Earlier that day
With a bang of the dressing room door, she entered. Erica loved entering with a bang.
Like the other musicians warming up in the tiny backstage room, Erica wore black. Half her auburn hair piled on her head, half spiraled around her shoulders. Blood dribbled from her lips to her chin.
She stumbled, dropped to her knees and gurgled.
The scales and conversations stopped in momentary shock, but for all her bravado, Erica wasn’t a good actress. She milked it a moment, clutching her throat, but caught the giggles and spat on the tile floor.
“You should see your faces,” she said, pulling a napkin from her cleavage.
Everyone rolled their collective eyes and went back to business. One of them asked where she found the blood pack, others tittered about what a little fright they got.
Joshua Rossi, in the far corner of the room, fumbled his violin.
He’d avoided Erica, his co-headliner for the tour and rival in the pop-opera charts, all day catching glimpses of her at the theater. Of course she finished her set like this.
He bumped a young singer as he steadied himself on the nearest table. At thirteen, she was the baby on the bill, and was still giggling at Erica.
“Hey Josh, you got this?” the girl asked. She bent to retrieve the rolling tube of lip balm he’d knocked from her hand and hooked his drooping bow. “Why don’t you put that down?”
“Joshua Rossi, you’re on in five,” the stage manager bellowed into the room. “Good God, what happened in here?”
Erica continued wiping her mouth. “Sorry.”
The manager took a second to digest the scene and said, “You’re grown-ass adults. Rossi!”
Josh opened his eyes and unstuck his forehead from his fist.
Someone gave him a cursory back rub. “Relax. It’s fake.”
Josh swiped his bow from the thirteen-year-old and shouldered through the room.
Erica stifled a laugh and said, “Break a leg.”
Josh glared at her as the stage manager pulled him into the beige, cement brick hallway.
“Why are you pale? You sick?”
The manager checked his watch. “Four minutes.”
The bricks went from beige to black as Josh progressed toward the stage, avoiding eye contact with the others scrambling to maintain the show in progress. Along with the black walls, darkness took over to maintain the illusion for the audience. Backdrop panels from previous shows and lighting trees created an obstacle course Josh had only partially memorized. He followed the music and ambient light from the stage.
“Joshua, you next?” Anthony, Josh’s roommate until two weeks ago, walked toward him carrying the cello that made him famous. “Whoa! What’s up?”
“Nothing. Nothing.” He passed a hand over his mouth. “Is it really so noticeable?”
“Like a sheet. Can you go on? I mean, are you —”
“Yeah. It’s fine.”
“Erica. Just … Erica.”
Anthony grimaced. “Ah, you found out.”
The audience applauded, and the singer on stage took a bow.
“Found out about what?” Josh asked, while Anthony said, “I’m sure it’s not even true.”
The singer walked off stage past Josh. “Go!” she hissed.
Without introduction, and trying not to give any more mind to Anthony or Erica, Josh took center stage amid a round of applause. With a lift of his bow, the audience quieted. He put his lips to the microphone and the violin under his chin. Though hundreds of people sat before him in the cavernous theater, when Joshua Rossi closed his eyes, the place emptied.
He took a deep breath and struck the first note.
I’m sure it’s not even true.
Anthony’s words thundered back the second Joshua left the stage. Though Anthony hadn’t been in the rehearsal room when Erica pulled her blood capsule stunt, he knew something. Erica said something to him; possibly to everyone.
Backstage buzzed with activity with most of the performers finished, but Josh focused on tucking his violin in its case and into the locker.
Something about him. Something embarrassing.
At least the blood had been wiped up.
He shut the locker and pocketed the key.
If he didn’t have to use the men’s room, he would have bolted home. No final curtain bow. No meet and greet with the special ticket holders. No Erica. Just a delivered pizza, a beer, and a who-am-I-kidding look at his empty life.
Though backstage provided one unisex facility, Josh opted for the solitude of the public men’s room outside the auditorium before it released the audience. The only sounds in the corridors were leaked music from the stage, giving the theater a false sense of peace and emptiness.
Moreover, the front of house restroom boasted a marble and fresh-smelling luxury the tiny, brick-lined, toilet-cum-storage room couldn’t offer.
Before opening the door, Erica and another female musician appeared at the end of the carpeted hall. Spying Josh, Erica whispered to her companion, whose brow furrowed.
“Aww,” she replied. “That’s so catty.” As they rounded the corner out of sight, she continued, “wait, how do you know?”
Josh pushed into the men’s room.
He’d barely started peeing when Anthony entered and joined him at the neighboring urinal.
Josh sighed. Even friends were supposed to leave a one-urinal buffer. “How are those nuptials treating you?”
“You must have really pissed her off,” Anthony replied, ignoring the question.
Josh zipped. “Is she telling people I’m gay or something? We already did that one.”
Josh shut his eyes. “There’s no way — Even if it were true, there’s no way she could know.”
Anthony shrugged, keeping his eyes on his business.
Josh leaned against the counter. “That doesn’t explain …” He washed his hands.
“If that’s not what you found out about, what the hell happened before you went on?”
“She bit a blood capsule in the dressing room.”
Anthony was silent a second. “Ohh yeah.” He chose the adjacent sink. “Wait, was she even there when you …?”
Josh yanked a paper towel from the dispenser, giving his hands a perfunctory wipe before balling it into the trash. Two years prior, when Josh, Anthony and Erica had been involved in a similar Stars of Pop-Opera tour, Anthony had cut his hand on a piece of equipment backstage. The injury wasn’t serious, but bled a lot. When Josh stood to get a first aid kit, he fainted, and Erica never let him forget.
“I asked her to dinner, that’s all.”
“Yeah, she said the two of you went to a swanky restaurant where she fondled you under the table and you cried and left her with the check.” Anthony turned off the tap. “About which she says she spends less on rent.”
Josh shook his head and left the room.
Anthony followed him into the filling corridor. The show had ended.
“Are you not answering because it’s ludicrous or because you don’t want to admit it? If it’s true, the blood capsule was actually a brilliant way of getting back at you in a room full of people without anyone else catching on.”
Josh whipped around. “She turned me down,” he shouted.
Several people stared.
Anthony nudged him toward the lobby.
“We never went to dinner,” Josh continued, checking his volume. “When I asked her to go with me, she said, ‘Josh, honey,’ and laughed. As though the idea of being seen with me… You were right. I shouldn’t have tried.”
Anthony shook his head. “I wouldn’t take it personally. I haven’t known her to be friendly with anyone more than a week before starting her usual drama.” He paused, averting his eyes. “Remember a few months ago she and Stephanie were tight, but then Erica left ransom notes about her?”
$50 Million or Stephanie Rey gets it. The flyers with newspaper cutout letters were tacky at best, dangerous at worst. Stephanie found out Erica left the notes and cried until Erica convinced her it was all done in love. “Everybody’s thinking about you now,” Erica had said in consolation. “And in this industry, all you really need is attention. Good or bad.”
Anthony reached into his front pocket and handed a folded sheet of paper to Josh. A cutout letter floated to the ground.
$50mil or Joshua Gr y dies
Josh backed against the wall. The glittering A at the end of his name was cut from the Christmas card he’d sent Erica the week before.
“Listen,” Anthony said, “This is what she does to people. She’s pulling your pigtails. I don’t even think it’s personal, you just got on her radar.” He paused. “I gotta wonder, though, why do you like her?”
Josh folded the flyer and tucked it in his pocket. “Well, she’s hot and insanely talented. But I’ve seen a different side of her than all this.”
Anthony leaned beside him on the wall, watching the crowd funnel onto the staircase. “She pet a puppy or something?”
Josh rubbed his neck. “I never told you about this because … The night you moved out, I was feeling sorry for myself. We had a show in Boston and she made fun of me for being gloomy, but,” he shook his head. “I don’t know, I opened up to her and she listened. We stayed back after everyone else left, talking. She was soft like I’d broken through her bitchy shell and found an amazing person inside. I saw her again this week for the New York shows and asked her to dinner, and you know the rest.”
“You really upset about me moving out?”
Josh shook his head. “It’s not like I’ve never lived on my own before. It’s fine. But that plus my mom guilt-tripping me about not coming home for this holidays this year, and I see you and Stephanie so happy…” He lowered his voice. “I haven’t been involved with anyone in, god, two years? Anyway. I needed someone and she was there and I believed she wouldn’t hurt me. But she got me with the blood and the rumor and the flyers. Loud and clear.”
“I don’t even really think the blood was about you,” Anthony said. “I gotta confess, I was with them when they found the capsules back there in storage. They wanted me to use one too, but Erica was the only one to get one in her mouth before someone found us and told us to leave. It was just shitty timing.”
“Wait, who all was with you?”
“Me and Erica and two guys who work at the theater. They pointed the makeup kit out. Erica thought it would be funny to scare everyone rehearsing. I figured you were on stage already, so I didn’t… If I knew she was still gonna do it, I would have been there to watch.”
Josh nodded. “It’s all right.”
They took the staircase down to the lobby.
Buffets on cloth-covered folding tables encircled the crowded space. The placement gave patrons enough room to stand around talking while others filled small plastic plates with appetizers.
“Check out the blue-hairs,” Anthony said. “We’re like rock gods to them.”
“Yeah.” Cube-shaped, middle-aged moms loved Josh. He flagged a waiter with a tray of champagne. After taking two glasses, he pounded one and started on the other.
Anthony pocketed his hands and whispered, “No one believes her about…” He glanced at Josh’s crotch. “Although, you might sleep with someone tonight and spread the word. Just in case.”
Buzzy alcohol softened the edges. Being a cheap date was helpful when Josh needed a quick break. “I’m gonna get some food before it’s picked over.”
“All right, man. Catch you later.”
Josh swung into the crowd to fill a plate with petit fours and strawberries the stage manager assumed everyone liked. He set his champagne flute on the table and bumped a woman’s braceleted hand. Purple sequins twinkled as she adjusted to make room for him.
“Sorry,” he said.
Except for the players, the woman was the youngest person in the crowd. Big, eager eyes met his briefly, but continued with the buffet, choosing sugary pieces she might not have if her friends had been watching. The dress hugged her body — her young metabolism to thank. A small, feathered clip didn’t keep her hair from tumbling onto her plate.
She glanced at Josh when he hadn’t broken his gaze. “Am I blocking you?” she asked.
“No, I — No.” He reached for the glass, but self-consciously rubbed his sweaty palms on his shirt instead.
“Were you one of the performers?” she asked, smiling. Her eyes went back to the food.
Maybe he wasn’t going to sleep with her as Anthony suggested, but chatting her up without getting shot down might rebuild some self-esteem.
“Violin and vocals,” Josh answered.
She smiled and stepped to the next platter.
“Joshua Rossi,” he continued, advancing without taking any food himself.
She eyed him. “Joshua Rossi?”
He nodded, grinning.
“You were on that album?”
“Yep. I made an album. The one with that guy. Sometimes people buy it.” He went for a handshake he hoped wouldn’t be clammy. “Josh.”
She discarded her refreshments on the table; her cool, slim fingers closed around his. “It’s so good to meet you.” A smile crinkled her nose. Her free hand went to her throat. “I can’t believe I’m really meeting you,” she continued, not letting go of his hand. “One of my friends burned your album for me, so I’ve never seen your picture. You’re the reason I’m here tonight. I thought you’d be older but you’re — you’re like my age.”
“It’s opera. I get that a lot.”
“You were playing the violin while singing. At the same time?”
“I didn’t know that was possible. Sorry. I’m Sophia. My mom calls me Fifi, and I hate that. Like she always wanted a poodle or something.” She paused, laughed. Her face reddened. “Why’d I say that? Haha! Nice to meet you.”
The handshake finished.
“Likewise. Didn’t you see me on stage? Or on the big poster out front?”
“Twenty dollar second balcony tickets were all I could afford, although —” she caught herself. “Just glad to be here. I was running late and I didn’t look at the poster.”
At the risk of looking like an alcoholic in front of this cute stranger, Josh drained the glass in front of him and burped into his hand. “Do you normally listen to classical music or did your grandma drag you here?” The room spun.
“Would you believe my family makes fun of opera? Screeching falsetto, fat women in Viking horns.” Sophia demonstrated with a finger pointing out of her head. “In college, my roommate was addicted to musical theater, which was a slippery slope for me weeping in a Tosca audience …”
Her words jumbled in a blur of lip gloss and dainty little teeth. Josh couldn’t remember a cuter laugh. When he giggled with her, though, everyone around him stared.
Sophia covered her mouth and shushed him playfully.
“It’s kind of hot,” Josh said, loosening his tie. “In the room, I mean.” He laughed again, but controlled his volume. “I mean, so are you! You’re so sparkly,” he said, taking off his jacket, but after a sudden chill, pulled it back on.
“Yeah?” Sophia said. “Look.” She put her plate down and shimmied. Light caught the sequins, disco-balling purple orbs on his clothes.
Josh laughed and opened a few shirt buttons. They were flirting, anyway. He needed ventilation.
She grabbed his shoulders. “Whoa! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, what —?” He took a step backward and buckled against the wall, falling hard on his butt beside the shattered champagne glass he didn’t remember dropping.
She said something, something he should have understood. Her fingers tightened around his arms. Once she pulled him to his feet, they took great, stumbling steps before he fell to his knees. Her face was close to his, soft and luminous and all he wanted to do was pull her on top of him and kiss her and make love to her and prove himself —
Instead, his head cracked hard on the floor.
He remembered falling, but the gap between slipping from the sparkly woman’s fingers and the explosive, sobering pain in his head took a thousand years.
Joshua lay on his face, bent up at the knees as though he’d fallen from something, and he wondered in terror if he’d been drunkenly dancing on a table or if he’d tumbled from a curb into traffic. Whatever happened created a huge disconnect in the last thing he remembered, spinning wheels in his memory without gaining traction.
A bright light shone through his eyelids; pain bloomed in his head. No one said anything, and relief flooded him as snippets of the night before sparked back. The concert. The reception. A woman?
He gasped suddenly as though coming up for air. His lungs burned. His heart hammered. With his eyes tightened, Josh pulled himself forward until his legs dropped to the floor. For a moment, he lay panting, his body heavy and spent.
A haunting quartet of cellos crackled through a speaker as he slowly became aware of his surroundings. Faint words mingled with the music.
Josh forced his eyes open a slit, wincing at the light. The floor was hard, black, glowing along its snaked edge. Large white blocks formed a platform on either side. The top wasn’t visible from where Josh lay, but he got a vague impression of motionless human shapes standing over him. One of them was saying something; his head hurt too much to focus.
“What —?” A woman’s voice overlaid the glitchy, ambient music.
He struggled to his hands and knees and wanted to respond to the voice by calling hello, but only groaned. The expenditure of energy brought his blood pressure to a dizzying dip and a shadow over his vision.
“Oh,” he managed, but could only wheeze afterward.
“I can hear you,” the woman said, timid. “I know you’re there. I can hear you!”
Josh pressed his forehead to the cool tile and rolled slowly to his back. The ceiling was a black expanse in which a cage of light rigging slowly became visible.
Cautious footsteps approached.
“Hello?” she said, still distant.
A woman wearing a full skirt of red ostrich plumes rounded the corner; the top of her dress fit her form to her neck in shiny red scales, leaving her arms free. Her hair was pulled back in two severe plaits. She wobbled on shoes made of sculpted metal and stopped a few feet away from Josh.
“Oh, it’s you. Are you okay?” she said.
“I think … I hit my head,” he said. Since the haze had left his eyes, he propped himself on his elbows. The human figures he thought he’d seen standing on the white ledges were mannequins wearing costumes he couldn’t understand.
The woman was familiar, but unplaceable until she knelt and light mirrorballed her top.
“You,” he whispered, but her name escaped him.
She gently touched his forehead, wincing. “You’ve definitely got a bump. What happened?”
He sat up against the white platform. The dizziness cleared and the light wasn’t as blinding. “Couldn’t tell you.” For the first time, he caught a glimpse of himself. “What am I wearing?” He expected a black suit, but found himself in patterned black and gold slacks with a matching jacket.
The woman sat beside him, stretching her legs out in front. “You? I look like a circus performer. Who designed these shoes?” She pulled off the metal pumps. “A masochist. I have enough trouble in heels.” She sighed. “Guess we shouldn’t have gotten in that car.”
“What car?” Josh asked. “I don’t even remember your name.”
“Sophia. Look at me. I’m shaking.” She held out her trembling hands before pressing them into the feathers on her lap. “We were taking you home. I know that much.” She paused, thoughtful. “You were hurt, or …?” She let out a little laugh. “I can’t remember what happened.”
“Do you know how we got here?” Josh asked. “Did I fall from there?” He pointed to the opposite ledge where two male mannequins sat in plastic chairs wearing geometrically patterned black and gold suits similar to the one Josh had on. They were featureless and shiny black.
“Well,” she said. “There was an empty liquor bottle beside me when I woke up.”
Sophia gestured with her hands. “This big? Vodka, I think.”
The music overhead crackled, looping the same sixty second motif.
“I was on a bench,” she continued, “over there. Like one where you sit to look at the art in a museum. Which I guess is where we are.”
“Was it yours, though? The bottle?”
“I’m more a wine kind of girl.” Her hand went to the back of her head. “Someone could have used it to hit us. It was bone dry. I don’t feel anything on myself, though, but I was definitely out. I don’t remember if I — no, I did drink something. At a house.” She shut her eyes. “We drove to a house outside the city. You were asleep. Your … your sister Blair came to the show.” Her eyes snapped open. “I went to see you in concert and you and I were talking afterward, but you drank alcohol, which your sister said you were allergic to, and you passed out and she asked if I would help get you home. She couldn’t carry you by herself.”
“This isn’t funny,” Josh said.
“I’m not trying to be —”
“I don’t have a sister and I’m not allergic to alcohol.”
They were both silent.
“So,” Sophia whispered. “She drugged us.”
“And she duped me.” She turned away. “I guess she’s here somewhere.”
“This isn’t the house you mentioned, is it? Doesn’t look like a house.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t remember anything after the theater,” Josh said. “I barely remember talking to you.” The pain pulsed through his head; he shut his eyes and leaned back on the pedestal.
“You okay? Your head.”
“I’ll be fine.” He slowly got to his feet and Sophia joined him, moving the discarded shoes to the side. “There should be a phone somewhere nearby,” he continued. “But if she went to the trouble of bringing us here, we’re probably being watched.”