From north to south, it was…something that certainly wasn't Washington or Oregon. Sure it had trees and farmlands and towns and cities and gas prices that were bleeding him drier than a raisin in the summertime. And it really wasn't anything like Canada, which brought around the key difference between the north and south that all Californians didn't seem to appreciate enough: it was fantastically, gloriously, stupendously warm. It might have been early evening and it might have been overcast and threatening to rain, but his windows and car top were down without a damn care.
Because this was southern California and he was making sure to take it all in for as long as possible, just in case it was somehow taken away from him. His land of opportunity, he'd said, before he left Vancouver, the chance to finally make it. Everyone who entered California had that same sort of dream: actor, agent, lawyer, comedian, singer, dancer. To make it big in the world of money and fame.
Melvin Kresnick felt vastly different about his dream.
Everyone thought: to be big, you had to start big. The smarter people understood it better: to be big, the best place to start was on the above-average small. And that's where Melvin was going to start on his road toward Underground Music, on the center stage between competition.
'Battle of the bands' were just like American Idol, but fairer, Melvin reasoned. People got on stage, performed their pieces, and everyone got one opinion. There was no voting off or the only ones ever contracted were the runner-ups and overall winners. One person or group wins the overall prize, and depending how hooked up the event producers are, even a loser could score. Not winning the physical prize didn't mean everyone walked away with nothing.
And it was a curious contest too. Cosplay? For rock bands? How many Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson look-a-likes would show up? Dressing up wasn't required by either participants or audience, but it was highly encouraged in the spirit of the concert's theme. Of course, if you could afford to dress up, all the better. Melvin had a confirmed audition when all he had enough money for was gas and food round-trip, so playing dress-up was out of the budget. At the same time, he didn't mind. "Why hide my face when I want the world to know who and what they're getting?"
Besides, he'd get himself a costume afterwards, when he won. When he won, not if; undermining your skill didn't get your mind in the nock of success. Positive, straight-forward thinking set you at your best when the worst was just about to drop-kick you in the head. Melvin smiled to himself. Everything about this place felt good enough for the right sort of positive energy.
Trees line the left of him. Cows and their fields line the right. The car was cruising sixty-five miles down a thirty mile-per-hour back-road. He could even hear the last songs of the birds before they went to sleep…which meant the music blasting from his speakers wasn't loud enough. He jacked up the volume from uncomfortable to head-splitting.
"Cutting, cutting, the flesh of my burden
Splashing in the east of the bloody pond
Can the darkness come around midnight
And hide my sins away
"Injury my pride patch my jealousy
Let me see you for you are
Captured kept and held by you
I'm in your eyes. So let me out
"I wanna see that black side of the moon
You can take me there with a single look
The poison cast aside for your kisses
Leaves me vulnerable to your stings
"Injury my pride patch my jealousy
Let me see you for you are
Captured kept and held by you
I'm in your eyes. So let me out"
The turn-off to the route intersection widened to a two-lane, and Melvin let his car coast slower and slower into the left-turn lane, parking himself beside a black SUV at the red-light, waiting. It wasn't a simple affair, however, as the driver of the other car started blasting the horn as urgently as possible. Melvin blinked, confused as he looked around, until he set eyes on the driver, glaring fitfully at him, with the eyes of two kids staring at as well from the backseat. They were a bit more composed, but the younger one was covering his ears. Must have an earache or something.
"Turn that garbage down!" the driver screamed over the noise of the pounding drums and blaring bass, once his window was rolled down. "Do you have any courtesy for people, you punk?!"
Melvin was, rightfully, affronted by the demand and the insult. He was, after all, the voice of his generation (or so his father told him sarcastically ever time he got too loud for the house) and was not about to let The Man get him down. So, with a nod, Melvin popped the CD out of the player, bringing the intersect to the peace of cars crossing before them: less aggravating form of noise pollution, by any standards. The man in the SUV didn't even say 'thank you' as he began rolling up his window.
Except once the fresh voice of Aerosmith graced the wind just as vigorously as the last band, Melvin took his left turn in the perfect timing of the newly lit green arrow pointing him in the right direction, leaving the adult and his kids behind. And he let himself laugh some, because even in the 'wonderful' and 'prestigious' States, people were still the same.
"They'll be listening to me soon enough," he said, quiet in the fact of his positive thinking simply being reassured by the pulse emitting from the car speakers. Life was speaking his language, and so was success. This concert was a meal ticket into the high-life, he just knew it...or at least the first definitive step.
Melvin blinked rapidly as the first vestiges of rain began to sprinkle both his windshield and his eyes and, regretfully but responsibly, pushed the button that replaced the hood overhead. Mom would kill me if the car flooded. And the thought amused him, imagining his poor beat-up rustbucket up to its gills with water. Like a redneck kiddy pool.
But as the idea of making the car just that, once he'd made himself a higher standard of living, the sudden squealing of tires and the world freaking out before his eyes put everything on hold. The crunch of metal grating into metal, the faint trace of rancid smoke, his body jarring and jousting inside the seatbelt, and his heart seizing painfully preceded the split second finale of the most deafening explosion he'd ever heard up close to the source.
Belatedly, Melvin began to breathe again once the world, still very wrong in his view, at least wasn't spinning in front of him. Lifting his head from the upper cusp of the steering wheel, it ached more and more as it returned to its preferred vertical positioning. His fingers were cramped, curled like iron rods around the leather of the wheel, not willing to let go while his forearms shook and shuddered. He stared out the spider-webbed window; the cracked trunk of a tree stared balefully back. Splinters and bark sprang forward, a decent dent curled underneath his bumper. And as the sprinkle of rain grew to a mature helping of it, his view straight forward was obstructed by the new wall of water lazily slipping and sliding into and over the window damage.
The car wasn't burning, but also wouldn't start. A moron could tell you it had finally reached that great junkyard in the sky after being on Earth for years well beyond its time. It was raining. He was shaken and stirred from the shock. And his first coherent thought was, Mom is going to kill me.
It might have been seen as silly, a grown man thinking back to his mother when there were obvious concerns presented right before him. However, it made sense to him and, as he released a great gust of air from his chest, Melvin managed to unclamp a hand to grab at the door handle. The door opened with a characteristic screech-of-pressure and Melvin climbed out, trying on to let the rattle of his knees bring him down, figuratively or literally.
The rain was the right sort of cool to match the warm air, but getting wet was still unpleasant. Melvin looked forlornly at the front of the car, finally thinking rationally: How am I supposed to get anywhere now?
He scrabbled for the cell phone in his pocket, and scowled when it reported there was no service. "What else can go wrong?" he muttered sourly, as he stamped around for service, without receiving so much as the tiniest bar. What did you expect for a place that screamed Middle of Nowhere? But Karma wasn't done with him, as a sinister and ominous groan of Treedom caught his attention, just in time to watch a previous free-dangling tree limb—a dead tree limb, he noted, finally realizing what poor sort of plantlife he'd rammed into—crash gracelessly onto the hood of his car, tearing straight through the leather of it, and into the driver's and passenger's seat. Which led to a more drastic crunch, as a secondary branch planted itself straight into the heart of his beloved, and very well used acoustic guitar that had been sitting beside him the entire ride.
Melvin stared, agape, aghast, and almost bubbled into hysterics. Because that could have been him that got impaled.
He shivered, convinced himself it was the rain, and started gathering his things. A sign on the side of the road said a privately owned hotel was just up ahead, and that seemed like the best place to start this misadventure. Hopefully he'd get service before then.
It was a hour and a half before he reached that hotel, with still no help from his mobile carrier in getting him help. In that hour and a half, the rain has developed into an all-out thunderstorm, he was muddy from the knees down after the trek following the dirt off-path, and vowed never to criticize techies when they had to haul amplifiers around by hand with, "Come on, put your back into it!"
The lights were still on, he made out, as the darkness revealed some semblance of a farmhouse, renovated to be the hotel, he imagined. Except it was creepy. Like a place Dracula or ghosts would camp out for the summer holidays. But Melvin was willing to be brave if it meant getting himself out of the wet, because he was sure everything he owned was now soaked too, and a chance to get it dry was far more tempting.
The tracks in the mud driveway leading to the car parked right beside the farmhouse not only said the place was still open for business, it had either a recently active customer or staff. It reassured him. Just a little; the house was still pretty creepy, and it only got worse hearing the creaking of the porch stairs under weight.
Melvin opened the door with a cautious peer inside. What were the rules for places like this? Reservation only? Knock and wait for a bellboy? Go right in? "Ha-llo?" he crooned uneasily. "Anyone home?"
When no one answered back, Melvin wanted very much to just close the door, camp out on the porch, and pray he'd be unseen until dawn. That would have been his plan too, until he spotted an antique rotary telephone on what looked like the front desk, inside the foyer. That was it. He walked inside, dragged his stuff in, and closed the door firmly behind him.
The lights flickered, out of sync with the lightning flashing on the other side of the windows. Melvin grit his teeth and was just about to call out again when the sound of heavy footsteps climbing a staircase somewhere ahead of him put the pressure of 'now or never' upon him. Melvin Kresnick was not a man who whimpered in the face of danger, but until the likely basement door swung out from below the stairs to the second floor, he was greatly considering it.
The man who emerged had a flashlight in hand, turned off, and jumped a mile when he realized Melvin was standing on the welcome mat, a stranger just there. Melvin belated wondered if the old man carried some form of weapon on him. Some did, in his neighborhood, especially the older of the middle-age range, in their forties and fifties; this guy fit that bill. "Good evening, young man," he managed to say, under an accent and the candid fidgeting of trying to compose himself. Trying to place accents was never Melvin's specialty. Everything from Europe sounded German to him, except German itself. That sounded Russian. "Can I help you?"
"Uh..." Melvin anxiously tried to swipe his hair back. "Yeah, um, my car sorta crashed up the road and I was wondering if I could use your phone."
"Out-of-towner?" Melvin said nothing as the old man moved behind the desk. Americans were funny when it came to Canada. "I'm afraid the power's out, and so are the landlines."
"Uh..." He made a gesture to the wall lamps. They were still on, and still flickering.
The man shook his head. "There's a generator in the basement for times like these. People are running into telephone poles all the time out here." Melvin had the distinct discretion to blush, but at least he could freely admit the power outage was not his fault. "You can use the phone in the morning; it'll be up by then."
He grimaced. He really didn't want to wait that long. But, when in Rome... "Got any rooms open?"
The old man looked him over, trying to dissect him, Melvin bet, before he turned around and took a key with a tag out of a cubbyhole. "My name is Gerald Cunningworth," he said, before holding out the ring for Melvin to snatch. "You're room is on the second floor, number twenty-three, on the left. Aht." The key was withheld as Mr. Cunningworth gave him a sharp look. "We'll talk about payment tomorrow."
Now that is luck, Melvin thought as the key was finally relinquished to him, and he fought a smile. He gathered his bag and ruined guitar case and made it to the first step before Mr. Cunningworth left him with one last thing: "And don't wander up to the third floor. The man up there has left instructions that he does not want to be disturbed."
Melvin made a mock salute and looked up the stairwell. A second later, he changed his mind and turned to ask about food. But he stopped after one short noise.
Mr. Cunningworth was gone.
Melvin gaped, eyes comically wide, and just decided it wasn't worth the fear factor. "Creepy," he crooned, and hurried up the stair as fast as he could haul.
The room was sparsely kept to date, but it was marginally clean, which is all Melvin needed. The bathroom was, however, lacking something—water pressure; it made him wary to use anything beyond the sink. "Be lucky for the small things," his mother often told him. "It's the small things are going to kill me in this house," he muttered, shaking himself out of his wet clothes and trading them for the last clean set he had, before flopping backwards on the bed in just pants. It was time to hit the launders after tomorrow.
His regret to not ask Mr. Cunningworth about food was eating at him, but he didn't want to step foot down there without it being daylight...so he knew where he was running if the man decided that he was food instead. "Old fogy vampire," he snickered. The owner had been refined, and when one is refined, European, and could disappear like magic, they just had to be vampires. Obviously this one was no Dracula-- Mr. Cunningworth was decidingly too short, dark, old, and stocky to be a proper Dracula-- but he entertained the idea with much enthusiasm. The guy probably ducked behind the desk anyway.
It still didn't solve his rumbling stomach; it was bordering in painful, now that he was paying attention to it. Going downstairs was out of the question...but what Mr. Cunningworth last said, about the man upstairs, was food for thought, and maybe food for consumption. "Doesn't want to be disturbed," he drawled, very much like Dracula, and figured he wouldn't mind a few seconds of his time. Jumping off the bed with a wide grin in place, he dashed for the door and started roaming the floor.
The stairs to the third floor were at the end of the corridor, around a turn. It was suddenly obvious why the man had said to not wander up here: there was only one door at the top of the landing. He grimaced, and realized any hope of feigning unable-to-comprehend-directions jumped right out the third story window. But Melvin knocked anyway. Honor for his hunger demanded satisfaction.
No answer. Melvin tched, and momentarily fought the urge to go back down in defeat, putting his hand on the knob as a steady. The stairs were steep, after all.
He didn't expect it to turn and unlatch.
Melvin suddenly found himself at an impasse, staring into the crack of the now open door: do the right thing and just go to bed, or do the selfish thing, and see if this guy had a spare snack-pack lying about.
The door opened wider and Melvin stuck his head inside, much like he had earlier. "Anyone here?" When nothing came, he asked one more time, louder. A lack of a response prompted him to remember there was only one car outside, which seemed like a good sign that the renter was out. An open opportunity if he ever saw one. Taking a good look around, Melvin realized why the renter had left such instructions.
"S'like a mad lab," he uttered in hushed awe. One didn't see genuine chemistry sets in bulk every day, and being used so heavily to boot. Melvin had to stop and wonder if this was one very elaborate methamphetamine laboratory. It was also a miracle the farmhouse hadn't burned down yet; Bunsen burners and heating plates were on, cooking and boiling long feeds of glass tubes from round-bottom flasks into catches and cups.
But once he spotted the stray cup of popcorn over on a table by the window, Melvin felt everything else melt away and he hurried over to its side, ready to embrace it. His heart hammered, mental alarms blazing, but he couldn't stop himself from taking a single, lone piece from the very top, and sending it down the hatch.
"A little stale and no butter, but I'm not about to complain." And he wasn't, because beside it was a cup of water, and beside that, a saltshaker. It was like heaven was telling him something, and he wasn't about to waste the chance. If the renter noticed it gone, Melvin would make sure there'd be no evidence to incriminate him. After all, it's popcorn. Snag the water cup too…And salt for flavor. He dashed the shaker over the cup quickly. He wanted out, and he was taking the whole with him.
Theft? Beggars weren't choosers, as the saying went. It was popcorn. Who was going to miss it?
In the night, Melvin dreamed.
His skin burned and itched, like fire ants were attacked him from head to toe. He watched his limbs turn fiery pink and stretched, like soft rubber. It pulled and twisted every which way, and he couldn't scream.
His mouth turned inside out, flipping over itself, teeth now facing away and a tongue torn of its restrictive ligaments dangled freely over what used to be his upper jaw. His face was swallowed by the backwards process, and he couldn't scream.
His skull caved in, and then exploded in slow motion. Each piece of bone and flesh slowing, slowing, until it was all suspended just outside the radius of where it had been just before, and he couldn't scream.
Something pressed against his back, like a foot to his shoulders, forcing him into a floor he couldn't see. Like needles shoving itself out of his spine and blooming like quills where the invisible foot was, and he couldn't scream.
The wide expanse of black and purple noise encompassed him, drowned him, supported him, and kept him away from himself. He felt distant, an arm's length away, but it never stopped feeling so personal. No noise, save a guttural rumbling that reverberated throughout his perverse body. And he couldn't scream.
Lately, the choir of waking up was usually accompanied by the aches and cramps of sleeping in the car. His travel money was reserved for gas and grub, not a poster bed with real walls. Catch six hours of sleep, always making sure there was some form of schedule to his road trip to Fission City. This is why his alarm was going off at five in the bloody morning. No bars didn't mean it still didn't function properly, and Melvin, weary-eyed and bedraggled at having his Place of Sleep transitioned again, groped almost blindly to the bedside table. But there weren't any aches, he realized, as he silenced the intrusive noise with a button press. Muggy, but nothing was telling himself to shove off.
"Should've set it for eight," he mumbled into the pillow, but then thought against it for obvious reasons. He didn't have a car. Getting up now got him a head start on figuring out what he was going to do. He was also right outside the city, which meant he could still catch the tryout appointment even if he had to grab a taxi. But dawn was already breaking and only five minutes later, Melvin felt restless and figured his current timetable for getting up wouldn't be so easily deterred. It didn't hurt that his body responded well to the idea of ditching the pillows for starting the day, and managed to sit on the edge of the mattress with ease.
It felt pretty good, for once. Damn good in fact. Aside from the heavy head and blurry vision, one good stretch and a yawn just put everything into place for the start of the morning. It would have been a good one too, if obliviousness was infinite.
Because Melvin caught the reflection in the vanity mirror. And screamed in absolute terror.
Except there was no scream as he flailed and twisted, his mind hammering on the fright-fest of last night. Vanishing clerks, mad scientist labs, and now blue monsters who roared over his own distinguishable voice, in his room. But as he fell to the floor with his heart beating crazily, he saw nothing. Not a shred of blue.
No, that was a lie. There was blue. On the underlining blur of his vision that was now hastily clearing up was a run of pale, sky blue that tapered to a fine point and Melvin gagged in panic, reaching up to swat at whatever has latched onto him. The hit landed solidly, and it hurt, like hitting his own face—
"What the fu..." His breathing hitched. Fingers waggled at his specific, finger-waggling command. But this wasn't his hand. It was huge, it had no fingernails, it was sky blue—
He looked down-- the blue point follow like a nose-- and his feet were blue, his legs, his arms, his—He snapped his waistband and panicked. Well, that was snow white. Desperate, Melvin scurried over to the vanity and peered almost helplessly over the edge into the mirror.
His previously fuzzy blue monster was now a very sharp, very defined, very stricken monster of vaguely familiar shape he'd never seen face to face. And it had hair, he noted with a bubble of inner hysteria.
Melvin felt his throat close up as the monster mimicked his every movement. A mantra of profanities accompanied every second of this revelation, desperate to deny the science-fictional truth that was presented before him: Melvin wasn't human.
He screamed again, but like before, it was guttural, deep, and shaking. He wasn't sure what would have happened had he continued, but through the roar, was a sharp shriek of noise just as inhuman as his own, and it closed him off, so a voice could follow. "Be quiet, you fool!"
Melvin choked. Now he was hearing things and instinctively looked around the room. But there was no one there. Except there was, somewhere, because it then said, in a more soothing, matter-of-fact way, "You'll wake the owner with all that noise."
He looked around in the general direction it came from, because his ears were better than they should have been. "The hell is going on?!"
"Just breathe and close your eyes for a minute," admonished the voice. "Relax. It shouldn't take long."
Melvin was two seconds away from hyperventilating and the ghost was asking him to relax? But if Mom taught him anything, it was that Yoga classes were good for your health, and it was all about the breathing. So he breathed, but didn't close his eyes. He was too aware to.
But whatever was supposed to happen was. It was like pulling the plug in a drain, as the water swirled down the pipes and out of the bathtub, out of life. The anxiety was leaving steadily, as was the stress, the fear, and the tension. …And Melvin was smart enough to know that was totally not natural. And now the voice was murmuring, "...must've tampered with the pacifying agent...beat out the endorphin rush..."
He flopped backwards, instinctively not flat on his back but twisted to the side, and stared at the miserable ceiling. "Okay floating voice, I've got questions; you know most of them. We'll fill in the blanks as we go. Start talking."
"You came into my room last night and stole my popcorn and water solution."
Melvin shouldn't have laughed. He shouldn't have, but he did. Of course it had been wrong, morally, legally, and now sanitarily, but that sounded more of a petulant whine than a form of high-theft accusation. It was funny. He sobered up pretty quick, though, when the voice continued. "That's why you're currently in the body of a shark. Your common sense must be proud of you."
"It looked ordinary!" he defended.
"It was accompanied by flasks and beakers," it retorted. "What part of that looked ordinary?"
The floating voice had a very good point. Good points are generally conquered by primal instinct. Hunting and gathering, the need to feed. He'd been hungry, for Lord's sake! Sharks needed to eat too—Wait, that wasn't right. "Shark? Did you say I'm a shark?"
There was a rustle of cloth over cloth, and Melvin's attention snapped to it. A large, heaping bundle of dirty laundry by the looks of it was in the corner of the room-- how had he missed it?-- and now moving. Senses Melvin knew he never had before focused entirely on that motion, keen and alert on what it might translate to: predator or prey?
"It was in the first bite you took. Each piece was coated with a specific DNA altering catalyst and it's a first come-first serve process. Whichever piece activates first cancels out all other attempts to alter the human body." There was a pregnant pause, followed sardonically by, "Be happy you stole the salt shaker. You would have torn this place to splinters in blind rage had you not."
It didn't trouble him that this was too wild to believe. He didn't believe it. However, his mind absorbed it calmly, rationally, and without another freak-out episode or heavy denial. That also wasn't normal, this form of acceptance. "I'm a shark."
"With hair." The pile shifted again. "What's your name?"
"Melvin Kresnick." An easy thing to volunteer. "You got one?" He was met with silence and stillness. "Okay Lumpy, we'll play it your way. You got a cure?"
"You ingested a half-complete version." The pile started to carry itself forward, toward him. It was comical. "You were at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and I can't turn you back."
"Until the formula can be cracked."
"This happen often around here, this transforming business?"
"With alarming increase."
There was great temptation to respond with incredulous sarcasm, but then Melvin had spent the last two weeks crossing the empty countryside with only his CD player for company. For all he knew Godzilla had flattened New York while he was cheerfully oblivious to the greater goings-on of the world.
And then he realized with sudden, ridiculous certainty that this was definitely going to be an unfathomable setback to his hopeful musical career.
"What time is it?" he asked, lunging desperately to his feet. If he'd been thinking a little clearer he might have realized that it wasn't a fantastic idea to move so quickly in a body that wasn't at all familiar, but after staggering for a moment some indeterminable sense of balance kicked in and he felt…fine. Really fine, actually, just as he'd noticed when he'd first woken up. Joints loose and fluid, no stiffness or aches or pain like he vaguely remembered having invaded his dreams. In fact it felt more natural than being human, which was really quite odd.
"Early enough that the owner probably hasn't woken up despite all the noise you've been making," Lumpy said with an edge that hovered between exhaustion and annoyance. "Grab your things. Since we can't let him see you like this you'll have to come to my room. He'll have to assume you skipped out on the bill."
That didn't sit right with Melvin, but then his scathing inner conscience reminded him that one more petty criminal act wasn't likely to get him in as much trouble as stealing the popcorn had. He threw his mud-encrusted-but-thankfully-no-longer-wet clothing back into his duffel bag and hefted it…and paused. Looked in it just to be sure that he wasn't missing anything but the bag was still overstuffed with all his worldly possessions even though it was as light as a feather when it shouldn't have been. He studied it in confusion as Lumpy lead the way back to the third floor.
It was a much more time-consuming task than it should have been, and he felt a bit awkward pretending not to notice how the other laboriously struggled to climb the stairs. He found himself averting his eyes to one of the worn looking paintings on the staircase wall, even though he really wanted to get a look at the limbs that occasionally peeked out from between the rags. He'd glimpsed enough to know they weren't quite human – not anymore, at least – but they weren't much like his own either.
At the top, however, he couldn't ignore how Lumpy sagged into the wall with obvious relief. "Hey, are you okay?"
"Lock the door after you," Lumpy rasped by way of response, shuffling over towards the table of beakers and tubes that Melvin gave a wide berth to. After a moment it added more subduedly, "I was up all night keeping an eye on you, making sure your mutation didn't go wrong. I need to sleep."
"What about me?" he asked, not meaning to sound quite as hopeless as he did. He cleared his throat. "I still have questions." A thousand of them, pricking at him like needles, but the other shook his head.
"They'll have to wait." He gestured grandly to one wall, which Melvin suddenly realized was covered with newspaper clippings, pinned up with the precision of a butterfly collection with corners curling like wings. "These should be able to answer some of them. Don't answer the door. The owner knows better than to disturb me, but just in case…and don't leave the room, whatever you do. It wouldn't be safe for either of us, and even with the hair your profile's a little too distinctive."
He must have looked confused. Lumpy sighed and tapped one of the clippings. "Read. You'll understand." And without further explanation the rag pile hobbled away to a side door and closed it firmly, shutting out any chance of conversation or company.
Not that Melvin needed company. He was only stuck alone in a room full of crazy looking equipment that did god knows what. Hell, if the popcorn turned people into sharks, maybe sitting on the chair made you burst into flames. From now on he wasn't going to touch a damn thing. The papers seemed safe enough though, and dubiously he wandered over to have a look.
The pictures drew his eye first. The tiny print promised headaches and he felt too restless for reading, but after he started to make sense of the grainy photographs the articles started to capture his attention more fully. Sharks. He only had that first, terrifying glimpse of himself in the mirror for reference, but the resemblance was there. The name 'Bolton' was highlighted in pink half a dozen times in each article, as was the name 'Paradigm'. A lot of the stories were reiteration, but after half an hour he'd managed to piece together most of the story.
Melvin felt justified in resenting these 'Street Sharks' a little. He didn't feel like going out and terrorizing harmless citizens any more than he had yesterday. He just wanted to get to his music audition, but fat chance of that when shark-shaped mutants had acquired such a bad name. It was impossible now…or was it?
He wished he had his mirror back, and not just for vanity purposes. The articles on the wall were recent and taken from multiple sources, but between all of them there wasn't once decent, up-close picture of these shark mutants. Just distant, blurry smudges. Nobody probably knew what one looked like up close, and he could attribute his new look to some really fancy costuming. He examined one of his arms, and decided that it still looked human enough that surely most people would be fooled.
Just as he was starting to berate himself for seriously entertain the idea, he heard a creaking of floorboards so near it made him jump. He'd been distantly aware that the old hotel seemed far nosier than it had yesterday, but some unconscious reflex to save his senses from overloading had kept most of it filtered out of his actual awareness. This new noise, however, was much more deliberate, and dormant instincts were starting to scream at him.
Danger, Will Robinson, he though grimly, holding his breath and waiting as more squeaking announced someone climbing the stairs. There was a musty smell – dust, old cologne, some kind of chemical starch and a faint whiff of garlic – and in a flash of memory he was reminded of Mr. Cunningworth. Humans were only subliminally aware of those scents but sharks were driven by them.
He supposed the garlic smell meant the old man wasn't a vampire after all. In a way he was a little disappointed.
Mr. Cunningworth paused at the door, shifting in a way Melvin thought was indecisive hovering, and he felt himself tense like a spring of coiled motion, but the knock he was expecting never came. Instead - muttering in that weird accent that Melvin still couldn't recognize about ungrateful hooligans from out of state - he retreated back the way he'd come. Now that he was paying attention, Melvin could hear him descend all the way to the ground floor, go around what he assumed what the front desk, and turn on the radio. Even through the static and crackly he could hear the music drifting up through the floorboards and back came his sense of karmic rightness.
Glancing around, his eyes fell on set of keys next to the door that were just begging to be taken. That felt right too. After all, he wasn't going to steal Lumpy's car. Just borrow it for a few hours. Long enough to make this audition and see if he could pull his little charade off. If not, well, then he had a getaway vehicle, newfound strength and a very impressive nose to get himself out of trouble. Oddly enough, he didn't actually think he'd need it.
He started digging through his bag, looking for the clothes he'd intended to wear for his performance, rapidly cobbling together a scheme to get himself into the city with a minimum of fuss. All he'd have to do is wait for a moment to sneak out; shouldn't be too hard since he could tell exactly where Mr. Cunningworth was, and Lumpy's room radiated silence. He'd lost his guitar in the crash and would have to hope someone would loan him one, and he had to remember to keep his head down while driving and hope there were no police…
Hundreds of possibilities for things to go completely up the creek, but Melvin hadn't come all this way for nothing. Setbacks and sharkness aside, he had a dream to be realized.
"Here kitty, kitty."
Kitty, for that was in fact her stage name, swayed hypnotically to the lyrics she was murmuring into the microphone like it was the ear of a lover. Streex leaned out over the railing of the scaffold, shamelessly trying to get a look down her cleavage from above until a hand on his fin tugged him back.
"Knock it off, Romeo," Jab groaned. "Are you going to do that for every girl who comes on stage."
Streex leered. "Only the pretty ones."
"Like you can tell from here," Jab said, to which Streex could unhappily agree. Their vantage point did give them a good view of the hall, but sadly it was not the best angle from which to admire the performers. Going down was out of the question though. Ripster had been very firm about this little outing. Frankly, it was amazing he'd run out of instructions and warnings to impress on them before the audition period was over.
Just as amazing was seeing Jab playing the role of Responsible Older Brother and actually enforcing all those rules. Not exactly a positive turn of events, in Streex's opinion, but he didn't think it would last. 'Responsible' didn't suit Jab any more than 'subdued' suited Slam, but both of them were finally starting to ease out of those dark places.
"I mean, she's not even that good," Jab complained, gesturing down at the stage.
Streex sighed ruefully. That was the unforeseen drawback of his master plan. He'd been so sure that the music concert would be a good idea. Bends was already involved as both sponsor and soundman; he'd managed to scope out the hall and find places they could hide in advance. They could stay out of sight and still enjoy the music, and even if anyone happened to spot them, all of the performers were in costume anyway. A few of them were even sporting shark-like ones, their inspiration all too obvious, and between all that, a real mutant would be overlooked. Yep, perfect. Except for one thing.
Well, maybe in all fairness they didn't…not to a normal person at least, but he and Jab didn't qualify anymore. Streex wasn't exactly sure why; maybe the shark's hearing range was a little different from a human's, or maybe it was just because he was a little too aware of the timing of the instruments. Everything sounded a little off to him. Playing a beat too fast or slow and suddenly the whole song was out of sync. Mere fractions of a second made the difference to a mutant that he would never had been aware of before.
He hated to admit that it was grating, because he really didn't want to leave yet, but Jab was obviously getting bored. Any minute he was going to declare this expedition over and Streex would have to trot home like a good boy. It was time for drastic measures.
He leaned out casually over the railing again. "Hey, isn't that Jets down there?"
Predictably, Jab was at his side in a second. "Where?"
"Talking to that guy in the costume," he said vaguely, backing away slowly and subtly. "Between the rows."
Which could have meant any of a dozen people. It was a dirty, dirty trick, preying on the fact that he knew his brother was aching for any news of his other best friend. Still, Streex refused to feel too guilty, and the distraction would give him ample time to go down and have a few words with Kitty. Maybe he could ask for her autograph and, with any luck, her phone number. Proper dating may have been out of the question but surely phone calls were harmless.
She was standing with one of her band mates, a handsome brunette with painted tiger stripes almost as fetching as his own and her guitar still hanging around her middle. They were laughing, celebrating already which meant Ripley had already told them they'd made the cut. He carefully attuned his smile to not show too many teeth – an art he'd been practicing in the mirror – and swaggered confidently towards them.
"You girls," he announced grandly, "were absolutely amazing out there."
"Thank-you," the brunette said, blinking rapidly at him. She'd probably been blinded by the brightness of the stage lights, so even if she noticed something a little off she'd likely dismiss it as tricks of the spots in her eyes. Unexpected bonus.
"That's a really good costume you're wearing," Kitty blurted. Her face was prettily flushed from the effort of her performance, and Streex internally congratulated himself again on having excellent taste.
"So's yours," he told her earnestly. He certainly admired the deep, v-neck cut. "Where'd you get it?"
"I made it myself," Kitty admitted, adjusting the ears on her headband self-consciously.
"Really?" He had to restrain himself from grinning too wide, but the brightness in his gaze made up for it. "Just how many talents do you have?"
She beamed at him, and he knew that speculative look well enough to know that phone number was all but his, but just as he opened his mouth to ask he was rudely interrupted by a voice that instantly raised his hackles.
"Excuse me, ladies," the interloper purred with a sweetness that was so obviously deceptive it made Streex sneer. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind doing a kindness for a fellow musician."
Streex turned to glower, but his expression quickly turned into a speechless stare because that was one hell of a costume.
Except it wasn't.
Later on he wouldn't be able to put his finger on exactly how he knew. Instinct, he supposed, because for a fraction of a moment he locked eyes with the stranger and there was that rare shift of the dormant shark's mindset that only woke up and took notice of serious threats…but the moment passed and the stranger shook his head and dismissed Streex in favor of the brunette.
"You see, I lost my guitar in an accident on my way here, and I just happened to notice this extremely fine looking instrument you have." He stroked the neck of her guitar, his hand nearly touching her own, and she smirked favorably at him. "I was hoping you would do me the honor of letting me borrow her for my audition. I'll have her right back to you, safe and sound."
"Sure," the brunette said easily, pulling the strap over her head and offering it to him. "Watch out for the A-string. It's a little temperamental."
He winked at her. "I'll be sure to treat it gently."
The girls giggled, and Streex snapped out of his stupor enough to be vaguely annoyed again, but he held his tongue as the other shark paraded out onto the stage. He strained to hear Ripley calling out the name of the act, but a hand clamping fiercely down on his arm became the more immediate focus of his attention.
"You," Jab hissed, "are so in for it when we get out of here."
"Hold on a sec," Streex growled back, trying to pry his brother off with little success. "Did you see that? That guy who just went on stage was a mutant."
"Yeah right," Jab muttered, dragging Streex back towards the side door they'd pre-planned to be their exit. Streex had a feeling the disbelief was his just reward for his earlier indiscretion and didn't like it one bit.
"I'm serious. Come on, just take a look at the guy would you?"
The stage microphone whined in sudden protest as its volume was adjusted, and suddenly the stranger's booming voice echoed in the whole of the concert hall. "I'd like to dedicate this first song to the lovely lady in the wings who has single-handedly saved my performance." There was a jangling riff of guitar chords that almost sounded like an accidental tripping of fingers until the melody emerged like the phoenix from the ashes.
The sound made the two brothers pause – not out of any deference to the act but because it was obvious almost immediately that this performance had what the others had lacked. That intrinsic, perfect sense of pitch and timing. So perfect it was actually enough to make Streex light headed, and for a moment his annoyances seemed to fade into the background. It wasn't nearly as important as listening and damn, that was some good music.
"It's a quiet night in that town somewhere
Saw her in the bar that lonely night
Said hey darling come on back away
Let me show how to cry it all all-right
"Tantric passion lost our wheels of time
Just a touch no my friend I know
Just in case the dawn breaks too fast
One more time before I have to go"
He had a whole lot less trouble tugging Jab back to the stage. The hammerhead seemed to have lost most of his resistance as well. The edge of the curtain afforded them a good view of the shark who was crooning along to his instrument. The rest of the hall which seemed to have gone quite silent by comparison. Most people looked hypnotized. Almost everyone has stopped what they were doing to listen, even though fellow musicians should have been harder to impress than the average Joe. The only face he saw that wasn't slack with rapture was Bends, who looked more startled than anything. Streex nudged his brother. "Look at Bends. He knows."
"Come morning I will close my eyes to you
Will never leave my sweet memory
Gone before you wake up all alone
But orange light aglow for all to see
"Quiet little Tinkerbell, damn yourself to me
Light of dust, my mind undone, your hate is my great reverie"
Jab made an absent noise of acknowledgement as he focused on the shark, still trying to decipher what his senses were telling him. Streex was more curious as to whether that hair was some kind of wig, or if it was actually real. The Mohawk style was a little out of date, but much to his consternation the look worked. At least, he thought sourly, the girls seemed to think so, with the way most of them were staring as the last few noted died away and the Shark's rich voice faded to silence.
The applause was as immediate and deafening as a gunshot, and Streex actually jumped. Obviously the shark's intense performance had gone down well with the rest of the audience. People started to surge forward like moths to the flame, bursting with questions and congratulations. That was amazing! Where did you learn to play like that? Where did you get your costume?
There was no way to even get close, let alone find a moment to ask his own burning questions that couldn't afford to be overheard. With more people flocking to the stage, Jab was starting to shift nervously.
"We have to go," he murmured in Streex's ear.
"But that guy-!"
"I know, but what if people start noticing how similar our 'costumes' are?" One or two were already starting to give them appraising looks that couldn't be afforded. Streex growled quietly but allowed Jab to start pulling him back towards the exit.
"You should have seen him," Streex raged, flailing expressively at the air. "Got right up on that stage in front of everyone and sang like you wouldn't believe it. I have to hand it to him, the guy must have the biggest set of-"
"Streex," Ripster interrupted tiredly, having been listening to the rambling diatribe for the last ten minutes. "Enough."
Streex closed his mouth and crossed his arms sulkily.
Jab was trying a fairing attempt to hide a smirk, and even Slam had seemed rather entertained by Streex's very dramatic retelling of the whole event. Ripster would have been more so if the whole thing didn't promise a whole host of unwanted complications in their near future, even if the story was a bit bizarre.
A shark mutant who sang. It had to be the strangest thing he'd heard all week.
"No chance of it just being some guy in a costume?" he asked without any real hope. His gaze fell on Bends, but the blond just shrugged helplessly.
"Sorry, man. I didn't even see him up close but I'm pretty sure he was the real deal." Bends adjusted his shades, looking thoughtful. "You should have seen the teeth. Definitely not fakes."
"And the crowd loved him," Streex reiterated grumpily. "Why can't we get that kind of press?"
"Because we're wanted criminals," Ripster pointed out dryly. "And he's currently an unknown."
"Oh I bet Paradigm knows exactly who he is," Jab muttered darkly, and there was a short pause as they all considered that.
"I don't think singing at rock concerts is really Paradigm's style," Streex said.
"It doesn't make much sense," Slam agreed.
Jab rounded on them both. "Well where else would he have come from?"
"Even if Paradigm made him," Ripster said, "that doesn't mean they're still working together, does it?"
There was an even longer pause, because the thought that the situation might somehow swing in their favour hadn't even crossed anyone's mind.
"So he might be on our side?" Slam asked.
"Hey, if he's anything like us, maybe he gave Paradigm the flick too." Streex suddenly seemed a lot warmer on the subject. Then he frowned. "Although the concert isn't exactly the best way to be keeping low profile."
"Maybe he's an idiot," Jab suggested with a pointed look at Streex. "You two did seem to have a lot in common."
Slam managed to grab Streex's raised arm on reflex and hastily interceded with, "Maybe he just liked music too much to give it up."
"We really need to talk to him," Ripster added. "Do you know where he went after the audition?"
Jab shook his head in consternation while Streex gave him a haughty look, but Bends cleared his throat. "All the concert performers had to give their contact details and I kinda managed to get you a copy." He proffered a piece of paper with a sheepish grin. "Mind you, I'm not sure if this is very reliable, but…"
Streex grabbed it, read it, and stared. "The Creepy Hotel, Route four-seven-seven. Seriously?"
"It's all I got," Bends said apologetically.
"Nothing to lose by trying it," Ripster said. "We'll start looking tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll see what kind of news has leaked out about this guy."
"Why bother?" Jab asked.
Ripster looked grim. "Because if Paradigm wasn't looking for him already he will be now."
It felt like the music hadn't really left him, and the adoration of the crowd was still clinging to his skin as their applause rung in his ears. Melvin wore his success like a cloak, and was practically walking on air as he made his way back up to the third floor of the old hotel, spinning the keys on his finger and humming with overwhelming cheerfulness.
They loved him. Even in his wildest dreams he couldn't have imagined it going any better than it had. He had been great. That was no exaggeration. Who'd have thought sharks would have rhythm, and even if his voice wasn't quite as smooth as it had once been it was more than made up for by the deep, almost feral resonance for the low notes. Some of the girls had definitely been swooning. The grin that had been plastered to his face ever since he'd stepped onto that stage widened a fraction.
Of course he needed someone to share it all with, and since his budget probably wouldn't stretch to a long distance phone call to his folks (not yet, anyway; he'd save that treat for after the real performance) and going out to a bar would probably be stretching his luck at remaining undiscovered, he really only had one choice. It did occur to him that Lumpy probably wouldn't be happy that Melvin had chosen to ignore his advice, but he was too gleeful to care. Nothing bad had happened. Lumpy would get over it.
He walked obliviously into the room at the top of the stairs, and completely failed to notice anything amiss for the first three seconds until the first, completely unexpected observation of, Huh, I didn't realize that wall was green.
But it was, and he could see that now because it was completely devoid of any newspaper clippings, just as the table was empty of the mad scientist's kit and the whole room itself gave every indication of being uninhabited. Gone. Lumpy was gone, and just like Cloud Nine vanished from under Melvin's feet, because without him there were no more answers to be had and, more importantly, no cure.
His jaw worked soundlessly as he scoured the room once, then twice, looking for a hint, a trace he could use to figure out where the other had gone. Had the hotel owner found him out? Had the police been looking for him? Was it Melvin's fault?
He found nothing and kicked over the bin in frustration. It was hardly a satisfying target, being empty except for a cardboard box-
He stared, and then lunged for it. The bright red and white colours were easily recognizable. The popcorn box. It shouldn't have been here, he thought excitedly. After all, he'd taken it down to his own room to snack on and he distinctly remembered putting it in his own bin. Turning it over eagerly he found what he was looking for scrawled in pen on the bottom.
Couldn't take the chance that you might lead someone back here. Don't believe everything the papers tell you. Good luck, and be careful.
He stared at it for a long time, absorbing each individual word until they blurred together. It was uplifting and disappointing at once. He'd hoped for a forwarding address, a phone number, maybe a name…but the 'good luck' part made him feel a little less abandoned even if the 'don't believe the papers' bit was rather ominous. Hadn't Lumpy directed him to them in the first place? Was there some hidden code in them that he'd missed? He was always terrible at those kinds of things.
It didn't even cross his mind to throw the salty, rumpled box away. It was the only memento he had, and maybe when that cure was found Lumpy would come and look him up. If his plans of fame went to plan than Melvin would be easy enough to find. He tucked it safely away in his bag and turned to leave, only to realize there was someone standing in the doorway.
"Uh…" For a moment he thought it might be Mr. Cunningworth and he was prepared to come up with a slew of excuses for his unannounced presence in the Hotel, but this man was different. Taller, less frail, and with a distinctive looking eye patch.
Vampires, mad scientists, and now pirates! He thought with an edge of hysteria, but the man didn't look very pirate-y. More like one of those stern army generals, even though he was currently wearing a very harmless looking smile. It didn't quite offset the coldness around his eyes.
"I was just taking a look around," he said quickly. "Admiring the view and all that. The room's all yours if you want it."
"Actually," the man said pleasantly, "I was looking for you."