|Hit III: Household Name
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Vodka, tequila, any preference?” Torsten said, turning back to Michael.
Instead of taking them back out into the main area of the nightclub, he’d ducked and dodged them into a small, lavishly-appointed side-room. The wet bar in the corner looked almost as well-stocked as the main one, and it was about six times smaller. Nobody else had been in when they had walked in, but they’d barely gotten themselves settled when suddenly David had charged into the room.
“What? Oh, no—though I wish I had the time. Actually, pour me a double of whiskey, would you?” David’s shirt was half-buttoned and he had dark, greasy-looking lip-shaped smudges on his neck, but his overall air was of near-panic. He paced around the couch set, nervously rubbing at the top of his head. “Jens just called me back. He’s going to be down in five minutes, and oh, Christ—Torsten, man, you can have my wardrobe. Give Bastian my Slinky collection.”
Torsten stepped back and reached up, pulling first one and then another bottle off the shelf. “He’s not going to kill you.”
“You think?” David snapped. He jerked to a stop and whirled about to glare at Torsten. But only for a moment, since then he collapsed on an over-stuffed, maroon leather footstool, dropping his head in his hands. “Jesus. He’s going to be pissed off just because Kahn’s in charge right now.”
Michael sat down himself. He had no idea what he was supposed to do right now, but since his hands were beginning to develop a shake and his head hurt, he figured he’d just get out of the way till he did find out. Or till someone told him, or till…damn, even if they said, he still couldn’t go home. He didn’t have a home.
“What? But—okay, Ruud probably has his hands full, but Freddie—” Torsten started. He filled up one large glass tumbler with Jameson’s, then pushed it across the counter.
“Freddie’s holding Ruud up. I mean, the medic even said he wasn’t sure who to start detoxing first.” As David picked up his glass, he let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Damn. Damn--nobody won the betting pool, did they? None of us thought Ruud would snap via getting smashed at Premier, did we?”
Torsten lifted the bottle he was now holding to about six inches above the line of shotglasses he’d set up. He went right down the line filling them up, then used his forearm to push them forward so he’d have enough room to set up another line behind them. “Well, Ferguson probably does that to you.”
David winced. “God, don’t remind me. I’m not sure if anyone even mentioned that part to Jens yet. He’s going to be mad as hell about that. He’ll be mad he wasn’t here. He’ll be mad nobody saw this coming two years ago and—”
“Odonkor!” roared from down the hall. Something rattled. “What goddamn kind of assistant is he? You can’t assist if you’re not present—somebody get him here and—”
“Speak of the de—no, the Anti-Christ,” David muttered. He downed the last inch of his drink with a grimace, then hitched up his shoulders with the air of a condemned man. Then he marched out of the room.
Michael turned to look after him, wincing when another one of Lehmann’s bellows reverberated through the room. Technically this had nothing to do with him, but that was only just because none of the zillion forms he’d had to fill out and sign earlier had specified ‘in case of superstar ODing right in front of you.’ And maybe he hadn’t taken law, but he was pretty sure that they didn’t hold to a literal reading of regulations here.
“The tequila was better than the vodka, so I just used that. They must’ve hosted a party in here recently…the vodka usually gets used up first.”
When Michael twisted back around, two empty glasses stood on the bar and another one was being up-ended into Torsten’s mouth. He jerked his head back down fast when he finished, his hand fumbling the glass back onto the bar. For a moment, Torsten stayed with his head bowed, and then he slowly lifted it, blinking owlishly. He thoughtfully tilted his head.
“Okay, this is better. I’m not thinking so much about the size of the budget for Cristiano’s album,” Torsten said. He didn’t sound drunk. Aside from the odd head-pose, he didn’t look or act inebriated, either. But he might have been edging towards happily dazed. “Come on, have one. It’s okay; we can stay in here.”
Someone hurried down the hall past the door, making Michael look over. When he returned his gaze to Torsten, the other man had finished off another shot.
He got up and went over to pick up the next glass in line, but just held it between his thumb and forefinger. Frankly, Michael didn’t like alcohol all that much; it might temporarily make him more graceful in society, but usually he wasn’t with the right people and he always ended up pulling himself through the hangover the next day by himself. “Wouldn’t it make more trouble if we got drunk, too?”
“Were you planning to get drunk? I just want to get to the point where I don’t want to kill them all for wasting thousands of euros and millions of man-hours filing their stupid—” Torsten cut himself off. He picked up a glass so roughly that half of it slopped over his hand, then tossed it back. When his head came down, he looked calm again. “That’s better.”
Michael mentally added up the remaining glasses, then looked at the one he had. He suppressed a sigh and took a gulp of it, then bit back a hiss. Strong. But he hadn’t had anything yet, really—he finished his shot and set his glass next to the others. He could probably take three more in the hour and still be relatively sober, and maybe he could ‘accidentally’ knock over another five or so. That’d take it down to two left.
“By the way, sorry.” A rueful smile passed over Torsten’s face as he looked down. Something caught his eye and he kept looking, then put his hands on the edge of the bar and leaned on it so his shoulders hunched. He glanced up at Michael; a little bit of red was creeping down his cheekbones, and his lips were gleaming wet from the tequila. “We aren’t usually this dramatic. Really. And…I know, with what happened to you before, that this probably seems like you made a mistake…”
“Oh. Oh, well, no…not…really…” Except Michael was terrible at lying. Even drinking didn’t help with that.
Torsten shrugged and plucked up another shot, swinging it between his index fingers. “It’s okay if you got a bad impression. This was a bad impression. And this does happen—has happened before, and it will again. But this—it’s not what we’re all about, all right?”
Michael blinked. “Torsten, you don’t need to defend the label. Or worry that you wasted half a day on me. I—I’m not going to quit the same day I started.” He couldn’t help laughing to himself a little. “For one thing, I really have nowhere else to go. Not that that’s the whole reason I’m staying, but it—I’m not good at this. And you’re getting me drunk.”
“I am not. You’re not even tipsy yet,” Torsten snorted. His smile was half-sarcastic, but it still somehow failed to rub Michael the wrong way.
The other man looked up at Michael, still swinging the shot-glass between his fingers. Then he swung it too far and it slipped, flipping up to dump out its contents all over the other glasses and then continuing on to fall behind the bar. Torsten cursed and grabbed for it, but he missed; Michael reflexively shoved himself over the counter and just snagged the glass.
A lot of other glasses clinked and rolled. His arm had accidentally swept into the line of shots still on the bar, sending them all over and splashing the cool tequila up to soak through his shirt. Swearing himself, he dropped back and he and Torsten both frantically grabbed at them, and miraculously enough, they didn’t let a single one drop to shatter on the floor.
But Michael did end up with a damp shirt, and it was hot enough in the room so that the alcohol quickly vaporized, sending icy susurrations over his skin beneath the cloth. He sighed and set the shot-glasses back on the bar. “Sorry.”
“Where did you get those reflexes?” Torsten asked, voice more than curious but not yet condemning. “And that—back in the toilet.”
Michael grimaced. Maybe he was a little buzzed, because he just answered the question. “You remember the work history part? I got fired six months ago? It wasn’t really that easy between then and now.”
Torsten took that in with just a flicker of his eyelashes. He wasn’t exactly placid, because he obviously got annoyed at things, but he was far from coldblooded.
“I’m not really in a position to judge the label,” Michael added. “So…”
Torsten shrugged and reached over the bar so his fingertips touched the center of Michael’s chest. They felt like tiny red-hot pinheads against Michael’s tequila-chilled skin, and then Torsten curled his fingers to fist in Michael’s shirt, leaning forward so his bangs were falling in his eyes. Michael awkwardly got up his hand and let it hover by the side of the other man’s face, then slid it into Torsten’s long fore-lock and further on to the shorter hair at the back. He leaned down—
“Michael?” David called.
They were literally touching, Michael’s lower lip grazing the underside of Torsten’s upper lip. On Michael’s chest, Torsten’s hand spasmed, then slowly smoothed out and pushed. Michael reminded himself killing coworkers was bad and tipped back. And that broke it for good; the next second, Michael was red-faced and pushing nervously at his hair, and Torsten was…grabbing the tequila bottle for a quick shot. Then Torsten put it back on the shelf. He might’ve growled something irritated under his breath.
“Yes?” Michael groaned. “In here.”
* * *
“How the hell did he get in?”
Jens’ fingers slapped at Ruud’s elbow, then slipped off when Ruud twisted away. Not that that stopped the other man, but Lehmann’s sense of pride kept him from just running after Ruud, and they were walking fast enough so that that was the only way Jens could’ve overtaken him. “How should I know? I’m the last person who’d want him in—I’m asking that myself.”
Unfortunately, Ruud forgot that Jens had unnaturally long arms and an equally unnaturally good sense of timing. He swung his arm back as he walked around the corner and it was instantly seized in an iron grip. Then Jens yanked him around hard enough to send him into the wall.
“Try to divorce yourself from your grudges for a moment, Ruud. I’m not talking about Ferguson—he bribed someone, obviously. No mystery there. I’m talking about the drug dealer,” Jens hissed. He’d let go of Ruud’s arm, but he’d slid forward at the same time so that he virtually had Ruud pinned anyway. “You assured me that Cristiano wasn’t that far gone.” Sinuous turn of the head to aim the verbal daggers better at Ruud’s ear. “For that matter, I remember when you first came over, you assured me that he wasn’t that stupid to start on those.”
“Well, that’s what I honestly thought.” Lehmann could snarl and spit all he wanted, and it’d still be no comparison to the writhing rage burning its way through Ruud’s gut. He should’ve known. He had known, and he’d thought he could get around it by switching labels and being careful with Cristiano, and all of that—he was such a fool. It was good Jens was pissing him off right now, since otherwise Ruud might possibly have been trying to beat himself to death.
Jens drew back a little; behind them, Freddie and one of the medics edged by, ostensibly in conversation but watching Jens and Ruud more than they were watching the hall in front of them. Ljungberg almost walked right over Lahm, who was coming down in the opposite direction.
Then all the other people had passed and Jens was moving forward again, menacing and purposeful. He swept his head to the side and up so his exhale scorched an arc over Ruud’s right cheek. “That’s not good enough.”
Ruud closed his eyes, a year-long, deliberately cultivated habit struggling to be heard. Then he opened them and shoved Jens off. The moment he had some space, he got out from beneath the other man, turning to look down the hall where the medic had gone. “No, it’s not, because I screwed up. I thought Ferguson wouldn’t keep trying.”
The surprise had started to come over Jens’ face when Ruud had pushed him away, but it only really turned serious when that name had popped up. Which reminded Ruud of a second idiocy: he’d thought he could stave himself off with Jens’ apparent willingness to force him straight. Except Jens could get Ruud down on the ground and begging for a fuck, and Lehmann still wouldn’t be really engaged in it. And that made the whole arrangement useless for both of them.
“Trying?” Jens said.
“That dealer—I recognized him. He’s Ferguson’s, and that bastard spent half his time trying to turn Cris against me when I worked for him, and after we left—Cris was clean up till after we left—are you getting the picture?” Ruud said.
Lehmann had opened his mouth when Ruud was midway through, but he never did interrupt. He listened, eyes turning glacial, and when Ruud had finished, Jens calmly turned around and looked down the hall till he spotted Odonkor. “David! Who was it that found Ronaldo first?”
“Uh—um—Torsten and Michael, I think. Two minutes and I’ll get them over here,” David stammered. He already was jogging backwards down the hall.
“You won’t get enough to track it back to Ferguson. He’s too careful,” Ruud said.
Instead of answering, Jens continued to look down the corridor. The last of the cleaning crew was coming out of the bathroom, carefully carrying the panels of a disassembled stall between them. Thierry was point on that and standing by the doorway, animatedly gesturing despite his sober face. Further down, Freddie was now talking to one of Kahn’s agents, probably feeding him bad information so that old sour-ass would get the message and stop trying to poke his nose into Lehmann’s division. It looked under control. They might not have to inform the police.
“Have you fucked Cristiano yet?” From the tone of his voice, Jens could’ve been asking if Ruud had ever been on an airplane before. “Don’t put me off, Van Nistelrooy. I need to know what Ferguson knows if I’m going to deal with this.”
Ruud had been expecting something like that, but the ‘yet’ threw him enough for him to answer honestly and directly. “No. It would’ve been too complicated.”
“And it’s technically frowned upon in company policy, but I don’t have the time to take on that along with everything else,” Jen muttered. He put up one hand and briefly pressed it against the side of his face, a rare enough sign of weakness for Ruud to stare. “Look, I didn’t sign you because for whatever reason, you seem to come along with Ronaldo. You’re a good agent. I want you to keep being a good agent. I’ll even slam you around if that’s what motivates you, but it isn’t, is it?”
“No.” Another one of the medics came by and Ruud caught his eye, then jerked his chin towards the side. After a moment, the man went over and waited. “Cristiano—”
Jens suddenly turned around, eyes on fire with irritation. “I would love to be in your place right now just so I could slap him for the mess he’s made. But I’m not, and I can’t slap you either now, and just get it fixed, Ruud. Get me a damned single, at least. The album can be postponed if necessary.”
It looked like it physically pained Jens to say that. He stalked off before Ruud could ask.
That would’ve been a waste of time anyway. Ruud spun on his heel, then hastily put out his hand against the wall as a wave of dizziness went over him. It passed, but it left behind the strong start of a brutal migraine.
“Are you all right?” the medic said.
“I’m severely hung-over and you’ve taken my biggest—” Ruud paused to swallow; his throat and mouth were extremely parched as well, he only now noticed “—no, I’m not. Where did Cristiano get sent to?”
The other man took a quick step back, his hands coming up in the universal gesture for harmlessness. “Raúl. Lehmann didn’t want to risk the media at a hospital.”
Sensible, but only if Cristiano didn’t end up needing hospital facilities because of that. But never mind; Ruud shoved the heel of his hand into his pounding temple and corkscrewed it in place till his headache retreated. “Do you have a car?”
“They used it to take off Cristiano,” Ljungberg said, walking up behind the medic. “Need a ride?”
Getting an offer from the assistant to his competition within Lehmann’s team. Wonderful. Not that it stopped Ruud from nodding and turning to fall in beside Freddie, but it didn’t help his headache at all.
“If you’d let them take you out for detox like they’d wanted, you could’ve gone with him.” Freddie had lost his coat sometime during the whole mess, and now he pulled his collar open, then mopped at his neck with his hand. It’d gotten stuffy and hot in the hall. “Though you aren’t in DTs, so I suppose they don’t know everything.”
“That’s a poor comfort,” Ruud muttered. He lifted his other hand and rubbed it against his other temple, so if he needed to, he could easily cover his ears. Childish, but he could be concerned about that later. After he’d made sure something was done about Ferguson, and that reminded him. “Who’s Michael?”
“What—oh. Oh…I think that’s the new computer man they hired today. Why?” The way Freddie was looking at Ruud, he obviously wasn’t offering his help solely out of the goodness of his heart.
If he was waiting for Ruud to flash any more weaknesses that he could take back to Thierry, then he’d be waiting for a long time. Ruud had absolutely no problem just shutting his mouth and being antisocial while he tried to plan around the pain in his head.
* * *
Bastian passed by, looking a bit tired, just as they were going into the room and Torsten briefly stopped him to ask about the others. He said that he was taking Lukas home, and Timo and Phil had already left, but Lionel was still—and the rest, Michael missed because Jens had asked him something. He winced and turned back to his supervisor. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
The muscle in Jens’ cheek twitched. So did the odd, slightly mad light in his eyes. “Frings. Socialize later. Right now I need you and Michael to talk to me.”
“Sorry.” Torsten ducked back into the room, then took a seat by Michael on the couch.
Jens sat down on a chair across from them. He straightened his tie. And then for the next ten minutes, exhaustively cross-examined them on what they’d heard and seen in the men’s room. By the time he appeared to be wrapping up, Michael was getting a headache from trying to keep everything straight in his head. Hopefully it all made sense to Lehmann, since the more Michael struggled to remember details, the more confused he got.
“All right, thank you—Torsten, wait a moment. I need to discuss how we’re billing Cristiano’s medical costs,” Jens said.
Michael had been getting up, but he paused when Torsten did. He waited a moment, then hastily ducked away when Lehmann shot a witheringly questioning look his way. Torsten’s head moved towards Michael a little, but then Lehmann started talking and he turned back.
Well…obviously Michael was supposed to leave. And he did, but after he got out into the hall, he didn’t exactly have any idea what he was supposed to do or where he was supposed to go from there. The traffic in the area seemed to be dying down, and through the walls he could hear the muffled beat of a hard-rock song, so apparently everything in the main area of the nightclub had gone back to normal. If it’d ever stopped.
His things were still at Timo and Phil’s apartment, but both of them were gone. He did have their phone number, but when he pulled out his cell, he saw the time and winced. They probably were asleep by now, and if they weren’t—they might be busy anyway. And so far Timo had been nice, but Michael wasn’t sure if that’d continue if he kept interrupting.
Lionel was still around, Michael remembered. He waited for a couple waitresses carrying trays of glasses to pass by, then turned down the hall. He had no idea where Messi might be, and after a couple moments he realized he was basically just wandering around, but at the very least, he was going to get out of this part of the club. He’d seen more than enough of it, and anyway, standing around here was reminding him of the latest reason for why he shouldn’t drink. Damn. Maybe Torsten hadn’t been completely drunk yet, but he’d definitely had a few too many to be thinking perfectly and Michael really shouldn’t have let that work in his favor.
“…no, Freddie’ll get rid of him.” French accent?
“Do I want to know how?” David said, grunting. He cursed at some kind of cable, which Michael could hear slapping around.
He walked around the corner to see David struggling with a laptop that was trailing cables into the room next to him, apparently in conversation with a tall, dark-skinned man in a suit. David saw Michael and gave him a tight grin, while the other man with him put on a reserved expression.
“Hey, Micha—oh. Thierry, Michael. Michael, Thierry. Listen, Micha, do you have a moment? This stupid piece of shit isn’t working for me.” David hitched the laptop up onto one arm and tried to balance it in place while he tugged at the cables with his other arm. He managed to get what looked like the power cord untangled from his ankle, but in the process, he let the laptop tilt too far.
Michael ducked forward and grabbed it, then lifted it off David’s arm so the other man could finish getting the cords straightened out. The lid was mostly down, so he wiggled two fingers beneath it and pushed it up to get a look at what David had been doing. “What’s the matter?”
“Um, there’s this error message that keeps popping up—just push ‘enter’ and you’ll see. No, seriously, it’s already going to be rough enough. I don’t think we got to everyone else that was in the toilet, so at the least we’re going to be dealing with tabloids. Please tell me we’re not adding homicide to that.”
After a puzzled moment, Michael glanced up and saw that David was talking to Thierry again. That…made sense, but now it was disturbing instead of just surreal.
Thierry snorted and reached out to squeeze David’s shoulder. “Davi, what do you think Freddie is? A hitman? After you pull up the bastard’s record, Fredrik will just make sure he gets charged with something that’ll keep him from talking to anyone.”
Michael stopped and pulled at the laptop so he got some more slack with the cables, then cradled it on top of his bent left arm. Many all-nighters had forced him to learn to type one-handed—so his other hand could make sure he didn’t pass out from lack of food—but it was still awkward. He’d pinpointed David’s problem pretty easily and had already fixed it, but decided he might as well check what the other windows showed before he gave it back. Sure enough, he found a couple things he could help with there, too.
“But what are we going to do about him right now? I mean, making all the calls to figure out who this guy really is and what he’s done is going to take me all ni—oh, man.” David sounded utterly crestfallen. “And I thought I was getting the weekend off, too. Oh, man. I had such a hot date lined up, and now I have to cancel.”
And…Michael…probably could help with that. Except he’d be breaking a lot of laws. He wouldn’t exactly be really obvious about it, and anyway, this was David’s laptop so any trail would go back to it, but still, not getting caught didn’t mean a crime hadn’t been committed. On the other hand, he really didn’t like the idea of that guy having a chance of getting off; he’d never liked drugs and after the whole scandal with his professor, he damn near hated them now.
“I know, I know…ah, and I thought Jens might actually take a vacation for once. I had two tickets to the Champions League match tomorrow,” Thierry sighed. Apparently he’d decided that Michael wasn’t anyone to worry about, because he’d completely unthawed. He had a mobile, generously expressive face, and even though he looked worried, he still seemed like his natural inclination was to smile. Which he did just then, and the flash of his teeth was brilliant even in the dark hall. “You know how long it’s been since I was able to drag him out of the office?”
Somebody called for David and he turned to see while absently answering, “Since we hired Ruud.” Then he winced and looked apologetically up at Thierry, whose face had twitched ever-so-slightly. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring that up.”
Thierry shrugged it off and put his hands up behind the back of his head, stretching out his arms. “Well, it is there. Sometimes I wonder about what Jens does, you know?”
The laptop suddenly beeped, cutting off David’s reply. He and Thierry both turned to look at Michael, who barely stopped himself from trying to hide behind the screen. “Sorry. David, did you have a name or anything for that guy?”
“Huh? Why—oh, my God, how did you do that? How did you get in there?” David yelped, getting a good look at the screen. He grabbed Michael’s arm and pulled it down, then pushed the screen back so all three of them could see. “This is the police database!”
“Yeah…” Michael glanced up at Thierry, who’d raised his eyebrows, but who otherwise looked more thoughtful than surprised. “By the way…did you have anything important on this laptop? You might want to pull it off—it’d be a good idea to junk the computer afterward.”
David was still boggling at the computer. “It’s not his,” Thierry said. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. Also…you’re new, yes? Has anyone introduced you to the legal department?” He blinked, then put up his hands and shook his head, smiling reassuringly. “No, no, I’m not criticizing—the opposite. I’m amazed. I’m so amazed that I want to make sure you don’t get penalized for the help you’re giving the label.”
“Oh, good.” The relief in Michael’s voice was so clear that it even got through to David, who patted Michael’s back. Then the computer beeped again and a message box popped up; Michael looked back down at the screen and frowned. “It shouldn’t be any trouble—the system was pretty easy. Actually, I wonder if I should send in an anonymous message about updating their protocols…but anyway, do we have something I could use to do a search? Name…identifying marks…”
“Hang on—actually, go on and take a seat. I’ll be right back.” Thierry was already walking away.
“That is so cool,” David grinned, grabbing the cables. He held them up so they wouldn’t trip over them on the way into the room. “Have you hacked into anything else? Do you do this a lot?”
Only late at night when Michael was feeling bitter and angry and resentful. But nothing had ever officially made it onto his academic record; it’d all been word-of-mouth and news articles and gossip between professors, so he could’ve made his transcript look like it belonged to a genius and it wouldn’t have made a difference. And it wouldn’t have been helpful or even have made him feel any better to go in and make financial trouble with his old university. They had given him his degree, after all. “Not really. I’m not going to have to start now, will I?”
“Hopefully not. We’re a recording label, not a gang,” David replied. He paused, then held his hand where Michael could see its crossed fingers. “But it’s really good that you can do that.”
* * *
It wasn’t Cristiano lying in that bed. It was some mummy with electrodes taped to its chest and a gigantic plastic mask eating its face and tubes snaking out in all directions from it.
“It’s worse than it looks.” Lehmann’s doctor leaned in the doorway, reading some printout and looking entirely too casual, even without the dry deadpan.
None of Ruud’s other signings were even remotely as good at inviting trouble as Cristiano, so it was the first time he’d met one of the in-house medical staff. This González was tall and dark and Spanish, and he was dressed in track-pants and a wrinkled dress shirt. He probably was competent—Jens didn’t hire people who were entirely without skills—but his attitude left something to be desired.
“I had to sedate him to stop his spasms and get his heart rate down—he went into arrhythmia three times and we had to shock him. But that’s tricky because his nasal passages and throat are damaged and the sedative makes it more difficult to breathe. I won’t get the tests for his liver damage back for another week, but it’ll be bad.” Raúl dropped the printout and stuck his hands in his pockets, looking coolly at Ruud. “Right now his blood’s like sewage. I can’t detox him all the way here.”
“So why is he still here?” Ruud asked. His clothes itched and his mouth was parched and his headache was murderously painful.
For a moment, Raúl just looked at him. Then the other man suddenly reached out and grabbed Ruud’s jaw. He yanked it down, but let go before Ruud could shove him off and turned on one heel to walk down the hall. About two meters later, he ducked into another room—a bathroom—and opened the medicine cabinet over the sink. After some deliberating, he pulled out one bottle, then turned to push it at Ruud just as Ruud had been about to grab his shoulders and possibly throw him through the glass shower door. “Because the private detox center we can use is in Bath and he needs to be stabilized before we can fly him out. He wasn’t just using drugs—whoever was supplying him was feeding him impure stuff. I can’t say for sure what else was in the cocaine till the lab gets back to me, but he’ll be very lucky if he doesn’t come out of this with nervous system damage. Here, take two of these.”
Thrown, Ruud blinked and stood there with his mouth open. His fingers reflexively closed around the bottle. “What’s this?”
“It’ll get rid of your hang-over.” Raúl turned back around and busied himself with filling up a glass with water. “I can’t do anything about your possible case of alcohol poisoning because everything I have here is hooked up to Ronaldo, but it seems to be pretty mild, so just make sure you drink three of these every hour.”
Ruud looked at the bottle, which was unlabeled except for a number written on the side. He hesitated, then unscrewed it and shook out two pills, which he swallowed dry.
“Water. Dehydration can put you down just as fast as liver dysfunction,” Raúl said, sounding faintly snappish for the first time. He pressed the glass into Ruud’s hand, then took back the bottle and put it away.
“Get him off the coke.” The water tasted shockingly wonderful, and before Ruud realized it, he’d finished the whole glass. The last drop slid down his throat, leaving an awful itching dryness behind. He inhaled by mistake and the itch flared into a full-fledged burn that made him cough. “I don’t want a patch job—you have to fix him—”
A spasm of anger passed over Raúl’s face, then came back with sudden violence. He threw up his hands and took a step forward so fast that Ruud instinctively backed up. “Mi Dios! What is it with you people—I’m a physician, not a mechanic! I try to get bodies to heal, but if they don’t want to, then that’s not something I can help. You want him ‘fixed,’ then you better know what broke him in the first place!”
Raúl put his hands down, but continued angrily muttering in Spanish too fast for Ruud to understand. He yanked the glass from Ruud’s hand, banged it under the faucet, and was in the process of handing it back when he suddenly stopped where he was. He took a deep breath, his eyes briefly closing, and then calmly gave Ruud the water.
“I need to give him another dose of sedative soon,” he said. He checked his watch, then tilted his head. His mouth silently moved as he did some calculations in his head. “He’ll be waking up a little now or in a minute. I’ll be constantly monitoring him—can you get anyone here? I rushed over without packing a change of clothes. I could also use—”
Ruud pulled out his cell-phone and handed it over. “Call…” he’d never gotten around to hiring an assistant, and his secretary was useless for anything except filing papers “…call David Odonkor and he’ll get you whatever you need.”
The look the other man flicked Ruud as he took the phone said that Raúl knew exactly what Ruud was thinking. After a moment, Raúl shrugged and turned around, head bent over the phone as he scrolled through the contacts list.
When Ruud went back into the other room, Cristiano didn’t look any better. The lack of sound magnified the beeps and whirrs of the machines all around so it seemed like Ruud was stepping into an alien sanctum. He grimaced, then slowly went up to the side of the bed.
Cristiano’s hands were strapped to the bed railings with padded cuffs. His feet were under the blanket, but when Ruud lifted that to check, he saw that the ankles were tied down, too. He dropped the sheet and moved back up to look at Cristiano’s wrist, skin waxen so the sluggishly throbbing veins beneath them looked like blue worms. Reddish pressure marks bracketed the cuff; evidence of the other man’s thrashing.
The headache was going away, but the cottony taste in Ruud’s mouth lingered. He took a sip of the water; the bitterness briefly went away, but came back up his throat doubled in strength after he’d finished swallowing. Those pills hadn’t done anything about his nausea, either.
He drank some more water and lifted his other hand to Cristiano’s wrist, tracing the thin, angry red line above the cuff. Cristiano’s finger suddenly twitched and Ruud actually jumped, swearing beneath his breath.
He looked up, and in the middle of all the ghastly medical paraphernalia, Cristiano was staring at him. The other man’s eyes were barely open enough for Ruud to see the pupils, but when he moved to lean over the bed, he could see that they were tracking him—though extremely slowly.
“Cris…” Ruud cut himself off with a wince.
The pupils contracted, then slowly expanded. Beneath the oxygen mask, Ruud could see Cristiano weakly trying to move his lips around the rigid mouthpiece. The muscles in Cristiano’s face suddenly tightened in pain, and a rattling noise came from his throat.
“Don’t fight the air-tube,” Ruud snapped. “You want to choke yourself to death?”
Cristiano stopped, but that was definitely a glare trying to slip out from beneath his half-lowered eyelids. He shifted a little and it seemed like a thousand different things rattled.
After a moment, Ruud set his glass down on top of one of the machines. Then he leaned his hip against the side of the bed. He started to put his hand down on the mattress for support, but then stopped, afraid that he’d dislodge something that was stuck in Cristiano’s arm. The other man looked like a pin-cushion.
“Well, you overdosed and I showed up after all. I was wrong and you were right—does that make you happy?” Ruud finally said. His voice sounded scratchy and tight; his throat was already drying out. “What the hell were you thinking? Look, if you had a problem with me, then…fine, leave. Get another agent, leave FC Records completely. But for God’s sake, don’t go back to Ferguson. I told you—”
He stopped, then jerked forward as Cristiano let out another muffled cough. This time, Cristiano gagged hard enough for it to jerk him up from the pillow. He looked absolutely furious beneath all the tubing and tape; Ruud grabbed one shoulder and tried to push him back down, but Cristiano fought him. For a moment—
But then Cristiano’s strength gave out and he collapsed, his head lolling back in exhaustion. That odd wave of relief that Ruud had felt immediately dissipated. He bit back a curse and slumped against the side of the bed, his hand still on Cristiano’s shoulder.
“You know, all I’ve done is just try to do what I think is best for you,” Ruud muttered. He pressed down with his fingers the moment he felt the tension in Cristiano. “Even when I screwed up. And—and I have no idea exactly where I did that, but I know I did, and if you think I enjoy seeing this, then you’re dead wrong. I hate it, and—and it was Ferguson, Cris! What the hell made you even listen to him?”
Cristiano just stared up at Ruud. His hair was matted to his forehead, so wet even the gold glints were dulled. Ruud let himself brush those off, then even allowed his hand to drift down the side of Cristiano’s face. The other man’s eyes briefly widened; his head slightly tipped into Ruud’s fingers.
“Was it that bad with me?” Ruud quietly asked.
Deep down, he wasn’t that surprised when Cristiano jerked his chin down in a curt nod. He still needed a moment to take it in. Then he took a breath and slowly pushed himself back. He looked at his hands, then back up at Cristiano. “Once you’re stable, they’ll be airlifting you to a private clinic in Bath. Listen to them and get it all out of your system, Cristiano. I don’t want to hear about you dying. All right? Is that what you wanted to hear?”
He turned away. A sharp, stuck-breath hiss came from the bed, but Ruud ignored it. The rattling was harder, but he kept walking. He had to pause briefly when Raúl suddenly appeared in the doorway, but after the other man had run past, Ruud went out and to the bathroom.
He’d just finished a poor job of washing himself up when Raúl’s voice snapped at him from the doorway. “That’s another day before we can fly him out, probably. Do you not get that sick people shouldn’t be upset?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not coming back,” Ruud said, drying off his hands.
When he turned around, Raúl still didn’t look very happy. “He’s your singer.”
Ruud barely suppressed his urge to grind his teeth. “Keep me updated, but don’t expect me around. I’ll be busy here.”
“Doing what?” Raúl asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business, since it’s got nothing to do with bodies, but I have other singers and acts to manage. I can’t neglect them for him.” Mostly the truth. When Ruud was neglecting them in the upcoming weeks, it wouldn’t be for Cristiano. It’d be for planning how to see that Alex Ferguson was deep-sixed as soon as humanly possible. No more mistakes.
* * *
After Thierry came back with the man’s wallet and a frighteningly detailed description of his physical appearance—Michael didn’t want to know how Thierry could sketch a thigh birthmark that well—things blurred into high gear. Michael had the impression that he did a lot of trawling in secure records, and that gradually people started to gather around him. At one point, he blinked at the wavering screen, yawned, and then realized he’d been giving orders like a general for the past hour.
He had no idea when he finished, but it was damn late and someone else steered him into a car. Everything after that just smeared so badly that he had no idea what was going on.
He woke up with the sun shining painfully in his face, still wearing the same clothes and smelling like beer, cigarette smoke and the inimitable grease of unwashed bodies. Michael did spend a moment wondering where the hell he was, but he was still so tired that he just decided he could figure that out later. He needed sleep first, but he couldn’t go back to sleep like this.
Shower. Food. A good, long piss too, he dimly thought as he rolled off the bed. He wasn’t exactly sure how he found the bathroom when he didn’t know where he was, or how he had clothes after he’d dragged himself out of the shower. But he had woken up enough to notice when the bathroom suddenly turned into the kitchen. Michael tripped over something just as the counter swam into vision and stumbled, cursing and flailing. Something nearby yelped and then there was a whole lot more banging and rattling.
After catching himself against the wall, Michael slowly straightened up. Something was—he didn’t actually have a headache. He was very, very tired, but he wasn’t hung-over. So he should remember things…
“Um, good morning. Afternoon. Whatever,” somebody said. “Micha…are you okay? You don’t look so good.”
“Makes a pair of us,” grunted a third voice. “Phil, that’s my foot you’re crushing.”
Phil…Michael blinked a couple times and Philipp’s concerned face slowly came into focus. Beside him was a white hump that barely showed over the island counter, but then it moved and Michael realized that was just Timo’s back; the other man was bent over.
Michael rubbed at his eyes a few times. “This is your apartment, right?”
Now Philipp looked seriously worried. “Michael, did you hit your head or anything last night? You were saying weird things when you came in, but David said that that was just because you were really worn out.”
“No. No, I’m fine, I’m just…” Things started filtering into Michael’s brain. Cristiano with a bloody face. Shot-glasses. The curve of Torsten’s lip—ah, shit. “…exhausted. I accidentally brought up the fact that I can do illegal hacks and they had me trying to track down the…do you know what happened last night?”
“Sort of,” Timo said, standing up. He absently pulled at his shirt till it wasn’t wrenched halfway around him. “Lukas gave us the ultra-excited babble version, and then when David dropped you off, he told us the skeleton version of the truth. You can hack like…like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible?”
Philipp’s mouth was very red and a little swollen, and a flush was fading from his cheeks. Damn it, Michael had walked in on them again. “No,” he muttered. “I generally sit down to do it instead of hanging from the ceiling.”
After a second, Philipp let out a startled laugh. “You’re grumpy—are you hungry? You have to be if you were up all that time; David came around five-thirty in the morning. We’ve got pizza.”
He held up a slice, and Michael’s nose was instantly filled with the most delicious aroma he’d ever come across. How he hadn’t smelled it before, he had no idea, but once it hit him, he completely forgot about being guilty over interrupting and was across the kitchen in a flash.
“Sorry, but I’m starving.” If they understood his mumbles, that was pretty impressive. But he couldn’t stop stuffing his face long enough to have good manners.
“Yeah, I bet.” Timo didn’t seem too upset, so maybe they’d just been necking. He lounged against the counter and picked up his own slice; Philipp leaned comfortably against his chest and sipped on what looked like a mug of soda. “So should we ask for your version?”
Michael chewed for a couple moments, thinking about it. Then he decided he might as well tell them, given that they’d already heard something about it. Probably the best that they got the accurate version.
It took about half a pizza, at least from Michael’s perspective. He winced when he realized how much he’d eaten and made a note to buy them dinners for the next month, or something like that. “After that, you probably know better than me. It seemed like everyone sort of knew what they had to do except me.”
“Well, I kind of hate to say this, but it’s the music industry. Everyone’s seen at least one near-OD, so we have ‘standard’ procedures for dealing with it even though you’d never find them in the job manual,” Timo said. He lifted his hands and made quotation gestures when he said ‘standard,’ making a face as he did. “And you’d have had to have been on the other side of the world to not to have seen Cristiano coming. Though…damn, I wasn’t expecting Ferguson to have a hand in it.”
“Have Torsten show you the profit stats on Cristiano sometime. You won’t be surprised then.” That was oddly cynical for Philipp.
Michael vaguely noticed Timo shooting Phil an odd look, but he was a little preoccupied in trying not to make his wince visible. Torsten. Right. Damn it.
“I’m sorry,” Philipp quietly said, mostly to Timo. “And this sounds really selfish, but…that’s so much of my work on hold now. I almost want to hurt Ferguson myself. It was starting to sound really—even with Cristiano losing it a lot, it was really starting to turn into an amazing album.”
Timo stopped looking wary and looked sympathetic, wrapping one arm around the other man so his hand rested on Philipp’s belly. He bent down and said something into Philipp’s hair that made the other man twist around to grin up at him. Which reminded Michael of something else. “Um…when would you say it’s safe to call Leo? Because you’ve been really nice to put me up like this, but…well, I don’t want to impose.”
Philipp blinked as he turned around. “Oh, it’s no problem, really—we get asked to do this all the time since we’ve the extra room. But—um, how many drinks do you think Leo had?”
That was to Timo, who thought a moment. “Probably eight before he took off with that blond guy. You know, one of the Brazilians…oh, man, I wonder if Kahn signed their band. That’s gonna be awkward—you know Leo, he never likes to stay with one person too long.”
“At least he’s nice about letting them down. Okay, then…probably give him a call in another couple of hours. In the meantime, you might want to go back to sleep,” Philipp said. He nodded, a serious expression on his face. “You look really awful—crap, sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, I probably do.” Michael washed the grease off his hands in the sink, then headed back to bed. “Thanks, Phil.”
“No problem.” Philipp already was snuggling up to Timo again, and Timo was sort of eying the couch. So they were all right.
A few hours’ sleep got Michael feeling functional again, so he gave Lionel a ring and by that evening, he’d moved into the other man’s apartment. He really did need to go out and buy some electronics, and probably some furniture too, but he didn’t know where to start and Lionel was obviously still…worn out…so Michael just offered to make dinner for him and Timo and Philipp instead. Lehmann wanted to see him on Sunday to do some overtime work, but he’d still have time for shopping then.
* * *
Torsten came in on Monday already exhausted since he’d spent all of Sunday doing work at home. And that had all been prep for what he had to do today, and he just wished the end of the week would come already.
Watching his coworkers only made things worse, so he headed upstairs. He couldn’t really afford it time-wise, but if he didn’t have his ten minutes of coffee and chatting with his friends, his sanity couldn’t afford it. Except once he did get to Lehmann’s floor, everyone was talking about Cristiano.
“Look, I was there and I don’t need to hear about it,” he finally snapped at Bastian.
The other man stopped with his mouth open. After a moment, he gave himself a shake and rocked back on his heels, whistling. “Okay, okay, don’t need to bite. But hey, not all of us were and we want to hear. Want to tell?”
“Not really.” That was a little harsh, but sometimes Bastian just drove Torsten nuts. He was the biggest, most unrepentant gossip Torsten know, and that included all Torsten’s old, bored, female relatives.
Well, Bastian had plenty of other choices he could jump on for information. David probably was more up-to-date at this point anyway. And Bastian knew Torsten was just being cranky and would get him donuts later or something; he wouldn’t take the curtness to heart.
Before Bastian could pester him any more, Torsten retreated into the kitchenette and for once, found himself with a full pot of coffee. Usually he had to put one on, but apparently everyone was so busy gabbing that they weren’t drinking. Amazing, considering the sleep deprivation around here.
He’d just finished pouring himself a cup when someone walked in. They stopped, making a weird stammer-cough, and then started to back out.
“What, did Schweini spread the word that I don’t want to talk about—” Torsten turned around and caught Michael in the act of sneaking out. Crap.
Michael wavered, then settled where he was, but he didn’t look very relaxed. His eyes were focused on a point around Torsten’s chin, and he was drumming his fingers on the door-frame. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were in here.”
Damn. Torsten had meant to call Michael later and explain about the whole moment, but with all the rush work that’d landed in his lap, he’d never gotten a chance. “No, no…I’m just avoiding Bastian right now. If he wants the details on Cristiano, he can bother someone else—I’m so sick of it and we’ve barely started to deal with it.”
“That’s not good,” Michael said. He looked pained right afterward, obviously thinking about how lame that sounded. “I’m…sorry. If you want some quiet, I can just get coffee later.”
“You’re not that noisy.” Well, the lameness was just infectious, wasn’t it. Suppressing a wince, Torsten stepped back and gestured for Michael to come in. “No, really, have a cup. You look like you could use it, too.”
After another moment, Michael shuffled over and stiffly did so. He accidentally knocked over the sugar bowl, but managed to grab it before it’d spilled out its cubes. Not that that kept him from cursing like someone had nearly side-swiped him on the highway.
“Did you get home all right?” Torsten asked after a moment.
“Yes. Yeah…David drove me back. Oh…I moved in with Lionel. I mean, I’m sharing with him now.” Michael dropped in his sugar cubes, then stabbed at them with the plastic stir-rod. He sucked part of his lower lip into his mouth and chewed on it, then let it out. Then he did it again.
Torsten drank his coffee. The caffeine woke him up, but didn’t do much for his social skills. “Okay.”
“He asked me first,” Michael blurted out. Then he groaned and put his hand over his face. “Okay, I’m just…I need to get to work.”
“Look, did Friday night offend you? Because I’m sorry if it did—I’m pretty sure I wasn’t drunk enough to say I didn’t know what I was doing,” Torsten quickly said.
Michael had been turning to go, but at that he paused. Then he slowly turned back; his eyes flicked to Torsten, rested there, and then abruptly moved on to stare at the mug he’d left on the counter in his haste. He rolled his eyes at himself and pivoted back to pick it up. “It didn’t offend me,” he mumbled, hastily taking a gulp of coffee right afterward.
Torsten…drank some himself. No, he wasn’t functioning very well right now.
“Did…do you think you’d be free any time in the near future, or will the Cristiano thing take up all of your time?” Something in Michael’s cup was absolutely fascinating. His cheeks were flushing a little.
“Probably close to it,” Torsten reluctantly admitted. “But as stupid as this may sound, I could make time for another coffee. Later. In a café or something…”
“…where they’re talking about something else?” Michael shot Torsten a look that was partly amused, partly nervous. Then he flinched. “I’d have to find one first.”
Right, new. “Or I could show you.”
“That could work too,” Michael said, dead earnest.
He and Torsten looked at each other for a moment, and then they both laughed. Michael rubbed his hand over his face again. “I’m terrible at this, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Get some practice.” Torsten grinned again at the expression Michael made. Then he glanced at the clock and sighed. “Damn. I need to go.”
“Well, let me know when I can practice,” Michael shot back. Then he stopped and blinked; apparently he’d just surprised the hell out of himself. “See you later.”
Monday wasn’t a total disaster, Torsten decided. “Yeah, see you.”