White lights swept over his face as hands reached up to grab at Clifford Franklin Stein’s thighs, his genitals. The roar of the crowd was a wave and it crashed into him over and over again, each swell of it physically knocking him back and drowning out the sound of his own voice through his monitor. If he could not discern it in the sound there was no way the crowd could, but they were keeping him on point. They sang lyrics back at him that he had written thirty years ago, forgotten, and then drug out of retirement to revive the concerts and blow minds as he returned to form.
They knew his as “Cliff Frankenstein”, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the band Arcane, which he had founded with drummer Arnold Darwin, also known as “Nosferatu”, when they were fifteen years old. This crowd, old and young, chanted for “Arcane” but the only people they had garnered the attention of back then had been the neighbors, one of which had always thrown a portion of his dinner at them. Once in awhile they were able to catch an unopened beer bottle if it was thrown and, after letting it settle and let the fizz wear out, would split the lukewarm concoction as they sat and talked of fame and fortune, drugs and hookers, and crowds who would know their name. Cliff missed Arnold every day.
We are the shame!
Get shit for our pain!
You are the crown,
The world yours to bring on doooooooown!
Hit it, Riffman!
Sven Carrick, aka “Riffman”, spun his pentatonics up and down the fretboard as Cliff roared into the mic at the front of the stage. The stadium continued their cheering at a dull roar in order to hear the lick as he swept up and down the guitar strings. He spun, swung the guitar around the strap, the axe swinging around his entire body. He caught it and popped a high B note as he slammed down on the whammy bar, the note screaming out over the crowd, warbling like the pipes of an opera singer. The rest of the band froze, their instruments silent as the sound wailed out of the stadium speakers. Then, as it began to fade, they all slammed and thundered the instrumental portion out, sweat pouring out of them. Bassist Karen Federline, who wisely went by “Wolfman” to avoid pop-star comparisons, leapt up and slammed his feet down as they hit and the crowd went wild, current drummer Terry Simonson living up to his nickname, “The Bat Outta Hell”, as he thundered out on his trap kit.
Two hours later they walked offstage, having played through a lot of back-catalog and some of the newer stuff that had actually gone over well. It was always nice when you played something from the latest album and the crowd not only got excited but sang along. To Cliff and the rest it felt like they had nailed something, had really put out something to be proud of.
“Hell of a fuckin’ show tonight,” Sven said, slapping his hand on Cliff’s back. “They loved hearing you do ‘The Crown’ again man, absolutely dug it.”
“Thanks,” Cliff said, smiling wearily as he ran a terry cloth towel over his face. It came away soaked, dripping, and he tossed it to an assistant. The man stopped, held it with a look of disgust on his face, then looked at Cliff.
“Can I at least sell this to one of the groupie’s outside or something?” he asked.
“Go for it, should be worth fifty and head,” Cliff said. “Sorry I just threw it at you, my bad.”
“Nah, don’t worry ‘bout it,” the man said. He held the towel out from himself by a dry tip and wandered away, in search of cash and sex. Cliff turned back and jogged a bit to catch up with Terry. He threw an arm around him and pulled him close, kissing the side of his head and laughing as the drummer twisted in discomfort.
“Aw,” he whispered in Terry’s ear, “Wasamatta honey, you wussy about my beer breath?”
“Yeah,” Terry crowed, “you could put down a cow with that rank.”
“You put on a fuckin’ slamfest out there tonight, man. They really love when you do that crazy stick throw thing.” Terry had the good grace to look humble, but Cliff knew the praise meant a lot to him. “Seriously, between that and getting that Washington Post article that outed you as the writer of ‘Harken House’ really brought ‘em to you.”
“It’s just nice that they’ve stopped bringing the signs,” Terry said. He had been with the band over ten years and only recently had the fans begun to accept him as a permanent fixture. A habit had been formed among them for a few years, with many of the older fans, the “purists”, bringing large posterboard signs with big pictures of Arnold on them, things like “remember the best” and “no one else” written beneath. It had been Sven who first extended a real helping hand to Terry, rigging a firehose to look like a giant dick and having Terry come upstage between songs and hold it between his legs to “piss” on the signs and the fans who were being dicks. It had worked for the most part, but his contribution to the writing had gotten them all out of the funk they had gotten into after what happened. The spark came back and they only had two albums most fans considered “bad” so they called it a win, embracing the drummer with open arms from that point on.
“Yeah, they fucked off and got used to you,” Cliff said. He walked with Terry as far as the drummer’s dressing room and they parted ways, smiling and patting each other on the back. Sven, as per usual, had disappeared quickly to his own dressing room. He wanted to read, to watch a movie, something like that. The man was a massive horror fan and always delved into new stuff, anything he could get his hands on. The fines he paid for pirating alone were outrageous and due to the publicized love of the genre he had recently been receiving screener copies as gifts from companies, books from publishers, comics, all of it. He even got toys in the mail sometimes. So the rest of the band left him alone in his excitement, letting him be read when he wanted to.
Cliff entered his own dressing room, exhausted and ready for a couple of hours of down time before they had to leave for Denver. He opened the door and reached for the mini-fridge right inside, hoping it was stocked as he asked. It was, and he pulled a hoppy beer out and stuck the cap in the doorjamb, twisting it. The cap spun off and a hiss of pressure released. It was cold and frothy, a little bite to it as he swallowed. He nodded appreciatively and turned to head for the couch.
The pale man stood as Cliff saw him, a little smile on his face. Cliff started, surprised by the sight of him. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
“Ah,” the man said, his face falling. “I had rather hoped for chit-chat first. I’m a fan from way back and before business wanted to talk a bit.”
“You’re a fan?” Cliff asked. “You don’t look like one.”
“True,” the man replied as his smile returned. “Very true.” It was. His short-cropped blonde hair barely stood out from his skin. The man was not just white, he was pale, nearly see-through. Cliff vaguely wondered if he was albino. Under him was a white suit, a three-piece affair that would not have looked out of place in some old mafia film. His dress shirt was black, standing out from the crisp shine the rest of him gave off under the flourescent lights, and his tie was a bright red. The guy was extremely clean, there was no way he had been in the crowd.
“You here to try to suck my dick?” Cliff asked.
“No,” said the man.
“How about get a piece of my skin or somethin’. I’ve had fans ask.”
“Again, no. I am a fan who also happens to be here on business.”
“Who let you in here?” Cliff asked, still wary of him.
“I am here,” came the reply.
“Can’t argue with that,” Cliff said. After years of working on the tours, hefting his axe and helping roadies with equipment, he was a big guy. His diet helped, he ate almost nothing but red meat and beer even after all these years. At fifty-six he was still huge and in decent shape for his age. If the guy turned out to be a freak Cliff was confident he could take him. He crossed the room to the chair. The pale man extended his hand and Cliff shook it. The skin was overly warm but somehow still cold. They sat opposite each other and the aging rockstar leaned back, putting one foot on the coffee table between them. He let the beer hand low in his hand, ready to pour it out if he had to use the bottle on the guy.
“Ok, shoot. What kind of business?” he asked.
“Oh sir,” the man said, “please, I have questions pertaining to your career first.”
“Ok….” Cliff replied. “Alright then, shoot. I’m an open book and I ain’t writin’ a biography anytime soon so this is probably as good as you’re gonna get.”
“Excellent,” the pale man yelped, clapping his little hands. “My name is Azzy.”
“Nice to meet you, Azzy.”
“It is most wonderful to meet you as well, Frankenstein.”
“Ha, you like that, do you?” Cliff asked.
“Oh most assuredly,” Azzy said. “It has been quite fitting for you, with the course of the band’s career. You all brought it back from ashes, we all thought you might be finished but…well, the world continues to surprise me. I found this last album particularly wonderful, a nice moment in your career. It has been quite some time since I heard you all have that kind of energy, and the show tonight was wonderful.”
“Thanks,” Cliff said, unsure how to handle such articulate praise. “We’re proud of it. Particularly Terry, he got to have a larger hand in this one.”
“Often it does not pay off to let a fan be part of the creative process, and The Bat Outta Hell is most assuredly a fan-boy. This has been an exception to the rule, it seems he was the jolt you all needed.”
“He is, he’s a great guy and such an awesome drummer. Guy auditioned out of nowhere in Seattle, came out of some coffee shop band. He gave up the elevator music and crooning stuff to thrash with us.”
Azzy smiled at this. “I’ve always loved all kinds of music but I am so thrilled to see that he got into the kind that is, apparently, his calling.”
“Yeah,” Cliff said. He brought the beer up and took a deep swig. “Really helped a lot.”
“What did it before that?” Azzy asked.
Cliff frowned at this. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what was the spark initially? I’ve heard you started in a garage, you and Nosferatu, and you were pumping out incredible work back then. Groundbreaking, really, half the bands in your field are still struggling to find something that sounds half as unique as what you two came up with as teenagers.”
“Ah, that stuff.” Cliff was feeling odd, his head swimming. A couple of beers during the show and half of the one in his hand should not have been enough to get him drunk but he felt inebriated, awake in that hazy place a good drunk knows how to get to properly. “I feel weird,” he muttered.
“Oh, that,” Azzy chuckled. “I seem to have that effect on people.”
“Azzy,” Cliff said quietly. He looked up with a start at the pale man. “You’re not….”
Azzy sighed, shaking his head. “Looks like that’s all the fan-questioning I’ll get,” he said. “You seem key to get down to business and it looks like we’ve arrived at the turning point in the conversation.”
“So you are, then? But that wasn’t real!” Cliff was on his feet, the chair fallen to the floor. He stepped around it and took a couple of steps back, drawing back from the pale creature before him.
“I am, Clifford. I always was. I am Azrael.”
The bottle dropped from Cliff’s hand to clatter on the floor, the remaining contents gurgling out to soak into the cheap rug under the coffee table. He stared, blankly. What the man was proposing was an impossibility. Neither he nor Arnold had ever told anyone about that. It was the kind of thing that went over really well with fans in their business but the two of them had always been uncomfortable with what they had done and had never advertised it. They had never really believed it had worked themselves, instead certain that their natural talent and Arnold’s father’s business skills had been what launched them to fame and fortune.
“I’m afraid the summoning is now at the forty-year mark,” Azrael said. “That was the agreed upon time, yes?”
“How do you know about that?” Cliff barked. “Who the fuck are you?”
“We’ve been over that,” the man sighed. “Look, I’ve said I’m a fan. This isn’t pleasant for me, you know. I wish things did not have to be like this but rules are rules and I am as much a slave to them as you are. You made this bargain and you have to pay up.” He sat on the couch, looking up into Cliff’s eyes. The rockstar felt old, every drug he had ever done, every groupie he had slept with, all of the lessons learned and every mistake he had ever made weighing heavily on his shoulders all of the sudden. He buried his face in his hands.
“It’s not real,” he whispered.
“I’m afraid it is.”
“It’s not. This isn’t real. You aren’t really here. I just fucked my brain up on something.”
“The beer maybe? Was there something in the beer?”
“No, Frankenstein. This is no hallucination, no dream. I’m here.”
Cliff raised his head, looking at the man. “No,” he said. “No no no no!” He was shouting now, a small part of him hoping that someone would hear and come running. “You can’t be real!” he roared, and launched himself at the man.
Head over heels, he tumbled over the couch. He struck the floor hard, sprawling. Laying there, his forehead throbbing, he rolled and pulled his feet to the floor with him. The light overhead flickered, it’s cheap lamps worn and dirty. He stared at them and it stung his eyes. Brightness bringing him back to reality, he laughed. There had been no one there.
“I’m afraid it’s not so simple.”
Cliff twisted, trying to stand. He lurched to the left and nearly fell again but stopped himself, regaining his feet. Azrael sat in the chair Cliff had overturned in his panic now, feet on the coffee table. “Come,” he said, “don’t hurt yourself. This doesn’t have to be so bad.”
“What kind of fuckin’ demon are you?” Cliff said, a growl in his throat.
“Technically I’m not a demon,” the man sighed, “but unfortunately I get lumped in with the same rules. You could have summoned Michael himself with that pentagram-and-candle routine, it’s just the nature of the way we work. No, I’m not a demon. More of an angel honestly, according to most, but it’s all the same to us. We all have the same boss and he insists we all live by the same rules. Frankly, you would have had an easier time summoning Lucifer or Raphael, their rules of engagement are much simpler to deal with for you mortals.”
Cliff merely stared, eyes wide and blinking as though he could wish away the figure in front of him. “But,” he said, “we promised you souls.” Clarity began to dawn over him. “Did you kill Arnold? Did you crash that bus?” His mind flashed back to that night, to the sight of the overturned bus. Cliff had crawled free from the wreckage, his arm dislocated and his leg sporting a big gash. Sven had, miraculously, been unhurt like Karen. The driver, however, had been impaled on the shattered steering wheel. They were told it was quick, but Arnold had suffered the worst of it. Drunk on whiskey, he had been leaning out of the window when the vehicle had spun out of control and rolled. His body had been severed nearly in two during the crash and pinned beneath it. His lower half was all that really remained, the rest of him smeared across the pavement and grass as it had been drug across it all and into the ditch.
“Was that you?” Cliff asked, tears coming to his eyes. “Did you do that to him?”
“Ah, that ugly thing with the crash.” Azrael brought a hand to his face, pinched the bridge of his nose as though fending off a migraine headache. “No, and I wish to the bossman that I had been able to prevent that. We don’t like slaughter, even the bad guy doesn’t prefer that kind of thing. You humans get into the strangest incidents when you have ingested your mind-altering toxins and that was merely the driver, out of his mind on diethylamide and seeing skeletons. I’m truly sorry about that, I wanted to meet you and Arnold together in this. We could have talked, chatted a bit, and I think if he were here you would have both been fairly accepting of this. I was angry over that whole business and I’m terribly sorry that it happened.”
Cliff staggered around the side of the couch, sloughed into the cushions and put a hand to his pounding head. He was lost, completely devastated. “Even the angels can’t save us,” he thought.
“There was nothing I could have done,” Azrael said sadly. “I truly am sorry, but to ease this I have a bit of a surprise for you.” Cliff looked up at him, unable to speak. The pale man looked to his left and squinted. The air began to shimmer, the swift sway of heat rising off of blacktop. Dark particles began to materialize, to comport themselves into shape. Swimming in the flickering lights of the room, they molded into liquid and began to swish and pour, filling out the shape of a man. When the entire silhouette had formed it began to come into focus. Long, flowing curls and thick, muscular limbs swelled. A small, button nose popped out and eyes peered out from the darkness. Arnold appeared before Cliff, clear as day.
“Hey, buddy,” he said awkwardly. Cliff gaped at him, his jaw on his chest. “I know, I know, I still look twenty-three. Not fair, right? Holy hell, you got old. Is that mostly grey now?”
“What,” Cliff said, “the hell.”
“Normally,” Azrael interjected, “we don’t do this but seeing as I’m rather fond of you both I thought we might try this. I don’t want this to be unpleasant and I’d like for it to be as painless as possible.”
“Have what be painless?” Cliff asked him. He turned to Arnold. “Where have you been?”
“I’m not a ghost or anything,” Arnold replied. “That’s not a thing that happens with Azrael’s deals. We don’t get to haunt, like some of the others. We don’t go to hell like Lucifer’s, we don’t suffer or anything. We just…cease.”
“Yes, we cease. We stop. That’s it, man, we just end. Azrael puts our soul in a bottle and he keeps it, but we aren’t going insane in there or anything. There’s no feeling, no thought, none of that. We don’t hurt or anything, we just stop. It’s not all that bad, honestly.”
“Then how are you here?” Cliff asked.
“That’s a fun one!” Azrael yipped. “See, I had to ask special permission for this one. It took a lot of back-alley deal-making and finagling to pull off but this is a first-of-its kind thing, probably the only time it will happen.” Cliff looked at him, baffled. “I asked to let his soul out of the bottle and rekindle it,” Azrael explained. “Like I said, I wanted this to be easy for you.”
“So,” Cliff said, “I’m going to die then.”
“Yeah, buddy,” Arnold replied. “You won’t feel a thing, I’ve been assured of that. He’ll tap you on the chest, your heart will stop and your brain will die, and you’ll just end. I mean, when I spell it out like that it sounds like shit but it really isn’t bad. We bargained our souls away to the easiest guy we could have chosen, honestly.”
Cliff hung his head, crying softly to himself. “I don’t want to die,” he said, “I want you back here with us.”
“The new guy is doing fine,” Arnold said, “but the band really will be finished after this. A frontman is a lot harder to come back from but be happy, the albums will sell like motherfuckers. Dad’ll get a lot out of it and he and mom can get a live-in nurse instead of going to some community or something.”
“Your dad,” Cliff said. “I have to tell your dad you’re here. He’ll want to see you.”
“‘Fraid not, Frankenstein. Them’s the breaks. I only get to see you and it’s only because this guy is a fan.” Arnold glanced over at Azrael, glaring. “A bit vain to be a fan of your own handiwork, you ask me.”
“There is no shame,” the pale man said, “in taking pride in your accomplishments.”
Cliff sat, mulling it over. The pain in his head had faded to a dull sore spot rather than the thunder from the floor he had experienced before. He wanted a beer. He wanted to hug his bandmates. More than anything he wanted to call his mom, the crone wasting away under the care of a private nurse at his homestead in Virginia. The woman could barely remember who he was, the dementia taking a stronger hold every day, but he still wanted to hear her voice one last time.
“I don’t have a choice in this, do I?” he asked.
“No,” they both replied simultaneously.
Cliff sighed, and stood. “Put my bottle on the shelf next to Arnold’s, will you?”
“I’ve already got a spot for the two of you. You’ll be the crown jewels of my collection,” Azrael said. He stood, somehow walking through the coffee table to stand before Cliff Frankenstein. Arnold “Nosferatu” Darwin came around to stand with them, and he lay a hand on each of their shoulders.
“Let’s go,” he said, his face beaming at Cliff.
“Yeah,” Cliff said. “Let’s do this.”
Azrael reached out and tapped Cliff on the chest.