IV - The Emperor
"That power which erring men call Chance."
"April Leigh . . . " a voice whispered from the dark horizon, or from behind her. April turned into the church's doorway, into the shadowed aisle. Three figures appeared at the altar, shrouded in a veil of smoke. Drifting toward them, she passed her mother who wept into her hands. Stained glass towered overhead, but no light shone through. The choir, hooded and anonymous, hummed a chant.
"This sure seems depressing for a wedding."
Ahead, one figure - the groom, turned toward her, hand out-stretched. The sight was one that April would never forget. "Faceless," is how she would later describe it. But where that face should have been, there was nothing. "It just faded into nothing."
"April Leigh!" the voice repeated with a growing sense of urgency. The six-year-old sleeping girl stirred, still trying to recapture her dream wedding, but to no avail. By that time, April's mother had come bustling into the room, opening curtains in her path of destruction, calling cheerfully - for now - that, "It's time to get up! Rise and shine!!"
As with many people who are considered "night people," this phrase drove itself into the part of the nervous system that controls, or doesn't, the urge to explode into a rage. ("Every year, thousands die at the hands of loved ones," which might have been prevented had one of them not opened the curtains like that.)
April tried to wake but couldn't. She was trapped between two worlds. In the real world, Mother had already left April's little pink room, with its horses and doll houses. In the other world, April was being torn from this faceless monster, to whom she had jus been wed. She tried to hang onto him, as if he were her only salvation. She felt her strength fade.
For one moment she had been really happy for the first time in her young life. Then without warning, she had been thrust back into the body of a sleeping child who would be late for school at any moment. On the way to school, she stared out the bus window and thought about him. It was then that she fell in love with him.
Strange that it was no one she knew. Usually in dreams, April recognized someone, even if they appeared differently than they might in real life. It was impossible to put a name to him. It wasn't Eric, the cute boy in Miss Riggs' class, or Daniel from two doors down, or David,
Sun streaked through the drawn shades of April's dark room of today. Nothing moved, except the flashing digital clock that replaced the one with the music alarm. April would have noted that a power surge from sometime during the night had erased the time and now was correct only twice a day, at noon and at midnight, had she seen it, but she was soundly sleeping now. There was no reason to get up. Dawn faintly lit Majestic, the town where she lived these days.
Then the room rattled as the phone rang. April jerked involuntarily. Her hand crept to the night stand and found the telephone cord, which led to the receiver. She answered it as the second ring began. Her voice cracked,
Nothing. Not even a click. Thinking that the line was dead, April groaned and replaced it. No one called back, so she drifted back off into peaceful slumber, unaware.
The one event that April waited for all her life occurred at that very moment. Halfway across the country, a man sat alone in a hotel room looking at her picture. Her face haunted him. She wore a smile in the photo, but it was her necklace that caught his attention. It was a pendant that hung from a leather strip, shaped like the full moon but molded into a face. It was a mysterious, hideous smiling face surrounded by a heart. It wasn't a pretty piece. Certainly not expensive, either, but from the first time he saw it, he knew he would see it again.
Here it was.
In his other hand, he gripped the telephone receiver. He listened intently into it before hanging it up with his index finger. Then he sat it down beside the base, leaving it off the hook on purpose. Because it was the hotel's phone, it did not, after a minute or so, begin to blare its annoying message to alert him to that fact.
The hotel room was quiet except for the music, which crackled from the corner table where a radio blinked 12:00 glaringly. A television show flickered on a silent screen. Its shadows danced in the dark room on the walls, on the face of a young man who sat entranced on the unmade bed. Even though it was only noon, the room was completely dark. With the shades drawn, the light tried unsuccessfully to creep in but only glowed in the outline of the veil. He had been there for a long time, not moving except to fill up the already overflowing ashtray. His name, or rather he calls himself, Chance. Everyone called him Chance. Night after night, the crowds would chant his name. Stage lights blinded him, making the vast darkness beyond the hot, white glare a smoky distance from which a voice of a million voices demanded,
He was famous! He was loved by millions! And it wasn't undeserved. He had what it took to reach down and pick the crowd up. His shows became magic. While many rock stars might hear their names cheered in encore when they were well off stage in the dark recesses of the wings, this was no comparison.
Night after night, Chance would stand alone in the spotlight, staring into the vast empty void beyond the light, hearing that same compelling, hungry chant,
"Chance . . . Chance!"
At first the fans would only whisper his name. Then it would grow, echoing into an almost deafening single voice. Sometimes, he would get spooked. These days, Chance was packing in some twenty thousand people a show, or more. But once upon a time, it had been sixty. Sixty thousand mouths that opened and closed like they wanted to suck him in. And swallow. And the word had spread early during the first tour, so that each crowd in each town became better prepared for the trend.
By the end of the first tour, it was a tradition. A family tradition. This, the fourth tour was no different. Every night, it seemed a little bigger. A little more dangerous. A little more hungry.
Back when it started, it unsettled him. He felt defenseless. These days, though, he could laugh. He would often chuckle and mentally calculate the price of a single ticket times the number of people per show. Multiplied by the number of shows this tour, not to mention programs and T-shirts, and he wouldn't even have to add in the revenue generated by the initial record sales and his mind would be blown. For that moment, his eyes would twinkle in a slightly mischievous smile.
The look might have been mistaken as smug, and why not, after all he had been through to get there. However, he didn't feel very smug. Mostly he felt claustrophobic.
"Chance! Chance!" a voice came from the door.
Chance didn't move. He stared at the TV blankly. The voice became more persistent.
"Who is it?" Chance asked flatly.
Chance replied in the same monotone, "Pizza? I didn't order a pizza."
A silent pause. Then the voice continued, "Candy gram!"
Chance got up slowly, and answered the door without looking, leaving it open as he returned to the bed.
"Hey, what do you know, it's my lawyer."
Chance didn't even have to look to know that Greg was following him into the room. This tall, sandy blond young man was Chance's manager and friend. However, it seemed that, even now, Chance was still alone. Greg sat in a chair by the window, watching the TV with interest.
"I've been trying to call you."
Chance, still staring at the picture, replied, "Oh yeah? I've been on the phone. Sorry."
Greg noticed the phone off the hook and reached over to replace it, saying, "I see that! I hope I'm not interrupting."
Chance snatched the phone out of Greg's hand and set it back down where it had been.
"Hey, don't do that! I'm waiting for a call!"
"It must be important." Greg leaned back again, looking at Chance warily. "I think you might not have to wait for it. She's here already!"
Chance snapped his head as he looked at Greg for the first time.
"What do you mean she's here?!"
"She's here! She just got here. I had to climb over balconies just to miss her. She's in Cowboy's room now, I swear!"
Chance relaxed a little. He fingered the picture for a moment.
"Who's here, Greg?"
"Tara! Who did you think I was talking about?"
Chance shifted, relaxing, "Oh! So, she's here, is she? Maybe I should just call the police now and save us all a lot of time."
Greg sniffled, rubbing his nose, with a laugh that he tried to choke back but betrayed his face with a smile. He made no reply.
On his lap, he clutched a folder. He sat up and opened it. From it, he withdrew a stack of eight by tens that Chance had earlier agreed upon. Now would be the only time he might be able to get Chance to autograph them before he became preoccupied with Tara, or Terror, as the crew called her.
Chance saw what was coming and tried to make a break for the door, but before he could even stand up, Greg thrust them in his direction.
"Can I have you autograph, sir?"
Busted, Chance settled back down. He picked up the first picture and studied it.
"Don't we have someone else who can do this?"
"I'm sorry, Chance, but I can't condone forgery. I do have ethics, you know."
Their eyes met. Both burst into laughter. Greg was not above reproach. Chance had learned that the hard way. He still couldn't quite talk about that day. Trust was gone and it might not ever be possible again. Nothing new to Chance, or so he told himself. It was better left unsaid. This tour had already been cut short. Chance had been kicked out of towns he had never even been to before that day. Kicked out of towns her had never heard of before . . .
Greg stood up, stretching his arms. He started to head to the door but paused to watch the television for a moment, commenting, "This is a great movie! I've never seen it before. Twice, in fact."
He continued to watch, waiting for Chance to reply. No response. Suddenly he became uncomfortable, self-conscious. Greg had seen this look before and it wasn't good. Whatever Chance was looking at came from deep inside his mind. He turned to leave, sad.
Lately, Chance didn't seem like himself. Backstage at New York's Light House arena, technicians . . . roadies . . . worked steadily to set up gear for the show that night. In an hour or so, Chance would arrive to begin sound check and everything had better be ready to go or there would be trouble. The last tour manager had been replaced for reasons undisclosed. Greg knew there was a lot of tension in the air. No one discussed but everyone knew why.
Her name was Tara, named for the Earth Goddess, Terra, and she definitely was a mundane spirit. News of her arrival that day spread like a fire in the Hollywood hills. It was every bit as destructive, too. Morale sank as time drew near. Her presence created magic sometimes and the show would shine! Most of the time, disaster. It made Chance moody. No one was safe then.
Chance left the phone off the hook most of the day but once she materialized, he couldn't avoid her. She was good. She was bad. She was here! Beautiful, stunning Tara captivated the man. Even Greg knew better than to try to stop her. Chance was no match. Something about her was wrong. Everyone could see it except him. Or maybe he just chose not to see.
Greg tried to play it off but he was sure Chance could read his mind. Small talk did little to change the mood. As he reached the door he remembered the envelope tucked in his pocket. Something inside told him to hesitate but before it could stop him, he tossed the envelope on the bed.
Chance signed the photos until Greg left. Once the door was shut, Chance caught the postmark on the letter. As always, there was no return address but he knew who it was. Like a flash, it hit him. He stiffened.
Greg might have noticed his reaction had he not escaped into the hallway. What else could he do at the point? He sensed what was inside the envelope. It was none of his business. Actually, it had been his business all along. A glorified mailman, he called himself. It hadn't come to pass but if it did, he believed that it would be the only thing to tear their friendship apart. Not only would he lose his friend but Greg could lose his job.
He didn't have many friends. Or jobs.
Chance reached for the envelope. Perfume wafted from the inside as he tore the end of it. Its contents spilled onto the bedspread. The first line stood out:
"Where have you been all my life?"
It was cliche` but it hit him like a freight train anyway. Shocked, he reached for his notebook. Still open to that page, the words screamed. He didn't even have to look to know, to verify. There, in his own handwriting, was the latest entry. Not even fifteen minutes earlier, he had written:
"Where have I been all my life?"
What a question. It was the story of his life. He didn't remember where he came from anymore, which tour he was on. When interviewed, he had answers stick in his throat. Sometimes, he would read the article later and be surprised. Had he really said that? It was the pressure.
Instant success had scared him. It could have crumbled at any moment, and if it had, where would he have gone? Even though by now he had his career mapped out before and behind him, like a guide through the wilderness, he still sensed a threat.
What if the house of cards crumbles to the ground?
Who would be with him? What about Tara? Or Greg? Would they stick around if the whole thing just collapsed? He wanted to believe that they would, but . . .
As each year passed, Chance became more jaded, more thick-skinned to it all. Inside, however, he felt like a target. Years of pain froze behind his intense hazel eyes. His wide-eyed innocence faded, replaced by a look of cool indifference that now passed for charm. Sick apprehension no longer followed him on stage. He turned pro. Now his eyes twinkled, pouted or just stared into the distance, but said nothing more. At least in public.
Now staring blankly into the smoke, his eyes filled with tears, stinging, blurring the light from the TV. Blinking back the pain, he noticed the picture. It was new. Nice, too. The girl wore a silk robe. Surrounded by candles, she looked like an angel. Next to her stood a mirror. Something was in the reflection. He strained to see it. It was him! Surprised, he laughed out loud. Shaking his head in disbelief, he mused,
"This girl goes to great lengths, doesn't she?"
Reaching for the pen on the nightstand next to the clock radio, Chance knocked over the ashtray and sent it tumbling. Ignoring it, he picked up the notebook. Automatically, the words poured forth in blue ink, gliding across the white lined paper.
This song would one day go on to be recorded, re-mastered, released, performed, aired, licensed, sold to the highest bidder, commercialized, plagiarized, bastardized, loved, hated, satired, and would one day infiltrate even the daytime soap opera's list of popular background music. It was destined for better elevators everywhere.
But this, on the first day of its creation, was nothing more than a pick-up line. The question posed a sense of sadness that would forever haunt him and drag him reluctantly back to this occasion. He looked at the page before him, at words that stared back:
Where have you been all my life?
Just as he set the book down, a knock came from the door. It was familiar, causing his heart to race. His hands felt clammy, a cold sweat. It was that knock he had been avoiding but now that it came, he felt his self-control slip away. The night ahead was going to be good. He slammed shut the notebook and slid it under the mattress.
"Yeah, tonight is going to be good!"
Her scent drifted in ahead of her, as always. As he swung the door open, Tara charged into the room uninvited. Falling into his arms, she covered his face with kisses. It was great to see her. He had forgotten about the last time already, and besides, what did it matter? It was over now.
"Oh, Chance!! I'm your #1 fan! I am madly in love with you! Take me right now! Take me right here on the table, Chance. No, wait! Over here, take me over here. No, that's no good either. Damn it, Chance, you never take me anywhere!"
He reached for her, bent her backward into a deep dip, and kissed her roughly on the neck. He knew it would begin to tickle. It always did. Soon, she was giggling, squirming to get free. He never let her get away too easy.
Magic happened that night!
Chance arrived late for sound check. Tara went on her way, wild-eyed with hair to match. She'd be back. Or not. He knew better than to expect her. It was understood.
The auditorium was filling up nicely, considering that the show wasn't scheduled to start for another hour. His limousine sank into the throng of concert-goers. Faces and hands appeared in the tinted windows of the ride. The local police had to hold back the crowd. Television reporters waited anxiously at the back stage door. That's when he began to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
Greg was trying not to be ticked off as he followed Chance to the dressing room.
"You missed sound check! But at least you're smiling!"
Greg trotted to catch up with him.
"Uh, the green room is this way!"
He reached to grab Chance's arm, who yanked away and kept walking.
"You're not going to do sound check now, are you?"
"Yeah, why not?"
Greg pulled him to stage left, pointed into the light. From the darkened stage, Chance tried to estimate the number of people milling about the arena.
"Seven thousand people, dude! There's seven thousand of 'em out there."
"No, there's not! There's seven thousand and two. There's two more . . . uh, two more just, you know, came in . . . You're not amused, are you?"
Greg tried to look stern but couldn't. A huge smile spread across his face.
"Don't worry! I had Gene check your stuff so we shouldn't have a problem with . . . hey, where are you going, Lee?"
With a shrug, Chance Lee mounted the stage.
The audience recognized him immediately, went wild. This venue held over twenty thousand people, but the echo of the fans swelled, filling the hall with life. A spotlight appeared, jerkily searching for its subject. His hand shaded his eyes, a gesture he wouldn't normally do on stage, but then again, neither was this.
"Hey, New York!"
New York yelled back. This was certainly unusual, people commented to each other. Aren't you glad we came early?
"I was detained this afternoon . . ."
The crowd laughed. Realizing what he implied, he amended his statement.
"Delayed! No, I didn't go to jail, thank you for your concern! I, uh, . . . had a visitor, and I just track of time, and . . ."
"Who was she, Chance? " One tiny voice cried out.
"Ooooooh!!" screamed the others. "Whooooo?"
He looked back at Greg, who shook his head and laughed. This was going great. The media would have a field day with this. Chance turned back to the mass.
"Gee, guys, it was great talking to you! See ya!"
At that, he spun around and walked off stage.
The fans went hysterical. They were sorry now. But just as Chance began to step off, Greg met him at the stairs. With one spin, Greg had him facing the other way again and pushed. It was sheer slapstick.
Now back at the microphone, Chance continued.
"What do you say, guys? Should we kick his ass after the show?"
Someone yelled, and everyone laughed.
"What was that?" Chance squinted, looking in the direction from which is came.
"Why wait?" Chance chuckled, looking back at Greg, who had his fists poised, ready. From the dark, they could hear his tiny voice yell,
"Bring it on!"
The concert hall roared. Greg jumped backward, into the tech that brought Greg a live microphone, just in case. He took it, clearing his throat over the P. A. system.
"Ahem, is this thing on? Uh, Chance, this is Greg. Um, there's something I have to go do . . . faraway from here . . . so if you'll excuse me . . . I'm, uh."
He shoved the mic into the technician's chest and ran like hell.
Back in the hospitality room, some of the crew asked him what was happening out there. He just shrugged, speechless.
On stage, Chance was primed! He was beginning to feel alive. As he explained to the crowd his situation, he watched people running into the arena doors at the top of lower prom, scrambling to find their seats. It was the quickest he'd ever seen a place fill, and quite fun!
"You see, I was answering some fan mail and I had a lot to say. So, I'm running a little late for sound che . . ., wait a minute. From your point of view, I'm early! What do you know, Greg? I'm early!!"
Backstage, all eyes turned to Greg. He was on his second shot of Cuervo. "We're having a little technical difficulty right now . . ." Chance continued. "Technically, I'm not ready. So, as a special segment of tonight's show, free with the purchase of one ticket at regular price, I bring you the portion of the show that we in the industry refer to as sound check. But before that, I want to hear from the people who bought their tickets at regular price."
The crowd boomed.
"Now, just the scalpers!"
"That's what I thought!!" Grabbing the microphone dramatically, Chance did his best Elvis impression, "And a one, and a two, a one, two, three, four!"
Just as he leaped into action, he froze. Straightening back up, the performer looked over his shoulder. Dead silence filled the dome. All watched as he turned away from them. He started looking all over the stage, behind speaker cabinets, even offstage. He returned, appearing confused.
"Where's the band? Didn't I have a band on this tour?"
He put the microphone back on the stand.
"Show up early and for what? Sound check?! Hello? Is this thing on?"
He tapped the mic.
"I want to introduce my band to you. On the drums, is Manny."
He cupped the microphone and spoke in a low, creaky voice.
"Greg, uh, could please give a message to Manny. And the others. There's some people here to see them."
He encouraged the crowd.
"Uh, Greg? Tell them New York wants to see them!!"
A moment later three guys came running onto the stage. Once introduced, they took their places. It was a little harder to get Manny to come out of the bathroom, where he had locked himself in for the last two and a half hours. He wasn't alone this time, at least, . . . as if that ever mattered.
By the time the show was supposed to have started, the house was lit. This show was on . . .
Hours later, Chance sat alone in his hotel room. The lights were out, the TV was on but silent. Just as he finally stretched out to relax, he snapped on the radio. A voice told him the time and temperature. Then the guy said,
"Tonight's show at the Light House arena sold out. And I mean that in a nice way. And in a surprise move, Chance actually tuned up for this show."
"What the hell do you mean by that?" Chance sat back up. He almost called the station but decided that it wasn't worth his time. If April had been there, she would have dialed the phone for him. But she wasn't there, and he didn't call. Looking at his clock, he calculated it to be 3 AM in Majestic. The true witching hour.
He turned off the television. A few minutes later, the radio followed.
During the night, he tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable. He was being chased. Out of the hotel doors, he landed in the woods. Behind him, the hotel had been swallowed by the void.
"I've got to get home!!"
Leaves rustled ominously, but from which direction? A low, rattling growl came from the right. He could smell something, and thought,
That's strange! I can smell in my dreams.
That's when it attacked! At first, he saw nothing but a blur as it missed him the initial time. But when he turned, he saw her. It was a she-wolf, red-eyed and bloody from a recent kill. He could smell the blood.
I'm coming to get you. I'm already here!
He ducked behind a tree, came face to face with it. Spinning around, again he was trapped! I'm too young to die! I've got to get home! Then a thought flashed into his mind. Packs! There's more!! Others appeared from the brush. The bitch's lip curled back into a sneer, its face distorting into a grimace that made it look like it was trying to smile. Chance ran. Once out of the woods, he came to a clearing. On the other side of the field, home.
Warm light spilled from its windows, the door was open. Haloed in brilliance, stood the woman. We've been waiting for you. He stopped in his tracks.
It's another trap.
That's when he saw the dragon. It hovered in the sky over the house. Behind him, he heard the dogs. Then he felt them strike. He died.
When the scream ripped from his throat, he woke in a cold sweat. Now on the floor, he sensed a warm wet liquid spreading through his clothes. Oh, God! I've peed the bed. Switching on the light, he saw the blood.
Pieces of the broken ashtray protruded from his arm. The dream faded from view. Now that he was fully awake, he made it to the bathroom to treat his injuries. Later, he would take some teasing from the crew. Fell out of bed, huh? Explain that. He wasn't sure, but he might need a couple of stitches. And some aspirin.
Far away from the hotel where Chance tried stop the flow of blood that now seeped through the complimentary towels, a veil fell over the netherworld. In the swirling fog, the dragon paced to and fro, impatiently awaiting for the return of its minion. Alive again! The spell was cast.