Last of the Independents
Chapter 5: The New Darkness
The state where ya never find a dance floor empty. And pimps be on a mission for them greens. Lean mean money-makin-machines servin fiends.
Sasha was starting to understand what Christy’s paranoia was about, and she turned white with fear. “You’re trying to tell me that... people like you—not like you, but that can do what you do—are ready to dominate a whole new world once the Internet becomes big.” Her brain was racing, and realized that Christy wasn’t just dead serious but dead on accurate. Peter’s predatory eye on every woman in the restaurant—no, someone like that wouldn’t be satisfied with just the girls he could see. The empty eyes and airheaded attitude of the reporter—how many of them were out there, after all? How easy it had been for Sasha to steer her—like she didn’t have any way to think of a response, just enough awareness left to parrot what she’d been told and accept it as her new truth. It all made frightening sense once she put the pieces together, and Sasha was too smart not to put those pieces together.
“It’s days like this I wish I was in England. Well, I wish I was anywhere but here, but especially England. There, they respect controllers, and therefore controllers have to respect them, because the people there know what’s going on. I’d move there now, but I’m too well known already, and they don’t take kindly to manhunts on their soil. I’m telling you this now, and never again, and don’t you ever breathe a word of this to another soul. If things ever get too bad for me to bear, and I wake up as someone else, go to England first. Just trust me on this. They have their odd habits, but they understand controllers more than anyone else in the world. You’ll see. One day we’ll sit down and I’ll teach you the secret meanings behind most British music.”
Sasha just nodded like she knew what was going on, thinking that her idol was a bit out of her head, but understanding why she would be. As she put the pieces together, she felt the limo come to a hard stop in front of a boutique called The Hollywood Blonde. Security got out first and looked inside, then motioned to Christy that it was empty. Christy indicated Sasha should join her, and they went into the store. Sasha stared at the different designer names plastered on the trendy clothing. It looked like every name she knew was represented, and there were a few that she didn’t recognize. Everything glittered. “Sequins and rhinestones aren’t my thing. I’m not a sparkling girl,” Sasha warned with a smile.
“And that’s something that’ll keep you out of trouble in this town,” Christy said.
Suddenly, a middle-aged man in a pink suit minced into sight. With his permed blonde hair and decidedly swish style, Sasha would have been less surprised to see him in bed with his boyfriend than she was to see him now. “Christy Reed! Hello, darling! Long time no see! Ohhh, and what a doll you have here! New dancer? Maid? Maybe a back-up singer? You could use a little shoop shoop, you know,” the man said in an operatic, high-pitched voice. Sasha wasn’t sure if she should be insulted or just confused, but Christy gave her a look that suggested that she shouldn’t be anything at that moment.
“I’m a grown woman, Edgar. I don’t need to play with dolls. I’m looking for a new shawl. Something for the backstage performances, so I can lay off the really high notes in places like Missoula where I don’t get the quality like I do in, say, Chicago,” Christy said, sounding like she was warming up for a concert and retreating into her distant shell.
Sasha’s heart sank as she understood what was happening, and she could barely get the phrase out in between waves of nausea. “He makes weapons, not clothes?”
“A good word to describe them. He makes items like these for me, and for other performers and producers,” Christy explained as Edgar led them past a row of blindingly bright and sparkling clothes into an office with a glass display case. One look at it made Sasha dizzy, and allowed her to understand that what was in the front was just for show. These were the real weapons to fear.
“Belts, necklaces, shoes if you feel especially naughty with your new girl one night—what do you think of these stockings, Christy dear? Just flew them in from Europe... ah, my scarves and shawls, you are such an old-fashioned girl at heart, even for a siren,” Edgar said, trying and failing to have Christy look at some of his merchandise. It didn’t work, although Sasha found herself staring at one of the shoes until Christy’s fingernails dug into her arm, shocking her awake with a slight blush.
“Yes, your shawls, what I look for from you, Edgar. Nothing else,” Christy said, her voice melodic. Edgar seemed appeased, and Sasha was so drowsy that she could only stand and watch the deal go down, her eyes locked on Christy the whole time. She understood why Christy was keeping her that way—it was for her own safety, after she had almost gotten suckered by Edgar’s cheap crafts.
It’s like something out of a movie—but this is Hollywood, isn’t it? Of course it’s like a movie. It’s where the movies are, Sasha thought, putting things together as Christy packed away a diamond-studded shawl in a neat little box and nudged her awake as they walked further back.
“Feel better, Sasha?” Christy asked as they headed through a narrow hallway. The strong stench of peroxide and nail polish almost made Sasha choke, and Christy’s face was screwed up in displeasure.
“What do you need a weapon for, with your voice?”
“I don’t, but Edgar isn’t big on sharing his goodies with the little people. This little thing isn’t for me—it’s for you. There, that’ll look plenty dazzling in a nightclub,“Christy said, trying to put the shawl over Sasha’s shoulders.
Sasha tried to brush it away. “I’m not doing that! Obliterate my brain all you want, but I’m not hooking in innocent people!”
“Mother of—I don’t do that either! I didn’t buy it as a weapon, I bought it as a shield! It identifies you as mine so the wolves don’t get any ideas. I’ll have security, of course, but in a nightclub, there’s plenty of corners and ways to work around that. Never can be too careful in this business. It’s more elegant than a hooker’s dress, classier than a collar, and less cheesy than a tiara, and diamonds go with everything,” Christy said with a smile.
“What have I gotten into?” Sasha asked, forcing a smile onto her face so Christy wouldn’t worry.
But Christy saw past the bravado and answered her seriously. “Hollywood. And believe me, your articles are shields as good in the real world as this thing is in the world behind the scenes. You’ll see that in the papers after your little run in with the Sleaze Machine. But if you need me to, I can sing you out a little before we go.”
“No, I have to see this for myself, that way I can understand what makes you you,” Sasha insisted. Christy took her hand and squeezed it tight.
“Ready, ladies? Now, your new girl—”
“Publicist, if you must know,” Sasha interrupted Edgar, a groundswell of courage overwhelming her fear and sickness.
“And if we all had someone building our public with privates like that...”
Sasha raised an eyebrow, then raised the other one when Edgar tried to cover his tracks with a lame gay joke as he led them into a beauty salon. Young women in sparkling t-shirts were dolling up several young men and women. The acrid fumes from the various chemicals were making Sasha’s eyes water, but she blinked them off and looked closer. Each beautician matched the hairdo picture above her mirror, except not even in Beverly Hills would someone pay the prices marked in the bottom left corner. She looked more closely at the clients and realized that they were all as out as she had been when Christy stunned her, staring blankly at one of Edgar’s garments as they got their hair bleached to look like stereotypical Hollywood starlets and wannabes.
“A whole left side of boys!” Edgar enthused. “Oh, someone got a crazy idea from Latin America, and oooh, all those pretty boys, with my pretty toys!” He gestured at a group of young men being dolled up, but Sasha followed his eyes right to the ample breasts of the beauticians dolling the men up.
“Thanks for the offer, Edgar, but I don’t need any of your dancers. Not with my voice. Now, if you want me to do a command performance for your people—I could use a makeup lady, after all. Boy bands... honestly, I thought you liked your sucking material a little... plumper,” Christy said. She took a deep breath.
“Enough! You’ve made your point, Christy! I’ll see you the next time you need one of my shawls!” Edgar exclaimed, shooing them out of the salon. When they came back onto the street, they were across from where the limo and the bulk of the security detail were waiting for them.
“Okay, why the gay act if he’s going to be making them for... for..”
“Commission. He makes ‘em for hire by the producers. Sometimes he’s fillin’ orders to fill a niche, sometimes it’s to fill... something else. Here.” Christy handed Sasha a barf bag, but Sasha shoved it away.
“Your doom and gloom as we arrived prepared me, but what the hell is this?” Sasha said, opting for tears instead of nausea for her breakdown.
Christy pulled her close and said, “This hell is Hollywood. And Edgar ain’t even close to being the worst of them. He’s an arms dealer, and not much of one compared to what else is out there. Most of those people in there, they came to him. He isn’t much as an arms dealer, but he’s got a knack for knowing what the people want, and that’s what they come here to be. They come here to get noticed, to make millions, to become famous—if their free will is the price, they’ll fork it over, no questions asked. He gets a few orders sent to him by producers who don’t have abilities of their own, or to finish off someone who’s resisting, or someone who’s already gone and just needs to be cleaned up for the stage. But his real money comes from his focus objects, and he makes thousands on them. That shawl’s one of his cheapest, and it set me back a good five hundred dollars.”
Sasha nodded her understanding. “But I still don’t get the gay act.”
“It’s a disarming technique. If you think he’s not into anything female, you won’t mind if he has a hand on your butt or your boobs, and once he’s got that, he can direct you to the sparkliest thing he’s got and you’ll be gone in sixty seconds. It’s an insult to the fine, upstanding gay folks out there, if you ask me,” Christy said with a smile. Sasha returned it shakily, then took a few moments in the limo to gather herself and touch up her makeup.
“Think you can handle going deeper?” Christy asked.
“Have to,” Sasha said grimly. “That’s where I have to make contacts. You know that. You can stop testing me that way.”
“Most bookers don’t go past the restaurant. Jan went to Edgar’s with me and ruined one of my finest dresses afterward. And security—well, you show them pretty girls reduced to sex machines, throwin’ up ain’t what I’m worried about,” Christy said with a smirk, exaggerating her drawl for effect.
“Hank!” Sasha gasped in mock horror, slapping his shoulder playfully. He smiled for a moment.
The limo pulled up to the nightclub, past the velvet rope and the selective bouncers, and around the back to the rear entrance. “Predator and prey entrances? What will they think of next?”
“Don’t ask,” Christy groaned. Security got in formation as Sasha and Christy got out of the car and stayed in formation, pushing away ordinary people and fast-talking guys in suits with equal prejudice as Christy guided them up the stairs into a DJ booth. Sasha felt the music trying to worm itself into her brain, but Christy’s lovely melodies were already buried there, and she found herself humming some of them to keep her head. Christy heard her, and the ghost of a smile flashed over her face before she settled back into the harsh mask of the dark princess of rock. “There, let’s get into a private suite, away from the cheap subliminals. They have nothing that can even come close to matching me. I could clear this place out with my cheapest hit record. With all the mechanics out there, and as ready as people are for something to get into their heads, I could start a nationwide dance craze if I wanted to just by singing the hokey pokey. I just don’t want to.”
“It would make a fun prank some day,” Sasha mused, pretending to consider it.
“Lisa’s a bad influence,” Christy replied. “I don’t need to do that kind of thing to show what I can do. Besides, what would I do with the rest of my material?”
Hank interrupted the conversation with a tap on Christy’s shoulder. “Carrie’s here. Should I send her in?”
“Why not send in my biggest competitor?” Christy asked, and there was dread in her voice.
Oh, yay, another test, Sasha thought. She recognized the tanned beauty of Carrie Myers—but not how she bounced in, as if she was made out of rubber.
“Hiii, Christeeeeee!! I am so totally glad you’re back! Ohhh, and you have a new friend! Like, she’s pretty, but—oh, I know! You totally need to see Dr. Springate. You know? So they can go SPRINGG!” Carrie squealed as she pulled up her top and showed off her latest improvement.
“Those are very... nice... but I’m just a publicist. I don’t need those to be, um, that public,” Sasha said, trying to think of something nice to say and failing miserably.
“Awww! Boobies are so much bouncy, trouncy, fun fun fun!” Carrie protested, bouncing to demonstrate.
“Did she just quote Tigger? Tell me she did not just quote Tigger,” Sasha said to Christy.
Carrie overheard. “Hey! Just because my mommy was black doesn’t mean you can talk to me like that!” The eerie part was that her perky demeanor barely wavered.
“You just get dumb—er, better every day,” Christy said gently, hiding an eyeroll and clutching Sasha’s hand for support. Sasha tried not to look surprised. Isn’t she supposed to be supporting me through this part?
“I have an album coming out!” Carrie announced. “It’s, um—” She stopped and counted off on her fingers—“my fourth! And I don’t even need to squeal anymore, which is good, ‘cause I read that breaking a mirror makes you unlucky for seven years, and I was like omigosh, ‘cause when I was young, I broke at least ten of them, which means I’d be unlucky until, like, I’m old and gross and dead! But then I remembered that my albums are still selling, and my producer is so good to me, so that’s not happening, right? Right? Bad luck would be, like, so bad, so am I cursed?”
“You won’t have bad luck again for seventy years,” Sasha and Christy said at almost the same time.
“Omigosh, that was amazing! You two should do harmonica sometime! That would be so awesome! Or maybe you could shake your boobies! Phil says I’m so much better when I shake my boobies instead of singing, which is great, because it’s so much more fun!”
“Harmonica?” Sasha asked, confused, before she realized what Carrie had meant and tried not to slap herself in the forehead.
“Miss Myers? Your producer’s looking for you,” Hank said, ushering Carrie towards the door and avoiding her as she tried to grope him.
“And that was Carrie Myers,” Christy said with a sigh. “You might remember her first album...”
“Yeah, I do. And then she got crappy, and then she became...”
“The Carrie Myers we all know and love. I knew her when I was startin’ out. Used to come here and just enjoy the music most nights, then she changed almost overnight. If it hadn’t been so quick, I’d be dead myself. That’s why I still try to be her friend. Lord knows she could use one, even if she doesn’t even know how to pull a pull door—thanks, Hank,” Christy trailed off as Hank pulled the door for Carrie to keep her from leaning so hard on it that the glass would break.
“And people want this? They—my God. I thought it was just coke and booze.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to think. Logic is a controller’s best friend—does a better job of comin’ up with cover stories than anyone’s imagination ever could. And it’s a convenient way to deal with a washed up bimbo. How many overdoses you read about? Now do you get who I am? What I am? Why I do what I do?”
“I think I do. So of those in the front, how many make it out alive?”
“Most of them, for now. Maybe seventy percent. Producers can afford to be selective when the got a lot of selection. Booze and light subliminals means they don’t notice if there’s a hand on their ass or eyes up their skirt. And I hate to say it, but half of the ones who don’t make it out do it ‘cause they want to—they wanted to be here, no matter what it took. And the boys are just at risk. Hollywood don’t discriminate. All methods, all kinds, all tastes. Just count the people dancing against the gigglin’ idiots ‘bout to hit the bathroom for a field test.”
“And this is what I have to get your name out into,” Sasha said grimly.
“Not to them. Get it out to the people who can trick ‘em into hearing it. The media people stay in booths like this, and you go around and work the room like Carrie tried to. They’re safe away from the fools, and there’s few enough of them. But I wanted you to see what I’m up against, why I’m so paranoid, and why I’m the last of the independents.”
“I understand. You could own me all you want, and you wouldn’t be able to get it into my head without me seeing it like this. I’ll keep them remembering you, and keep them at least listening to good mind-numbing music.”
Christy smiled tightly at Sasha’s determination. “Good. Remember this, though. It’s always gonna get worse, because it can always get worse.”
As if proving her point, Peter saw fit to barge into their booth, a giggling bimbo on each arm. “Christy! So glad to see you again! Meet Dandy Candy and Quicker Lick-her—well, that’s what they’ll be soon. The new computers are up, and holy shit you should see this! With your voice, it’d be perfect! Fifty percent! Your fans wouldn’t even know you invested! C’mon in on the ground floor, cuz this cash cow won’t stop giving milk!” One of the girls pulled off the tattered remnants of her tank top and squeezed one of her breasts at Peter, who beamed. “I’m telling you, Japan, baby! They’re gonna put us on the map! This new operating system—shit, they’re gone in sixty seconds!”
Christy nodded to Hank, who shoved Peter on his way, making sure he went to the floor outside the booth. While it was generally hard to get a read from Hank’s steely demeanor, Sasha was pretty sure that the only thing keeping Peter from getting a bullet in his skull was the trouble it would cause Christy. Then the implications of everything that Peter had said became clear, and she raced for the trash can—but Christy beat her to it. Sasha’s surprise helped her stomach settle as she held back Christy’s hair and leaned her up, then put an arm over her shoulder as they walked back to the limo in stunned silence.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that it still got to you this badly,” Sasha said with a gentle touch of Christy’s hand.
“I didn’t think it still did, but Japan... I’ve heard stories, and there’s a reason why I don’t tour there. I think I’m findin’ out just exactly why now that they started buyin’ up parts of production companies here and showin’ off their wares. I think you’re seein’ where some of my psycho-sexual lyrics come from. Think I got half my next album just from meeting Peter tonight. Think he’d get the joke if I thanked him in the liner notes?” Christy said darkly as the limo wound its way home.
“Probably not. And I’m glad I have something to promote now, but I’m not doing that again.”
“Good. I hate doing it as much as you do,” Christy replied as she headed upstairs and they both tried to forget that night.