You are Vanguard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 11 (v.1) - CHAPTERS 34 - 36

Submitted: August 06, 2017

Reads: 122

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 06, 2017

A A A

A A A

THIRTY-FOUR

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He imagined his future, a new world with the permission to grow older along with his fans. He imagined himself in different clothes. He imagined himself with stubble. He imagined his face on a man’s body. He imagined black and white photographs in which he glowered sultrily instead of grinning inanely. He imagined older fans, women, who would help him make up for lost time. After half an hour of strenuous dancing in his front room, practicing moves which had always been forbidden, Alex downed a whole pint of water, panted cathartically and then hopped upstairs for a shower before drying himself, dressing, and returning downstairs. He picked up his coat, rummaged in its pockets and found Kenny Illingworth’s business card. Alex sat down on his couch, plucked his phone from the arm and dialled Illingworth’s number.

“Kenny,” he answered.

“Hi Kenny,” Alex began “we haven’t spoken before but my name’s Alex. I’m a singer in Love Letters, the boy band. Have you heard of us?”

“Sure. You’ve got a big concert tonight at Wembley Arena, haven’t you?”

“That’s right, yeah. Are we okay to talk?”

“Yeah, course.”

“I’m branching out into a solo career. My label, Vanguard records, have offered me a three album deal, which I’ve signed, and I’m looking for a manager to represent me.”

“What’s wrong with your manager in Love Letters?”

“He’s a dick, basically.”

“Haha. Yeah? There’s no shortage of ’em in this racket, Alex. What’s his name?”

“Gary Freeman.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of him. So you’re looking for a new manager. What made you think of me?”

“Lynne Pearlman recommended you.”

“Lynne Pearlman? Solicitor?”

“Well I think she poses as a solicitor but she’s actually got a more senior position in the company. I think it’s kept secret because of press interest, journalists and so on.”

“Yeah, that’s the rumour, I just didn’t know if you knew. I’ve met Lynne a few times, but I’m surprised she recommended me, we’ve never really worked together closely. Still, it’s nice to know I made an impression.”

“So I was hoping that you could come to the concert tonight. I’ll sort it so you can join the guest list queue and collect your ticket at the counter, and a backstage pass. You can meet me inside. Do you know your way around Wembley Arena?”

“With my eyes closed. How will I know who you are?”

“Look me up online,” Alex said, triumphantly. “Type ‘Alex Love Letters’ into Google images, then you’ll know what I look like.”

“What time do you want me?”

“Doors open at 6pm, the show starts at 8. I’d say you should turn up early if you want to avoid the fuss. There’ll be time for us to talk in person before the show.”

“Sounds good to me. So if I just join the guest list queue…”

“I’ll make sure they’re expecting you. You won’t have a problem.”

“That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like from me? Do you want to know about my previous work, previous clients? Are you going to interview me at some stage? We can do that now, over the phone, if you’d like.”

“That can come later. For now, I just want you to see tonight’s show so you can see what I’m all about.”

“Sound. See you this evening then.”

“Okay Kenny, speak to you soon.”

“See ya.”

Alex terminated the call and then rang one of the directory enquiries numbers.

“Hi,” Alex said to the operator, “can you put me through to Vanguard Records, please? It’s a record company.”

Within moments, Alex could hear a dial tone, then the voice of the receptionist: “Good morning. Vanguard Records, how can I help?”

“Can I speak to Lynne Pearlman please?” Alex asked.

“Who’s calling please?”

“Just say it’s Alex. She knows who I am.”

“Just a moment please.”

Alex was put on hold. The music was a Love Letters song. Alex smiled. Eventually the receptionist came back on.

“Sorry Alex, Lynne’s not in the office today.”

“Can I speak to Ron Capper then?”

“Ron Capper?”

“Yes.”

“Just a moment please.”

The Love letters song resumed. When it got to the chorus, Alex found himself mumbling the lyrics in time to the song. He was still on hold when the song ended. Then another song began. It was another Love Letters song. Then there was a click on the line and then the sound of a busy office.

“Ron?” Alex asked.

“No, sorry Alex, you’re through to reception again,” the receptionist answered. “Mr Capper’s very busy at the moment, can you ring back later, about twelve-ish?”

“Is he in a meeting or something?”

“No, no, he’s just got a lot on at the moment.”

“I’ve got a busy day ahead of me too, can you keep me on hold until he’s free?”

“Okay.”

The Love Letters song resumed again. When it was in the middle of its final chorus, there was a click on the line and the music stopped.

“Hello Alex,” Ron Capper’s voice said.

“Hi Ron. The reason I’m ringing is because… you know how we get given a few tickets for all our shows, complimentary tickets and backstage passes, so we can give them to friends and family and so on?”

“…Yeah.”

“I usually give mine back, and that’s what I’ve done for tonight’s gig, but I need one. There’s someone who I want to attend tonight.”

“Alex, this isn’t really my field, you should really go through your manager with queries like this. Have you tried speaking to Gary?”

“No, I… He never answers the phone when I call. Could you give him a ring, if it’s not too much trouble?”

“Alex, you’re his client, I’m not. If he won’t answer the phone to you, he’s not going to answer if I call.”

“Plus, it’s a bit awkward. See… I don’t want the ticket for a friend, it’s… Do you know about the solo deal I’ve signed with Lynne?”

“Of course, yes.”

“She’s put me in touch with a manager, who’ll represent the solo-artist part of my career. I’d like him to attend the show tonight. He’s called Kenny Ingham.”

“Illingworth,” Capper corrected. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, I just want him to see the show and see the venue. I want him to get a sense of the scale, so he knows what to expect when he’s working for me.”

“That’s fine. If someone makes a call to Wembley’s box office and lets them know what’s going on, he can be let in without a ticket and then have a backstage pass handed to him over the counter when he arrives.”

“So… can I call Wembley?”

“No, it has to come from someone in Vanguard. I’ll put someone on it.”

“Thanks, Ron.”

“No problem.”

“Ron, there’s just one more thing before I go.”

“What’s that?”

“Have you seen Oliver? He’s supposed to be playing with us tonight but no-one’s even seen him or spoken to him yet. Me, Joe, Callum: we’ve all asked Gary about it but we’re not getting any straight answers, and that’s if we can get through to him. We haven’t rehearsed with Oliver since the announcement. Is there anything you can tell us? Gary’s totally leaving us in the dark.”

“I probably know as much as you do,” Capper said. “My understanding is that Oliver is fit and well and is very keen to play the Wembley gig. Should be a good show. You had the right idea when you tried ringing Gary. I’d keep trying him if I were you.”

“Okay. Never mind. Thanks for your help anyway, Ron.”

“No problem. Bye Alex.”

Then Capper hung up on him.

Alex spent the next few hours playing on his X-box and tuning out the noise of the press outside. Eventually, at about 3pm, Sofia barged through the throng and let herself in. Alex didn’t acknowledge her entrance and was annoyed when she obscured the television at an important point in his game. As always, she was carrying a few containers of food, which she then began to warm up in Alex’s kitchen. At an appropriate point in Alex’s game, he paused it and then entered the kitchen.

“Sofia,” Alex began, “which houses have you been to so far?”

She said she’d prepared the meal at Callum’s house before coming here, and she was going to Joe’s house next.

“What about Will?” Alex asked.

Sofia told him that Will’s mum made his meals for him so Sofia was not needed.

“Have you been to Oliver’s house?”

No.

“Are you going there after you’ve been to Joe’s house?”

No.

“Have you seen him since Sunday, when the news was announced?”

No.

She doled out a plate of steaming hot food and bordered it with four slices of garlic bread, crispy at the edges and bubbling softly in the middle.

 

Gary Freeman closed his laptop when he realised he couldn’t concentrate. There were too many thoughts in his head, spoiling his focus. Nothing could distract him from them. Eventually, he heard the sound of a car outside, pulling into his drive. He stared at the wall opposite him. The more he stared, the wall appeared to be moving closer, advancing on him. The sound of the car’s engine ceased. Moments later, the doorbell rang. Freeman’s legs felt unsteady as he tried to rise from the couch. It was only a few steps to his front door, but it was a difficult distance for him to cover.

On his front step: Lynne Pearlman.

Behind her: Oliver, covered in a large, black, hooded top. The hood consumed the top half of her face and all Freeman could see was her mouth and chin, protruding.

Behind Oliver: a bodyguard. He was dressed in sportswear and looked Samoan or Tongan. He was as wide as a garage door.

Freeman beckoned them into the house. Pearlman entered, holding Oliver by the hand and guiding her inside. The bodyguard stayed outside and turned, so he was facing the street. He was now their bouncer. Freeman closed the door, grabbed his phone and called Oliver’s stylist. After a brief conversation, he hung up. Pearlman was looking around the front room. Oliver was blinded by the hood and was stood with her head bowed, like a hostage.

“Nice place,” Pearlman said, nodding in approval.

“Does this have to happen here?” Freeman asked.

“Yep,” Pearlman replied. “Vanguard is still surrounded by press and Wembley hasn’t opened up yet.”

“Why not at your house?” Freeman asked. “That’s where she’s been staying these past few days, right?”

“It’s best if the stylist doesn’t know where I live, or what my name is, or anything else about me besides the way I look.”

“But it’s okay that the stylist knows where I live?”

“You’re already linked to the boys,” Pearlman said. “You’re their manager. The stylist coming here doesn’t increase any risk for you. If everything goes pear-shaped, you are bound to be in trouble, regardless of whose house the stylist visits today. I’m not bound to be in trouble. It’s better to have one career destroyed than two. You can see that, can’t you?”

“You’re their solicitor.”

“And that’s all,” Pearlman said. “Where’s your bathroom?”

“Upstairs, first door,” Freeman replied.

“Follow us up and bring a chair from the kitchen, will you?” Pearlman said, taking Oliver’s arm again and leading her towards the house’s open staircase. “Do you have a dust sheet or an old bedcover or something?”

“In the cellar,” Freeman replied.

“Bring that too.”

Freeman grabbed a chair and a sheet and carried them up the staircase to the bathroom. When he arrived, Pearlman was again scrutinising his house.

“Very nice,” she said, looking around the bathroom. “Do you have any spares of these tiles? I might want to have my own bathroom re-done like this.”

“Nope,” Freeman said, plonking the chair in front of the bathroom mirror.

Pearlman nudged Oliver towards the chair. Accordingly, Oliver sat down. Pearlman then removed the hood, releasing that famous mop of blonde locks. Pearlman took the sheet from Freeman and draped it over Oliver, before tucking it into the collar of Oliver’s hoodie.

Freeman looked into the mirror and stared at the reflection of Oliver’s face. Her eyes were vacant, her skin was clammy and pale and the scars looked more pronounced beneath the harsh illumination of the bathroom light. Slowly, her eyes closed altogether and her head sank.

“She looks even worse than she did on Saturday,” Freeman said to Pearlman.

“I’d say she looks about the same,” Pearlman said.

“How has she been since Saturday?” Freeman asked.

“Okay,” Pearlman said.

“Has she been eating okay? Sleeping okay?”

“She’s been sleeping okay,” Pearlman replied. “She’s been sleeping most of the time actually, getting some rest before the show.”

Freeman laughed dismissively. “And eating?” Freeman asked.

“Sometimes,” Pearlman said, nodding, as if it was progress.

The doorbell rang.

“Come in!” Freeman yelled down the staircase.

“She still remembers all the lyrics, all the melodies,” Pearlman said. “She’s fit to perform.”

“We’ve never rehearsed as a five piece before,” Freeman said. “No-one’s telling me anything, but I’m the manager, so I’m the one who had to spend three quarters of an hour on the phone to Will’s mum trying to reassure her.”

“Hmph,” Pearlman grunted. “She just wanted to know if her daughter was still in the band, seen as how Oliver’s back. Right?”

“…Yeah, I guess,” Freeman replied. Then he pointed his head back towards the landing. “COME IN!”

“It should all work out fine,” Pearlman said. “Oliver can’t dance, so all the choreography you’ve rehearsed with Will, Callum, Alex and Joe still applies. They can do all the dancing, Oliver can just stand still and sing. It’ll make her stand out. She is the golden boy, after all. Imagine it: the other four are moving around and dancing and Oliver is just standing there, not moving a muscle because Oliver doesn’t need to. When you think about it, it works.”

“Will is supposed to be singing Oliver’s parts tonight,” Freeman said. “How does that ‘work’ exactly?”

Pearlman’s expression changed to one of impatience. “Will’s been taught the choruses, right?” she said.

“Yes.”

“So tell her to just sing the choruses. If Oliver forgets any lines, Will can jump in and sing them instead. No offence, Gary, but you’re the manager. So manage.”

“Will has never played a show with Love Letters before and is probably shitting herself. And she’s got to have one ear trained on Oliver so she can jump in if she can’t hear a line Oliver’s supposed to singing. It’s a baptism of fire, Lynne.”

“You can’t wrap them up in cotton wool, Gary. Remember: they are all adults. Look at how we’ve reacted these past few days. Look at how we’ve risen to the demands. We’re not asking them to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves.”

Gary looked at the ceiling and shook his head.

“Are you going to let the stylist in,” Pearlman asked, “or shall I?”

“I hope I’m being paid for this,” Freeman said.

“For what?” Pearlman said. “For having the stylist come here?”

“Yeah.”

“What, have you spent that grand already?”

“…Never mind,” Freeman said leaving the bathroom and walking down the staircase towards the front door.

 

 

 

 

 

THIRTY-FIVE

______________________________________________________________________

Mother, father and daughter were all in the front room. The father squeezed his feet into his work boots, tied the laces, then grabbed his coat from the arm of the couch. He gave Melissa a kiss, then Sandra, then headed for the door.

Within a minute, Sandra and Melissa heard his car start outside. It was only when the sound of the car’s engine had faded and died in the distance that Sandra spoke up.

“Can you play in your room for a while, Melissa?” Sandra said. “I need to make a phone call.”

Without speaking, Melissa left the room and walked upstairs. She opened and closed her bedroom door, to make her mum think she’d entered the room, then she tiptoed over to the top step and sat on it, so she could hear her mother’s conversation below.

Sandra picked her phone from the arm of her chair, then rang Nicola’s number.

“Hi Nicky, it’s Sandra,” she said.

“Hiya, how are you doing?” Nicola replied.

“I’m okay. Are you free to talk?”

“Yeah. Just finished washing up.”

“Are you free to talk in private? I wanted to talk about this thing with Melissa and Gemma.”

“It’s okay. Gemma’s in her room.”

“Has she told you what it’s all about yet?”

“She made up some story. It wasn’t convincing. What’s Melissa told you?”

“Nothing. She just says she doesn’t want to see Gemma anymore.”

“It’ll be fine. Girls are always falling out and making up. I know I was like that when I was their age. Why don’t you bring her round tomorrow? If we just put them together, everything will work out.”

“I’m not so sure. I’ve tried talking to her about it but she seems dead set. I’ve never seen her be that assertive about anything before. It’s almost… I know this is going to sound cruel, but it’s actually quite impressive.”

“It’ll be fine. Bring her round. We’ll stick them in the same room together: problem solved.”

“See, I don’t think she’s going to change her mind on this, Nicky, I really don’t. And I think… Well, they’re growing up. They’re becoming little women. They’re starting to make their own decisions and I think I should respect her decision. If she decides she’d like to see Gemma again, I’ll be delighted, but I think it’s her decision.”

“Friends fall out all the time. If she ditches a friend after one little fall-out she might end up with no friends at all.”

“If that’s what happens, that’s a lesson she’ll have to learn herself. Thing is, I think that because we’ve become good friends, maybe we’ve forced Gemma and Melissa together. I wanted to spend time with you, so it was convenient that our daughters became friends too. Maybe they’re just not well matched.”

“Gemma always told me she liked Melissa.”

“I know, but maybe they were telling us what they thought we’d want to hear.”

“…I dunno. I think you might be overreacting.”

“I feel a little bit responsible because if I’m being honest with myself I’ve not been paying too much attention to Melissa recently. Obviously something’s been brewing between her and Gemma and I think the old Sandra might have picked up on it earlier.”

“What do you mean when you say ‘the old Sandra’?”

“Melissa’s growing up but she’ll always need a mum. I think that since she was born, I’ve always got the balance wrong between being Sandra and being Mum. Up until recently, there was too much Mum. Since I’ve met you, there’s been too much Sandra. It’s my fault.”

“Christ, this is a bit serious, isn’t it?”

“So I think I need to have another go at getting the balance right. I still want us to be friends, but I want us to do less together. Maybe just a coffee every now and then, when the kids are at school. Whatever we do, we’ll keep our daughters out of it.”

“Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve been knocked back.”

“You understand what I mean though, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I think so. I still think you might be overreacting. But fine, if that’s how you want to play it, I can respect that. Just give us a ring when you’re free.”

“Thanks Nicky.”

At the top of the stairs, Melissa smiled.

 

 

 

 

THIRTY-SIX. FINAL CHAPTER.

______________________________________________________________________

At seven o’ clock, the streets around Wembley Arena teemed with activity. The worker bees were mostly women in their twenties. They sat behind counters inside the Arena, telling disappointed punters that the concert had sold out. They stood at the entrance to the concert hall, checking tickets and allowing people through. They asked the denied to nurse their disappointment outside rather than crowd the foyer. Members of the public pooled in the surrounding streets and impeded the flow of traffic. Drivers inched their cars through the crowds, sounding their horns and sometimes sticking their heads out of opened windows to yell at their obstacles. The streets, the car park and the front of the venue were carpeted with flyers and posters advertising future concerts at the venue. A gust of wind made the flyers whip through the air like snowfall, plastering the tyres of cars and the shins and shoes of punters, press and workers. The air resonated as an orchestra of commands, gossip, instruction, shop talk, laughter, car horns and ring tones sang its discordant symphony.

Although the concert hall had two bars, one at either side, Kenny Illingworth had attended the venue before and knew of another, more hidden bar which was through a side door. He slipped into it and though the bar was busy, it wasn’t as busy as he had feared. He moved to the bar, got served, then retired to the end of a long bench and leaned forward to place his drink on the short-legged table in front of him. He looked around and smiled amiably at a young mother at the other end of the bench, who had taken a brief pause from her texting to stare across at Illingworth. As his eyes met hers, she snapped her gaze back to the phone and didn’t even see him smile. Illingworth stretched his legs and picked the pint from the table, before taking a deep swig and scanning the bar. In the corner: a fruit machine. There was somebody playing it. Kenny plucked his phone from a coat pocket and brought up Alex’s number, which he retrieved from his ‘Received Calls’ menu. He began to type Alex a text.

‘Hi Alex it’s Kenny. I’ve arrived but it’s chaos so I’ve found a nice bar in the venue and I’m gonna have a drink here first. See you soon.’

He sent the message, then noticed the man in the corner leaving the fruit machine and then leaving the bar altogether. Kenny Illingworth picked up his drink and approached the fruit machine.

Alex was in the make-up chair when he heard his phone chime. The phone was in Alex’s coat, which was hung up on a hook behind him.

“Can someone have a look at my phone, please?” Alex called out to anyone.

His stylist piped up. “Well I can’t,” she said, “unless you want cosmetics and hair spray smeared all over your phone.”

“We’re busy,” Joe’s stylist said, referring to himself, Callum’s stylist and Will’s. He continued to work on Joe’s hair.

“It’s going to keep buzzing every minute until someone reads the message,” Alex appealed. No-one responded. “Where’s Gary anyway?”

“Haven’t seen him,” Joe said. Callum didn’t say anything, as usual.

Callum’s girlfriend had been invited along. She was sat on a bench behind the boys and their stylists, fiddling with a mobile phone.

“Linda!” Alex said, trying to catch her eye via the mirror in front of him. It didn’t work. He then caught his stylist’s eye. “I’m just going to turn my head for a second,” he said to the stylist. The stylist stepped back and Alex turned his head. “Linda!” he said, looking at her.

“It’s Lydia,” she said, not even looking up from her phone.

“Okay: Lydia,” Alex said. “Can you do me a favour and get my phone out of that coat behind me? Then can you pass it to me?”

She looked up from her phone and gave Alex a look to say ‘Are you serious?’ Alex gave her a look which said ‘Yes, I am.’

She rose from the bench, staggered in her heels over to Alex’s coat, removed the phone and passed it into Alex’s hand, which had emerged from underneath the purple sheet which covered everything from his neck down. He made sure to glance over at Callum. ‘Some man you are,’ Alex thought. ‘You didn’t even defend your stuck up girlfriend when I was bossing her around.’

He read the text message and kept his phone in his hand, before returning the hand to its place underneath the sheet. He turned back towards the mirror and Alex’s stylist continued her work.

‘This won’t happen when I’m a solo artist,’ Alex thought. ‘When I ask someone to do something, they’ll do it, and there’ll be five others queued up behind them, disappointed that they weren’t the ones who could satisfy my request.’

At that point, a familiar figure entered the area. He looked flustered and rushed but still had the time to greet his clients: “Evening everyone,” Gary Freeman said. “How are you all doing?” he asked, catching the eyes of all four boys in turn, via the mirror. He didn’t allow them to reply. “You okay, Will? Nervous?”

“A little bit,” Will replied, two seats down from Alex.

“You’ll do fine,” Freeman said, patting his hands onto Will’s cloaked shoulders, before raising his palms to his face to see what had just made them feel sticky. Then he turned round. “Lydia! Glad you could make it, darling. How are you finding it?”

Lydia gave a reply which was barely worth mentioning.

“It’s a bit boring at the moment,” Freeman said to her, “watching them have their hair done and so on. It’ll get better soon.”

“Where’s Oliver?” Alex said, firmly.

Freeman turned to Alex’s mirror. “He’s on his way,” Freeman replied.

“No-one even knows how the show’s going to work with him involved.”

“I’ve already told you. It’s going to work exactly the same as you’ve rehearsed. The only one who has anything different to remember is Will. I’ll give Will a run through when you’ve finished here.”

“I need to have a word in private, later on,” Alex said.

“Sure,” Freeman said, “I’ll be around.” He then left the area.

As Freeman travelled through the network of corridors backstage he could hear music throbbing through the walls. The support act, the two twins, had begun their set. Eventually, Freeman arrived beside the steward who was manning the entrance to the backstage area. The steward leaned towards the metal barrier in front of him and pushed it forward, creating a gap for Freeman to squeeze through. “Thanks,” Freeman said, before sliding through the gap. Now he was in the audience area. He glanced up towards the stage at the twins. They were supposed to be warming up the crowd but there wasn’t much of a crowd to warm up. Some parents and children had taken up a position in front of the stage but most of the punters were congregated at the back of venue. There was also plenty of activity at the two bars on either side of the venue. Between them, the scattered audience mustered some token applause when the twins finished their song, but by and large people were very much involved in their own thing and the twins were just something in the background.

Freeman headed back to the venue’s secret bar. He’d been there a few minutes earlier, playing on the bandit, but when he returned he found that some guy had taken his place. Freeman ordered a drink and stood at the bar, close to the machine, waiting for his opportunity, but within moments Freeman realised his wait would be futile. He knew the look in the man’s eyes all too well. The pumping of money into the machine’s slot was automatic and repetitive, and no disappointment or impatience ever registered on the man’s face when each play resulted in failure. If anything, the man was becoming more encouraged, more excited. Each pound he fed into the machine was a pound which would soon cascade out of the machine, bulking up the inevitable, victorious haul. At first Freeman tried to be subtle as he kept a close eye on the man, but after a few sips of his drink he realised subtlety was unnecessary: the man was so consumed.

The shriek of a ringtone pierced the hum of soft chatter within the bar. The man at the fruit machine yanked a phone from his pocket. Perhaps this would be Freeman’s opportunity. But the man glanced at his phone’s display and then tucked the phone, still ringing, back into his coat. He then fed another pound coin into the machine. Freeman continued to sip his drink and watch this fellow sufferer.

After another few minutes the phone rang again. The man exhaled impatiently and plucked the phone from his pocket again. This time he answered it.

“Kenny… Hiya Alex.”

‘Alex?’ Freeman thought. ‘My Alex?’

“Yeah…” the phone call continued. “I know… sorry, like I say, it’s a real melee out here and I didn’t hear my phone when it rang before… yeah sure, I’m just about to finish my drink now so I’ll nip over… Yeah, in a bit. See ya.”

Freeman spun round and faced the bar. He knew what was coming next. The man would suddenly become alert and scan the bar to check that no-one was going to replace him on the fruit machine and steal his rightful prize. Freeman looked straight ahead at the optics behind the bar, then saw the man out of the corner of his eye, moving towards the bar’s entrance. Freeman glanced at the fruit machine. The man must have ploughed maybe twenty or thirty pounds into the thing. It was so tempting… But no, Freeman had to see if the ‘Alex’ on the other end of that man’s phone was Freeman’s ‘Alex.’ He had to find out what the story was.

Now it was Freeman glancing round the bar, sizing up the other drinkers. Did any of them look like gamblers? Might they hijack the machine before Freeman had had a chance to return? He couldn’t come up with an educated guess to answer that question, but the man was getting away and Freeman had to catch him up. He downed his drink and set off.

Freeman walked quickly and managed to get himself into a place where he could see the man, without making it too obvious that Freeman was following. The man walked round the side of the audience and eventually arrived at the metal barrier in front of a steward, the same steward who had let Freeman pass just minutes earlier. The man flashed what was obviously a backstage pass at the steward and the steward pushed the barrier, to create a gap for the man to move through. Freeman fished inside his pocket and removed his own backstage pass. He showed it to the steward, who allowed Freeman to move through the gap too. Freeman slipped past the steward and carried on following the man into the network of backstage corridors. At the mouth of the first corridor, Alex stood. Freeman saw the man approach Alex, he saw them exchange a few words and shake hands. As Freeman caught them up, Alex noticed him.

“Gary,” Alex said. He was beaming, which was always a bad sign. “Do you know Kenny Illingworth?”

“Erm… I don’t think so, no,” Freeman replied, shaking his head. Illingworth turned to face Freeman. The two managers then shook hands.

“Gary Freeman,” Freeman said to Illingworth, introducing himself.

“I’m hiring Kenny to represent me in this new phase of my career,”Alex said, putting his hand on Illingworth’s shoulder, which was quite a stretch. “As a solo artist, I’ll need someone whom I can rely on, someone whom I can trust to be with me every step of the way. I’m going to need someone who’s professional and capable.”

“Right,” Freeman said, confused.

“And you aren’t any of those things so that’s why I’m hiring Kenny,” Alex concluded, his smile widening. Freeman looked at Illingworth, who suddenly looked uncomfortable.

“Nice to meet you,” Freeman offered.

“See, I don’t really need you anymore,” Alex said. “I can go direct to the organ grinders. I’m talking about Lynne Pearlman and Ron Capper. We’re partners now. I was speaking to Ron on the phone earlier on, actually.”

“Okay…” Freeman said, feeling sorry for Kenny Illingworth to be put into such an awkward position. “How is he?”

“Ron?” Alex asked. “Oh, he’s doing great. Lovely man. And Lynne’s great too, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, she’s really… she’s really great,” Freeman replied.

“It was Lynne who recommended Kenny to me. And okay, it was actually Vanguard who originally recommended you to me, but people like Lynne don’t make the same mistake twice. That’s what I’m talking about, Gary: capable, professional people. People I can trust to do what’s best for me. See, if I succeed, everyone makes money. You never really grasped that, did you Gary? If I win, everyone wins. And because you didn’t grasp that, it means you lose and Kenny wins.”

Alex let his concluding comment hang in the air for a few moments before he spoke to Kenny Illingworth: “Come on Kenny, I’ll show you around the backstage area.” Alex and Illingworth disappeared down the corridor, leaving Freeman alone.

There, in that empty corridor, with only the muffled bass of the twins’ music for company, Freeman leaned against the wall and started to think about what he’d learned in the past couple of minutes.

Vanguard had recommended Freeman to Love Letters.

Vanguard had recommended Kenny Illingworth to Alex.

Freeman was, by any stretch of the imagination, addicted to gambling.

Kenny Illingworth seemed to be the same.

In Ron Capper’s office, on the day Oliver reappeared, Ron had said to Freeman “Sometimes you’ve got to take a punt.” He’d said “You’ve got to speculate to accumulate.” Since Freeman had climbed into bed with Vanguard records, isn’t that what he’d always been doing; gambling, punting, playing the odds?

Capper and Pearlman had forced Freeman into peddling their lies by feeding his habit, by giving him back-handers which were often spent in betting shops and gambling websites.

Capper and Pearlman would probably do the same to Kenny Illingworth.

Freeman remembered the meeting at the Vanguard offices weeks ago, when Capper had instructed Freeman to hire a replacement for Oliver. Capper had told Freeman to hire someone “just like” Oliver. He meant a girl. He meant someone whose parent/s had a point to prove, whether it was an unfulfilled desire for fame and success and a readiness to live through their child in order to get it, or whether it was a desire to prove that a single parent could raise a titan of a child and didn’t need some pesky man to help them. He meant someone who was home-schooled and isolated within their community, with few friends or associates to blow their cover. And now Freeman thought of Kenny Illingworth, emptying his wallet into that fruit machine. Illingworth was Will to Freeman’s Oliver.

Vanguard had been using and exploiting Freeman just like they’d been using and exploiting Love Letters. It was clear now that this had been going on before any money had changed hands between Freeman and the old greys. They had known about Freeman long before they had absorbed him into their game. They had known they could use him as a puppet, and they knew they could do the same with Illingworth.

Freeman sat down in the corridor. Then he began to weep.

After a few minutes, he composed himself. He wiped his eyes, then reviewed his reflection in the surface of his phone, to check that he looked okay. Satisfied, he returned the phone to his pocket, stood up, then walked on until he had found the dressing room. Inside, he saw Joe, Will, Callum, Alex, Lydia, Will’s Mum, Martin (the tour manager), and some assorted entourage, but no Alex.

“Have you seen Alex?” Freeman asked, paranoid that his voice still sounded cracked and upset.

“In the toilets,” Joe said.

At the far end of the dressing room, there was one unisex toilet. Freeman walked over to its door and opened it. He could hear Alex warming up his voice by singing some scales. After a few more steps, Freeman could see Alex singing to himself in the mirrors. Alex noticed Freeman and stopped.

“Where’s Kenny Illingworth?” Freeman asked.

“He had to go off somewhere,” Alex said. “He said he had some business to attend to.”

Freeman knew exactly what that business was.

“Alex, we need to talk,” Freeman said.

“I’m not changing my mind,” Alex said, turning on the tap and washing his hands. “Kenny is going to manage my solo career. That’s that.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Freeman said. “We need to talk about Vanguard. We need to talk about Ron Capper and Lynne Pearlman.”

“That’s cool,” Alex said, rinsing his hands now. “I like talking about Ron and Lynne.”

“They’re using you,” Freeman said. “They’re using me too. I doubt we’re the first and I doubt we’ll be the last.”

Alex leaned across Freeman to retrieve some paper towels from the dispenser. “What are you on about?” he asked, nonchalantly, before scrubbing his hands.

“They don’t think your solo career is going to amount to anything,” Freeman explained. “They think it’s going to be a massive failure. Ron told me himself.”

“Is that right?” Alex said, dismissively. “And why exactly would they plough all this money into my career if they think it’s going to bomb?”

“To keep you in your place,” Freeman said. “So they can carry on lying about Oliver and Will. You believe them because you want to believe them, but you need to take a step back and look at all this from an outsider’s point of view.”

“That’s what you are now,” Alex chuckled. “An outsider.”

Alex then tossed the wet paper towels into the bin and continued: “I played them,” Alex said, shrugging and smiling. “I gained some information and I used it to my advantage. I got the record contract by playing hard ball, fine, but I’ve got it now, and I’m going to go from strength to strength.”

“Ron spelt it out to me,” Freeman said. “Vanguard will never spend the kind of money promoting your solo career that they’ve spent on Love Letters. Your solo career will lose money, Love Letters will make much more money, overall they’ll be in the black. They couldn’t care less about your career. Okay, you said Ron spoke to you on the phone today, but this is how they play; they sucker you in, they wait till they’ve got you by the balls, and then they’re only in touch when they need something from you.”

Alex thought about his phone call to Vanguard that morning. He remembered his surprise at being put on hold twice rather than being given the priority treatment he expected. He remembered the receptionist trying to convince him to call back later. He remembered Ron trying to fob him off onto Freeman. He remembered a slight suspicion that Ron was trying to get Alex off the phone as quickly as possible.

“I’ve been taking bribes from Vanguard,” Freeman confessed, “so I’m more focused on their interests than yours. It’s been going on for almost as long as we’ve been working together.”

“Is that why you’re so hard to get hold of on the phone? Because you’re with them?”

“That’s part of it,” Freeman said. “But most of the time, when you called, I was… I was gambling. Often, I’d be in the middle of an online poker game and the phone would ring and… well, when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t… you can’t just drop everything and answer your phone.” Freeman exhaled, then composed himself. “And what’s more: I’ve just seen your new manager, Kenny Illingworth, glued to the bandit in one of the venue’s bars. He’s the same as me.”

“Bollocks.”

“Alex, ten minutes ago you rang him twice, didn’t you? The first time you rang, he didn’t answer. Right?”

“…I can’t remember,” Alex lied.

“He was too engrossed in the machine. That’s why he didn’t answer your call. Think about it: Vanguard put you in touch with me, right?”

“Yes.”

“And Vanguard put you in touch with Kenny, right?”

“Why are you telling me this? What’s the point? I’ve signed the solo deal. It’s done.”

“I’m telling you this because I think it’s time we both did the right thing for a change.”

“What do you mean?”

“Alex the hero.”

“Alex the hero?”

“Yes.”

“Gary… Are you suggesting that I sabotage everything and go to the press about Oliver and Will?”

“What is there to sabotage? You’re striving for something that will never be. You’re a great singer, but singers don’t shift records and posters and calendars and tickets and merchandise. Stars do. No-one deserves to be a star. No-one earns the right to be a star. It’s something you’re either born with or not. Think about yourself and compare yourself to Oliver. Are you anything like her?”

“Fuck off.”

“I’m not saying it out of spite. You’re going to see Oliver on stage tonight and you’re going to know what I’m talking about. That poor girl, you’ll see her confused, ungainly, lurching around the stage. It will be an embarrassment. And it will go on for as long as Vanguard wants it to.”

“Confused?”

“Yes.”

“Lurching around the stage?”

“Yes.”

“An embarrassment?”

“Yes.”

“Gary, I’ve been dreaming about that all year long.”

“Alex, they’ll chew you up and spit you out. We can’t let this go on any longer. And here I am, bitching about Vanguard, but the truth is: we’re all Vanguard. Not just Capper and Pearlman, not just people like me, taking their money, but you and Joe and Callum and the stylists and the driver who ferries you around from place to place and the fans and the journalists and the people who buy the gossip magazines and the teen magazines and the mums who want there to be groups like Love Letters full of wholesome, unthreatening Peter Pans, to facilitate their attempts to keep their daughters younger for longer. We’ve all played our part in this. We’re all culpable. We are all Vanguard. Well I don’t want to be Vanguard anymore, and neither should you.”

“So, if I’m getting this right, you expect me to go to the–”

“I’ll go too. I’d do it all myself if I could, but no-one knows who I am. The public know your face. We can reach more people together than I can on my own.”

“So you’re willing to sabotage your own career?”

“My career’s on borrowed time,” Freeman said. “You’ve seen the people we meet in our line of work. Determined, fresh-faced girls, straight out of university, starting websites and magazines and blogs. Girls from shitty towns with no prospects. They’ve left it all behind; family, friends, everything, and they’ve come to London to fulfil their dreams. Nothing on this earth is going to stop them. They’ll rule the industry in ten years. People like me, like Kenny Illingworth, we’re relics.”

“And you want to go out with a bang, huh?”

“We can both go out with a bang,” Freeman said. “If fame is what you want, you’ll have more fame in the next few months than you’ll ever know as some barely tolerated solo artist on Vanguard.”

“So what, shall I go out on stage and announce it over the P.A. system? You’re out of your mind.”

“No, I’m not asking you to do that. Play the gig. Enjoy it. Forget about all the restrictions we’ve placed on you. Forget about being the shining young pretty-boy with the wholesome lyrics. Forget about being the boy that passes the mums’ scrutiny. This will be your last gig, so make it your own. Be the real Alex.”

“…But I’ve signed the deal.”

“There’ll be no more Vanguard Records if we step out and do the right thing. Enjoy your gig and ring me tomorrow. I promise I’ll answer the phone.”

“…If I don’t join you… will you go to the press and spill the beans anyway?”

“I’m not blackmailing you, Alex. I can’t do this without you.”

There was a long pause, during which the two men stared at each other. Freeman stared with transparency and honesty, Alex stared with trepidation.

“Come on, let’s go back into the dressing room,” Freeman said. “You’ve got a concert to play.”

Together, they left the toilets and entered the dressing room. On arrival, they noticed the faces of Joe, Callum, Will, Will’s mum, Martin, Lydia and the entourage all pointing in the same direction. They were looking towards the far end of the dressing room, near the door.

At the back: Lynne Pearlman. Next to her: Oliver.

 

At the side of the stage, a crowd was building. People were squashed in. “There’s not enough room for everyone,” Martin called out. “Some of you are going to have to walk across the stage and stand at the other side.” Martin then glanced around the group. “Gary, Lydia and the dancers,” he said, “I need you to go to the other side of the stage. Dancers, you can come back to this side of the stage after your first routine. Keep your heads down when you cross the stage. Try not to be noticed.”

Obediently, the dancers crouched down and moved out into the light. Lydia was behind them. Freeman was at the back. As they shuffled onto the stage, Freeman turned left and looked out into the yawning great chasm where thousands of people were sat or stood. He couldn’t see a single face and he hoped they couldn’t see him. He could hear their chatter; the bass of the adults’ voices, the treble of the children’s. The stage was bathed in soothing orange light and Freeman could see the other side of the stage when he stared over Lydia’s backside, which was practically in his face. Eventually he arrived at the other side of the stage, which was hidden from the audience, and he stood again. He looked across the stage and could see Lynne Pearlman at the other side. Their eyes met. As the orange light on the stage began to fade, Lynne’s face darkened, and the last thing Freeman saw was her eyes, before her face disappeared into blackness. The crowd began to get louder. A few screams rang out. Then more. Then the video screens at the side of the stage flashed into life. The lights above the stage exploded into colour. The screams were more plentiful now. The noise was thicker, more intrusive. Now music.

At Lynne’s side of the stage, the boys moved into their pecking order. First Joe, then Alex, then Callum. Alex turned his head and looked over Callum’s shoulder. Will was lined up behind Callum. Oliver, as always, was being left till last. The noise was now deafening and though Alex couldn’t hear the beat of his heart, he could feel it pounding in his chest. Looking back, he noticed that someone had handed Martin a microphone.

“JOE!” Martin yelled, in a showbiz voice. Alex could hear the word booming behind him on stage. Martin’s voice was coming out of the speakers. It was for the audience’s benefit. Joe stared back at Martin, confused, before Martin made eye contact with him and pointed frantically towards the stage. Joe turned and stepped out onto the stage, waving and jumping and full of beans, as an inferno of screams lapped over the stage.

“ALEX!” the showbiz voice said again. Alex took two quick, deep breaths and stepped out onto the stage. He was almost rocked from his feet by the screams. It was amazing. It was actually shocking. This was the best reception he’d ever received. Maybe his recent efforts to steal the limelight had actually had an effect.

“CALLUM!” Another blast of cheers and screams burst towards them, but it didn’t seem quite as violent or as untamed as Alex’s blast. Alex looked back towards Callum as Callum stepped onto the stage. He tried to catch Callum’s eye and hoped Callum had noticed what Alex had.

“ONSTAGE, FOR HIS FIRST EVER SHOW WITH LOVE LETTERS: INTRODUCING… WILL!”

Will skipped onto the stage looking like she’d never been nervous in all her life. The smile was broad and relaxed, the movements were fluid. She was a natural.

“AND FINALLY…” The screaming stepped up a notch. “…PLEASE WELCOME BACK…” Alex’s eardrums began to pulse like the skin of a tabla. “…THE BOY YOU ALL THOUGHT WAS GONE…” Alex’s stomach tightened, his muscles tensed, as if he could see the world’s largest fist flying towards him. “….OOOOOOLLIIIIIIIIVVVERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!” Alex actually staggered backwards as a quarry of noise was dynamited and a million tons of shrapnel tore into him, penetrating his skin, slicing between his ribs, dicing his organs. But as he looked across to side of the stage…

A lost little girl limped out into the light. She moved hesitantly, taking small steps, as if not wanting to stray too far from safety. She held her hand above her head, to shield her eyes from the light. As the first song began, something was troubling her. She brought a gloved hand to her ear and started to paw at it, but it did no good, so she then tried to use the hand which held the microphone. The microphone was clasped between her thumb and index finger as she tried to use her other fingers to penetrate the ear. Eventually, she tore the earpiece out of the ear and it flopped limply onto her collar. The crowd still screamed. Callum, the person closest to Oliver, skipped over to her, forced the earpiece back into her ear and put an arm round her, before guiding her towards the front of the stage. He tried to make something positive out of it, beaming towards the audience and then pointing at Oliver, as if saying ‘I can’t believe Oliver’s really back! Just like you, I can’t believe it!’ As the first chorus began, habit kicked in and Oliver began to sing. She was smiling now, but whilst the boys performed their movements and modest dance steps, Oliver stood still on heavy feet.

 

Through the screaming throngs, over the seats, down the isle and into the bar, Kenny Illingworth stood virtually alone. Three bar staff were taking a break at one of the tables, enjoying drinks of their own and trying to have some semblance of a conversation amidst the racket. Kenny could barely hear the racket at all, he was so immersed in his own world.

And then, in one still, silent moment of delight, Kenny’s eyes widened as the symbols aligned. A curtain of pound coins tumbled from the machine and into the tray at the bottom, They just kept coming and coming, till the tray was almost overflowing. Illingworth allowed himself a smile and then started to place the coins in his wallet, until its coin compartment was full. Then, he had to start using the pockets of his coat. After a while, he could feel the left hand pocket of his coat become heavy. The loot was weighing down his coat at one side. He then switched to his right pocket and began to fill that. Once the coins had all been collected and Illingworth’s coat had been considerably deformed, he turned to the seated bar staff, who were looking back at him, having seen his victory.

“Is there another machine in here?” he yelled. “I know this is the only one in this bar, but is there another one in the venue?”

The bar staff looked across at each other, conferring through facial expressions alone, before one of them shouted “No, don’t think so. That’s the only one.”

“The only one in the entire venue?” Illingworth shouted.

“Yeah, think so,” the barman shouted back at him.

Illingworth paused for a moment, weighed up his options, then removed one pound coin from his pocket and fed it back into the machine, beginning again.

 

Outside the venue, journalists still tried to get in. They used numerous tactics; aggression, persuasion, bribes, humour, lulling the doormen into a false sense of security, waiting till the doormen were on a cigarette break. Nothing worked. Other journalists were elsewhere around the building’s perimeter, climbing onto bins or trying to slide their fingertips into the crack of a fire exit. Nothing worked.

 

In Bradford, a ten year old girl was walking down the stairs of her home and entering the front room, where her mother was watching the news. Sandra heard the door creak and saw her daughter enter. Melissa walked over to the couch and sat on it, before her mother wrapped her arm around her. On the news, a reporter stood outside Wembley Arena, speaking with wide-eyed enthusiasm about the triumphant return of a pop star she couldn’t even see. In the background, it was possible to hear the smothered mumbles of music. Melissa recognised the song.

 

During one of Callum’s parts, Alex found time to look over to the far side of the stage, on which Gary Freeman was stood. Alex could only see one side of Freeman’s face: the other side was obscured. As Alex prepared for the song’s final chorus, he began to think. Maybe everything Freeman had told him was true. Maybe Alex was being exploited by Vanguard. Maybe the solo career would be a washout. And how much did Alex know about Vanguard anyway? No-one had told him or Joe or Callum about what had happened to Oliver, there wasn’t even an excuse made. Whatever had happened, Vanguard had sent Oliver out on stage again anyway, without a rehearsal, without a recovery, without being re-integrated into the band. Capper? Pearlman? Could they be trusted? But as large and serious as all these questions were, a more personal point stood out in Alex’s mind: after weeks of trying to undermine Freeman’s authority, after going behind Freeman’s back, then trying to blackmail him, then trying to get him replaced, then waving Kenny Illingworth in his face, Freeman was now proposing that Alex becomes his ally. If Alex was to accept, wouldn’t that be a form of apology? Wouldn’t it come very close to Alex admitting he was wrong all along?

On cue, Alex lifted his microphone and joined in with the song’s last chorus. When it finished, the crowd erupted again. Love Letters had just played their fourth song and a costume change was due. As the overhead lighting and the video screens dazzled the audience, the boys made their way off the stage, with Callum ushering Oliver along. The dancers replaced the boys on stage, fell into position and began their routine.

When all the boys were back in the dressing room, Lynne Pearlman barked some instructions and the boys were pushed into an order, with Will furthest away from the door, and Oliver nearest to the door. Stylists and assistants began to tear the boys out of their clothes. Breathing heavily, Alex saw that three bodyguards had crowded round Oliver, forming a human castle. Clothes spewed from the castle’s turrets as Oliver was undressed behind its walls. As Alex was being forced into new clothes, he noticed Will to his left. Will was beside the far wall and Alex was stood between Will and the others. As Will’s shirt was yanked over her shoulders, Alex noticed a thin vest covering her body and he could almost make out the bandages underneath. Alex then glanced at Lynne Pearlman, who had arranged the boys in this order. It was clearly deliberate: with Alex shielding the other boys from Will, it was only Alex who could see the clues of Will’s sex. And of course, Alex already knew.

 “Why does Oliver have three bodyguards and we’ve only got one each?” Will asked Alex before a new shirt was forced over her face.

“You’d better get used to stuff like that, mate,” Alex said, closing his eyes as a jet of hairspray veiled his head and eager hands pawed through his hair.

“But we’re working just as hard as he is,” Will said. “Maybe harder.”

Alex smiled at Will’s comment as the molesters moved away. Martin yelled at the boys to vacate the dressing room.

“Will, I could kiss you right now,” Alex said, “if only you were a girl.”

Will giggled.

Moments later, Love Letters arranged themselves into their appropriate pecking order again, before jumping back out onto the stage. The next song was Oliver’s big ballad.

The lights dimmed but the noise from the crowd did the opposite. They knew what was coming. As Alex glanced across the stage, he could see Will on standby, looking nowhere near as relaxed as she had looked earlier. Will was focusing on Oliver and was poised to jump in and sing if Oliver forgot a line. Callum, who was closest to Oliver, looked especially worried and was also staring at Oliver. The whole scene looked awkward, like the boys had never shared a stage before.

Oliver joined the song right on cue, singing in time and in tune. Callum’s shoulders relaxed. Oliver delivered the first verse without a hitch and the girls in the standing area closest to the stage were manic, reaching their arms towards the stage but being tolerated by the security guards who knew there was no chance of the girls or their parents actually getting onto the stage.

The other boys joined the song at the chorus stage, forming a choir of voices bulked up by the ever present backing track of professional singers.

Midway through the first chorus, Alex noticed Callum. Rather than facing the audience, Callum turned slightly and looked back at Oliver. Alex then did the same. Oliver had stopped singing midway through the chorus and was now just staring silently into the black vortex where the audience dwelled. Alex glanced over at Will to check that Will had noticed too. She had.

When the second verse began, Will came in and delivered the first line. It almost sounded professional, like an intentionally remodelled version of the song.

But then, as Will began to sing the second line, Oliver came in. Will stopped singing and allowed Oliver to sing the line, but it became apparent that Oliver was singing the wrong line. She was singing the first verse again. Then Oliver stopped altogether. Will eventually started to sing the fourth line, late and out of time, but was interrupted again by Oliver, moments before the second chorus started.

Alex glanced over at Joe. They both knew that everything was starting to go wrong, but Alex barely even cared. As long as Alex sang his parts to the best of his ability, it was only the other boys who would look stupid. Alex put his soul into the chorus in an attempt to make the contrast between his reliability and Oliver’s shambles seem all the more pronounced.

After the second chorus ended, the music dropped to a soft murmur and a short, instrumental section began. After the instrumental, Oliver was due to sing a passionate, heartstring-tugging middle eight, before the final, climactic chorus.

As the instrumental reached its end, none of the boys on the stage knew what was going to happen. The lights on the stage dimmed and a single white spotlight illuminated Oliver.

As the middle eight began, Alex could hear the first line being sung, but only by the audience. Oliver wasn’t singing. Then, for the second line, Will’s voice arrived, filling in for Oliver, but the lighting engineer couldn’t tell who was singing and the spotlight remained on Oliver, who was stood redundant and still with her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling. Will, still in the shadows, continued to sing. ‘Freeman was right,’ Alex thought. ‘This is embarrassing.’

Alex left his position in the shadows and dived in front of Oliver. It was now Alex in the spotlight. He sang the third line with as much gusto as he could muster, which silenced Will immediately. From then on, the stage was Alex’s. When he dropped to his knees to accentuate the lyrics, in which a boy pleads for a girl’s forgiveness, the spotlight followed him to the floor. As the part finished, Alex placed his spare hand onto his heart. The final chorus blossomed into life but Alex stayed in his kneeling position, still with his hand on his heart, as if overcome by emotion, whilst Joe, Callum and Will completed the final chorus. As Alex held his position, he knew that for the first time ever, every pair of eyes in the audience was on him alone.

The song finished and the audience went crazy. Alex rose and walked to the front of the stage, before bowing and beaming, as if the song was his and those other guys on stage were just his backing band.

“Thank you,” Alex said into his microphone. “Thank you so much. That song really means a lot to me.” The lighting engineer reacted instantly to this turn of events, dimming the background lights again and training a spotlight on Alex. The spotlight was light blue in colour. “It’s a really beautiful love song,” Alex continued, “and it’s important to me because I know I’ve been in a position where I’ve not treated a girl how she deserved to be treated, then I wanted to apologise and to make everything right again, but I just didn’t know how to say it. See, boys aren’t expected to talk about their feelings, so that can make it hard to express them sometimes. Sometimes, a boy needs a girl to help him express those feelings.” Alex now began to walk along the edge of the stage, storytelling, arresting the attentions of each audience member in turn. “Since it happened, I’ve always wondered what I should have said and if there was anything I could have said to stop her from going away. When I heard that song for the first time, when I heard those words, I knew those were the words I should have said.” Alex reached the end of the stage and then paused, before hanging his head. “If only I could have known that then.” He then turned around and walked back to where he came from. He glimpsed Callum’s face, uncomprehending.

“But sometimes,” Alex said. “I’m in a different mood. Sometimes I don’t feel like being the sensitive guy, the loving guy. Sometimes, I just want to be...” Alex then faced the audience, “…an animal.” The spotlight turned from blue to a deep red. “Sometimes I want to be the bad boy.” Alex now heard a few cheers and screams from the crowd. “Sometimes I want to be the boy who gets what I want.” The noise rose. Alex felt like a preacher whipping up the congregation.

“Do you know what I mean?” Alex asked, before jabbing his microphone into the air, to pick up the audience’s voices. The cheers came back louder than the last time. “I mean, love’s all well and good,” Alex continued, “but we can’t be like that all the time, can we?”

Another cheer, the loudest so far.

“Sometimes, I want to misbehave.”

More screams than cheers this time.

“Sometimes I want to be BAD!”

Louder screams.

“And sometimes I need someone to be bad WITH!”

Deafening screams.

“HIT IT!”

Right on cue, the next song, an up-tempo one, blasted through the speakers. The lyrics weren’t even remotely about being bad but Alex felt like remoulding them. All the boys sang the first chorus but the first verse was due to be sung by Callum. As it began, Alex leaped onto the monitors at the front of the stage, elevating himself half a foot above the rest of the members, and he began to sing Callum’s lines. Callum was incensed, but felt powerless to act. The spotlight was still tracking Alex. The stage was his. If Callum was to sing, it would make Callum sound like the intruder, the gate-crasher.

Alex was now practically strutting. After over a year of being told to stick to his little quarter of the stage, he now wanted it all, inch to inch. He walked in front of Joe, in front of Will, in front of Oliver, in front of Callum. Their surprise and indignation had made their singing voices soft and uncertain, allowing Alex’s voice to dominate. Alex swivelled his hips. Alex flicked his shirt up, revealing a split-second glimpse of his stomach, whose muscles he’d made sure to tense into a six pack. He spread his legs, wiggled his backside, and by the third minute of the song the lighting engineer had dimmed the lights around Alex again, so he was the only member visible to anyone except the first few rows, and even then they would have needed to squint to see the four useless mannequins Alex was sharing the stage with. As the song reached its climax, Alex dropped to his knees, brought his free hand up to his collar and ripped his shirt.

During the song’s four minutes, fifteen hundred girls felt the first stirrings of puberty. Although the adults in the crowd were a little conflicted about this spectacle, the girls screamed with an abandon Alex only ever thought was reserved for Oliver. He was in the zone now. This was his night and no-one was going to wrench it away from him. Because most of the noise consisted of the high pitched screams of girls, one deep cheer stood out. It was coming from Gary Freeman, pumping his fist and loving the show. His head was poked round the side of the stage to get a better look.

‘Here’s the real Alex,’ Freeman thought. ‘This is the Alex who’s got nothing to lose, the Alex who’ll go out with a bang.’ Freeman knew now that Alex would help him sink Vanguard records. He looked across the stage and made eye contact with Lynne Pearlman at the other side, flanked by a huge group of bodyguards. Freeman’s expression was devilish.

‘I hope Kenny Illingworth is seeing all this,’ Alex thought to himself as he prowled the stage. ‘And it’s a shame Ron Capper isn’t here, but I’m sure Lynne will tell him about it. They need to know about this new Alex. They may have got me to sign that contract just to shut me up, yes, that may have been true, but Pearlman will be counting her lucky stars now. She knows what she’s got now. I am dynamite. Surely this is worth more than three albums. Maybe I can get that three album deal turned into a six album deal.’

Alex then turned to the audience again. “I think I’ve ripped my shirt,” he said, fondling the tear.

Another quarry exploded.

“Well it is pretty hot up here,” Alex said. “Maybe I should just take it off.”

Another blast of brutal noise. Alex pulled the shirt over his head and turned to see Oliver bent over, clutching her ears in pain. ‘Who’s at the top of the pecking order now, fucker?’

The next song began, another up-tempo number, and Alex sprung into life again. Again, the spotlight was stuck to him just like the eyes of everyone in that crowd. Again, the other members stayed ignored, in the shadows. Through the monitors and the earpiece, Alex could hear that most of the group had stopped singing. They’d given up. Only Will’s voice remained, along with the voices on the backing track. The audience came to see Love Letters and now they were seeing Alex.

But now he had a problem. All the moves he’d been practicing in private, at home, had been used up in the last song. The crowd was still going crazy, but Alex was repeating himself and he knew it. He had to show more variety to win a better contract from Lynne Pearlman. Now was the time to grab the opportunity and rip every shred of meat from its bones.

Alex climbed the monitors again, looming over the first few rows of the audience. He then hopped down and perched on the edge of the stage. There was a small corridor between the audience and the stage in which the security guards were stood. Alex’s adoring public were reaching out to him, desperate to touch their new idol, but they couldn’t bridge the gap. Whilst singing the second chorus, Alex crouched and reached his hand across the divide, to give them something a little better than what he’d given them so far: a touch of their idol’s flesh.

His fingers locked with the fingers of one audience member. ‘Imagine what she’s going to tell her friends tomorrow,’ Alex pondered.

But then he started to feel the hand pulling him towards the crowd. He was beginning to lose balance. He tried to free his hand but another hand was now holding his wrist, and another hand, and they were all pulling. Alex realised he would have to hold onto something with his other hand, but it was holding the microphone. No, he couldn’t drop the microphone, he had to keep on singing, he had to keep on entertaining, he couldn’t let this moment die, he couldn’t… let this… opportunity…

Gary Freeman watched with horror as Alex’s body disappeared over the side of the stage. The security guards jumped into the crowd, but it was so densely packed that the guards merely crowd-surfed along the top of the audience and drifted helplessly away from the spot where Alex had been pulled in.

Freeman looked across the stage at Lynne Pearlman and the bodyguards. They were all there. Alex’s bodyguard, Will’s, Callum’s, Joe’s, Oliver’s. The bodyguards began to move, but Freeman watched with disbelief as Lynne spun around to face the bodyguards and held her arms out, to prevent them from advancing. Obediently, they stopped. They showed no sign of advancing again.

Freeman ran onto the stage, into the light, brushed past Joe and hurtled to the front. He placed his feet onto a monitor and used it as a diving board, to fling himself into the audience. He felt his body crash into others and then he couldn’t tell what was happening. After a few moments, he realised that his head had slipped through a gap in the bodies and that he was upside down, with his feet poking above heads and protruding in the air. Then he fell through and landed with a crunch on the floor. He raised his head a split second before someone’s knee smashed into it, breaking Freeman’s nose instantly. As he brought his hands to a face which was now spurting blood, he felt legs and feet trampling him, crushing his ribcage, pinning his arms to the floor. Choking, he managed to turn onto his front and the legs began to trample his back. A kick to the back of his head dazed him. He began to panic as he realised he was trying to breathe but couldn’t. It was as if his chest is made of bricks. Nothing was moving. No air was going in. Bodies were now falling on him, smashing his head into the floor. Now his legs didn’t work. He couldn’t get up. Still struggling to breathe, Freeman dragged himself along the floor with his hands and felt relieved to find a gap in the chaos. He was staring forward at the feet and calves of dozens of little girls, fighting and scrambling. On the floor in front of him, he spotted an arm extending from between two of the girls’ legs. The arm was on the floor with its palm facing upwards and the fingers curled, grasping for help. Freeman knew that the arm was Alex’s. Freeman reached, grabbed the wrist and tried to pull Alex from the crowd of girls. He yanked…

…But it was only an arm. An arm, snapped off at the elbow. As Freeman suffocated, three young girls bent down and snatched the arm from Freeman’s clutches before tearing at it, ripping off flesh and fingers and turning the arm into pieces small enough to pocket. This was the last sight Gary Freeman ever saw.

Only yards away, the remains of Alex lay, slick with blood, on the floor of the venue. Through the gaps between scrambling hands, Alex could see the spaces where parts of him should have been. One girl was digging her shoe into his exposed guts to loosen them. He stared up into the faces of six or seven other girls before their hands swooped down onto his face.

And with his last breath, Alex said “I am a star.”

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Rueben Holland. All rights reserved.

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