mary? Go solo? Or go back to playing with the Benton brat?" Eric got up and stepped around his desk, getting right up in her face.
"You think it'll be that easy to walk away from me? I'll make sure you're blackballed in this industry—you'll never record in this town again. Do you understand me?"
"Oh—I understand you. I got your number, mister. But there's one person in this town you can't buy off or scare off. Jerrica Benton would record me, and you know it."
She advanced on Eric until he was backed against his desk, hands on her hips.
"How would you like that, Eric? How'd you like losing me to Starlight Music, huh?"
"I found you in a dingy dive bar in Peoria, playing covers and fending off drunks. You could be back there in an instant."
"I don't think so, Eric. Not this time." She spun on her heel and stalked out of his office.
"I'll sue you for breach of contract!" Eric shouted after her. "I'll sue you for everything you've got, and then some. You won't have a pot to piss in, little girl."
Stormer let the elevator doors closed behind her before she sagged against the wall, shaking.
Riot switched off the intercom as he heard the door to Raymond's office slam.
"Well," he said softly to himself. "This is certainly an interesting development."
"Where's Stormer?" Pizzazz asked as Eric came into the studio.
"Stormer's on strike."
"Since when do we have a union?" Roxy rolled her eyes.
"Eric, what did you do?" Pizzazz asked sweetly, buffing her nails on her sleeve.
"Yeah, Yank." Jetta was suddenly at his side, her grey eyes narrowing dangerously as she yanked him closer by his red silk tie. "Our little family was right as rain for once, so what did you do to upset the apple cart?"
Eric swallowed, and stepped backwards, straightening his tie. "All I did was remind her that she's under contract. A contract that ungrateful little brat ripped up right in front of me."
"Is this about that stupid thing with that Finnish band?" Pizzazz asked, sliding off the counter to fetch a soda from the mini fridge. "Jeez, Eric, just pay her off and tell her to get her butt back here. We've got a tour coming up—and a new album we need to get out!"
"Pay her off?" Eric's voice rose on the last syllable. "With what, Pizzazz? You think I'm rolling in money?"
"Last time I checked, between us, the Stingers, and the new acts you've signed, you were making enough to buy back your house in Beverly Hills," Pizzazz pointed out, and Eric swallowed. He wasn't aware that his financial status was out in the open. But Pizzazz didn't press the issue—for once.
"So what do we do?" she asked, surprisingly pragmatic.
"We'll push back the tour dates—"
"And the album?"
"You three can write it."
"Yeah, Eric. 'Cause that worked so well the last time." Roxy tossed her hair, frowning.
"Please. This is Stormer we're talking about here," Eric said dismissively. "Once she cools down, she'll be at my door begging for her old job back."
He blinked as Pizzazz was in his face in an instant. She crumpled the soda can in her fist before tossing it aside.
"She'd better be, Eric." Pizzazz emphasised each word with a poke in Eric's chest, backing him up against the door. "Because this is the mess you made, and you had better clean it up."
"Yeah," Roxy chorused. "You screwed it up—you fix it."
"You heard the lady—get on it, or we'll fix you." Jetta shook her fist in his face, and he stepped backwards, fleeing the studio before his own band could rip him limb from limb.
Eric was concocting elaborate revenge scenarios as the elevator doors slid open. Many of them involved public humiliation for his wayward little Misfit. All of them involved him retaining financial rights to every note she'd ever set to paper.
He was going to enjoy seeing her living in a cardboard box and panhandling on the streets of Los Angeles for spare change. Maybe she'd even run back to the Midwest with her tail tucked between her legs. Even better. He could market a Misfits Greatest Hits album that would rake in the cash, maybe even more than a new album would.
"Rochelle!" he shouted as he strode past his secretary's desk. "Get me my lawyer on the phone! Now!"
"Yes," came a voice from his own chair, freezing him in his tracks. "Do that."
"Riot?" Eric was completely taken aback to find his supposedly "in name only" partner leaning back in his custom leather chair, feet resting atop his desk.
"By all means," Riot continued. "Let's bring in the entire legal department."
Stormer let her stocking feet dangle off the end of the couch as she shook her hair free. The second she'd gotten home, she'd ditched the fancy duds and tugged on a pair of jeans and her favourite red sweater. She knew she ought to hang the suit up, instead of leaving it in a puddle of silk in the middle of her bedroom floor. But all she wanted to do was feel like herself again.
"I'm so proud of you, Mary."
She pressed the cordless phone closer to her ear, straining to hear her brother over the background noise of the Unicorn Club. She was eternally grateful the time difference allowed her to place a transatlantic call and catch him between sets while it was still daylight in Los Angeles.
Craig had been incredibly patient as she'd laid out labyrinthine story of her battle with Eric, and she was a bit taken aback with the glee with which he had met the news that her days at Stinger Sound might be numbered.
"You might not be so proud of me, the next time you come to visit and have to stay at the Y," she pointed out wryly.
"Hey, a tent on the beach will do me, you know that. And you know you're better off without them, Mary."
"Am I?" Her brother had never made any secret of how he felt about her band-mates, and he'd been horrified when he'd found out how they had been treating her. So there was not much love lost between them. But Stormer wished he could understand that with him off in Europe, as rocky as her relationship with Pizzazz could be, the Misfits were her family. And she hated walking out on her family. "Craig, Eric was right about one thing—I was nothing before the Misfits. Anything I have, I owe to the band."
"Mary, that's not—"
"Don't, Big Brother," she warned him, her eyes smarting with sudden tears. "C'mon, you know it's true. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, playing with bar band after bar band, before Eric and Pizzazz found me. My talent may have gotten me this far, but no one would ever have heard me at all, if Eric hadn't signed me."
"That doesn't mean they're not taking advantage of you."
"I know. I do. It just..." she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand ineffectually. "It hurt so much, what Pizzazz did. And Roxy and Jetta haven't even called or come by to see me..."
"You can't back down, pipsqueak. You know that. You give that Raymond guy an inch, and he'll just bulldoze you."
"I know. I know that. It's just... I guess I just expected my own band to back me up, you know?"
"Don't worry—when the Blue Bloods play La-la-land when we finally get our U.S. tour together, Mason will put us all up at the Ritz."
She laughed, glad as always for her brother's ability to cheer her up no matter what kind of funk she was in.
"How's Mason doing?" she asked, glad to change the subject at last and discuss something other than her immanent unemployment.
Stormer tried to picture Mason—even though she'd only met him the once, very briefly. She'd spent more time with Alan and James than the band's leader, who had been preoccupied with his upcoming birthday and what that meant for his family's estate. She had a fuzzy memory of a guy about her age, dark auburn hair pulled back in a pony-tail and a warm smile.
"Fine. Better than fine, now that the mess with his inheritance is cleaned up. He asked about you, actually," Craig added coyly.
"What did you tell him?" she squeaked.
"That he's not good enough for you."
"What would you do with yet another itinerant musician anyway? Isn't one in the family enough?"
"He's not just an itinerant musician, for cripe's sake, he's an Earl!"
"Don't remind him—he'll get a swelled head. It's hard enough, touring with him as is. And anyway, since when do you think anything less than royalty is good enough for my baby sister?"
She rolled her eyes. "How'd the tour go?"
Craig sent her postcards from all over Europe, as the Blue Bloods had launched their first major tour that summer. Kimber had told her Aja had gotten her share as well, the guitarist had walked on air every day a new one arrived in the post. This was the first time she'd managed to get Craig on the phone since they'd wrapped up their whirlwind tour, and his postcards had been short on details.
"Same old, same old. Ate too much chocolate in Geneva, and drank too much wine in Nice." She could picture his shrug. Having done her share of touring, she still thought it was terribly exciting, visiting new places and meeting new people. Even if Roxy was always complaining she couldn't get a decent hamburger and fries from the hotels Eric booked them into.
"Alan and James fancied the same bird in Venice," Craig continued, "and had a few too many and bloodied each other's noses in a public fountain."
"'Fancied the same bird?' You've been in London too long. You're starting to pick up the lingo. When is this U.S. tour happening, huh? I miss you."
"I miss you too, Sis. We're aiming for September, but I'll see if I can't swing a trip home before that. August is dead here anyway."
"August would be great—" Stormer began, and was interrupted by the doorbell. "Hang on, there's someone at the door."
Cradling the phone against her chest, Stormer pulled the drapes of the bay window which overlooked the street aside to see who had come calling this time.
"Craig? I'm going to have to call you back."
"Everything okay?" She could hear the concern in his voice, though an ocean separated them.
"I think so."
Outside, parked just behind her orange Volvo, was a fairy-tale carriage drawn by four snow white horses, complete with coachman and footman in red and gold livery.
Stormer approached the coach as if she thought the gilded lions decorating the doors would leap down and bite her. Mr Matthews across the street was frozen in the act of watering his lawn, and could only stare open-mouthed as the horses pawed the asphalt and shook their manes. All around the neighbourhood, she could see curtains twitching, and hear the excited cries of kids as they pointed and dragged their parents towards the coach.
"Mary Phillips," the footman said in a thick Hungarian accent, "your carriage awaits."
"You've gotta be kidding me."
"Mr Rory Llewelyn cordially requests your presence, miss."
"Oh he does, does he?" Stormer folded her arms, lifting her chin a fraction. The last thing she wanted right now was to be in the middle of one of Riot's infamous games.
The footman opened the door to the coach, and bowed low from the waist. "We'll have to hurry, miss, if we'll make the curtain."
"The curtain?" Stormer asked, bewildered.
The coach pulled up to the stage door of the theatre just as the sun was going down. As she alighted, Stormer frowned as she could hear Ephemeral's opening act. They were playing "Nothing Matters"—a song she'd written the previous summer to be played on the acoustic guitar as a slow ballad, not jazzed up for a full band—and playing it badly. Their bassist was having trouble keeping up with the chord changes, and whoever had rearranged it had transposed it into a key that their lead singer could handle, her breathy voice grating on Stormer's last nerve as she pushed her way past the legion of security guards covering the stage door. A stage manager with a clipboard and headset approached her when she reached the wings.
"I'm sorry, the backstage area is for—" the woman began, and Stormer pushed past her, craning her neck as she scanned the crowd.
"Where is he? Where is that blow-dried piece of—"
"I see Cinderella has made it to the ball," Riot's voice cut off whatever insult she was about to hurl at him as he appeared at her elbow. He was wearing a gold satin top, the deep V showing off as much of his tanned chest as it covered, and skin-tight black snakeskin pants tucked into knee-high boots. Stormer whirled on him, her mouth compressed into a tight line by her anger.
"Is this your idea of a joke? Making me come here so I could hear first hand how Eric's new band is butchering my music?"
Riot ignored her, turning to the stage manager who looked mortified to be caught between two feuding rock stars. "Adele, my dear, please get Stormer an all-access pass?"
"Right away, Riot." The stage manager scurried off.
"So good of you to join us," Riot said smoothly, moving to kiss her hand. She snatched her fingers away.
"You wanted me to fight? Oh, I fought, all right. Eric threw me out on my ear, and is threatening to sue me for breach of contract. I hope you're happy—"
"Charming as always, Miss Phillips. I believe you know Ms Pierce and Ms Horn?"
Riot stepped aside, and Stormer blanched as she saw the VJ and gossip maven swoop in for the kill.
"Stormer, is there any truth to the rumour that you've left the Misfits?" Lindsey asked, shoving a microphone in her face while her cameraman clicked on the light on top his camera, blinding her. "Will you be recording with Kimber Benton again? Or have you set your sights on a solo career?"
"Riot, you dog you," Harriet batted Riot's arm playfully as she tossed her dyed blond hair. "Do I detect a budding romance? Spill, baby. Harriet Horn is all ears."
"You'll have your story, ladies. That I promise you. You need only be patient."
Riot took Stormer by the arm, leading her away from the pack of jackals as Adele pressed a white laminated backstage pass into his hand.
Stormer jerked her head towards Lindsey and Harriet, who seemed none too thrilled at being left behind. "What are they doing here?"
"Like you, they are my guests." Riot slipped the plastic cord of the all-access pass over Stormer's head as if it were a priceless diamond necklace. "There. Now no one can tell you you don't belong."
"What the hell are you doing?" Stormer hissed in frustration as he pulled her towards the shadows in the wings of the stage while sound techs and roadies cowered and rushed to get out of their way as they struck Ephemeral's equipment.
"Don't you trust me?" Riot purred, and Stormer tried to take a step back but her back met the wall.
"As far as I could throw you!"
"Tease." She hated the way his cheeks dimpled as he smiled. Hated how he refused to acknowledge her anger, instead pretending this was a social visit. Hated how he'd managed to back her into a corner physically and emotionally.
"Don't try and play me, Riot. I am not in the mood."
"Play you?" He put a hand to his chest, miming being wounded. "I resent the implication—"
"You're only helping me because you think it's a game," she cried in frustration. "But it's not a game. This is my life we're talking about here. I could lose everything—my career, every penny I've saved, my house, the clothes off my back. Everything. Don't you understand? Don't you care?"
The mocking smile vanished. "Do you think I'm so heartless?"
She froze at the apparent sincerity in his voice. "I—I don't—"
His expression was unreadable as he suddenly slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her to him. The kiss took her by surprise, and all she could do was grab a handful of his costume top to keep her balance. This sort of thing had never happened to her before. She had no frame of reference, outside of sappy movies and paperback romance novels. By the time it occurred to her that she should shove him away, he let her go.
She almost stumbled backwards as he stepped away from her. His dark eyes danced as he wiped away a smear of her lip-gloss from his chin with the ball of his thumb. While she gaped at him, at a complete loss for words, he stepped out onto the stage where Rapture and Minx waited for him to begin their first set. As always, the spotlight found him immediately, and the crowded erupted into a roar as the music started.
Stormer blinked as she recognised the opening guitar riff. They were playing her song. The one she had written for the group—and the one Riot had refused to even listen to. Despite herself, Stormer was transfixed as Riot lifted the mic to his lips and strutted across the stage.
I see your face in every place
And I hear your voice on every dial
I call your name, but you don't hear me
What about the promise you made me?
I gave you all I had and more
Tears and blood, but you kept the score
Nothing counts, no words that I say
What about the promise you made me?
And you take, and you take, and you take, and you take
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
Betrayal is easy, you don't bat an eye
You kiss me and kill me sweetly good-bye
I'm nothing more than a distraction
What about the promise you made me?
And you take, and you take, and you take, and you take
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
Give me what's mine and let me go
Give me what's mine and let me go...
And you take it all and I take the fall
In your voice and your eyes I look for the prize
But you smile and you lie and I don't know why...
As the Stinger's voices faded away, the world rushed back into sharp focus. Stormer glanced behind her, scanning the walls for the comforting glow of an exit sign, but there were stagehands and equipment cases blocking any attempt at escape she could have made.
"Have you enjoyed the music you've heard tonight?" Riot asked the crowd, and was met with a deafening roar of approval.
"Would you like to meet the woman who wrote all of the songs you've heard?" Riot shouted into the mic. Stormer clung to the deep shadows cast by the curtains, wishing she could remain invisible.
A wild cheer went up as he strode towards the wings, and Stormer shook her head, mouthing 'no' as he grasped her gently by the elbow, steering her towards the stage.
She was blinded as Riot pulled her into the spotlight and suddenly she was faced with five thousand screaming Stingers fans. She was acutely aware of the fact that she wasn't armoured with one of her Misfits stage costumes. She had no leather, chains or lace to make her feel like the Misfit she knew she was. In the glare of the stage lights, she was just a girl in jeans and a sweater, suddenly too warm beneath the lighting rig and the weight of thousands of eyes who hadn't paid their tickets to come and see her tonight.
"Then allow me to present to you Mary Phillips—who wrote the song we've just performed, as well as all the songs you heard from our opening act, Ephemeral. You may know her better as Stormer of the Misfits."
"Stor-mer! Stor-mer! STOR-MER!" the crowd began to chant as Riot reached for her hand, shocking her out of her stupor.
Gathering as much grace as she could, she bowed. The crowd went insane as Riot kissed her hand, and pulled her closer.
"Let Eric Raymond try and sell your work without your knowledge now," Riot purred in her ear, while Lindsey's camera crew rushed onto the stage.
After Riot's carefully orchestrated publicity stunt, one of the security guards offered to show Stormer to the Stinger's dressing room where she could wait for him for the rest of the show. Stormer nodded absently, still feeling lost at sea after the events of the evening. She passed the lead singer of Ephemeral in the hall by the Green Room, and was surprised when the tiny slip of a thing with her dyed black hair rushed up to her, smiling.
"Your music—" she began.
"Save it, sister." Stormer tried to move past her, but the singer stepped in her path to block her way.
"No—your music, it is the wonderful! So the wonderful, we perform it and finally meet you." She pumped Stormer's hand vigorously, and with a start, she realised the girl in front of her was just a kid. Just another dumb kid Eric had signed so he could manipulate her. She suddenly felt sorry for her, a pawn in a game she didn't even know Eric was playing with her.
"Thank you, thank you so much," the girl continued, bobbing her head up and down like a bird's.
"You're... you're welcome..." Stormer stammered, feeling a blush rise in her cheeks at the unexpected praise from someone whom she'd written off.
She let the guard lead her back to the dressing room areas, and Stormer closed the door behind her, leaning against it and closing her eyes. She should go. She should go home now, before Lindsey and Harriet had a chance to corner her. She should go home and draw the curtains and hide before Lindsey's story hit the airwaves and word got back to Eric what had happened here tonight, and he demanded her head on a platter.
She opened her eyes, and took in her surroundings. She'd been here before—it was one of the first large venues the Misfits had played back when Harvey Gabor and Eric had launched Misfits Music. But she hardly recognised the dressing room, which Riot's people had transformed for the evening from a well-appointed but ultimately functional room lit by dangling bulbs to an opulent paradise. Fresh flowers sent up a heady perfume from vases scattered over every available surface, and the couches had been covered with red velvet and plump cushions in gold, purple, and cream.
A table in the corner had bottles of Evian in a giant bowl of ice, and round trays of sushi arranged like flower petals around stars of picked ginger and balls of wasabi. Another tray held slices of melon and balls of fresh mozzarella wrapped in slices of prosciutto so thin they were practically transparent, and fresh spears of asparagus next to delicate glass bowls of hollandaise sauce for dipping. There was also an enormous selection of fresh fruit; not just the usual grapes, pineapple and apples Stormer was used to, but golden slices of mango, vibrant green kiwis, and even a bowl of pomegranates cut in half, their glistening red seeds shimmering like drops of blood.
Stormer reached for one, and then paused, her 7th grade English class mythology unit reminding her that perhaps that was not the way to go. Instead, she chose a plump slice of mango, and cracked a bottle of water to wash it down. Roxy would have been SOL, Stormer thought with a smile as she filled a plate with more fruit and carried it to the cluster of deep couches in one corner. Not a hamburger in sight.
She lay back against the velvet cushions, closed her eyes, and listened to the Stingers music floating down the hallway, the bass making the floor beneath her feet vibrate.
She should go. She should run away. She should hide.
As if in a dream, she reached up and traced her bottom lip with a fingertip. If her overprotective big brother didn't even think royalty was good enough for her, she shuddered to think what he'd make of tonight's most bizarre development.
Slipping off her boots, she tucked her feet up under her, closing her eyes. The Stingers would be on stage for at least another hour, and as the rush of adrenaline began to wear off, all she could think about was how little sleep she'd gotten the last three nights. She would just close her eyes for a moment—getting in a quick cat-nap before she faced the lion in his den.
Stormer woke from her nap to find Riot standing over her, the corner of his mouth quirked in an indulgent smile.
"From Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty. You're hitting all the classics tonight." He'd stripped off his top, and a towel hung around his neck, drops of water glistening in his hair.
She sat up quickly, rubbing her eye with one knuckle. "I'm sorry—I must have... must have fallen asleep." She surreptitiously checked the corner of her mouth for drool and blessedly found none.
"Not the response I'm usually looking for, with my performances." He retrieved an unopened bottle of water from the table and she tried not to watch his throat as he tipped it back, draining it completely.
She glanced around the dressing room. It was deserted except for the two of them. "Where are Minx and Rapture?"
"Signing autographs for the unwashed masses." He patted his throat and chest with the towel before he sank onto the couch beside her, so close she could feel the heat of his thigh against hers. "I wanted to speak to you—alone."
Stormer swallowed self-consciously. "About... about what?"
"Business," he said with a dazzling smile.
He reached into the bag at his feet, and withdrew a thick manila envelope, which he handed her with a flourish. Her eyes widened as she pulled out a new contract, Eric's signature hastily scrawled on the last page.
"A decidedly new and improved version. Make sure you read it, this time, before you sign on the dotted line," he added with a wink.
She paged through it, noticing that not only did it cover her retaining the rights to any music she wrote for the Misfits, but allowed her ample room to write for other artists, even those not currently represented by Stinger Sound. And there was even a codicil requiring Eric pay her back royalties for all of the songs Ephemeral had recorded. When she returned to the Misfits—and she would return, she decided, after having a few choice words with Pizzazz about what she was and wasn't allowed to do with the songs Stormer shared with her—it would be her own choice—not because Eric forced her to.
She touched the contract, as if to assure herself that it was real. "Riot, I—I don't know what to say."
"Don't thank me," he said quickly. "This isn't entirely all out of the goodness of my heart."
She tried to cover her disappointment. "Then what is it?"
"I may only own half of Stinger Sound, but it's my name up there in lights—my band. My creation. Eric Raymond's business practices shouldn't be allowed to tarnish my perfect reputation."
She concentrated on slipping the pages back inside the envelope, turning the clasp securely. It gave her something to do with her hands. "I see."
"Do you?" he asked gently, reaching out to slip a finger beneath her chin. He stared into her eyes, and she felt her cheeks begin to burn with an unwanted blush as he ran his thumb lightly over her bottom lip.
"I—I should be going," she said quickly, moving away from his touch to tug on her low boots. "It's late. I didn't mean to stay this long."
"As you wish." If he was hurt at her rejection, there was no trace of it in his face as he stood and pulled on a crisp white dress shirt. "I'll have my driver take you home."
"The coach turned into a pumpkin?" Stormer asked, unable to suppress a smile.
Riot bowed, and kissed her hand like a gentleman. "The best ones always do."
The stage door was thronged by fans, clamouring for the Stinger's attention behind the line of security guards. Minx's mouth dropped open as Riot approached, Stormer's arm tucked in his, but Rapture gave her band-mate a none too subtle jab with her elbow, and she looked back down at the CD she was signing for a young man in a purple silk shirt.
The crowd surged forward when they caught sight of Riot, calling his name and waving programme booklets, CDs and tapes.
"My adoring public," Riot said simultaneously apologetic and brimming with pride. He gave her hand a squeeze before he dropped it and moved to the closest autograph hound with a captivating smile.
Stormer was looking for an opening through which she could slip by unnoticed when a hand reached out, plucking at her sleeve.
"Can I—can I have your autograph?" a breathless young girl with short-cropped purple hair wearing a yellow Stingers tee-shirt gasped.
"My autograph?" Stormer echoed, and looked down to see the Ephemeral single in her hand.
"You're Stormer, right?" the girl asked, green eyes shining beneath the glitter. "You wrote those songs, right?"
"Yeah. Sure, kid." She glanced around to find a guard she could ask for a pen. Suddenly Riot was at her side, pressing a silver Sharpie into her hand. His hand lingered on the small of her back for just a second, before he went back to signing his own autographs.
Her mouth twitching in an irrepressible smile, Stormer opened the CD insert to the liner notes and deliberately crossed out the name "Phillip Ericson."
With a flourish, she wrote "Mary Phillips" and handed it back to the fan, who squealed with delight.
Catching Riot's eye, she winked.
"Okay, who else wants one?" she shouted to the crowd, who began waving papers, programmes, tee-shirts, ticket-stubs and CDs in her face. She couldn't stop the laugh that welled up in her throat, and her face was split in a wide smile as she began signing.