Jennifer Owens opened her eyes. It was morning and the sunlight was streaming into the room. She could hear birds chirping, and she could smell coffee and warm muffins.
When she had finished throwing up in the bathroom, she thought (as she did every morning) that now and for the rest of the day she didn't have to think about that again.
There was a tray on the bureau, as there was every morning. The big thermal pitcher was keeping her coffee warm, and there was one muffin on the plate, sealed in plastic, ready to pop into the microwave when she was ready. The muffin she had smelled was Henshaw's, of course. It was already eaten, and he was already gone. As usual, he had rinsed and dried his coffee cup after using it, returning it to its original position on the tray.
There was also a small plastic bowl on the tray, containing several little packets of butter, margarine and (today) orange marmalade. Next to the tray was the morning paper, which Henshaw always refolded carefully after reading it. Clipped to the top of the newspaper with a paper clip were a few dollar bills. They were for her, of course, in case she needed them.
Henshaw was gone, of course. He had left no note, of course, nor any indication of where he had gone or when he was coming back.
Jennifer Owens hated living in a hotel. She hated reading newspapers. She hated having to throw up every morning. She hated orange marmalade. And she hated that little pile of dollar bills clipped to the newspaper.
The hotel was named The Palace, but it wasn't.
Jennifer turned on the television as she thought again that she needed to get Henshaw to give her money to buy some clothes. Of her three pairs of jeans, the tightest pair she couldn't get into at all anymore, and the black ones had split a seam the day before.
The TV flickered and she banged it on the side, even though she had no idea what had been on.
She and Henshaw had had sex in Carl's room, and then her jeans had split when she'd put them on again. Henshaw had glanced over, but hadn't said anything. After all, you don't tell your woman what a beautiful body she has, make love to her, and then laugh when she can't get into her pants. Especially not if you can accomplish the same thing with a glance.
Thinking about the money, and Henshaw's glance, and some other things, she decided to skip breakfast. She would wear her last good pair of jeans today and Friday, and then worry about it. She didn't want anything to happen before Friday night. She wanted Friday night to be perfect.
Thinking of splitting her jeans at Pete's made her think of the girl who had tried to jump on her, the one who was playing at being a dog. Trust Carl to find a girl he could lead around on a leash.
She banged the TV again, then turned it off. She decided to go out.
Carl. She felt sick to her stomach again. Why the hell had she told Carl? Christ, she must have been really wasted when they were up on the roof together. Would he tell?
No, she couldn't think about that. If he told, she'd blow his fucking brains out.
That made her think of the girl with the guns, Pete's new buddy. What the hell was going on there? Was she one of Pete's political friends? She certainly didn't act like it. Or was she really starling? That seemed absurd, why would starling be hanging around with Pete?
Jenny had heard a lot about starling's killing sprees on the television. Most of the time she was alone in the room she had the TV on, just to have a human voice.
As she reached for the door there was a knock. Jenny opened the door and saw Cassie. "You look like shit," Jenny told her (which wasn't exactly true).
Cassie laughed. "And you're getting fat, girlfriend." She peered into the room. "Is he home?"
Jenny shook her head. "No, he's out doing his stuff. The coast is clear."
Cassie smiled and held out her index finger. "Here's those jeans. One of my 'clients' left them. They're huge on me, but they might fit you."
Jenny took them from her. "Thanks. I–"
"Try them on. If they need–"
Jenny threw them on the bed and pulled on her leather jacket. "I really have to run. Henshaw is waiting for me at Feb Isle. I'll try them later."
Cassie shrugged and waved, turning to go back down the hall to her room. Jenny sighed with relief as she locked the door.
Jenny sat on the front stoop of the building where Pete and Carl lived.
Of course, this was how it had all started. She couldn't stand to stay in the hotel room all day, and where else was there to go? She didn't know many people. All of Tom's friends hated her for dumping him to go with Henshaw, plus (as they saw it) she had been the real reason Tom had been kicked out of his own band.
So, it was eat in a restaurant, drink in a bar, or visit Pete and Carl. Carl didn't like her, but he usually wasn't home. Pete probably didn't like her much either, but he was too polite to act on it.
The rest had just proceeded from there. She thought it was probably inevitable, really.
Today, since she was skipping breakfast, she ended up at Pete's even earlier than usual. She was sitting on the outside steps, debating whether to go up and see him or go back to the hotel. If Pete was there that starling girl would probably be there, too. And Carl might be there. And Carl might start to make little jokes. . .
She had just about decided to go have breakfast after all when she realized that it had started to rain.
Jenny climbed the three flights and knocked on Pete's door. There was a long pause and then the door swung open and starling stood there, pistol pointed at Jennifer Owens' chest.
"Is Pete home?" Jenny asked.
starling thought about this, then looked around the room. "I don't think so," she said slowly.
"Are you going to shoot me, or can I come in?" Jenny asked, then continued, "I'm Jenny Owens. You met me before."
starling looked at her more closely, then nodded and holstered her gun.
"You're the girlfriend," she said as Jenny moved to the kitchen table and sat down.
Jenny sighed. "That's me."
starling sat down. "Pete's not here," she said after a minute.
"I think we covered that. Do you know where he is?"
starling leaned back, tapped her upper lip with her index finger, looking up at the ceiling.
"Something happened this morning," she said. "Somebody came . . . " her voice trailed off.
Jenny had the urge to bang her on the side of the head, as she did with the television when it started to flicker.
"She woke us up," starling said finally. Jenny turned slowly to look at Pete's bed, and was somewhat surprised to see the brightly colored sleeping bag lying beside the mattress.
"Is that your sleeping bag?" Jenny asked.
"Pete let me use it. It belongs to . . ." She gestured at the bedroom door.
"Right," she said.
Jenny waited a few moments, then said, "This morning . . ."
"Oh, yes. There was a . . . someone came. Someone came and knocked on the door. It was a woman. She said her husband was sick and could Pete . . . do something. Then she gave Pete something and he went out. He's coming back later."
Jenny nodded. "Amelia, from downstairs."
starling waited for a moment, then asked, "So, where did he go?"
"They're friends of Pete's. Her husband, what's-his-name, has a factory job. If he misses work, he'll get canned, so if he gets sick and can't go in, Pete takes his ID and goes instead. Pete gets a day's pay and what's-his-name keeps his job."
starling thought about this.
"Plus," Jenny added, "I think Pete's got the hots for Amelia. It's the boobs."
starling nodded. "I noticed them."
Jenny laughed. "Good work. There may be a quiz later." She waited for a moment, then asked, "Is there any beer left?"
"I don't know."
Jenny stood up. "I'm going to check. Do you want one?"
She went and opened the refrigerator. She reached in and pulled out two cans. "I thought so," she said. "We certainly bought enough yesterday."
She sat down again and they opened their beers. starling drank deeply and then put the can down on the table. After a minute, she said, "I think I have some advice for you." She frowned in thought.
Jenny waited a while, then snapped, "Okay, what?"
starling's gun was cold against the tip of Jenny's nose. "Don't yell," starling said quietly. "You don't want advice, that's okay, but don't yell."
Jenny sat down again and drank some more beer. "I don't know who the hell I think I am to refuse some free advice. My life is so screwed up . . ." She waved a hand.
starling put her gun down on the table. She frowned again, as if trying to converse in an unfamiliar language. Finally, she looked up at Jenny.
"I don't think being you is that good an idea," she said carefully. "It's not very . . . efficient. Have you ever thought of being somebody else instead?"
Jenny Owens laughed. "I've thought of it more than once. I just don't know how to do it. Do you have any suggestions?"
starling was obviously concentrating. "It helps to go to a different place," she said finally. "And change your name."
Jenny sipped her beer. "I know somebody who did that. He had a nice, normal suburban life. Wife, kids, good job, and all that. He came here and changed his name in order to be an absolute bastard."
"There, you see?" starling said happily. "That's what I mean."
"I'm not sure it's for me, though," Jenny said. "Or, what the hell, I guess I could learn to be a dog." starling shrugged, reaching for her gun. As she picked it up and put it back into her shoulder holster, Jenny Owens looked startled.
"Hey, wait a minute." She went over and looked at Carl's wall of clippings, then she turned to starling. "That is you, isn't it?" she asked, pointing at an article under the headline "Fourteen Dead in Dayton Burger Chef 'Creamer' Flap."
starling went over and looked at the article. She squinted, leaning first forward and then back a little. "I wish they wouldn't do that," she said, pointing at the first sentence. It said, "The mass murderer known as 'The Starling' opened fire in the Dayton Mall Burger Chef today after a dispute over coffee creamers."
Jenny reached into her jacket pocket and took out her glasses. She put them on and read the part starling was pointing at. "What?" she asked. "You don't like them calling you a mass murderer?"
starling shook her head, squinting again. "No, not that. That," she said, pointing at the mention of her name. "Where did that 'The' come from? It doesn't belong there. And–"
Jenny had been watching her try to read the article. "Do you need glasses?" she asked.
"Yes, glasses. They're little round–"
"I know what glasses are!"
"Look at the article," Jenny said, taking her glasses off. She moved behind starling and reached around to slide them onto starling's head.
starling's eyes widened and she reached forward to run her fingers across the surface of the newspaper.
"Oh," she said, running her fingers over the surface of the newspapers pasted to the wall. "It's bumpy," she said eagerly.
"Textures," Jenny said as she took starling by the shoulders and steered her back to the table. "I know all about it."
starling leaned forward, looking at the tabletop. She touched it with her finger. "Hey," she said, "it's really dirty."
Jenny laughed and lifted the glasses from starling's head. "Well, they're musicians," she said. "What do you expect?"
starling blinked as Jenny folded the glasses and put them back in the inside pocket of her leather jacket. Jenny sat down again and picked up her beer.
starling rubbed her eyes. "Where can I get a pair of those?" she asked.
Jenny shrugged. "Find somebody with your prescription and shoot them, I guess. Or . . ." Her voice trailed off and she scratched her ear. "You know," she said with a smile, "I have an idea."
As they walked down the street, starling said, "You know, I had a weird dream last night–"
Jenny held up her hand. "No, I'm sorry, I don't do dreams. If you must tell somebody, tell Pete. He'll be happy to write it down and add it to his files."
The morning was warm, and ahead of them Jenny saw a woman in a lawn chair sunning herself on her front stoop. There was a small baby in a basket next to her. She heard their voices as they approached and turned to look, shading her eyes. Her sleepy expression vanished as she looked at starling. She grabbed the baby out of the basket and ran into the building, slamming the door behind her.
Ahead, at the corner, three men were standing drinking beer in the shade of a store's awning. One of them looked and saw Jenny and starling approaching, and nudged the man next to him. As the two women passed the men were in a heated argument as to whether this was the real starling or just another wannabe.
Jenny turned to starling. Now that Jenny knew who she was, she looked completely like herself. She had her sunglasses on, her blonde hair was a raggedy mess (though she had apparently taken a shower since Jenny had first met her; Jenny wondered if this was Pete's doing), and her small mouth was grim. It was far too warm out for her heavy coat, so she had pulled a wrinkled windbreaker from her bag and put that on. It did nothing to cover the revolver she wore on her hip, though at least it did cover the shoulder holster and the small gun she had tucked into the back of her waistband.
"I think I'm going to sneak us in through the back entrance," Jenny said.
Jenny pulled her suitcase from under the bed and opened it. starling was wandering around the hotel room checking windows and opening doors.
"I never unpack," Jenny said as she rooted through the contents. "I'm trying to create the idea that I'm a travelin' woman and I might leave at any moment, but I don't think I'm fooling anybody. Where the hell would I go?" She frowned and started to pull clothes out of the suitcase and pile them on the floor next to her.
"You know," she went on, "Henshaw has a wife. He apparently went out for cigarettes one night and never went back. He thinks he doesn't want a wife, but . . . well, I don't know." She laughed quietly. "I guess you don't have these problems, huh?"
"Well, I don't have a suitcase, just a little bag." She mimed lifting her little airline bag.
Jenny nodded. "I guess that's why your life and mine have turned out so differently." She pulled a dirty wool sock from a corner of the suitcase and reached inside it, pulling out a folded bandanna. starling leaned forward to watch as Jenny carefully unfolded the faded fabric, revealing a small pair of round glasses with gold frames.
"They belonged to my mother," Jenny said as she handed them to starling. "Try them on. I think her eyes were pretty much the same as mine."
starling put them on very carefully. Jenny looked around for something for her to read. Finally, she saw the list of hotel rules nailed to the inside of the door. "Try reading that," she said, pointing.
starling went over and looked. Then she turned back to Jenny, the glasses in her hand. She opened her mouth, obviously trying to figure out how to say something. Jenny waited for a while, then said, "It's okay, really. I never liked my mother very much. Take them. If you're going to go out with Pete you'd better be able to read."
starling looked very serious. "I'm not really . . . you know . . ."
"I know. I saw the sleeping bag. Whatever. Take the glasses. They're a present from me. Besides, I could never wear them. They make me look like a librarian."
starling stood up and looked around for a mirror. She went to the dresser and looked at herself. "Do I look like a librarian?" she asked.
Jenny looked at her critically. "No, you look more like a disgruntled postal worker."
"How would you feel if you knew you were about to die?" starling asked.
Jennifer Owens looked up and smiled sadly. "So, you're not just here to hang out with Pete after all. I thought so. And I'm 'it,' huh?" She sat on the edge of the bed and folded her hands in her lap. "How much do you charge, anyway? Maybe all the people who hate me pooled their money. They're all broke, but there's a lot of them."
"No, not me. Not now. Just a question."
Jenny shook her head. "Frankly, I'd be pissed off. I mean, my life is really fucked up right now. Every single part of it is screwed up bad." She shrugged. "I'd hate to think I wouldn't ever have a chance to fix any of it. I mean, you saw me at Pete's that night. You know what's going on. And that's only part of it."
"I offered to kill Henshaw, but Pete didn't want me to."
"Too bad, really." She lay back on the bed, her right hand behind her head and her left hand on her stomach. "You know, I used to go with a guy named Tom. He actually started the band, with Carl."
"I think I met him. At breakfast yesterday."
"Well, I've heard he and Pete are still friendly. Pete likes to get along with everybody. Even me, and the whole thing with the band is probably my fault." She laughed. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this."
starling looked thoughtful. "People tell me all kinds of things," she said slowly. "A lot of times I don't understand very much of it."
Pete arrived home in the early evening. He was tired and sweaty, his muscles ached and his skin was covered in grease and grit. All he wanted was to wash up, eat and sleep, and maybe only sleep.
He found starling sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor. All of his hiding places were open and his papers were scattered around where she sat. She was wearing a preposterous pair of small, gold-rimmed glasses.
She looked up. "I'm reading everything!" she announced happily.
Jennifer's head ached. Her muscles ached. Her eyes ached as she peeked out through lids that were nearly closed. Her shoulder ached as Henshaw shook it.
"Whu–" she said.
"Come on," he said eagerly. "Don't want to be late for rehearsal."
"Not going," she mumbled, trying to roll over to face the wall.
He tugged on her shoulder, making it ache even more. "Oh, come on," he said. "Of course you're going. This should be great."
Finally she sat up, pulling the sheet around her like a toga. She got up, stumbled into the bathroom and threw up.
When she came back into the room she sat down on the floor and slid her suitcase out from under the bed. She opened it and started to pull out clothes, tossing them in the air and letting them fall where they would. Henshaw sat at the small desk, sipping his coffee as he watched the morning news on the television.
Jenny stood up with an armful of clothes. "I'm getting dressed in the goddamn bathroom!" she announced.
Henshaw laughed. "I don't care if you go down and get dressed in the lobby." He turned his attention back to the television as she slammed the bathroom door.
Walking down the street, Jenny felt herself propelled by Henshaw's enthusiasm. Left to her own devices, she would probably have curled up and gone back to sleep in a doorway. But he was so excited about rehearsing it was as if he'd forgotten they were going to play for real that night.
"We're going to collect Pete and Carl on the way," he said, shifting his guitar case from one hand to the other. "They'd be late otherwise, and I want to have as much time as possible."
They turned the last corner and heard a bark. "Oh, no," Jenny said.
Carl was sitting on the front stoop, looking like he hadn't slept in a week. He yawned and shushed Daphne, rubbing her head. He closed his eyes as the door of the building opened, and Pete and starling came out. Pete looked somewhat more awake than Carl and he waved as Henshaw and Jenny approached. Daphne barked again.
"Son, this is an indecent time of day to be contemplating playing rock and roll music," Carl said, struggling to his feet. "You sure we can't do this in the afternoon?"
Henshaw patted him on the back. "No can do. It's Straight Line's space, and they're going to be practicing this afternoon themselves. We've got to be out by noon or so."
Carl perked up a little. "Straight Line? Aren't they the ones with the cute singer? The little–"
Daphne barked loudly and bared her teeth at him, growling deep in her throat. "Ooops," he said. He squatted, rubbing her head and back until she licked his face.
"Heartwarming," Henshaw said. "Let's go."
It was around nine in the morning and the streets were pretty deserted. As Henshaw said, "The people who work in the factories have already been at work for an hour, and all the rest of the musicians, artists and other deadbeats aren't up yet." But they passed a few people, some reacting with mild surprise to either starling or Daphne.
As they walked along, Jenny tried to remember what had happened the night before. It had apparently involved drinking (she was definitely hung over) and probably fighting (she had noticed a couple of new bruises on her arm when she was getting dressed and her right hand hurt when she made a fist).
Well, just another night in the Palace Hotel. She glanced over at Pete and starling. Had they always looked alike, or was this something new? They were the same height, both slender with thin faces. starling's hair was more unruly than Pete's, and a little fuller, but the color was almost identical.
The most surprising thing about starling was how quickly you got used to her. She'd been among them for three days and it already seemed completely normal for her to be around. Henshaw sometimes got cranky about outsiders coming to rehearsals, but Jenny knew that he wouldn't even think of complaining about starling being there. Jenny was pretty sure he'd have something to say about Daphne, though. If they started allowing Carl's playmates to come to practices there would be more people at the rehearsals than there were at the gigs. And Henshaw didn't even let the roadies come to practice.
She looked past Henshaw to Carl and Daphne. Daphne was straining at the leash, pulling Carl along. Carl seemed to be a little more awake than he had been earlier, but he still looked like he was making a mental list of places he'd rather be.
Jenny leaned over and whispered to Henshaw, "In this company, I think we stack up as pretty wholesome." He laughed and squeezed her hand.
He turned to starling and said, "The news this morning reports that you've been definitely spotted in Mobile, Alabama. They're apparently sending in troops."
starling frowned in thought, then leaned over the whispered something to Pete. He shook his head, smiling and whispered something back.
It was obvious that the day was going to be warm. The sky was clear and the morning sun was warm as they walked along.
CJ was waiting at the corner, impassive behind her mirror sunglasses. She wore pants, jacket and boots all in black leather and seemed to tower over all of them. Her guitar was in a leather case slung over her shoulder. She nodded a greeting and fell into step beside Henshaw, throwing a little salute at starling.
"It's down these stairs," Henshaw said, pointing at the front of a shabby brownstone.
Carl squatted and took off Daphne's leash. "Don't go too far away now," he said, rubbing her back.
"She doesn't want to come in and listen?" Henshaw asked as he climbed down the wobbly stairs.
"Loud music bothers her," Carl said. "Dogs have very sensitive hearing, you know."
starling nodded. "I've heard that."
The small basement room was obviously designed for secrecy rather than comfort. It had no windows, no ventilation, and big heavy inner and outer doors. The air inside was warm and still.
The room was set up like a tiny concert hall, with a small stage along the back wall, including a raised platform at the rear for the drum kit. Amplifiers, PA system and microphones were all in place. All the speaker cabinets had "STRAIGHT LINE" stenciled on them in various colors.
Henshaw carefully closed the outer door, and then the inner door. The ceiling was low, with a single bare bulb hanging in the center. The walls were all covered in layers of old carpet, foam rubber and cork. Even the inside of the door was covered, with only the large steel hinges exposed.
There was a built-in bench along the length of the right-hand wall, also covered in carpet, and Jennifer Owens immediately went there and sat down. Henshaw motioned grandly for starling to sit there as well. "That's the girlfriend seat," he said cheerfully. She went and sat without comment.
Carl swung in behind the drums and pulled off his shirt. He started tapping rhythms on his thighs with his drum sticks. Pete turned on the PA system and looked over the mixing console.
Across from the bench was a narrow door to a tiny bathroom. CJ unzipped her guitar case, pulled out a small plastic bag and said, "Give me a minute." She vanished into the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her.
She had come prepared. When she emerged she had her leathers under one muscular arm and was wearing a tank top, shorts and sneakers, all in black.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Carl announced, standing up, "competing for the Transylvanian team in the power lifting event is Miss CJ. Her hobbies include playing rock and roll guitar, stir-frying small woodland creatures and squat-thrusting young boys."
CJ laughed as she tied her hair back. "I squat-thrust you, little boy, you'd never be the same."
Carl shivered. "Ooooh!" he said.
Pete laughed. "You certainly woke up quickly."
Carl raised his arms over his head in a long stretch, then swung them down behind his back.
"Son, if you can't wake up to play rock and roll music, then you can't wake up." He grinned wolfishly. "You do it right, it's better than sex."
Henshaw looked up from tuning his guitar. "This is a surprising admission, coming from you. I think you're right, but I'm surprised to hear you say it."
"Well, it's a simple matter of supply and demand. For a guy to play rock and roll, he needs at least two other people and a bunch of equipment. On the other hand, in a pinch you can have sex with just one other person and no equipment at all."
"Now that sounds more like you." He glanced around the room. "Is this place really soundproof?" he asked. "Can we play at full volume?"
Carl shrugged. "Flat Line does, and they're as loud as us." He yawned and shuddered as he stretched again. "It's the way the room is built. Charley was telling me about it once, when he was designing it for them." He gestured around. "The room is basically a room within a room, like a box with six inches of air on all sides. There are no beams or anything connecting it to the outside walls, so there's nothing to carry vibrations."
Henshaw finished tuning and stood up, reaching into his pants pocket. "I've got set lists," he said, handing them out. "I'd like to get going if everybody's ready."
Carl looked at his and put it on the floor. "Are you planning on actually following this?" he asked.
Henshaw laughed. "Well, in theory, yes. In practice, yes. In concert . . ." He shrugged. "Maybe." He looked around. "Are we ready to go?" he asked.
CJ played a few notes on her guitar and stepped up on the stage, nearly hitting her head on the low ceiling. She stepped off again. "I'll play down here," she said. She coaxed a little feedback from her big hollow-body guitar.
"When are we supposed to go on?" Pete asked, slinging the strap of his bass guitar over his shoulder.
Henshaw shrugged. "We'll have to see when we get there." He turned to CJ. "We always start with 'Facing the Wall.' I think–"
"I remember it," she said. "I listened to the tapes last night, so I should be up on everything but the new songs. Most of your stuff is pretty simple." Henshaw threw Carl a grimace, his head turned so CJ couldn't see it.
"Everybody ready?" he asked, looking around.
"I have a question," starling said, walking forward.
Henshaw said, "Well, we really have to–"
"I can see how there's air all around the walls." She looked up. "And above the ceiling. But there can't be six inches of air under the floor. The whole room would just go foomp." She gestured, illustrating the room falling six inches.
Henshaw sighed. "Sometimes I feel like all the forces of nature–"
"Rubber balls," said Carl happily.
They turned to look at him and starling's eyes narrowed. "I beg your pardon?" she asked quietly.
He pointed at the floor. "Rubber balls. Hundreds of them. The room is sitting on them. Next best thing to thin air, and a lot more supportive."
"Oh," she said, considering this. She nodded. "That makes sense." She went and sat down again.
Henshaw nodded. "I'm so glad we got that cleared up. Now let's get some work done."
The room had been hot when they'd come in, and as they started to play they were all soon drenched in sweat. Carl and Pete quickly stripped down to their shorts, and Henshaw had soon after taken off his shirt. As they worked their way through the set, teaching CJ the few new songs as they went, starling gradually removed sunglasses, jacket, gunbelt, shoulder holster, sneakers, socks, pants and T-shirt, piling them on the end of the bench where she sat, until she sat calmly in her underwear.
Pete had hung his shirt on an unused microphone stand, and as they tried one of the new songs for the third time starling got up and went over to it. She took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket, shook one out and stuck it in her mouth. Pete caught her eye, moving to the edge of the little stage as he played. He jerked his head and she lit the cigarette and then held it out. He leaned forward and caught it in his mouth, grinning. She lit another for herself and went back to the bench.
As the song ended, Carl looked over at Jenny and starling. starling didn't look all that uncomfortable, but Jenny looked miserable in her sweatshirt and jeans.
"You may have to break down and join the skin brigade," Carl called. When she looked up he stuck his stomach out for a second and rolled his eyes at her. She looked as though rage and nausea were fighting a battle inside her.
Henshaw was about to start the next song, but CJ held up a hand. She was finally as drenched in sweat as the others. Even her wide leather guitar strap was dark with moisture.
Jennifer Owens sat with her head bowed, her long hair hanging over her face. starling sat alert, smoking.
CJ pulled off her T-shirt, wiped her face with it, then draped it over her shoulder under the guitar strap.
Carl sat up straight, his eyes wide. His gaze was locked onto CJ's rather ordinary white bra. She sighed. He stood up, his right hand on his heart as his left grabbed for his boxer shorts, which were slipping toward the floor.
"Lord," he said reverently, "I don't know what I can possibly have done to deserve this–"
"Sit down and shut up," CJ suggested.
"Right," he said.
Pete wiped down the neck of his bass again. Then he wiped his face and shook his head. "I'll bet the club will be cool and comfortable compared to this. I don't know how they stand it in here."
Henshaw shrugged, pushing his hair back from his face. "It beats not practicing at all. We're going to have to think about figuring out something for us. Something regular."
starling got up and went into the tiny bathroom. As she closed the door she heard Carl say, "Can we take a break for a few minutes and open the doors? I'm really dying back here."
When she came back out there were four more people in the room. They were all wearing bandannas on their faces like bandits, and they were all armed.
As soon as Henshaw had opened the outside door the four men had pushed their way in. They seemed to be professionals, and after a word of protest Henshaw had fallen silent. The men had moved apart as soon as they were inside, covering everybody in the room. The man in the blue bandanna announced, "This is going to be very simple. We're taking all of this equipment out of here. We're not going to hurt anybody."
Pete's heart was in his mouth as the bathroom door swung open. He wanted to yell, to warn starling not to do anything stupid, but he held his tongue. He wiped his hands on his pants.
As soon as starling saw the situation she stopped moving. The man wearing the green bandanna jerked his head and she backed up against the wall, her hands held out a little from her sides. Of course, Pete thought, if they'd known who she was they would probably have shot her immediately, but without her clothes and weapons she was just a skinny woman in her underwear.
The man in the blue bandanna ("Blue," we'll call him) looked around at the equipment. He smiled and turned to Green. "I know a guy who's trying to open a studio upstate. He'll give a grand for the whole lot, no questions asked."
"A quarter each," Green said. "Not bad." He smiled. "The guys can help us carry the stuff out to the truck." He grabbed Jennifer Owens by the hair and pulled her to him. "I say we take the babe with us."
"Get your fucking hands off–" Jenny started, but Green stepped around behind her and stuck his gun to her throat, slipping his other hand up under her sweatshirt.
"Screaming gives me a headache," he said plaintively.
CJ calmly pulled her tank top back on and stepped forward, towering over Blue. "You don't want to do this," she said.
He laughed. "Oh, you know how it is. I had a really bad childhood."
CJ made a quick hand motion, the sign language for "J" and "X."
"Oh, shit," Red said. He turned to Blue. "Hey, Fritz, if she's telling the truth, maybe we'd better–"
"Oh, shut up," Blue snapped. "This stuff doesn't belong to her, it belongs to Straight Line. You think the Jinx are going to care?" He turned back to CJ. "Nobody gets hurt, unless you do something stupid."
She smiled. "You're in charge, Fritz."
Pete looked around as Red and Black started to unplug the equipment, carefully coiling all the cables and power cords. Carl was still sitting on the drum stool, just watching. Henshaw's expression was grim, watching Green's hand rummaging around inside Jenny's sweatshirt. CJ stood with her arms folded, observing everything.
Jenny's expression was frightening to see, so Pete looked at starling instead. She seemed quite unconcerned, watching the disassembling of the equipment as if she might be asked to put it all together again when they were done. He didn't know what he expected her to do, of course. Maybe take on all four men with some kind of comic book display of karate, or make a desperate leap for the pile of clothes that concealed her guns, but she gave every impression that what was going on was okay with her.
Blue looked at Green. "Go bring the truck around." He pointed his gun at Pete and Carl. "We'll need–"
That was as far as he got. starling lunged at him, flipping his bandanna up over his eyes. His gun fired into the ceiling as she grabbed the back of his neck and sank her teeth into his throat. As his blood bubbled up onto her face, she snatched the gun from his limp fingers and shot Black in the chest. Carl scrambled for Black's gun as it fell to the floor.
"Shit!" Red yelled, bringing his gun up, but CJ closed her huge hand around his neck from behind. She swung him around and smashed his face into the steel hinge of the door, leaving streaks of blood on the metal.
Green hesitated for a second, long enough for Jenny Owens to turn and knee him in the groin. He doubled over but kept his grip on his gun, shuffling backwards as he brought his arm up, but by then Carl was standing in front of him, Black's gun in his hand. "Don't do it, son," he said.
CJ held Red's neck in one hand and cupped his chin with the other, twisting sharply. There was an awful crack and she tossed the body into a corner.
For a second nobody moved, then Henshaw crossed the room to his coat and pulled a small gun from the pocket. He went to stand beside Carl. Green had sunk to his knees, his face dripping sweat. Henshaw leaned forward and pulled Green's bandanna down, uncovering his face. He looked down at him for a second, then he said, "In your next life, fucker, keep your hands to yourself."
Then he shot him between the eyes.
Jenny, her face flushed, turned her back and reached up under her sweatshirt to put her bra back into place. starling went over to where Henshaw stood. Her hair, face and chest were smeared with blood and her eyes were bright. She turned her head and spat something out, then wiped her mouth on her arm. She held out her hand. "My gun," she said.
He smiled slightly and shook his head. The others all stood motionless. Jenny Owens' eyes were wide. "I don't think I want to–"
"I'll take it off your corpse," she said.
He pointed the gun at the middle of her chest. She ignored it.
"Are you bulletproof?" he asked.
"How many people have you killed?" she asked.
"Just the one."
"How many have I killed?" He didn't react. She reached out and flicked a finger against his throat, hard enough to make him gulp. Then she licked her lips.
He thought for a moment, then reversed the gun and handed it to her.
starling placed the gun on top of her clothes and then went to where Pete sat on the edge of the drum riser. His face was pale and shiny with sweat as he looked up at her. "I didn't want him to shoot you," she said quietly.
He shook his head. "I didn't want him to shoot any of us." He stood up awkwardly, holding onto a microphone stand. She moved forward and he put his arm around her bare shoulders. "Come on," he said, leading her into the small bathroom, "let's get you cleaned up."
Carl dropped the gun on the floor and wiped his face. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I say practice is over. I'm going outside to get some air." He attempted a laugh. "You know what they say, bad rehearsal means good performance."
"What about . . ." Jenny asked, gesturing to indicate the blood and bodies.
"Leave it," CJ said. "We'll send a crew over."
"I've got to talk to Dr. Lee anyway," Henshaw said. "Can you give me a lift?"
She nodded. "Sure. My bike's a block away. Bring the key to this place."
Henshaw said, "Great." He turned to the others. "Leave the guitars. The drones will come by later and bring them over to the Quarter."
Carl looked around as they came out into the bright sunlight. Daphne was a few doors down the block, barking at a small dog in an apartment window. He whistled and she looked at him, clearly reluctant to leave her new friend. He whistled again.
She gave one last bark and trotted toward them. Carl squatted down and ruffled her hair. "See what happens when we don't have our big, brave, loyal dog to protect us?" he asked. He patted her and stood up. "Come on, Daph, let us go romp and play in some quiet bar where I can have several pitchers of beer." She barked. "I'll have them put some in a bowl for you," he said as they walked off.
Henshaw looked back down the basement stairs and said, "We can't just leave things this way. What if some of the Straight Line people come by before the crew can get here?" He grimaced. "I don't think leaving a note on the door is really enough. 'Hi, guys. Thanks for the use of the space. Sorry we left a bit of a mess.'" Pete appeared and climbed slowly up the stairs, squinting at the sunlight. "Can you stick around a while, Pete?" Henshaw asked.
Pete shrugged. "Sure." Behind him there was a gunshot.
"What the hell?" Henshaw demanded as there was a second shot.
"She said she wanted to make sure," Pete said.
There were two more shots and then starling emerged. She was fully dressed again. The blood was mostly washed off or covered up. She paused at the foot of the stairs to take off her glasses and carefully put them away in the inside pocket of her jacket.
starling watched CJ and Henshaw ride off on CJ's motorcycle, then she turned to Pete. "So, where are we going to look for Deirdre Hammersmith this afternoon? You know, we lost a whole day yesterday when . . ." Her voice trailed off as Jenny Owens burst into giggles.
"What are you looking for her for?" Jenny asked.
"Oh, no," Pete said, slumping down until he was sitting on the front stoop of the building.
"We've been looking for her since I got here," starling said.
"So that's what you two have been up to." Jenny stood in front of Pete, her hands on her hips. starling sat down on the stoop next to Pete, looking up at Jenny.
"You didn't even fucking think of asking me, did you?" Jenny demanded. She reached out and bopped Pete on the side of his head with the heel of her hand. "You know why you didn't think of asking me? I'll tell you why. Because in your mind I'm only good for one thing."
"What's that?" starling asked, her eyes wide.
Jenny ignored her. Pete smiled sheepishly.
starling turned to Pete. "Why didn't you ask her?" she asked him.
"I didn't think of it," Pete admitted. starling reached over and bopped him lightly on the other side of his head.
starling turned to Jenny. "So, where can I find her?"
"She used to live in the same hotel as me and Henshaw. Where you and I were yesterday," she added to starling. She smiled. "Okay, scoot over and make some room, and I'll tell you all about it." They moved over and she sat down next to starling.
"Deirdre used to live at the same hotel where Henshaw and I live. Where we went yesterday, when I gave you the glasses." She glanced at Pete. "You even met her there once."
He shrugged. He didn't remember it.
From behind them on the steps a voice said, "Excuse me, can I get by here?"
starling pulled her revolver and pointed it back over her shoulder. "Be patient," she advised. She looked at Jenny. "Go ahead," she said.
"Then she had some trouble with her boyfriend," Jenny continued, "and she moved out about a month ago. That's probably what she wants to see you about. I think she's afraid of him. She's living at a commune down by the waterfront."
"Not the West Town people?" Pete put in. "The squatter's community down there?"
She nodded. "That's where she was going."
"I thought they broke up, moved away."
"I think there was a split or something. Some left and some stayed. At least they were there a month ago. And if she's gone, they may know where she went."
starling turned to Pete. "Where is this?" she asked. He took out his notebook and drew her a little map. He tore out the page and handed it to her. She tucked it into her pocket, holstered her gun, stood up and walked off down the block.
Jenny smiled and patted his arm. "And she didn't even say goodbye." Pete didn't respond to that.
The woman who had been behind them stood up again and stepped past them to the sidewalk. "Was that . . .?" she asked.
They both nodded. She shook her head and walked away quickly in the opposite direction.
Pete's arm was asleep. Jenny Owens was asleep, too, her head resting on his arm.
Pete was relaxed, everything considered, but he was not going to fall asleep. The first rule of infidelity, at least as they had codified it, was that both of them could never be asleep at the same time. Pete didn't own a clock, and only people who belong together can afford to lose track of time.
Pete looked at Jenny. The power was off in the apartment, so the only light was from the window on the far side of the room. He trailed a fingernail down her spine, but she didn't wake up.
As Pete wrote about Jenny once in his notes:
It's hard to describe Jennifer Owens' appearance without describing her personality, since the impression she makes on most people has very little to do with how she really looks. She's about starling's height (and mine), and their hair is the same shade of dirty blond, but other than that they couldn't be less alike.
Men always notice when Jenny enters a room. Not that she's a bombshell, and she certainly doesn't dress provocatively, but they notice all the same. She uses this fact, but she hates it, too, and the combination of these two things is one of the biggest aspects of her personality. She has the kind of body that men usually like and women usually think is fat. She thinks it's fat, too, but she knew others had a different opinion.
She doesn't have a job, and Henshaw is certainly supporting her, and I know she isn't happy about this either, though (as Carl points out) not unhappy enough to do anything about it. I don't mean she is with him for financial reasons, though. That's a bonus, but the real attraction is emotional. Henshaw is the first man she's ever found who could provide the constant emotional turmoil she requires from a relationship.
This isn't how she would have put it, of course, and I guess it's obvious that my opinions are probably not unbiased.
Of course, looming large in Pete's thoughts right then was the sight of Philip Henshaw shooting the man who had dared to put his hands on Jennifer Owens' breasts. This wasn't the first time for Pete and Jenny, and he couldn't imagine what Henshaw would do if he had known about it. In fact, since Pete was the type of person who keeps track of such things, he was aware that this was the ninth time. And, as it turned out, the last. Eight times in his apartment and once against the side wall of the Quarter.
Carl opened the door and came in. He tried the light switch a few times, then he came over to Pete's bed. He was obviously about to say something until he caught sight of Jenny's blond head on the pillow next to Pete, nearly hidden by the sheet. He stood with his hands on his hips, looking stern. Pete shrugged, careful not to jostle Jenny's head.
Carl shook a finger at his roommate scoldingly, then he pointed it at his head and his crotch, and shook his head, then at his head and nodded. Indicating, Pete supposed, that Carl thought he was thinking with a portion of his anatomy not really designed for that purpose.
This went on for another couple of minutes as Carl acted out two concepts: "There's more to life than big boobs" and "If Henshaw finds out, he'll kill both of you." His silent impersonation of Henshaw was particularly good, the long strides, the grim face and the stiff back. But Pete was getting sick of it. Like most of Carl's jokes, it lasted a bit too long, and Pete was afraid Jenny would wake up and catch him at it. It was Pete he was mocking, but she would have assumed it was her and might well have thought he was a party to it. That could have led to all kinds of problems, maybe even a blow-up big enough to affect the gig that night, and that was the last thing he wanted.
Carl finally shrugged and went out the window, closing it after him. And the sound of the window closing did wake Jenny. "What time is it?" she asked sleepily, stretching with her arms over her head.
"Not late," he said as she snuggled up against him, throwing her arm over his stomach. "You've been asleep for about an hour, I guess."
"Hmmm," she said, obviously still only half awake. Then she smiled. "So," she said quietly, "do you forgive me for lying to your new sweetie?"
"You've been talking to Carl," Pete said, then he stopped. "That was all a lie?" he asked.
"Uh-huh," she murmured. "The whole thing." She smiled again, her eyes still closed, and squeezed him. "I thought it was pretty good. It fooled you, didn't it?"
"You made up that story? Oh, God, I hope she doesn't come back here and blow our brains out."
Jenny laughed gently. "She's not going to blow your brains out, no matter what. I could tell that even before that scene this morning. She might shoot me, especially if she came in right now, but not you." Pete shook his head. "I felt like having you to myself for the afternoon," she went on, "and you two have been joined at the hip since she got here." She raised her head a little to look at him. "You two an item?" She made a wry face. "The way things are, I guess I couldn't kick if you were."
"We're not, in any case," he said. "I don't think . . . She seems to be missing some parts, and I think sex is one of them."
Jenny moved a little, sort of half a wriggle and half a stretch, lying back down. "I'll bet one dark night you find out different," she murmured.
"So," he asked, "did she confide her girlish secrets to you yesterday? I gather you gave her a pair of glasses, or she took them. Did you bond?"
She smiled. "Not much. But I did notice her having trouble reading those newspapers over there on the wall, so I had her try my glasses."
"Carl came in before," Pete said. "He thinks we're crazy."
"That's sort of funny, I guess," she said. "I didn't know Carl ever disapproved of sex. That's like . . . well, I guess everybody has to draw the line somewhere. To hell with him." She hesitated. "He won't talk, will he?"
Pete shook his head. "Not a chance. He pretends not to care about anything, but one thing he does care about is the band, and this would be the end of that."
She nodded. "He'd better keep quiet," she said, yawning. "He . . ." and then she stopped.
"What?" Pete asked quietly, but he could feel her sigh. Something bad had come into her mind, something she'd been able to forget until then, and now all the happy, warm relaxation had drained out of her. His hand was on her soft shoulder and he pressed lightly. "What?" he asked again, but he knew he wouldn't get an answer.