There were ravens at the funeral. It wouldn’t have been out of place if The King in Vermillion had been fronting a goth act. Alas, he had been the King in Vermillion, not the King in Black and his music was about love, not gloom. Well, the act of love, if perhaps not always the emotion. Nonetheless, ravens were making an uninvited appearance.
“You won’t have heard about all the deaths,” Morty Smalls hissed. “The media only gets wound up about the pop stars. Blues artists, jazz, classical – they don’t care, but they’re dying off too.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” added Chris Parker. “They’re dying too close together and then all the crows at the funerals. Always with the fucking crows.”
“Ravens, not crows,” said their companion in the black suit and sunglasses. “There’s a significance to ravens if what you suspect is true.”
Smalls and Parker were recording executives and usually at each other’s throats. Owning rival agencies will do that in many lines of work, but a bit more venom came with the territory for the music industry. As unnatural as their cooperating was, it seemed more real than the deaths plaguing them. Since the ball dropped at Times Square, at least two or three musicians of some renown in their format had dropped dead each week. The number was probably higher, but as Parker said, the smaller players don’t always make the obituary section. Still, clients were dying and while the death of larger clients did mean a burst in sales and the royalties that followed, replacing acts as quickly as they were dying off was a problem and nothing about this apparent culling seemed natural. When Smalls and Parker finally compared notes and realized the birds weren’t the other executive trying a publicity stunt, they decided to do the corporate thing and hire a consultant who specialized in these matters.
Musicians had run-ins with otherworldly problems all the time. Metal bands experimenting with rituals for their stage shows and summoning up new friends. The Blues turning out to be more literal than expected in matters of crossroads and curses. Authenticity causes problems for amateurs. And sex magic. What was it with drummers and sex magic?
Mister Lewis was someone who consulted on such matters. That probably wasn’t his real name. Officially he called himself a “physics consultant,” probably as a joke, but his profession didn’t really fit with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. His payments went to a bank in Panama and nobody knew very much about him, save that he could fix “physics” problems more often than not and clean up after himself. Which was why Smalls and Parker had engaged him to attend the funeral and look into the surge in memorial specials.
“Yes, definitely ravens.” Mister Lewis gestured towards a tree branch where a tightly packed row of ravens perched and seemed to stare at a particularly weathered 70-something man in a leather trench coat who wobbled a bit as he puffed on his cigarette. “Is that who I think it is?”
“Yeah, that’s Ken Michaels,” replied Parker. “Don’t ask me what’s in that cigarette, though. Hard to tell with him.”
“Birds are staring at him like he’s food,” chuckled Smalls. “He’s the only one I’m not worried about dying. If fifty years touring with Gathers No Moss haven’t killed him, nothing will. He’s chemically preserved.”
As Smalls continued to snicker, a raven took flight, circled once and landed on Michaels’ finger like it was in a Disney cartoon. In a Disney cartoon, the bird chirps sweetly and lovingly. This wasn’t a Disney cartoon. The raven screeched as though in pain and immediately flew away in straight line. Its friends on the branch stayed there, still seeming to stare.
“No, definitely not the carrion they’re looking for,” said Mister Lewis. “You have good reason to be suspicious. None of this smells right... and ravens do smell where their food is.”
Some wakes are quiet. Some wakes go out of control. The King in Vermillion’s wake was never supposed to be under control in the first place since the King took the old adage of “love thy neighbor” to heart in a literal way.
Bawdy was expected, but Jerry Bubbles, a teen idol from Canada who’d had neither the courtesy to disappear after puberty nor the lack of alibis to get deported, had a habit of getting bawdy with other people’s dates and two fights had already started.
“Any way you can exorcise that douche back to Toronto?” growled Parker as she tried to wipe a green drink of indeterminable mixers off her suit where it splashed as it flew off an overturned table.
“He hasn’t been in possession of his soul for a long time,” Mister Lewis apologized. “You know there’s very little to be done about the soulless ones until they’ve run their course. Keep anyone you care for out of their wake and hope they were poor negotiators for their contract.”
Parker, Smalls and Mister Lewis picked their way through the crowd and flying glasses to the VIP section of the rented out club. Even at a VIP wake, Ken Michaels rated the formal VIP room. It was just as well since it meant not having to duck any more projectiles and the privacy of a booth was helpful for what was usually a delicate topic.
Michaels sat in a corner booth in the back of the room, velvet drapes three quarters shut, leaving him in deep shadows. Strangely, he was alone, save for a bottle and three lines of cocaine on the table.
“Hey, Ken,” Smalls stuck his head between the curtains. “You don’t mind if we join you? Misery and company and all?”
Michaels gestured towards the opposite side of the booth. “Just having some bourbon and blow. Seems like a good time for it. I didn’t bring enough to share, though.”
“That’s OK,” Smalls slid into the booth. “I know where to find my own. I think you know Chris Parker already and this is Mister Lewis. You hear about Otis Winslow’s trip to the crossroads? Mister Lewis is the one who, um, navigated him back.”
“Never really believed that happened,” Michaels said as he pulled a silver cocktail straw out of his coat and inhaled the first line. “People see a lot of strange things when they’re fucked up.”
“It’s a strange world,” Mister Lewis said, as he looked quizzically at the straw.
“It’s an awful world,” Michaels sucked up the second line and sank deeper into the shadows. “Too many people dying and too many of them I know.”
Michaels paused and leaned over the third line. Instead of coming out of deep shadow, the deep shadow leaned forward with him. He snorted. His eyes rolled back and Michaels convulsed once. As the convulsion ended, the deep shadows around him flickered and then seemed to flee the booth.
“I just don’t feel this stuff like I used to,” Michaels sighed as he blinked.
“Is it cold in here all of a sudden?” Smalls was sweating despite his complaint.
Any answers were cut off by screaming in the main room.
The VIP room cleared out quickly, as happens when the noise of a brawl ends with a scream. It was another dead musician. A drummer lay across a table, dead eyes staring at the ceiling and a trickle of blood leaking from his nose.
“I didn’t touch him!” shouted Bubbles in a most un-Canadian tone. “But I’m going touch his date. Where is she?”
A chair flew at him, but his charmed life continued and it missed him by a quarter of an inch.
“Everyone dying and that’s what gets to live,” muttered Michaels. “I can’t believe it.”
“That straw you use,” Mister Lewis nodded to the hand Michaels still held it in. “Is it engraved?”
“Why yes, yes is it,” Michaels beamed. “I can’t figure out what it says, though. It was a gift from a fan in New Orleans. We played a New Year’s Eve show down there this year. Or at least I think we played. New Year’s Eve is usually a little fuzzy for me.”
“It’s very nice,” said Mister Lewis. “Probably best we’re all out of here before the ambulance arrives, though. Too many people getting asked too many questions.”
Mister Lewis turned, grabbed Smalls and Parker by their elbows and hissed “Quickly and quietly out the front. The ravens aren’t the only things hovering over Ken Michaels.”
Parker’s office wasn’t the usual setting for a field briefing, but it was close and the agents were unsettled by what they saw.
“That shadow around Michaels,” Smalls said slowly and quietly. “That wasn’t really a shadow, was it?”
“No,” Mister Lewis agreed. “That was almost certainly a manifestation of Death.”
“I thought Death was supposed to be a lady,” Smalls offered.
“I really wish you wouldn’t fetishize a primal force like that,” Mister Lewis shook his head.
“Hey, man – that’s part of the music business,” Smalls shrugged. “You know a better way to sell t-shirts?”
“Never mind that,” interrupted Parker. “What really happened at the wake?”
“The what is easy, the why less so,” began Mister Lewis. “When Ken Michaels snorted the third line he had a seizure. Normally when that happens, a person gets sick or dies. But Ken Michaels didn’t die. I suspect he hasn’t died on schedule for several months. Death was waiting and when Death was denied Ken Michaels, Death had a tantrum and took that drummer. Possibly a tantrum took the King in Vermillion. Possibly a tantrum took out some of your earlier clients. But there are definitely tantrums and Death is taking... I believe the economists would call it substitute goods. Other musicians.”
“He couldn’t have done this himself, could he?” Smalls asked.
“Ken Michaels is no sorcerer,” Mister Lewis chuckled. “No, most likely he was enchanted by that fan he mentioned who gave him that silver straw. I need to get another look at it, but it’s most likely a focal point for what’s happened to him. Whoever gifted it is probably responsible for this.”
“This isn’t... the work of the Great Old Ones?” Smalls asked.
“Unlikely,” Mister Lewis replied. “If the straw was given to him in New Orleans, it’s more likely to be Voodoo at work. Unfortunately, he was probably blackout drunk for most of whatever happened there. I’d bet money he doesn’t even realize anything’s amiss.
“But I am going to need to take a closer look at that straw.”
The after party for the wake was in a club much like the first. The crowd was much the same, just a bit wobblier and worse for wear. Then again, the phrase “party like a rock star” didn’t exist for no reason.
Once more Ken Michaels sat alone in a booth in the VIP room, this time the velvet was swapped out for a less tasteful gold lamé curtain. There was no drug paraphernalia on the table, just a bottle of shockingly cheap bourbon that the club still charged $150 for. Not to put too fine a point on it, but his right eye and left eye weren’t looking in the same direction.
“You alright, Ken?” Smalls asked as he approached. “You look a little green.”
“Green?!?” A confused Michaels muttered. “I must be drunk. I could’ve sworn this place was done up in gold.”
Smalls and Parker exchanged what normally would have been a knowing glance, but this time was more nervous than knowing.
“Could you tell them to put the lights back up?” Michaels swayed a bit in the booth. “These dimmers should be pre-show only.”
The lights in the room weren’t being dimmed, but the shadow was looming over Michaels again and as it thickened and lowered around his head, it might as well have dimmed his immediate area. Michaels leaned forward took a labored breath and threw up a stream of dull red liquid across the table and all over the cushions on the opposite side of the booth. The shadow swirled about him and then shot away.
“He’s bleeding out,” stammered Parker.
“No,” said Mister Lewis stepping towards the table. “That’s not the right color. What were you mixing your bourbon with Ken?”
“What? Oh. That’s probably the red wine I had in the limo. Did a couple shots of tequila, too. I’ll be fine. I just need to get it out of...”
He threw up again, this time with a bit more arc on the stream.
“That’s better. Makes room for more.”
Michaels slid to the edge of the booth, pulled himself up, picked up the not quite empty bourbon bottle and moved one booth down.
“I find a claret refreshing in the afternoon. Maybe I should switch back. Does this place have claret?”
“Might be a better place for a Sazerac,” offered Mister Lewis. “I got a taste for them in New Orleans.”
“That’s a good town,” slurred Michaels, who slumped a bit in the booth. “Order them up.”
“You said you had some special fans in New Orleans,” probed Mister Lewis.
“Oh, there’s a regular group,” said Michaels. “Can’t really call them a strange bunch, ‘cause, you know... rock and roll, but they’re out there. Creatures of habits with their little rituals, always with the big jewelry and symbols on the jewelry. Real friendly, though. They know what they like and... dammit, what is with the lights in this place?”
Death’s shadow had returned.
“These fans,” continued Mister Lewis, “were they locals?”
“Oh, it’s a melting pot down there. Some native, some from Europe. Everyone likes the culture.”
An electronica version of “Buttons and Bows” rang from a phone as everyone stopped and stared at Morty Smalls.
“I reimagine classics,” growled Smalls before answering. He didn’t stay on the phone long, though he was a half shade paler before he hung up. “Gheorghes Lamarr just died.”
He was met with blank stares.
“Jazz flutist? Three Grammies? You people have no respect for culture.”
“I don’t suppose you topped off your nose while you were drinking,” Mister Lewis asked Michaels.
“No, but that’s a great idea.”
Michaels produced a pouch and formed a line on the table before pulling his silver straw out of his jacket. The shadow hanging over him pulsated slightly and Mister Lewis stared intently at the straw as Michaels drew the powder into his nose.
This time, the shadow stayed put.
Back at Parker’s office, the clients were hearing things they didn’t want to hear.
“It’s not as simple as that,” Mister Lewis tried to explain. “Death is only taking a substitute life when Michaels would normally die, not just when he uses the straw. You saw the shadow linger when he took his last line. It’s the difference between indulgence and over indulgence. What they used to call death by misadventure in old Hollywood.”
“Oh, we get it,” Parker was shaking her head. “But we know him. If somebody dies every time he’d normally overdose... that could be three times a day.”
“Well, yes – it does explain why a fan would feel compelled to enchant him like that. Clearly, his endurance is already unusual, but nature has its limits.”
“Nobody’s arguing that,” groaned Smalls. “And if he were my act, I might pay for the enchantment. I could see it earning out. But he’s killing our businesses. Literally. Love the player, hate the game, but this game has got to stop.”
Mister Lewis stared at Smalls and Parker for a few seconds before responding.
“I have a good idea how this was done and it’s not something that can simply be undone. It has to be contradicted. Put into conflict with another source of similar power and burnt out. And that’s assuming it doesn’t burn out the other source first, in which case you’re back to square one with somebody asking questions about what happened to the curse they placed.”
“So, you’re saying you need to put him in a room with something Satanic,” asked Smalls.
“It doesn’t have to be Satanic, per se. It just has to be entering into conflict. Richards has been enchanted to not die. It could be an entity that’s actively attempting to cause him harm. Or his intended death could be an indirect result of what’s set in play. You want the enchantments hitting each other and wearing each other out. Like grinding gears until they fall apart or stripping a screw.”
“Then he has to die for this to end,” asked Parker.
“There will have to be collateral damage,” sighed Mister Lewis. “That’s unavoidable. If the enchantment burns out at the right time, perhaps not, but Death will be looking to take someone. If it goes wrong, I may not be able to control the direction of that collateral damage. Or it might not work at all. Question: have either of you ever been musicians?”
After a burst of laughter, Parker was the first to regain composure.
“Mister Lewis, really. We’re management. Nobody goes into management if they could get into a band.”
“Then you’re not likely to be who Death takes if this goes wrong. It’s a business for me, too, and I need someone to invoice. That Satanic idea is not without merit. If someone sold their soul to be lucky and you drew that luck into conflict, it might be indirect enough to be relatively clean. If not, the damage might be acceptable. It will probably require... do either of you partake of cocaine?”
This time it was Smalls who finished laughing first.
“You really think musicians can afford to buy it themselves on their first contract? We’re management.”
Another day, another club and the wake’s after party had merely switched locations. Such was the lifestyle. A slightly more coherent Ken Michaels sat in yet another VIP booth as Smalls, Parker and Mister Lewis approached him.
“I seem to be reaching the age where I get management visiting instead of groupies,” quipped Michaels.
“Well, if you’re looking that...” began Mister Lewis, “perhaps you could introduce us to Jerry Bubbles?”
“That wanker? Oh, you won’t want groupies after you meet him. All about master and servant with that one. You have to be really lucky to be that successful with no talent and that personality. Why don’t you go fetch him, Chris? He’ll take it better if you’re my emissary.”
Parker returned shortly with Bubbles in tow. Which is to say with Bubbles rubbing up against her and leering as if to say “you know you want it.”
“I guess the party’s starting,” said Smalls, as he smirked at Parker. A tiny silver spoon appeared in his right hand and baggie in his left.
“Oh, that’s too small for how I roll,” screeched Bubbles. He jerked the end of a necklace from beneath his shirt, with a larger silver spoon dangling from the tip.
“Wankers. Bloody wankers and amateurs,” mumbled Michaels as he displayed his silver straw.
“I need that,” screamed a wide-eyed Bubbles.
“I don’t think you’re ready for a touch of class,” Michaels said dismissively as watched Smalls draw the lines with unseemly anticipation.
“I said I need that,” Bubbles screamed as he grabbed for the silver straw.
As Bubbles and Michaels wrestled over the straw, the shadow formed over Michaels again. It swirled and vibrated, almost as if in excitement. Richards grimaced and moved his free hand to his heart as he younger Bubbles wrenched the straw free and positioned it over a line.
“Careful,” interjected Mister Lewis. “That stuff will kill you.”
“Not fucking likely,” sneered Bubbles before he snorted.
As the powder hit his nostrils, the shadow leapt from Michaels to Bubbles... and then it paused, hovering. Flames flickered underneath the shadow as it started swirling around Bubbles. Bubbles swayed as though the shadow was kicking up a wind. His head snapped back and his eyelids parted to show flames where his eyes should have been.
The blazing eyes seemed to repel the shadow, which bounced back to swirl around Richards, now doubled over with both hands clutching his chest. But after one revolution, it bounced back to Bubbles. For twelve seconds, the shadow bounced from man to man, picking up a bit of flame around it’s edges each time it danced around Bubbles.
After twelve seconds, the shadow enveloped Bubbles. Then the flames and the shadow blinked out as though they were one and he face planted on the table.
“Did he just shit himself?” asked Smalls as a strong odor made itself known.
“No, that’s brimstone,” said Mister Lewis.
“Where is my client?” came a booming voice from across the room.
A slender man with abnormally large and piercing eyes glared at the booth as he approached it.
“I am Mr. Bubbles’ agent,” hissed the man. “What. Has. Transpired?”
“He borrowed the gentleman’s straw,” answered Mister Lewis. “I don’t think it agreed with him.”
The man glared at Mister Lewis, then at the straw, and then back to Mister Lewis.
“Ten years of luck used up in an afternoon?”
“He probably should have structured his contract differently,” said Mister Lewis with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Structure is a more common problem than you might think,” the slender man said with an edge in his voice. “However, his contract does seem to have expired. I’ll see that he gets... home.”
The man hoisted Bubbles onto his shoulder, turned and started walking away.
“What the hell was...” Smalls had turned to ask Mister Lewis, but a sound like a preternaturally loud crackling fireplace interrupted him.
When the party turned to see where the noise came from Bubbles and his agent was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, that’s not good,” groaned a visibly pained Michaels.
“What’s wrong?” asked Parker.
“The chest pain’s gone, but it feels like a year’s worth of hangovers picked now to come to visit,” moaned Michaels. “It’s OK, I feel worse for that wanker’s agent.”
Mister Lewis looked at the straw, lying where Bubbles had dropped it, glanced back to where Bubbles and agent were last seen, then back at Michaels. He exhaled.
“I suppose someone has to have sympathy for the devil.”