Risk
©Nov 2001 B Stearns
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Note: Takes place during the Escape tour. Figured I’d do something different, but it may not be all that different. This is the result of a dream I had a couple of weeks ago, which turns out to be the dream Jon has in a later part.
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Seattle, WA – Saturday, December 5th, 1981

Jon looked out the hotel window at another gray, rainy winter day in the Northwest.

He wiped at the frosted glass a little, then wiped the moisture on his jeans. The heater beneath the window had kicked on by itself again, and he didn’t mind. As a kid in Chicago, a day like this would have been downright balmy. But after a few years of becoming acclimated to California’s weather…he’d found the weather a little too damp, a little too cold, the last few days. At least it had quit pouring out there – their first night in Seattle had been decidedly worse. The crowd had been fantastic the night before, psyched up, energetic. Sold out. The second of two sold out shows lay in front of him, with only a short, gray day between.

“Okay,” a voice said from the doorway of the room, “now you’re depressin’ even me, man.”

“Just looking out the window,” Jon said without turning, listening to Neal enter the room behind him. It was him and Neal in one room this time, Steve and Ross in another, and Smitty was bunked down with Pat Morrow, the tour manager. He and Neal had become fast friends over the months, and it was a good thing, or he’d have killed him before then. He and Neal had a lot in common, but as down to earth as he was, Neal was almost as restless as Perry. And he snored like hell.

“Been looking out the window for the last week,” Neal said, coming to stand beside him. “What’s up with you?”

“Thinking,” Jon said. “Homesick, tired, got song ideas, tired, miss Tane’, tired…”

“Sorry I asked,” Neal said. “Now I really am depressed.” Neal laughed as he said it.

“Bullshit,” Jon said. “you’ve never been depressed a day in your life.”

“Shit, there’s no point,” Neal said, clapping him on the back. “You gonna wear that onstage?”

Neal’s tone kind of indicated that he felt it wasn’t a wise choice. Jon turned around and looked him up and down. “No,” he said. “You gonna wear that in public?”

“Hey,” Neal said. “Green’s a good color on you, man, but the jealousy that goes with it sucks.”

Jon rolled his eyes. “Then get the hell out of here and let me get dressed. Unless you wanna watch.”

Neal waved him off and headed toward the bathroom. “Hurry up, we’re headed over in about a half hour.”

“I’m not a chick,” Jon said. “I don’t need a half hour to – “

“Coulda fooled me, in those pants,” Neal said from the bathroom.

Jon thought of a few choice epithets but kept them to himself for the moment, glancing back out the window again. Another gray, rainy day. Same thing, day to day, on his first tour with Journey.

***

Half an hour later, they were in the shadow of the Space Needle, pulling in to one of the back loading docks for the Coliseum.

“Still looks like a fuckin’ mushroom,” Neal said, squinting up at the Needle through the drizzle as they pulled up.

“You know what mushrooms are, right?” Ross said.

“Here we go,” Steve muttered with a yawn. “God help us.”

“The reproductive organs of fungi,” Ross said, face and tone serious.

“Nuh,” Neal said.

“Yeah, Neal,” Steve said. “Careful what you order on your pizza, tough guy.”

“Bullshit,” Neal said.

Steve held his nose in a mock-phone voice and said, “Yes, I’d like to order a pizza…hold the reproductive organs.”

Jon laughed. “It’s true. So don’t step on ‘em, when you see ‘em growing.”

“Shit,” Neal said. “Why would someone put up a building that looks like a giant dick?”

“I can’t believe Hugh Hefner didn’t think of it first,” Ross said.

They spilled out into the drizzle, heading for one of the back entrances, several equipment trucks blocking the view of their entrance. Herbie came out of another car and was talking to Kevin Elson about something they couldn’t hear. The equipment trucks were open, but there was no one visible near them, which was odd. Stuff was usually never left untended, whether it was a two-show stop or not. Everything was still set up from the night before. So there was no reason for the trucks to be open, or for no one to be near them.

Ross commented on it, but no one thought that much about it until they got to the entrance. They found it propped open, another oddity. It was dark beyond, and Ross stuck his head in. No one around.

“This was the way we’re supposed to come in, right?” Smitty said.

Neal shrugged, glancing behind at Herbie and Kevin. They weren’t paying attention. Something told him things weren’t right, but for one of the only times in his life, he ignored it. He was a rock star now, not a street smart kid, and there was no reason to go all paranoid. “’S the way we came in yesterday,” he said, stepping inside.

Jon and Smitty followed, then Ross, and Steve last. It was dark, darker than it should have been, like someone had left the lights off on purpose. They left the door propped open, and Neal called out into the dark. No one answered; no security, no event staff, none of their guys. There should have been last minute show prep going on; someone should have been taping the night’s set list to the stage floor up ahead, someone should have been taking care of some last minute crisis. There was always some last minute thing.

“Weird,” Neal said. Then he was grabbed.

Four figures came out of the dark, and Neal felt cold metal underneath his chin. “Keep walking,” someone said, and he didn’t recognize the voice. He heard Jon gasp, heard a shuffle of feet, heard the door behind them slam, making it darker. He heard the frantic scuffle of someone making a run for it. Then he was shoved, hard, stumbling forward, and someone had a solid grip on the back of his jacket while they propelled him forward. He could feel what he knew had to be the barrel of a gun shoved up under his jacket, pressed into the back of his ribcage. Stuff was happening too fast, things were going wrong too fast, and he didn’t react in time. He later couldn’t decide what the hell he would have done, anyway.

He heard Ross shout something he couldn’t make out, heard a struggle somewhere behind him. Then he was turned abruptly, into a dark room, and shoved. Someone was shoved in behind him, and the door was slammed.

Neal scrambled out of the stumble he’d been thrown into, placing his hands on the nearest wall and trying to gain his bearings. He searched frantically for a light switch. “What the fuck is goin’ on!”

“We’re getting ‘jacked, man,” he heard Smitty say. Then he heard someone trying the door and realized Smitty was testing the lock. “Dunno what they’re up to, but we’re on the wrong end of something.”

***

When someone stepped out in front of Neal and between himself and the door, Steve had jumped. Instinct alone made him try for the door, and he was shoved against the wall instead. He kicked out reflexively and heard a grunt of pain as he shoved at the figure and made a run for it, not caring what was happening so long as he got the hell away from it.

The door slammed in front of him, and someone else had him by the shirt a second later, shoving something cold and hard against the side of his throat. He froze, terror striking him numb, listening to the scuffling going on behind him.

“See, I’m gonna have trouble with you, I guess,” a voice said close to his ear, shaking him a little. “The quieter you are right now, the longer you live. Move.”

The figure shoved him a little, keeping a tight grip on him, keeping the gun close to his head. He walked mechanically, light-headed, thoughts racing. Not a prank. There was no way the whole crew had been taken by these guys, no way someone outside hadn’t noticed there was something wrong. They’d get out, it was no big deal…

They got to the end of the hallway and turned, crossing the path of an emergency light that hovered close to the floor, affording a glance of Ross and Jon being herded down the corridor yards in front of him. There was one guy with them, holding a gun loosely at arm’s length, directing them forward.

“Folks outside’ll hear a shot,” Steve said breathlessly. “you ain’t gonna – “

“Shut up,” the figure behind him said. “I hear your voice again, you’re gonna find out what I will or won’t do.”

Steve screamed. He didn’t quite realize he’d decided to do it; maybe it was the threat, maybe he was actually that scared, maybe he just wanted someone outside to hear.

It startled everyone; the guy with the gun further down the corridor spun and dropped into a crouch, gun pointed in their direction. Ross made a break for it into the dark, but Jon froze.

The guy behind Steve jumped, and Steve dropped and twisted, twisting himself out of his jacket, pulling away.

He didn’t get his arms entirely free in time; he was jerked back by the gunman violently enough to lose his balance. He hit the concrete floor of the corridor without the benefit of his arms to break his fall, the breath driven out of him. He had a knee in his back a moment later and felt the barrel of the gun pressed against his temple. He couldn’t catch his breath with that much weight on his back, driving into his spine.

“You dumb little fuck,” the voice said between clenched teeth, a hand on the back of Steve’s neck.

The guy further down the corridor had Jon, was yelling at Ross to hold still or Jon would buy it.

Another figure came out of the semi light to Steve’s right, affording him a view of tennishoes from his angle and nothing else. “Lay off,” a second voice said above him. “We need him to sing. You fuck him up now, it won’t help.”

“He’ll sing,” the voice that belonged to the knee on his back said. “When I’m done, he’ll be doin’ a lot of that.”

Steve was jerked to his feet. He glanced over his shoulder, down the corridor. He couldn’t see Ross or Jon anymore. And no telling where Neal and Smitty were.

“Hey,” the second voice said in front of him. He turned to face it and was patted roughly on the face. He jerked his head back in alarm. A dark haired man with faintly Asian features was smirking at him. “You be a good boy, and we’ll all get out of this, okay?” He glanced over Steve’s shoulder at the gunman who’d just had the singer on the floor, the look laced with warning. Then he walked off into the dark.

Steve was jerked around in the direction Ross and Jon had been taken and hustled down the corridor in silence. He didn’t bother trying anything else, not this far into the building. If screaming hadn’t worked, there was no one to hear him anymore that mattered.

There were dressing rooms back there, and he was shoved into one that already had someone standing outside it. Guarding.

It was dark inside; the door stayed open just long enough to show him the outline of the gunman pointing the weapon directly at him, and his heart leaped.

“Quiet in here, or it won’t matter what anyone says to me,” the gunman said. “Don’t need any of you that bad.”

The door slammed, and he heard a lock engage. He stood in the dark and listened to his own labored breathing for a moment, then realized his wasn’t the only.

“Steve,” Jon whispered. “I thought they…” The sentence was choked off.

“It’s okay, Jon,” Ross said softly. “He’s so goddamn hard headed that if someone did kill him, he wouldn’t notice.”

“Who all’s in here?” Steve said.

“You, me, Jon, and the dark,” Ross said. “Neal and Smitty got put somewhere else.”

“There a goddamn light switch in here?” Steve said, daring to move finally, holding his hands out in front of himself to feel along the walls.

“We haven’t been around long enough to find out,” Ross said, doing the same. There were a few moments of quiet until Jon said, “Guys.”

“Find it?” Ross whispered.

“Found something,” Jon whispered back, a quaver at the edge of it. “There’s somebody on the floor, here.”

“Shit,” Steve whispered. The search for a light grew more frantic. It wasn’t by the damn door. Another several tense moments of searching brought Ross to the back wall and to a push button switch. A short row of track lighting came on above them.

They blinked, trying to get their eyes to adjust.

Jon had retreated to the middle of the dressing room, away from the right back corner where someone sat against the wall with a hole in their forehead. One of the crew. Someone whose name no one could remember at the moment.

There was silence. They had all withdrawn into the opposite corner without realizing it, drawn into a tight knot.

After a moment, Steve said, “Nothin’ we can do, for him, now. Nothin’.” It had the sound of someone trying to convince himself. There’d been no way they could have prevented this, no way to avoid -

“Who are they and what the fuck do they want?” Jon said, voice a low, tense whisper.

“They’re not too keen on giving info, Jon,” Steve said softly. “Mostly just kickin’ us around and keeping it quiet. They’re waiting for something.”

“We gotta get out of here,” Jon said, trying unsuccessfully to keep the edge of hysteria out of it and failing. No one could stop looking at the body.

“Hey,” Ross said. “Whatever they’re waitin’ for’s got nothin’ to do with us. We do somethin’ stupid, we’re done. That’s been made real clear. We just wait this out.”

“They’re gonna break us up,” Jon said, voice ratcheting up a notch. “Separate us, probably kill us anyway. We gotta do something.”

“Who the hell’s in the audience tonight?” Steve said. “Who the hell would come to a Journey show that’s worth all this? To what, maybe kidnap, maybe kill in a crowd?”

“That what you think is goin’ on?” Ross said. “Somebody in the crowd?”

“Can you think of anything else?” Steve said. “They don’t give a rat’s ass about us, it’s not us they’re after. They’ve killed at least one guy on the crew. There’s gotta be folks starting to show up, outside, so they’re not canceling the show. Looks like they’re gonna make us go out there with guns to our heads, and blow somebody away on the sidelines.”

Ross shrugged. “All this trouble, all this shit, for that? Why not do it in private, off ‘em in a men’s room somewhere or in bed? This is crazy bullshit.”

“Public execution,” Steve said. “Panic a crowd and leave a lasting impression, and get away in the mayhem. Messy and easy. Except we ain’t easy.”

“But we’re alive,” Ross said. “Keep your mouth shut and stay down, Perry.”

Steve glanced at Jon, who had his hands clasped together so hard that his knuckles were mottled white and red. “They got Neal and Smitty,” Jon said.

“They got all of us,” Ross said, trying to breathe slow through his nose.

“Herbie and Kevin were outside – “ Jon began.

“And probably came in a different entrance by now,” Steve said. “No help from there.”

With the stage set up and the crew probably locked in a separate area, all they could do was sit there and wait to be told what their part in the whole thing was.

“If they want us onstage for distraction, like everything’s normal,” Steve said, “then they won’t hurt us. That’s what the one guy out there said – not to fuck me up, they need me to sing. If I’m right, they need us lookin’ normal out there to get the rest of this in place.”

“Makin’ big leaps in logic,” Ross said. “Goddamn it, just –“

The rattle of the door being unlocked silenced them immediately. It swung open on the same figure that had shoved Steve in there, cold blue eyes, light colored hair, and a set face. They kept away from the door.

He smiled and let himself in, closing the door behind. “Love the rock star life, don’t you?” he said. “You guys ready to go on soon?”

“Where’re the others?” Steve said.

That fast, there was a gun under his nose, the sight at the end of the barrel pressing into the divot above his upper lip.

“I was asking a question,” the man said, his voice never changing tone or evincing any anger this time.

Steve, to his credit, kept his eyes steady. “Kind of hard for me to sing out there if I got a third nostril,” he said, keeping his voice as steady as his gaze.

With a smirk, the man dropped the barrel of the gun toward the floor. “Mouthy bastard, aren’t you,” he said. “Gonna have a big tragedy, here, if you don’t keep it shut. Gonna be an accident, during this whole thing, or maybe after. You got me taking a dislike to your ass.”

Steve nodded. “Kinda don’t want you near my ass anyway,” he said.

The other man nodded, then shot the magazine open on the nine millimeter he was carrying, checking the action, slamming it closed and checking the chamber for a round.

“We gotta get straight with the…the set list, before we go on,” Ross said, thinking fast. “You took out one of the roadies who was gonna do that. We got no set list.”

“Figure it out,” the man said. “You got guys to wipe your asses, too? Jesus. I don’t need all five of you in here, bitching and carrying on until it’s time to go on. You’ll see ‘em alive when you make it out on stage. You do your thing out there like normal. I don’t like something I see or hear, no one’ll ever hear us killin’ the rest of your crew over all that noise you’ll be making. You understand?”

All three nodded.

“Somethin’s gonna get done here tonight that you got no worries about except to do what you’re told. After that, you tell the press whatever you like, I don’t give a fuck. We’ll be long gone. You be good boys, you stay in line, no trouble.” He smirked at Steve. “Maybe. Maybe I check up on one of you, later.”

The door was slammed and locked again, and Steve stared at the knob. He raised his head to look at the ceiling.

“I already looked,” Ross said. “No vents big enough for us to get out of. We ain’t risking anybody we don’t have to, so we’re staying put.”

“We don’t matter to them, Ross,” Jon said. “We’ve seen their faces. They’re not gonna just cause some riot here, then leave. They gotta tell us we’re getting’ out alive, in order to keep us calm enough to go onstage.”

“Can’t do this,” Steve said. “Somebody’s gotta realize something is wrong.”

“Lots of planning,” Ross said. “I dunno. They seem to have it sealed up pretty good.” Then he added, “It’ll be okay, Jay. I don’t know how, but we’ll get out.”

“Not everybody,” Jon said. “Got somebody dead already, just to make a point.”

They were silent for awhile, engrossed in their own morbid thoughts, waiting for something to happen. Hoping nothing did. Ross looked at his watch again and said, “We’re on in about 10 minutes.”

“So if they let us out – “ Steve began, then paused.

“Then maybe we’ll live,” Ross said. “Ain’t gonna kill us in front of 20,000 people.”

“Gonna kill somebody,” Jon said.

“That wasn’t what I was thinkin’,” Steve said. “They split us up so we wouldn’t rush them when they came to tell us to get onstage. If one of us made a run for it –“

“Then the band doesn’t go onstage, but one of us is also dead,” Ross said.

“I don’t think so,” Steve said.

“You don’t think,” Ross hissed. “Who, who the hell is gonna be dumb enough to try and divert these guys with a gun to their head?”

“Neal,” Steve said. “Me. I was on the track team in high school. I could make it out of here and get help.”

“Perry,” Ross said softly, “you’re a long way from high school. And you don’t know the layout of the building. If they don’t shoot you in the fucking back, they’ll trap you on one of the loading docks, or they’ll be shooting us while you’re fuckin’ around playing cowboy. They’ve been planning this, and they’re better at it than we are.”

“We’re just guys,” Jon said. “Nobody’s been in the military, nobody’s been in a fight since high school. I don’t know how the hell we’d hold these guys up from whatever they’re doing. But you’re at least right about lettin’ someone outside know there’s trouble.”

“They’ve got us for a reason,” Steve said, “or they would’ve just killed us in the first place. They need us. They’re not gonna kill us.”

Ross sighed and shook his head, sitting on an upturned trunk. Steve looked at Jon. Jon was trying not to look at him, but Steve knew he could count on him if he needed to. That was one thing about Jon, you could always count on him.

The door unlocked and slammed open, and a guy they hadn’t seen before gestured at them, toward the hallway with a gun. “C’mon,” he said. “Get out there and do your thing.”

* * *

Neal and Smitty had heard Steve scream, and had frozen there in the confines of the dressing room they'd been shoved into. They waited with held breath for shots to follow, for anything else telling them they were losing someone. Scuffling; muffled shouts, and then silence.

"Jesus," Neal whispered, trying the door again. It was slippery with sweat, his palms betraying the scope of his fear. At least they'd found the lights, at least there was that. He pressed his ear to the door, but there wasn't anything else to hear that told him anything.

"These ain't hollow," Smitty said. "We're not gettin' out of here right away."

"Man, nobody takes rock stars hostage," Neal said softly, coming away from the door. "Not right before a goddamn show. They woulda..."

"Snagged us separately, not altogether," Smitty finished. "Lots of good places, like the limo on the way over, rather than this."

They looked at each other grimly. "Wondering about the crew?" Smitty said.

"Was awfully quiet, comin' in," Neal said. "Dead?"

"All those folks? Nah, not without really getting heard from the outside," Smitty said, taking a 360 turn to fully look at the room. "People comin' in and out all the time, too. Gotta be sealed off, otherwise there'd have been cops outside when we got here. Someone would've - "

"Wait," Neal said suddenly. They listened again with held breath. Footsteps passed outside the door. One set was heavy and unwilling. Then silence again.

They waited more than a minute to hear anything else, and all that came was the sound of a hell of a lot of people murmuring, laughing, gathering. The gates were open and the crowd was rapidly assembling somewhere out there.

Neal checked his watch. Twenty minutes. Sooner or later, someone had to notice that they weren't coming on, that something was wrong.

The time crawled, and they spoke sparingly. There was no escape to plan, no point in kicking at the door or raising a fuss. There'd been guns pointed at them in the hallway, and it wasn't worth betting on whether they'd get used on them or not. They needed more info.

It came at ten minutes to 8, just before showtime. The doorknob rattled briefly before a man with faintly Asian features came in, shadowed by a larger Caucasian with red hair and a smirk. The latter had a gun trained loosely on them, and the former just eyed them for a moment.

Neither of the musicians said anything.

"Ready to go on?" the Asian said.

"Go on?" Neal said, unable to keep from sounding incredulous. "What the fuck are you guys pulling? We're supposed to go on like nothing's wrong. Bullshit."

The young man shrugged indifferently. "Then we will choose one of you at random and kill him. Your singer's already proved to be a serious pain in the ass, I think he'd be drawing the short straw, there. Unless of course that's one you wouldn't mind losing."

"You're not gonna off one of us with a crowd out there," Neal said. "C'mon."

Another shrug. "Willing to risk it? Fine. We'll still get what we came for, whether you cooperate or not. I'm simply offering you the chance to cooperate and have all of you get out alive. Yes or no."

Neal stared in amazement, glancing at Smitty. Smitty's face was closed but intense, almost frozen.

"Yes or no," the man said again.

"Don't want nobody killed," Neal said.

"That's not for you to decide," the man said. "We'll come get you in ten minutes, and you'll go onstage and do what you normally do, and ignore us. If you attempt to alert anyone, in any form, the random rule applies. You won't know which of you will go first. Believe me, the chaos would help us immensely. So do yourselves a favor and go along."

Without waiting for anything else, the two men turned and walked out, shutting the door firmly behind. Both Neal and Smitty knew the bigger guy was probably still out there, waiting for one of them to try and get out.

"At least we know everybody's still alive," Smitty said finally. "Or he wouldn't've been talking about choosing one of us."

"Or bitching about Perry," Neal said. "Shit. I can't figure out what they want."

"Something that makes a mess," Smitty said. "Something that needs lots of cover to get away with, maybe."

Ten minutes became an interminable amount of time for once, and when the door opened again as promised, they were ushered out into the corridor without a repeat of the earlier warning. It didn't need repeating.

They were hustled down the dimly lit corridor, below and behind the stage, and met the other three coming the other way.

There was relief at seeing each other intact, but they said nothing. There were just nervous glances and a silent agreement to keep an eye out for each other, to survive. At least that.

The house lights went down and the crowd roared. So part of the crew was around, at least. There had to be at least a skeleton crew around for lights and sound, if there was going to be a show at all. They were gestured up the stairs to the stage, guns shown prominently and without discretion. Steve stood his ground for just a moment, staring them down, and Ross spun him around and shoved him up the stairs.

They took their places, and the screaming increased as their shadows became apparent onstage. They launched straight into the previous night's setlist, beginning with 'Anyway You Want It'.

Neal purposely looked close at the crowd, eyes darting around for anything significant. The only thing that finally became clear was the security at the foot of the stage. Two faces were familiar.

Jesus, Neal thought. They replaced all the security guys. He glanced at Ross and saw that the bassist had seen the same thing. They really were surrounded.

Three songs in, nothing had happened, and they were all so high strung by then that even Smitty wanted to scream. Steve and Neal were trying to keep track of how many guys there were at the foot of the stage, did they disappear and reappear, anything that might tip them off. There was nothing. Steve noticed that the blond wasn't down there, so that left at least him behind the stage. Waiting.

Steve decided he was done waiting.

They launched into 'Wheel In The Sky,' and Steve waited until Neal's solo at the end.

Jon saw the set of Steve's posture, saw and heard the microphone land on the Whale. He met Steve's eyes and mouthed no, knowing it was too late for anything he said to make a difference. He would risk everything, risk them all, and there was no way of stopping him.

Steve was running up the side of the stage, ending up on the riser behind Smitty's drumset, like he was supposed to.

Then he leapt off the back, into the dark, and vaulted away beneath the stage.

They others went on playing, by rote more than anything else. Neal launched into an extended solo and wondered how far he could draw it out before it became obvious the singer had bailed. The badasses had to have seen Steve go. There was no way they'd all taken their eyes away long enough. There had to be at least one behind Smitty who'd seen him go, and they'd never hear the gunshot over the monitors.

Goddamn you Perry, Neal thought. If you live, if any of us live, I'll kill you myself.

* * *

Steve ran like absolute hell, not once looking back, passing Smitty's drum tech and vaulting off the rest of the stage setup. It was darker back there after the glare of the stage lights, but he didn't wait or slow down to let his eyes adjust. This was all or nothing. There was a stretch of corridor in front of him, brightly lit, and he sprinted down it, shoes squeaking faintly on the concrete. He had a choice between right or left at the end of it, and he chose right without wondering why or caring. Sooner or later there was a way out of there, front, back or side didn't matter. He'd go into the goddamn road if he had to, stop cars, shout until someone heard and believed him.

There were tennishoes on the concrete behind him, making no attempt at stealth. Gaining on him.

Ross's words echoed back to him. Long way from high school.

Maybe. But not in bad shape, and no one was going to catch him after the night he'd had.

"Perry!" a voice shouted. The blond guy, the one obviously assigned to watch him. Doing his job.

Steve obviously didn't stop. A shot whanged off the wall near his head a moment later, the sound deafening in the elongated confines of the corridor, plaster spraying on him from the narrow miss. He ducked instinctively, dodging to the right, realizing things had gone to hell if the guy was taking open shots at him now.

An emergency exit lay at the end of the corridor he'd chosen, and he dove for it, slamming hard against the release bar. Locked.

Frantic, he tried the other door, and nearly fell onto the pavement outside when it opened fast. There was no one in the alley outside, and he skidded on the wet pavement until he got his traction back. He ran blindly, hoping it was toward a road or strip mall, hoping for lights and people before he was shot down from behind. The alley was at an incline, and he ran up as fast as he could, air already burning in his lungs. The sudden cold air didn't help.

The top of the incline opened out on a wide lot, scattered randomly with cars. No people. Booths and stalls closed up for the night, widely spaced rides, twin sculptures of curved metal rising skyscraper-high. A sign telling anyone with time to read that parking was one way, the Fun Forest another, and the mall yet somewhere else. A half-moon misted with high clouds shed a bit of light on him, too much, making him easy to see.

He tore across the open space, praying as he did so, hearing the guy hit the door behind him. He headed for the rides, ducking and weaving under and around their various appendages, rounding a set of booths. The roof of the mall loomed in front of him, a dark mass of building with windows lit up in welcome. No shots behind him now, and he couldn't hear any steps but his own over his desperate gasping. Despite the lack of air, he started screaming the minute he hit the mall doors.

He'd wanted attention, and he got it; the few late shoppers that were still around startled out of his way. He wanted cops, security, the National Guard, he didn't care what. There was a Hallmark near what looked like a food court, and he picked up one of the white metal chairs and hurled it toward the plate glass. It hit dead center, smashing the window and causing a couple of people to scream and run for the doors. It had closed for the night, and the alarm system went off at impact, which was what he'd been hoping for.

"Fire!" he screamed. "Fire!"

He pulled the nearest fire alarm, wondering if he was dooming the band, wondering if things would get sorted out in time to save them, himself, the crowd, the remainder of the crew -

Another fire alarm. The place was shrieking with alarms by then. One unarmed mall security guard had begun to give chase, shouting at him, and Steve slowed to talk to him, grateful –

Steve took off again, feeling sweat pour off him. He'd have to lose him in the mall, maybe dodge into one of the stores that was still open and dial 911. He had to tell someone what was going on before it was too late.

* * *

They had gone on playing like nothing was happening, finishing the song out. Jon began an extended opening to 'Who's Crying Now', eliciting hysteria, and wondered how long he could drag it out before they had to just stop and admit Steve wasn't going to reappear. Neal stayed close to the piano, Ross between him and the drumset. They had to come up with something.

Jon had just about reached the end of what he could reasonably do when all hell broke loose.

There was a pause, in the music, in the crowd, a gathering of tension as if they could all sense the moment in some subliminal way. Then one of the false event staff at the foot of the stage reached behind himself and came up with a gun, opening fire on the crowd.

Panic was immediate, both onstage and off. Jon ducked instinctively, his head lowering beneath the edge of the Whale. Neal and Ross had backed behind the Whale in an instant, feedback shrieking from the monitors when their signals clashed.

The people in the crowd who weren't diving for the floor were shoving for the exits, and the combination created a trampling hazard. Whoever was at the lights either panicked or had a gun to his head, and cut them all.

The blackness added to the panic, and also let the gunman at the foot of the stage dive beneath and around it to vanish into the dark confusion.

* * *

Steve lost the security guard easily, hating it, dodging under an escalator and plastering himself against the far side of it, trying to catch his breath in its shadow. Then he took off again, past a few other stores, wanting to go a little further before he dove into one of them and made a stand. He wanted a few minutes before the angered gunman caught up. He ran to a fork and chose to head left…

But this time, he came up against a barrier he couldn't resolve: a roll gate, sealing off a section of the mall for the night.

He paused, sobbing for breath, then started to turn back the other way.

A smiling face met him, a smile that didn't reach cold blue eyes. No one else was anywhere near, no open stores nearby.

Steve slid sideways, back the way he came, trying to get around. A gun came from beneath the man's jacket, though, held halfway out into Steve's view. "Nice try," he said. "I told you to keep quiet. You're too late to do anything."

Steve kept moving, a bit at a time, keeping his gaze on the gun. But he wasn't prepared when the barrel flicked toward him and fired. He felt a slap in his left leg, mid-thigh. At first there was nothing but numbness and the shock of it; the muscles of his thigh felt stunned, asleep. He shouted involuntarily, stumbling back, trying to keep his balance. There was warmth that poured over his knee and down to his shoe, a white tennisshoe that rapidly turned red in a sudden flood. The first pain arrived over the shock, an amazing ache that grew in size and proportion by the moment.

Disbelief kept him on his feet a moment longer. It didn't end like this, it couldn't; he was supposed to make it, raise the alarm, uncover the bastards who had tried to take over. He slid to the floor, onto his right side, trying to protect his leg. He was bleeding badly, badly enough that he realized it would kill him if he just lay there. The tiles were cold against his hands, gritty with accumulated dust and foot traffic. He couldn't get enough air. And the gunman was advancing on him, not caring that the shot had let security get a bead on him.

He leaned over Steve, still smiling, and slid another round into the chamber.

* * *

A mess.

None of it was anything but a mess. It didn't take long for people to get hurt, or for the majority of the crowd to spill out into Seattle Center and the surrounding streets. Some ran and kept on running, some stood by the streets in hysteria, some hung around waiting for the police.

The police didn't take long to arrive, in force and with medical help. By then the band had dared to get offstage, since yelling for everyone to stay calm obviously hadn't helped. All injuries but one were the result of the panic. People had shoved and trampled one another trying to escape the shooting, never realizing it was intended for only one person. It didn't matter. But aside from bruises, turned ankles and an occasional concussion, nothing was serious. It was the first thing that had gone right all night.

Amongst the scattered, fallen chairs, there were two bloody figures, lives bled away on the coated cement. It took the EMT's precious minutes to get through the throng, with police sealing the building off. The surrounding streets were being closed off, dropping a net that wouldn't catch anything. Those who had been unsuccessful in escaping into the streets had made a loose circle around the figures, some crying, some trying to help. Some trying to tell their story to the police.

The band stood backstage in a close group, watching everything with hyperawareness. The members of the crew that hadn't remained shut away were joining them in a steady stream. Chris Tervit and Kevin came running back a moment later, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw them.

"Where'd you get stuck?" Neal said.

"They kept me in one of the storage areas, with most of the rest of the crew, until they needed me to run sound," Kevin said. "I see four out of five. Where the fuck is Perry?"

"He went for help," Jon said.

Kevin looked at him blankly. Chris said, "You're kidding."

"No," Neal said. "He took off, and he must've made it out."

"There were a bunch of them behind the stage, Neal," Kevin said. "Who's bright idea was that?"

Shrugs, all around. Jon was thinking maybe someone should check the equipment and dressing rooms, for one more corpse. "If they'd caught him, they would've closed him up back there somewhere."

Ross shook his head. "Gun ain't gonna stop that crazy sonofabitch."

"Those folks are dead, aren't they," Jon said, jerking his head in the general direction of the stage. "That's what this was all for."

Kevin nodded. "Nobody knows who they are, yet. That's assigned seating, out there, so someone knew where they'd be sitting, maybe. That's all I can think of. Somebody knew enough to do what they did, tonight, with no one to stop them."

"If they shot him, we couldn't hear it," Jon said. "Wouldn't the cops have found him by now, if they had?"

Chris and Kevin shrugged. Pat Morrow came up then and said, "Where's Perry?"

Neal sighed.

They waited a long fifteen minutes for the first cop to approach them in the general noise and fear. The backstage area had grown closer every moment, and Neal had at one point threatened to walk off and look for Perry himself. The others followed suit, and by the time Herbie got back there to talk him down, Neal was at the door and ready to get into it with Chris, Kevin and Pat.

At sight and sound of the cop introducing himself, everyone fell quiet.

"Apparently your singer made it to the mall and went on a spree," the cop said.

"Jesus," Ross said. "Now I gotta apologize to him."

"Went running through there screaming there was a fire," the cop said. "Eyewitnesses – the cleaning crew, a few store employees - say he took a chair out of the food court and put it through the window of the Hallmark, setting the alarm off. Good thing, too. Pulled the fire alarms as he went, for good measure. Got three calls into 911 saying there was a mentally disturbed vandal in the mall."

"Not far wrong," Neal muttered. "Where is he? You guys lock him up?"

The cop eyed him for a moment, checking all their faces in an instant, gauging them. It wasn't long enough for anyone but a small group of frightened, streetsmart musicians to notice.

"God," Jon said. "Oh God."

"I'm sorry," the cop said. "I figured someone else had already – "

"Is he dead?" Ross said. The question stilled everything else, hushed the world, took an age to answer.

"Don't know," the cop said. "I apologize. Look – "

"Just tell us what happened," Neal said. "Just get to there."

Clearing his throat, the cop said, "Sketchy after that. He came up against one of the roll gates that sections off the mall after hours. The folks who were left in here heard shots. That's all I got that's fact. I just got here, they sent me over."

"I gotta see," Jon said.

"Mr. Cain, I – "

Jon took off running before anything else could be said. There were shouts behind him, and it occurred to him that if there'd been that much hell earlier that he shouldn't be running like a maniac. But it didn't matter. He heard Neal behind him, yelling for him to wait, and the crackle of police radio. Anybody up ahead would at least know not to shoot him, hopefully. There were cops up ahead, just at the outer door, and Neal heard the cop behind them tell them over the radio to let Jon go.

The keyboardist tore through the parking lot, out across the expanse to the mall. The doors were propped open but unguarded, and he slowed when he realized there was glass everywhere. Store windows blown out, like the cop had said. Trying to catch his breath, Jon slowed to a walk and looked around a little closer, trying to figure out where everyone was. He heard voices ahead, at the top of a wheelchair slope, at the head of a curve. Another cul-de-sac, another spoke in the mall's wheel.

When he took the corner, there was a small group of cops, and hands rested on guns momentarily, then relaxed. He barely noticed as he took the curve. One or two hands tried halfheartedly to stop him, warning him to keep back. He paused at the human boundary the cops made, looking between them at the roll gate that blocked off a section of mall.

The tiles at its base glistened. Blood. A lot of it.

"Oh no," he whispered, unable to get anything out but that. One of the cops was saying something to him, but he didn't register it, didn't understand much even when Neal grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him away with a curse. A string of them.

"Somebody just tell us if he's dead," Neal said, out of breath. "Just that, at least, so we can get on with stuff."

"Sorry," one of the taller cops said. "Nobody said, I guess. Guy's over at Swedish Medical, gunshot wound to the thigh. Nicked the artery, so it wasn't exactly the best place to get shot, for once. He should be fine, though."

An explosion of breath left Jon's lungs, and his legs went rubbery. Neal kept a grip on him, dragging him further backwards. "Thanks," he said. It was all he could say.

* * *

All hospitals were the same in the respect that you could feel two things when you first walked in. No matter how carefully decorated in muted, warm colors the waiting areas were, no matter how soothing the piped in Muzak, there was always pain and desperation. It was unavoidable. Hope was probably in there, too, but it was almost always outweighed.

They chose one corner to inhabit, grateful that it was a slow night. No one was sharing the general waiting area with them except two sleepy thirty-somethings and a large aquarium. Steve was in surgery, and that was all anybody knew. Kevin had been in and out, keeping track of everyone in person and by phone, trying to stave off press.

"Next three shows are cancelled," he said, when he'd returned for the third time.

"So fuckin' what?" Jon snapped.

"Hey, cowboy," Ross said, "just an info update, since there's so much else to talk about."

Jon looked at Kevin for a long moment, feeling too dumb to say anything.

"Apology accepted," Kevin said, going back to the latest issue of People. "Gonna have to decide how many more we cancel."

Neal stepped back in and said, "It's already on the news. At least we know who they were, now."

"Who?" Smitty said.

When Neal didn't say anything for a moment, they all stared at him. Neal was frowning. "Can't figure out why it took so many guys to do it, why they had to jack us all for it. The whole building. I mean, that left it way open for someone to get loose, you know? Like Perry did. And not botherin' to hide their faces, and overdoin' stuff to make sure it got done. Like a big production."

"Neal," Ross said.

"And not killin' Perry even though they had him dead to rights," Neal said. "Even after all that shit with the one guy goin' on about what a pain in the ass Steve was. Him bein' famous wouldn't save him, shit, the folks in the crowd were pretty famous, I guess."

"Neal," Kevin said, "how about telling us who."

"Some DA's daughter and her bodyguard," Neal said. "She was 17. She had other folks with her, but they weren't aimin' at them, I guess. Everybody else is okay. News is saying the DA's been trying to put certain folks away lately and it's probably a hit."

"All that, all that mess, for revenge," Jon said. "All they had to do was buy tickets and get away after the panic started."

"Not if they wanted a serious imprint to be made," Smitty said. "Most of it was for show. You know, 'look how serious we are'."

"If they'd started out in the crowd, lots of folks would have run once the shooting started, but some folks might have thought those assholes were shooting at the stage," Kevin said. "You guys got some nuts following you around. Some fans would've have jumped 'em."

"I ain't telling Perry," Neal said. "I ain't even in the room, actually, when that's going on."

"Shit, I didn't want you telling me," Ross said. "All that, for some poor high school girl who had nothing to do with anything."

"Why kill anybody on the crew?" Jon said. "That wasn't part of the show. What'd they do, to get shot?"

There was silence for a long moment. Neal slouched all the way into the room and sat in the chair next to where Jon was standing.

"I guess more than what Perry did to get shot," Neal said. "And he did a lot."

"Offing a rock star woulda been too much, maybe," Kevin said. "Maybe they didn't get paid enough for that kind of exposure."

"Would have made a much bigger impact on everything, but taken away from the real focus," Smitty said.

"You really think the guy who chased and shot Steve was thinkin' carefully about all that?" Jon said, sitting down next to Neal. "If it was the one guy who kept coming in to fuck around with us, the one Steve pissed off, I don't think so."

"Gonna have to ask him, when he wakes up," Ross said.

It fell silent again for awhile, until more cops came in to ask questions. Once that was done, it was after midnight and there was little more to do than wander down to get coffee or sit and stare at the walls. Reality was sinking in.

Jon never remembered closing his eyes, only that the scenery changed suddenly and he was standing by a road.

"Gotta tell him," Neal was saying, but Jon wasn't sure what he was talking about. Something about going. Time to go.

The sun was too bright for him to see more than a dusty gravel road, a fence, the vague outlines of trees by the roadside. They were walking along it, the gravel crunching beneath their feet, seeing other houses and watching for the right one. They turned into a driveway hidden in the trees, a place Jon didn't recognize. Steve didn't live there, no one did.

Then they were inside, and Jon didn't remember any doors. They were standing by a desk in front of an open window on the second floor. It was dark outside despite the fact that they'd just come in from the sun. The only light was a small desk lamp. Steve was writing something by hand on unlined paper with his left hand. The wrong hand. No one spoke, but Jon remembered that they'd told him it was time to go. There was no response; the singer had never noticed they were there, couldn't hear them anymore. He just went on writing.

There was a dark field visible from the window, dark shapes of trees in the starlight.

They left the darkness, walking back out of the house into the sunshine again, squinting at how bright it was. There was a man on the gravel road, his features indistinct in the brightness. Light colored hair.

The man was staring at them, the same smirk in place that Jon had seen somewhere else, squinting into the sun toward the house. Toward the second floor. "Got no worries about him, now," he said.

Jon turned and ran for the house, distantly hearing Neal's voice shouting for him to stop. But it was faint, hollow. No words. The house was different when he ran inside, the hallways longer and leading only to each other. There were no stairs; and it was darker than before.

"Stephen!" he shouted, running. "Stephen!"

His voice echoed unheard. He went on running. Running. Screaming.

* * *

"Jonathan. Hey, Jay, come on."

Jon surfaced, jerking awake, uncertain of where he was. Neal had a hand on his shoulder. He was cramped, stiff, like he'd fallen asleep in an uncomfortable position. "Okay," he said automatically.

"You okay?"

No. "Yeah. Um…what time is it?"

"After two," Neal said. "He's out, they didn't have to dig far for anything. Doc came out to say he's gonna live and all that."

Jon sat up the rest of the way, a little more alert. "Holy shit. You let me sleep."

"Somebody had to," Neal said. "No sense keepin' you all jacked up."

"He's gonna live," Jon said.

"He's fine," Neal said. "Be back to the same old asshole in a few days, probably. Probably make a big deal out of all this for like the next five or six years."

Jon glanced at him for a moment, finding that the flippant tone had overbright eyes to go with it.

"Yeah," Jon said. "Okay."

* * *

When Steve came out of recovery, it took him another couple of hours to come completely around. Jon, Ross and Kevin got in for a few minutes to talk to him. He was propped up, looking groggy and as if he was afraid to move.

"Gonna live?" Ross said.

"Not once the mall's insurance company gets to me," Steve said. "Everybody okay?"

"Yeah," Kevin said. "Nobody else on the crew or in the band that got hurt."

"Did we do it?" Steve said. "Did we find out what they were doing, did we get 'em?"

Ross opened his mouth and shut it again, clearing his throat and rubbing at his face. No one was looking Steve in the eyes, suddenly, and the singer sat up a little straighter.

"We didn't," Ross said.

"They got away," Steve said in flat disbelief.

"Yeah," Jon said. "But they did what they came to do first. You were right, about why they were there. There was a girl –"

"No," Steve said, cutting him off, adding a slash of one hand. "No. Just…fuckin' no."

Jon took a breath, waiting for Steve to pause. "DA's kid. It was an execution."

Steve looked at the ceiling, and for a moment Kevin and Ross were positive he was going to pitch one of his famous fits, one of his all-out, hellfire and brimstone, diva productions. But he kept quiet and still. And that was worse.

"All for nothing," he said softly, finally. "Didn't save anybody."

There'd been a gun pointed at his face that night for the first time in his life, and he'd wanted to look away, focus on some object, knowing it would be the last thing he saw. But all he could do was stare into the blackness of the barrel.

You're still not gonna beg, are you, the voice had said.

No. He'd barely been able to hear his own voice.

When you're not looking, when I've got time, we'll see.

And the bastard had walked away, tucking the gun away, careful not to run and draw any more attention to himself. He took the curve and walked into the further part of the mall, and encountered no one to stop him.

There was more to this.

"All for nothing," Steve said again.

* * *

6 months later

With two more weeks until they were due back in the studio, everyone scattered.

Family time, a vacation, maybe just jamming with old friends. Catching up on life. Steve Perry spent it wandering around the area he grew up in, spending a lot of time alone. He liked being alone a lot more than he used to, and he was never in any mood to try and explain. So long as the rest of the world went on as usual, he didn't give a shit who liked it.

Despite the fact that he'd been at a high level of awareness for months, it took him too long to realize that the door was already unlocked when he got home from running errands, that things had been moved, that an open beer sat on an end table. By the time things began to click, he was already well in the house and it was too late to make a break for it.

He froze, then moved for the nearest wall, thinking that would be at least one side he didn't have to worry about. Heart pounding, Steve waited. This wasn't like the games he'd played as a kid, hiding around corners, searching each other out. Playing spy.

He thought he saw movement from the kitchen and paused. Had he heard something? From which direction? He should leave the house and go get help...

And be labeled paranoid, still stressed out after the incident in Seattle. After trying so hard to avoid being caught every time he looked over his shoulder, he wasn't willing to risk that. He pressed himself to the wall, trying to decide how far to poke his head out to check the room.

He heard the click, felt the air move, and that fast there was the cold metal of a gun under his chin, followed by a blond head coming around the corner. Cold blue eyes smirked at him as the pressure of the gun increased against the side of his throat. He recognized the face instantly, and it was almost a relief. Finally, no more waiting. No more scanning the crowds at shows, no more staying alert, no more wondering how long it would be before a phantom became real again.

When you're not looking, when I've got time, we'll see.

The relief must have shown in his face, because the pressure lessened a fraction and the smirk vanished. The man came into full view, sliding around the corner to look close in his face. "You're some kind of nutcase," he said. "I knew it, the minute I laid eyes on you. You're fuckin' nuts."

Steve didn't speak, couldn't. He waited to see what would happen next with the detachment that shock brings, the sense of disconnection. Whatever happened, happened, and there wasn't much he could do about it, so he waited with an eerie calm, never realizing it was saving his life. The gun dropped away, replaced with a hand at his throat that pulled him away from the wall and shoved him into the middle of the room.

"Go on," the gunman said. "Make some smart ass remark, show me how tough you are again. No one's gonna hear me blow your kneecaps out, or hear you scream about it for awhile after. Where do you want the last one, head or heart?"

"I never did want an open casket," Steve said through numb lips.

The guy laughed, then backed over to the couch and sat down, tucking the gun away in his jacket. "Okay," he said. "It's more fun this way, huh? With you alive." He gestured for Steve to sit down on the floor. "Go on, have a seat. You're not gonna run anywhere. You been thinking about me, and the last time we talked?"

Steve nodded, unable to do a hell of a lot more. He lowered himself to the floor without looking too shaky, and he marveled to himself that he still thought that was important. He kept his eyes on the guys' knees, having no idea where else was safe to look.

"You guys killed that girl for no fucking reason," he said.

The guy shrugged. "Money's a good reason," he said. "I don't need shit from you about it. You gonna choose now to get all righteous on me? Right."

Steve kept his eyes down, waiting. "You also threatened to knock us off if we didn't do what you wanted, and you fuckin' shot me. I'm kind of getting the idea that this won't end well, aren't you?"

"That's up to you, little man," the guy said.

"You got a name?" Steve said.

"Okay," the guy said, shifting to balance an ankle on the opposite knee. "Fine. Gary."

"Gary," Steve said, "you're a dumb prick, and a killer of little girls, and I'll bet the gun is as brave as you get." He raised his eyes to Gary's, doing everything he could to keep himself from blinking.

"You really are a piece of work," Gary said. "You wanna be shot again, that's fine, because that's where you're steering me." When Steve didn't reply or do more than keep staring at him, he said, "Okay, since you brought it up. You wanna know what else was going on? In all that confusion, in all that mess, someone upped the price to kill two birds with one stone. The fat guy, your manager."

"Herbie," Steve said automatically, although he didn't want to confirm anything the guy said.

"Sure," Gary said, drawling the word out. "Guess what? You must have pissed him off pretty good, because he slipped us a bonus to accidentally clip you on the way out. But you took off."

Steve stared at him, forgetting about the gun for a moment, whether he could see it or not.

"And that was no problem. You think we cared about some singer? And you, smartin' off every chance you got. I had no problem doing it, none at all. You're a dumb sonofabitch, pullin' my chain when I got a piece in your face."

Steve swallowed hard, his head still ringing. Herbie. Herbie had set them up.

"Not much of a reach to guess what you did to get someone that pissed off," Gary said. "I'd have done it for free."

"You're lying," Steve said.

"About the hit, or about doing it for free?" Gary said, then laughed. "It doesn't matter what you believe, asshole. I got no reason to lie about it."

Steve stared at him a moment longer, waiting for more, getting a smirk. "So why didn't you do it?" he said finally.

The guy shrugged. "Kind of more amusing to leave you alive, huh?" he said. "Fat guy all pissed off but unable to say anything without incriminating himself, you lookin' over your shoulder worrying about us coming back, all of you doing the big dramatic thing because one of your fans got clipped. I haven't had this much fun in years. Did you wonder, every night you've been on stage since? Did you wait for one between the eyes?"

When Steve just stared, he laughed again. "No big talk now, huh?"

"Then what are you doing here now?" Steve said.

"Jesus, you are dense," the guy said. "It wasn't so much brave as dumb that night, I guess."

Steve relaxed a little, just enough to make it look like he was off his guard.

"Not likely to do more running, are you," Gary said. He had moved his hand back to the gun.

Steve shrugged.

"Now you're a would be hero who got 15 seconds of martyrdom, and nowhere to go with it. Sooner or later the fat guy's gonna take another crack at removing you, dead or alive, and it'll be fun to watch. Now that you know a few things, maybe you can make a preemptive strike."

"I don't think so," Steve said.

"No one's going to believe you," the guy said. "Try. Try and bring it anywhere, and see what happens to you."

"And if I don't play along, you don't have much to watch," Steve said. "I could just leave the band."

"Maybe your martyrdom gets a little more severe after that," the guy said. "But I doubt you'd give anything up just to save your life. You're more of the tooth and nail type, I think. Gonna fight rather than be smart."

Caught between rage and fear, Steve went back to just staring. He couldn't imagine how to react, much less what he was going to do. "So, you gonna sit there all day?" he said. It didn't come out the way he'd meant it to, a stab at casual annoyance. The tone would have been better suited for don't hurt me.

Gary stood, more to stare down on him than anything else. "You're worth more dead, now," he said. "To me, to the fat guy, to the band. Sales would skyrocket, with you guys at the top of your game and you tragically murdered. I get paid off, the other guys get rich quick, and no one has to listen to your bullshit anymore. What are you gonna do about it?"

"Sooner or later someone would figure it out," Steve said, knowing it sounded childish even as he said it. "Herbie would - "

"Long since have gotten everything he wanted, and probably be gone," Gary said. "You dumb shit, get it together."

Steve's thoughts raced, and he focused on the pattern of the carpet. What the hell was he supposed to do?

"What would the fat guy do if I pointed a gun in his face?" Gary said. "Flip me shit? Make himself a target to save the rest of the band? I don't think so, do you?"

Steve raised his eyes again, realizing what kind of rock was descending on the hard place he sat on. "Fuck no," he said. "I'm not gonna agree to the whole turnabout-as-fair play thing. I'm not gonna deal with a baby killer. I don't care what Herbie's up to, it's not worth -"

"Liar," Gary said.

"You don't - "

"Fucking liar," Gary said. "Let's try this: how about if I plug you now, then go get him anyway? Where did you get the idea I'd need advice or permission or approval from you, asshole?"

"Less fun that way," Steve said softly.

"Band'll still make a lot of money no matter which one of you go," Gary said. "How about the shithead on keys? How about the guitar? Nah, too easy to replace. Still, I could just tell the fat guy I missed, or mistook one of you idiots for the other. Keeps you alive, and I'm already paid. What's it worth to you, to do someone else and leave you alone?"

Steve stared.

"What can you give me that fat boy can't?" Gary said.

Afraid to make a motion of any kind that could be misconstrued, Steve held very still, his gaze to the left of the guy's head. He heard him laugh, watched him rise in his peripheral vision. Then the guy walked away, out the door, gone.

After a minute or so, when he was sure the guy was really gone, Steve got to his feet. The emptiness of the house was huge, and he closed and locked the open door.

To the empty house, he said, "What the hell am I gonna do?"

* * *

Nothing happened in a week, a month, or during their time in the studio for Frontiers. Steve wasn't naive enough to try and forget anything that had been said that afternoon, and the watching had begun to wear on him to the point where the rest of the band was noticing.

Good for them. It would have helped much more if they'd noticed what a fucking disaster had been unfolding for a goddamn year. Yeah, he could have told everyone, starting with the police, what had really happened. Maybe things would have been different. But he doubted it.

Still, he waited for one between the eyes.

When it happened to someone else, it was no relief.

Herbie didn't show for the final studio date, or for the wrap party, or for the meeting with studio execs about the release date the next afternoon. He didn't answer his phone or his door, and the place was empty when the landlady finally opened it for the cops. No sign of a hasty retreat out of town. Just missing, that's all.

So here it came, the questions about what had happened to them in Seattle. Was there anything esle they could remember, had Herbie been acting oddly, was there anything else they wanted to add. Had they seen anything. And Steve lied through it all, because one word now would make him an accessory. Silence as incrimination. Damned if he did, and damned if he didn't.

For days, there was nothing, and then a hiker found him in the foothills of the Rockies, 170 miles from his house. One shot to the back of the head, execution style. No evidence near the drop site no idea where he'd really been killed. No suspects, no witnesses coming forward, no leads. A grim funeral a week later after autopsy, with Neal giving the eulogy. It was a big deal in the press and the musical community for about six weeks, and then it tapered off for everyone but Journey. The tour was pushed back a couple of months while an investigation went on, and nothing turned up. New management was discussed.

I didn't do this. Steve found himself thinking it more times a day than he cared to admit while he waited for the other shoe to drop, never realizing it would come in the form of a postcard the day after the last news story had run in the local papers. The return address was in Hawaii, at the same hotel Steve stayed in the last tie he was there. That was deliberate, he knew. The only other writing on it was a single line in a slanted block lettering. Simple and to the point.

You owe me.

Steve stood by the road near the mailbox, staring at the item in his trembling hands. I didn't do this. And he knew he hadn't.

But he also knew that eventually, payment would come due. And he hoped he'd be able to deal with it.

The End

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